Posts tagged ‘Inerrancy’

Rob Bell and Inerrancy

Rob Bell 2The other day, a friend sent me an article by pastor and provocateur Rob Bell on the subject of inerrancy.  Traditionally, the term “inerrancy” has been defined as the belief that the biblical authors, guided and inspired by God’s Spirit, “are absolutely truthful according to their intended purposes.”[1]  In other words, the biblical authors, under divine inspiration, produced writings that are “without error.”  It is important to clarify that to say the Bible is “without error” does note preclude “a lack of modern technical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, the reporting of falsehoods, the use of hyperbole and round numbers, the topical arrangement of material, variant selections of material in parallel accounts, or the use of free citations.”[2]  In other words, part of claiming biblical inerrancy is recognizing what does and does not constitute an actual “error.”

Regardless of the specifics concerning what does and does not constitute error, it is clear that “inerrancy” asserts an extraordinarily high view of the nature and reliability of Holy Writ.  Some, however, including Rob Bell, are troubled by such an assertion.

Rob Bell teases out his beef with inerrancy thusly:

My 13 year old son is currently doing an education program that requires him to listen to a certain amount of classical music every day. So on the way to school each morning instead of listening to our usual Blink 182 and rap, he listens to…Mozart. Not his first choice, but just lately he admitted that classical music has grown on him. (How does a parent not smile at that?)

A few questions, then, about Mozart:Did Mozart’s music win?
Would you say that the work of Mozart is on top?
Is Mozart the MVP?
In your estimation, has Mozart prevailed?
Do Mozart’s songs take the cake?

Odd questions, right?
They’re odd because that’s not how you think of Mozart’s music. They’re the wrong categories.

Why?
Because what you do with Mozart’s music is you listen to it and you enjoy it.

Which brings us to inerrancy: it’s not a helpful category. And if you had only ever heard about Mozart as the one who wins, those arguments would probably get in the way of you actually listening to and enjoying Mozart.[3]

So Rob Bell’s problem with inerrancy is that for him it’s not a helpful category.

Though Rob may question the usefulness of the inerrancy “category,” countless followers of Christ have, do, and will continue to find this designation extraordinarily helpful.  Yes, the word “inerrancy” is of fairly recent origin.  But what it denotes – the trustworthiness of Scripture because of divine origin of Scripture – is as old as Christianity itself.  Nichols and Brandt, in their book Ancient Word, Changing Worlds, helpfully sample some patristic evidence that indicates how the early Church saw the divine origin and inspiration of Scripture:

Clement of Rome, writing in 96, exhorted, “Look carefully into the Scriptures, which are the true utterances of the Holy Spirit.”  Another Clement, Bishop of Alexandria, declared similarly, “I could produce then thousand Scriptures of which not ‘one tittle will pass away,’ without being fulfilled.  For the mouth of the Lord, the Holy Spirit, has spoken these things.”  As for a statement about the whole Bible, Origen once observed, “For the proof of our statements, we take testimonies from that which is called the Old Testament and that which is called the New – which we believe to be divine writings.”[4]

Jumping ahead to the sixteenth century, Nichols and Brandt note that John Calvin referred to Scripture as “the sure and infallible record,” “the inerring standard,” “the pure Word of God,” “the infallible rule of His Holy Truth,” “free from every stain or defect,” “the inerring certainty,” “the certain and unerring rule,” “unerring light,” “infallible Word of God,” “has nothing belonging to man mixed with it,” “inviolable,” “infallible oracles.”[5]  Whoa.  Calvin leaves no question as to where he stands on inerrancy.

Rob does offer some reasons as to why he believes inerrancy is not a helpful category, the first of which is, “This isn’t a word the Bible uses about itself.”  But this is like saying “Trinity” is not a helpful term to describe God because it is not a term God uses to describe Himself.  Terms can be helpful even when they’re not used in the Bible if these terms describe what the Bible itself teaches.  And the Bible does indeed claim inerrancy for itself.  One need to look no farther than the Word of God’s magnum opus on the Word of God, Psalm 19:  “The law of the LORD is perfect, refreshing the soul. The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy, making wise the simple” (Psalm 19:7).  If the word “perfect” doesn’t include being “without error,” what does it include?

