Does it matter whether the Bible is errant or inerrant, fallible or infallible, inspired or uninspired? What’s all the fuss about the doctrine of inerrancy? Why do Christians debate this issue? What difference does an inerrant Bible make?
Before answering that question, we should consider in what way inerrancy doesn’t make a difference. The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy states:
We affirm that a confession of the full authority, infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture is vital to a sound understanding of the whole of the Christian faith. We further affirm that such confession should lead to increasing conformity to the image of Christ. We deny that such confession is necessary for salvation. However, we further deny that inerrancy can be rejected without grave consequences both to the individual and to the church (Article 19).
The statement strikes a delicate balance. It affirms that the doctrine of inerrancy is “vital to a sound understanding of the whole of the Christian faith” and that to deny it has grave consequences for the individual and the church. However, this statement also makes clear that belief in inerrancy is not necessary for salvation. While inerrancy is crucial for understanding the Christian faith and “increasing conformity to the image of Christ,” a person does not have to hold to it to be a Christian.
The Authority of Christ
But what difference does the inerrancy of Scripture make? Why does it matter? There are many ways in which it matters a great deal. However, ultimately, the inerrancy of Scripture is not a doctrine about a book. The issue is the person and work of Christ.
Allow me to illustrate. Years ago I was speaking in Philadelphia on the question of the authority of Scripture. After my lecture I came down to the front of the church, and I saw a man making his way toward me. Instantly, I recognized his face, even though it had been about twenty years since I’d seen him last. His name was Charlie. We were roommates in college and prayer partners. We made our way through the crowd and embraced one another.
We dismissed ourselves from the conference and went out for dinner. As we sat down, Charlie said to me, “Before we have a conversation, there is something I have to tell you.” I said, “What’s that?” He told me, “I don’t believe any more what I used to believe about Scripture when we were in college together. Back then I believed in inerrancy, but I’ve been to seminary and have been exposed to higher criticism. I just don’t believe that the Bible is inerrant anymore. I wanted to clear the air so that we can go on from there.” I replied, “Fine, Charlie, but let me ask you this. What do you still believe from the old days?” And triumphantly Charlie said, “I still believe that Jesus Christ is my Savior and my Lord.” I was happy to hear that, but then I started to ask questions that clearly made Charlie uncomfortable.
I asked, “Charlie, how is Jesus Lord of your life?” He replied, “What do you mean?” I said, “Well, a Lord is someone who exercises authority over you, who gives you marching orders, who has the ability to compel you to obey, and who requires you to submit to obligation and duty. If Christ is your Lord, aren’t you saying He has sovereign authority over you?” “Yeah,” he said.
I probed a little deeper, “How does Christ exercise that sovereignty over you? How do you get your marching orders from Him? It’s apparently not from the Bible.” Charlie thought for a moment, “I get it from the church.” I said, “Okay, which church? The Methodist Church, the Episcopalian Church, the Roman Catholic Church, or the Presbyterian Church?” He answered, “The Presbyterian Church.” I then asked, “The Presbyterian Church in Wichita, the Presbyterian Church in Cincinnati, or the Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia—which church?” He answered, “The General Assembly.” I replied, “Which General Assembly?” He finally admitted, “Well, I’ve got some problems that I haven’t worked out yet.” I said, “You certainly do have problems that you haven’t worked out yet. You want to affirm the Lordship of Christ, but your Lord is impotent. He has no way of conveying any mandate to you whatsoever, because you stand above the recorded mandates of Christ in Scripture. You set yourself over them in critical judgment.”
The Integrity of Christ
At this point, our conversation shifted from the question of authority to the question of salvation. I asked Charlie, “What would it take for Jesus to save you? If Jesus sinned, could He save Himself? Could He save you?” He acknowledged that if Jesus were a sinner, He couldn’t save Himself, let alone Charlie and me. But then Charlie asked, “What difference does it make whether we believe in inerrancy? And how does Jesus’ being sinless relate to your point?” “Because Charlie,” I said, “Jesus taught inerrancy.”
My conversation with Charlie demonstrated an interesting phenomenon. Charlie, like many contemporary biblical scholars who deny inerrancy, agreed that Jesus of Nazareth believed and taught what we would today call the doctrine of inerrancy. At the same time, like many contemporary biblical scholars who deny inerrancy, Charlie confessed Jesus as His Lord and Savior. But that is inconsistent, and I wanted to point that out to my friend. So I asked him, “Okay, now you are disagreeing not with me or B. B. Warfield or Charles Hodge of the old Princeton School. Now you are quarreling with Jesus and the apostles and the prophets. Were they wrong?” He said, “Yes, they were wrong.” “Okay,” I said. “Think seriously about it. What are the implications of Jesus being wrong about His doctrine of Scripture?” Charlie, an astute theologian, said, “Look, R.C., what difference does it make whether Jesus was wrong? Jesus doesn’t have to be omniscient to be my Savior.” I agreed, “He doesn’t.”
The issue in our conversation, however, was not omniscience. When we talk about omniscience, we are talking about an attribute of God. That is, God knows everything. Charlie’s point was that Jesus—touching his human nature—did not know all things. He then went right to the Bible to prove it, pointing out, for example, that Jesus does not know the day and hour of His return (Matt. 24:36). But the conversation I had with Charlie wasn’t really about omniscience. It was actually about sinlessness.
Touching His human nature, Jesus is not required to be omniscient to be my Savior. However, He is required to be sinless. Jesus would be numbered among the transgressors for teaching an error. He claimed to speak on the basis on His Father’s authority (John 8:28; 14:10). He also declared, “I am the truth” (John 14:6). That is the highest claim to teaching authority ever uttered. If a man who claims to be the truth and to say nothing except by divine authority teaches error, that’s sin. And if He sins once, we don’t have a Savior. That’s what is at stake.
When I spelled this out for Charlie, he told me, “I’ve got a problem.” To which I replied, “Yes, you do. You want to get rid of Jesus’ view of Scripture and hold onto Him as your Savior and Lord. You’re on very shaky grounds, if you want to be consistent.” Charlie was living in the delightful breeze of a happy inconsistency. But do you see what the issue is here? It is the integrity of Christ.
Charlie is a good example of a person who can deny inerrancy but still believe in Jesus as Lord and Savior. But this is possible only if one is inconsistent. Happily, God doesn’t demand perfect consistency in our theology for salvation. If that were the case, no sinner could be saved because no sinner holds to a perfect theology. That doesn’t mean, however, that we should be content with inconsistency. At the end of the day, inerrancy is inseparable from Christology. If Jesus didn’t teach this view of Scripture, the argument would be over. The issue is not the sacrosanctity of a book, a “paper pope,” or bibliolatry. The issue at stake is the integrity of the person and work of Jesus. He can save us only if He is sinless, and He is sinless only if all of His teaching—including what He teaches about Scripture—is true.