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January 1983 · Vol. 12 No. 1 · pp. 3–9 

Inerrancy and Authority

Steve Miller

The Bible lies at the foundation of Western culture and in a deep sense, however unbeknownst, has informed the life of every participant in that culture. . . . But all this is over with and gone. . . . The Bible no longer has unique authority for Western man. It has become a great but archaic monument in our midst. 1

This sad but true statement is made by Harvard professor Gordon Kaufman in his book, What Shall We Do With the Bible? Biblical authority by all accounts is at low ebb.

What should be more disturbing is that this same demise of authority lies within the church as well. The Bible is fast becoming “a great but archaic monument” in our evangelical churches. “The principal cause of the modern theological sickness is a crisis in valid authority.” 2 This crisis is not unique to our time, as J.I. Packer states: “The problem of authority is the most fundamental problem that the Christian church ever faces.” 3 In recent years debate and controversy over the inerrancy of scripture has dominated most discussions concerning an evangelical doctrine of scripture and its authority. Not a few leading and well-respected evangelical scholars have put forth a view of “limited” inerrancy in one form or another while still holding to the full inspiration and authority of scripture. They are led to this position they say by the textual phenomena which they observe in scripture.

Many other evangelical scholars and leaders have raised grave concerns that any movement away from total and complete inerrancy of scripture will bring about an inevitable decline in biblical authority, theology, and spiritual vitality in general. While few would question the evangelical commitment of those who espouse a “limited” view of inerrancy, nonetheless serious concerns over the future results of such a position on scripture are well-founded. At the center of Protestant theology since the Reformation has been the principle of sola scriptura and anything that would shake that foundation is a very serious matter if we are to claim that scripture alone is our final and authoritative rule for {4} faith and practice. If that standard be untrustworthy then what do we have left to stand on?

It is my own conviction that “the Bible is without error in all it affirms” as the Lausanne covenant so simply yet profoundly stated. I am also in full agreement with the more incisive Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. We must hold biblical inerrancy as an intrinsic property and essential characteristic to divine revelation and its authority, and at the same time understand the meaning of inerrancy in relationship to its intentionality. In other words inerrancy must be qualified by the scope, aim and genre of the passage under consideration.

Yet after affirming biblical inerrancy we must ask the question, “Have we done all that is necessary to champion the cause of biblical authority in the church?” The answer to this question is most decidedly, “No.” We must go on to formulate a full-orbed evangelical doctrine of scripture and specifically how it functions as authority in the church. In a laudable effort to move the debate over scripture beyond its current impasse, Clark Pinnock has suggested: “The category inerrancy need not occasion great controversy among evangelicals if its champions note its limitations and its critics acknowledge its strengths.” 4 This seems to be a very sound and wise proposal.

It should be sobering to us who hold that biblical inerrancy is essential to note that Jesus confronted the Pharisees many times over the issue of scripture and its use, yet he did not need to confront them over their deficiency in believing in the inerrancy of scripture. This they undoubtedly held to. He did confront them, however, for failing to understand scripture’s central message and for failing to live under its authority.

At the same time it must be said that a position of “limited” inerrancy is not the one and only, or even the primary and inevitable cause of the decline of biblical authority in the church. As church historian Richard Loveless, a staunch defender of biblical inerrancy, has said, “Theological decline is after all a much more complex matter than the simple outworking of flawed conceptual positions. Its most important dimensions are personal and spiritual.” 5 As a pastor serving a congregation of believers I would most assuredly concur with this analysis. Questions over the meaning of inerrancy of scripture are simply not on the minds of most laypeople and not a significant factor at all in whether they submit to biblical authority. These technical questions are most likely reserved for seminary students, theological professors and magazines and journals such as this one, as well they should be.

