I recently heard a pastor share why he changed his mind on a current cultural issue. At root was a change in his thinking on the nature of the Bible. He used to believe it was God’s revealed Word, without error. He had come to reject this view, and so had changed his mind on a number of other issues. Is he right to do so, and should we also? How can we know what the Bible really is?
In this series I am discussing the two answers to this all-important question. One answer is that the Bible is God’s inspired, inerrant Word. The other answer is that the Bible in some ways contains errors (there are a number of variations on this theme). Like the pastor above, the answer we adopt will determine how we view a large number of other issues.
In this series I will offer reasons to believe the Bible is God’s inspired, inerrant Word. Last week I began by defining the term “inerrancy.” But to fully understand what is (or at least should) be meant by this term, four more essential clarifications are necessary.
Four Important Caveats
Inerrancy Applies to the Original Documents
First, inerrancy applies only to the original documents. The originals are called the “autographa”—the actual, physical writings of the biblical authors. There is only one autographa of each book of the Bible, and these are what are inerrant. The many copies may contain transcription errors (though it has been show the number of transcription errors is very low).
A bit later in this series I’ll offer an argument as to how we can be sure we know what was contained in the autographas.
Inerrancy Must Take Into Account The Right Method of Interpretation
The second caveat is that while God’s Word is without error, often our interpretations are wrong. Therefore we must work very hard to ensure our interpretation is correct. This is known as our “hermeneutic”—our method of biblical interpretation.
The hermeneutic we use should be that which we use for all other literature—what is known as the Historical-grammatical method. For instance, if we read in a 1895 French newspaper of an event occurring in Paris the previous day, we apply the historical-grammatical hermeneutic to understand the meaning of the news report. We determine what the words mean—we translate them into our language. We also make sure that we understand what 19th century Parisians would have understood by those words, to avoid misinterpreting what the words actually mean. This also requires us to take into account the context of those words. Only then will we have the one correct interpretation of what we are reading.
The same is true when reading the pages of Scripture. We understand the true, inerrant Word only as far as we understand what the words mean, in context and to the original hearers. Most of us do not speak Hebrew or Greek, and so we must read the words as translated into English. Yet these words may have changed over the years, and so we must be careful to understand what they meant when written, not as we now may use the word. If we don’t do this all very well, we end up with an errant interpretation of the inerrant text.
This is why pastors and theologians often cite the Hebrew or Greek word used in a passage and explain what the word meant when it was originally written. For instance, in I Peter 3:16 we are told to always be ready to make and apology to anyone who asks us for the reason we believe. Today an apology is an acknowledgement of error and a request for forgiveness. Yet the Greek word used (apologian, from the root word apologia) meant to offer a rational justification, marshaling evidence to prove a belief is true. When Socrates was on trial, he made an “apology” or defense of his innocence (recorded in the Platonic dialogue by that name: The Apology). It is what an attorney does in a court of law to argue for the guilt or innocence of the accused. This sense of providing a rational argument to prove the truth of the matter would have been how the original readers, in their own language, understood the term. (Most English translations use words such as “make a defense,” “give an answer” or “offer an explanation,” but even these translations miss some of the rigor of logic and argumentation contained in the original term.) By understanding nuances in the original languages of the Bible, we can better determine the truth being communicated, and avoid an errant understanding of the inerrant words of Scripture.
Related to this is understanding the culture of the original hearers, so as to be sure the words are interpreted in the right way. For example, Proverbs 29:18 is sometimes translated, “Where there is no vision, the people perish…” We are tempted to interpret “vision” in the modern vernacular—foresight, goals, or dreams for the future. So we cite this passage in support of the importance of visionary goals and strategic planning. Yet this is not what the original hearers would have understood in their cultural context. They understood “vision” as a word from God spoken through a prophet. In other words, if there is no revelation and direction from God, we will not flourish. (Parenthetically, this passage, rightly interpreted, speaks directly to the point of this series and the importance of knowing we have the actual words of God contained in Scripture.)
