Inerrancy is a Loaded Term

In a recent episode of the Ask N.T. Wright Anything podcast, N.T. Wright discusses the idea of biblical infallibility and his discomfort with the use of terms such as “inerrancy” and “infallibility” to describe what Scripture is and what it is meant to be. Basically, he doesn’t like any of the “in-” words. Instead, he prefers to use words such as “trustworthy” — as in, Christians ought to regard Scripture as trustworthy in all of its writings.

This is an important shift, in my opinion. He never technically denies that “inerrancy” is an accurate description of Scripture, only that it is a weak descriptor. Technically, describing a set of writings as inerrant is to say that the writings are incapable of being wrong. But in practice, we understand it to mean something different — that is, we take calling Scripture inerrant to mean that it is always historically accurate in all of its writings unless it explicitly says otherwise. The problems with this are twofold:

  1. We are separated from these writings by thousands of years. Do you know how difficult it is to discern an author’s purpose from this historical vantage point? When we read the creation account, for example, how are we to accurately determine whether that account is meant to “literally” recount historical events? And what do we lose by saying that it doesn’t?
  2. The whole reason that we are concerned about historical accuracy is because, at some point, the Western philosophical world decided that “inaccurate” historical retellings automatically discount the authority and trustworthiness of the writing/document in question. This is especially true for religious Scripture — somehow, we determined that we needed to defend historical accuracy so that we could also defend the theological trustworthiness of Scripture. This is specifically because of some epistemological concerns that were borne out of debates from 300-400 years ago!

That means that concerns about Scriptural inerrancy are all bound up with philosophical concerns that the writers of Scripture themselves were not concerned about. Thus, N.T. Wright’s comments. He doesn’t ever deny that Scripture is inerrant, but he takes issue with the term because of its cultural and philosophical baggage. Instead, he wants better descriptors (trustworthy, authoritative) that will help Christians to encounter the text that we have anew. Because when Scripture is described as trustworthy, it changes our own stance towards what we are reading. No longer are we concerned about whether an event could possibly have happened literally or historically (and, therefore, concerned about whether that could discount its trustworthiness in our minds). Instead, by regarding it as trustworthy, we can come at the text asking what it might teach us about God, about human nature, and about our ability to relate to God.

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