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Published Date: January 31, 2001

Published Date: January 31, 2001

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Can you Believe in Inerrancy and Equality?

It is important that we not confuse two different issues

One’s first reaction to the title question might be, “Of course you can, because I do!” But that hardly explores the important issues involved. The question arises because some who believe in a subordinate position for women in church, home, and world accuse biblical egalitarians of such things as “not believing the Bible”—or at least not being fully committed to it.

A letter to the editor that appeared in the Baptist Standard, the newspaper of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, spoke of “those who hold the Scripture inerrant and its principles binding (such as the husband being head of the wife as Christ is head of the church).”1 The implication is that it is impossible to harmonize the doctrine of inerrancy and belief in gender equality.

Apples And Oranges

Actually, the letter quoted and title of this article deal with two completely different issues, and we must be careful not to confuse them.

Inerrancy is a doctrinal position, a conviction regarding the nature of the Bible. A belief in the equality of male and female, on the other hand, is a matter of the interpretation of the Bible, hermeneutics: “The place of women in the Bible is an interpretive, hermeneutical question. It is not an inerrancy question.”2

Understanding Inerrancy

Inerrancy is a somewhat difficult concept, easier to claim and/or defend than to define. People have generally taken three approaches in dealing with the difficulty.

1. There are broad, general definitions. Inerrancy has been called “a metaphor for the determination to trust God’s Word completely”3 That certainly qualifies as a broad, general, definition. Inerrancy can thus be applied to the Bible in the sense of its being an authentic, dependable record of God’s self-disclosure. This seems to be what many laypeople mean who use the term. To them, “I believe in inerrancy” means “I believe the Bible.” Clark Pinnock has said of theologian Bernard Ramm: “For him inerrancy always meant something quite simple. It signaled one’s commitment to trust the Bible and to take it seriously.”4

2. There are more specific, detailed definitions. David Dockery, a Southern Baptist leader with unquestioned conservative credentials, has a fine basic definition: “The Bible in its original autographs, properly interpreted, will be found to be truthful and faithful in all that it affirms concerning all areas of life, faith, and practice.”5

This definition is attractive for several reasons. It is a positive statement; it says that the Bible has to be interpreted properly; it argues that the Bible is true in what it affirms and in what it teaches. Dockery calls this critical inerrancy, not naïve inerrancy (see below).

3. Still, a more precise, technical definition is sought by many people. Dockery himself, in fact, has a longer and much more involved definition.6 The most famous definition is, of course, that of the Chicago Council on Biblical Inerrancy in 1978.7 It is certainly not simple. There is a preface, a five-part summary, and then nineteen explanatory or qualifying articles, plus four pages of exposition.

Why Inerrancy?

On the popular level then, “inerrancy” seems to indicate a belief in the Bible, acceptance of the Bible, and submission to the authority of the Bible.

Some people, however, want more. There are those who even seem to want to retreat into the redoubt of inerrancy in an attempt to insure that their interpretations of Scripture will be mandatory: I believe the Bible, and therefore the way I choose to interpret it must obviously be correct.

When I was a seminary student— back in the Jurassic Period of the 1950s—the question then was: Is the Bible inspired? When I was a graduate teaching fellow, a student asked me, “Do you believe the Bible is inspired?” That was what counted at that time. That category was sufficient. That was the issue, the question. It was enough.

But it turned out not to be enough. Not everyone who believes that the Bible is inspired comes up with the same interpretation. So some have felt that more strict categories are necessary. The new watchword became “verbal inspiration,” having to do not merely with broad concepts but with words. Predictably, however, that too turned out not to be enough. Then, as I remember it, we moved on to “plenary verbal inspiration.”8 But that was still not enough. Everyone who agreed to the category of plenary verbal inspiration did not come up with the same interpretation— the correct interpretation—in other words, my interpretation. Then people began to call the Bible “infallible.” There was the same eventual result So, relatively recently the category of inerrancy was developed.9 Now the question is, Do you believe that the Bible is inerrant? Do you believe in inerrancy?

