AskDefine | Define inerrancy

Dictionary Definition

inerrancy n : (Christianity) exemption from error; "biblical inerrancy" [ant: errancy]

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  1. Freedom from error.
    Biblical inerrancy - the belief that the Bible is without error

Extensive Definition

Biblical inerrancy is the conservative evangelical doctrinal position that in its original form, the Bible is totally without error, and free from all contradiction; "referring to the complete accuracy of Scripture, including the historical and scientific parts." Inerrancy is distinguished from Biblical infallibility (or limited inerrancy), which holds that the Bible is inerrant on issues of faith and practice but not history or science.

Textual tradition of the New Testament

There are over 5,600 Greek manuscripts containing all or part of the New Testament, as well as over 10,000 Latin manuscripts, and perhaps 500 other manuscripts of various other languages. Additionally, there are the Patristic writings which contain copious quotes, across the early centuries, of the scriptures.
Most of these manuscripts date to the Middle Ages. The oldest complete copy of the New Testament, the Codex Sinaiticus, dates to the 4th century. The earliest fragment of a New Testament book is the Rylands Library Papyrus P52 which dates to the mid 2nd century and is the size of a business card. Very early manuscripts are rare.
The average NT manuscript is about 200 pages, and in all, we have about 1.3 million pages of text. No two manuscripts are identical, except in the smallest fragments, and the many manuscripts which preserve New Testament texts differ among themselves in many respects, with some estimates of 200,000 to 300,000 differences among the various manuscripts. According to Ehrman,
In the 2008 Greer-Heard debate series, noted NT scholars Bart Ehrman and Daniel B. Wallace discussed these variances in detail. Wallace mentioned that understanding the meaning of the number of variances is not as simple as looking at the number of variances, but one must consider also the number of manuscripts, the types of errors, and among the more serious discrepancies, what impact they do or do not have.
Some familiar examples of Gospel passages thought to have been added by later interpolators include the Pericope Adulteræ (John 7:53 - 8:11), the Comma Johanneum (1 John 5:7–8), and the longer ending in Mark 16 (Mark 16:9-20).
For hundreds of years, biblical and textual scholars have examined the manuscripts extensively. Since the eighteenth century, they have employed the techniques of textual criticism to reconstruct how the extant manuscripts of the New Testament texts might have descended, and to recover earlier recensions of the texts. However, some inerrantists often prefer the traditional texts used in their churches to modern attempts of reconstruction, arguing that the Holy Spirit is just as active in the preservation of the scriptures as in their creation. These inerrantists are found particularly in non-Protestant churches, but also a few Protestant groups hold such views.

Inerrantist response

Evangelical Christians generally accept the findings of textual criticism, and nearly all modern translations, including the popular New International Version, work from a Greek New Testament based on modern textual criticism.
Since this means that the manuscript copies are not perfect, inerrancy is only applied to the original autographs (the manuscripts written by the original authors) rather than the copies. For instance, the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy says, We affirm that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture
Less commonly, more conservative views are held by some groups:

King James Only

The King-James-Only Movement holds that the translators of the King James Version English Bible were guided by God, and that the KJV thus is to be taken as the authoritative English Bible. However, those who hold this opinion do not extend it to the KJV translation into English of the Apocryphal books, which were produced along with the rest of the Authorized Version. Modern translations differ from the KJV on numerous points, sometimes resulting from access to different early texts, largely as a result of work in the field of Textual Criticism. Upholders of the KJV-only position nevertheless hold that the Protestant canon of KJV is itself an inspired text and therefore remains authoritative. The King-James-Only Movement asserts that the KJV is the sole English translation free from error.

Textus Receptus

Similar to the King James Only view is the view that translations must be derived from the Textus Receptus in order to be considered inerrant. As the King James Version is an English translation, this leaves speakers of other languages in a difficult position, hence the belief in the Textus Receptus as the inerrant source text for translations to modern languages. For example, in Spanish-speaking cultures the commonly accepted "KJV-equivalent" is the Reina-Valera 1909 revision (with different groups accepting, in addition to the 1909 or in its place, the revisions of 1862 or 1960).

Logic for arriving at the doctrine of inerrancy

A number of reasons are offered by Christian theologians to justify Biblical inerrancy.
Norman Geisler and William Nix (1986) claim that scriptural inerrancy is established by a number of observations and processes, which include:
  • the historical accuracy of the Bible
  • the Bible's claims of its own inerrancy
  • church history and tradition
  • one's individual experience with God
Daniel B. Wallace, Professor of New Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary, divides the various evidences into two approaches - deductive and inductive approaches.