Rob finally plays his hand as to why he is uncomfortable with inerrancy:  “The power of the Bible comes not from avoiding what it is but embracing what it is. Books written by actual, finite, limited, flawed people.”  Rob Bell takes issue with inerrancy because he takes issue with the doctrine of divine inspiration.  He takes issue with what Clement of Rome, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, John Calvin, and, for that matter, the Bible itself claim about the Bible.  Rather than being a book a written by God using men (cf. 1 Peter 1:21), the Bible for Rob is a book written by men who recount their experiences with God, which, by the way, could be mistaken and wrongheaded.[6]  How do we know if their experiences with God are mistaken and wrongheaded?  Rob answers:  “Central to maturity is discernment, the growing acknowledgement that reality is not as clean and neat and simple as we’d like.”  In other words, it’s up to us to figure out what in the Bible is wrong and what in the Bible is right.  But if our world’s genocides, sexual promiscuity, oppression, economic injustice, and refusal to stand for truth because we’re not even sure of what truth is serve as any indication of our powers of discernment, in the words of Ricky Ricardo, we “have some splainin’ to do.”

Perhaps we’re not as discerning as we think we are.  Perhaps, rather than tooting the horns of our own discernment faculties, we should ask the question of the Psalmist:  “But who can discern their own errors” (Psalm 19:12)?  Our blind spots are bigger and darker than most of us recognize.

I will grant that inerrancy has sometimes all too gleefully been used as a bully club against supposed – and, in some instances, presupposed – heretics.  But I will not give up the word or the doctrine.  For when inerrancy is properly understood, it is not meant as a club, but as a promise.  It is a promise that we can trust this book – even more than we can trust ourselves.  For this book is God’s book.  And I, for one, delight in that promise because I delight in the Lord.


[1] James Voelz, What Does This Mean? Principles of Biblical Interpretation in the Post-Modern World, 2nd ed. (St. Louis:  Concordia Publishing House, 1995), 239.

[2]Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy,” Article XIII (October 1978).

[3] Rob Bell, “What is the Bible? Part 21: In Air, In Sea,” robbellcom.tumblr.com (12.10.2013)

[4] Stephen Nichols and Eric Brandt, Ancient Word, Changing Worlds (Wheaton:  Crossway Books, 2009), 78.

[5] Ancient Word, Changing Worlds, 78-79.

[6] Bell writes of the biblical authors in another post, “They had experiences. They told stories.  They did their best to share those stories and put language to those experiences” (“What is the Bible? Part 17: Assumptions and AA Meetings”).

December 16, 2013 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Cherry Picking Scripture

I had to chuckle as I was watching coverage of the Democratic National Convention last week.  I tuned in to see San Antonio’s mayor, Julian Castro, deliver the Convention’s keynote speech, which is quite an honor no matter what your political persuasion.  But what made me chuckle were not the speeches at the Convention, but the political pundits pontificating on the state of our nation between speeches.  I began watching the coverage that evening by tuning into a liberal-leaning news channel.  They asked a question that has become ubiquitous in political circles every time a presidential election rolls around:  “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”  One of their correspondents trotted out a chart that included numbers for jobs created and the state of the Standard & Poor’s index and confidently concluded, “Yes.  We are better off than we were four years ago.”  I then flipped over to a conservative-leaning news channel.  Interestingly, the pundits on this channel were debating this same question:  “Are you better off than you were four years ago?”  But my mouth dropped open when they too trotted out a chart with numbers on unemployment and the national debt and confidently concluded, “No.  We are not better off than we were four years ago.”  Apparently, whether you believe we are better off than we were four years ago depends on which numbers you look at – or which numbers you want to look at.

I am not surprised when politicians and the politically minded cherry pick the facts and figures which bolster their particular partisan position.  But it disturbs me when Christians do the same thing – especially with the Word of God.

