Can We Maintain Biblical Authority without Inerrancy?

The answer to the question of this post will depend greatly upon one's view of the Bible. For those who hold to the theoretical doctrine of biblical inerrancy -- that there is not nor cannot be one error in Scripture, no matter how seemingly insignificant the alleged error -- the answer is no, we cannot possess ultimate authority and inspiration without the doctrine of inerrancy. Others disagree. Some suggest that the Bible maintains its authority and inspiration from God even though there are, contained within its pages, alleged minor errors in certain places that do not negatively effect doctrine or the integrity of God's plan of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Still others appeal to the authority of the Bible while denying divine inspiration and inerrancy. I think we need to understand authority first.

If someone possesses authority then he or she is deemed authoritative by others and, hence, dictates and thus establishes boundaries and laws and instructions. Even a non-religious book can maintain authority in any given tradition. The 1979 Book of Common Prayer holds authority in The Episcopal Church as the proper administration for worship, prayer, and conferring the sacraments and other rites and ceremonies. The United Methodist Church has The Book of Discipline and The Book of Worship; the Presbyterian Church (USA) has The Book of Order and The Book of Confessions; and various Lutheran churches have The Book of Concord. Even Southern Baptists have The Baptist Faith and Message. All of these documents are authoritative in their respective traditions. None of them, however, are objectively and divinely inspired or inerrant. I will argue that Scripture possess authority from its ultimate Author but that, in spite of its divine authority, the collection of books and letters are not obliged to be considered inerrant thereby.

Some will argue, If we can insist that non-religious documents are authoritative in their respective traditions without being inerrant, then why can we not admit the same with regard to Scripture? So, in some sense, even those who deny inerrancy can insist that the Bible retains its authority over the body of believers. In such a case we have an example of the Bible being authoritative without being considered inerrant. The answer to the question of the post is yes. Authority merely refers to its place within a particular tradition and Scripture maintains authority in the lives of believers without being entirely inerrant. Others, namely inerrantists, argue that authority is derived from its inerrant Author.

For one who holds dogmatically to the doctrine of inerrancy, and finds any opposing concept as a threat or as overt heresy, he or she will argue against that opposition with unparalleled zeal. One's perspective of how the Bible is deemed "the Word of God," in a proper sense, will guide his or her views on this issue. I want to think further about the exact manner by which each respective author wrote what he wrote.1 If we deny automatic writing or dictation theory, as the majority of scholars rightly do -- that the Spirit of God mystically controlled the mind of each author so that he wrote exactly what He, the Spirit of God, desired to be transmitted in written form -- then how did each author record exactly what God desired to be conveyed? Some appeal to mystery. I think there is a better answer.

St Peter informs us that "men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God," and thus what we have passed down to us by them ought to be given strict attention. (2 Pet. 1:19, 20, 21) Contextually, this passage is not strictly a reference to Scripture, but to prophecy (telling forth a message inspired by the Holy Spirit through a human agent). We might infer that "the prophetic message" (NRSV, NCV, NIV, NLT; cf. "the prophetic word," NASB, ESV, HCSB, NET, NKJV) refers to Scripture, but that is our inference, and not one explicitly granted by the author himself. The "prophetic message" is "more fully confirmed" by the advent of Jesus and the witness of the disciples and others. In other words, the "prophetic message" is not "more fully confirmed" by the advent of the Bible, especially since New Testament letters were still being written during the apostle's ministry and life, and the collective "Bible," Old and New Testaments, do not exist for decades yet. This author's "Bible" is the Old Testament.

The apostle confesses that the prophets were "moved," φερόμενοι, by the Holy Spirit in their speech. This Greek present passive participle refers to being carried, borne along, conducted or led. (link) Still, this is a statement, not an explanation as to how or in what manner the prophets were "carried along" by the Spirit of God in their utterances. I think that if we could better understand the relationship of the Holy Spirit in the inspiration of the prophets then we could better understand the inspiration of the authors of Scripture as they communicate spiritual truths in written form. I think Jesus informs us of a proper answer.

The apostle Paul writes to the Corinthians, "Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering." (1 Cor. 11:14, 15 NRSV, emphasis added) That latter statement answers all the confusion about what the covering actually is from 1 Corinthians 14:5: the head-covering is a woman's long hair or feminine-fashion hairstyle (whatever that may include in one's culture and in one's era). He adds: "If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice -- nor do the churches of God." (1 Cor. 11:16 NIV, emphasis added) The apostle, I think, denotes the significance of tradition here: tradition that is era-specific, not necessarily an eternal command, but a first-century practice.