Deductive Reasoning to arrive at Inerrancy

The deductive approach starts with the presupposition that the bible is inspired, and therefore, self-authorizing. In other words, if it claims to be inerrant, based on its own authority, it is, and all other evidences are marshaled to support that pre-supposition.
The first deductive justification is that the Bible claims to be inspired by God (for instance "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness" (2 Timothy 3:16 NIV), and because God is perfect, the Bible must also be perfect, and hence free from error. For instance, the statement of faith of the Evangelical Theological Society says, "The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs."
A second reason offered is that Jesus and the apostles used the Old Testament in a way which assumes it is inerrant. For instance in Galatians 3:16, Paul bases his argument on the fact that the word "seed" in the Genesis reference to "Abraham and his seed", is singular rather than plural. This (it is claimed) sets a precedent for inerrant interpretation down to the individual letters of the words. Similarly Jesus said that every minute detail of the Old Testament Law must be fulfilled (Matthew 5:18), indicating (it is claimed) that every detail must be correct.
For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. Matthew 5:18, KJV
Although in these verses Jesus and the apostles are only referring to the Old Testament, the argument extends to the New Testament writings, because 2 Peter 3:16 accords the status of Scripture to New Testament writings also: "He (Paul) writes the same way in all his letters... which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures" (2 Peter 3:16, NIV).

Inductive Reasoning to arrive at Inerrancy

Wallace describes the inductive approach by enlisting the Presbyterian theologian B. B. Warfield: In his Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, Warfield lays out an argument for inerrancy that has been virtually ignored by today’s evangelicals. Essentially, he makes a case for inerrancy on the basis of inductive evidence, rather than deductive reasoning. Most evangelicals today follow E. J. Young’s deductive approach toward bibliology, forgetting the great articulator of inerrancy. But Warfield starts with the evidence that the Bible is a historical document, rather than with the presupposition that it is inspired.

Doctrine of Preservation

One related, and some would say essential support to inerrancy is the doctrine of Biblical preservation, which simply states that we can trust the scriptures because God has sovereignly managed the transmission process. The doctrine maintains that inasmuch as God divinely inspired the text He also divinely preserved it throughout the centuries.

Some Clarifications of the Doctrine of Inerrancy

Inerrancy as Accurate v. True

Harold Lindsell points out that it is a "gross distortion" to state that people who believe in inerrancy suppose every statement made in the Bible is true (opposed to accurate). He indicates there are expressly false statements in the Bible which are reported accurately
Infallibility and inerrancy refer to the original texts of the Bible. And while conservative scholars acknowledge the potential for human error in transmission and translation, modern translations are considered to "faithfully represent the originals".

Criticisms of biblical inerrancy

Scientific and historical criticism

Biblical inerrancy has been criticized on the grounds that many statements about history or science that are found in Scripture, if taken literally, rather than phenomenologically, may be construed to be untenable or contradictory. Inerrancy is argued to be a falsifiable proposition: if the Bible is found to contain any mistakes or contradictions, the proposition of strict inerrancy has been refuted. Many inerrantists have offered explanations of why these are not errors.

Theological criticisms

Theological criticisms refers to criticisms which are that the Bible does not teach, or require, its own inerrancy.
Proponents of biblical inerrancy often prefer the translations of Bible verse 2|Timothy|3:16|9 that render it as "all scripture is given by inspiration of God,", and they interpret this to mean that the whole Bible is inerrant. However, critics of this doctrine think that the Bible makes no direct claim to be inerrant or infallible. C H Dodd argues the same sentence can also be translated "Every inspired scripture is also useful..." nor does the verse define the Biblical canon. In context, this passage refers only to the Old Testament writings understood to be scripture at the time it was written. However there are indications that Paul's writings were being considered, at least by the author of the Second Epistle of Peter (Bible verse 2|Peter|3:16|9), as comparable to the Old Testament.
The idea that the Bible contains no mistakes is mainly justified by appeal to prooftexts that refer to its divine inspiration. However, this argument has been criticized as circular reasoning, because these statements only have to be accepted as true if the Bible is already thought to be inerrant. None of these texts say that because a text is inspired, it is therefore always correct in its historical or moral statements.
According to Bishop John Shelby Spong, the doctrine of biblical inerrancy has been a historical substitute for papal infallibility. "When Martin Luther countered the authority of the infallible pope, he did so in the name of his new authority, the infallible Scriptures. This point of view was generally embraced by all of the Reformation churches. The Bible thus became the paper pope of Protestantism."

