CHAPTER FOUR LIMITED INERRANCY
The third position about the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture in American Evangelicalism is that of Limited Inerrancy. On the spectrum which runs from most rigid to less rigid in the views on inerrancy, Complete Inerrancy occupies the most rigid perspective, Conditional Inerrancy the middle position, and Limited Inerrancy the least rigid. In fact, while Complete Inerrancy demands that the term inerrant be used and Conditional lnerrancy reluctantly allows its usage, Limited lnerrancy proposes that the term inerrant not be used in regard to the Bible.
The descriptor, Limited Inerrancy, is used here somewhat differently than is the case in most studies of the doctrine of Scripture, where the phrase describes a view of inerrancy which qualifies the term severely in specific ways so as to keep the term, but with multiple reductions on the extent to which it is applied. Here the phrase is used to describe a position within American Evangelicalism which recognizes errors within the biblical text and accepts that they are not there as mistakes which render the text unavailing, but they are there by the will and purpose of God. This view holds that the term inerrant should not be applied to the biblical texts, although it does maintain that they remain authoritative for faith and practice within the Christian community.
This chapter will highlight the differences and disagreements which Limited Inerrancy has with the two other positions. Limited Inerrancy is based on the recognition that the phenomena within the Scripture must be accepted for what they are and the understanding that in the main the church has never supported views about the Bible being absolutely inerrant. The specific arguments made in support of Limited Inerrancy will be identified and explained, which will illustrate the conclusion that although there are errors in the text of Scripture it is essentially accurate and trustworthy.
Introduction to Limited Inerrancy
Limited Inerrancy, while distinct from either Complete or Conditional Inerrancy, is, too, within American Evangelicalism. In this section it will be necessary to note how Limited Inerrancy deals with three concerns basic to the discussion in American Evangelicalism about the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture. It will be noted that the Scriptures are seen as authoritative by Limited Inerrancy, that it does hold to their inspiration, albeit in terms that are different from some of their colleagues within Evangelicalism, and that it defines inerrancy in ways which set them apart from the other two positions which have been considered.
Authority of Scripture
Limited Inerrancy, as did Complete and Conditional Inerrancy, holds the Bible in high regard, seeing it as the authoritative rule for faith and practice within the church. In line with the major Evangelical tenets, Limited Inerrancy affirms the phrase sola scriptura as describing its understanding of the importance of the Scriptures for the life of the community of faith. Dewey Beegle observed, however, that « it should be recognized … that it is impossible to practice the use of ‘Scripture alone’ in an absolute sense. Even Martin Luther did not understand it that way » (1973, 119). Given the distance geographically, culturally, and chronologically from the world in which, and to which, the biblical writers wrote, there is the need for involvement with the biblical languages, the history of the biblical times, and the background concerns of the writers’ world, to understand the Bible. In that way the Bible can serve as the final norm for faith and practice.
This caveat does not lessen the authoritative status of the Bible. Beegle affirmed that « the core meaning of ‘Scripture alone’ is that the canon is the only place where one can go to find the authoritative gospel of Christ. Notwithstanding all of its difficulties, the Bible presents the clearest picture of Jesus and God his Father » (1973, 121). The Bible must be accepted as the revelation of God, the authoritative norm for determining what He expects for the Church in the living out in the world of the gospel of Christ.
All three of the views on the inerrancy of the Bible give allegiance the inspiration of the Bible, an important affirmation within Evangelicalism. Limited Inerrancy, however, does approach the doctrine of the inspiration of the Scripture in a manner which sets it apart from the other two views. To set out the view of inspiration in one sentence, Beegle asserted that ‘)ust as there are varying kinds of revelation in Scripture, there are different kinds of inspiration » (1973, 199). The concept of inspiration is to be found throughout the biblical materials though there is no effort within the Bible to give explanation as to how it took place. Limited Inerrantists, as did their adversaries in the inerrancy debate, appeal to 2 Timothy 3: 15-16 and 2 Peter 1 :21 to argue for the inspiration of the Bible, focusing, as did the Conditional lnerrantists, on the materials extant at the time Paul and Peter wrote. The reality of the progressive work of authoring, editing, and redacting, complicates the claim for inspiration upon the multiple individuals involved in the process. It is a common-place to speak of God as the author of Scripture, but Beegle observed that « while Scripture claims unequivocally that God was the source of revelation and inspiration, it is interesting that nowhere does the Bible teach that God was its author » (1973, 203). Limited Inerrancy attributes much of the confusion about the authorship of God to Aristotle’s concept of instrumental efficient causality, noting that such argumentation is foreign to the biblical intent and message.
Limited Inerrancy bases its view on the variability of inspiration within the Bible on their understanding that the Jews placed the primacy of inspiration on the Torah, seeing lesser inspiration for the Prophets, and even less for the Writings (Beegle 1973, 205). In that all of the activities of the biblical writers involved some sort of inspiration, it can be said that the Bible is inspired, but, as Beegle noted, in that « all of Scripture does not involve special or primary revelation … there is not need to posit unique inspiration for every word of the Bible » (1973, 208). The Bible reveals that the concept of inspiration is applied variously, with differing levels of intensity and effect, which means that some materials, for example the Gospel of John, have more inspirational impact than other books, for example Esther. To say lesser inspiration in reference to a specific biblical portion, however, is not to deny the function of that material within the entirety of God’s purposes. Lesser inspiration is still inspiration.