Some people, however, take these words and bind all Christians to this first-century context. Their thinking is as follows: "Scripture is inerrant, God spoke through these authors, and therefore we should obey every iota mentioned in the Bible." The problem with this manner of thinking ought to be obvious: even if the Holy Spirit somehow directly caused the apostle to write these words, that still does not infer that we in the twenty-first century are supposed to follow what is written here, but must consider the historical context. Otherwise, why do most disobey the same apostle's command to greet one another with a holy kiss (Rom. 16:16; 1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12; cf. 1 Pet. 5:14)? Why do we all not pray with uplifted hands? (1 Tim. 2:8) We must not confuse inerrancy and hermeneutics (the science and art of interpretation). That the apostle penned these words is one notion; how we interpret these words is quite another. The Spirit attests to the nature of the author: the Holy Spirit, as the Spirit of truth (John 16:13), transmits in truth what the author intends to convey. Indeed, Dr. Craig Blomberg confesses:
"Inerrancy" can be [and often is] wielded as a blunt tool to hammer into submission people whose interpretations of passages differ from ours [which is a dishonest and manipulative interpretive method], when in fact the real issue is not whether a passage is true or not but what kind of truth it teaches. [He uses the issue of science and scientific claims rendered in Scripture as an example.] ... Once again, this [the dating of the earth and other matters related to Genesis 1] is a matter for hermeneutical and exegetical debate, not one that is solved by appealing to the shibboleth of inerrancy.2
Let us consider the doctrine of inerrancy while viewing the following passages. God told Abraham that His people would be oppressed for four hundred years (Gen. 15:13). From an inerrancy position, the Spirit of God oversaw the author to the writing of the words "four hundred years"; and then, from allegedly the same author inspired by the same Spirit, we read the following: "At the end of four hundred thirty years, on that very day, all the companies of the Lord went out from the land of Egypt." (Ex. 12:41, emphasis added) We can discuss and debate the usage of time in ancient cultures, etc., and I think we are right to do so. Four hundred years could have been used as a round figure and not the exact number of years involved with regard to the Israelites in Egypt. What I am more concerned with, corresponding to the doctrine of inerrancy however, is the actual words considered inspired by the Spirit. Why would the Holy Spirit inspire the same author, allegedly, to convey two opposing time-frames of reference for the same event? Remember, we are considering the words, since the doctrine of inerrancy regards the actual words.

Perhaps the answer lies in the fact that the Bible is also a human document. Each respective author is allowed to use his own perspective and personality when conveying what is found in the Bible. When St Luke records this event, the time reference is the original four hundred years, as noted at Genesis 15:13 and recorded at Acts 7:6. Yet, when St Paul references this same event (though with relevance to the giving of the Law), he notes the four hundred thirty years as recorded at Exodus 12:41 as recorded at Galatians 3:17. What are we to conclude with respect to inerrancy and the actual words as inspired?

Some suggest that the oppression the Israelites received in Egypt lasted four hundred years but that they actually spent four hundred thirty years in Egypt. Yet, Luke's reference is not merely oppressed-contextual, but also time spent in Egypt: four hundred years (Acts 7:6). Given the manner in which Jewish people view time, not in exact measure but often in rounded figures, then the answer becomes obvious. What is not obvious, however, is why the Spirit of God, allegedly, inspired both sets of time references. David Wright, from Answers in Genesis, unfairly, and quite threateningly, insists that for one to ask the question about this faux pas is to admit that one truly does not believe Scripture at all:
Once again, this type of question actually reveals a very important, yet subtle way of thinking. It reveals how one approaches Scripture. If I am to come to Scripture and read a passage and ask, "Is that wrong?" I am revealing that I do not truly believe Scripture is without error. The proper approach, since it is God's infallible Word, is to ask, "Since this cannot be in error, how is my understanding in error?" (link) (emphases added)
David Wright's presuppositional framework grants warrant to belief in the inerrancy of any document. Just manipulate your audience into fearing disloyalty to objective and divine truth and you win your case. To me, this deductive method3 appears a less constructive approach to assessing the reliability or inerrancy of Scripture, especially its problem areas -- and even inerrantists admit that the Bible still has its problem areas,4 as also confirmed by pastor Adam Hamilton, who rejects inerrancy, when critiquing the signers of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.5 If I want to defend the inspiration of the Apocrypha, for instance, I can actually use the inductive method (see footnote 2) and the deductive method to prove my case: the deductive method would actually be easier to the proving of the divinity and, hence, inerrancy of the Apocrypha. Inerrantists, however, would not appreciate that method.


