February 19, 2015

Inerrancy, Infallibility and Canadian Mennonites

by Lyndon Unger

Seeing that the Inerrancy Summit is coming up in just over a week, I’m tossing something up along those lines and will help get your fires stoked for Shepherd’s Conference 2015!

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.

Bible Origami

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…”[1]

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.”[2]

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.

Amish Pit

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).”[3]

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.”[4]

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.”[5]

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.”[6]

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.”[7]

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.

you are here

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.

Last Supper

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.

Last McSupper

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!”[8]

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.

Country road in Scotland

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.

Just ask J.I. Packer.

**********

[1] 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

[2] 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

[3] 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.

[4] Rolland McCune, A Systematic Theology of Biblical Christianity: Volume One, (Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, 2009), 88.

[5] Carl Henry, God Revelation and Authority. (6 Vols.; Waco, TX: Word Books, 1979), 4:243-244.

[6] Robert Raymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith. (2nd ed.; Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 70.

[7] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology. (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), 93 n2.

[8] Grudem, 94-95.

Lyndon Unger

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Lyndon is a pastor/teacher who’s currently between ministry work and in the Canadian Mennonite Brethren Witness Protection program. If you think you saw him somewhere...you didn’t.
  • toonesmith

    Missing something here I think, bro.
    “compromise, it doesn’t take the Canadian MB Conference isn’t turning in the direction they claim

    • Lyndon Unger

      Thanks. There’s always one or two bizarre statements that don’t get caught in the editing…and a dozen small errors!

  • Johnny

    Inerrancy Summit and Shepherd’s Conference 2015…. my little mp3 player is hungry for some good mp3s from these! nom nom nom….

    • Lyndon Unger

      No kidding. It should be a goldmine. I’m looking forward to it.

  • James

    Might seem like a minor point, Lyndon but not liking the word “inerrant” does not mean I think the Bible is “errant”. I just think it’s not a very useful word wrt the Scriptures and am thankful we don’t have it in our MB Confession of Faith.

    • Lyndon Unger

      Is this my infamous friend James?

    • Lyndon Unger

      Is this my infamous friend James?

      Also, I addressed that very idea in the last paragraph. The problem isn’t with the term but the concept. The concept is what is being abandoned. The claimed “message” of the scripture is being used to deny the actual propositional statements of the scripture.

      • James

        I’d prefer “friend” 🙂 amazing how we can pick off where we left off years back. Good discussion though. Jost can stick up for himself. I’m responding as an MB who is not thrilled with the fundamentalist streak in the churches mentioned above and still holds that the Bible doesn’t contain errors. What I don’t like is “inerrant” used as a theological trump card. Each argument needs to live or die on its textual and contextual merits, which I’m sure you agree with. I’m also sure you don’t see “inerrant” in that light- but that’s the way it always looks from my end- so I thought I’d remind you. And I bet you get tired of singing to the choir 🙂 If you’re ever over on the Island I’d love to sit down for a coffee.

        • Lyndon Unger

          So it is you! I don’t know how you found this corner of the web, but welcome! I can ONLY imagine the e-mail (or whatever it was) that alerted you to this post. I’m sure there are a few people angry at me now…yikes!

          Friend it is than. I like “friend”. Next time I’m on the island, I’d love to take you out for coffee!

          Jost can speak up for himself…sure. Thing is, everyone that wants to pastor in MB churches is forced to read and agree with Jost on chucking the entire OT out the window when we don’t know what to do with it. The sole reason I’m not pastoring in an MB church is because I don’t agree with Jost. Well that and I’m not confused enough about charismatic issues to please specific people who like to think that they’re prophets of Yahweh. Maybe you could go to bat for me in the spirit of celebrating theological diversity?

          My only real question for you is regarding the statement “the fundamentalist streak in the churches mentioned above”.

          Is that in reference to their Calvinism, inerrancy, expository preaching, or something else?

          You’re right though. I certainly don’t use “inerrant” in the sense of a theological trump card (meaning as part of a syllogistic argument – i.e. the Bible is Inerrant + you’ve pointed out an apparent error in this passage = your interpretation must be wrong), but if we’re talking about original manuscripts or contemporary translations, I do use it as a statement of fact.

