Several years ago, The Gospel Coalition (TGC) posted an interview of Dr. D.A. Carson. Carson is the president of The Gospel Coalition and a research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Ivan Mesa, an editor for TGC, conducted the interview. Mesa begins the interview by defining what he believes has been the historic Christian belief on inerrancy. Mesa writes (link no longer active):
“Scripture cannot be broken,” our Lord Jesus said without qualification (John 10:35). Throughout history his followers have believed the Bible, as a divinely given book, is fully trustworthy and contains no error. To use a more specific term, it’s inerrant.
Carson repeats this well-worn Evangelical belief:
The word “inerrancy” simply means without error; the doctrine of inerrancy is nothing more than the affirmation that the Bible always tells the truth.
Based on what Mesa and Carson have stated, it is easy to conclude that Evangelicals believe that the Bible, from Genesis 1:1 to Revelation 22:21, is without error. This article of faith is the foundation of Evangelical belief, and the vast majority of church members believe that the Bible they hold in their hands is without mistakes. On Sundays, countless Evangelical pastors will remind parishioners that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God. Evangelicals will leave church on Sunday believing their precious KJV/NIV/NASB/ESV Bible is without error, mistake, or contradiction.
Yet, these very same preachers will go to a pastor’s meetings on Tuesday and participate in discussions over lunch about the errors and contradictions in the Biblical text. These men of God KNOW that there is no such thing as an inerrant translation, yet they deliberately deceive church members about the nature and history of the Bible. These preachers know that doubting the Word of God is the first step out the door of the church. Better to cross one’s fingers behind one’s back when saying the Bible is the inerrant Word of God than have church members doubting the infallibility, perspicuity, and veracity of the Bible
While both Mesa and Carson unapologetically claim to believe in inerrancy, they are less than honest about what they REALLY mean when they say the Bible is inerrant. Mesa asked Carson, “If the word ’inerrancy’ requires so much careful definition and discussion, is it still the best word to use today?” Why does the word “inerrancy” require “much careful definition and discussion”? If the Bible is “inerrant,” what further explanation is needed?
Carson goes on to state:
a) Inerrancy is not to be confused with precisionism. We expect more precise statements only where the context demands them. “It took him three hours to walk home” may be a true statement, even if it took him two and three-quarters hours, provided the context leads the reader to expect rounded-off figures.
(b) Inerrancy does not refer to grammatical irregularities. To think otherwise is to misunderstand how language works: usage drives change, and in every culture the degree of conformity between usage and a somewhat artificial grammar-book ideal varies with different strata.
(c) The Bible includes countless passages where its “truthfulness” is not the controlling issue. Consider, for example, the anguished laments of Scripture—for example, Jesus’s anguished lament “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It is true, of course, that Jesus said this, but as for the words themselves, the focus of interest is less on their truthfulness than on their meaning. By contrast, the assertion that Ehud was left-handed (Judges 3:15) makes a factual claim that is either true or untrue. This is one of the reasons why inerrancy is a useful expression. It is potentially misleading to say “all Scripture tells the truth” if we thereby convey the impression that “Scripture is nothing more than factual expressions.” But to say “all Scripture is inerrant” is to affirm that it is without error, and this negation of untruthfulness covers all of the Bible indiscriminately.
These and similar discussions of inerrancy may seem like nitpicking to some conservatives, while many liberals infer from such discussions that the term itself is useless if it requires so much “careful definition and discussion,” as your question puts it. But the obvious riposte is that once a word or concept is challenged, there is no important term that does not require “careful definition and discussion.” God? Love? Justification? Truth? Spiritual? Trinity? Messiah? Inerrancy is no different. Like the other words, and countless more like them, it can serve as a useful one-word summary, even while it needs unpacking with care and with great attention to what Scripture says.
In other words, Carson’s “inerrant” Bible is not without error after all. And what neither Carson or Mesas state in the interview is that, for Evangelicals, inerrancy applies only to the original manuscripts — the original texts that no one has ever seen. There are no original manuscripts so, strictly speaking, inerrancy is a myth. It is a derivative belief based on the notion that since God is perfect in all his ways, somewhere in the process of giving his Words to man, there must have been perfect texts.
It is time for Mesa, Carson, and Evangelical pastors to admit to their congregations that the Bibles they hold in their hands (or read on their iPads) are not inerrant. They need to frankly confess that there are no original documents, and all that Christians have are cobbled-together Bibles littered with errors, contradictions, and internal inconsistencies. The so-called “inerrant” Bible is an Evangelical urban legend, believed only by those lacking training in theology and the Biblical texts. The man shouting THUS SAITH THE LORD, on Sunday? He doesn’t really believe what he is saying. At best, all he can say is this: THUS SAITH THE LORD, MAYBE.
Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.
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