In my experience the person who stresses that inerrancy is an attribute of scripture does so thinking that this is the way to secure a high view of scripture. Inerrantists take the lofty position that the whole kit and kaboodle is error free. Once you start allowing errors into the text you’re on the road to liberalism.
The problem, as I have been arguing, is that we can’t make sense of this lofty view. First, while the standard confession is that only the original autographs were necessarily inerrant (no guarantees about subsequent copies) it is not even clear in many cases that anything which would qualify as an autograph ever existed. While it is likely that a letter like Philemon was written in an evening as a single (inerrant) copy, what would be the inerrant autograph of Joshua if the document was composed and compiled over centuries? In that case isn’t talking about the autograph of Joshua as misguided as talking to a Darwinian about the first human?
And anyway what is supposed to be inerrant? Are scientific statements in scripture inerrant? Historical statements? Can a writing be pseudopigraphic and inerrant? Or must we say II Peter was written by Peter? Is a human author of scripture allowed to be ironic? (I.e. can he say the opposite of what he means to make a point?) This is the way many people read much of a text like Ecclesiastes. Even if the human author or redactor was not being ironic, could God have been? (This is one way to redeem the imprecatory psalms.)
The problem, as scholars like Hans Frei have reminded us, is that the tortured labyrinth discussions defending this very vague and unhelpful concept of inerrancy have, ironically enough, often detracted from a deeper and more substantive engagement with the text itself. It’s kind of like being so busy talking about the best way to raise your kids that you never have time to take them to the park.
The Bible as Ulysses
Here’s how you affirm a lofty view of scripture while avoiding altogether the more tortured cul-de-sacs down which this discussion often runs. You simply affirm that scripture is inerrant in the following sense:
God has meticlously guided the formation of scripture in history to form a masterful, unified literary work of special revelation. As a result, it is wrong to think that any portion of that work which appears to be errantly included within the final literary whole should be rejected. Failure to appreciate the integrity of any part to the whole manifests a failure on the part of the reader to grasp the perfect intentions of the divine author.
So what do you do when it appears that a portion of the text is errant morally or historically, or otherwise? I propose that you think by analogy of James Joyce’s great novel Ulysses. This novel has prompted “Joyce Wars” among many nerdy literary critics with nothing better to do than argue about minutiae in an obscure novel. But nonetheless the debate is helpful (though for our purposes it will also be grossly simplified).
The core issue at debate is this: is it appropriate for a later editor to correct mistakes of spelling, grammar, and punctuation in later editions of Ulysses since Joyce is not around to approve them?
Certainly not if you believe Joyce is a masterful author. In that case it would follow that every mistake of spelling, grammar and punctuation was included within the text for a reason. That does not mean they are not errors for relative to accepted standards of spelling, grammar, and punctuation they are indeed errors. But it does mean that we are committed to the position that Joyce would not have included these errors unless he had a good reason to do so. No error would have slipped by his eagle eye mistakenly. And that means that the text ought to be left as is.
That is the kind of attitude I commend toward scripture. There could be errors of grammar (indeed there are), as well as history, science and even morality. In the same way that we could in principle allow such errors in a masterfully composed classic text like Ulysses, so it would seem we could in principle allow such errors in scripture, so long as there is some reason that the author allowed those errors to enter into the final form of the text. Consequently, the reader’s task is not to edit the book into the form he likes, or to ignore the parts she doesn’t like, but rather to work on those errant bits which seem recalcitrant to the reader’s understanding of the logic of the whole.
And that is as lofty a view of scripture as we need.