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The Written Word Versus the Living Word

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Can I be an Anabaptist and believe in the inerrancy of the Bible?

While I have been a proud member of the Mennonite Brethren (MB) family since 1984, I no longer count the number of times I have heard colleagues, friends, and various leaders confidently state that biblical inerrancy is “not our thing.” 

The simplest rationale I have heard appeals to the specious argument that the word itself is not found in the Bible. The more sophisticated version of this argument says that the Bible makes no such claims for itself. In a recent sermon, a well-known MB leader challenged the doctrine by claiming that it is contingent on a “modern” definition of what an error is. An ominous sounding claim, but one with which I suspect Isaiah, Paul, Augustine, Luther, and Calvin, to name just a few, would take issue. Some also reject the doctrine as a way to distinguish themselves from American evangelical conservatives and their political agenda.

During the 2019 MB study conference in Waterloo (ON), Professor Tim Geddert made an unexpectedly vigorous case against using the word inerrancy by pointing out some of the difficulties inherent to the position it represents. What he failed to note is that one could raise the same questions with inspiration or infallibility, terms the MB confession of faith includes. 

The popular Meeting House pastor, Bruxy Cavey, stipulates that while Anabaptists tend to avoid inerrancy to describe Scripture, the term can and should enthusiastically be used to describe Jesus, the living Word of God.

If I understand correctly, it appears the major objection to the doctrine of inerrancy resides in the distinction between the written Word of God and the living Word of God, Jesus, who is the one in whom resides final authority. Geddert writes: “We declare that the Scriptures are authoritative, but what we really mean is that the authority of God, the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, is exercised, among other means [my emphasis], through the Scriptures that bear witness to Jesus.”

I must admit to some surprise at the energy expended by so many Anabaptists to undermine the notion that the Bible may in fact be free of error, which is all inerrancy means. At the risk of being accused of throwing a live red herring on the table, if we only expended a small part of that energy to affirming the infinite and intrinsic value of unborn children, who knows the kind of impact we could have in terms of saving real lives and elevating the sanctity of motherhood and the dignity of women. But this is for another article. 

Until recently, I did not feel the necessity to publicly respond to challenges to the doctrine of inerrancy, but a couple of recent incidents made me reconsider. 

In a course I taught last semester, War and Divine Violence in the Bible, I discovered that for many students, the obvious solution to the theological dilemma that represents God’s involvement in war in the Old Testament (and parts of the New) was to view it as the type of cultural accommodation one can expect in such historical documents. Just for the record, I tend to shy away from such ready-made explanations as they fail to take into consideration the utmost respect Jesus exhibited for the Old Testament and the God of the Old Testament. 

The other trigger occurred when I attended a webinar organized by ETEQ featuring none other than the renowned European theologian and biblical scholar, Henri Blocher, who gave an extraordinary lecture on the role of the theologian in the 21st Century. During the Q&A, one participant asked whether there was still value in teaching the doctrine of inerrancy. 

Blocher first noted that, ordinarily, the doctrine of inerrancy need not be given a high profile. To refer to the Bible as God’s inspired Word should be sufficient to establish its authority. He compared the doctrine of inerrancy to a border outpost that is mobilized only when there is the imminent threat of an invasion. 

I have never hesitated to describe the Bible as God’s inerrant Word of God. But like Blocher and until recently, I had not felt the need to give the doctrine much visibility. But to echo Bob Dylan, “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” I sense that the day may have come to mobilize the “inerrancy outpost.” 

To ensure everybody’s blood pressure rises to the appropriate level, let me share my view on what I think is the most appropriate definition of inerrancy. The narrower definition states that Scripture is free of error in what it teaches. The broader definition, as proposed in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, states that the Bible, in the original autographs, is free of error. Period! This is the definition that, in my opinion, best accounts for the evidence we have and offers the most effective protection against theological compromise: 

Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God’s acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God’s saving grace in individual lives.

When it comes to the nature and authority of Scripture, Geddert observed that we only need to adopt the attitude Jesus himself had towards Scripture.  I could not agree more, but we would do well to remember that everything we know and believe about Jesus, including his attitude towards Scripture, we know from the canonical Scriptures themselves. I am not aware of any other verifiable source of knowledge that we can access to discern what Jesus’ position on this or any other issue might be. 

Since space makes it impossible for me to examine all the evidence that pertains to the nature of Scripture, I will focus on the dichotomy many make between the written and the living Word of God. It is this dichotomy that makes it possible for Cavey to proclaim: “We believe in the authoritative, inerrant, infallible Word of God – and his name is Jesus.”

Though this may seem like an unusual starting point, I would like to begin with some observations about the Torah and the Psalms. 

In Deuteronomy 6:4-5, we have what is known as The Shema: “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.”

In this passage, we find the commandment to love (ahav) the “Lord our God.” Considering the importance of this passage, one might expect to find numerous allusions to individuals expressing their love (ahav) for God. While we do find numerous exhortations to love (ahav) the LORD (Exod 20:6; Deut 5:10; 7:9; 10:12; 11:11, 13; Josh 22:5; etc.), there are in fact very few instances where a writer declares his love for God. 

