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Inerrancy: What exactly do we mean?

© Don McLellan, 2009
“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just
what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.”1
It is now three decades since Harold Lindsell wrote his epochal book The Battle for
the Bible. In 1976, Lindsell believed that the attacks on the historical reliability of the
Bible were beginning to bite, because some evangelical Christians were beginning to
express doubts. This caused him alarm, because he firmly believed that the rise of
liberalism in Europe, with its corresponding decline in church attendance and all-
round spiritual deadness, was a direct result of disbelieving the Bible. Two years later
a conference in Chicago was called and attended by some of the most prominent
names on the roster of evangelical biblical scholars. In a mere four days a large
document was produced, the Chicago Declaration on Biblical Inerrancy, and it was
duly signed by a strong contingent of evangelical luminaries. Henceforth it would be
very difficult for a scholar to claim to be evangelical if he or she did not affirm biblical
In the years since, it seems that inerrancy has been turned into a shibboleth that almost
anyone can pronounce. Many who declare their commitment to inerrancy seem to
have no idea what they mean by it. Others use the word without clear definition.
Worse, some use it who do not mean it. They say they believe in it, but then their
provisos empty it of meaning. In the following discussion I will show how rubbery its
meaning has become, and suggest that for both clarity and honesty it may be better not
to use the word at all. In its place I suggest we use the phrase “truthful and reliable.”
Millard Erickson defines inerrancy thus:
The Bible, when correctly interpreted in light of the level to which culture and means
of communication had developed at the time it was written, and in view of the purposes
for which it was given, is fully truthful in all that it affirms.2
This invites the corollary that the Bible is not necessarily inerrant where it does not
affirm something relative to its purpose. But is not this an escape from the core of the
concept? For example, does the Bible affirm that the universe was created in six earth
days, or does it not? Anyone who declares a commitment to inerrancy must answer
this question. If we answer “yes,” then we must find ways of proving that the earth is
no more than 10,000 years old. Some try, but I am among the many who find their
efforts unconvincing. But if we answer “no,” it seems we must turn Gen 1 into
allegory or parable or some other genre (though heaven forbid that we should call it
“myth”). So we come up with all sorts of theories about what is meant by “day,”
whether it means aeons or periods, or whether the days are merely a poetic device, or
something else. Frankly I become frustrated with this kind of discussion, because in
my view those earnest souls who engage in it frequently miss the point of what the

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass. London: The Folio Society, 1962, p. 75.
Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, Second Edition. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1998, p. 259.
Bible seems to be telling us here, or they end up with a worldview that does not square
with cosmological reality.
Erickson’s definition is broad, but its application only to what the Bible affirms opens
up too many possibilities and therefore hazes the meaning. But the problem is not
lessened if we try to narrow it down. Paul Feinberg’s definition of inerrancy is much
more specific, narrow and rigid:
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 doctrine or ethics or to the social, physical,
or life sciences.3
Feinberg then goes on to admit that inerrancy is “not presently demonstrable,” that the
Bible does not apply the term to itself, and that “no present manuscript or copy of
Scripture, no matter how accurate, can be called inerrant.”4 These are not minor
admissions. They demonstrate that, when all is said and done, “inerrancy” as Feinberg
describes it is not a particularly meaningful term. His definition begs a number of
rather obvious questions:
1. If inerrancy will only be proven when “all the facts become known,” how long
should we wait? Are we allowed to have any doubts in the meantime?
2. If we are dependant on the original autographs for an inerrant Bible, can we ever
have an inerrant Bible? Keep in mind that the first printed Bible did not appear until
1452. The oldest complete codices date from around the 5th century. Manuscripts older
than that are often just fragments, and who knows how many copies of copies of
copies preceded them? Anyone who has ever tried to hand copy a document will baulk
at the idea of trusting copyists to be inerrant.
3. If we require the Bible to be correctly interpreted to be inerrant, are we not putting a
huge amount of trust in fallible human beings? Are we not suggesting that interpreters
can be inerrant? Who is to say which interpretation is correct? There are cultic
interpretations that we all agree are misleading and wrong, but can we guarantee the
accuracy of any interpretation? Do we not immediately corrupt the whole idea of
inerrancy if we say it relies on correct interpretation? Are we not submitting an
objective concept, inerrancy, to an extremely subjective proviso, interpretation?
4. And we may pose the same question that we posed of Erickson: What does the
Bible really affirm?
Feinberg’s definition leaves the meaning of inerrancy very elusive; so elusive, I
suggest, that it becomes self-defeating. Geoffrey Bromiley asserts that it is “sheer
unreason to say that eternal truth is revealed in and through that which is erroneous.”5
Yet Feinberg, in a definition that places him clearly in the most rigid of inerrantist
camps, seems to be saying that exactly what is inerrant is beyond reach. Nevertheless,
one must believe in this inaccessible inerrancy in order to be sure one has the truth.
Feinberg’s definition coupled with Bromiley’s maxim would leave us with serious
doubts about whether eternal truths have indeed been revealed.
Paul Feinberg: “Bible, Inerrancy and Infallibility of,” in Elwell (ed.) Baker Theological Dictionary of
the Bible. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1996, pp. 141-145.
Feinberg, p. 142.
Geoffrey Bromiley, “The authority of Scripture,” in Guthrie, D., and Motyer, J. A., (eds) The New
Bible Commentary Revised. London: Inter-Varsity Press, 1970, p. 10.

