Biblical Inerrancy: Helpful?

Over the last year, I have engaged numerous individuals on the issue of biblical inerrancy. For many Protestant denominations, inerrancy is a catchword which differentiates conservatives from liberals, those who are true to the Scriptures and those who are not, etc. I am no stranger or newcomer to this argument, for the denomination to which I belong has a definitive stance on this issue. As our Articles of Religion clearly state,
[The Scriptures] are the inspired and infallibly written Word of God, fully inerrant in their original manuscripts and superior to all human authority, and have been transmitted to the present without corruption of any essential doctrine.
As seen above, the issue of inerrancy is a textual issue. But what, exactly, do evangelicals mean by biblical inerrancy? While a precise definition is difficult to provide given the fact that there is wide range of opinions as to the extent of inerrancy, a cursory understanding can be achieved by looking at The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978), a document which has dramatically impacted the current evangelical position on biblical inerrancy.
Article VI of the Statement asserts,
We affirm that the whole of Scripture and all its parts, down to the very words of the original, were given by divine inspiration.
Here, it is clear that the inspiredness of the Scriptures is precisely linked with the original biblical documents.
As Article X more explicitly notes,
We affirm that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture, which in the providence of God can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy. We further affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original.
Again, the contention is made that the inspiration (and therefore, inerrancy) of the Scriptures applies only to the original autographs, the actual paper and ink produced by the writers. Any copies following, according to the Statement, are only considered inspired and authoritative to the extent that they faithfully represent the original.
Articles XI and XII form a conclusion to these claims:
We affirm 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 affirm that Scripture in its entirety is inerrant, being free from all falsehood, fraud, or deceit
Obviously, to the writers of the Statement, the integrity of the actual, physical, and original documents is crucial. As the writers of the Statement assert, the terms inerrancy and infallibility are negative terms [that] have a special value, for they explicitly safeguard crucial positive truths. Furthermore, the reason for this safeguard is precisely related to new directions of thinking pursued in Enlightenment and Renaissance thinking. Again, the Statement:
Since the Renaissance, and more particularly since the Enlightenment, world views have been developed that involve skepticism about basic Christian tenets. Such are the agnosticism that denies that God is knowable, the rationalism that denies that He is incomprehensible, the idealism that denies that He is transcendent, and the existentialism that denies rationality in His relationships with us. When these un- and anti-Biblical principles seep into men’s theologies at a presuppositional level, as today they frequently do, faithful interpretation of Holy Scripture becomes impossible.
Although the language of the Statement appears overly strong at points, its main theses have been adopted by most evangelical denominations in America. However, I believe the question must be raised, Is biblical inerrancy a helpful doctrine?
The issue of inerrancy is, for the most part, a Protestant conception, particularly within the evangelical community. While it is true that both Roman Catholics and Orthodox believers maintain a high view of the inspired nature of the Scriptures, one does not find the level of stress on inerrancy that one will find within Protestant evangelicalism.
The reason for this, obviously, is the way in which Roman Catholics and the Orthodox conceive of the authority of Scripture. While Protestants understand the regula fidei (rule of faith) through the paradigm of sola Scriptura, Roman Catholics and Orthodox maintain the dual authority of Scripture and tradition. To both groups (although to varying degrees, admittedly), Scripture is authoritative not simply because it is inspired, but more importantly because it is part of the apostolic tradition which Christ instituted and which continues to function to preserve Christs teachings in the apostolic tradition of the Church (maintained within the office of the bishop). In this way, Roman Catholics and Orthodox need not stress as heavily the inerrancy of the original texts, for the teaching of the apostles does not rest simply in a select group of texts, but rather is preserved and rightly interpreted within the ecclesial tradition of the historic church. Therefore, any attempts to undermine the authority of the texts based upon textual criticism is futile and irrelevant, for the authority of the churchs faith and belief is not based exclusively upon the texts, but rather rests within the larger apostolic tradition within the community of believers.
To the Protestant, however, there is no such recourse in the face of modern textual criticism. As Protestants affirm Scripture as the sole source of authoritative truth and right belief (for even the truth contained in the ecumenical creeds of the historic church are only authoritative as they are founded upon the Scriptures), an attack on the texts of Scripture represents a direct undermining of the only source of truth about Christ and salvation. In this way, it is not surprising that one finds inerrancy and infallibility to be such strong points of contention for Protestants, for to touch the Scriptures is to touch the only foundation of faith and belief.
For Protestants, it would be theological suicide to reject biblical inerrancy (and, in fact, this self-destruction is being seen in many Protestant groups today). Yet at the same time, I think that the very doctrine of inerrancy reveals a dysfunctional conception of the Scriptures. On one level, the doctrine of biblical inerrancy represents a materialist perspective on Scriptures. As noted in the Statement, the inerrancy of the Scriptures is located precisely in the original autographs of the biblical writings. This subsequently requires that one maintain a rigid defense of the textual fidelity of the autographs, for any discrepancy immediately undermines the perfection of the texts inspiration.