It must be emphasized that the position of Limited Inerrancy is that the Bible is inspired and it recognizes that the stringent manner in which Complete Inerrancy has supported this view of Scripture has made a positive impact on American Evangelicalism. However, as David A. Hubbard noted, the « emphasis on the inspiration of all parts of the Bible has sometimes resulted in the attempt to apply equally all parts of the Bible to our conduct and doctrine » (1977, 159). Hubbard observed several examples of the problem being identified; often the context of biblical passages is not considered when applying them to the contemporary reader; major biblical themes are neglected in the rush to support minor details; allegorical means of interpreting are employed; and the various literary forms in which the Bible is written are not recognized (1977, 159-160). While these are concerns for the proper hermeneutical approach to understanding the Bible, they are also illustrations of the need to consider the doctrine of inspiration more carefully so as to delineate its application to the Scripture with more discrimination.
Limited Inerrancy is not comfortable with the approach to inspiration which is designated as verbal inspiration, an approach which argues for the activity of the Holy Spirit ensuring that the very words of the text were explicitly what God intended. Limited Inerrancy prefers to talk about inspiration in organic terms. Harry R. Boer explained this approach to inspiration by noting that « inspiration is regarded as a divine activity which is on the one hand wholly congenial to the character of the divine author and on the other hand wholly confluent with the mental, emotional, and spiritual processes of the human agents whom the Spirit influenced. As the divine and the human are organically related in the Person of our Lord, so the inspiring Spirit associated himself with the conscious and unconscious processes of the human agents whom he directed in ways we dare not define » (1977, 100).
Limited Inerrancy holds in high esteem the doctrine of the inspiration of the Bible, but does not see that inspiring activity of the Holy Spirit upon the authors of the Scripture in the same way as does Complete Inerrancy. Stephen T. Davis explained the inspiration of the Bible as « that influence of the Holy Spirit on the Biblical writers (a) that what they wrote was a reliable and authoritative account of how God has revealed himself in history, and (b) that what they wrote was a reliable and authoritative theological interpretation of God’s revelatory acts » (1977, 54). Though a human book, the Bible is the Word of God and provides the record of His revelation which is able to lead one into a saving relationship with God. The Bible does testify to its authoritative status and to its own reliability or trustworthiness, but it does not make the additional claim of its inerrancy.
It would not be correct to charge Limited Inerrancy with a lowered view of the inspiration of the Bible. Donald G. Bloesch, in fact, used concepts which are acceptable to Complete Inerrancy to express his understanding of the inspiration of the Scripture. He affirmed that « Scripture is not only a human witness and medium of divine revelation but also a divinely inspired witness and medium, » and he advocates the « plenary inspiration of Scripture, meaning that Scripture in its totality is inspired » (1978, 54-55).
Bloesch, however, expanded this definition of inspiration to encompass the work of the Holy Spirit upon the human authors, the illumination of the minds of the readers/hearers of the text by the same Holy Spirit, and the work of the Holy Spirit in the preserving of the writings. He defined inspiration as: « the divine election and guidance of the biblical prophets and the ensuring of their writings as a compelling witness to revelation, the opening of the eyes of the people of that time to the truth of these writings, and the providential preservation of these writings as the unique channel ofrevelation » (1994, 119-120).
Definition of Inerrancy
Limited Inerrancy does not see the doctrine of inerrancy explicitly taught in the biblical materials. Beegle, expressing a common theme among Limited Inerrantists, noted that the « earliest non-biblical formulations of inspiration were general statements that conceived of Scripture as the trustworthy, authoritative Word of God. Implied in trustworthiness, of course, were the aspects of truthfulness and accuracy of the record because the ancients concurred in Balaam’s answer to Balak, ‘God is not man, that he should lie’ (Numbers 23:19) » (1973, 156). Such an implication must be considered as it is, an implication drawn from the biblical material and applied to the available copies of Scripture, not a direct assertion made by the Bible.
One of the fears used by Complete Inerrancy to maintain its strict interpretation of the concept of inerrancy is that if one error is allowed the entire edifice of the Scriptures will crumble. The maxim, in legal terms, being applied is, « false in one, false in all. » Beegle noted that this legal maxim is not adhered to rigidly in the courts and asks « on what authority, then, must this principle be applied with absolute consistency to the Scriptures » (1973, 219)? Limited Inerrancy rejects the assumption that the entirety of the Scripture must be inerrant or else all of the Scripture will be rendered meaningless. The real concern about the Bible is its truthfulness in relation to the message of God’s redemption which it proclaims, and that is the case whether or not absolute inerrancy is ascribed to every detail of the text.
1 HISTORY OF THE INERRANCY ISSUE
1.1 What is Evangelicalism?
1.2 Precursors to the Controversies
1.3 The Emerging Fundamentalism
1.4 The Controversies
1.5 The Emergence ofNeo-Evangelicalism
2 COMPLETE INERRANCY
2.1 The Complete Inerrancy View
2.2 Logic of the Complete Inerrancy View
2.3 The Response of Complete Inerrancy to Problems
3 CONDITIONAL INERRANCY
3.1 Introduction to Conditional Inerrancy
3.2 The Concerns Raised Against Complete Inerrancy
3.3 The Basis for Conditional Inerrancy
3.4 The Argument for Conditional Inerrancy
4 LIMITED INERRANCY
4.1 Introduction to Limited Inerrancy
4.2 Disagreements With Complete and Conditional Inerrancy
4.3 The Basis for Limited Inerrancy
4.4 The Argument for Limited Inerrancy
5 INERRANCY REVISITED
5.1 A Summary of the Arguments Made By the Options Presented
5.2 Revisiting the Doctrine oflnerrancy
GET THE COMPLETE PROJECT
VIEWS ON THE INERRANCY OF THE BIBLE IN AMERICAN EVANGELICAL THEOLOGY