Q. I’m curious to know what you think of the “Doctrine of Inerrancy” and to what degree it is relevant in describing the Bible. I’m guessing you disagree with certain aspects of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, but is there anything from it that can be salvaged that is of any real use?
My feeling is that because of cultural shifts since the Statement was adopted in 1978, it’s actually answering a question that people aren’t asking any more. So how it answers the question, and how well, aren’t really that relevant at this point. More about this shortly. But first, let me describe some problems I have with the Statement itself, on its own terms.
Its goal is to make a series of “affirmations and denials” undergirding the position that the Bible is “without error or fault in all its teaching,” whether this has to do with “saving grace in individual lives” or with “God’s acts in creation” and “the events of world history.” (In other words, the framers of the document were going beyond the “doctrinal and practical inerrancy” position, that the Bible is trustworthy in all matters relating to salvation, and asserting the “scientific and historical inerrancy” position, that it speaks with complete accuracy about those things as well.)
The framers might have tried to get where they wanted to go in a number of ways. They might have insisted, for example, that a comparison of the Bible with careful, impartial investigations into “the events of world history” will inevitably validate the Scriptural accounts of them—a “correspondence” theory of truth. Instead, they chose to assert that there was a divine agency behind the Bible: it has “infallible divine authority” because it is “God’s own Word.” And God is omniscient and never lies.
But now follow the steps the Statement takes from there. The Bible is “wholly and verbally God-given.” That is, “the very words of the original” were “given by divine inspiration.” God caused the biblical writers “to use the very words that He chose” (though the Statement denies that when He did this, He “overrode their personalities”).
Now about that original . . . “Inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture” (that is, to what the authors actually wrote in the first place). While we no longer have the autographic text, “in the providence of God,” what it said “can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy” (emphasis added).
I feel that at this point the Statement gives away the store. It should have said that in the providence of God, we have such a quality and quantity of copies that the content of the original can be determined with complete certainty. That’s the only way we could have an inerrant Bible in our hands, by this line of reasoning. “Great accuracy” is not “perfect accuracy.” It leaves open the possibility that some of those divinely-chosen words were lost along the way, and with them the guarantee of the Bible’s inerrancy.
In their “exposition” of the Statement, the framers try to plug this hole. They say that the verdict of textual criticism is that the Hebrew and Greek text of the Bible “appear to be amazingly well preserved,” through a “singular providence of God.” (That is, in their view, God was involved in the transmission process as well as the composition process.) So “the authority of Scripture is in no way jeopardized by the fact that the copies we possess are not entirely error-free” (emphasis added). Okay, so the Bible isn’t inerrant, but it’s still authoritative. But wasn’t the whole point of the Statement to defend Scriptural inerrancy against those who denied it and simply affirmed Scriptural authority?
The exposition also acknowledges that “all translations are an additional step away from the autographa.” (Originals -> copies -> translations.) However, “English-speaking Christians, at least, are exceedingly well served in these days with a host of excellent translations and have no cause for hesitating to conclude that the true Word of God is within their reach” (emphasis added). Not right in their hands, but within reach. This doesn’t quite seem like inerrancy to me. However, at least the rest of the world doesn’t have to learn English: “No serious translation of Holy Scripture will so destroy its meaning as to render it unable to make its reader ‘wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.'” Hmm . . . wouldn’t that be “doctrinal and practical” inerrancy?
Incidentally, if God really did choose all of the words of Scripture individually, then He left us with some puzzles to figure out. For example, in Jesus’ critique of the Pharisees, he says that they “love the most important seats in the synagogues.” In Matthew, “love” is the Greek verb philéō. In Luke, it’s agapáō. Every canon of textual criticism, the method by which we ascertain with such great accuracy what the autographic text of Scripture said, would validate the difference in the verbs as original. Scribes were always trying to harmonize the gospels; they wouldn’t have introduced a difference if one hadn’t been there already. So why would God have inspired one gospel writer to render the original Aramaic word with one Greek verb, and another gospel writer to use a different verb?
But enough about problems with the Statement itself. Suppose we had no real issue with it. Would it still be useful in our day? I doubt it. It’s a vestige of the waning days of modernism, when people were still looking for a foundational source of epistemological certainty. If the “very words” of Scripture were infallible truth, then an entire structure of certain knowledge could be built up from them. (Stanley Grenz and John Franke describe this framework of belief, and its collapse with the advent of postmodernism, in their excellent book Beyond Foundationalism [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001].) People are not looking for that kind of truth these days. The “hermeneutic of suspicion” causes them to see every factual truth claim as dubious and agenda-driven.
However, people are looking for a different kind of truth. Despite the deliberate rejection of metanarratives such as inevitable progress, objective scientific discovery, and the beneficial spread of western culture, I think people are still receptive to a coherent metanarrative about the meaning of life within which their own personal narrative can become meaningful.
So I think the task for those who would commend the Bible to people today is to understand and become able to explain how the story that the Bible tells presents such a metanarrative, ultimately about God renewing and restoring all of creation. But there’s no way to grasp this story by seeing the Bible as a composite of words that were individually divinely chosen. Nor (to strike a familiar theme of mine) can we do this if we see the Bible as a lattice-work of verses and chapters. But if we see it as a collection of artistic creations (specifically, literary compositions) that together capture and celebrate the grand sweep of God’s renewing work, then we will recognize its story and be able to tell it to a receptive audience.