This piece is based on transcripts of a lecture I gave on the subject.
This lecture on the so-called phenomena of Scripture is necessary because in the modern and postmodern eras it has become more and more common not only to refer to the inspiration of Scripture, which is clearly a biblical doctrine, but to bolster this claim with the assertion of biblical inerrancy; it is perfectly justifiable to think and speak in these terms. Inspiration includes inerrancy and authority requires inerrancy.
Evangelicals Against Inerrancy
There are some though who do not take this position, who we would yet call evangelical in most other respects. Contemporaries whom we might identify as non-inerrantists are A.T.B. McGowan, William Lane Craig, and Craig Blomberg. Older representatives would be James Orr, and Francis L. Patton. Patton, for example, said this:
To say that the Bible is trustworthy because of its accuracy is by implication to say that we have the right and power to discern between truth and error. You cannot license reason to seek truth and deny her right to see error. It is a hazardous thing to say that being inspired the Bible must be free from error, for then the discovery of a single error would destroy its inspiration. Nor have we any right to substitute the word inerrancy for inspiration in our discussion of the Bible, unless we are prepared to show from the teaching of the Bible that inspiration means inerrancy and that I think would be a difficult thing to do…
Suppose that scientific proofs should compel you to put another interpretation upon the program of creation as it has compelled you to give another meaning to the word ‘day’. Would you give up the whole of the New Testament? Without pertaining to any special scientific knowledge, it seems to me remarkable that the biblical account of creation, which so wonderfully taught the essential truth of creation to man ages before science was born, still teaches it to scientific men if their prosaic science has not caused their imagination to suffer atrophy. But how foolish it would be to give up the Gospel simply because of a dead literalism of interpretation would find no support in a modern textbook on biology. – Francis L. Patton [President of Princeton Seminary, 1902-1913], Fundamental Christianity, 163-165
We see from that quotation from Patton’s book, which was written in 1925, reveals a man who certainly is very clearly evangelical and yet who strongly hesitates to equate inerrancy with the doctrine of inspiration. In fact, that whole chapter has to do with the seat of authority in Christianity and therefore he does not believe either that the doctrine of inerrancy is necessary for the Scriptures to be authoritative.
Now these objections to inerrancy are from a clearly evidentialist perspective, that is from the perspective of someone who is concerned with matching the assertions of Scripture with the ‘facts’ of science. They serve to show us that this subject of the actual contents of the Bible as we have it, is an important subject for evangelicals to get straight.
A Way to Proceed
I am concerned to answer the objections of those who have claimed to find errors in the text of Scripture as it has come down to us; thus, we are dealing with what has become known as the phenomena of Scripture.
Here is the NT scholar Everett Harrison:
If a person has become convinced by the study of the word that its majesty and perfection can only be accounted for on the basis that the text was free from error as originally given, such a person ought not to be charged with intellectual dishonesty if he refuses to let perplexing problems in the sacred record move him from his solid conviction. He may feel bound to seek explanation for the problems and perhaps be dissatisfied with the explanations he receives, yet he continues to rest in his conviction less the abandonment of his position mean the forsaking of Scripture as the word of God. – Everett F. Harrison, Revelation and the Bible, edited by Carl F. H. Henry , 238
Now what he’s saying here is, as all evangelicals have basically said – including the drafters of the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy, the Bible in its original manuscripts, in its autographs, is inerrant. There is a possibility that you may find certain problematical errors which you cannot explain, but you do not have to admit them as errors. If you have a poor translation you may very well find some errors within it, but those are translation errors not textual errors or errors in the text that has been providentially given to us. Of course, the word “errors” has to be defined.
What does an ‘error’ mean?
Here is a basic definition of an error:
If the statements that it contains, that is the Bible, concerning matters of history and science can be proven by extra-biblical records, by ancient documents recovered through the archaeological digs, or by the established facts of modern science to be contrary to the truth then there is grave doubt as to its trustworthiness in matters of religion. – Gleason L. Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, 23
In other words, if the biblical record can be proved fallible in areas of fact that can be verified, then it is hardly to be trusted in areas where it cannot be tested. As a witness for God, the Bible would be discredited as untrustworthy. (more…)