Lesson 3: The Bible Is Unique In Its InerrancyRelated Media
What exactly does it mean to say, “the Bible is inerrant”? It simply means that the Bible is without error in its original autographs and therefore the copies can be trusted. There are two prevailing views in Christianity regarding inerrancy. One view is called limited inerrancy. This view limits the scope of inerrancy to such things as matters of faith and practice, or to the message of salvation. For example, one might say: “The Bible is infallible, as I define that term, but not inerrant. That is, there are historical and scientific errors in the Bible, but I have found none on matters of faith and practice.”1 Christians from liberal backgrounds often take this view.
The other view is absolute inerrancy. It teaches that “Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact.”2 In general, a simple definition might be “that the Bible tells the truth.”3 Christians from conservative backgrounds take this view. When there is an apparent error in the Bible, they claim that it is an error of the manuscript, its translation, or our understanding. Absolute inerrancy is more consistent with what the Bible teaches about itself—that the Bible is perfect and without fault.
Why is believing in absolute inerrancy so important? Simply, if the Bible is in error at even just one point, it can be presumed to be erroneous in any place. This then begs the question, “How can we trust anything the Bible says?” As soon as the foundational belief of Scripture’s inerrancy is lost, every other doctrine comes under scrutiny. First one doubts the accuracy of miraculous stories, like Moses parting the Red Sea, Jonah being swallowed by a big fish, or the flood story. Then, they doubt doctrines with greater consequences, like the creation story, Christ’s resurrection, his second coming, hell, and salvation itself. It is a very slippery slope.
Why should we believe in the Bible’s inerrancy? Essentially, for four reasons:
1. Evidence for Scripture’s inerrancy is found in God’s character.
Titus 1:1-2 says: “to further the faith of God’s chosen ones and the knowledge of the truth that is in keeping with godliness, in hope of eternal life, which God, who does not lie, promised before the ages began.” Paul encouraged Titus with the fact that eternal life is promised by God, who cannot lie. That is why we can trust all of Scripture. Scripture is God’s Word, and God cannot tell a lie. Numbers 23:19 says this: “God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a human being, that he should change his mind. Has he said, and will he not do it? Or has he spoken, and will he not make it happen?”
In fact, Christ called himself “the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6). Jesus is the truth because there is nothing false in him. Everything he says and does is true because he is God and that is his character.
2. Evidence for Scripture’s inerrancy is substantiated by what the Bible teaches about itself—that every word is true, not just the ideas of Scripture.
In Matthew 4:4, Christ said this, as he quoted Deuteronomy 8:3: “It is written, ‘Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Jesus said that man lives on “every word” that comes from the mouth of God, not SOME words or SOME ideas. Likewise, 2 Timothy 3:16 says, “Every scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” In agreement, the Psalms say:
The law of the Lord is perfect and preserves one’s life.
All your words are true; all your righteous laws are eternal.
Psalm 119:160 (NIV)
The words of the Lord are pure words, like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times.
Psalm 12:6 (ESV)
Scripture teaches that every part of it is true, not just some parts or the main ideas of Scripture.
3. Evidence for Scripture’s inerrancy is proven by Scripture’s preservation.
Jesus said this, “I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth pass away not the smallest letter or stroke of a letter will pass from the law until everything takes place” (Matt 5:18). As we have already examined, God has indeed preserved his Word, as seen in its historical reliability. It is more reliable than any ten ancient manuscripts combined.
4. Evidence for Scripture’s inerrancy is demonstrated by how the authors of Scripture use Scripture in such a way that supports its inerrancy.
In the Bible, at times, an entire argument rests on a single word (e.g., “God” in John 10:34–35 and Psalm 82:6), the tense of a verb (e.g., the present tense in Matt 22:32), and the difference between a singular and a plural noun (e.g., “descendant” in Gal 3:16). Let’s consider an example: In Matthew 22:30–32, the entire argument rests on a single word. The Sadducees were the liberal believers in Christ’s day—they did not believe in miracles, the resurrection, or even an afterlife. One day, they tested Christ on his belief in the resurrection. They concocted a scenario wherein a woman’s husband died and so she married his brother. The brother died and she married another brother. He died and she married another and so on until the seventh brother died. Then she died. Then, the Sadducees asked Christ, “At the resurrection, whose wife will she be?” “Basically, they argued that the idea of resurrection posed insuperable difficulties, hence it was not reasonable, therefore it was not true.”4 Consider Christ’s response:
Jesus answered them, “You are deceived, because you don’t know the scriptures or the power of God. For in the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. Now as for the resurrection of the dead, have you not read what was spoken to you by God, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’? He is not the God of the dead but of the living!”