In Acts 20, Paul is leaving the church in Ephesus which he had planted and subsequently served for three years as its pastor in order to journey to Jerusalem at the Holy Spirit’s behest.  One of the things that Paul touts about his ministry to the Ephesians is that he “did not shrink from declaring the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27).  In other words, when Paul served the Ephesians, he didn’t cherry pick his favorite Bible verses or stories, nor did he selectively or subversively read the Scriptures in an effort to bolster a particular partisan theological platform.  Instead, he courageously declared the Word of God – all of the Word of God.

Part of the reason Paul prided himself on proclaiming all of the Word of God has to do with Paul’s belief concerning the nature and character of Scripture.  For Paul believed that all of Scripture comes from God and therefore all of Scripture is worthy of our attention, study, and application.  As Paul writes to the young pastor Timothy, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16).  All Scripture is useful, Paul declares.  There is not a book, a verse, a word, or, to use Jesus’ description, even “a jot or a tittle” (cf. Matthew 5:18, KJV), which is not useful for us to know and take to heart.

The other day, I came across a blog titled, “5 Reasons Why We Should Still Read The Book Of Leviticus Today.”[1]  In this post, the author recounts a conversation he had with a PhD scientist who, though he was a Christian, saw no need to for believers to concern themselves with Leviticus, or with any other part of the Pentateuch for that matter.  After all, what could modern-day people possibly learn from a book that covers the eating of shellfish, the wearing of polyester, and the donning of tattoos?  Not much, in this guy’s mind.  But this blogger went on to do a terrific job arguing for the relevance – and, more importantly, for the divine inspiration – of this book.  He notes that the credo of Leviticus, “Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2), is still the preeminent model for Christian sanctification.  In our acting, speaking, and thinking, we are to reflect the God in whom we trust.  Indeed, Jesus Himself affirms this holiness credo when He declares, “Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).  More vitally, this blogger notes that the sacrificial system of Leviticus is a foreshadowing of the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.  Without Leviticus, our understanding of Christ’s sacrifice would be significantly diminished, for the whole point of the Old Testament sacrificial system was to lead to and find its telos in Christ’s supreme and final sacrifice (cf. Hebrews 10:1-12).  In other words, the whole point of Leviticus, though it was written some 1400 years before Jesus, was to point people to Jesus.  And anything that points people to Jesus is something a Christian should want to know about.

Leviticus is just one example of the theological richness that Scripture has to offer – if we will only take the time to look.  If you choose cherry pick from Scripture, however, you will miss so much of what Scripture is and what Scripture gives.  So devote yourself to Scripture – all Scripture.  You never know what you will find, how you will be changed, and how your faith will grow.


[1] Scott Fillmer, “5 Reasons Why We Should Still Read The Book Of Leviticus Today,” scottfillmer.com (8.21.2012).

September 10, 2012 at 5:15 am 1 comment

ABC Extra – The Perfect Book

This past weekend, we kicked off a two part mini message series titled “INSPIRE!” where we are looking at how the Scriptures are both inspired by God – that is, they are His very words, authored and spoken by Him – and inspiring to us – that is, they give us guidance for our everyday lives and hope for tomorrow.  Yesterday, we talked about the doctrine of the inspiration of Scripture according to 2 Timothy 3:16-17:  “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”  From these verses, we draw the doctrine of the verbal plenary inspiration of Scripture.  The word “verbal” means that God not only inspired the general thoughts of the biblical authors, but their very words.  The words of the Bible are truly “God-breathed.”  The word “plenary” comes from the Latin word plenarius, meaning, “entire,” or “complete.”  Thus, the doctrine of plenary inspiration states that all, not just some of the Bible is inspired by God.  From Genesis to Revelation, God is speaking.

Because the Bible is verbally and completely inspired by God, it follows that the Bible is also inerrant.  Because God is finally the author of the Scriptures and God is perfect, the Scriptures themselves can be nothing less than perfect, even as the Psalmist says, “The instructions of the LORD are perfect, reviving the soul” (Psalm 19:7 NLT).  Robert Preus puts the connection between the doctrine of inspiration and the doctrine of inerrancy well when he says, “Inerrancy is an inextricable concomitant of inspiration” (“Notes on the Inerrancy of Scripture”).  One cannot have a vigorous and meaningful doctrine of divine inspiration without an honest position of inerrancy.

