It is worth pausing first to say what inerrancy is not. Some people want inerrancy to include no grammatical irregularities or no strange spellings. Whereas to be quite frank, we in the West are only coming to standardized spelling fairly recently – just take a look at the Puritan spelling of 400 hundred years ago. It was bizarrely varied and so forth. Inerrancy does not have anything to do with picky details of that sort. Nor does it address the question whether or not the manuscripts were copied and copied and copied, and therefore sometimes leading to copies making mistakes. It does not address any of those sorts of questions.Inerrancy is finally tied to one sort of central issue – has God disclosed himself in
Inerrancy is finally tied to one sort of central issue – has God disclosed himself in words? Or has he only disclosed himself in numinous experiences? If he has disclosed himself in somehow subjective, mystical, numinous experiences that can’t be verbalized accurately, then any notion of inerrancy or the like just makes no sense. But if God in his mercy talks to us – if he’s a talking God, in our language, despite the fact that he inhabits eternity, he speaks to us in Hebrew and in Aramaic and in Greek (the languages of the Biblical periods) – then the question becomes: are his words reliable? When he speaks, does he speak the truth?
Obviously the Bible is made up of many different literary forms and genres, so sometimes the ways God discloses himself are very different than other ways that God discloses himself even in words. For example, through the prophet Jeremiah in the Old Testament, about six centuries before Christ, God gives Jeremiah certain words. Jeremiah dictates these words to his secretary. And his secretary writes them down. In the story, eventually some bad guys come along and pick up the manuscript – the only manuscript – and they start tearing it up and throwing it into the fire. As the reader, you are supposed to laugh because, after all, this was not a PhD dissertation by Jeremiah; rather God gave this to Jeremiah. Do you really think God has forgotten what he has said? So God gives it to Jeremiah again. This example is plain dictation.
In other passages, like Psalm 23, David can say “the Lord is my shepherd. I shall lack nothing.” David was not given that by dictation. He was expressing his own feelings and own understandings from his days as a shepherd boy. He thought this was a terrific analogy to talk about God. In both cases – Jeremiah and David – God used human individuals. This is true in other cases – some by dictation, some by visions and the like. In the case of Psalm 23, through the experiences of David, God produces a text that is simultaneously a text of the human writer and God’s own ordained, providentially-determined words.
So the question is: is this God a truth-speaking God? Of course there is lament and you do not ask the first question about lament – is it telling the truth? But in so far as there is a truth-claim in the material, then inerrancy is merely a way of saying “wherever there is a truth-claim, God’s words are-in-fact true” – that is all inerrancy is.
You could also say there are other categories. Is the Bible emotionally evocative? Yes it is. Is it usually symbol-laden? In some kinds of writing, yes it is hugely so – because it is made up of so many different kinds. In other words, truth is not the only standard to bring up against scripture. But because truth is the standard that is so often denied in today’s world, you therefore find confessing Christians wanting to affirm it using a variety of words. Inerrancy is simply one of those words to insist that where scripture purports to be telling you stuff – God’s words are reliable. They tell the truth. They don’t make mistakes. God knows what he is doing. That is what inerrancy is about.