Meaning of "Word of God"

Much debate over the kind of authority that should be accorded biblical texts centers on what is meant by the "Word of God". The term can refer to Christ Himself as well as to the proclamation of his ministry as kerygma. However, biblical inerrancy differs from this orthodoxy in viewing the Word of God to mean the entire text of the Bible when interpreted didactically as God's teaching. The idea of the Bible itself as Word of God, as being itself God's revelation, is criticized in neo-orthodoxy. Here the Bible is seen as a unique witness to the people and deeds that do make up the Word of God. However, it is a wholly human witness. All books of the Bible were written by human persons. Thus, whether the Bible is - in whole or in part - the Word of God is not clear. However, critics argue that the Bible can still be construed as the "Word of God" in the sense that these authors' statements may have been representative of, and perhaps even directly influenced by, God's own knowledge.
There is only one instance in the Bible where the phrase "The Word Of God" refers to something "written". The reference is to the "Decalogue" which many Christian denominations consider "passed away". However, most of the other references are to reported speech which is preserved in the Bible. The New Testament also contains a number of statements which refer to passages from the Old Testament as God's words, for instance Romans 3:2 (which says that the Jews have been "entrusted with the very words of God"), or the book of Hebrews, which often prefaces Old Testament quotations with words such as "God says". The Bible also contains words spoken by human beings to God, such as Eliphaz(Job 42:7) and the prayers and songs of the Psalter. That these are God's words addressed to us was at the root of a lively mediaeval controversy. The idea of the word of God is more that God is encountered in scripture, than that every line of scripture is a statement made by God.
The phrase "The Word Of God" is never applied to our modern Bible, within the Bible itself. Supporters of inerrancy argue that that is simply because the Bible canon was not closed.

Practical objections

Practical objections refers to arguments which do not seek to disprove inerrancy per se, but which attempt to demonstrate that it is irrelevant or meaningless.


One point that has been argued is that, even if the text were guaranteed inerrant in its original language, this no longer holds true after translation, because there is no such thing as a perfect translation. The original texts were primarily written in Hebrew and Greek with translations in several ancient languages - Hebrew, Koine Greek, Coptic and Syriac - which few are now familiar with. Translators from one language to another are often faced with several ways in which a phrase may be translated, particularly in the case of poetic passages, and the language into which the Bible is being translated is constantly evolving and changing. Mistaken translations of the Bible are occasionally proposed or discovered. For instance, scholars write that an early messianic prophecy (Isaiah 7:14) did not require that the Messiah's mother be a virgin, only young. It has been proposed that the Gospels' description of the Virgin Mary (Matthew 1:23) were manufactured to fit with a prophecy they themselves read in a mistranslated version.
Some biblical passages are conventionally treated as verse, and others as different kinds of prose: this has not always been the case. Some of the prose contains many linguistic forms that indicate poetry. The two forms have a certain mutual overlap. Inerrancy as a doctrine itself provides no clear hermeneutic for discovering how the literal communications found in prose can be distinguished from the symbolic and metaphorical elements of poetry.

Major religious views on the Bible

Roman Catholics

The Roman Catholic Christian view of inerrancy has traditionally maintained the Bible is "sacred and canonical, not as having been composed by merely human labour" and that it contains "revelation without error" because it was divinely inspired. Pope Leo XIII declared the "ancient and traditional belief of the Church" was "absolute immunity of Scripture from error" because "God, the Supreme Truth, necessarily cannot be the Author of error".

Eastern Orthodox Christians

The Eastern Orthodox Church also believes in unwritten tradition and the written scriptures, but it has rarely sought to clarify the relationship between them. Contemporary Eastern Orthodox theologians debate whether these are separate deposits of knowledge or different ways of understanding a single dogmatic reality. Father Georges Florovsky, for example, asserted that tradition is no more than "Scripture rightly understood". Because the Eastern Orthodox Church emphasizes the authority of councils, which belong to all the bishops, it stresses the canonical uses more than inspiration of scripture. Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, most Eastern Orthodox theologians also recognize that a final seal of authenticity or ecumenicity is that the body of the church receives the councils. Since the acceptance of the Septuagint and New Testament by leading regional bishops of the second century was based on those texts' faithfulness to the same apostolic teaching to which the church traditions are also faithful. The Eastern Orthodox Church emphasizes that the scriptures can only be understood according to a normative rule of faith (the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, in short) and way of life that has continued from Christ and the Apostles to this day, and beyond.

