In my earliest memories of discussions about the Bible, most of the doubts people had about it centered on whether or not the Bible itself was a reliable source of truth.
- Hadn’t it been corrupted?
- Were the documents even reliable?
- What about all those apparent internal inconsistencies?
- How could we go around saying that such an ancient and out-dated collection of literature was inspired by God and true for everyone in the world?
This, of course, has lead to a long and tiring fifty-plus year war among evangelicals about whether or not the Bible is inerrant. And since Christians like to fight such wars, there are also skirmishes about what the word “inerrant” actually means in the first place, giving rise to the question, “What do you mean by inerrant?” when some of us are asked whether or not we believe in inerrancy.
The inerrancy wars have spawned more books than you’ll ever be able to afford or read, though, if you have not read any, then you should at least spend the 8 bucks and start here for a round-table introduction to the discussion. But I warn you in advance. It is a war, and war sucks. No doubt, if you run to the battle-field, you’ll see it and feel it for yourself.
Yeah, well, that’s just your interpretation!
There is a second related objection to the Bible that I heard growing up — and still hear today. It goes like this…
- Yeah, well, that’s your interpretation, or…
- You can make the Bible say anything you want, or…
- The Bible is subject to interpretation,
- You’re taking that out of context, or
- That was for then. Times have changed. You can’t use the Bible for that, etc.
This is different from the objection that emphasizes the Bible’s trustworthiness. This objection has to do with interpreting what scripture actually means in the first place, and whether or not a person has either interpreted correctly, or missed at least one more (if not multiple) alternative interpretive possibilities.
Thus, the second objection to the use of the Bible in discussions about truth and life (whether the person knows the technical word or not) has to do with hermeneutics — which has been described by some as both the art and science of Biblical interpretation.
Whether a person believes the Bible is divinely inspired, inerrant, or infallible is not always the central issue when discussing the implications of believing the Bible. More and more these days, the discussion tends to lean the way of interpretive conclusions.
“Yes, we are both reading the same words, but with this, this, and this consideration in mind, here is what I think the words actually mean.”
“No, you are wrong, because this, this and this interpretive issue and historical fact, along with what it says in this, this, and this text leads one to conclude that this is actually what the text is saying.”
“Oh yeah, well, you’re a heretic who doesn’t believe the Bible!”
“No, you’re a heretic. I’m right!”
What’s going on in this very real, often repeated scenario? In simple terms, it’s the hermeneutics. This is not an argument over whether or not the Bible is God’s word. It’s an argument about what God’s word says, and what we should do about it in response.
So, some folks don’t argue about whether or not the Bible can be trusted. Rather, they argue about whether or not your (or my, or his, or her, or their) conclusions about what the Bible actually says and means can be trusted! This is important and distinguishes the two issues of inerrancy and hermeneutics in important ways.
A couple of examples and an important caveat
For example, a Mormon may disregard the inerrancy of the Bible, but interpret a particular text in the Bible flawlessly. On the other hand, a fundamentalist evangelical may trumpet inerrancy and call anyone who doesn’t believe in it a heretic, and then proceed to butcher a text of scripture when sharing his/her interpretation of it.
So, a person may be wrong about inerrancy and right in an interpretive conclusion, or right about inerrancy, and wrong about an interpretive conclusion. Make sense?
Another example in the Bible itself is found in the gospels (Mat. 4:1-11 and Lk. 4:1-13). Here Jesus enters into a time of temptation by Satan. Both Satan and Jesus are quoting Scripture. In both accounts Satan even says the words, “It is written…” (cf. Mat. 4:6 and Lk. 4:10). This is important because the words “It is written” are a way of investing authority in the text of Scripture itself. It is a way of suggesting that God is speaking through the words in the text.
On this issue of the relationship between inerrancy and hermeneutics, and in light of these two texts, listen to a quote by Albert Mohler from in his essay on Biblical Inerrancy in the “Five Views” book I linked to above. He says in his introductory remarks…
In affirming that the Bible, as a whole and in its parts, contains nothing but God-breathed truth, evangelicals have simply affirmed what the church universal had affirmed for well over a millennium— when the Bible speaks, God speaks.
I personally feel some real tension about this conclusion if it is offered without any caveats! Those invested in the work of biblical interpretation would want some serious clarification about this simple affirmation — “when the Bible speaks, God speaks.”
To demonstrate what I mean using the texts in Matthew and Luke, who did Jesus hear speaking when the Bible was being quoted to him? If he believed along with Albert Mohler that “when the Bible speaks, God speaks,” he could/should not have heard any voice but God’s, right?