Here, Christ’s argument rests on the tense of the word “am.” Essentially, Christ said, “Didn’t you notice that ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’ was written in the present tense?” Christ was saying that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are all still alive, and therefore, would one day be resurrected. This logic confronted the Sadducee’s lack of belief in the afterlife and the resurrection. Every word has been chosen by God, even down to the tense.
We also see this in how Paul handled Scripture. In Galatians 3:16, he said:
Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his descendant. Scripture does not say, “and to the descendants,” referring to many, but “and to your descendant,” referring to one, who is Christ.
When looking at God’s promises to Abraham and his descendant, Paul argues that the promises were not to the nation of Israel specifically, but to one descendant, Christ, and therefore, everybody in Christ (cf. Gal 3:29). He clarifies that the promises were to Abraham’s “descendant,” singular, and not “descendants,” plural. The argument rests on the singularity of a specific word God chose to use in Scripture.
The Bible is inspired and inerrant even down to the tense and plurality of the words. Every word is inspired by God and not just the ideas of Scripture. This gives credence to studying and meditating on each word of the Bible since we believe God chose them for a purpose. This is one of the reasons many Bible students study the original languages of Scripture. They do this because they are convinced of the validity of each word. Jesus said, “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matt 4:4).
Questions About Inerrancy?
1. Some Might Ask, “How Can The Bible Be Without Error If Mere Humans Wrote It? I Know God Made It But So Did Humans, And Humans Are Fallible.”
This statement is true; therefore, Scriptural inerrancy must be clearly recognized as a miracle. People are sinful and prone to error. However, God is perfect and cannot err. The Holy Spirit inspired the authors in such a way that he kept them from error in the writing of Scripture.
2. Some Might Ask, “What About Apparent Errors In Scripture Such As Scientific, Historical Or Grammatical Errors?” Here Are Some General Principles To Consider:
- The Bible can be inerrant and still speak in ordinary, everyday language.
For example, today people commonly use jargon like the sun rose (sunrise) or the sun went down (sunset). However, the sun technically never moves—the earth does. Though these are not scientifically accurate statements, they are culturally acceptable statements which are deemed truthful. Scripture uses similar statements. In Joshua 10:13-14, Scripture describes how the sun and moon stood still, as God enabled Israel to defeat an army. What really happened is God miraculously made the earth stand still. However, the narrator describes the event by how it appeared visually, just as people do today. Though not written in scientific language, it is still truthful language.
Likewise, the Bible also uses approximations. In today’s language, if one says his or her house is 5 miles away, but it is actually 4.5 miles away, the statement is not considered deceptive. The distance is understood and accepted as an approximation. If the person really lived 100 miles away, then the statement would be an exaggeration and thus considered a lie. Sometimes, approximations are used on the news when accounting for death and injury tolls after a major accident. Likewise, when we share with others about these tragedies, we, too, often use approximations. Our intent is to share the truth and the seriousness of a situation but not necessarily the precise numbers. The authors of Scripture frequently did that in their writings when counting people or deaths. For them, the focus was truthfulness and not necessarily exact precision.
- The Bible can be inerrant and still include loose or free quotations.
Ancient Greek did not have quotation marks. When quoting someone in the ancient world, it simply had to be an accurate representation of the content of what one said.5 It didn’t have to be word for word. Therefore, authors in Scripture routinely followed that same pattern in their translations. They would often paraphrase an Old Testament text. This is how we often share what someone else said today, especially when shared verbally. Our intent is to relay the truth, and not necessarily the exact words.
- The Bible can be inerrant and still contradict accepted historical or scientific beliefs.
It should be remembered that current scientific and historical beliefs often contradict previously held beliefs. Science and history are still evolving as more findings are discovered, but Scripture does not change. It is complete. Therefore, we can be assured that when all subsequent discoveries are revealed, Scripture will be proved correct. For this reason, Christians should not doubt Scripture’s accuracy because of scientific or historical theories, as compelling as they may be. God is the Creator of the world, and he established how the world runs (science); he also knows the beginning from the end and is in control of both (history). Therefore, we can trust what the Bible says in all areas of science and history.
