“Inerrancy is the view that when all the facts become known, they will demonstrate that the Bible in its original autographs and correctly interpreted is entirely true and never false in all it affirms, whether that relates to doctrines or ethics or to the social, physical, or life sciences.” The conservative evangelical stance on inerrancy was most recently and thoroughly articulated in 1978 in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.
The Original Autographs
According to the Chicago Statement and in general agreement within the evangelical community at large, strict inerrancy applies only to the original autographs (i.e. the very first manuscripts written). This leads to the conclusion that, “no present manuscript or copy of Scripture, no matter how accurate, can be called inerrant.” Nonetheless, one should not worry, for when we understand the Reliability of the New Testament and the Reliability of the Old Testament, we may have confidence that our current Bibles are 98% accurate, and no major doctrine is affected by the manuscript variants. Likewise, the Bible has proved itself reliable through prophecy, historical events, archaeology, and in many other areas.
There are some from the past who believed that God perfectly preserved the autographs in the apographs (copies). Francis Turretin wrote in his Systematic Theology, “By ‘original texts’ we do not mean the very autographs from the hands of Moses, the prophets, and the apostles, which are known to be nonexistent. We mean copies (apographa), which have come in their name because they record for us that word of God in the same words into which the sacred writers committed it under the immediate inspiration of the Holy Spirit.”
Although we may have confidence in the Bible texts we have today (based on the inerrancy of the original), there remains the possibility of different interpretations. This should not be taken as a negative against the doctrine of inerrancy. An interpretation that contradicts what seems to be the clear sense of other Scripture does not necessarily imply that the text is in error. More than likely the interpretation is at fault, and not the text. A famous quote from Augustine says, “it is not allowable to say, ‘The author of this book is mistaken’; but either the manuscript is faulty, or the translation is wrong, or you have not understood.”
Inerrancy and Infallibility
Some scholars see infallibility as a less restrictive term than “inerrancy” in discussing the reliability of the Bible. For example, Davis suggests “The Bible is inerrant if and only if it makes no false or misleading statements on any topic whatsoever. The Bible is infallible if and only if it makes no false or misleading statements on any matter of faith and practice.” Thus Davis argues that infallibility does not necessitate a doctrine of inerrancy. In this sense, infallibility is seen as a nuanced and less-restrictive view of the Bible’s reliability.
However, others see it the other way around, i.e. infallibility is the stronger term and specifically implies inerrancy. In article XI, the Chicago Statement says, “We deny that it is possible for the Bible to be at the same time infallible and errant in its assertions. Infallibility and inerrancy may be distinguished, but not separated.” This then is contrary to Davis’ view above.
Further, in article XII, the Chicago statement says, “We deny that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science.”
Adding to the potential confusion is the layman’s tendency to use the terms interchangeably.
Covers all Disciplines of Knowledge
“This last point emphasizes the extent of inerrancy extends to all areas in which it speaks. The Bible makes no distinction between religious matters and non-religious matters. All matters are dealt with in an error-free way. This includes areas of history, science, and geography as well as theology.” The official exposition of “Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy” gives the following qualification:
“When total precision of a particular kind was not expected nor aimed at, it is no error not to have achieved it. Scripture is inerrant, not in the sense of being absolutely precise by modern standards, but in the sense of making good its claims and achieving that measure of focused truth at which its authors aimed.” B.B. Warfield wrote that an author in the Bible could
“share the ordinary opinions of his day in certain matters lying outside the scope of his teachings, as, for example, with reference to the form of the earth, or its relation to the sun; and, it is not inconceivable that the form of his language when incidentally adverting to such matters, might occasionally play into the hands of such a presumption.”
Inerrancy does not come without criticism. Most recently, New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman has written a popular-level book entitled Misquoting Jesus(HarperOne, 2005) where he asks the question, “how does it help us to say that the Bible is the inerrant word of God if, in fact, we don’t have the words that God inerrantly inspired, but only the words copied by the scribes – sometimes correctly but sometimes (many times!) incorrectly? What good is it to say that the autographs (i.e., the originals) were inspired? We don’t have the originals! We have only error-ridden copies, and the vast majority of these are centuries removed from the originals and different from them, evidently, in thousands of ways,” (p. 7).
Ehrman’s outcry is vastly overstated. Through the use of textual criticism scholars are able to find what the original text was with great accuracy, and thus, Christians have no reason to worry because we “don’t have the originals.” Ehrman appears skeptical of the many copies and the differences they contain, yet unfairly writes as though these differences were monumental so as to effect the very foundation of the Christian faith. Most of the differences in the manuscripts involve missing words, spelling errors, or other minor variants. When, for example, one text differs greatly from another two-hundred identical ones, it is obvious to scholars that more than likely it was a scribal addition and should be studied more critically. Those concerned in the inerrancy of the Bible should be asking “what differences are present in the manuscripts we have available?” and “are there so many differences that it is impossible to tell what was originally written (or recorded)?” Rather than becoming skeptics because of errant copies, those interested should invest time in the topic as it will become increasingly clear that the Bible being read today is entirely accurate and reliable.
Other critics of inerrancy dispute the doctrine because it seems to rest on Modernist theories about the objectivity of written texts,^^ and because the absolutism implied by the doctrine regarding the Bible’s veracity in areas of history and science seems false when rigorously examined. Critics and proponents of inerrancy are currently engaged in vigorous debate regarding the limitations of human language implied by postmodernism, and whether these limitations invalidate current formulations of the doctrine of inerrancy.