Growing up in the (hypothetically) conservative Canadian Mennonite Brethren Conference, I didn’t learn about the concept of inerrancy until I was in Bible College. I was taught the standard Mennonite Brethren position that the Bible is infallible but not inerrant. In practice this was a way of pointing out that the Bible is meant to teach about salvation rather than science, which had the conspicuous side-benefit of giving Mennonites an easy escape from the need to…well…know anything outside of some sort of basic gospel presentation.
The denomination that I grew up in used language taken from people like Harold Loewen, who addressed 2 Tim. 3:14-17 and wrote:
“Scripture here tells us to look for the knowledge of salvation in its message, that and nothing more. Biblical authority, therefore, pertains only to salvation matters. Thus the apostle speaks here of the functional authority of Scripture as it relates to salvation alone…”
When I was young, the reality of the truth of the individual propositional statements of the Bible was of little consequence because Mennonites (as do many other confused believers) judge the veracity of the word of God on the basis of its product, not its propositions. Mennonite theologian John B. Toews wrote,
“Now that the orthodoxy of a believer is tested on the issue of an inerrant Bible, we may well examine our stance. The acceptance of the Bible as the Word of God for the Mennonite Brethren is ‘not the end of a chain of logic.’ ‘It is much more the discovery of Christ through the witness of the Scriptures that God has spoken first through the prophets and later by His Son.’ For our forefathers, the reality of the supernatural defied all efforts of proof. To accept the Bible as the Word of God was for them an exercise of faith that found its verification of genuineness in a life of obedience to the teaching and life of Jesus.”
In practice, we were theological pragmatists. Defending the meticulous truth of the scripture on various points was not needed. All that needed concern my fellow Mennonites was whether the Bible produced a life of external piety, or at least something somewhat close.
Those ideas are part of the theological context for understanding why the contemporary MB Confession of Faith reads “We believe that the entire Bible was inspired by God through the Holy Spirit” as well as “We accept the Bible as the infallible Word of God and the authoritative guide for faith and practice” without mentioning inerrancy or even expanding on the terminology or concepts previously mentioned.
That sort of language and rhetoric isn’t isolated to Mennonites. Much of contemporary Evangelicalism shares similar sentiments to the Mennonite Brethren, who profess a general belief in the infallibility of Scripture without belief in its inerrancy. Over the years, I’ve come to reject the sub-biblical understanding of the Bible that I was taught for five reasons:
1. The infallible but not inerrant idea is historically unfounded and a recent invention.
It is true that there are theologians who limit the scope of Biblical infallibility. Theologians like I. Howard Marshall limit the scope of infallibility to the Bible’s revelation of Christ. Still, Evangelicals generally use the term in its historic sense of “unable to err.”
Justin Taylor rightly states,
“The word inerrant means that something, usually a text, is ‘without error.’ The word infallible—in its lexical meaning, though not necessarily in theological discussions due to Rogers and McKim—is technically a stronger word, meaning that the text is not only ‘without error’ but ‘incapable of error.’ The historic Christian teaching is that the Bible is both inerrant and infallible. It is without error (inerrant) because it is impossible for it to have errors (infallible).”
Roland McCune writes,
“Infallibility and inerrancy are correlative to inspiration. In other words, if Scripture is God-authored, then what is authored is naturally and necessarily free from error (inerrant) and incapable of fail in its divinely-ordained purpose (infallible). Admittedly, theologians use these two terms somewhat interchangeably, though, technically the terms are distinct. The distinction is a matter of degree, however, since one could argue that inerrancy itself is a necessary inference from infallibility, if the latter comprises the idea of purposing to reveal truth.”
Carl Henry writes,
“In recent decades, mediating theologians have frequently used infallibility to imply a claim less comprehensive than inerrancy, particularly where they limit infallibility to ‘salvific infallibility,’ that is, to the notion that Scripture unfailingly leads us to salvation, while they abandon the cognitive inerrancy of the Bible. I reject, as does (Roger) Nicole, this unjustifiable narrowing of the sense of infallibility.”
