December 5, 2020

Tuesday with Michael Spencer: Five Reasons I Don’t Use the Term “Inerrancy”

A Patch of Winter Sky (2020)

Tuesday with Michael Spencer
Five Reasons I Don’t Use the Term “Inerrancy”

Five Reasons I Don’t Use The Term Inerrancy:

1. Inerrancy is a term that requires too many intelligent, honest Christians to violate their consciences over what they read in the text of the Bible, and no amount of “Resolving Bible Difficulties” resources can solve these issues. The result- those who are convinced shouting derision at those who are not- is an embarrassment to the church.

2. Inerrancy is a term that needlessly divides the church, making many Bible-believing, Christ-following, Kingdom-pursuing believers into outsiders and enemies in their own house.

3. Inerrancy is a term that requires too much special definition to be generally useful. It requires such massive, scholarly, near circular, qualification of the term “error,” that it succeeds in making the word “inerrant” as applied to many Biblical texts a non sequitur.

4. Requiring allegiance to the term inerrancy has proven to be ineffective in producing the predicted revitalization in denominations, churches or the evangelical movement. “Inerrantist” evangelicalism is more idolatrous, culturally captive and spiritually impoverished than ever. In many cases, the worldliness and pragmatism of evangelicalism stands in bizarre contradistinction to their loud proclamation of belief in “inerrancy.”

5. The term inerrancy is a recent innovation, absent from most of Christian history and almost every major confession. How do contemporary evangelicals get the right to insist that a term created in their time be binding on those who say they share the same faith in the Bible as those who did not use the term? If I say, “I am going to use the same words about the Bible that _____________ used,” are you going to condemn me if I don’t use “inerrancy?”


  1. I believe the Bible is exactly what God intended it to be. So instead of trying to impose our expectations on the Bible of what we modern people think it ought to be (e.g. an inerrant collection of facts, moral codes, and doctrine) we shouldn’t be afraid to look at what the Bible actually is and see if that teaches us something about who God is, how God operates, and how we’re supposed to interact with scripture.

    When you’re reading the Bible through that lens, the fact that the Bible is a collection of many distinct human voices, sometimes disagreeing with each other, is not a threat to our faith. Rather, it tells us that God’s way of interacting with us has always been incarnational: a partnership and collaboration in which God trusts limited and imperfect human beings with God’s very self, over and over again. It also tells us that God didn’t intend the Bible to be a collection of simple black-and-white answers, but a complex and multi-layered text that teaches us wisdom and discernment as we wrestle with it.

    • Christiane says

      “Rather, it tells us that God’s way of interacting with us has always been incarnational: a partnership and collaboration in which God trusts limited and imperfect human beings with God’s very self, over and over again. ”

      very thought-provoking comment

      the idea of ‘Incarnation’ is not as fully developed in Western Christianity as it is in Eastern Christianity, and although we in the West have the term ‘Logos’, we still don’t see among fundamentalist-evangelicals a trust in relying fully on Jesus Christ as the ‘lens’ through which to read sacred Scripture,
      which I suppose has led to some sorry ‘interpretations’ of the Bible indeed.

      Your use of the word ‘incarnation’ in reference to the Word seems important to me, yes. And also the idea that God uses imperfect human persons in His work . . . somehow more reassuring more than not. It speaks of ‘grace’.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      INERRANCY(TM) all too easily turns the Bible into a Party Line —
      doubleplusgoodthink BIBLE,
      doubleplusbellyfeel BIBLE,
      doubleplusduckspeak BIBLE.

  2. Burro (Mule) says

    I wish I understood what was meant by ‘inerrant’. Chances are I believe something pretty close about the Scriptures myself -ou dunetai luth?nal ai graph?- and all that. I understand the response to the difficulties with the histories that really aren’t histories in the sense we use the word, or the problems with granularity. That’s to be expected in any human document.

    But I kind of lose my patience when, for example, form criticism is used as was done recently here to say that the church’s reluctance to ordain women or allow them to speak in an official capacity in the church was the result of the church’s compromise with temporality, as if the whole church had dropped 200 µg of some good acid but now the effects are wearing off and we have to pack up for work tomorrow morning.

    • But wouldn’t you expect a “human document” to reflect the exigencies of the human environment and culture in which it arose?

      • Burro (Mule) says

        Yes, I do, but we also don’t discount that culture’s epistemology as if ours was innately superior. ‘In the fulness of time’, and all that.