But what do we mean when we say the Bible is “inerrant”?  Because there has been much misunderstanding as to precisely what inerrancy entails, I offer the below list of what inerrancy does and does not mean as outlined by James Voelz in his hermeneutics volume, What Does This Mean? Voelz outlines three things that inerrancy does not entail:

  • Inerrancy does not entail exactness of quotations.  This is illustrated especially when New Testament authors quote Old Testament prophetic texts.  For example, at the Council of Jerusalem, when church leaders are trying to decide whether or not they should require Gentiles to become circumcised according to Jewish custom before becoming Christian, James quotes Amos 9:11-12 and says, “After this I will return and rebuild David’s fallen tent. Its ruins I will rebuild, and I will restore it, that the remnant of men may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who bear my name, says the Lord, who does these things that have been known for ages” (Acts 15:16-18).  James concludes that because the Gentiles also seek and bear the name of the Lord, “We should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God” (Acts 15:19) and thus counsels against requiring circumcision for Gentile converts.  Notably, the Hebrew text of Amos 9:11-12 is different from the Greek text that James quotes.  It reads, “In that day I will restore David’s fallen tent. I will repair its broken places, restore its ruins, and build it as it used to be, so that they may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations that bear my name.”  In the Hebrew text, rather than a general remnant of men seeking the Lord, Israel possesses the remnant of Edom. The difference in these two texts is not an affront to the inerrancy of the Old Testament; rather, James, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, is using an Old Testament prophecy for the express purpose of highlighting how many Gentiles are coming to faith in Christ.
  • Inerrancy does not constitute exactness in the order of events recorded.  A famous example of this principle is found in the temptation of Jesus’ in the desert.  In the account in Matthew 4, the devil begins by tempting Jesus to turn stones into bread, moves on to tempting Him to throw Himself down from the temple, and then finally demands that He fall down and worship the devil.  In Luke 4, however, the order of the temptations is shuffled.  First, Satan tempts Jesus to turn stones into bread.  Next, he tempts Him to worship him.  And finally, the devil tempts Jesus to throw Himself down from the temple.  What accounts for this difference?  More than likely, the different evangelists wish to emphasize different things.  Matthew highlights the “descending Christology” of Satan’s temptations, ending with a demand so brash and low as asking Jesus to worship him.  That is, Satan wants Jesus to be “under” him by worshipping him.  Luke, however, saves the temple temptation for the final one, more than likely because it is the temptation in which Satan quotes Scripture.  Satan says, “It is written: ‘He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone’” (Luke 4:10-11).  Before this temptation, Jesus has cited Scripture to refute Satan’s temptations.  But now, Satan is using Scripture against Jesus.  Luke seems to highlight Satan’s most sinister type of temptation – the twisting of God’s Word – by saving it for last.  The change in order in no way negates the historical veracity of these temptations, however.  The different evangelists simply wish to highlight different things in Jesus’ wilderness experience.
  • Inerrancy does not constitute the avoidance of figures of speech. Hopefully, this aspect of inerrancy is fairly self-evident.  For even today, figures of speech are commonplace.  Thus, when the Psalmist sings of God’s creation, “God set the earth on its foundations; it can never be moved” (Psalm 104:5), he is not saying that the earth is somehow cosmologically static.  Indeed, we know it’s not.  Scientific observation has taught us that the earth revolves around the sun.  The earth does indeed move.  The Psalmist, however, is not speaking with cosmological concerns in mind.  He is simply stating that, at least from our human perspective, the earth seems very solid and unmovable thanks to the high handiwork of our God.

In light of all this, what then can we say about inerrancy?  Voelz explains inerrancy from a positive standpoint well:  “To say that the sacred Scriptures are inerrant is to say that their authors are absolutely truthful according to their intended purposes” (What Does This Mean? 239).  Thus, the biblical writers do not lie in any of what they write.  They do, however, write using normal and expected grammatical and rhetorical tropes.  Armed with an understanding of these tropes, we can trust the Scriptural writings as God’s inerrant Word.  And because God’s Word is inerrant, it will never lead us astray.  Praise be to God for His perfect book!

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February 28, 2011 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


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