Arguments against inerrancy that don’t work: The “death of a thousand qualifications”

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If you’ve ever been part of a discussion about biblical inerrancy, you’ve probably heard this expression. It’s said that inerrancy can’t stand as a viable concept because it “dies the death of a thousand qualifications.” Supposedly, proponents of biblical inerrancy have to add such an extensive list of clarifications and qualifications to their understanding of inerrancy that it becomes useless as a workable theological proposition. If one has to carefully clarify and define what they even mean when they use the word “inerrancy,” then the concept is at best meaningless and possibly even intrinsically incoherent.

This can be a persuasive argument, that is until one actually considers the implications of such a standard. Do we really want to establish an expectation that a single word communicating a theological concept: (1) be immediately understood the same way by everyone with no needed clarification or further defining; (2) be without any need of detailed clarification regarding what this theological concept actually is and what it is not; and (3) enjoy complete and total uniformity in the way its adherents understand the concept? Should we then conclude that any theological proposition that lacks this kind of simplicity, that must often be defined, that requires and results in complex theological exploration and debate, and which proponents understand in varying ways, should be assumed to have disqualified itself from serious consideration, having died the death of a thousand qualifications, worthy of being laughingly dismissed?

If this is the case, these same critics of biblical inerrancy should be equally dismissive of the Trinity. After all, do we not have to be careful that people understand what we—and what we do not—mean by the word “Trinity”? Are there not seemingly endless qualifications and clarifications as to what is included in the orthodox Christian belief in the Trinity, and what is absolutely not? In fact, isn’t a great deal of early church history consumed with clarifying these very complex details? How many heresies are simply getting one of these details wrong: misunderstanding the deity of Christ, misunderstanding the humanity of Christ, misunderstanding the nature of Christ, etc., etc.? Aren’t there still frequent debates concerning some nuanced implication of the triune nature of God? Shouldn’t all these myriad clarifications inspire the same giggles and rolled eyes as detailed descriptions and clarifications of biblical inerrancy apparently do? (And what about all the books and articles written about what we actually mean by the “gospel” or the “kingdom”? Should we reject these ideas as impossibly complex as well?) Or could this simply be a case of special pleading, fervently defending some cherished biblical teachings despite the need for wading into theological complexity and detailed clarifications, but rejecting another, possibly not-so-cherished (at least by some), theological concept because it’s just too complex and requires too many detailed clarifications?

Of course, some words do begin to lose their meaning over time. The simple word “Christian” began to so lack clarity that we felt the need to clarify what we mean by Christian, as in “evangelical Christian.” Now the word “evangelical” is taking on more political and cultural connotations, and we’re in the middle of a debate over whether this word has lost its usefulness. Many have tended toward the use of the phrase “triune God” rather than trinity because it’s more precise and clear. But none of these adjustments in terminology required the rejection of the concept being communicated. The question is how well does this word communicate today the concept believed, not a sarcastic ridiculing of the ability of the word in question to communicate and a conclusion that the concept itself is somehow invalid (again because it’s just too darn complex).

If we continue to look closely at the discussions concerning inerrancy, we begin to suspect the foisting on of a manufactured catch-22. When someone describes the inerrancy of Scripture in a simple, easy to understand way (such as: “The Bible is absolutely true and accurate in everything it affirms”), the response is often derision at such a childish, folk belief in a magic book that somehow floated out of heaven, or challenges regarding particularly difficult passages. But when inerrantists get into details of the way Scripture is divinely inspired, and what inerrancy actually means and doesn’t mean, the critics throw up their arms and complain: “Why do you need all these clarifications? Why can’t you just state your view simply?” It reminds me a bit of the children who complained: We played the flute for you, but you didn’t dance; we sang a lament for you, but you didn’t mourn!

When we look a bit more closely at these “thousand qualifications” of inerrantists, we find first that they’re not that numerous, and next that they actually make good practical sense. For instance, those who believe in inerrancy will usually qualify this as the inerrancy of the original autographs. Does that mean we don’t have inerrant Scripture because we no longer have the original manuscripts? Of course not! As I’ve written previously, it’s the original readings that are inspired and inerrant, not the physical manuscripts. It’s the words that were written that are inerrant, not the scrolls they were written on. Being clear about this protects us from viewing one particular translation (such as the KJV or ESV) as the inspired standard, and it allows us to acknowledge when biblical passages are less certain. The fact that we can’t be dogmatic about whether the mark of the beast in Revelation 13:18 is 666 or 616 doesn’t call into question the inerrancy of Jesus’ words to Nicodemus in John 3. Ironically, when we deal with such differing passages with precision and nuance, the critics try to restrict us to the simplistic, magic-book-from-heaven view they wish to reject!