If I assume as an a priori that God's Spirit is the primary Author of the Apocrypha, and God cannot err, then all I have to do when confronted with a discrepancy is find a viable or plausible answer for a solution to the problem. Thus when Judith names Nebuchadnezzar as king of the Assyrians (Judith 1:1, 7), knowing that he was actually the king of Babylon (2 Kings 24:1), I could merely suggest that she is using the name Nebuchadnezzar in a spiritual or allegorical sense of the present king, as the name Jezebel is used in the Revelation (Rev. 2:20), but is not referring to the Old Testament woman. Problem solved! The Apocrypha is inspired of God and inerrant. This naïve hermeneutic is rife among evangelicals.

As a matter of fact, any religious individual from any other religious tradition could make the exact same insistence as Wright (and others) about their so-called holy books or writings and win the argument. If we cannot ask honest questions about apparent errors in Scripture -- but must blindly adopt an a priori notion of inerrancy -- then either the Bible cannot be trusted (a position I reject) or those defending the inerrancy of the Bible are unwittingly inept in their defense (I prefer this option). I do not care if the Israelites were in Egypt for four hundred years or four hundred thirty years. What I do care about is how we are to reconcile such errors, or discrepancies, with the so-called doctrine of biblical inerrancy. I believe there are plausible answers but I doubt the answer lies in the doctrine of inerrancy.

Still, I do not think that alleged errors or discrepancies in minor details necessarily deprives the Bible of its spiritual authority over our lives, or cannot be considered inspired. But I also view as incorrect the confusing and conflating authority, inspiration, or inerrancy with proper hermeneutics and the resultant interpretation. Certainly, the apostle Paul imagined his letters to the churches as authoritative,6 and he defended his own authority as an apostle. (2 Cor. 3:1-6) But was the apostle himself inerrant? Was every thought in his head, or every perspective he maintained, inspired of God and inerrant? No. I do not believe that for one moment. Nor were the apostles infallible. At best what we can claim as a viable belief is that the words they wrote are what they intended to write and the Spirit of God made certain that we received those words as originally intended. This is how I perceive biblical inspiration.

Referring to "the Holy Scriptures" (2 Tim. 3:15), which for the apostle Paul are the Old Testament writings from the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible), he communicates the following to young pastor Timothy: "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness" (2 Tim. 3:16 NIV). The English hyphenated "God-breathed" translates the Pauline-coined θεόπνευστος, often translated as "inspired," and refers to God's breath, God's Spirit (lit., God-Spirited), or God's wind. How much of the Holy Scriptures are "breathed out by God" (2 Tim. 3:16 ESV)? The apostle insists "all," πᾶσα, each and every kind of the whole.

Translators and textual critics challenge each other as to the proper interpretation of the beginning of this passage: e.g., "All Scripture is God-breathed" vs. "Every Scripture that is God-breathed." The difference may seem subtle but is actually paramount. The former suggests that every single word is God-breathed. The latter notion suggests that whatever can be named as Scripture within the monolithic "Bible" is God-breathed, which leads one to ask whether or not all that is contained in the Bible is actually God-breathed. If so, which Bible, the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Protestant Bible -- each contain varying numbers of books? That is another subject for another post.

