Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Bible Truth (God’s Word: Inerrancy of Scripture)

Accommodation and Inerrancy

Infallibility and Inerrancy

Jesus and Inerrancy

Explanation of Inerrancy

The inerrancy of Scripture is a doctrine that unbelievers have challenged primarily since the Enlightenment period (ca. AD 1650–1815). It is directly related to the doctrine of inspiration and the absolute veracity of the Word of God. There is no less at stake in this issue than the truthfulness and trustworthiness of God—his very character and nature.

Accommodation and Inerrancy

The ontological distinction between God the Creator and man the creature necessitates man’s dependence on God for revelation. Man is epistemologically dependent on God. What man knows about God is only what God reveals to him. The Creator personally initiated the revelation of himself to his creatures. While general revelation discloses observable truths about the Creator, special revelation conveys, in language, truths about God that cannot be discerned merely by observing the creation. Some argue that human language necessarily forces God to accommodate himself to fallible means of communication. However, language is not a human invention. It is a divinely created means of personal communication between God and man, as well as between man and man. As such, there is no sense in which the process of communication through verbal and written forms is inadequate to accurately convey the truth of God to man. Even the confusion of the languages came about by a divine act (Gen. 11:1–9). Special revelation given through the process of inspiration is a fully accurate, truthful, sufficient, and reliable communication from God the Creator to man the creature. God used human agents to produce divinely authoritative writings by means of his Holy Spirit.

Historically, accommodation referred to God communicating with Scripture using symbols and expressions that were meaningful to man. These included cultural forms, figures of speech, anthropomorphic expressions, and the like. The Reformers saw accommodation as God’s gracious use of multiple symbols in communicating with mankind. However, errantists have more recently redefined accommodation as God being forced to include error in the composition of Scripture because he used fallible human authors and language. Such advocates of error state that since God used finite human writers who were sinners to write his Word, the text is therefore liable to all the errors finite, sinful human beings commit. They even go so far as to say that the use of these human means of composition makes errors inevitable in the process. They conclude that the Bible is true in matters of faith and practice because these are at a general-principle level. However, they maintain that there can be (and are) factual errors throughout the Bible due to the fallible human instrumentality God used in the composition of the text.

The following responses to the modern errantist view demonstrate the fallibility of its argumentation. First, it confuses finiteness with sin and error. Humanness is not destroyed if God superintended the writing of Scripture through inspiration to protect it from all errors. Men do sin, make mistakes, and err on countless occasions throughout their lives. However, they do not sin or err on every occasion. It is possible for a fallible human being to write a sentence without erring. On the one hand, God’s superintendence of Scripture did not compromise the humanness of the authors. On the other hand, the process of inspiration included God’s work of safeguarding the human writers so that they did not err when they were writing his Word—word after word, sentence after sentence.

Second, the unanimous witness of Scripture affirms its total veracity. It claims repeatedly to be truthful (Ps. 119:43, 160; John 17:17; 2 Cor. 6:7; Col. 1:5; 2 Tim. 2:15; James 1:18). It is identified directly with both the human writers and God who inspired it. The direct calls by God to leave it unaltered demonstrate that what is written is precisely what God intended to say (Deut. 4:2; 12:32; Prov. 30:5–6; Rev. 22:18–19). God was in no way limited in his ability to convey absolute truth in every word simply because he used fallible human writers. Inspiration by means of the Spirit’s direct involvement facilitated the origination of God’s inerrant Word (2 Pet. 1:20–21).

Finally, the errantist view of accommodation is inconsistent with itself. How can one be sure that God can rightly convey to man spiritual truths concerning matters of faith and practice if he cannot guarantee that the facts of history are rightly recorded? If one affirms that the Bible is free from error in leading man to a right knowledge of God in salvation, then what prevents him from equally affirming the truthfulness of the rest? If God is able to keep the writers free from error at all, such as in writing spiritual truths, then there are no reasonable grounds to conclude that he was unable to secure a factual account of scientific and historical records.

