If you don’t know about inerrancy you should read the Chicago Statement from 1978, which, for a text of its size has had quite a disproportionate effect on American evangelicalism, ripples of which I have definitely encountered here in New Zealand! Anyway, although it’s a little decontextualised without reading the whole statement, I’m just going to cite this clause here as the meat of it: “Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God’s acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God’s saving grace in individual lives.”
I will say straight up that I have a lot of problems with the (whole) statement, not least this specific which I’m sure has had an adverse effect on the evangelicals and evolution discussion: “We deny that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science. We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.” The statement not only presents a general principle for inerrancy but gives quite a specific example of what this might mean, unfortunately cutting off much-needed dialogue with disciplines outside the church.
A qualified inerrantist might note that this approach is problematic for a number of reasons such as introducing an a priori understanding of truth to Scripture or treating Scripture as a set of propositions rather than narrative or whatever genre. Anyway a qualified inerrantist who would want to hold onto the idea that the Bible is without error yet put more weight on understanding the nature of the text might say that when we understand what the authors were saying then we can say that they were inerrant according to the criteria of their socio-historico-literario-etceteral standpoint. So the writers of the Creation accounts in Genesis, although providing an unscientific account of Creation in today’s terms were true to the scientific knowledge of their time as well as inerrant in their representation of who God is. Or we might say that the gospel writers wrote historically though with a different set of conventions and expectations so, for example, they weren’t expected to write chronological accounts and they had freedom to shape the gist of Jesus’ message to speak to the audiences for which they wrote, so that if we understand the means they used to represent truth then we can say that they wrote truthfully.
But the problem I have with such a qualified inerrancy is that if taken to its logical end then there is no inerrancy at all. So the writers of the historical books had ideological commitments in portraying Judah in a favourable light against the other tribes of Israel. If this is true, (warning! liberal!) which is where I lean, then a qualified inerrancy would have to say that it is inerrant according to the requirements of writing propaganda. A text is true because that text does what that text does. It is self-validating, fulfilling its own criteria for truth according to its genre, purpose, etc.
This is not in any way a smackdown on inerrancy. There is obvious room for a mediating position that posits the terms of truth neither completely external nor internal to the text but terms that arise out of dialogue between interpreter and text. The reason I write this though is to reinforce how trying to understand biblical texts as inerrant can discourage critical dialogue with biblical texts, which should be increasingly important, though not without difficulty in incorporating it into popular evangelicalism. A critical approach would help us ask questions, for example, and as I’m sure many have asked before, why even if we read Paul correctly and realise his letters do not bar women from church leadership (the majority view in evangelical biblical scholarship), his writing is still peppered with understandings of gender which have contributed to marginalisation of women throughout church history. Or we might ask why there are some pretty awful laws in the Torah, without first seeking to justify them by saying they were progressive for their time or necessary according to the milieu.
God did not give us an exhaustive guide to life and everything in it but a collection of texts which arose between the Holy Spirit and broken humanity, pointing to Jesus as our co-sufferer and Savior. As Paul writes, “Now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Cor 13:12).