Limited Inerrancy: Right or Wrong


The topic we wish to discuss with you in these articles concerns the nature of the Holy Scriptures. Many questions are being asked and many assertions made concerning the nature of Scripture. All these questions ultimately reveal the presuppositions the persons asking the questions and making the assertions hold with respect to the Bible: is it or is it not the Word of God? 

Our subject, therefore, is of great significance. For our answer to the question as presented will determine the character and content of our preaching and teaching. The position we take will affect our homes and our children. Is the assertion that the Bible possesses only "Limited Inerrancy" right or wrong? You must and you will give your answer. The position you take will determine your spiritual life for good or evil. Principles, whether they be correct principles or wrong principles, do work through to permeate and determine the ethical and spiritual character of our homes and our churches.

The Bible declares Who God is. The Scriptures testify that God is our Savior through our Lord Jesus Christ. In inseparable connection with the above the written record of revelation also points us to our calling in the world. What is the effect of denying that the Bible is the infallible record of God's revelation? In the first place, there is then principally no gospel and no gospel preaching where this denial is found. Further, there is not then found in the church and home the only valid objective authority for our moral life. To reject the Light is to walk in darkness and in unbelief, along the broad way of worldly-mindedness to Hell. 

Christian be careful! We believe, and we desire that you with us continue to believe, that the Bible in its entirety is the infallibly inspired record of the self revelation of our God, which God has in love preserved for thousands of years, because it is His Word, "profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: that the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works." 

Our prayer for God's people everywhere is identical in content with the prayer of our Lord Jesus Christ. He has taught us how to pray for ourselves and for all the saints: "keep them from the evil. They are not of the world. Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth." (John 17:15-l 7) 

This prayer of Jesus, offered just before His death, must become the constant prayer of each of us for ourselves and for our brethren in the world till Christ returns in the final great manifestation of His victory over sin and Satan. 

As we approach our subject I would remind you of two great Reformation principles with regard to the doctrine of Scripture—principles which Rome has always denied and which today men in the Reformed community of churches deny. The first is that Scripture alone is authoritative for doctrine and life. Scripture has exclusive authority. The second principle which Luther taught us is that Scripture is its own interpreter. The individual may not speak to Scripture or impose presumptuously his ideas upon Scripture. Nor does the individual man have a right before God to his own opinion. God will damn those who out of fear of losing a reputation for scholarship minimize and despise the significance and exclusive authority of the Bible. The individual and the church must listen to Scripture as hearing the very Word of God. He that in humility is willing to be taught by the Spirit through the means of the Scriptures is one that has been drawn unto Christ. These principles of the Reformation have always been the strength of the faith of Presbyterian and Reformed churches. 

However, a line of demarcation is rapidly forming today in the Reformed community of churches. This line is formed by the question: Where do you 'stand in regard to the assertion that the Bible possesses only limited inerrancy? Is that position right or wrong? Dr. H. Lindsell, in his book Battle For The Biblehoed the conviction of the late Edward J. Young who warned us that it is unbelief to deny the infallibility or inerrancy of Scripture. 

Thus we are faced with a fundamental question—Limited Inerrancy: Right or Wrong? Remember that this question does not raise merely an intellectual matter but a spiritual matter of faith. It concerns the basic principles of our lives. Men offer us and encourage us to take to ourselves the idea that the Bible possesses only a limited inerrancy. Are we going to purge our souls of the age-old conviction that the Bible is in its entirety the infallibly inspired Word of God? We must be clear as to where we stand as churches and as mothers and fathers responsible for the instruction of our children. 

Where are you going? What you believe with the heart will determine your confession and walk. Principles work through!


What is Limited Inerrancy? 

We should have clearly before our minds the central idea of this theory before we proceed to evaluate it. What is meant, first of all, by the term inerrancy? Inerrancy is a noun which means to be free of error. The term is synonymous with infallibility. Limited inerrancy is then the same as limited infallibility. Thus Scripture does speak infallibly or inerrantly. But this inerrancy is qualified by the adjective "limited." The Bible is inerrant with respect to some things only. What are these things about which the Bible speaks infallibly or inerrantly? In general, these things are the spiritual and eternal truths of God's word. Specifically, the Bible is infallible when it speaks about God, Christ, and about the benefits of Christ's redemptive work. Scripture is accurate or errorless when discussing the subjects of man's salvation, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection and life eternal. Concerning all these spiritual matters the Bible speaks with absolute authority, because it speaks inerrantly. Therefore, with respect to the "important" matters the Bible's message is inerrant. This inerrant message of the Bible is the all important thing. 

Thus the term inerrant is limited in scope to include something and to exclude other things both of which Sacred Scripture speaks. 