I personally think that this rather long-running struggle has been an attempt to insure that everyone will interpret the Bible the same way.10 However, that has not been successful, and it will never be successful. People equally committed to inerrancy will still interpret the Scriptures differently. Here is a relevant example: There are inerrantists who believe in the ordination of women, and there are inerrantists who oppose the ordination of women.11 The crucial issue is obviously not inerrancy, but interpretation. David Dockery has agreed that “an affirmation of biblical inerrancy does not in itself guarantee orthodoxy.”12

Here is another example of the distinction between inerrancy and interpretation. One of the founding fathers of the doctrine of inerrancy was B. B. Warfield of Princeton Seminary. He has been correctly called “a champion of biblical authority and inerrancy.”13 However, Warfield said inerrancy is “not essential to Christianity. It is not the essence of Christianity.”14 Warfield was a postmillennialist—an inerrantist, but a postmillennialist. He also believed in theistic evolution. Here is the “champion of biblical authority and inerrancy.” The fact that he believed in inerrancy had much to do with what he believed about the Bible, but not a lot to do with how he interpreted and applied it. People equally committed to inerrancy will still interpret the Scriptures differently.

Difficulties With The Term Inerrancy

There are several shortcomings with the term inerrancy. These are not problems with the Bible, but rather difficulties with that particular term describing our view of the Bible. For even though we believe the Bible is inerrant, we may have some problems with the term and with some who use it to beat other people over the head.

1. For one thing, inerrancy is a negative term. It is always better to be positive when possible. For example, the Bible is true; the Bible is trustworthy; the Bible is authoritative. We find “in the Bible a kind of truth that is available nowhere else, truth that is ultimate, truth that saves, truth that must be divine.15 We are usually more correct in what we affirm than in what we deny.16

2. Inerrancy as a term is grammatically questionable. Errancy means “not correct.” Inerrancy would therefore mean “not not correct”—a double negative17 and questionable grammatically.

3. While we are at it, inerrancy has the difficulty of defining the term error. What is an error in the Bible? Is it an error to use popular language and to say that the sun rose or night fell? Are round numbers an error? What about paraphrasing, rather than quoting, the Old Testament? What about topical rather than chronological arrangement? The Chicago Statement “considers an error to be a deliberate statement of what the writer knew to be false” and intended to say.18 That is quite a broad definition.

One scholar has suggested that biblical statements regarding astronomy, geography, and human or animal medicine do not so much fall into the categories of true and false as into the categories of modern and old-fashioned.19 Because a concept or a term is quaint, or old fashioned, does this mean it is wrong? I do not think so. Therefore, terms such as truth and error may be “inadequate to express such a complex reality.”20

4. Inerrancy is not, of course, a biblical term.21 This does not disqualify it from use, but it does cause us to wish that we had a more biblical term that we could rely on, such as authoritative or inspired. Those, of course, are biblical terms. So inerrancy “is not a formally stated claim made by the Scriptures on their own behalf. Rather, it is an inference that devout students have made for the teaching of the Bible.”22 One of my former students, a pastor in the Southeast, has gone so far as to say, “Not only are there no biblical synonyms for inerrancy, there are no texts which address the subject specifically or directly.”23

5. Inerrancy is a relatively new term.24 The first recorded use of it in English was in 1652 in a reference to astronomy, the regular orbit of a planet.25 In theological circles it has been used for only a few years.

6. Inerrancy is a complicated term and difficult to define. It is a bit like eschatology at this point. “Defining inerrancy may create more difficulty and division among inerrantists than debate with non-inerrantists.”26 People use the term inerrancy in so many different ways to mean so many different things.27 Many of those who use it have no specific idea what they are talking about. Some use inerrancy to refer to a set of strict interpretations. And some seem to use it to mean “You have to interpret the Bible the way I do.” It is necessary to qualify your definition, almost without end.