In the book of Psalms, where one would expect to find such declarations, we only find one. In Psalm 116:1, we read: “I love the LORD, for he heard my voice; he heard my cry for mercy.” And that is it! Well, not quite. There is another passage (Ps 18:1) where the speaker expresses his love for God, but the psalmist uses the verb rakham rather than the customary word for love (ahav) attested in Deuteronomy 6:5 and elsewhere. 

This near absence of a subject using the verb ahav to express his love for God is puzzling, especially so in the Psalms. While the psalmist does use the verb ahav to express his love, the object is most often something other than Yahweh. In one instance, it is God’s “house where you live” (Ps 26:8). In all the other passages, the object of the psalmist’s love is either God’s “commands” (Ps 119:47, 48, 127), God’s “law” (Ps 119:97, 113, 163), God’s “statutes” (Ps 119:119, 167), God’s “promises” (Ps 119:140), and God’s “precepts” (Ps 119:159). 

This substitution of God’s law for the person of God is fascinating. It is as if loving the Torah is equated to loving God. While some might wish to construe this as a form of idolatry (bibliolatry), that would be incorrect. There is something else going on. The psalmist was very conscious of the repeated exhortations to loving God found in the Torah. And the ancient Israelites would have immediately noted this stunning substitution. 

It may well be that by doing so, the psalmist is offering us a profound insight into the divine nature of the written Word, an insight that should keep us from too confidently asserting the clean but perhaps artificial distinction between the written Word and the living Word of God. It is almost as if the psalmist seeks to flag a kind of symbiosis between the written Word and God himself. I am obviously not the first person to signal the human/divine nature of Scripture, but I thought it would be helpful to note it again in this context. 

The New Testament is no stranger to this extraordinary relationship between the Word and Jesus. In John 1, Jesus is identified as the Word that was from the very beginning with God. We have here a direct allusion to Jesus as the living Word. In Hebrews 4:12, we have an allusion to the written Word, not as something that is inert and in some sort of dualistic relationship to the living Word, but as a dynamic reality: “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.”  

In 2 Timothy 3:16, Paul describes the Scriptures as “God-breathed” (theopneustos). Is Paul simply using the expression as a clever rhetorical device to underline the authority of Scripture, or is he perhaps referring to this mysterious quality that the psalmist recognized in the Torah? Didn’t Isaiah allude to that same quality when he wrote: “so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it” (Isa. 55:11). 

Matthew 5:18 gives us a profound insight into Jesus’ own attitude towards Scripture: “For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.” The apostle John echoes this posture towards the revelation he receives from God in Revelation 22:6, 18-19, where he refers to “these words” as “trustworthy and true” and proclaims a curse on those who would add or take away from “the words of the prophecy.”

In John 16:13-15, Jesus tells his disciples something remarkable about the revelation they will soon receive: 

But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you.  All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you.” 

This passage is extremely important in terms of clarifying the status of Scripture. Jesus is saying that the authority that is his will be vested in the revelation they will receive from the Holy Spirit. 

There are two things that we can safely note. First, the sharp distinction many Anabaptist intellectuals make between the written Word and the living Word probably needs to be significantly blunted. 

As for the concept of inerrancy, I think we are fully justified in applying the word to the written Word as well as the living Word. If we believe, as Cavey asserts, that Jesus is the
“authoritative, inerrant, infallible Word of God,” I fail to see why those same qualifiers cannot be legitimately applied to the written Word of God. 

This is where the idea of inerrancy as a fortified outpost becomes interesting. It has become remarkably easy for an increasing number of Christians to routinely state that the Bible is in error when its teachings conflict with the cultural hegemony. 

For instance. Since the theory of evolution clashes with Genesis 1, the text must therefore be in error. Since Joshua’s portrayal of God commanding the Israelites to conquer Canaan collides with the position that war is always wrong, the book of Joshua must therefore be in error. Since the creation account’s assertion that there are only two sexes, male and female, is clearly in conflict with the contemporary view of multiple and fluid genders, Genesis 1 must therefore be in error. Since Paul’s indictment of same-sex relationships sharply contradicts the contemporary view of the same, Romans 1 must therefore be wrong. And the list goes on. 

Normally, our view of the Bible as the inspired Word of God should be sufficient to give the Bible the benefit of the doubt. But that is unfortunately proving not to be case. To use my earlier metaphor, the border has been breached. Even in conservative circles, the doctrine of inspiration is proving to be inadequate to resist the erosion of biblical authority. We now have no choice but to mobilize the outpost and appeal explicitly to the inerrant nature of Scripture both to boost our confidence in Scripture and resist the cultural colonialism we are experiencing.  

To believe in the inerrancy of Scripture does not eliminate the difficulties that are inherent to an ancient text. To proclaim that the Bible is without errors is a foundational statement of principle that is intended to govern our most fundamental attitude towards the biblical text. If we approach the Bible with the assumption that Scripture is the inspired, authoritative, inerrant, and infallible “Word of our Lord,” as the great philosopher, Alvin Plantinga, often wrote, we will have no choice but to give it the benefit of the doubt and work hard at understanding the biblical text on its own terms.