Infallibility and Inerrancy

DEFINITIONS OF INERRANCY AND INFALLIBILITY

Inerrancy means literally “without error.” When applied to Scripture, it means that the Bible is without error in the original copies. It is therefore free, when properly interpreted, from affirming anything that is untrue or contrary to fact.

The term infallibility has historically been largely synonymous with an evangelical view of inerrancy. Infallibility means unable to mislead or fail in accomplishing the divinely intended purpose. Article 11 of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978) relates it this way: “We affirm that Scripture, having been given by divine inspiration, is infallible, so that, far from misleading us, it is true and reliable in all the matters it addresses.”

Historically, inerrancy and infallibility have been inseparably linked. However, dating back to the early 1960s, infallibility became a term used in a new way by those who believe in limited inerrancy. They commandeered it to mean that the Bible is infallible in that it teaches no false or misleading doctrine related to faith and practice. However, in their view, that does not mean Scripture has to be factually accurate in all its words. The primary motivation behind the alteration in definition was tied to an effort to deny inerrancy yet maintain an identification with those of an orthodox faith. But biblically speaking, it is not orthodox to affirm infallibility apart from inerrancy. Denial of inerrancy is motivated by an unwillingness to accept all that Scripture declares. Deniers seek to excuse sin and to affirm unbiblical behavior by such efforts.

THE BIBLICAL BASIS FOR INERRANCY

Paul’s direct claim for Scripture is that it is inspired by God (2 Tim. 3:16). It is the product of God’s own work through the human authors by means of his Spirit (2 Pet. 1:20–21). Since these written words are the words of the God of truth, they must be without error. Inspiration deals with the means by which the text was composed, but it also directly implies that it is the work of God. As such, the final product is attributed to him. Regardless of the involvement of human agency in the composition process, the integrity of the divine author is at stake in the doctrine of inerrancy. Prior to the higher-critical assaults on the doctrine of Scripture in the nineteenth century, the fact of inspiration necessarily led to the affirmation that the written words of the God who is truth were entirely truthful and without error in the original autographs. This matches the position Jesus himself affirmed (John 17:17).

The Bible’s view of its own authority attests to the fact of inerrancy. The recurrent declarations of “thus says the Lord” create an atmosphere in which inerrancy is assumed throughout the Old Testament. The New Testament writers universally assume the absolute truthfulness of the Old Testament. Following a pattern established by Jesus, they base their doctrine on the literal verbiage of the biblical texts they quote (e.g., Paul’s reference to “offspring,” not “offsprings,” in Gal. 3:16). More significantly, they base their faith in the truthfulness of the Old Testament on the character of the triune God. For Paul, the Father is the “God who never lies” (Titus 1:2). In John’s Gospel, the Son is not only the way and the life but also the truth (John 14:6). Likewise, the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth (John 14:17; 15:26; 16:13; 1 John 5:6). John also records Jesus’s affirmation that God’s “word is truth” (John 17:17). This language coincides directly with the Old Testament witness that God’s Word is truth and that it is fixed forever in heaven (Ps. 119:89, 160)—a testimony to the fact that it is not just a temporal earthly testimony from God but an eternal and heavenly one. If God is the author of Scripture, as the text claims, how can there be errors in what it affirms? If there are errors in what it says, how can God be the God of truth? Furthermore, if this is an eternal and lasting word, as Scripture attests, then how can the God of truth allow falsehood to be conveyed by it? There is nothing less at stake in the doctrine of inerrancy than the character and integrity of God himself. Since God is true, so is his revelation in Scripture.