There are, therefore, portions of Scripture that are errant or fallible. With respect to many historical, geographical, scientific, and chronological matters the testimony of the Bible is, of course, erroneous. The narrative of Scripture concerning the person of Adam, the fall of Adam, and the report that the snake spoke are erroneous. The prophecy of Isaiah concerning Cyrus King of the Medes and Persians in Is. 45 is not prophecy but after the fact reporting and recording. The creation narrative is fallible, for it does not harmonize with the facts as we know them. The report of Joshua 10:13-14 that the sun stood still for about a whole day is, of course, erroneous . . . for it is not in harmony with the evidence of science. The report of Scripture that the first world perished in the great flood of Noah's day is ridiculed as unworthy of acceptance. The biblical picture of the earth as having four comers is obviously, according to the proponents of the theory of limited inerrancy, out of keeping with our illuminated understanding of the universe. There are, of course, many other aspects or portions of the biblical narrative that are to be rejected. Nothing of an historical, geographical, scientific, and chronological character is per se infallible. 

The Bible speaks inerrantly about spiritual things; but its testimony with respect to these other matters is fallible and untrustworthy. One need not believe all that the Bible says.

What, now, supposedly accounts for this "limited inerrancy" of the Bible? There are two related ideas which account for the fact that the Bible is both errant and inerrant, fallible and infallible. 

First of all, the composition of the Bible is attributable to both a divine factor and a human factor. God gave us by inspiration the inerrant part of Scripture, the "spiritual things." This aspect of the message of Scripture is God's Word. This we must believe. But there is also the human factor to which is attributable the composition and content of Scripture. Man's contribution to the "sacred record" accounts for the errors, distortions, discrepancies, inaccuracies, and contradictions in the Bible. 

Secondly, we must remember, the proponents of the theory of "limited inerrancy" tell us, that these human authors were "time bound" and "culturally conditioned." By the expression "time bound" is meant that the human authors were bound or limited in their knowledge and understanding of history, science, geography, and chronology. This limitation, of course, characterized all those who lived in that time period. They were men with very limited intellectual horizons. In addition to this, the human authors were also "culturally conditioned." Every person a of any age and culture is affected and influenced by his culture and by the society in which he lives. Specifically with respect to ethical matters is this very important to remember. With respect to the ethical aspects of marriage, divorce and remarriage, homosexualism, the role of women in society and the church, and many other ethical matters, the human writers were conditioned by their culture to think in a specific way. Therefore, the Bible reflects the foibles of the culture which conditioned the human authors of Scripture. The opinions and foibles of the human authors are, therefore, not necessarily normative for us. Because every culture in its ethical convictions reflects the scope of its knowledge and understanding of the universe, of human nature, and of the nature of the interpersonal relationships of life, what was good for one culture is not necessarily well suited, it would seem, for another culture.

Thus the Bible in some things is not authoritative for us. The Bible has only a limited authority, because it possesses only a limited inerrancy and inspiration. 

The motivation of those who favor this position of limited inerrancy is not always clear, but we have gained the following. The theory of limited inerrancy makes possible a compromise with the scientific community and secular historians concerning their alleged discoveries which contradict the testimony of the Bible. Their motivation is to save the church embarrassment before the learned world. By relinquishing the authoritative position of Scripture concerning historical, scientific, geographical, and chronological matters we make the true message of the Bible and the church respectable and inoffensive and palatable to a secular world...hopefully. The Church must preach the infallible message of God that there is salvation in Christ Jesus, but avoid disgracing this great message by claiming infallibility or inerrancy for those obviously erroneous assertions of Scripture.


A Warning 

This theory may appeal to the unwary believer! For, he reasons, we can still know God in Christ as the God of our salvation; because the Bible is inerrant on these matters. We still have the infallible testimony of the Bible concerning the all important things. Secondly, this theory is appealing to the unwary believer because it frees us from all conflict and tension about the so-called historical and scientific matters. For a theory of "limited inerrancy" allows for errors on all these matters. They are, after all, unimportant and inconsequential. 

But this conclusion made by the unwary in the church is wrong and deadly. We cannot have our cake and eat it too. That is, we cannot cast away or minimize the historical or consider it errant and still have the revelation of God concerning our salvation and calling. More about that later. 

We must remember that there is a great deal of evidence of commitment to the theory of limited inerrancy in the church. You are probably familiar with the names of leading advocates of this position in Lutheran, Presbyterian, and Reformed Churches. But do not overlook that there are many who support these vocal leaders from their pulpits, in the consistory room, and in all their teaching and pastoral work. Thus we must be alert to the dangers close to home. There is abundant indirect evidence of a departure from the confessional doctrine of infallibility and the embracing of the theory of limited inerrancy. There is a clamor for new interpretations of the Bible with respect to Sabbath observance, women in ecclesiastical office, marriage, morality, and the remarriage of divorced persons. A commitment to the theory of limited inerrancy is evidenced too by a lack of respect for and confidence in the authority of the Word . . . in the pulpit. Further, churches more and more fail to discipline for deviation in doctrine and walk. Consistories have lost confidence in the authority of the Bible. Oftentimes we stare ourselves blind at the names of persons who espouse a wrong view of Scripture, but we overlook the fact that churches evidence a commitment to a wrong view of the Bible in other ways.

Unwary believer, listen to the apostle Paul: "But ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief. . . . Therefore let us not sleep, as do others; but let us watch and be sober. . . . For God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to obtain salvation by our Lord Jesus Christ." (I Thess. 5:4-9)