Suffice to admit, many conservative evangelicals, notably Southern Baptists, assume the Pauline-coined word θεόπνευστος is to be inferred to suggest and to be interpreted as "inerrant," that "God-breathed" is tantamount to the doctrine of inerrancy. Looking to the early Church fathers, however, we witness some of them using this exact same word to identify the nature of some of their own sermons and letters. I wonder, then, if the word is primarily intended to mean "inerrant" in a purely objective Godward sense without insisting the strict notion of "divine, completely without error." Textual scholar F.F. Bruce notes:
Clement of Rome acknowledges that Paul wrote "with true inspiration." But he makes similar claims for his own letter. "You will give us joy and gladness," he tells the Corinthians as he draws to a conclusion, "if you are obedient to the things which we have written through the Holy Spirit [a typical phrase referring to the derivation of what is written or spoken]." He is far from putting himself on a level with "the blessed Paul the apostle," but he and Paul had received the same Spirit. [cf. 1 Cor. 7:40] The high authority which he recognizes in Paul is his apostolic authority.7
Bruce writes in a footnote that Clement "describes the contents of his letter as 'words spoken by Christ through us.'" If Christ is speaking through Clement, as Christ communicates through the Spirit to the apostle Paul, then I fail to understand the difference between one man's θεόπνευστος (divinely inspired) writing and that of any other. Bruce continues: "The freedom with which the idea of inspiration was used by some of the church fathers is well illustrated by a letter from Augustine to Jerome, in which Jerome's biblical interpretation is said to be carried through 'not only by the gift but at the dictation of the Holy Spirit.'"8 (emphasis added) We can make a similar argument for those claiming prophetic gifts operative today. If the Holy Spirit speaks through men and women today in a truly, biblically-prophetic sense, then their utterances are every bit as θεόπνευστος (divinely inspired) as the writings contained in Scripture. The same exact source -- the Holy Spirit -- is said to be operative in both instances.

Since this unique word is used nowhere else in the Greek New Testament (nor the Septuagint), we are left with the compound rendering of "God" and "breathed," or "God" and "Spirited," and are supposed to understand exactly what the apostle is conveying. That Scripture is of divine origin in a primary sense seems a given. Obviously Scripture is profitable for teaching divine truths, correcting theological and practical (moral, ethical) errors, and training one spiritually in righteous living. By means of such the child of God is adequately equipped for every good work in Christ Jesus. (2 Tim. 3:16, 17) But if we suggest that the alleged errors belong to the frail, human authors, while truth statements belong to God through the Holy Spirit, then there remain parts of Scripture that are not of divine origin, and we are left to decipher which parts belong to which category. I am comfortable with that conclusion (cf. Ps. 137:9).

Jesus insists that the Spirit of God would bring back to the remembrance of the disciples His teachings. (John 14:26) In this manner, the Holy Spirit can aid the authors of Scripture to deliver unto us a true account of the events and words of Christ, and perhaps theological and social justice truths as well. The Holy Spirit can inspire the mind and thought-processes of each author, giving him, thought by thought, what words the author should express through his own respective personality trait. A thought-by-thought process is, after all, how we communicate: subject matters, ideas, and thoughts are expressed in words. Our only remaining question is: Why the seeming inconsistencies and errors in Scripture?

That inconsistencies and errors exist should attest to the integrity and reliability of the various authors, not cajole our suspicion, or lack of faith. At least the authors are not conspiratorial, attempting to cover-up so-called blunders, but let them appear in the texts. That, certainly, counts in their favor! But we must also be careful what we consider an error. A difficulty is not an error. A textual variant is not an error. A copyist mistake is not indicative of an error in the original manuscripts. Also, human perspectives expressed in Scripture do not always indicate God's perspective. God's ways are not our ways.

I believe that what many of the authors of Scripture wrote is true from their perspective, and that every perspective held does not belong directly to God. Let us take for example Psalm 137:8-9: "Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us. Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks." (NIV) Whose perspective is this -- God's, through the Holy Spirit inspiring these words, or the Israelites? I maintain little doubt that most of the Israelites felt this way. They were treated harshly by the Babylonians, yet at the behest of God, who judged Israel for her sins. I maintain great doubt, however, that this sentiment was inspired by the Holy Spirit, that God wished to dash infants against a rock. I think this passage is inspired as far as the feelings themselves are true -- that the Israelites truly actually did feel this way. I do not, however, think that these expressed the feelings or views of God. These sentiments can be true in an inspired framework without insisting that these sentiments are God's perspective and God-inspired.

St Paul himself claims once not to have direct revelation but to be giving his opinion about a believing spouse being married to an unbelieving spouse. (1 Cor. 7:12) Two verses prior he confesses to be quoting directly from the Lord. (1 Cor. 7:10) He has confidence, no doubt, that the Spirit of God is active within him just like everyone else. But he uses this as an argument to support his opinion on a matter: "In my judgment, she is happier if she stays as she is -- and I think that I too have the Spirit of God." (1 Cor. 7:40, emphasis added) Why the caveats: "I, not the Lord" (1 Cor. 7:12), and "In my judgment" (1 Cor. 7:40)? I think he is suggesting that he knows of no direct command from Jesus on such issues, but that what he is proposing is what he feels prompted by the Spirit of God to command, and that is why he appeals to possessing the indwelling Holy Spirit. But he does concede that his statement is an opinion.