          I’ve had people trying to show me errors in the Bible for 20+ years and not one still remains. In fact, I’ve read 75+ books by Robert M. Price, Bart Ehrman, Dan Barker, Hector Avalos, John Loftus, John Dominic Crossan, John Shelby Spong, Marcus Borg, Richard Carrier, Elaine Pagels, Karen Armstrong, Brian McLaren, Rob Bell, Brad Jersak, Phyllis Tickle, Walter Brueggemann, and just about every articulate atheist out there in an effort to try to encounter the best errors and contradictions that they could come up with.

          I’m still waiting for an actual categorical “two mutually exclusive statements of fact” sort of “error” to come up, but I do my best to not shelter myself from the strong critics of the inscripturated oracles of God.

          • James

            It’s me 🙂 Just so there’s no mystery, every couple of years I pick up with a mutual friend, Larry. He linked me to this post.
            Re: Fundamentalist. If we have to use broad labels, I think fundamentalist works. The defenders of “fundamentals” as they define them. Not perfect but I think the shoe fits. I couldn’t pronounce “penal substitutionary atonement” with the perfect intonations for them 🙂 And the four churches mentioned are not all the same with, as you know
            Just for a quick review of my baseline- as part of the Anabaptist tradition I believe that Christendom and its creeds are extra Biblical at best, and the Scriptures don’t need more attribution than they provide themselves. That said, I fully agree with you that attributing “errors” to the Scriptures is presumptuous. I unambiguously agree on that.
            If it’s any consolation, a couple years back I was kicked off as a columnist in the MBH because I didn’t fit either. It was a good test of how I’d really react when “struck”. Turns out that actually obeying Jesus is tougher than writing about it. Who knew? Can’t say I passed the “test” to my satisfaction.

  • Etienne

    Not sure about other MB churches or the “official” MB Conference statements but the largest MB Church in Canada (Willingdon Church, Burnaby, BC) has the following in their statement of faith:

    “We believe that all Scripture, both Old and New Testaments, are inspired by God as men of God were moved by the Holy Spirit. We accept the entire Bible to be without error in the original writings, the infallible Word of God and the final, complete and authoritative guide for the faith and life of Christian discipleship.”

    • Fibber MaGee

      What do you mean by “original writings”?

      • Etienne Grobler

        Fibber, c’mon, be serious.

      • Lyndon Unger

        Technically, inerrancy applies to the original autographs (the single original document that a prophet/apostle wrote directly). Not the contemporary translations or copies throughout history.

        That allows for printing/copyist errors.

      • ZooKeeperKevin

        I tried to respond to you regarding your previous post in response to mine on another article Fibber, but posting was closed so I could not respond today. Let me know if there is another tway to contact you like via email. God bless !!

    • Lyndon Unger

      Etienne! Welcome!

      That’s one of the reasons why a whole lot of MB’s don’t like Willingdon very much. I’m delighted in the trajectories I see at Willingdon, Northview, Westside, and all the other “insignificant” churches that are maturing beyond where they’ve come from.

      • Etienne Grobler

        Thanks Lyndon! Sorry, despite the name, je ne parle pas du tout français. My parent just really liked the name,. Does Afrikaans count as a good stand-in for brownie points? Where’s Clint when you need him…

        Yes, it is very encouraging indeed. We shall see how this plays out without Dr Neufeld at Willingdon.

        • Lyndon Unger

          That’s okay. I won’t tell you that my functional French doesn’t go much beyond asking how you are or what’s in the box.

          Oh wait.

          Doh.

          I don’t know a LICK of Afrikaans, though I should since I’ve learned the word for “bowl” like 20 times. I think the South Africans in my church think I’m somewhat…uh…developmentally delayed.

          I do hope and pray that Willingdon will find a strong guy to fill the pulpit there.

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  • AK Lone Dingo

    I cannot express how deeply grateful I am for this post.

    As GOD would have it, the Anglican church I had attended is splitting and the conservative side is aligning with ACNA.

    I’m rejoining the new congregation, who are busily researching Canon’s and By-laws which will underline the theological differences between the current Episcopacy of America (and Canterbury) and the splits.