7.Inerrancy is certainly a controversial term. I have witnessed more controversy among professing Christians since I first heard the term than ever before in my life. One professor at a Baptist university believes the Bible is inerrant, but he refuses to use the term because it is too controversial.28

Varieties Of Inerrancy

I once heard Gabriel Fackre name three different types of inerrantists. David Dockery, on the other hand, has identified nine different types.29 They represent different views of what it means to say the Bible is trustworthy and authoritative. Dockery has given examples of each type.30

1. Naive (mechanical dictation). In this view, God actually dictated the Bible to the human writers. There was “little or no involvement of the human writers in the process.”31 According to this view, there are passages that indicate the Spirit of God told the author precisely what to write; these “are regarded as typical of the entire Bible. The strength of this position is that it gives proper credit to God as the author of the Bible. However, it seemingly ignores style differences, as well as historical and cultural contexts.”32

2. Absolute inerrancy. This position “allows for more human involvement.”33 The Bible is accurate and true in all matters, and the writers intended to give a considerable amount of data on such matters as history, science, and geography. This view tries to avoid mechanical dictation, but it affirms instead a verbal-plenary view of inspiration. It tries to affirm that the Bible is the written Word of God but also to account for human authorship. Sometimes, however, this view also seems to fail to take seriously the human aspect of Scripture and its historical contexts.34

3. Critical or balanced inerrancy.35 The Bible is true in all that it affirms, to the degree of precision intended by the biblical author. This view does not try to harmonize every detail of Scripture. It realizes that the authors had different purposes—Matthew and Luke, for example, or the authors of Kings and Chronicles. This view uses, cautiously, critical methodologies, such as form criticism and redaction criticism. This position usually regards scientific matters as phenomenal—spoken of in popular language that describes things as they appear without overly precise or technical language. Historical matters are faithful representations of the way the events described took place. However, this was accuracy in general, not precise, terms.36 This is Dockery’s personal position.37

4. Limited inerrancy.38 The Bible is inerrant in all matters of salvation and ethics. The old Baptist phrase I grew up on was “matters of faith and practice.” Divine inspiration did not raise the writers to an intellectual level above that of their contemporaries. It did not give them scientific knowledge unavailable to the people of their day. Therefore, it is possible that the Bible may contain “errors” of science or history in the sense that it expresses the common understandings of that ancient day.39 The problem with this view is that it makes the human writer responsible for recent developments in scientific and historical methods. However, the point of this view is that the Bible is fully truthful and inerrant in matters for which it was given.40

5. Qualified inerrancy. “This position is . . . similar to the one identified above, except in matters of philosophical starting points. The previous position is more closely identified with empiricism, while this one begins with a strong viewpoint of faith.” It is qualified inerrancy in that “inerrancy can be maintained if we qualify it as a faith statement.” We are looking through the eyes of faith. “It is possible that errors could be identified through an inductive study, but beginning with the presupposition of faith, a position of inerrancy . . . can be maintained in a ‘qualified’ sense.” This position is obviously somewhat difficult to articulate.41

6. Nuanced inerrancy (or focused) inerrancy. This view says that “how one understands inerrancy depends on the type of biblical literature under consideration.”42

It is quite acceptable to talk about the Bible as mechanically dictated at certain points like the Ten Commandments, places where human authorship seemingly does not enter in. It is acceptable to talk about verbal inspiration in epistolary or historical literature. In matters where the human author has greater freedom for creativity such as poetry, proverbs or stories, we must allow for a dynamic inspiration. In other words, one position of inspiration … is not adequate to deal with the various types of literature represented in the Bible. 43

This position takes seriously the human authorship of Scripture. It maintains divine inspiration throughout. However, its obvious difficulty is in correctly identifying the genre that the author uses to communicate the message.44 We would identify this view with John Goldingay.

