How can anyone with a brain believe in the “inerrancy” of the Bible? I earned my Master of Divinity from a seminary whose faculty signs a statement every year affirming their belief that the Bible is free from error. Likewise, I chose a Ph.D. program where I could critically examine the reliability of Scripture in a place that operated by a hermeneutic of trust rather than a hermeneutic of suspicion.
The Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy, written in 1978, explains the details on what might otherwise appear to be a head-in-the-sand approach to honest tough nuts to crack in Scripture. If you are unfamiliar with this document, you’ll find it articulates a position that is much more nuanced than you might have expected.
Here, for me, is the key paragraph: “We deny that it is proper to evaluate Scripture according to standards of truth and error that are alien to its usage or purpose. We further deny that inerrancy is negated by Biblical phenomena such as a lack of modern technical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, the reporting of falsehoods, the use of hyperbole and round numbers, the topical arrangement of material, variant selections of material in parallel accounts, or the use of free citations.”
One may rightly object that, if you apply these disclaimers to a book, almost any book could be held to be inerrant. True! What this means is that the term “inerrancy” is really a way of referring to the authority of Scripture. It means that we treat this book as a book that sits in judgment over us, rather than vice versa.
According to this approach, we presume that the Bible is to be taken at face value, until we prove that it is to be taken otherwise. For example, we presume that the patriarchs were fact, until they are proven to be legend. We presume that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, until it is proven to be fiction. One can proceed with the opposite presumption, but that approach is contrary to the attitude that the Bible is reliable and authoritative.
Both sides of issues such as sexuality and universalism claim to hold to the authority of Scripture. But if you look at how they actually use the Bible, however, the progressive side tends to set themselves up as the ultimate arbiters of whether we can truly believe what these writers from long ago wrote. They would say we are smarter than to accept first century Middle Eastern thinking or morality.
Is there room for symbolism or exaggeration in the Bible? Of course there is. God does not intend to be taken literally in Numbers 11:20 when God says the people shall eat meat “until it comes out your noses.” And PCA scholars such as Jay Adams take so much of Revelation symbolically that it’s hard to believe that we call them “literalists.” One of my professors at Concordia chided me for finding possible literal fulfillments of the Gog prophecy in Ezekiel 38 in nations such as modern-day Iran, Sudan, Libya, and Russia. Imagine – a Presbyterian taking the Bible more literally than a Missouri Synod Lutheran!
But there’s a huge difference between saying that the Beast of Revelation 13 is not a snarling animal (which not even the most fire-breathing Baptist believes), and saying that Jesus’ resurrection or the parting of the Red Sea were just symbolic. There’s a huge difference between saying that Jesus was using hyperbole in his command to remove a hand or eye that causes us to sin, and claiming that Jesus didn’t mean anything else he commanded, either.
Presumed trust, or presumed skepticism. Which approach is the most faithful to Jesus, his apostles, and the prophets? And which approach is the most faithful to our Confessions? In the words of the Second Helvetic Confession, “For the Lord himself has said in the Gospel, ‘It is not you who speak, but the Spirit of my Father speaking through you’; therefore ‘he who hears you hears me, and he who rejects me rejects him who sent me’” (BC 5.003).
TOM HOBSON of Belleville, Ill., a PC(USA) pastor for 27 years, has degrees from Gordon-Conwell (M.Div.) and Concordia (Ph.D.).