Protestant views

The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy

In 1978 a large gathering of American Protestant churches, including representatives of the Conservative, Reformed and Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Baptist denominations, adopted the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. The Chicago Statement does not imply that any particular traditional translation of the Bible is without error. Instead, it gives primacy to seeking the intention of the author of each original text, and commits itself to receiving the statement as fact depending on whether it can be determined or assumed that the author meant to communicate a statement of fact. Acknowledging that there are many kinds of literature in the Bible besides statements of fact, the Statement nevertheless reasserts the authenticity of the Bible in toto as the word of God. Advocates of the Chicago Statement are worried that accepting one error in the Bible leads one down a slippery slope that ends in rejecting that the Bible has any value greater than some other book. ''"The authority of Scripture is inescapably impaired if this total divine inerrancy is in any way limited or disregarded, or made relative to a view of truth contrary to the Bible's own; and such lapses bring serious loss to both the individual and the church."''


Evangelical churches, unlike Eastern and Roman churches, reject that there is an infallible authoritative tradition that is held over, or on a par with, scripture. Some Evangelicals hold that the Bible confirms its own authority, pointing out that Jesus frequently quotes scripture as his final "court of appeal". The reasoning is that if the Bible is assumed to be inerrant and the only form of God's word, then that implies that the Bible is fully reliable. Tradition on the other hand is seen to be subject to human memory, and may have many versions of the same events/truths, some of which may be contradictory.
Evangelical churches which hold to Biblical inerrancy will often make a prominent, unambiguous statement supporting this in a list of their beliefs, such as the Reformed Episcopal Church.

Wesleyan and Methodist view of scripture

The Wesleyan and Methodist Christian tradition affirms that the Bible is authoritative on matters concerning faith and practice. The United Methodist Church does not use the word "inerrant" to describe the Bible, but it does believe that the Bible is God's Word, and as such, is the primary authority for faith and practice.
What is of central importance for the Wesleyan Christian tradition is the Bible as a tool which God uses to promote salvation. According to this tradition, the Bible does not itself effect salvation; God initiates salvation and proper creaturely responses consummate salvation. One may be in danger of bibliolatry if one claims that the Bible secures salvation.
With this focus on salvation, Wesleyans need not make claims about inerrancy in the original autographs, subsequent translations, or particular interpretations. And yet Wesleyans affirm the Bible to be principally authoritative for faith and practice, and the Bible is often a principal means for God to promote salvation in the world.

Lutheran views

While the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada does not appear to have an official statement regarding biblical inerrancy, The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod, the Lutheran Church - Canada, the Evangelical Lutheran Synod and many other smaller Lutheran bodies, as well as the larger Lutheran Church of Australia and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America hold to Scriptural inerrancy. The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod strongly states it rejects errancy doctrine as "horrible and blasphemous, since it flatly contradicts Christ and His holy apostles, set up men as judges over the Word of God, and thus overthrows the foundation of the Christian Church and its faith".

Latter-day Saint views

The 8th Article of Faith of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints states that "We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly..." Mormon doctrines are that no book of scripture is perfect.



  • Gleason Archer, 2001. New Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties. ISBN 0-310-24146-4
  • N. T. Wright, The Last Word: Beyond Bible Wars to a New Understanding of the Authority of Scripture. Harper-San Francisco, 2005. ISBN 0-06-081609-4
  • Kathleen C. Boone: The Bible Tells Them So: The Discourse of Protestant Fundamentalism, State Univ of New York Press 1989, ISBN 0-88706-895-2
  • Ethelbert W.Bullinger, Figures of Speech Used in the Bible Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1970.
  • Bart D. Ehrman, 2003. Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew. Oxford University Press, Inc. ISBN 0-19-518249-9
  • Norman Geisler, ed. (1980). Inerrancy. ISBN 0-310-39281-0.
  • Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe, (1999) When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties.
  • Norman Geisler and William E. Nix., A General Introduction to the Bible, Moody Publishers; Rev&Expndd edition (August 1986), ISBN 0-8024-2916-5
  • Walter C. Kaiser, Peter H. Davids, F. F. Bruce, Manfred T. Brauch. (1996). Hard Sayings of the Bible
  • Charles Caldwell Ryrie (1981). What you should know about inerrancy. ISBN 0-8024-8785-8
  • Sproul, R. C.. Hath God Said? (video series).
  • John Walvoord (1990). What We Believe: Understanding and Applying the Basics of Christian Life. ISBN 0-929239-31-8
  • Warfield, B. B. (1977 reprint). Inspiration and Authority of Bible, with a lengthy introductory essay by Cornelius Van Til. ISBN 0-8010-9586-7.
  • Dei Verbum Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (1965)
inerrancy in German: Fundamentalistische Exegese
inerrancy in French: Inerrance biblique
inerrancy in Indonesian: Ineransi
inerrancy in Italian: Inerranza della Bibbia
inerrancy in Japanese: 聖書の無誤性
inerrancy in Portuguese: Inerrância bíblica
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