Geoffroy Smith, The University of Texas at Austin College of Liberal Arts
In his farewell address to the 2021 Southern Baptist Convention, outgoing President JD Greear acknowledged internal differences but assured attendees that the Baptist faith continues to affirm “the most contested doctrines in our culture,” such as as “authority and inerrancy, and the sufficiency of the scriptures.”
Recently, other prominent Christians have been touting their belief in inerrancy, including MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell and former Vice President Mike Pence. Although support for the doctrine has waned in recent years, nearly one in four Americans believe the Bible is the literal word of God.
But what is âinerrancyâ and why is it important to so many Christians?
I first encountered the doctrine of biblical inerrancy as an undergraduate student at the University of Biola. The evangelical school statement of faith asserts that “the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are without error or inaccuracy in their moral and spiritual teaching and in the recording of historical facts.”
Now, as a New Testament scholar teaching classes at a Bible Belt university, I frequently interact with students familiar with – if not engaged – the doctrine of inerrancy.
Why the doctrine of inerrancy matters
The Bible itself does not claim to be infallible. Perhaps the closest Bible to claiming to be error-free is found in a New Testament letter known as 2 Timothy 3:16. In this letter, the apostle Paul declares that “all scripture is inspired and useful to teach, to rebuke, to correct, and to instruct in righteousness.” In other words, the Bible is God’s authoritative instruction for the church.
Biblical scholars are quick to point out that “all the scriptures” here probably don’t refer to both the Old and New Testaments, and the apostle Paul probably didn’t even write 2 Timothy. This verse, however, remains central to those who view the Bible as without error.
The doctrine of inerrancy is more post-biblical, even modern. And this has been particularly influential among American evangelicals, who often appeal to the doctrine of inerrancy in arguments against gender equality, social justice, critical race theory, and other causes considered to be violating. the infallible word of God.
The doctrine of inerrancy took shape during the 19th and 20th centuries in the United States. A statement written in 1978 by hundreds of evangelical leaders remains its most complete articulation. Known as the Chicago Declaration on Biblical Inertia, the declaration was a response to emerging âliberalâ or non-literal interpretations of the Bible. According to the statement, the Bible speaks with “infallible divine authority in all matters 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 considered error-free. still needs to be interpreted.
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Geoffrey Smith, Associate Professor, Department of Religious Studies, The University of Texas at Austin College of Liberal Arts
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