A whole range of schools of thought has developed within the inerrancy camp, which
indicates the problems associated with defending the idea. Erickson sets out four
positions held by people who use the word “inerrancy” to describe their beliefs.6

Absolute inerrancy
This is the name Erickson (p. 248) gives to the position of Harold Lindsell, who wrote
The Battle for the Bible.7 Lindsell and his supporters contend that the Bible cannot be
both trustworthy and contain errors. Such a position requires a good deal of effort to
be given to the task of explaining biblical discrepancies, even rather meaningless ones.
The whole of Chapter 9 of Battle is dedicated to showing how evangelical scholars
who embraced what some called “limited inerrancy” (see below) were wrong: Lindsell
argued that the discrepancies to which those scholars drew attention were all easily
However in refuting the “limited inerrancy” position of Robert H. Mounce, Lindsell
appears to disregard everything that has been determined through source, form, and
redaction criticism of the Synoptic Gospels. Admittedly some evangelical scholars
continue to do this, but few serious evangelical scholars ignore synoptic theory today.
We might grumble at the theological positions of Bultmann and Dibelius, but to throw
out everything they say seems too much like throwing out the baby with the bathwater.
Most of us accept some form of the Q-Mark hypothesis as the best explanation of the
Synoptic phenomenon.8
In another example, Lindsell simply harmonises away differences in wording of the
same pericope in Matt 22:42 and Luke 20:41, by claiming that Jesus used the words in
Matthew in one breath, then the words in Luke in the next (p. 164). Such a view of
inerrancy is so rigid that those who hold to it must explain anything that seems even
slightly inconsistent, thus cluttering up their commentaries with material that often
seems quite irrelevant to what the passage is intended to convey, and sometimes
harmonising parallel texts in a way that may obscure or even destroy what the biblical
writer is seeking to communicate in each location. I personally do not think a
commitment to the truthfulness and reliability of the Bible requires such an exercise,
but Lindsell was unwilling to allow the slightest question to remain.
Another example from Lindsell: 2 Chron 4:2 intimates that the circumference of the
molten sea in Solomon’s temple was three times its diameter. Mounce had dared to
suggest that this is a slight “error,” because a circle’s circumference is more than three
times its diameter. The numerical value of π (the ratio of the circumference to the
diameter of any circle, 3.14159) has only been determined accurately in relatively
recent times, but in biblical times the value of π was understood as roughly three. But
Lindsell (pp. 165-166) insists that 2 Chron 4:2 is absolutely correct, by stating that the
“ten cubits from brim to brim” refers to the measurement taken from the inside of the
brim, which by his calculation would be exactly ten cubits if the external
circumference was thirty cubits and the brim was a “span” in width. But this demands
that we ask, does inerrancy not even allow the biblical authors to make

Erickson, pp. 248-250.
Harold Lindsell, The Battle for the Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976.
See eg. Robert Stein, Studying the Synoptic Gospels: Origin and Interpretation. Grand Rapids: Baker
Academic, 2001.