        PS – I trust the Fathers over the Academy.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      -ou dunetai luth?nal ai graph?-

      Was that a statement in Greek or Hebrew that didn’t come across?

  3. Too often, the word inerrancy is merely code for “my so-called literal interpretation as I understand it is correct and yours is wrong.”

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      “my so-called literal interpretation as I understand it is correct and yours is wrong.”

      i.e. Coup Counted in the game of Biblical One-Upmanship.

    • Christiane says

      Chaplain Mike,
      I see this over on G. Veith’s Lutheran site on Patheos Evangelical . . . so many of the comments seem to come more from fundamentalists than from Lutherans, in the ways they are worded. I suspect those writers may not be Lutheran but I do not know that for sure.

      • I think Veith is Missouri Synod. Some conservative Missouri Synod Lutherans speak of Scriptural authority in ways very similar to Christian fundamentalism; actually, I think conservative Missouri Synod Lutheranism is a form of Christian fundamentalism.

        • I’m pretty sure Veith is LCMS. I’m absolutely positive that he has signed on fully with the evangelical culture warriors.

          • Yes, Veith is LCMS. This is immediately obvious to the Lutheranism-attuned, even before confirming it. (Well, I suppose there could be a lingering suspicion of his being WELS, but I suspect a WELS pastor wouldn’t blog on a site like Patheos, thereby risking cooties.)

            And yes, Veith is a good illustration of how LCMS (at least its Super-Lutheran! contingent) are in practice Evangelicals. They would deny this, of course, and when talk is sufficiently abstract theology they don’t sound like Evangelicals. Come to think of it, when the talk is like that they sound indistinguishable from ELCA pastors. But move to the practical and they are indistinguishable from Evangelicals. The major exception I can think of is closed communion, which comes as a shock to Evangelicals toying with trying something more liturgical while staying safely in their culture war comfort zone.

  4. This is really a meaningless discussion. To someone who believes the Bible literary you will never change their mind. To someone who doesn’t their minds won’t be changed. We keep having this discussion and keep chasing our tails to what end ?

  5. Did Jesus Christ , Son of God, arise from the grave in 3 days ? Is that true or not, literally

    • He died on a Friday afternoon and resurrected on a Sunday morning. Is that a “literal” three days? Is 48ish hours three days, or two? See, we can both agree that Jesus physically resurrected and disagree over what is “literally” in the Scriptures.

    • Michael Bell says

      Correct me if I am wrong Dan, but it seems like you are jumping to the: “if he doesn’t believe inerrancy he doesn’t believe in the resurrection” logical fallacy.

      Inerrancy and literalism, while joined at the hip, are two different sets of propositions.

      When Jesus said “This is my body that was broken for you” do you take that literally. Some do, some don’t. You can believe either way regardless of your view of inerrancy.

      How about when he said “I am the vine”. Do you take that literally. Most don’t regardless of their view of inerrancy.

    • Burro (Mule) says

      It’s kind of a valid question. Considering how often the distance between our culture and ANE or Second Temple world-view is used around here to jazz-hand objections to “plain” Biblical teaching (“plain” in the sense that a reader without extensive specialized knowledge would interpret it), it isn’t beyond the pale to include the Resurrection to this. My adolescence was the floodtide of Protestant Liberalism, and my pastor most certainly did not believe in a bodily resurrection that would cast a shadow. “‘Lots of stories about dying corn-gods flying around back then”, he said. “It was a product of the times.”

      • Thanks guys for your comments, just to clarify the amount of day 2 or 3 to me is not the point, it can be either and does not change the main, the only question, the whole base , foundational belief of Christianity which is the question , Did Jesus really arise from the dead, did he defeat death, was he resurrected by God in reality in this world or was it a symbolic, mystical action that was believed by the early followers who made it true to them by their deep faith. Is the Bible to be taken at face value that Jesus Christ rose from the dead as the Bible says clearly. If that point of the Bible is not true and accurate than the foundation of Christianity is certainly changed.
        I think that is why many fundamentals feel obligated to defend the entire Bible as it may weakened the resurrection . So in brief , resurrection , happened for sure if your belief or it did not but you still believe Jesus was sent by God.

