To Err Is Human?

One of the primary objections to the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture is that inerancy robs Scripture of its human character. Belief in inerrancy, so we are told, is akin to a docetic Christology (the doctrine that Jesus Christ was not fully human but only appeared to be so). But wait just a minute…

Orthodox Christology has always affirmed that Jesus is fully God and fully man AND that he was without sin. That is the one thing about his humanity that is different from ours: his lack of sin. Does this mean, therefore, that Jesus was not really human? Only if you define sin into humanity. But then, that is to deny the essential goodness of God’s image-bearers. “To err is human” is not quite right. Sin and error are not necessary to humanity, since we were originally created without them. The Incarnation testifies to God’s original design for humanity. The fact that we are all sinners now because of the Fall does not mean that sin is a necessary component of our human essence.

Now, transfer this concept to Scripture. Can it be a fully human book and not contain errors? Yes, because nothing demands that humans err at all times and in everything they say. Consider the following paragraph:

I was born on November 13, 1980, in San Antonio, Texas. I have lived in four different locations in Texas: San Antonio, Fort Worth, Atlanta, and Marshall. Furthermore, I have lived in two locations in Kentucky: Louisville and Milton.

This paragraph is inerrant. It contains no errors of fact and communicates the information that I want to communicate to the degree of precision that I want to communicate it. It is not necessary for me to err when writing.

Of course, sooner or later, I will err in what I say or write. And no one is claiming that the authors of Scripture never erred in anything they ever said or wrote. The claim of inerrancy is, rather, that God preserved the biblical authors from error in their writing of inspired Scripture. And this claim is based on the Bible’s own testimony to itself. It is simply inconsistent to affirm some kind of authority for Scripture and yet to disregard Scripture’s own self-testimony* (especially the testimony of Jesus to Scripture as recorded in Scripture). I think it is time to be done with the idea that inerrancy is not compatible with the human character of Scripture. Error is not essential to human nature and communication. If one wants to argue for errors in Scripture, let that argument be made from Scripture itself, not from a prior theological commitment to a false understanding of humanity.

*I have not cited Scripture here pertaining to Scripture’s own self-testimony because to do so would be to engage in a massive project. For the best survey of Scripture’s testimony to itself, see Wayne Grudem’s article in the book Scripture and Truth, edited by D. A. Carson and John Woodbridge.

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4 Responses to “To Err Is Human?”

  1. Luke Says:

    Dear Aaron,
    I hope your 26th year is as full of joy as your 25th. I cannot help but offer a small rejoinder to your mostly senseless post. Do you have seminar courses on strawman arguments or is it simply in the water at Southern? Inerancy is a nihilist post modern way of setting the parameters for discourse. Did the reformers agree with how to interpret the Bible? Was their disagreement due to some not fully understanding the doctrine of inerrancy? Of course not. The Arians had (and have) their texts. Isn’t it odd that you appeal to “orthodox” Christology. When “orthodox” was something that had to be arrived at! I agree with the confessions of the church that Jesus is both fully man and fully Divine this as with other important doctrines of “orthodoxy” like the Trinity were only fully developed through years of controversy. Tertullian as an example had what we in hindsight recognize as a deficient explanation of the Trinity. But we have only come to this understanding because people like Tertullian ventured to offer some attempts at understanding divine revelation.

    Luke

  2. Aaron Says:

    I am not using a strawman argument. Karl Barth objected to the inerrancy of Scripture in part because of the very argument I have cited (the Bible’s human character). I also recommend that you read John Webster’s book _Holy Scripture: A Dogmatic Sketch_ to see a similar argument (although there is much in Webster that is right and commendable).

    “Inerancy [sic] is a nihilist post modern way of setting the parameters for discourse.”

    Now this is odd. More often, the charge is made that inerrancy is a distinctively modern invention of post-Enlightenment, Scottish common sense realism (see Rogers and McKim as well as Grenz and Franke’s _Beyond Foundationalism_; I also disagree with this argument as well and John Woodbridge has demolished it with his book, _Biblical Authority_). I have never heard the charge that inerrancy is a postmodern invention, and I think the very fact that inerrancy was well established prior to the postmodern era gives the lie to that assertion.

    The rest of your post completely misses the point. I am not talking about biblical interpetation here. A wise theologian once told me, “Inerrancy alone does not a hermeneutic make.” I fully agree, and the poor approach to Scripture exemplified by many inerrantists demonstrates that sad fact.

    But that said, I think the doctrine of inerrancy is still important. Though Christians may not agree on what the Bible means, they at least historically agreed that whatever it means, it should be believed and obeyed. Therefore, to come to a settled interpretation of Scripture is to put oneself under obligation to believe and obey what one believes the passages of Scripture mean. This is no longer the case, since inerrancy has been widely rejected.

  3. Cogito Says:

    Aaron,

    I think that you bring up a good point that there is a difference between “erring” and “being mistaken” in literature.

    There are plenty of examples of errant writings that are celebrated and enjoyed, both in poetry, philosphophy, as well as holy scriptures.

    Take a look at Shakespeare, his plays and poems are packed with inconsitencies and “errors” that do not take away from the beauty or meaning of the texts.

    Or take a look at Goethe, who almost celebrated inconsistencies saying that to remove them would basically destroy the text itself.

    This is a big point that a lot of the Higher Criticism crowd missed so many years ago.

    That being said, I think that you did a nice little dance to save the term “inerrancy”. If you’re not going to treat the Bible as “inerrant” then why use the term? Why not just call it the Word of God? I think the Word of God commands that “whatever it means, it should be believed and obeyed”.

    If the Bible contains errors, so what? I don’t think anyone can reasonable argue that it does not. The real argument shouldn’t be whether it is free from error, but what is the meaning behind what was written–when it was written–and what does it mean to me now.

  4. Aaron Says:

    Cogito (i.e., Luke A.),

    You have raised so many important points that I will dedicate a new post to answering them rather than crowd my comments section with a lengthy response.

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