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The second qualification is just as important: “when interpreted according to the intended sense.” It is often tempting to claim the same authority for one’s interpretations as for the biblical text itself. The thrust of the doctrine of inerrancy, however, like that of sola Scriptura, is to stress the distinction between the Word of God and the words of men. Interpretations of the Bible fall under the category “words of men.” It is thus important not to ascribe inerrancy to our interpretations. To the objection that we do not possess the correct interpretation, we must appeal not to inerrancy but to the perspicuity of Scripture. What conflicts there are about biblical interpretation ultimately must be ascribed to the fallible interpreter, not to the infallible text.
Does inerrancy do justice to the humanity of the Scriptures? Some critics of inerrancy have suggested that God had to “accommodate” his message to the language and thought-forms of the day in order effectivel to communicate. In taking on forms of human language and thought, does God’s communication simultaneously take on outmoded views of the world or of human nature? For example, could God speak truthfully of the sun “rising” when he knows full well that the sun does not move? In speaking of the sun rising, does not the Bible make a scientific mistake? To this objection it may be replied that using the common language of the day is not the same as committing oneself to its literal truth. One must not confuse a social convention with a scientific affirmation. To say that the sun rises is to employ a metaphor—one, moreover, that is true to human experience. The objection proves too much: if the inspired authors have used ancient thought forms that led to scientific errors, would not these same thought forms have led to errors in matters of faith and practice too? After all, “To err is human”—or is it? Though proverbial wisdom equates humanity with fallibility, the paradigm of Christ’s sinless life shows that the one concept need not follow from the other. God’s Word, we may conclude, can take on human form—incarnate, inscripturate—without surrendering its claim to sinlessness and truth.
Does inerrancy therefore mean that every word in Scripture is literally true? There has been a great deal of confusion on this point, both in the media and in academia. It should first be noted that mere words are neither true nor false; truth is a property of statements. Second, those who oppose biblical inerrancy have all too often contributed to the confusion by caricaturing the notion of literal truth. Critics of inerrancy typically speak of “literal truth” when what they really mean is “literalistic truth.” Defenders of inerrancy must take great care to distinguish the notion of literal truth from the kind of literalistic interpretation that runs roughshod over the intent of the author and the literary form of the text.
Perhaps the best way to resolve this confusion is to begin at the other end. What counts as an error? If I say that my lecture lasts an hour, when in fact it lasts only fifty-nine minutes, have I made an error? That depends on your expectation and on the context of my remark. In everyday conversation round figures are perfectly acceptable; no one would accuse me of getting my figures wrong. In other contexts, however, a different level of precision is required. A BBC television producer, for instance, would need to know the exact number of minutes. The point is that what counts as an error depends upon the kind of precision or exactness that the reader has a right to expect. “Error” is thus a context-dependent notion. If I do not claim scientific exactitude or technical precision, it would be unjust to accuse me of having erred. Indeed, too much precision (“my lecture is fifty-nine minutes and eight seconds long”) can be distracting and actually hinder clear communication.
Let us define error, then, as a failure to make good on or to redeem one’s claims. The Bible speaks truly because it makes good its claims. It thus follows that we should first determine just what kind of claims are being made before too quickly ruling “true” or “false.” If error is indeed a context-dependent notion, those who see errors in Scripture would do well first to establish the context of Scripture’s claims. To interpret the Bible according to a wooden literalism fails precisely to attend to the kinds of claims Scripture makes. To read every sentence of the Bible as if it were referring to something in the world, or to a timeless truth, may be to misread much of Scripture. Just as readers need to be sensitive to metaphor (few would react to Jesus’ claim in John 10:9, “I am the door,” by searching for a handle) so readers must be sensitive to literary genre (e.g., to the literary context of biblical statements).
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