7. Functional inerrancy. This popular position “maintains that the Bible inerrantly accomplishes its purpose. It sees the purpose of scripture as one of function.” We read the Bible to learn how to be rightly related to the Lord in salvation. We read it to learn how to grow in godliness.45 One scholar observed that “Jesus never turned to holy scriptures for history or geography but rather for a religious insight into the meaning of life and mission.”46 If I read Augustine correctly—perhaps a big if— this was his position.47 E. Y. Mullins, Southern Baptists’ greatest theologian, could perhaps be classified under this category. He spoke of an infallibility of purpose rather than a verbal infallibility (inerrancy).48 (Dockery, however, associates Mullins with the limited view.) This position generally refuses to relate inerrancy to matters of factuality. The Bible is inerrant in that “it is faithful in revealing God and bringing people into fellowship with him.”49

I came across this illustration, which I think helps to clarify this view:

Suppose you and I were lost in the wilderness. We have no food, and snow will be coming soon. We stumble into a cabin. While wondering what to do, we notice a faded old map on the table. It is torn and dirty, and part of it seems to be missing, but it shows a path from the cabin to a main road where we could find help. You ask, “I wonder if this map is correct? Will it lead us to safety?” We will not know until we follow it. As we follow the map, we discover that indeed it does bring us to safety and help. We know that whether it is faded or holey, it is reliable because it has led us and others to safety.

The Bible has been that kind of map for many persons for centuries. It does not have to a a perfect map to guide us in our spiritual pilgrimage.

Does one variation affect the whole? A small difference between one book and another does not change the central truth being proclaimed. To change the author of one of the biblical books, or to discover mistakes in quotations, chronology, history, or the scientific view of the writer does not affect the fundamental theological truths they are addressing.50

8. Errant yet authoritative. Inerrancy is irrelevant. This view neither affirms nor denies a position. It rather considers the whole argument irrelevant, distracting, and concerned with theological minutia that inhibits serious biblical research. This view charges that the debate creates disunity among those who have the main things in common. The major charge against this view is that it fails to see that issues relating to the nature of the Bible and biblical authority are foundational in our faith.51

9. Biblical authority. This last view does not see the Bible as inerrant, nor as a revelation from God. Rather, the Bible “is a pointer to a personal encounter with God. Questions of truth or falsity are of little concern.” This view assumes that the Bible contains errors because it was written by sinful humans. But “the presence of errors in no way militates against the functional purpose or authority of the Bible when God is encountered through reading it.” This view obviously has been influenced by neo-orthodoxy. It includes an existential or encounter view of truth. It obviously recognizes the situation of the human author, but it does not recognize the divine character of the Scriptures.”52

Dockery concluded his immensely helpful article by suggesting that we can learn from several, if not all, of these positions. The late Fuller president David Allan Hubbard went much further in stating the obvious: “To recruit students or rally support or withhold fellowship over a definition of biblical inerrancy or the appropriateness of using the term seems futile, if not wicked.”53

Another Kettle Of Fish

Hermeneutics, on the other hand, involves the principles by which we understand and apply the Bible, whichever one of the many doctrinal positions about the nature of the Bible we may hold. The principles and practice of interpretation, however, are the same, whatever doctrinal stance one may take.

Here, of course, is where the issue of equality arises. Egalitarianism is the conviction that, when taken as a whole and when properly interpreted, the Bible teaches the equality of female and male in the world, the church, and the home.

Does Galatians 3:28 state a universal theological principle (“there is no longer male and female,” nrsv), while 1 Timothy 2:12 (“I permit no woman to. teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent”) is an accommodating response to a specific congregational problem? The answer is one of hermeneutics, not inerrancy.

Does not Genesis 1:28 (“God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘. . . [H]ave dominion,’ “[emphasis added]) lay down a basic principle of equality, in light of which any subsequent passages seeming to give woman a subordinate place need to be understood? The answer is one of hermeneutics, not inerrancy.

Does not Ephesians 5:21 dictate that the statements that follow must be seen in light of mutual submission? Again, hermeneutics, not inerrancy. They are two different, though related, matters.

Yes, it is possible to hold to inerrancy and equality—and I do.