Unfortunately, in pursuing this line of thinking, Protestants have actually capitulated the argument to those against whom they are attempting to safeguard the Scriptures. Rather than affirming the value of Scripture in their role within the apostolic tradition of the Church, Protestants have gone all in and placed all emphasis upon the textual perfection of the original autographs. However, in doing so, they have opened up the door for textual criticism to wreak havoc on Scriptural authority, for any proof that can be offered as a variation in the physical texts of the original autographs inevitably brings the entire complex of inerrancy crashing to the ground. Ironically, in attempting to safeguard biblical truth from the negative forces perceived within textual criticism, Protestants have built their fortress in the territory of their enemy, moving all reinforcements to the front gate while failing to recognize that the rear wall lies in disrepair.
It is inevitable that textual criticism will eventually overrun the notion biblical inerrancy. One of the reasons for this is that inerrancy leads to literalism, and the rigidity with which many hold to inerrancy flows naturally into confessions about literality. For example, consider the issue of origins. Many who hold to inerrancy also believe that discussions in the Scriptures about the phenomenological history of the universe must be interpreted literally. This, in turn, leads to assertions that the universe is less than 10,000 years old, that all species on the planet were created instantly, etc. Despite these claims, the overwhelming burden of scientific observation concludes that these claims are patently nonfactual. Rather, according to the best naturalistic observations, the universe is billions of years old, evolution is a helpful and accurate paradigm for discussing biological origins and development, etc.
However, even though the mass of scientific evidence leads to these results, the biblical literalist must reject these claims. Consider the claims of the previously cited Statement:
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. We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.
In this way, such literalism, which is intended to safeguard the teachings and authority of Scripture, forces the adherent to divorce belief from existenceit requires that one ignore the universe in which one lives in order to affirm the claims of literalism and inerrancy. Such inevitably bifurcates Scriptural revelation from the revelation of God in the created order.
In conclusion, I would ask why biblical inerrancy is necessary. First of all, and as I have already noted, the categories upon which biblical inerrancy is built are the very same categories employed by textual critics whom biblical inerrantists believe are undermining the Scriptures. However, in doing so, the adoption of these same categories opens the door for the critiques against which biblical inerrancy is supposed to safeguard the Scriptures. By defining the Scriptures negatively, biblical inerrantists have already lost the battlethe continuing rhetoric is merely engaging in damage control, a defensive retreat to maintain whatever ground can be salvaged from that which was given away in the great capitulation.
Why should Christians care what textual critics say about the Scriptures? When it comes down to it, the church does not affirm the authority of the Scriptures because of the magical nature of the original autographs. And even if this were so, it would be impossible to prove the inerrancy of the documents, for 1.) they no longer exist and 2.) there is no objective criterion against which to determine whether or not they are inerrant. Therefore, biblical inerrancy, in the final analysis, is merely a tautology, and opens a door to textual criticism that should never even exist.
Contrary to this, the church affirms the authority of the Scriptures because they are the formative texts of our faith; they represent and encapsulate the earliest fragments of the apostolic tradition that has been preserved throughout the centuries in the lives and community of Gods peoplethe church. As such, the need for inerrancy only arises when the Scriptures are divorced from their historical role within the community of believers and abandoned to the subjective paradigms of the individual interpreter. In this way, biblical inerrancy represents the ultimate consummation of the privatization of the Scriptures. When the Scriptures function within the community of believers, there is no need to defend Scripture against outside forces, for the community forms a self-authenticating hermeneutic. Deviant interpretations and marginalizations, within such a community, will be rejected and corrected. However, when Scripture is catapulted into the privatized realm of individual interpretation, the field of hermeneutics is open wide and there is no authoritytradition or otherwiseagainst which to evaluate interpretation. In other words, there is no longer any outsidewhen Scripture is alone the authority, its interpretation, application and authentication is the property of all. Therefore, the only recourse is that of inerrancy. Biblical inerrancy represents the last effort of those who wish to affirm sola Scriptura while concomitantly protecting it from outside interpretation. The logic proceeds that if strong claims can be made about the inerrant nature of the original autographs, this affirmation will somehow prevent distortion. However, such is merely an exercise in futility. By wrenching interpretation from the community and placing it solely within the grasp of the individual, biblical inerrantists have effectively created the conditions in which textual criticism will actualize the inevitable outcome of interpretation divorced from tradition.
In the preceding, I have spoken strongly against biblical inerrancy. In doing so, I do not wish to undermine the authority of Scripture, nor do I seek to devalue the role of the biblical documents in the formation of the community of believers. However, I do see that biblical inerrancy represents a dysfunctional understanding of the nature and function of the Scriptures within the church and the lives of its individual members. While I affirm the authority of the Scriptures, I do not understand the necessity of affirming the inerrancy of the same. In fact, as I have extensively noted above, I see severe problems with such a view, not the least of which is the capitulation of the Scriptures to the categories of modern historical/textual criticism. What is needed, in my opinion, is a return to understanding Scripture within the apostolic tradition of the church, rather than as an atomized authority that is (falsely) self-authenticating. While Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy each have their own problems, I feel that their understanding of the role of Scripture within the life and history of the people of God is much healthier than that of Protestantism. To extend this claim farther, I truly believe that it will be from within these two segments of Christianity that the Scriptures will continue to be meaningful after Protestantisms capitulation is fully actualized and textual/historical criticism wins the day.
I welcome any dialogue that will ensue from this.