Since there are discrepancies in Scripture -- even translational copyist errors that do not effect significant doctrine -- then how can it be authoritative? Again, a discrepancy is not an error, strictly taken. Viewing again the four hundred years and the four hundred thirty years of the Israelites in Egypt: I believe that the Israelites were oppressed in Egypt and that God miraculously delivered them out of Egypt. Whether the time reference was four hundred years or four hundred thirty years is actually irrelevant. The four hundred years was a round figure, while the four hundred thirty years was an exact time reference.

Egypt is a type of the fallen world; Israel a type of the redeemed of God; and the deliverance from Egypt a type of salvation by grace through faith in Christ. Details such as the difference between thirty years, and the Jewish use of round figures, do not effect the spiritual reality that the events reveal. Therefore the Bible may retain its divine authority over our lives, and can even be considered of divine origin and inspired of God, without insisting that all of Scripture is error-free when we know of overt errors. As to the theory of inerrancy, especially regarding the actual words purported to be directly inspired of God, we have a plethora of examples like the one mentioned above that clearly demonstrates the error of inerrancy.

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1 Yet, we realize that we cannot know the exact method the Holy Spirit used with the authors, or that there was one over-arching method by which He inspired those authors. David Dockery argues: "These men of God had known God, learned from Him, and walked with Him in their spiritual pilgrimage for many years. God had prepared them through their familial, social, educational, and spiritual backgrounds for the task of inscripturating His word ... Beyond this, we dare not say much regarding the how of inspiration, except to affirm God's providential oversight in the entire process of inspiration. We think it quite plausible to suggest that just as revelation came in various ways (Heb. 1:1-2), so the process of inspiration differed with each author." David S. Dockery, Christian Scripture: An Evangelical Perspective on Inspiration, Authority, and Interpretation (Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2004), 43-44. Note, too, that many believers distinguish between "inspiration" and the theory of biblical inerrancy.

2 Craig L. Blomberg, Can We Still Believe the Bible: An Evangelical Engagement with Contemporary Questions (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2014), 125-26.

3 Dr. Craig Blomberg explains: "The inductive approach begins with the phenomena of the Bible itself, defines what would count as an error, analyzes Scripture carefully from beginning to end, and determines that nothing has been discovered that would qualify as errant. The deductive approach begins with the conviction that God is the author of Scripture, proceeds to the premise that by definition God cannot err, and therefore concludes that God's Word must be without error." Yet, even in the deductive approach, there exists two other methods: "The evidentialist classically argues that there are good philosophical arguments for the existence of God and good historical arguments that Jesus was divine." Jesus believed Scripture was "a fully reliable, authoritative, God-given" instrument. If "one professes to follow Jesus as one's divine master, then, one will acknowledge the Scriptures as reliable." However, the "presuppositionalist approach believes that one or more of the foundational premises in the evidentialist's argumentation must simply be posited [assumed] rather than defended." (121-23)

[4 Dr. Blomberg writes: "In fact, there are no problems in Scripture anywhere that have not yielded at least plausible solutions. The problem is that some solutions [to the problem areas in the Bible] seem more probable than others, and past problems have been solved by further scholarship and discoveries, so there is no reason not to imagine that still better answers to a handful of problems may yet emerge in the future." (123-24) So, problem areas still exist. The optimism of the inerrantist is promising, and hopeful, but is it objectively and confidently guaranteed?

5 Hamilton writes: "The second reason I don't accept the doctrine of inerrancy is that the Bible, as we have it, is easily demonstrated to contain errors and inconsistencies. The writers of the Chicago Statement and most informed inerrantists are aware that there are many places where the plain meaning of the biblical text is inconsistent with what we know from modern science, archaeology, or history [we must not confuse or conflate hermeneutics and interpretation with inerrancy]. They understand that there are inconsistencies within differing accounts of the same story. They acknowledge that there are some teachings in scripture that are no longer binding today, and they typically note that these teachings were shaped by the culture or times in which the scripture was written." Adam Hamilton, Making Sense of the Bible: Rediscovering the Power of Scripture Today (New York: HarperOne, 2014), 160.

6 See Michael J. Kruger, The Question of Canon: Challenging the Status Quo in the New Testament Debate (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2013), 119-30.

7 F.F. Bruce, The Canon of Scripture (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1988), 266.

[8] Ibid.

ABOUT WILLIAM BIRCH

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My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.