  1. Miller McClure. “Then Get Out,” Baptist Standard 111:47 (Dec. 1,1999), 4.
  2. Gary Burge, quoted in “Submission Rejected,” Christianity Today (Dec. 6,1999), 27.
  3. Clark H. Pinnock, The Scripture Principle (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985), 225.
  4. Clark H. Pinnock, “Bernard Ramm: Postfundamentalist Coming to Terms with Modernity,” Perspectives in Religious Studies 17:4 (Winter 1990): 24.
  5. David Dockery, “Can Baptists Affirm the Reliability and Authority of the Bible?” SBC Today (March 1985), 16.
  6. “When all the facts are known, the Bible (in its autographs) properly interpreted in light of which culture and communication means had developed by the time of its composition will be known to be completely true (and therefore not false) in all that it affirms, to the degree of precision intended by the author, in all matters relating to God and his creation (including history, geography, science and other disciplines addressed in Scripture ).” Quoted by Wayne Ward, review of Authority and Interpretation: A Baptist Perspective, ed. Duane A. Garrett and Richard R. Melick, Jr., in Criswell Theological Review 3:1 (Fall 1988), 226.
  7. “The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy,” The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 21:4 (Dec. 1978), 289-96.
  8. “Plenary” means “fully, thoroughly, completely.” A plenary session is a session where everyone attends. This is the view that every word is fully (hence “plenary”) inspired, so therefore the whole Bible is inspired.
  9. “The term has been used sparingly in Protestant circles until the present time,” William L. Hendricks, in personal conversation (Feb. 4,2000).
  10. It is an attempt at “‘nailing down’ a concept of religious authority that cannot be challenged or evaded.” W. R. Estep, unpublished paper, “The Nature and Use of the Bible in Baptist Confessions of Faith,” 1.
  11. See Gilbert Bilezikian, Beyond Sex Roles: A Guide for the Study of Female Roles in the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1985) and James Hurley, Man and Woman in Biblical Perspective (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1981)
  12. Dockery, 16.
  13. James T. Draper, Authority: The Critical Issue for Southern Baptists (Old Tappan. NJ: Revell, 1984), 65.
  14. Clark H. Pinnock, “What Is Evangelicalism?” tape cassette TC 5872, library, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Fort Worth, TX.
  15. David Dockery, “Variations on Inerrancy,” SBC Today (May 1986), 10-11.
  16. William E. Hull, “Shall We Call the Bible Infallible?” The Baptist Program (December 1970), 18.
  17. John Stuart Mill, referred to by Hull, 18.
  18. Dockery, “Can Baptists … ?” 16.
  19. Lovejoy and Lemke, 20.
  20. J. Albert Soggin, Introduction to the Old Testament: From Its Origins to the Closing of the Alexandrian Canon (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1967), 41.
  21. Ibid., 42. It “is not a question of accusing ‘of falsehood’ a scientific statement made two or three thousand years ago, but rather of accepting the obvious fact of its antiquity. The inadequacy of these formulations never prejudices the validity of the Bible, just as the scientific affirmations of today, which will seem equally inadequate tomorrow, should not condition the truth of our faith,” pp. 42^43.
  22. Hendricks: “It seems to me preferable to use the biblical materials’ own terms for defining what it says about itself.” “Though inerrancy is a serviceable term for me in describing my own view of the Scriptures, the terminology employed is not the issue.” Paige Patterson, “My Vision of the Twenty-First Century SBC,” Review and Expositor 88:1 (Winter 1991), 38.
  23. John P. Newport, “The Biblical Worldview and Church-Related Colleges, Part I: The Contemporary Challenge and Continuing Difficulties,” The Southern Baptist Educator (August 1989), 8.
  24. Jim Denison, “‘A Rock Too Big to Move?’: Inerrancy and the Bible,” Texas Baptists Committed (October 1995), 8.
  25. “Lindsell begins with a definition of inerrancy which no one ever thought of until the seventeenth century. When you look historically, to find out what is the earliest exposition of Lindsell’s point of view, it turns out to be the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries that hold his view.” Rogers, Door Interviews, 171.