Jesus and Inerrancy

That Jesus believed in an inerrant Bible has already been shown in the earlier section “Proofs of Inspiration” (p. 86). However, as a further demonstration, we can note that Jesus never challenged the accuracy or veracity of a single Old Testament passage. In fact, he never even broached the subject of an errant Scripture because the integrity of the text was always assumed and repeatedly affirmed. Christ never once indicated the slightest need to correct any statement in the Old Testament. Rather, he affirmed its truthfulness to the smallest details (Matt. 5:18; John 10:35). It is also worth pointing out that of all the questions people asked Jesus, no one asked if the Old Testament was inspired. No one asked if it contained any errors. From his disciples and numerous common folk to a host of adversaries, not one person questioned the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture. Furthermore, Scripture gives no evidence to support the view that Jesus believed or taught merely conceptual inspiration. There is no evidence that Jesus believed that Scripture contained error in even the slightest way. Though an argument from silence is generally not the strongest argument, in this case the silence is deafening. If Jesus knew of error (even minor factual discrepancies) in the text, it is hard to imagine why he nowhere addressed this subject, especially with his disciples, that he might prepare them for such doctrinal difficulty.

It is equally inexplicable why Jesus never addressed this subject with his opponents. Throughout his ministry, Jesus never accommodated himself to his enemies. He challenged errant behavior and doctrine. He made a deliberate practice of confronting false rabbinic doctrines and practices at every opportunity. Yet Jesus never once challenged the veracity of Scripture. He only addressed the Jews’ ignorance and mishandling of it. The Sermon on the Mount was a full-scale confrontation with those who had misrepresented or misunderstood the law of God (Matthew 5–7). Nevertheless, throughout this discourse Jesus corrected only the misinterpretation of Scripture. He never once even hinted at the possibility that biblical integrity may be in doubt—and the Gospel accounts make it clear that Jesus never hesitated to confront error. He made a practice of addressing even the most controversial issues with either his disciples or the religious leaders of the day. It is therefore unreasonable to conclude that Jesus would have accommodated himself to either his enemies or even his disciples over this issue. There is no convincing argument that can be brought forward to explain why Jesus would have neglected to address the issue if Scripture contained errors.

Explanation of Inerrancy

INERRANCY CANNOT BE PROVEN SCIENTIFICALLY

The doctrine of inerrancy is a natural companion to the doctrine of inspiration. It is also a reasonable and necessary conclusion based on the character of God and the truth claims of Scripture. In many instances, it can be confirmed even by external, empirical evidences. As such, inerrancy is a doctrine that is biblically and theologically presumed.

However, it is not possible to fully demonstrate the doctrine in every case with scientific data. This is simply because some things are not reproducible for scrutiny today. The creation and flood events cannot be repeated. And yet there was one impeccably reliable eyewitness—God—who wrote an inerrant account. Archaeological evidence does not exist to confirm every historical fact asserted in the Bible. Ultimately, in all cases, the miraculous events recorded in Scripture can be attested only by the eyewitness accounts given by the biblical writers themselves.

At the same time, it is equally true that there is no way to disprove the biblical record. Every historical challenge leveled against the veracity of Scripture has been proven false. In many cases, external witnesses have confirmed not only the biblical account in general but also the factual details themselves. In other cases, a harmonization or similar interpretive solution has adequately confirmed the accuracy of the biblical account. What is more, the evidences for scriptural veracity and factual accuracy go way beyond external confirmations. The fulfillment of Scripture alone attests to the truthfulness and trustworthiness of the biblical record. The truth claims of Scripture, the doctrine of inspiration, and the use of the Old Testament by New Testament writers all confirm a universal acceptance of the total truthfulness and reliability of the biblical text. Furthermore, the doctrine of inspiration demands the acceptance of the scriptural account over any external, human record based on the fact that it is God’s Word.

INERRANCY APPLIES TO THE AUTOGRAPHS

Every book of the Bible was originally composed under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit by a human author. These original works—called autographs—were completely without error as the result of divine inspiration. None of these original manuscripts are in existence today. Instead, copies were made and soon thereafter copies of copies. These copies and multitudes of translations have been passed down through the centuries. The doctrines of transmission and preservation will be discussed later in this chapter, but here we must point out that the copying process had the obvious potential for introducing errors into the text. For this reason, the doctrine of inerrancy is restricted to the autographs themselves.