    My task is to highlight, in a few paragraphs, inerrancy and infallibility, the difference, if any, between the two and the theological/ideological/operational importance of each term.

    While not doing my work for me, it is a wonderful start, even set against the MB’ of Canada, and I so appreciate it.

    Thank you, Lyndon.

    PS. If I didn’t mention it, I, too, was a part of an MB in Oklahoma, decades ago. It was a weird experience.

    M. Howard Kehr

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  • David Alves

    Here’s the thing for me: If we want to argue that the Bible is infallible in the sense that it cannot lead us astray in matters of faith & practice, then obviously the Bible must be inerrant in matters of faith & practice (otherwise it is, in fact, leading us astray).

    (A) But these same people reject inerrancy, saying the Bible is merely infallible.

    (B) And anyway, isn’t everything the Bible says a matter of faith — i.e., isn’t it calling us to believe what it says? So when the Bible tells me God commanded Israel to wipe out Canaan, am I not being asked (commanded!) to believe this truly happened? Same thing with a six day creation, virgin birth, eternal Hell, sinfulness of homosexuality, and on and on. (By the way, it’s interesting that these folks say the Bible can’t lead us astray in practice, then condemn it when it comes to sex and gender.)

    (C) So if I actually have to affirm (limited) inerrancy in order to say the Bible is infallible and errant…and if I end up dismissing those portions of the Bible in faith and practice that I don’t like, after I just said the Bible can’t lead me astray in those very areas…which also means we’re I to follow the Bible in those areas I’d be deceived and sinning (!!)…then I am not only being blatantly inconsistent with my stated position, but also showing my root problem is a deep-seated unbelief in the absolute authority of Holy Scripture. I don’t like what the Bible says because it disagrees with me (my real authority), so it can’t be inerrant. Which means I can end up doing and believing exactly what I want and find a way to spiritualize it. Ta daa.

    This is why I chuckle at the kinds of people who were on faculty at my (charismatic) alma mater. Many though not all denied inerrancy, yet all claimed on paper to believe in the authority of the Bible. I’m still amazed people with doctorates could think they embraced the authority of a book they said was wrong. (I guess they could argue for limited authority, but that wouldn’t have gone over well with donors.)

  • 4Commencefiring4

    Inerrancy and infallibility are two of the issues raised, but what of “applicability” or “relevance”? A verse–and entire chapter, or an entire book or more–may be infallible and inerrant, but does it apply to me? Am I, a believer in Christ in the 21st century, the intended audience?

    To take an OT example first: Would the Ten Commandments be applicable to me? I would submit that they, like the Hebrew ceremonial system of sacrifices and priests, were instructions to ancient Israel in the days of their coming entrance into Canaan. The first commandment, for instance, said to “have no other gods before me.” Why was this command issued? Because both Israel and the godless nations they were going to encounter DID have a history of worshipping false gods. When Moses went up to the mountain and was gone too long, he came back to find them actually worshipping a golden calf.

    Is that anything the modern day church, in developed nations, would have any tendency to do? Of course not. (True, we have “gods” we “worship”, if you will, like money or fame or beauty, etc. But no one in the household of God actually sets up figures of stone or gold and worships them, unless we’re talking about a church planted among a primitive people where modernity is unknown and spiritism and such have been practiced for generations. But we in developed nations have left behind those kinds of primitive and ignorant beliefs).

    The NT repeats, in different places, the same principles contained in the Ten Commandments, so we would still be in sin to lie or commit adultery or steal. Not because the Ten Commandments say so, but because the epistles say so–and they are the instructions meant for the Body of Christ.

    Then we have some things in the NT that, again, are “infallible” but don’t apply to us because they weren’t directed to us. In Revelation, there are messages addressed specifically “to the angel of the church at…” in Asia Minor. “Because you have kept the word of my patience, I will keep you from the hour of trial…” Who was promise for? The church at Philadelphia in AD 100 or so, not to the First Baptist Church of Santa Fe in 2015. Still inspired, still infallible, still inerrant; but not applicable to us because it’s stated directly who is the intended audience.

    But “Blessed are the peacemakers…” and “Present you bodies a living sacrifice…” applies to all who name the name of Christ.

    I’d love to see a column on this subject.