To what extent does inerrancy extend?
To what extent is the Bible inspired and thus inerrant? Does the inspiration extend only to the ideas conveyed or to the very words of scripture?
A debate that has been taking place between the Orthodox branches in the church and what is normally called the Neo-Orthodox movement, is over the question of the extent of revelational authority. Another way of phrasing the question is, “Is the Bible the word of God or does the Bible contain the word of God?” This presents a contrast between a view of the inspiration of scripture and the view of the plenary inspiration of scripture.
The Neo-Orthodox movement in the church has held that it is not the words of scripture that contain the inspiration of God, but it is that when those words find themselves to rest upon the ears and the heart of a believer, then, and only then, genuine inspiration takes place. This allows the Neo-Orthodox theologian to not get very hung up by source critical arguments because, after all, it is not the words of scripture that are important; rather, it is the effect that those words have on the believing heart that is important. As one can see, this scheme of understanding revelation becomes extremely subjective and robs the text of any genuine content, for content, according to this view, comes from the hearer’s interpretation of the words. Exegetical theology also becomes nearly impossible, for exegesis becomes about “what this text means to me…” instead of what this text actually says. And though this position can be attributed to Neo-Orthodoxy today, it is not a new sin, but one that can be traced all of the way back to Adam and Eve who doubted God’s word that they would die if they ate of the forbidden fruit.
In response to this, the Orthodox theologians have taken a strong stand on the plenary (or complete) inspiration of scripture. In other words, every single word of scripture is a result of the inspiration of God. Every noun, every verb, ever preposition, every adjective, every pronoun, ever article is a result of the breathing out of God and thus carries with it the full authority of God himself. This view holds that meaning comes from within the text and not from within the hearer. This view holds that God is a rational and intentional God and that as a result, when he rationally and intentionally communicates with his people, he has a plain and intended purpose and meaning behind what was said. This view holds that the very statements of scripture contain propositional truth given to God’s people so that we might know him and glorify him with our lives. This view holds that while we see the stylistic fingerprint of the human authors within each text, that it is God who is writing through them, using all of their gifts and talents to produce his word, and that word—every word of it—is true and perfectly given and preserved by the Holy Spirit.
There are many in the post-modern world that would contend that words in themselves contain no meaning. They would continue that words are nothing but culturally formatted symbols with which we communicate and that it is the context in which language is used that conveys meaning. On one level, there is a degree of truth to this argument. We have already spoken of the dynamic nature of language as it is used by a culture. Many of our words carry with them very different meanings depending on the context in which they are found. For example, depending on the context, the word “dope” in English could refer to illegal drugs, to someone who is foolish or not intelligent, to gossip that is shared, to a form of varnish used on aircraft, or to lubricant that is used as a sealant. Context, then determines which form of the word you are using. This being said, words in a culture do have a fixed and limited set of meanings. Dope does not also mean dog, cat, and grocery cart; it cannot mean anything we want it to mean. If it could, then language would become meaningless, for “Dope dope doped dope” could then mean, “I need you to pick up a gallon of milk at the grocery store.” If such use of language were ever to become the case, then, as a culture, we would be returned to the state people found themselves in at the Tower of Babble, when God confused the languages. Culture cannot exist and reproduce itself if language is rendered meaningless.
Yet, even the post-modern thinker, when pressed on the issue, would assert that language does contain meaning, though it pains them to do so. Post-modern thinkers write books for people to read. Certainly in writing a book, the post-modern thinker expects people to understand what he is trying to teach. When a post-modern thinker goes to the bank and asks that his paycheck be deposited in his checking account, certainly he expects the teller to understand what he is saying and he trusts that the money will actually go into his account rather than in some random account. When the post-modern thinker goes to the emergency room in agony because he has kidney stones, when he communicates this to the doctor, he does not expect the doctor to start by examining his knees. When the post-modern thinker goes to a restaurant and orders an expensive meal, the post-modern thinker expects to be served the meal he ordered. Thus words have meanings and any rational person is forced to admit such by the way they use their words in practical situations. And, as God is a rational God, the words that God speaks in scripture are spoken with an expectation that they be understood—and that they be obeyed!
It is important to note that scripture was not given as dictation, squelching the various personalities through whom God wrote. We see stylistic language, artistic structure of texts, and themes that run through the writings of given authors, showing us something of the human nature of the Bible. Exodus 4:14-17 records the calling of Aaron to be Moses’ prophet (also see Exodus 7:1). God would tell Moses what to say, Moses would tell Aaron what to say and Aaron would speak it. The words that the prophet speaks belong to God (or in Aaron’s case, Moses), but the mannerisms, inflections of speech, and personality belong to the prophet. So too with scripture—the words belong to God, but the structure and personality of the writings belong to the prophetic or Apostolic author.
It is worth emphasizing here that only the Orthodox view of plenary inspiration preserves the infallibility and inerrancy of scripture. When the meaning of scripture becomes subjective, the truth of scripture becomes subjective as well. In addition, scripture itself claims to be the word of God, not just to contain God’s word. As the scriptures claim to be inspired in a plenary sense, to claim otherwise is to invalidate the value of scripture as a whole, suggesting that it is nothing more than a book of lies.