As I conclude what represents a plea for a renewed belief in the authority of the written word, I want to clarify that I am not advocating for an inclusion of the word inerrancy in the MB confession of faith at this time. I do, however, wish to underline that the reference to the infallibility of Scripture in the Confession of faith also flags our belief in an inspired text that is free from error. My hope is that this short reflection on the doctrine of inerrancy will have served to highlight again the extraordinary human/divine nature of Scripture and its authority as we navigate these uncertain times. 

6 comments

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6 comments

Joe Haynes October 22, 2021 - 13:22

Excellent article and long overdue! One typo to correct: you wrote, “our belief in an inspired text that is indeed from error.” You meant to say, “FREE from error.”

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Jordan Duerrstein October 24, 2021 - 12:35

As I saw in the Facebook comments, I agree with Theodore Dyck who asks: “what is an error?” in the mind of Pierre Gilbert?
Better yet, the question Pilate says to Jesus: “What is truth?” might be more helpful, in order to think in positive terms.

I do not think any pre-modern interpreters (nor the human writers of scripture) thought about “errors” in the same modern/post-enlightenment way we think about errors today. This is the problem with inerrancy, right? The pushers of inerrancy (e.g., Chicago statement-ers) are entrenched in a modern scientific worldview. The need to claim authority in opposition to modernist ideology in the 1920s and 30s, liberal ideology in the 1950s and 60s, or leftist/progressive ideology today seem to be stuck in this modern-scientific frame. I submit that this claim for authority puts the category of “without error” as above God.

I’d much rather contemplate the words revelation, sanctification, and inspiration when speaking of Holy Scripture. I’d rather talk about about scripture and its use within the Church, in the economy of Grace, in the lives of brothers and sisters. Before Pilate’s response, Jesus says: “Everyone who is of the truth listens my voice.” As Jesus followers, we hear and see Jesus in Holy Scripture. We learn how to be people formed by Jesus’ way, truth, and life in Holy Scripture.

I’m just not sure how speaking of scripture as “inerrant” is helpful for conversations within the church or without the church. For those who do not yet believe in Jesus, why is making such a claim about this ancient text (for that is all it is to them) helpful? For those who do believe in Jesus, why is speaking this way helpful for forming us as people of the Way?

To be most critical, I submit that using the language of inerrancy is antagonistic. It seems like an angry way to have an argument against people who don’t care, but makes us feel good about ourselves. Let’s spend our energies elsewhere.

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Stéphane Leclair October 25, 2021 - 20:39

Très bonne réflexion cher Pierre.
Au plaisir

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Myron A. Penner October 26, 2021 - 02:36

Just a clarification re Alvin Plantinga. Your reference to Plantinga makes it sound like he endorses inerrancy, but that’s not quite right–at least not inerrancy as you seem to be conceiving it. In Plantinga’s 1991 “When Faith and Reason Clash: Evolution and the Bible” (Christian Scholar’s Review XXI:1 (September 1991): 8-33), he does use “inerrant” to describe what “the Lord proposes to teach” in Scripture. But this is immediately followed with recognition that we can’t “identify our understanding or grasp of the teaching of Scripture with the teaching of Scripture.” This is why he says just a little later on, that science can correct one’s grasp of what Scripture teaches. More importantly, in his most well-known essay on the Bible, “Two (or More) Kinds of Scripture Scholarship,” Plantinga never uses “inerrant” or “inerrancy” to describe the Bible, opting for “inspiration” and “authority” instead. Finally, in that same essay, Plantinga states (in a footnote) that he agrees with the views of his Notre Dame colleague Peter van Inwagen expressed in PvI’s “Critical Studies of the New Testament and The User of the New Testament.” In this latter essay, van Inwagen is comfortable with the idea the biblical texts contain errors that “do no harm” to one’s ability to grasp the main purposes of scripture, even if one happens to believe false things through a “plain reading” of the text.

So, Plantinga’s inerrancy is more of a philosophical commitment to the idea that everything God wants to teach in scripture must be true, because of his notion of God as a perfect being. But that type of inerrancy gets swept away pretty quickly when it comes to his views about the fallibility of interpretation. In my view, that’s a feature of Al’s views here (and not a bug), because in real-time reading and application of scripture, that type of inerrancy will do less harm than other, more fundamentalist concepts of inerrancy. But I think the later Plantinga is even better, when it seems like he gets rid of the term altogether.

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Greg Wiens October 29, 2021 - 16:07

I am giving everyone a copy of this in our church as part of our SO NOW WHAT in the my sermon this week that is based on Mark 7:1-23
Thank you Pierre!

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Ken Friesen November 2, 2021 - 12:57

Bravo Pierre. Most excellent insight and poignant imagery. Indeed the borders have been breached, or, one could say, “the ship is sinking.” Without the inerrant, infallible, authoritative scripture, mankind would be worse than lost at sea without a paddle, we would be sunk. Thank you Lord for your living word of scripture.

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