Other clarifications are also common sense. The Bible includes statements from Satan and false prophets. While these are recorded faithfully, they’re obviously not intended to be read as statements of truth! Different genres of Scripture are studied with differing expectations regarding precision and literalness. In some biblical reports precise number are used, in other accounts in Scripture numbers may be rounded off. These don’t constitute contradictions in Scripture anymore than they would today. The Bible includes descriptive language such as metaphors and hyperbole. These are to be understood as they were intended—as metaphors and hyperbole. Theological leaders may be somewhat exacting in the way they express their concepts and qualifications, and that can be taxing to other Christians reading their work. That might cause us to think the whole concept is hopelessly complex, but that has more to do with the way theologians communicate, not the concepts themselves! For comparison, read through the early church creeds and writings all about the issues concerning the Trinity. They’re not exactly what we would call simple! When we stop and see the practical nature of these clarifications of biblical inerrancy, it’s actually the rejection of such necessary qualifications that seems silly and childish.

If you’re confronted with someone making this claim that inerrancy has ‘died the death of a thousand qualifications,’ I’d encourage you to ask for the exact standard the critic is using for evaluating what qualifications are excessive and what are not. Then see if they apply this standard consistently to all other theological words and the concepts they communicate. And then, of course, one could ask them to explain their own view of Scripture. Is it divinely inspired? How so? Is it infallible? And just what do they mean by “infallible” anyway? That may prove to be not be quite as simple as they might like to think!

Arguments against inerrancy that don’t work: “But we don’t have the original manuscripts”

woman-shrugging-shoulders-oMost evangelical Christians believe in the inerrancy of Scripture. By this we mean the Bible is completely without error in everything it affirms as true, including details of history or science. It’s not uncommon to hear some of us stipulate that it’s the original manuscripts (or what we call the ‘autographs’) that are inerrant. And it’s just as common to hear the challenge of those who reject inerrancy: “Yeah, but we no longer have these supposedly inerrant original manuscripts. So what good does that do us now?” Is this as devastating a problem for inerrancy as they seem to think? Let’s take a closer look at this challenge.

(I should first point out that we don’t have the original manuscript of any piece of literature from antiquity. All we have are copies. I don’t want anyone to think that the manuscript evidence for the Bible is somehow deficient. Actually the New Testament is the most well-attested literature we have from antiquity. For more on this, see here.)

Underlying this challenge is a bit of confusion that is actually quite easy to clarify. Is it the physical materials constituting the original manuscripts (which we no longer have) that are inerrant? No, of course not. It’s not as if we’re seeking to venerate the physical manuscripts as some kind of holy relics. So, what are we claiming is inerrant? The text of the original manuscripts. It’s what was written on these autographs that is inerrant, not the manuscripts themselves. Do we still have the text that was written on the original manuscripts?

Before answering that, let’s make sure we understand the implications. This is another case where the evangelical critics of inerrancy are arguing too much. According to their view, Scripture does not need to be inerrant, but it is divinely inspired and theologically infallible. But what exactly are they claiming is inspired and infallible? The written Scriptures. (Note that I’m referring to evangelical critics of inerrancy, who would still hold to an authoritative text of Scripture.) And what do we need today if we are to read the inspired, infallible Scriptures? We need translations that faithfully relay the inspired and infallible message of Scripture as originally written.

Do you see the problem here? If, as these critics claim, we no longer have the original inerrant text—because we don’t have the autographs—then we also no longer have the original inspired text or the original infallible text! You can’t have it both ways. Both sides are just as dependent on a faithfully preserved text that conveys the original reading of Scripture. I don’t know any evangelical critic of inerrancy who would accept the idea of an unreliable Bible that isn’t divinely inspired or infallible. Once again, we see them trying to saw off the branch on which we both sit—even if they don’t realize it.

Thankfully, we can be very secure in our reading of Scripture. For instance, less than 1% of the New Testament is in any doubt as to its original reading. And most of these uncertain passages involve very minor differences in wording. There are no Christian teachings that rely on this minuscule group of passages.

Then why do inerrantists make this caveat? This is simply to remind all of us: It is the original text that is inspired, infallible and inerrant. This keeps us from designating one translation (such as the Latin Vulgate or the King James Version) as the standard. It keeps us doing the hard work of faithfully translating the original text so that we can read the inspired, infallible and inerrant Scriptures.

So is the lack of original manuscripts a problem for an inerrant text? No more so than it’s a problem for an inspired or infallible text. To the extent our Bibles faithfully translate the original text of Scripture, to that same extent we confidently read today the inspired, infallible and inerrant message that was written down by the biblical authors.