Errant Notions Part Six: This Time It’s Personal

Last in a series of posts examining common arguments for ‘biblical inerrancy,’ the assertion that the Bible is without error in everything it affirms.

This is the final argument we’re going to consider in our series on inerrancy, and it is quite unlike the previous ones. Up to this point, each question we’ve considered had a technical aspect to it: Were the original autographs free of error? Was canonization an indication of infallibility? Does the Bible establish its own inerrancy? Did Jesus teach inerrancy? And what did the church fathers and reformers believe about the nature and authority of scripture? Each of these can be researched and assessed to varying degrees of satisfaction. Our sixth argument, unlike these others, is less technical and far more rhetorical. And, for me, it has become unexpectedly personal. 

Inerrancy Or Else

The argument is this: the Bible must be inerrant or else we cannot trust it and our Christian faith has no basis. In an interview with the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, apologist Norman Geisler put it like this:

“Once you deny the inerrancy of the Bible, you don’t have any basis for your teaching. And you’ve lost the power of God because if it’s not the Word of God—if what the Bible says is not what God is saying—then how can we preach it with authority and life-transforming ability?”

For Geisler and millions of inerrantists like him, the Bible itself is the locus and source of divine authority and power. If there is the slightest doubt about the Bible’s plenary integrity, our ability to proclaim truth unquestioned and to teach others authoritatively is undercut. We have “lost the power of God.” Wow! Is that really what it’s all about? Lose inerrancy, lose your power to instruct others. That’s a convenient axiom for a well-situated theologian and co-founder of two seminaries. But what does it have to do with the gospel of Jesus and the Way of peace and selflessness? This type of inerrancy rhetoric isn’t about spiritual integrity or faith, it’s about the authority of the person making the claim. Helpful to him, not so much to you or me. From a comfortable distance, it’s pretty easy for me to deconstruct and dismiss a blustery soundbite like this one.

It Gets Personal

But it wasn’t so easy when the inerrancy debate showed up for a family dinner. That’s what happened when a beloved relative came to visit and asked me about my studies. I talked about the fun of reading and teaching Hebrew, and we began to joke and one-up each other with peculiar Bible verses we’d never been able to fully understand. But I went too far when I suggested a scholarly solution to a textual conundrum, and the mood quickly soured. I was accused of being “reckless” and “abandoning the Bible.” I was reminded (after Calvin) that whenever the Bible seems dense or problematic, it is we who are in need of correction, never the text.

When I tried ineloquently to explain my view of scripture, my guest became agitated. Their physicality changed and they talked to me with a voice and posture I’ve never seen from them before. I was warned about the “dangerous path” I’ve chosen to travel, and then came the gut-punch: they begged me to think of my daughter. Without inerrancy, who will protect Gloria? Who will keep your little girl safe? I was shocked. Shaken. Devastated. This form of “inerrancy or else” is not so easy to shrug off. This isn’t just about authority and power, it concerns the safety and well-being of our children!

“Or Else” What, Exactly?

What is it about this doctrine in particular that causes its adherents to threaten others on God’s behalf? Why does it get so personal so quickly? What’s so unthinkably terrifying about reading the Bible without a doctrinal safety net? To listen to the proponents of the “or else” argument, without inerrancy we’d all be wandering in the dark, unsure of what to think or believe, falling prey to every trap and bramble as God had no choice but to turn His back on us.

But is this true? Is the Bible really a flat, all-or-nothing proposition? A house of cards? If we even suggest a shade of nuance, doubt, or subjectivity, are we really left with no foundation and nothing to believe in? Is God really that demandingly dogmatic? Are absolute certainty and unquestioning assent prerequisites to blessing and salvation? The “or else” argument sounds like a lot of hyperbolic noise, and it puts more pressure on the scriptures and on Christians than any of us can handle. It leaves the Bible and its readers with no room to breathe. And when it fosters so much fear and anxiety, it has effectively muffled the voice of Jesus. Given the uncomfortably harsh and personal nature of this argument, I offer a humble and personal response.

How To Trust the Bible

The question boils down to this: how can I trust the Bible if I don’t affirm a particular form of the doctrine of inerrancy? My answer: I will trust in it the only way I know how to trust in things: by choice, with vulnerability and humility, and at personal risk. I will approach the Bible in faith with my heart and mind open, seeking whatever is good and trustworthy in its pages, believing that God is good enough and powerful enough to see me through. That’s it. I honestly don’t know any other way.

If “inerrancy” and “inspiration” are ways of expressing our devotion and confidence regarding the reliability of the Bible’s witness, that is good. We follow in a rich tradition. But if our commitment to an abstract doctrine creates fear and division, if it prompts us to threaten, exclude, or otherwise marginalize our neighbors and even our own family in God’s name, it might be time to pray for some faith.

As for Gloria, I will do my best to protect her. I will teach her that the Bible is very good because it tells us about Jesus. She will be OK. I have faith.