3. Someone Might Ask, “If We Do Not Have The Original Manuscripts, Isn’t The Argument Of Inerrancy In The Original Manuscripts A Moot Argument?”
When we consider how the apostles and the early church viewed the copies of Scripture, their belief in the reliability and authority of the copies is clear. Therefore, we should trust them as well. Consider the following:
- In 2 Timothy 3:16, when Paul spoke about Scripture being God-inspired and useful for training in righteousness, he was using copies, not the originals. The early church was using copies just as we are now. The original texts were copied and passed from church to church. Yet, the early church believed those copies were inspired and authoritative.
- It is clear that the early church believed the copies were authoritative by their use of Old Testament quotations in the New Testament. The majority of the OT quotes in the NT were from the Septuagint, which was the Greek version of the Old Testament.6 Even though the original verses were in Hebrew, the writers of the NT still considered the Greek translation authoritative. Even Jesus quoted the Septuagint in his rendering of Isaiah 29:13, from Mark 7:6–7:
He said to them, “Isaiah prophesied correctly about you hypocrites, as it is written: ‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me. They worship me in vain, teaching as doctrine the commandments of men.’
Again, this is a quote from a translated copy, but it was still inspired by God. The apostles primarily quoted from Greek copies of the OT in the inspired New Testament. If Jesus and the apostles trusted the copies, then we can trust them as well.
Here is a contemporary argument. If I apply for a job, the company will most likely take a photocopy of my driver’s license and social security card to keep for its records. The company knows the copy is not perfect, it may have a smudge here or there, but in general, the copy is considered accurate and acceptable. This is how the early church handled the copies of Scripture, and so should we. God has preserved his words, and they are still authoritative.
As mentioned, when we compare the thousands of copies of Scripture, they are in 95 to 99% agreement.7 The errors are typically small copyist errors. When comparing a manuscript error with the content of thousands of other manuscripts, what was originally penned is typically clear. This is what we call textual criticism.
If there are errors in the Bible, they are errors in our understanding of the text, with the copy of the manuscript used, or with the translation. But the Bible itself cannot have errors because God is its author, and he cannot err. He has promised to preserve his Word.
What does all this mean for us?
1. Scripture’s Inerrancy Means We Can Trust What The Bible Says.
We should not doubt spectacular stories in Scripture, such as the universal flood, Moses parting the Red Sea, Jonah being swallowed by a big fish, the virgin birth, Christ’s sinless life, the resurrection, or prophecies about the end times. We can believe the Bible’s teaching about history, science, morality, wisdom, Christ, salvation, and the end times. Scripture holds the very words of God, and therefore, it is not only authoritative and powerful, it is also trustworthy.
2. Scripture’s Inerrancy Gives Us Insight Into How To Study God’s Word.
As mentioned, it is good to occasionally meditate on individual words—noting their tenses, meaning, position in a sentence, etc.—because each word was specifically chosen by God. Every part of Scripture (including each word) is God-inspired and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so God’s people can be equipped for every good work (2 Tim 3:16-17).
To the Sadducees, Jesus said, “Have you not read?” Yes, they had read Scripture, but they hadn’t studied and meditated on each word—and therefore missed the powerful truth of the resurrection, which would have changed their lives (cf. Matt 22:30–32). Many times, we miss a great deal in our study of the Bible as well. Therefore, we should study Scripture both telescopically (trying to understand the big picture) and microscopically (trying to understand details). Both approaches will greatly enrich our time in God’s Word.
- In the reading, what aspect of the Bible’s inerrancy stood out most to you and why?
- What is the difference between limited inerrancy and absolute inerrancy?
- What are some reasons to believe in the absolute inerrancy of Scripture?
- How should the absolute inerrancy of Scripture affect a person?
- What other questions or applications do you have from the reading?
Copyright © 2020 Gregory Brown
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1 Ryrie, C. C. (1999). Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth (p. 92). Chicago, IL: Moody Press.
2 Grudem, W. A. (2004). Systematic theology: an introduction to biblical doctrine (p. 90). Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House.
3 Ryrie, C. C. (1999). Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth (p. 93). Chicago, IL: Moody Press.
4 MacDonald, William. Believer’s Bible Commentary: Old and New Testaments. (A. Farstad, Ed.). Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995), 1287.
5 Grudem, W. A. (2004). Systematic theology: an introduction to biblical doctrine (p. 92). Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House.