Unlike the autographs, copies are subject to errors due to fallible human involvement since the Scripture never speaks of the Holy Spirit superintending the work of copyists. Add to this the fact that no original manuscripts remain by which the copies may be confirmed, and it may seem that the doctrine of inerrancy is null and void. This could be even further extrapolated to include the process of translation. Since translations (like copies) are not produced by means of inspiration, they too are subject to error. How can one rely on Scripture if it is not the original text composed by the divinely inspired author?

God has not chosen to extend the miracle of inspiration to the copying and translation processes. But God providentially preserves copies and translations to the extent that they accurately reproduce the content of the original autographs. As will be discussed below, the evidence available today enables textual scholars to hold the confidence that Scripture translations today possess more than 99 percent of the original autographs. Translations can be easily checked against a critical text to confirm how accurately they render the biblical autographs. As such, copies and translations can be said to accurately reflect the inerrant Word originally penned by the divinely inspired authors. The copying process superintended by God preserves the doctrine of inerrancy. A translation can still be called the Word of God as long as it accurately reflects the content of the original autographs.

INERRANCY ALLOWS FOR ORDINARY LANGUAGE

The doctrine of inerrancy does not mean that the normal laws of language are excluded. The Bible makes frequent use of estimates (1 Chron. 5:21; Isa. 37:36), and such round numbers are not factual errors. Scientifically imprecise statements do not equate to error; they are simply part of the way we normally use language. The same holds true in statements related to distance. Furthermore, inerrancy does not demand the use of technical or scientific language. The biblical authors did not intend to give scientific descriptions or explanations in their narrative accounts. In fact, in many cases the technical language of their day would have been wrong. But the way it is stated in Scripture matches with perceived reality—even though it is conveyed in normal language. A perfect example is Job 26:7, where God is said to hang the earth on nothing. This is not a scientific description. But it is completely accurate, factually speaking. Phenomenological language is also no violation of inerrancy. Joshua prayed for the “sun to stand still,” and the following verse affirms that “the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, until the nation took vengeance on their enemies” (Josh. 10:12–13). This geocentric description in no way violates inerrancy. This is a completely truthful statement from an earthly perspective. Language allows for truth to be conveyed from the perspective of the writer or speaker.

Inerrancy allows for the use of the full range of language. This includes free quotations from the Old Testament by New Testament writers. The oldest Greek manuscripts did not contain punctuation marks. This makes identifying the precise quotations by the writers difficult at times. Since the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, the New Testament biblical writers had to use either an existing translation or produce their own. Furthermore, many times it is obvious that the author did not intend to give a word-for-word quotation but simply enough of a reference to the original that the reader would recognize it. This is a common practice even in contemporary writing or preaching. A loose quotation still accurately conveys the sense in the referenced text. None of these practices are violations of the integrity of the biblical text. In such cases, it is better to describe the New Testament use of the Old Testament as allusions rather than quotations because the writers clearly are not attempting to repeat them verbatim. Since the reader knows or has access to the Old Testament original, free citations of the Old Testament in the New do not deceive the reader or compromise the integrity of the text.

Inerrancy does not require perfect grammar in every case, nor exact wording (ipsissima verba) or even exhaustive detail. A statement can be grammatically unconventional and still be understandable and truthful. Many times syntactical and lexical choices merely reflect the style and skill of the human authors. The accounts they wrote are truthful even when they did not record every historical detail. In the case of parallel accounts in both Testaments, the human writers naturally made choices to maintain the focus of their narratives that necessarily resulted in the inclusion and exclusion of certain details from each account. The truth includes the sum of all accounts. None of these factors negate the factuality of the written Word.

The Bible is the inerrant, infallible Word of God. It is the result of divine inspiration, which produced divinely authoritative and factual accounts that are truthful in what they record. This doctrine applies directly to the original autographs and indirectly to the texts and translations of today.[1]


[1] MacArthur, J., & Mayhue, R., eds. (2017). Biblical Doctrine: A Systematic Summary of Bible Truth (pp. 107–113). Crossway.