Inerrancy, Augustine and UCCF

One of the problems with blogging is that of history. What do you do if you blog about something, then a while later change your mind on that subject? I’m contemplating such a problem right now. You see, in the past I’ve blogged about the UCCF Doctrinal Basis. Specifically, I didn’t like one of the points relating to Biblical infallibility. Well, I think the majority of the problems I had at the time have been resolved, and I’d like to share why I now think differently. [The original blog post has been deleted; apologies, but it was getting too many hits from Google without this post being read!]

So, first of all, a couple of terms: Inerrancy – this is the belief that something is functionally without error. So, for example, I could say the statement “2 + 2 = 4” is inerrant. Infallibility, however, is different. It means that something is without the possibility of error. So it’s actually stronger than saying something is inerrant. The ‘infallible’ claim is one which UCCF applied to the Bible in their Doctrinal Basis.

Before going any further, just a quick point on the ‘as originally given’ clause: obviously we don’t have the original copy of the Bible. That said, what with the number of manuscripts and so on we can be pretty sure what we’re reading is close to the original. This is in line with The Chicago Statement on Inerrancy, an interdenominational evangelical document produced in the 70s.

So, that said, there was something I found particularly helpful in my understanding of inerrancy. I think the main problem I’d had before was that I didn’t understand the concept properly: I thought of inerrancy in a pretty wooden kind of way, e.g. if you believed in inerrancy you had to believe that every single word of the gospels was literally true, and verbatim. In other words, if Jesus is reported to have said two different things in two different gospels, this would mean one gospel was in error – and thus inerrancy fails.

Now what I’ve found particularly helpful on this is studying Augustine. In our church history module at college we’ve been looking at a variety of early church writings, and last week we were looking at some of their writings on Scripture (i.e. what their view of Scripture was). I found Augustine very helpful when thinking about this topic of inerrancy. Here’s a quote from Augustine, Harmony of the Gospels, II. xii. 29 (he’s talking about the difference between what John the Baptist said in Matthew 3:11 and John 1:27)

But further, if, when he spoke of the shoes of the Lord, John meant nothing more than to convey the idea of His supremacy and his own lowliness, then, whichever of the two sayings may have actually been uttered by him, whether that regarding the unloosing of the latchet of the shoes, or that respecting the bearing of the shoes, the self-same sense is still correctly preserved by any writer who, while making mention of the shoes in words of his own, has expressed at the same time the same idea of lowliness, and thus has not made any departure from the real mind [of the person of whom he writes]. It is therefore a useful principle, and one particularly worthy of being borne in mind, when we are speaking of the concord of the evangelists, that there is no divergence [to be supposed] from truth, even when they introduce some saying different from what was actually uttered by the person concerning whom the narrative is given, provided that, notwithstanding this, they set forth as his mind precisely what is also so conveyed by that one among them who reproduces the words as they were literally spoken. For thus we learn the salutary lesson, that our aim should be nothing else than to ascertain what is the mind and intention of the person who speaks.

I’m sorry if that’s a bit hard to digest! – basically Augustine is saying what is important is the last bit – the mind and intention of the person who speaks. Essentially this is the way we are to understand inerrancy: not in the sense of ‘every word ascribed to Jesus must have been verbatim spoken by him’ but we can affirm what is said is nonetheless truth.

Our lecturer made the point that human communication doesn’t work in that over-literal way, and that inerrancy works within that framework of human communication.

I found this a very helpful way of looking at inerrancy, particularly when it comes to the gospels. I admit that the real issue here was what I was understanding inerrancy to be, so perhaps this will help someone else!

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