approximations? After all, they were not writing rocket science, and 30 cubits is just
31.4159 rounded down.
It is noteworthy that Lindsell sets aside only one chapter to discuss questions to which
the inerrancy doctrine gives rise, and even then only responds to people who want to
define inerrancy less absolutely than he does. Lindsell simply overlooks some of the
more glaring examples of apparent inconsistency, such as the conflicting accounts of
the death of Judas Iscariot (Matt 27:3-10 c.f. Acts 1:18-19). These texts are ones to
which the defenders of absolute inerrancy are necessarily drawn because at first glance
they are so obviously contradictory, and we could list here example after example of
attempts to supply an interpretation of one text that will make it consistent with the
other. But Lindsell does not even touch on these.

Full inerrancy
“Full inerrancy” proposes that biblical inferences concerning matters which, today,
would come under the rubric of science and history, should be read in the context of
the mindset of the period in which they were written. That is, the biblical writers
recorded their perceptions of events truthfully and accurately, according to their
parameters of understanding (such as their probably inadequate cosmology – e.g. Josh
10:13, Eccles 1:5). The theological principles which arise from their perceptions are
nevertheless valid. For example, the truth that God is creator is not diminished in any
way by the idea that the ancients’ understanding of the cosmos is quite different to
how we perceive it today. Lindsell rejected this standard, warning that the meaning of
inerrancy loses all value if it is qualified in any way. This is precisely my point, which
is why I think we should use a different expression, as I will explain later.

Limited inerrancy
This is the name given to the viewpoint of Daniel Fuller, who suggested it to describe
the position of Benjamin Warfield.9 The limitations are applied to scientific and
historical references within the Bible, on the ground that the peoples of the times did
not have either the knowledge or the methodologies that could give them the picture
we have today.10
The term “limited inerrancy” is sometimes employed by moderate evangelical
theologians, but the term is surely an oxymoron. “Inerrant” means “without error.”
The moment the qualifier “limited” is applied, it no longer means “without error.” Use
of the term “limited inerrancy” appears to be an attempt by evangelical moderates to
create a hologram of a cake that has already been eaten in an effort to appease a
fundamentalist constituency. One either believes in inerrancy or does not, and any
qualifier will only show that up. As “limited inerrancy” is an oxymoron, so “absolute
inerrancy” is a tautology. Obsessed though I think he was, Lindsell was at least right
in making that assessment of scholars lacking the courage of their convictions.

Inerrancy of purpose
“Inerrancy of purpose” suggests that the Bible inerrantly accomplishes its purpose,
that of bringing people into personal fellowship with Christ, rather than to inform them

Lindsell p. 113; Feinberg p. 142.
Erickson, p. 248.

of propositional truth.11 This is a peculiar position if ever there was one. Quite apart
from the question of the relationship between pragmatism and truth (does the fact that
it “accomplishes its purpose” make it true?) it is obvious that it does not always
“accomplish its purpose.” The proponents of this view do not explain the fact that so
many who read the Bible do not come into fellowship with Christ. They do not explain
how it is that if the Bible is inerrant of purpose, some extreme cults use it as their
“inspired text,” sometimes with tragic results. And they do not mention that some of
the most scholarly readers of the Bible, taking their lead from William Wrede, think
that Jesus never claimed to be the Christ – the “Messianic secret” theory.