Robert Reymond defines infallibility in writing,
“The Bible is true, that is to say, devoid of, and incapable of teaching, falsehood or error of any kind in all that it intends to affirm.”
Addressing the idea that infallibility deals only with matters of “faith and practice,” Wayne Grudem writes,
“Until about 1960 or 1965 the word infallible was used interchangeably with the word inerrant. But in recent years, at least in the United States, the word infallible has been used in a weaker sense to mean that the Bible will not lead us astray in matters of faith and practice.”
It is in the context of this properly understood distinction that the writes of the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy wrote,
“Holy Scripture, being God’s own Word, written by men prepared and superintended by His Spirit, is of infallible divine authority in all matters upon which it touches: it is to be believed, as God’s instruction, in all that it affirms: obeyed, as God’s command, in all that it requires; embraced, as God’s pledge, in all that it promises.”
“WE DENY that it is possible for the Bible to be at the same time infallible and errant in its assertions. Infallibility and inerrancy may be distinguished, but not separated.”
“lnfallible signifies the quality of neither misleading nor being misled and so safeguards in categorical terms the truth that Holy Scripture is a sure, safe, and reliable rule and guide in all matters. Similarly, inerrant signifies the quality of being free from all falsehood or mistake and so safeguards the truth that Holy Scripture is entirely true and trustworthy in all its assertions.”
In other words, there is a good deal of Evangelical consensus regarding the terms infallibility and inerrancy. The Bible cannot mislead (infallibility) therefore it does not mislead by containing factual error (inerrancy). Infallibility is a statement of faith where as inerrancy is the corresponding and necessary statement of fact.
2. Jesus didn’t separate the specific details of Scripture from history or the message of Scripture.
This point has been hammered home in innumerable books, but I’ll give a few examples. Jesus found significance in the details of the stories surrounding the Creation (Matt. 19:4-5), the death of Abel (Luke 11:51), the flood (Matt. 24:37-39; Luke 17:26-27), the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Matt. 10:15, 11:23-24; Luke 17:28-32), David (Matt. 12:3-4; Luke 6:3-4), Elijah, (Luke 4:35-26), Elisha and Namaan the Leper (Luke 4:27), Jonah being in the great fish (Matt. 12:40), etc. Jesus even referenced the specific nuances of words in specific passages (i.e. Mark 12:26-27). The obvious explanation for this is because Christ held that all these accounts were historical events; the details actually occurred because the stories weren’t metaphorical.
3. The prophets and apostles didn’t separate the specific details of Scripture from history or the message of Scripture.
Again, this point has been hammered home in innumerable books, but I’ll give a few examples. The prophets and apostles found significance in the details of the prophecies of Jeremiah (Dan. 9:2), David (Acts 1:15-20), Isaiah (Acts 13:47), etc. They also found significance in the details of the stories of the Creation (1 Cor. 11:8-11; 2 Cor. 11:3; 1 Tim. 2:13-14; Heb. 11:3), Abraham (Rom. 4:10, 19; Heb. 7:1-2), the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (2 Pet. 2:6-7), the Exodus (1 Cor. 10:11), Balaam’s speaking donkey (2 Pet. 2:16), the Flood (1 Pet. 3:20; 2 Pet. 2:5), etc. The prophets and apostles even the referenced the specific nuances of words in specific passages (i.e. Gal. 3:16). The obvious explanation for this is because the prophets and apostles held that all these accounts were historical events; the details actually occurred because the stories weren’t metaphorical.
4. The whole idea doesn’t make any coherent sense.
The message of Scripture is extrapolated from the content of Scripture. Any story is made up of a wide number of details, and the those details are what compose the message of that story.
Let’s illustrate with a small, concrete example: Matt. 4:12-17.
