The doctrine of the inerrancy of the Bible is one of the most important foundations for Biblical faith that unites Messianic Jews and Christians. Its loss is a terrible danger. However, inerrancy must be defined. Inerrancy does not mean that every passage of the Bible is asserting “scientific” accuracy. Rather it is saying that the teaching of the Bible is without error and that every passage of the Bible is true in what that passage is asserting as truth and what it is teaching. Passages may use estimates, or quote other sources, that might have errors. For example, Acts 6 quotes the Jewish Greek Septuagint version on the number of people that went down to Egypt with Jacob, which many believe is not as accurate as the Hebrew Masoretic text in Genesis 46. Acts gives an accurate presentation of Stephen’s message before he was stoned. The point of the passage is not a claim about the number of 70 versus 75 people. When we make the claim of inerrancy we are claiming that the teaching point of every passage is always true. Without this doctrine, we are subject to our own minds or subjective preferences when we build our understanding of theology.
There are three levels in embracing biblical inerrancy.
Level One: Naïve Inerrancy
The great number of believers in the world believe in inerrancy in a naïve way. They are taught as new believers, “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.” This was my orientation in high school. If there were any problems with doctrine, I was not aware of them. Contradictions and Bible difficulties just were not in my purview. As a teenager, I functioned just fine with this naïve inerrancy. I read the Bible for basic teaching and for what God was saying to me. Most believers will function in such a way for a lifetime, and I don’t see much in the way of negative consequences for them. There are three levels in embracing biblical inerrancy.
Level Two: Questioning Inerrancy
Sometimes in college, either in a secular university or an Evangelical college, one is taught to read the texts of the Bible more carefully. In doing so, one encounters many problems. The person oriented to naïve inerrancy assumes a scientific accuracy for every statement: the words of Yeshua are His exact words and never apostolic approximations; the speech of Stephen was as if recorded and then written down. One assumes that all the texts of Chronicles have precisely accurate numbers, but then discovers they are in conflict with the numbers in the book of Kings. Then there are texts that give conflicting accounts. How can there be differing stories of David coming into Saul’s service? Why do the resurrection accounts seem so different?
And then there is the issue of textual transmission. The student learns that our Bible is reconstructed from multiple ancient texts that differ. Choices have to be made on the best readings to put forth the best Hebrew text and the best Greek text. If the transmission was not inerrant, how can we claim an inerrant text? For the “once naïve” student this now becomes a crisis of Biblical authority. If the student does not get teaching from the best scholars who believe in the full doctrine of biblical authority and inerrancy, he will likely abandon this doctrine! This is why I am so concerned for young people who go to non-Evangelical schools for degrees in Biblical studies without first earning a degree from an Evangelical School that embraces Biblical inerrancy. I fear that this will affect the Messianic Jewish movement since those going for scholarship want to have the best credentials (Harvard, Duke and Emory, Cambridge and Oxford), and do not, as Messianic Jews, want to be pigeonholed as Evangelicals. But this decision may come at a heavy price to our Messianic Jewish movement.
If the inerrant doctrine is abandoned, then the basis for arguing doctrine is no longer, “What does the text say?” Nor is there any longer a belief that the Bible teaches a harmonious doctrine. So the unprepared student is left to make up his own mind, asking himself: Does homosexual marriage violate God’s will or is the Bible just wrong on this point? How about the Bible’s strict view on divorce or pre-marital sex? And is the Gospel really necessary for salvation?
When this doctrine is lost, there is an inevitable erosion of Bible standards for doctrine and practice. Just look at the decline of the mainline denominations. There are three levels in embracing biblical inerrancy.
Stage Three: Mature Inerrancy
There are teachers in Evangelical schools who have worked through problematic Biblical texts and have become solid proponents of a mature doctrine of Biblical Inerrancy. They teach us that the text always teaches truth according to what it seeks to teach in its context, and according to the literary genre that enables us to more ably understand what is being taught. This helps, for example with Psalms that curse enemies and Proverbs that seem contradictory or strange. It has been my privilege to know such teachers. Those who seek a mature understanding can rejoice that there are books like Walter Kaiser’s on “hard sayings”. Grant Osborne is also wonderful on interpretation. Mature inerrancy preserves solid Bible doctrine and behavioral and moral norms. I urge that those who want to pursue scholarship to seek a high level evangelical education first.