My faith as a Christian is that the Holy Scriptures are true and trustworthy, authoritative and infallible in all God intends to do and teach through them. That does not mean, however, that they are inerrant in whatever way we might wish to take them today from our culturally conditioned viewpoints. Nor does it suggest that they are subject to the empirical methods of modern science concerning what is acceptable as reliable knowledge, or to modern ideas of historicity.
The notion of biblical “inerrancy” that is generally on offer in many North American churches (not so much elsewhere) is of fairly recent vintage. It arose in a fundamentalist fervor in the 20th century and was presented in an attempt to defend the veracity of the Scriptures against the perceived onslaught of modern empirical science.
In practice, though, “inerrantists” themselves tend toward the use of the empirical method to answer the empirical criticisms brought against the Scriptures. But in playing by the rules of the empirical sciences, they in effect concede that the Scriptures are subject to scientific verifiability. That misunderstands the Scriptures and what they are about.
Complicating matters even more, “inerrantists” also tend toward literalistic readings that were unknown in the early Church or even by the authors of the New Testament. It is these new readings that they attempt to defend by the empirical methodologies of their opponents.
In the Scriptures themselves, however, we find a very different standard of infallibility and a very different understanding about the authority of God’s words. In Isaiah, the Lord speaks through his prophet and says:
As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:10-11)Here is the key point: The word that proceeds from the mouth of God accomplishes whatever God intends for it to do. This is the measure of the truthfulness, trustworthiness, authority and infallibility of Scripture.
What, then, does God intend the Scriptures to do? The Lord Jesus answers this for us: The Law and the Prophets — that is, the Old Testament Scriptures — are about him (the New Testament Scriptures, of course, are manifestly about him). We see this, for example, in the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17).
In a rebuke to the Jewish leaders who rejected him, he said, “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life … If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me” (John 5:39-40, 46).
To the two disciples who were on the road to Emmaus, on the evening of the day Jesus was raised from the dead (Luke 24:13-32), he said, “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” (vv. 25-26). Luke adds this comment: “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (v. 27). Then when the two disciples finally recognized Jesus, they said to one another, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (v. 32).
That same evening, Jesus appeared to the eleven disciples in the upper room and said, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms” (Luke 24:44).
The Old Testament Scriptures are all about Christ. Their authority and trustworthiness is rooted in their testimony about him. That is how the New Testament authors all understood the Scriptures, as teaching us about the Lord Jesus. Such understanding did not arise for them from a literalistic reading of the Old Testament but because they had come to know the risen Christ, who taught that the Scriptures are all about him. The early Church Fathers, likewise, receiving the tradition handed down by the apostles, read and understood the Scriptures as being all about Christ.
The truth and trustworthiness of the Scriptures is found in what God intends for them to do. Jesus taught that they are all about him. Within that, Paul finds a secondary purpose:
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17)Teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness. These have nothing to do with the methods of modern science and history but everything to do with the truth of Christ and the gospel, so that followers of Christ may be thoroughly equipped for living the Christ life.
The truthfulness, trustworthiness, authority, infallibility — and I would even add, though not in the modern fundamentalist sense, the inerrancy — of Scripture is in its testimony to Jesus Christ and its usefulness for the faith and life of the Church.