Only when we interpret Scripture according to these principles can we understand what the inerrant Word of God teaches, and not be sidetracked into errant beliefs of what it teaches.
Inerrancy Must Take Into Account Literary Genres
Thirdly, determining the inerrant teaching of Scripture assumes books of the Bible are interpreted in the context of their various literary genres. God communicate his truth in many ways. Sometimes it is through direct statements (such as in the book of Romans), other times through poetry (the Psalms), or through wisdom literature (Proverbs), or through historical narrative (Acts), or through prophecy (Daniel, Revelation), and so on. Failing to understand the genre of a book quickly leads to errant interpretations of the inerrant words it contains.
For instance, in Proverbs 22:6 we read, “Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.” If understood as in the genre of wisdom literature we know that this is not a hard-and-fast rule, but a general principle. Yet sometimes this principle does not hold true. Parents raise their children the right way, and they still choose to “go off the rails.” Without understanding the importance of genre in interpretation one could claim that this is not true—there is an error in the text. But by understanding that this is in the genre of wisdom literature, which communicates general principle that are true (even though there are exceptions), we see this passage does not contain an error.
Inerrancy Must Take Into Account the Uniquenesses of the Authors
Fourth, inerrancy takes into account the unique differences of the various human authors of Scripture. It does not assume God dictated the words they were to write (except in cases where we are told this is the case, such as the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai in Exodus 20). Usually God ensures that his truth is communicated through their unique styles of writing based on their personalities, backgrounds, and other individual characteristics (such as the simplicity of Mark’s prose compared to the eloquence and sophistication of Paul’s writing style).
Understanding this further ensures we are able to ascertain the truth communicated, and not err in our interpretation and therefore assume the Word is errant.
What “Literal” Does and Does Not Mean
All of these caveats not only further clarify what is properly meant by “inerrancy,” but also clarifies what seeking the “literal” interpretation of Scripture means. By taking all these clarifications into account we can determine the one true, correct, accurate, an un-erring meaning—the “literal” or “accurate” meaning—of the text.
If these clarifications are not understood people often misunderstand what is meant by the “literal” interpretation of Scripture. They assume this means, for instance, interpreting all Scripture as direct statements of what one should do. This misunderstanding often leads to charges of the Bible’s “errancy.” Interpreting in the context of these four caveats protects against this and allows us to understand the one, true, inerrant, and literal meaning of the text.
For example, without understanding these caveats, one might read the first chapter of Genesis and simply assume the Hebrew word “yom” (translated “day”) must mean a 24-hour period of time. Yet many who study this word, its context, and the way it would have been interpreted by the original hearers do not agree. This word sometimes meant a 24-hour timeframe, but other times it did not. In fact, in the very next chapter it refers to a longer period of time (Genesis 2:4).
These and other considerations lead many biblical scholars (who believe the Bible to be inerrant) to conclude the “literal” interpretation of Genesis 1 is that God created over long ages (“days” understood as periods, not “days” understood as 24-hour units of time).
Some disagree with this interpretation, but this further illustrates my point: to ascertain the “literal” interpretation of a text is hard work, involving understanding what the word meant in the original language and to the original hearers. In some cases this will clear up any confusion (such as understanding the meaning of “vision” in Proverbs 29:18). Other times there will continue to be disagreement (such as how to interpret Genesis 1), but even in these cases there is agreement on how to settle the matter—apply the principles outlined in the caveats above fairly and rigorously. In this way we can work toward understanding the true, literal meaning of any given text.
Misunderstanding, or even ignoring these caveats leads some to offer poor arguments against inerrancy. There are three other arguments against inerrancy heard often. In my next article I’ll discuss these, and show the fallacies in these additional objections. Until then, grace and peace.
For further reading I suggest Questioning the Bible: 11 Major Challenges to the Bible’s Authority by Jonathan Morrow, Inerrancy, edited by Norman Geisler, and Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy, edited by J. Merrick and Stephen M. Garrett (series editor Stanley N. Gundry).
For a good introduction to biblical interpretation I suggest How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Gordon Fee and Douglas Stewart.
Really excellent, Stan! Thanks!