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While this is a somewhat dated issue, I am still fascinated at how many churches put into their statement of beliefs that they believe in an inerrant Bible or they believe that the Bible is “without error in its original autographs.” What average reader of such statements would understand or even care about such an item, much less understand it.

Two words in the Christian vocabulary have caused more divisiveness in the Church within this century than almost any others. They are inerrancy and tongues. When either of these words is uttered, a red flag is raised in almost all hearers. The most popular definition of inerrancy is found in a book by Harold Lindsell, The Battle for the Bible. Therein he states, “This Word is free from all errors in its original autographs…. It is wholly trustworthy in matters of history and doctrine…. The authors of Scripture, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, were preserved from making factual, historical, scientific, or other error” 1

The problem with this whole topic is that we impose a Western standard of defining error based on a scientific worldview. We often do not allow the standards of the ancient world to prevail about its own literature. These topics have been greatly debated by persons of faith and reason within the Evangelical Church.

It is fair to say that Scripture teaches truth. However, when this proposition is stated, the opposite side of the coin may also be true. If Scripture teaches truth, then it cannot teach error. It is often the case that the church has spent more time discussing how the Bible does not teach error, than trying to discover the truth the Bible does teach.

The following comes from an article in a magazine I edited in the 1980s:

Answer this question: What size screwdriver do you need to saw a “two-by-six” piece of lumber? We immediately recognize the question as inappropriate. A standard must be appropriate and consistent with its intended purpose. How can one fault a carpenter for measuring a table leg accurately to only one decimal place just because the standard of accuracy in a laboratory runs to several places of decimals? The question, then, is: what degree of precision or imprecision is compatible with the intended purpose of the Bible? Jesus called attention to the mustard seed when teaching about the Kingdom of God. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it is grown, it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree (Matthew 13.32).

This is a scriptural statement of a proposition. If it must address us scientifically, as some suggest it must, then we have an error in botany. Technically we now know that the mustard seed is neither the smallest of seeds nor the largest of shrubs. So if the purpose of Jesus or Scripture is to teach or address science, we have a bold and inescapable error here. However, if we realize that Jesus’ intent was not to teach botany, but to instruct us about the Kingdom of God, then we have a different situation to which scientific criteria is irrelevant. If what Jesus said regarding the Kingdom of God was wrong, then we would have a bonafide error. But, we believe, to the contrary, that what Jesus said is true and authoritative. The mystery of the Kingdom, in this parable, is that what starts out through a small band of socially insignificant people will end up in the glory of the Lord filling the whole earth if we realize that Jesus’ intent was not to teach a course in botany 2.

A discussion about inerrancy almost always causes more heat than light. The student of Scripture is faced with many illustrations like the one above. The standard that he or she chooses to apply in order to discover the meaning will determine the conclusion that is reached. It seems to me that it is more beneficial for believers to try to discover the truth of Scripture, rather than debate on which side of this issue one should stand. Often the result of such debate is the breaking of fellowship if a person does not choose the supposed correct side.

It may be best, when studying Scripture, to allow Scripture to speak truth based on the customs and manners of expressing truth in the ancient times, rather than forcing some distant twenty-first-century scientific criteria upon it.

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  1. I discuss the move toward the belief in inerrancy in my book God’s EPIC Adventure, 17-19.
  2. First Fruits. A Vineyard Ministries International publication, now Out of Print. 1984. 12