Vatican II inerrancy
The Second Vatican Council has yet another view which is worth considering. Vatican
II spent considerable time and produced five drafts on the question of inerrancy.12 The
first draft, which Don Carson claims reflected the longstanding tradition of the
Church, stated,
Since divine inspiration extends to all things [in the Bible], it follows directly and
necessarily that the entire Sacred Scripture is absolutely immune from error. By the
ancient and constant faith of the Church we are taught that it is absolutely wrong to
concede that a sacred writer has erred, since divine inspiration by its very nature
excludes and rejects every error in every field, religious or profane. This necessarily
follows because God, the supreme truth, can be the author of no error whatever.
This statement would not look out of place in Lindsell’s Battle for the Bible. However
according to Carson, after much discussion and four more drafts, the following was
adopted by the Council.
Since everything which the inspired author or sacred writer asserted must be held to
have been asserted by the Holy Spirit, it must equally be held that the books of
Scripture teach firmly, faithfully, and without error that truth which God willed to be
put down in the sacred writings for the sake of our salvation.
There is similarity between this position and that of “inerrancy of purpose,” in that
what the Scripture teaches “without error” is “for the sake of our salvation.” However,
as Carson has pointed out, practically anyone can assent to this formulation. 13 It has
the appearance of being an effort to keep inerrancy as a dogma without forcing the
hand of any scholar who finds it uncomfortable or limiting.
Of the main schools of thought listed here therefore, it may well be argued that
anything less than absolute inerrancy is not inerrancy at all. If evangelicals are going
to use the word, they should only use it if they fully agree with Lindsell – but not
many do. For this reason, it is surely time to stop bowing to the strident voices who
have declared “inerrancy” to be the shibboleth of evangelicalism, and to admit the
truth about the term. Sheer timidity has produced a stream of modifications to the
point where “inerrancy” has become virtually meaningless. Fearful of repudiating the
word, different groups have chosen to redefine it to suit them. In doing so, they have
left the word without any credible meaning at all. It is time therefore to find a different

Erickson, p. 249.
D. A. Carson: “Recent Developments in the Doctrine of Scripture,” in Carson and Woodbridge (eds):
Hermeneutics, Authority and Canon. Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1986, p. 8.
Carson, p. 9.

The alternative word sometimes used in evangelical credal statements is “infallible.”
Both “inerrant” and “infallible” contain inbuilt negations, i.e. they are telling us what
the Bible is not, rather than what it is. Describing anything in terms of what it is not is
problematic: defining an elephant as “not a cat” is quite unhelpful. In the case of
infallibility, the negation is somewhat less troubling. But what exactly do we mean by
Under the heading, “Inerrancy a Watershed,” Harold Lindsell writes,
The battle that rages over the Bible today centers around the question of infallibility –
whether the Bible is fully or partially trustworthy. I am of the opinion that this is a
watershed issue and must be seen as such.14
Note that Lindsell has used the words “inerrancy” and “infallibility” as complete
synonyms; and throughout Battle one is equated with the other. However, there are
evangelical scholars today who are not comfortable with that equation.15 Feinberg has
a brief discussion of the two terms in which he notes that Catholic theology attributes
infallibility to the Magisterium and inerrancy to the Scriptures.16 However, Feinberg
then opts to regard the two words as “virtually synonymous.” He quotes, but passes
over without debate, Stephen Davis’ definition of infallibility, which states simply that
“The Bible makes no false or misleading statements about matters of faith and
When evangelicals equate inerrancy with infallibility, they appear to overlook the
historical origin of the doctrine of infallibility. During the Reformation the Protestants
repudiated the authority of the Pope. The Counter-reformation responded by insisting
that the Pope’s rulings on matters of faith and practice are infallible, a position
eventually formalised at the first Vatican Council in 1869-70. There the notion of
infallibility was assigned to the Pope whenever he makes a pronouncement ex
cathedrâ.17 In response to this, Protestants declared their Bible to be “infallible” and to
hold “supreme authority in all matters pertaining to faith and practice.” This shifted
the point of authority from the Popes, who the reformers believed were prone to
apostasy and error, to the documents which, in their minds, best reflected what the
apostles believed and taught. The apostolic authority of the Reformation churches
could thus be argued and at the same time maintained, by regarding the Bible as the
ultimate and infallible authority.
Infallibility therefore was not intended to describe the content of the Bible. Rather it
was the Protestant antidote to papal infallibility: the doctrines of the church must arise
from the Bible, which alone is able to deliver the true essence of Christianity. This is a
notably different concept to inerrancy, which forces its adherents to defend the Bible
against allegations of inconsistency, discrepancies, and errors of fact. It is thus a more

