By Dr. Christopher Plumberg
What do we not mean by inerrancy?
Last time, we looked at what we as Christians mean when we speak of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, and we talked about why we actually believe it. However, we must be careful not overstate this doctrine by making it say more than it actually does, since this can negatively impact our ability to defend the doctrine itself. To clarify what we actually believe about inerrancy, in this post, I want to mention three things that inerrancy does not mean:
- Inerrancy does not mean that we always read the Bible literally. Rather, it means that we believe the figurative passages are figuratively true, and the literal passages are literally true. The question then becomes, which passages should be read figuratively vs. literally? This is not an easy question, and has to be decided on a case-by-case basis, often by looking at the original Greek or Hebrew texts. The important point here is, inerrancy does not automatically imply a literal reading.
- Inerrancy does not mean that every quotation is word-for-word. Today, we place a high premium on getting quotations exactly right: we expect word-for-word accuracy, simply because we can always record exactly what someone originally said for later reference. However, readers and writers in the ancient world generally understood that “quotations” were not word-for-word, but rather thought-for-thought. Although the words that Biblical authors chose to represent their quotations are themselves inspired by God, and therefore give an accurate picture of what was originally said, they are not intended to convey word-for-word representations of the original quotations themselves.
- Inerrancy does not mean that modern-day translations are free from mistakes. Strictly speaking, inerrancy applies only to the original versions of the books in the Bible. Unfortunately, none of these original versions exists today; instead, we have copies (of copies of copies) of the original versions that we use for translation purposes. The catch is, a lot of copying leads inevitably to some mistakes (usually spelling errors or misplaced words), and these errors can affect our English translations in small ways. Fortunately, none of these errors substantially alter the content of Scripture, allowing scholars to essentially reconstruct the original versions in their entirety; in the vast majority of cases, our translations are completely trustworthy. That being said, even though these translations are extremely good, they still contain some small mistakes from time to time, and we should keep this in mind when we are discussing the inerrancy of Scripture.
The inerrancy of Scripture is part of the foundation of the Christian worldview, since, as we mentioned before, it is only if the Bible is completely true and reliable that we can trust it to lead us to a right relationship with God. And as we grow in articulating the inerrancy of Scripture more precisely, we will strengthen both our confidence in God’s word and our ability to defend it before our friends, family, and coworkers.