I went to the San Diego Congress on the Bible in March very uneasy about the word "inerrancy." The congress had been billed as a gathering of those who want to "understand and experience the trans forming power of God's inerrant, authoritative Word." It was sponsored by the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy. I had no quarrel with the authoritative nature of the Bible; I believed implicitly it was God's Word. But the term "inerrancy" made me a little nervous.
As Seventh-day Adventists, we hold a decidedly high view of the inspiration of Scripture. We believe it is God's Word to man, not man's word about God. We feel quite comfortable with the word "infallible" and apply it freely to the Bible. The Statement of Fundamental Beliefs voted at the 1980 General Conference session in Dallas declares, "The Holy Scriptures are the infallible revelation of His [God's] will."
One seminar leader at San Diego pointed out that for centuries the church used the two words—infallibility and inerrancy—interchangeably. And in some ways, he said, "infallible" is actually a stronger word than "inerrant." The former means "cannot fail or err"; the latter means "does not err."
Why, then, do we shy away from the word "inerrancy"?
If I am at all representative of Seventh-day Adventist thinking, I believe we do so because we feel that describing the Bible as "inerrant" demands accepting verbal inspiration—a mechanical dictation idea in which each word was whispered by God in the writer's ear. Since San Diego I'm not so sure of that. I know I didn't find anyone there among the speakers or seminar leaders who would accept such a concept of inspiration.
Having rejected verbal inspiration, we have often called ourselves "thought inspirationists." By this we usually mean that God gave concepts, ideas, and information to His prophets in dreams and visions and then allowed them to express these divinely inspired messages in their own language, style, vocabulary, and personality.
I still believe this is basically the way inspiration works. And from my observations, most of those leading out in the San Diego Congress would agree. However, it seemed that the Congress placed a some what greater emphasis than I had usually allowed on God's role in superintending the writing of His message. Although God did not override the human writer's personality or cultural and linguistic limitations, He did actively guide the prophet in the writing as well as in the receiving of the vision. The result? A Word of God, strained through men, that in its original form (the autographs) said just what God wanted said free from error.
It's a position that is difficult to refute logically if we are to take God's Word seriously, especially such texts as 2 Peter 1:21, "No prophecy ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God" (R.S. V.). * If we believe that the God of the universe designed and sustains it by His infinite wisdom and power; if we believe that He is the One who works all things according to His will so that even evil ultimately is made to serve His beneficent purposes, why should it be difficult to believe that such a God can also ensure, by the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit, that frail, fallible man will transmit His divine message to other frail, fallible men in the exact form He designs and without error?
The alternative for one who wants to take God's Word seriously and yet leave room for human distortions of a minor nature was well illustrated by another seminar leader at the San Diego Congress. Many Christians think of Scripture, he said, as a sort of divine road map useful for telling one how to travel from earth to heaven. It is, in fact, very much like the Rand McNally atlas we use to find our way from New York to Chicago, for example. It is accurate, authoritative, and above all pragmatically useful. It is infallible in the sense that if we trust it and follow it, it will get us where we want to go. But minor errors of fact may very well occur here and there. The map may show the road running south of a little town in Ohio when it actually goes around on the north side. A secondary road may connect with the interstate highway at the interchange beyond the one shown on the map; a recent rerouting of a highway may not be indicated. But with the exception of these few discrepancies, it is accurate and infallible.
As he developed this illustration, I thought, This is almost exactly how I have been viewing Scripture. I'm not so sure since San Diego that such a position takes God's Word seriously enough.
On the other hand, there are some apparent problems in Scripture that inerrantists sometimes seem to minimize. I occasionally detected in the congress what looked to me like circular reasoning. "The Bible does not contain errors. Therefore anything that appears to be an error in Scripture really is not an error. Thus the Bible does not contain errors." Such reasoning leads to some rather ingenious and convoluted scenarios for such things as how often the rooster crowed during Jesus' trial or the comings and goings of the Master at Jericho. Would it not be better simply to affirm faith in Scripture as God's inspired, authoritative Word and leave such apparent contradictions and difficulties in abeyance until eternity? For some at San Diego, such a solution would definitely be considered a compromise with error.
The difficulty with comparing Scripture to a reliable, but imperfect, road map is this: Who decides (and on what basis) where the discrepancies and errors lie? Does not such a view allow each person to determine for himself what is true in Scripture and what is not, and to do so on the basis of his or her own human reason? A certain piece of information in the Bible becomes error if it does not correspond to his experience or knowledge of the world or if it seems contradictory to his mind. Thus human reason presumes to judge the Word of God. I may be content under such a view to confine scriptural "errors" to what I feel are a very few, minor incidentals. But what is to prevent me tomorrow from deciding on the basis of my experience and reason that another area of Scripture is fallible?
Ironically, the same month that the Congress on the Bible was meeting in San Diego, an article appeared in The Churchman man by Weston A. Stevens (March, 1982, pp. 8, 9) illustrating one possible result of allowing human reason to judge the Bible. Stevens suggests that Christians would do well to have a loose-leaf Bible. Not in the sense of a three-ring binder with punched pages, but a "Bible" that would be significant for modern man. (The old one isn't, the author believes.)
This loose-leaf Bible would be constantly changing because it would be built on the concept that "truth changes." Neither would any two people require the same "Bible." Each would compile his own composed of selections from some of the better portions of the current Bible (Stevens suggests "the inspired words of Moses and Amos and Isaiah, parts of the Psalms, some of the Sermon on the Mount, Paul's 'Hymn of Love'") along with selected writings from such individuals as Shakespeare, Seneca, Socrates, Thomas Merton, Goethe, Lewis Carroll, Ogden Nash, Emily Dickinson, and perhaps Annie Dillard.
Asks Stevens, "What about those traditionalists who would argue that such a loose-leaf Bible would no longer be the Word of God?" His reply? "Anyone who calls the Bible the Word of God certainly hasn't read it very carefully or discerningly." After citing several Old Testament examples of deception and cruelty, he concludes: "The point is, God isn't to be blamed for these holy words. We can blame the old men who made this book and put their own imperfect voices into the mouth of God. They took their prejudices and their own private revenges and hatreds and trumped them up and called them 'God's Word.' It can be safely said that a fourth of the Old Testament ascribed to God is none other than the imperfect, unworthy, irreverent word of men (maybe some women, too). Who knows how much of the teaching and the person of Jesus in the New Testament has been tragically warped and misrepresented by albeit well-meaning persons?"
Such an extreme example simply serves to illustrate the possibilities when one begins to use his or her own human reason to judge what is or is not true in Scripture. It also illustrates why those sponsoring the congress feel the matter of inerrancy is such a vital issue within evangelical Christianity today. They see a trend among conservative Christians to compromise on the inspiration and authority of God's Word. They feel the only bulwark against reducing the Bible to "good advice" is to stand firm on an inerrant Word from God to man.
I came to San Diego uneasy about the word "inerrancy." I'm still somewhat nervous about some of its connotations— illogically so, perhaps, since I don't mind the word "infallible." But I am a lot less uneasy about inerrancy since San Diego. And I'm infinitely less uneasy about the implications of inerrancy than I am about any view of Scripture that could lead to the understanding of God's Word held by Mr. Stevens. Compared to that, inerrancy looks positively captivating!—B.R.H.
* Scripture quotations marked R.S.V. are from
the Revised Standard Version of the Bible,
copyrighted 1946, 1952 © 1971, 1973.