Limited Inerrancy: A Contradiction in Terms

From on Aug 28, 2014

From the beginning, the church viewed the Scriptures as fully inerrant because God (who cannot err) inspired the text (see John Hannah, Inerrancy and the Church). However, more recent Neo-evangelicals who have departed from this notion have decided to follow in the footsteps of Robert Gundry, Jack Rogers and Donald McKim (see The Authority and Interpretation of the Bible, 1979) and have introduced a view of Scripture known as “limited inerrancy.” Why this radical departure from full inerrancy?

What is “Limited Inerrancy?”

According to Neo-evangelicals, the application of genre criticism tells us the Gospels are really Greco-Roman biographical literature, a flexible genre that allows biblical authors to incorporate into their text fiction dressed up in the garb of history (Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics [hereafter CSBH], XIII). These fictions include invented speeches that never took place in reality (CSBH, XIV), legend, and historical narrative that never occurred (Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy [hereafter, CSBI], XVIII). In fact, according to this recent fad, it is difficult to tell the difference between history and fiction. For the Neo-evangelicals, this limited view of inerrancy is a more defensible position since it accounts for the “intent” of the author, explains strange passages (the resurrection of the saints in Mt. 27:52-53), and is consistent with Greco-Roman extra-biblical literature.

“Limited Inerrancy” Inside the Evangelical Theological Society

What is ironic, many of those Neo-evangelical scholars who subscribe to limited inerrancy belong to the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS), the largest evangelical society of scholars in the world, which has accepted the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (CSBI, 1979) as their definition of full inerrancy. Despite Gundry (who was asked to resign from ETS), Rogers, and McKim being thoroughly refuted decades earlier (see John Woodbridge, A Critique of Roger/McKim Proposal, 1982), and the formulation of the CSBI (and the Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics, 1982) which was drafted and agreed upon by the largest group of evangelical scholars in history to address the inerrancy issue, still maintain a view of “limited inerrancy” that affirms the truthfulness of the spiritual message but not all the historical details.

“Limited Inerrancy” in Contrast to Full Inerrancy

CSBI clearly affirms full inerrancy, affirming “that inspiration, though not conferring omniscience, guaranteed true and trustworthy utterance on all matters of which the Biblical authors were moved to speak and write. WE DENY that the finitude or fallenness of these writers, by necessity or otherwise, introduced distortion or falsehood into God’s Word” (Article IX). Moreover, “WE AFFIRM that Scripture in its entirety is inerrant, being free from all falsehood, fraud, or deceit. WE DENY that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science” (Article XII). In addition, CSBI affirms “that Scripture, having been given by divine inspiration, is infallible, so that, far from misleading us, it is true and reliable in all the matters it addresses. WE DENY that it is possible for the Bible to be at the same time infallible and errant in its assertions. Infallibility and inerrancy may be distinguished, but not separated” (Article XI).

Harold Lindsell on “Limited Inerrancy”

Besides the severe problems of allowing extra-biblical sources to determine the truth-value of Scripture, the impossible task of discovering the biblical authors’ unexpressed intentions, and the lack of objective principle whereby one may distinguish between what in Scripture is history and what is fiction, Harold Lindsell correctly identified the difficulties and sobering implications that follow from “limited inerrancy.”

This term [limited inerrancy] is meaningless; it is nonsense.  The sooner we realize this, the sooner we will see the issue of inerrancy in its proper perspective.  And, at last, every deviation away from inerrancy ends up by casting a vote in favor of limited inerrancy.  Once limited inerrancy is accepted, it places the Bible in the same category with every other book that has ever been written. Every book contains in it some things that are true.  And what is true is inerrant.  Only two things remain to be determined once this position is acknowledged.  The first is what proportion of the book is true and what proportion false.  It may be 90 percent false and 10 percent true; or it may be 90 percent true and 10 percent false. The second thing that needs to be determined is what parts of the book are true.  Since the book contains both error and falsehood, of necessity, other criteria outside of the book [such as genre] must be brought to bear upon it to determine what is false and what is true.  Whatever the source of the other criteria, that becomes the judge of the book in question.  Thus the book becomes subordinated to the standard against which its truth is determined and measured.  If inspiration means anything, and if inspiration pertains to the totality of the Bible, then we must see what limited inerrancy means.  First, it means that something outside of and above the Bible becomes its judge.  There is something that is truer and more sure than Scripture and whatever it is has not been inspired by God.  So a noninspired source takes precedence over an inspire Bible.  Second, it leaves us in a vacuum without any basis for determining what parts of the Bible tell the truth and what parts do not.  For the evangelical, the genius of inspiration lies in the fact that it disposes of these problems and provides for us a book that we can trust so that when we come to it, we do not need to do so with suspicion nor do we need to ask the question: “Is this part to be trusted?”  This does not deliver us from the need to examine Scripture and to determine what it teaches.  But it does give us a word we can trust, and leaves us with the assurance that once we have gotten its true meaning, we can test every other book against the Bible and not let other books determine the truth of Scripture. (The Battle for the Bible, 203)

It appears Neo-evangelicals are drifting dangerously close to the Neo-orthodox notion that separates the Bible (an imperfect record of the Master’s voice) from the Word of God (infallible voice on spiritual matters), and divorcing historical matters from doctrinal/spiritual matters (cf. Jn. 3:12; Rom 4:25). We do well to remind ourselves of the sobering words of Carl F.H. Henry when he says, “Evangelicals do not dispute the fact that for a time at least Christianity may function with an impaired doctrine of Scripture.  But it does so at its own peril and inevitably must then lose much of its essential message.” (Carl Henry at his Best: A Lifetime of Quotable Thoughts. Portland: Multnomah Press: 1989, 61, excerpted from Frontiers in Modern Theology,139).