It is clear that Jesus heard Satan’s voice in the reading of the text of God-breathed Scripture. Hear that! When the enemy quoted the Bible, God was not speaking to Jesus through the quoted Bible. Thus, it is not raw text without interpretive considerations that equal discerning the voice of God in the text.
Jesus believed the text, but not the way in which the text was being quoted and applied. By offering a counter-quote, Jesus was not saying, “your verse is not true, and mine is,” but rather — “your way of using that verse is inappropriate.” So Jesus actually refused to believe that God was speaking to him through a text of scripture because that text was not properly interpreted.
For Jesus, this was not about inerrancy. It was about hermeneutics, and the beliefs and actions that flow from interpretive conclusions.
The relationship between inerrancy and hermeneutics…
To be sure, the issues of inerrancy and hermeneutics overlap in important ways, and both should be considered when we are discussing biblical authority (and to be fair to Albert Mohler, he would agree with that).
On this note, I personally appreciate the illustration of this overlap in Andrew Wison’s article here, where he says…
…when asked the street-level question, “Does the Bible contain mistakes?” I always answer, “When interpreted properly, no.” That first clause is important; after all, an awful lot of people in history have thought that the Bible says the earth is at the center of the universe, flat, and built on pillars. There is also a plethora of texts whose literal meaning cannot be their original meaning—ranging from the obviously poetic (“your breasts are clumps of dates”) to the obviously symbolic (“then I saw a beast coming out of the sea”) and the obviously hyperbolic (“cut your eye out and throw it away”)—as well as a group of other texts whose literal meaning may or may not be their original meaning…
Wilson points out two important questions in the larger discussion about Biblical authority:
(1) Is the Bible error-free, and therefore — true? and…
(2) Are my conclusions about what the Bible actually says and means — true?
In the above paragraph, Wilson moves rather seamlessly between the two questions, but flows heavily into the hermeneutics side with important references to genre, context, audience, occasion, symbolism, hyperbolic language, literal meaning, original meaning, etc. These are not terms that particularly connect to the question of inerrancy. These are about the hermeneutics. Again, a person may wholly believe in inerrancy, but be grossly incorrect about his/her interpretive conclusions if they are not employing a robust hermeneutical process before arriving at those conclusions. In summary…
Inerrancy relates to one’s convictions about the nature of Scripture as the very word of God.
Hermeneutics relates to the methodology a person uses to both interpret and apply (live out) their interpretive conclusions about what the text means.
And now… BOOKS (and one more thing consisting of several things)!
Since I can’t write a book (or a chapter) about hermeneutics here, and this post is getting rather long, I will suggest a few books for those who want to learn how to engage in solid biblical interpretation, and then offer a brief summary of important things to consider when you are looking at any particular text of scripture.
Two King-Sized Academic Books
The Hermeneutical Spiral – by Grant Osborne
Biblical Interpretation, Past and Present – by Gerald Bray
Two Mid-Sized Seminary and/or College-Level Books
Listening to the Spirit in the Text – Gordon Fee
Introduction to Biblical Interpretation – Klein, Blomberg, & Hubbard
Two Books for the rest of us
How to read the Bible for all it’s worth – Gordon Fee
Studying, interpreting, and applying the Bible – Heinrichsen & Jackson
I suggest that every reader buy the Heinrichsen/Jackson book and spend 3-6 months working through it. If you ever wanted to take a class on basic biblical interpretation but didn’t have time, money, or a local seminary, this book would help you get it done at your kitchen table. It is an incredibly easy-to-follow short-course on biblical interpretation and application, and contains dozens of important insights into hermeneutics. With that in mind…
Nine Initial questions you should ask when interpreting scripture
- Who is the human author of this text?
- Who was the original audience?
- What is the primary purpose for which the text was written to the original recipients?
- What is the historical/local/geographical/social setting in which the text was written?
- What is the genre of the text (i.e., history, poetry, wisdom, prophecy, gospel, epistle, apocalyptic, etc.)?
- What is the literary structure of the text (i.e., attention to grammar and composition, and literary devices such as hyperbole, symbolism, etc.).
- What words do I not understand in the text, for which I will need assistance regarding the original language (Hebrew & Greek)?
- What issues with respect to the manners and customs of the original recipients do I need to better understand?
- Where is this text located in the time-line of Revelation/Biblical history?
Okay, I’ll stop here. I would really love to hear at least two things in the comments (and more…).
1. What books have most helped you in your pursuit of solid biblical interpretation?
2. What interpretive questions would you add to my 9?
 Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy (Counterpoints: Bible and Theology) (Kindle Locations 393-394). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.