        • Dan,

          as regards the Resurrection, its actuality and its meaning (defeat of death) – those things were believed by the very first Christians because of their ***experience*** in meeting the risen Jesus and interacting with him for the 40 days before his Ascension. Before that, those good Jewish people would not have found much of anything that was *explicit* about it in their Scriptures (the Old Testament). They testified about Jesus – and their experience with him and the meaning of what he did – to their fellows, and then to the wider world YEARS BEFORE there was anything written down about it.

          Forgive my “yelling” with caps – I just think this is something very important that those who regard Scripture highly (and all Christians should!) tend to forget, especially when discussing “inerrancy”. “Inerrancy” is not the same thing as “historicity”, but in our post-Enlightenment philosophical framework Christian thinkers have conflated to two, because of how important a particular idea about “historical fact” is to our way of thinking about things.

          The Gospels were certainly written in the 1st Century, close to the time of the events. BUT the next generation of Christians – and all subsequent generations – either believed the testimony or they did not believe. Writing down that testimony helped it spread, and that was a good thing, but writing something down is not the same thing as being able to prove it happened. People believe a lot of true things that aren’t written down, and just because something is written down doesn’t make it a factual event.

          Yes, the message has power (because of the One it’s about) – and it has that power whether it’s written down or not. In either case, the Holy Spirit has to enliven the testimony and its message inside the person with a heart that is “good soil” and who hears – or reads – in order for that person to trust Jesus. The Book is a good thing, given by God and handed down by faithful people – and many thousands came to Christ before that Book was ever widely circulated.


          • Dana, as usual good thoughts from you. Do not worry about the caps, I am hard of hearing and probably of understanding. Yes, the OT for shadowed the coming of Jesus, of course. To sum up people that believe Jesus is the Son of God and is who he said he was believe it totally as they are moved by the Holy Spirit, there is no need of proof, I think we agree on that , so in my case I believe without a doubt that Jesus is who he said he was and accept Jesus as Savior, Son of God, Messiah as fact based on what is in the New Testament and my heart felt conviction. My point is for whatever rationale you either believe Jesus is who he said he is or you do not, the proof is in your individual heart. From beginning to end it is part of God’s plan and I certainly do not understand it but accept it as true. I am a none but enjoy attending church wit others.

          • Dana wrote;
            “The Book is a good thing, given by God and handed down by faithful people – and many thousands came to Christ before that Book was ever widely circulated.”

            Precisely my point of view. When I’ve asked Evangelicals how people “got saved” before literacy was wide spread and bibles were available they act as though they think things have always been as they presently are.

            I very much appreciate Fr. Freeman’s article Has Your Bible Become A Quran?


      • Yes the whole “dying and rising god” thing is rather quaint these days. What appears to have happened is that in the attempt to find Christianity’s place in the larger Mediterranean world scholars began to look at pagan religions through a Christian lens. The goal especially over the last fifty years has been to look at pagan religions on their own terms.

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          I think Lewis put it this way (paraphrased from memory):

          All these cultures had their dying and rising corn gods. And then here comes a man who goes through the entire dying and rising god cycle without giving any hint he was ever aware of the parallels. In the only culture in their known world which DIDN’T have a dying and rising god myth.

    • No. As the Creed states, “…arose on the third day.” Not “in three days.”

  6. I think the idea of inerrancy was a consequence of ‘Sola Scriptura’. If you believe your foundational truth is strictly derived from the text then there must be a basis for that truth and that basis must be freedom from error. The effort to rationalize the discrepancies that do appear has generated hallucinogenic levels of secondary literature. It would be interesting to collect all the attempts to reconcile the two Nativity stories in a book. (You would have to include a chapter or two discussing why neither Mark or John thought Jesus’ divinity was irreconcilable with a normal biological birth.)

    • I think it’s simpler than that – inerrancy and “sola scriptura” are both a product of the Enlightenment. It brought about a major societal shift where people began to believe that the path to ultimate and absolute truth was the scientific method and intellectual argument, rather than wisdom traditions or spiritual practices or mystical experiences. In that setting Christians who wanted to claim absolute truth needed to treat theology like a science in order to be taken seriously by the prevailing culture.

      Now, of course, we’re seeing a shift from a modern to a postmodern mindset. The closest Biblical parallel is that we’re shifting away from a “Greek” culture where the mind is paramount and toward a more “Hebrew,” embodied, story-driven and gut-driven culture. (Whether that’s a good or a bad thing is kind of beside the point, because the shift is going to happen regardless of what we think of it.)

