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What is biblical inerrancy? A New Testament scholar explains

The doctrine of inerrancy likely took shape during the 19th and 20th centuries in the United States, in response to the rise of liberalism within Christianity.

Many prominent Christians believe in inerrancy, or that the Bible is without error. (Godong/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

(The Conversation) — In his farewell address at the 2021 Southern Baptist Convention, outgoing president J.D. Greear acknowledged the internal disputes but assured attendees that the Baptist faith continues to affirm “those doctrines most contested in our culture,” such as “the authority, and the inerrancy, and the sufficiency of scripture.”

Recently, other prominent Christians have touted a belief in inerrancy, including MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell and former Vice President Mike Pence. Even if support for the doctrine has declined in recent years, nearly one in four Americans believes the Bible is God’s literal word.

But what is “inerrancy,” and why is it important to so many Christians?

I first encountered the doctrine of biblical inerrancy as an undergraduate at Biola University. The evangelical school’s faith statement affirms that “the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are without error or misstatement in their moral and spiritual teaching and record of historical facts.”

Now, as a New Testament scholar teaching courses at a university in the Bible Belt, I frequently interact with students familiar with – if not committed to – the doctrine of inerrancy.

Why the doctrine of inerrancy matters

The Bible itself does not claim to be inerrant. Perhaps the closest the Bible comes to claiming to be without error is in a New Testament letter known as 2 Timothy 3:16. In this letter, the apostle Paul states that “all scripture is inspired and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” In other words, the Bible is God’s authoritative instruction for the church.

Biblical scholars are quick to point out that “all scripture” here does not likely refer to both the Old and New Testaments, and that the apostle Paul likely did not even write 2 Timothy. This verse, however, remains central to those who see the Bible as without error.

The doctrine of inerrancy is more post-biblical, even modern. And it has been particularly influential among U.S. evangelicals, who often appeal to the doctrine of inerrancy in arguments against gender equality, social justice, critical race theory and other causes thought to violate the God’s infallible word.

The doctrine of inerrancy took shape during the 19th and 20th centuries in the United States. A statement crafted in 1978 by hundreds of evangelical leaders remains its fullest articulation. Known as the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, the statement was a response to emerging “liberal” or nonliteral interpretations of the Bible. According to the statement, the Bible speaks with “infallible divine authority in all matters upon which it touches.”

In short, the Bible is the final authority.

As Southern Baptists and other American evangelicals attempt to articulate biblical positions on issues such as social justice, abortion, gender and sexuality, one thing remains certain: Even a Bible thought to be without errors still has to be interpreted.

The Conversation U.S. publishes short, accessible explanations of newsworthy subjects by academics in their areas of expertise.

(Geoffrey Smith, Associate Professor, Department of Religious Studies, The University of Texas at Austin College of Liberal Arts. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

The Conversation