Roger Nicole on Biblical Inerrancy
This interview with Roger Nicole was taken from pp. 16, 17 of Reformed Theological Seminary's Spring/Summer 2008 edition of Ministry and Leadership.
Q: The inerrancy of Scripture is a controversial doctrine in some quarters. How do you define inerrancy, and how is the term given to being misunderstood?
A: Inerrancy is an articulation explicit of the nature of the influence of God on Scripture, which takes a full account of the fact that it is God's Word. The question, therefore, is "What can be defined as an error, and what does inerrancy therefore avoid?" If that is not properly understood, then some people may have a mistaken notion of what we want to assert. Very definitely, inerrancy does not come as a result of testing all the statements of Scripture and finding them to be true, because if that were the case, we would never end this job. Therefore, inerrancy is not some concept that theologians have developed and then placed onto Scripture, then have to validate by checking any kind of statement that might contradict what was said.
The origin of inerrancy is that God is the divine author of Scripture, and Scripture is presented as the Word of God, which it is, actually, jointly and concurrently with being the word of the human authors whom God used. Therefore, the concept is that we need to have a representation of the activity of God that is in keeping with the character of God Himself. For God, in fact, any error would be a lie.
Q: What would you say to those who argue that inerrancy is a modern idea created by desperate evangelicals responding to the conclusions of higher criticism?
A: That would be answered by looking at all the major thinkers in the Christian faith and finding out what they thought about the Bible and whether they thought there were errors to be corrected. The doctrine of the Bible has been that this is the Word of God, and you don't correct God.
The doctrine follows the reverence of the Jews for the Old Testament, also demonstrated by Jesus in His own approach to Scripture and maintained by the Apostles. It has been the doctrine of the church from the start.
Q: So what's at stake with the doctrine of inerrancy?
A: It is to recognize that whatever the Bible says is conformed to factual identity or reality and does not depart from proper criteria of truth. There are difficulties - passages where we seem to have a problem - but the fact that we are not able to find a complete reconciliation ought not lead us to challenge something as firmly established as the fact that God Himself acknowledges to be the author. It is stated in more than 2,000 places in Scripture that this is what God says.
Q: What, then, is the greatest threat to the doctrine of inerrancy today?
A: It is that if you deny inerrancy in the sense that you say the Bible maintains things that God does not stand for, or garble the events that actually occurred, then the authority of Scripture as being God's Word has been challenged and perhaps canceled. As a result, you have lost the supreme criterion of truth - what God has said cannot be false.
Q: Where do we see the bad fruit of a faulty view of inerrancy today?
A: We find that challenge in churches where people say we ought to receive practicing homosexuals as members. Scripture has said clearly that homosexuality is so nefarious that those who practice it may be punished with death. The New Testament presents it as so bad as to show the depths of corruption unparalleled in humanity, and it states expressly that those who practice that will not go to heaven. Some say, "OK, these are in the Bible, but it represents customs of that time, so there's no authority of God in there." But if you have liberty to do that, then you can take whatever it says and say, "That's for days gone by, and we can't have that anymore." Therefore our feelings, practices and sin begin to be the authority instead of God. The damage is terrific. It's a leak so bad that all the liquid may go through it.
Q: Why does there seem to be a recurring pattern of voices within evangelicalism challenging the doctrine of inerrancy?
A: What happens is that the critical approach has been so thoroughly endorsed at the graduate level that people in the universities are constantly confronted with it. And if they are not carrying through with it, they are at times discriminated against. I have the case of a thesis by one of my Gordon-Conwell colleagues who was writing about the Old Testament. He had a view contrary to the prescribed approach to Scripture, and he was rejected for his doctoral thesis on the grounds that he did not sufficiently acknowledge the critical view. So especially in the area of Scripture, if you accept inerrancy, you disqualify yourself, so to speak, in this particular way.