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.

Why Monkeys Need “Salvation” – Part 3

This is part 3 in a series on Evolution, Original Sin, and Atonement. To start at the beginning, click here.


In my last post, I spoke a little bit about the scientific evidence for evolution. I don’t consider myself a scientist in the slightest, but I figured a Biology 101 review would be helpful. I understand there may be many of you the reject the evidence for evolution, but you should be aware that the theory of evolution is virtually incontrovertible within the scientific community. It is the paradigm by which countless other disciplines operate, and (considering what I’ll be talking about today) it is totally compatible with a Christian worldview.

Evolution & Inerrancy

The major issue that many Evangelicals come up against when trying to reconcile evolution and the biblical text is the creation account found at the beginning of Genesis and the story of Adam (not to mention all of the doctrines affected by the reality of evolution). The problem here is that most Evangelicals feel that they must accept the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture, which forces them to read the Genesis creation account(s) non-critically, and in the same manner as a scientific textbook – this, in my opinion, is a colossal mistake.

Article 12 of The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy reads as follows:

We affirm that Scripture in its entirety is inerrant, being free from all falsehood, fraud, or deceit.

We deny that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science. We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.

In other words, the creators of the doctrine of inerrancy would say it is inappropriate for sound reason and historical and scientific evidence to trump a story written by ancient people regarding the origins of the earth and of humanity. Despite all of the evidence to the contrary, holding to inerrancy forces Evangelicals to reject a scientific theory that has been proven and tested by scientists for decades.

in-a-book
David Hayward – http://nakedpastor.com

This is not to mention the fact that the term “inerrancy” is found nowhere in the biblical text itself, nor is the idea that every word of the biblical text must be historically factual for it to retain its authority within Christianity. To say that the writings within the Bible are inerrant (and must be to maintain its authority in matters of faith and practice) imposes particularly modern ways of thinking onto a book of ancient writings. The Bible was never meant to conform to this kind of modern scrutiny. It can’t, and we shouldn’t expect it to.

Evolution & Adam

If we lose the idea that the Bible is inerrant, but still remain adamant about its authority for matters of faith and practice, this means that we still need to figure out what to do with the Genesis creation account(s) and particularly the story of Adam – if we are to accept evolution as true. Just as the discovery of a heliocentric galaxy shook the foundations of pre-modern Christianity, but is now widely accepted because of our misunderstanding of what the Bible meant in certain places, the same can be said for the discovery and acceptance of evolution and its relation to our understanding of God and Scripture.funny-Adam-Eve-white-evolution

In general, biblical scholars date the writing and compilation of much of the Hebrew Bible to the exilic and post-exilic periods. (VERY) Broadly speaking, after being kicked out of their land, Israel needed to find a way to maintain its identity as the people of Yahweh and their relationship to God. As such, the creation account in Genesis – and particularly Genesis 2 and 3 – reveals Adam as a type of “proto-Israel.” In other words, the story of Adam can be better understood as Israel attempting to understand itself and its actions through a mythological character (where myth is an ancient, pre-scientific way of understanding origins – see Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation).

The parallels between Israel’s history and the story of Adam are pretty stark. Enns shows a few of the parallels at BioLogos:

Israel’s history as a nation can be broken down as follows:

    • Israel is “created” by God at the exodus through a cosmic battle (gods are defeated and the Red Sea is “divided”);
    • The Israelites are given Canaan to inhabit, a lush land flowing with milk and honey;
    • They remain in the land as long as they obey the Mosaic law;
  • They persist in a pattern of disobedience and are exiled to Babylon.

Israel’s history parallels Adam’s drama in Genesis:

    • Adam is created in Genesis 2 after the taming of chaos in Genesis 1;
    • Adam is placed in a lush garden;
    • Law (not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil) is given as a stipulation for remaining in the garden;
  • Adam and Eve disobey and are exiled.

An understanding of Adam as “proto-Israel” greatly helps in the attempt to maintain some sense of biblical authority while also allowing scholars and scientists to honestly observe and interpret data without being bound to some false interpretation of Genesis as a divinely inspired scientific textbook that trumps our ability to observe and interpret natural phenomena.

What we simply cannot do is try to retain “inerrancy” as a doctrine if we are going to accept evolution as a scientific reality. It is not a claim the Bible makes about itself, nor does it affect the authority of the Bible in the faith and lives of Christ-followers.