  26. Rogers and McKim, 235. There have of course been attempts “to transform Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Origen [!?], and other of the fathers into 19th- and 20th-century inerrantists.” Bill Leonard’s review of Tom Nettles’s article in Authority and Interpretation: A Baptist Perspective, ed. Duane A. Garrett and Richard R. Melick, Jr., Review and Expositor 85:1 (Winter 1988), 156.
  27. Bill J. Leonard, review of The Authority and Interpretation: The Baptist Perspective, ed. Duane A. Garrett and Richard R. Melick, Jr., in Review and Expositor 85:1 (Winter 1988), 154.
  28. See Summers, 12.
  29. Jan Jarboe, “The War for the University,” Texas Monthly (November 1991).
  30. In a student forum at Southwestern Seminary on January 23, 1991, Dockery identified the absolute and critical categories with the Chicago Statement, articles 12 and 13.
  31. William H. Stephens, “Inerrancy: More than Just a Preacher’s Battle,” Baptist Standard (Feb. 19,1992), 16.
  32. Dockery, “Variations/ 10.
  33. Stephens, 16.
  34. Example: Harold Lindsell, The Battle for the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1976).
  35. In a student forum at Southwestern Seminary, Dockery said that the critical and limited expressions wrestle with the problem of the divine-human authorship of Scripture.
  36. Examples: Roger Nicole and J. Ramsey Michaels, Inerrancy and Common Sense (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1960; D. A. Carson and John Woodbridge, Scripture and Truth (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1983).
  37. Stan Norman, “Dr. David S. Dockery,” The Student Forum 9:2 (Jan. 1991,: 2.
  38. In the student forum, Dockery associated this position with E. Y. Mullins.
  39. We do exactly the same thing: We say that the sun rose (wrong!); we say that the sun did not shine all day (error!); we talk about heavy clouds; and we still speak of the four corners of the Earth—all wrong but still commonly expressed. On the question of defining “error” in Scripture, see David Hubbard, “The Current Tensions: Is There a Way Out?” in Biblical Authority, ed. Jack Rogers (Waco, TX: Word Books, Publisher, 1977), 168. This is an excellent article, and is highly recommended.
  40. Example: I. Howard Marshall, Biblical Inspiration (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1982).
  41. Dockery, “Variations,” 10. Example: Donald Bloesch, Essentials of Evangelical Theology, I (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979).
  42. Grant Lovejoy and Steve Lemke, A Manual for Biblical Her-meneutics (Fort Worth: Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1993), 21.
  43. Dockery, “Variations,” 10. Example: Donald Bloesch, Essentials of Evangelical Theology, I (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979).
  44. Examples: Pinnock, The Scripture Principle, and perhaps also Donald Bloesch, according to a review by David Dockery, Criswell Theological Review 1:2 (Spring 1987), 441.
  45. Dockery, “Variations,” 10. Also Hendricks: “Biblical inerrancy means that the Bible is adequate to do what it claims in itself that it is intended to do.”
  46. Carroll Stuhlmueller, New Paths Through the Old Testament (New York: Paulist Press, 1989), 87.
  47. Jack Rogers, The Door Interviews, ed. Mike Yaconelli (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1989), 172-73.
  48. W Boyd Hunt, “Southern Baptists and Systematic Theology,” Southwestern Journal of Theology 1:2 (April 1959), 47 (see also p. 46).
  49. Dockery, “Variations,” 10. Examples: G. C. Berkouwer, Holy Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975); Jack Rogers and Donald McKim, The Authority and Interpretation of the Bible (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1979); Ray Summers, “How God Said It—Part II,” Baptist Standard (February 4,1970), 12-13. Perhaps also Pinnock and Bloesch; see Dockery review.
  50. William Powell Tuck, “Was Jesus an Inerrantist?” SBC Today (March 1985), 18.
  51. Hubbard, 151-81.
  52. Dockery, “Variations,” 11. Example: William Countryman, Biblical Authority or Biblical Tyranny? (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982).
  53. Hubbard, 178.