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Discovering Inerrancy


Without error in all that it affirms and teaches. This is the idea of inerrancy. Not to be confused with its similar, but far stronger cousin infallibility, “It cannot be in error in all that it affirms and teaches.”


We’ll deal with the idea of infallibility another time; let’s focus on the idea of being inerrant.


What sorts of things out there are inerrant? Take a moment to think it through. Consider even the mundane things that could qualify as being without error.


Let’s use the example of a menu at Panera Bread. I’m looking at one now as I write. The menu items and prices are displayed on a professionally printed sign above the register. It says it costs $1.49 for a plain bagel. Is the menu sign above the register inerrant?


Well, that remains to be seen, doesn’t it?


Perhaps the barista will ring up my bagel and the internal system indicates it’s actually $1.25 for a bagel. That’s how much the machine would deduct from my card were I to proceed with the transaction. So, the sign falsely reports the cost. It is errant.


But, suppose the machine and sign matched on the price of a plain bagel. Is the sign inerrant? Well, as you may know, there’s a bunch of items on the sign, and a good store manager will want the system prices to match all of the sign prices. Periodically, a good steward would go back through and verify that this is the case.


Notice the procedure we would use to determine inerrancy. We used a case-by-case analysis of corroborating the public information in question with the objective standard of the system’s prices. We can conclude after a process of verification that the sign is inerrant.


Of course, if you’re reading this, you’re most familiar with the idea of inerrancy in the context of the Bible. Many pastors and theologians subscribe to the idea that the Bible is inerrant, without error in all that it affirms and teaches. For a refresher, take a look at the Short Statement from the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy to get the gist.


Now, take a look at how different the conclusion of inerrancy is arrived at for the Bible than for the Panera sign. Inerrancy is something I should bring to the table when I approach scripture, ready to believe what it affirms and obey what it commands. It is a starting place. Yet, the inerrancy of the Panera sign is the conclusion of a long argument whereby each claim was corroborated.


What do you think about this difference? Is it fine that we have a different method for ascribing inerrancy to Scripture - that we’ve made an exception to our normal process for awarding something the high honor of being without error?


You might say resoundingly “Yes!” because the Bible itself is quite the exception to ordinary documents; it is a divinely inspired text and the Panera signs and others like it are not. You might say that inerrancy is the conclusion of an argument that starts with inspiration; since the scripture is inspired by God, then it does not have error. God is incapable of ushering falsehoods and errors in his inspiration of human authors and thus the resulting texts those authors wrote under inspiration are free of error.


In this way, we don’t need the case-by-case analysis of the truth value of claims in scripture to arrive at inerrancy; instead, we are permitted to start our interpretative efforts armed with the concept of inerrancy given that the scriptures are inspired.


One word of caution: a nerdy, philosophy saying is “One man’s modus ponens is another man’s modus tollens”.

This means that you and your friend may agree about a conditional “If P, then Q” such as “If the scripture is inspired, then it is inerrant.” But, you might differ on whether to affirm P or deny Q. Each is a path toward a valid argument structure.

The Chicago Statement way of thinking uses the modus ponens here. If P, then Q. P. Therefore, Q. If the scripture is inspired, then it is inerrant. It is inspired. Therefore, it is inerrant.


And yet, the skeptic might argue with the modus tollens. If P, then Q. Not-Q. Therefore, not-P. This is just as valid a reasoning structure as the previous one. If scripture is inspired, then it is inerrant. It is not inerrant. Therefore, it is not inspired.


To support his “not inerrant” second premise, the skeptic treats the scripture more like the Panera sign; assessing each claim on its own to see if error can be found. Just like he treats any other document.


This is often where the debate gets stuck. It can be really challenging to move forward when you’ve got a modus ponens / modus tollens roadblock.


One way around the roadblock is to deny the conditional; it is not the case that if P, then Q. It is not the case that if the scripture is inspired, then it is inerrant. We can wonder whether we ought to endorse a theory of inspiration that commits us to inerrancy. Remember, we weren’t believing inerrancy for other independent, Panera-sign-esque reasons; we believed it because our theory of inspiration necessitated it.


It all comes back to inspiration. What does it mean to be God-breathed?


Last time I read Genesis 2, it really seemed like human beings were God-breathed.


Did that stop somewhere along the way?


If you want to hear more about inerrancy, check out this week’s Mailbag episode. You can watch it on Youtube or listen on your favorite podcatcher.


Stay Curious!