Lindsell, p. 23.
E.g. Peter Jensen, The Revelation of God. Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 2002, p. 197.
Feinberg, p. 142.
The Vatican Council explained it thus: “Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex cathedrâ, that is to say,
when in the exercise of his office of pastor and teacher of all Christians he, in virtue of his supreme
Apostolic authority, defines that a doctrine on faith or morals is to be held by the whole Church, by the
assistance of God promised to him in the person of Blessed Peter, has that infallibility with which it was
the will of Our Divine Redeemer that His Church should be furnished in defining a doctrine on faith or
morals” (Vatican Council Sess. IV Cap. IV).

useful word than “inerrant.” Some such as Jensen18 carefully distinguish between the
two, accepting infallibility but not inerrancy. However, given that the one usually
turns up as an absolute synonym for the other, I think that we should look for a better

Truthful and Reliable
In place of “inerrant,” the expression “truthful and reliable” is recommended. It is
truthful in that the original writers, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, wrote
faithful accounts of what had been revealed to them. Their desire was to pass on what
God had said to them, and the words they have used have been inspired by the Holy
Spirit to achieve that end. Its reliability is a corollary of its truthfulness: we can rely on
what we read in the Scriptures to lead us into an understanding of our world,
ourselves, and our Creator-Redeemer God, that will lead us to salvation.
This expression may fully account for the fact that the biblical writers did not have the
benefits of the scientific worldview we have today. For example, while we do not find
the Bible anywhere teaching as fact that the earth is flat, it is evident that many of the
biblical writers wrote from a pre-Copernican view of the universe.19 There is evidence
that the writers of the Bible assumed as did most ancients that the earth was a more-or-
less flat disk standing on pillars; that there was a vault or dome (“firmament” in AV)
that held back the “upper waters,” and that the sun, moon and stars rotated within, not
above, the vault. There are many texts that appear to demonstrate this view, among
them Gen 1:6, 14-16; 7:11; Isa 40:22; Mark 1:9-10; Luke 24:51; John 3:13; Acts 1:9-
11; 10:11; Rom 10:6; 2 Cor 12:2; Heb 1:10.
We may add Job 38 and Psa 19:4-6 which are poetic in form and therefore raise the
possibility of poetic licence, but the overwhelming impression is of pre-Copernican
cosmology. This should not surprise even the most ardent inerrantist, since if God was
to communicate to fallen humankind he must do so in concepts they would not only
understand but also accept. We should thank God that he did not wait until Copernicus
and Magellan. He revealed his truth within a human conceptual framework, even
though that framework was yet to know the full truth of the nature of the universe.
It will be apparent that this is not unlike the so-called “full inerrancy” school so firmly
castigated by Lindsell. That is why I prefer not to use the word “inerrant,” even though
I acknowledge the issues that led to the debate in the 1970s, and even though any word
or words which may be used in its place run the danger of weakening the underlying
concept. But the Bible was not written in our culture or in our time, and it is how we
deal with this fact that very often determines exegetical outcomes.
Evangelicalism insists that the Bible is the supreme authority for all of Christian belief
and practice for a very good reason, namely that any other supreme authority is unsafe.
This may be demonstrated briefly by considering other possible final authorities.
Tradition became so badly corrupted that the Reformation had to scrap or reverse
many dogmas. Human experience, which is the essence of post-modern religion, is
extremely individualistic and myriad in forms. Humanistic philosophy runs the same
risks and tends to leave us with a dead Jesus from an irrelevant past. We are left with
the Bible. But if we do not interpret the Bible in its cultural and historic context, we
can get it to say almost anything, in which case the interpreter becomes the ultimate
Jensen, pp. 197-203.
Some “young earth” proponents dispute this, but in my view the evidence is against them.

authority. At the same time, if we ignore the limitations of the times in which it was
written, we run the risk of wrong interpretation. Erickson’s definition attempts to
account for those limitations, but the word “inerrant” then does not really fit. Hence
the need for another expression.
So I suggest “truthful and reliable.” The words are positive, clear, simple, and not
easily corrupted. If we use them we avoid the pitfalls of the inerrancy debate without
losing sight of why that debate was important. We avoid wasting our energy on
harmonising things that are best not harmonised, or on trying to prove things that
should be taken by faith because faith is the only way to prove them. And we avoid the
charge of being like Humpty Dumpty, who claimed that words could mean anything
he liked.