Getting Clear About Biblical Inerrancy

If someone asked you to explain what Christians believe about the Bible, what would you say? Would you even know what to say? Christians (especially evangelical Christians) believe that the Bible’s nature is important. But despite their importance, many Christians are underinformed about how these doctrines have been traditionally understood. I doubt that many Christians could give a clear explanation of what Christians have traditionally believed about the Bible.

This might not seem like a big deal to you. But this lack of understanding about the nature of the Bible is often damaging to people’s faith. Many people lose their faith because of issues surrounding the Bible reconciling the Bible with science, handling apparent contradictions, and so on. We should get clear, then, on what we believe about the Bible.

One of the central evangelical beliefs about the Bible is inerrancy. I think it is a good place to start in trying to understand the Christian view of the Bible. To help explain inerrancy, I’ve often introduced students to Kevin Vanhoozer’s “The Inerrancy of Scripture”. It’s a short read, and Vanhoozer does a good job of clearly defining and properly qualifying inerrancy.

What is inerrancy? Dr. Vanhoozer defines it as follows:

“The inerrancy of Scripture means that Scripture, in the original manuscripts and when interpreted according to the intended sense, speaks truly in all that it affirms.”

Sometimes in the battle over the Bible or over doctrines whose denial we think threaten the status of the Bible, we lose all sense of nuance. But Vanhoozer’s definition is, well, carefully nuanced. For instance, notice that he writes that the Bible is true in what it affirms when it communicates to us. There are parts of the Bible where actions or teachings are presented that are not being affirmed by the Bible. Think of Job’s interlocutors making claims that the Book of Job structurally deny. The Bible is not affirming what Job’s friends are saying, and so inerrancy doesn’t hold that the sayings of Job’s friends are true.

Two Important Qualifications

Notice that Kevin Vanhoozer’s definition builds in two important qualifications. Yes, the Bible is true. Yes, we should defend inerrancy. But we need to be careful in our defense of inerrancy.

First, only the “original manuscripts” are inerrant. Inerrancy does not imply that every copy of the Bible is inerrant. Maybe there’s a couple of places where the Bible does not reflect what was originally written. For example, many textual critics do not think that the longer ending of Mark (Mark 16:9-20) was originally in the Gospel of Mark. Maybe Mark’s Gospel ended at 16:8, or perhaps there was a longer ending that was lost. But most agree that the longer ending (verses 9 – 20) wasn’t in the original. The same goes for the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11). Scholars agree that it probably was not in the original. So the KJV and other, older versions that contained those stories without qualification would not be inerrant.

So inerrancy does not guarantee that the Bibles we hold in our hands are without error; the doctrine of inerrancy only guarantees that our bibles are without error insofar as they match what was in the originals. Before you get too depressed, textual critics think that 99% of our New Testaments match the original writings. But we should be aware that inerrancy safeguards the truthfulness of the originals, not any printing of the Bible.

Second, the meaning of the text is inerrant only “when interpreted according to the intended sense.” So what we claim the Bible teaches is not inerrant, but only what it really teaches is inerrant. Most Christians are aware of this; most people will say something like, “That’s just a matter of interpretation,” in response to the someone else’s teaching of the Bible. But this qualification does have more interesting implications. Christians have often treated some important teachings as so certain that the falsity of these doctrines would prove that the Bible was not inerrant (and so, the reasoning goes, not the actual Word of God). In other words, some teachings – for example, some teachings based on Genesis 1 and 2 – have often been held up in the the assurance that if these teachings are false, then the Bible has errors.

We need to be exceedingly careful when we make such claims. We have to be sure that we have interpreted the passage correctly. Here is a less controversial example than the interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2: does the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus teach us that hell is eternal, conscious torment? Was Jesus trying to communicate aspects of what the afterlife will be like by using the imagery that he did in that parable? In the theological discussions that surround annihilationism, some arguments turn on whether that parable is meant to communicate something about the nature of hell.

So I do think Christians should affirm inerrancy, but we need to state it carefully as Vanhoozer does.

Four Implications

I think there are some implications that come from this simple teaching about inerrancy:

  1. We have to ask what God is trying to communicate in a certain passage. Notice that Vanhoozer’s definition of inerrancy connects inerrancy to the intended message of the passage. I know this would seem obvious. But it is worth mentioning because I am constantly amazed with how often people take Bible passages out of context. Think about how often people use Jeremiah 29:11 to imply that God has great plans for them individually or Philippians 4:13 to say that they can accomplish their goals. The doctrine of inerrancy teaches us that have to be more careful than this. We have to do the hard work of determining what God wants.
  2. We must allow the Bible to use the same everyday standards of communication. This is a result of God speaking through humans. We should expect the inspired Scriptures to exhibit the differing rhythms, idioms, imagery, etc. that characterizes human speech. When we try to determine what God intended to communicate, we need to take into account the use of figures of speech and the like. We should not demand that imagery be taken literally just because it is divinely inspired.
  3. We must allow the Bible a certain amount of vagueness. If I say, “Today’s discussion will last an hour,” but it only lasts fifty-nine minutes, did I lie? Did I get it wrong? No. We understand that in everyday speech, that sometimes our statements are vague. The intended meaning of a phrase can be vague.
  4. Furthermore, in matters of science and history (and other subjects) are used, we have to ask whether God is trying to communicate these historical and scientific truths to us, or use the cultural, scientific, and historical beliefs to communicate something to us. For example, when Jesus says that the mustard seed is the smallest of the seeds, we have to ask whether Jesus is trying to communicate the truth of that botanical information. Or was Jesus just using the cultural belief about what the smallest seed was to make a point about the way the Kingdom of God will grow?


As our faith and its beliefs are less assumed in our culture, it is hard work to clearly explain beliefs that for decades have been more or less assumed. But we must undertake the task. And our view of the Bible is one area that we must become clear about.

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