      I often hear people (including in the comments here) behaving as if the opposite of “inerrancy” is the sort of liberal, deconstructionist, non-literal textual criticism you get from people like the Jesus Seminar. But those theologians (who are all in their 60s or 70s now) are actually all still approaching Scripture from a “modern” mindset – attacking the Bible for contradicting itself, but not questioning the underlying assumption that if the Bible is the “perfect Word of God” it ought to be a collection of perfect rules and answers. That’s why younger generations don’t resonate at all with those theologians – because from a postmodern perspective, they’re not even asking the right questions, and the questions they do ask are unimportant.

      For example, from a postmodern perspective the factual correctness of every line of Scripture is far less important than the fact that by immersing ourselves in Scripture we can experience God, be formed into more mature followers of Christ, and find our place in the story of God’s people. It’s not that a person coming from a postmodern perspective denies the truth of key parts of the Biblical narrative, but that arguing over what is factual and in what sense is a distraction from the actual core of Christian discipleship, which is for Christ to be formed in us through intimate relationship with God.

      • Jon Bartlett says

        +1 It always amazes me that those Christians who are ant-science are usually also those who have the most scientific, literal-historic, inerrant view of the Bible

      • “Sola scritpura” came out of the Reformation. The Enlightenment was about a century and a half or so later.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      I think the idea of inerrancy was a consequence of ‘Sola Scriptura’. If you believe your foundational truth is strictly derived from the text then there must be a basis for that truth and that basis must be freedom from error.

      i.e. Everything HAS to be Absolutely Utterly Airtight or everything Absolutely Utterly Collapses. (“Every Single Jot, Every Single Tittle” if you want to get Biblical, “Psychotic Rigidity” if you don’t.)

      And just like the old Soviet System, it cannot afford to “go soft” on or change ANYTHING, on pain of Total Destruction.

  7. Christiane says

    finally, I heard that some of our American fire fighters are going to Australia to help out, and I am so glad to hear this

    hopefully, they can help the Aussies who must, by now, be exhausted from constant day and night effort against the fires

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      According to local news radio, a lot of these American fire fighters going to Oz are West Coast veterans of our wildfires. We have two seasons out here: Rainy Season (corresponding to the rest of the country’s Winter) and Fire Season (the rest of the year). And with McMansions crowding the Chaparral-covered hills, our wildfires are getting more and more destructive. (And since here the most expensive/prestigious real estate are those same hills, after each fire they rebuild everything in the exact same fire-prone areas, ready for the next fire.)

      • Not to forget that the houses that remain in those hills that have beencleared of all vegetation by the fires, get washed down the same hills when the rains come and the mud slides hit. Stoopidity… Maybe it’s something in the California air?!?


        • Burro (Mule) says

          California used to be so beautiful.

          • Susan Dumbrell says

            So was our East Coast. The Summer is not over.

            • Burro (Mule) says

              I have heard disturbing reports that in many cases, both in California and New South Wales, some fires have been started by arsonists. I cannot fathom that.

              Regardless of how the fires started may God send rain and extinguish them. My poor prayers are with you all.

              • Headless Unicorn Guy says

                I have heard two unconfirmed accounts about this (Susan, anybody — can you confirm?)

                1) There were 24 arson arrests for starting bush fires in NSW. My source claimed this sounded like a “coordinated terrorist attack” but was either “Fake News” or hushed up.

                2) For the past 50 years, Australia had not done “controlled back burns” to burn off bush fire fuel before it built up. This happened in California, where fire management stopped fires quickly and also didn’t do controlled burn-offs; the forest floor litter just built up until several decades of buildup went up all at once resulting in a Dresden-level Firestorm.

                This may be complicated by Aussie forests and bush being mostly Eucalyptus, which has so much flammable resin that it burns like last year’s Xmas tree soaked in gasoline/petrol. But then Cali has the most Eucalyptus outside of Oz so maybe it’s a factor here, too.

          • It’s still beautiful. Stoopid is mostly urban and doesn’t erase the beauty, just makes it harder to find…


            • Headless Unicorn Guy says

              Stoopid is spreading with the urban; we have a BAD problem with urban sprawl; you can drive over 100 miles (150 km) and NEVER get anywhere near open country. We have 60-mile (100km) plus commutes over major mountain passes because the only affordable sea of McMansions is around Victorville and Barstow. And the McMansions just keep spreading like a virus or Starbucks or Wal-Mart.