“Now when he heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew into Galilee. And leaving Nazareth he went and lived in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:
‘The land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali,
the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people dwelling in darkness
have seen a great light,
and for those dwelling in the region and shadow of death,
on them a light has dawned.’
From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’ “
So what exactly happens to that short story if there if there was no “Galilee” in ancient Israel?
Or maybe no Capernaum?
Or what if the quotation cannot be found in the writings of Isaiah?
Or what if the other gospels stated explicitly that after John’s arrest, Jesus went south and settled in Beersheba where he began to preach in Beersheba, Arad, and Gaza?
The component details of the story are what combines to compose the message of the story. If you change some of the details, or if some of them never occurred, you end up with a different story.
If the Bible attempts to communicate something true but uses false statements of fact to do so, it would seem rather inescapable that those false statements would cause the Bible to fail to communicate the intended truth.
Wayne Grudem writes similar thoughts when he says,
“…this position mistakes the major purpose of Scripture for the total purpose of Scripture. To say that the major purpose of scripture is to teach us in matters of ‘faith and practice’ is to make a useful and correct summary of God’s purpose in giving us the Bible. But as a summary it includes only the most prominent purpose of God in giving us Scripture. It is not, however, legitimate to use this summary to deny that it is part of the purpose of Scripture to tell us about minor historical details or about some aspects of astronomy or geography. A summary cannot properly be used to deny one of the things it is summarizing!”
You simply cannot override the content of Scripture by means of a summary of that content.
5. In my experience, all those who propound the “infallible but errant” idea are currently abandoning, or have already abandoned, the authority and propositional truth of Scripture.
To me, this seems like an obvious point since every single one of the “infallible but errant” crowd have a pattern. They are almost eager to abandon the historical-grammatical meaning and logically consistent teaching of the Bible on a specific point of contention, but if never stops at one point.
For example, the Mennonite Brethren were fighting about inerrancy in the 1970’s and ended up taking the “infallible but errant” track. Where are they now as a denomination? On the ground, they’re widely divided on almost everything, but officially they lean towards theistic evolution, egalitarianism, the charismatic movement, anything but penal substitutionary atonement, etc. It’s worth pointing out that in the previous decade, they changed their official stance on the ordination of women to become functionally egalitarian. After that they had a rather intense debate on penal substitutionary atonement (which stemmed from the idea that the Bible doesn’t contain consistent teaching on the nature of sin), and in on the same weekend as the Strange Fire conference, they had a study conference on homosexuality (the matter is currently in discussion). Though there would be an aggressive denial of any sort of biblical compromise, the Canadian MB Conference isn’t turning in the direction they claim.
Now the quick thinkers will point out that simply abandoning the term inerrancy does not lead automatically down some sort of “slippery slope,” and that is true. The problem is not the term, but rather the concept. Once the “inspired” message of the Bible is allowed to override the actual “inspired” text, the scripture simply becomes a slave to whatever consensus dominates the culture in which the Bible finds itself. The testimony of history in Canada is incredibly consistent.
 Howard J. Loewen, “Biblical Infallibility: An Examination of Lindsell’s Thesis”, Direction 6/2 (April 1977): 3-18. Online: http://www.directionjournal.org/6/2/biblical-infallibility-examination-of.html
 J. B. Toews, “The Influence of Fundamentalism on Mennonite Brethren Theology”, Direction 10/3 (July 1981): 20-29. Online: http://www.directionjournal.org/10/3/influence-of-fundamentalism-on-mennonite.html
 The reference is to Jack B. Rogers and Donald K. McKim’s 1979 book The Authority and Interpretation of the Bible: An Historical Approach where this distinction is first made.
 Rolland McCune, A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity: Volume One, (Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, 2009), 88.
 Carl Henry, God Revelation and Authority. (6 Vols.; Waco, TX: Word Books, 1979), 4:243-244.
 Robert Raymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith. (2nd ed.; Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 70.
 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology. (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), 93 n2.
 Grudem, 94-95.