The Bible may be "inerrant"--in a nuanced sense
Perhaps a "nuanced" inerrancy of the Bible is possible.
Some of the "errors" of the Bible are not the Bible's fault, but ours

Harold N. Miller

The Bible will often be in error if we read it according to our culture's standards of accuracy and historiography. For instance, Genesis 11:12 states that "when Arphaxad had lived 35 years, he became the father of Shelah." But in Luke 3:35-36 between those names is another name-- Arphaxad was not the father but an ancestor of Shelah. When historians of our century say a person was "the father of" someone, they mean exactly that. But a contemporary historian did not write Genesis. In the culture in which Genesis was written, persons who evidently did not make a name for themselves were dropped from the genealogy.

Biblical writers felt free to even adjust the chronology or other details of a narrative to make a point. Some differences between Chronicles and its parallel passages in Samuel/Kings are especially unsettling to those holding a high view of Scripture. If we wrote that way today, it would be deceptive and misleading because it would violate expectations. But we must not read a Bible author's words as if they were written in our day, judging them by our standards. We must take those words to be as precise and as imprecise as they were intended.

We can call Scripture inerrant if we use a nuanced understanding of the word. The Bible is inerrant "not in the sense of being absolutely precise by modern standards, but in... achieving that measure of focused truth at which its authors aimed" (from the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, drafted by 300 evangelicals in 1978). Instead of a wooden hermeneutic in which all biblical words have an exact and universal meaning, many inerrantists understand the need for the historical-critical method of interpretation by which an author's words are understood in the light of the way language was used in his own time and culture.

Consider another example. In Acts 7:1-4 Stephen declares that Abraham went to Canaan after his father Terah died in Haran. But according to Genesis 11:26-12:4 it seems Abraham left his father in Haran and went to Canaan some sixty years before his father died. However, Acts may not contradict Genesis for the simple reason that the author of Genesis may not have said all that we think he said. When we read "Terah lived seventy years, and begat Abram, Nahor and Haran" (Genesis 11:26), we read it through our culture's eye-glasses and imagine Terah's wife presenting triplets to a seventy year old Terah. But Genesis was not written in our day when the historian is expected to create in his readers a mental picture with a one-to-one correspondence to the actual event. It was not written for our culture but for a day when nonchronological narration, imprecise quotation, round numbers, gaps in genealogies, etc., comprised acceptable historiography and violated no expectations. We in our day are responsible to approach the Bible with those same expectations and not impose on it our standards of accuracy. We must not read Genesis as if it was written in our day. (The mistake we must avoid is like someone hearing that pi equals 3.14 and assuming it is also equal to 3.1400.) So perhaps in actuality Abraham wasn't born in Terah's seventieth year but sixty years later and is first on the list because of importance, not primogeniture. Then Abraham did leave for Canaan after Terah died.

The biblical authors' standards of precision may be similar to our culture's expectations for oral precision. When we casually retell an incident orally, our culture allows us a bit of sloppiness in choosing our words. If a friend takes our words as more precise than we intended and gets a wrong impression (and starts misleading gossip!), the friend is wrong. Unless a speaker tries to mislead or inadvertently got the facts wrong, responsibility for error rests on the listener, not the speaker.

Another example. There are substantial differences between Mark 10:17-22 (rich young ruler) and the parallel passages in Matthew and Luke. Matthew changes Jesus' response from "Why do you call me good?" to "Why do you ask me about what is good?" Redaction criticism suggests that perhaps Matthew adjusted the saying in line with his stress on the deity of Jesus which his audience needed to hear. Possibly Jesus' actual words somehow combined elements of both Gospel accounts--real-life conversations do contain disconcerting amounts of ambiguity and nuance.

If Matthew were writing today he could not adjust "good teacher" to "good deed" without it being considered erroneous. But in his day that may have violated no expectations.

Two Comments:

- Unlike many others, I do not say an inerrant Scripture is needed so that the church will not be placed "over" Scripture, deciding what is inspired and what is not inspired. The church already is over Scripture. Those books in the canon did not drop straight from heaven. First the mind of the author instructed by the Spirit chose certain words, and then the councils of the early church guided by the Spirit chose certain books.
    An honest accounting of those facts leads me to say that only the Spirit, not a doctrine of inerrancy, can be the ultimate anchor for my faith.

- Paul M. Zehr in his book "Biblical Criticism in the Life of the Church" (Herald Press; 1986) contends that the idea that Scripture is inerrant in scientific and historical details can be traced to Greek (Aristotelian) philosophy. He calls us back to the Hebraic approach to life which "is not as much interested in logic and proofs as it is in salvation, righteousness, peace, and obedience."
    But is it possible that to communicate Scripture's authority to modern persons affected by Greek philosophy we need the word inerrancy?