Biblical inerrancy, then, is vitally important and necessary but its importance must be weighed in light of all the other areas in which biblical authority is under attack within the church. I am afraid that {5} many evangelical leaders and pastors have rushed to what they thought was the “front line” to defend the Bible but are only now realizing that the enemy has surrounded them and is attacking in many other places in much stronger force than imagined. What is needed is a reassessment of where the real battle lines are in the defense of biblical authority. Else we may find ourselves winning the battle over biblical inerrancy but losing the war over biblical authority. Richard Loveless states, “Those who contend that the present growth of evangelicalism is meaningless without uniform adherence to total inerrancy are radically misreading the situation, because they have magnified their legitimate concern for one jewel of truth which is being poured out across the church at large in the process of evangelical renewal.” 6 Later he says, “. . . the primary battle ground in the struggle over a correct view of scripture is not the conflict of conceptual positions, but the challenge to keep responding to one another with gracious hearts.” 7

With a recommitment to evangelical unity and cooperation and a reassessment of our position in defending biblical authority we must now mount a much more effective defense in the many areas where it is being challenged. If the question of inerrancy is only one of the many areas where biblical authority is being undermined we must identify where those other crucial areas are.


The interpretation of scripture is a stewardship which has been given to us by God. In order to be workmen approved by God we are enjoined to handle accurately the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15). An orthodox stand on scripture profits not at all if the truth of scripture is carelessly discerned or even worse, perversely twisted from its real meaning. Such a danger always exists within the church.

Many problems fall within the category of questionable or doubtful interpretive methods.

Selective Reading

The tendency of many Christians is to select those portions of scripture which support viewpoints they already hold. Seldom, if ever, do they undertake an inductive study of the Bible which would challenge any of their long held assumptions or opinions. The failure here is to truly develop a Christian mind or way of thinking that is progressively being renewed. Selective reading is open only to what it wants to hear and ignores the rest. The result is a practical negation of the fact that “all scripture is inspired,” hence authoritative.

Adaptive Reading

Similar to that which has just been stated, adaptive reading is a further {6} step downward, for it adapts or twists the meaning of a text to say something quite different from what was intended, sometimes something just the opposite! The tendency is to fit scripture to one’s own experience, viewpoint or theological system even though it is a difficult or impossible “fit.” It is an historical irony that many of the early twentieth century fundamentalists who were the staunchest defenders of the inspiration and authority of scripture, because of their extreme dispensational hermeneutic excised many portions of scripture including the Sermon on the Mount, as not being normative or authoritative for today. It does little good to confess the inspiration and inerrancy of scripture if one’s interpretive method leads to a loss of the hard-won ground elsewhere.

A pernicious threat to biblical authority today comes from the many secular ideologies or “isms” that have crept into the church by fusing the message of the Bible in subtle ways with their own. Thus causes such as feminism, Americanism, Marxism, conservatism and liberalism all appeal to the biblical message to champion their own. These subtle and very successful adaptive methods are much more debilitating to biblical authority in the church than any discussions over the meaning of inerrancy. Paul’s warning to the Colossians is fitting here, “See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ” (Col. 2:8). The end result of adaptive reading is that it inevitably distorts the biblical message of God’s grace in Christ Jesus and blunts if not ignores its authority.

Interpretation and Individualism

Part of the reason why scripture is read selectively and/or adaptively is that the stewardship of interpreting the scriptures is largely carried out by individuals rather than by the church as a community. It seems sufficient these days for Christian people to claim the individual guidance of the Holy Spirit in their interpretations of scripture and to feel little or no need to consult with others in their church or denomination as to how the Holy Spirit guided them in their interpretation of those passages under question. This is particularly evident when the interpretive results guided by the same Holy Spirit differ! Can we be so sure that our interpretation of scripture is correct when we do not consult with the larger body? It would seem naive and also unbiblical to think so. What seems more important is not the right interpretation but one’s own interpretation.

In the New Testament there is a strong emphasis upon mutual responsibility and accountability of believers in rightly interpreting and understanding the scriptures. Thus Paul submitted the gospel which he preached to the brethren in Jerusalem, “least he run in vain” (Gal. 2:2). {8} It would seem there is support for this same principle in 2 Peter 1:20: “But know this first of all, that no prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation.” Some scholars have understood this verse to refer to the divine inspiration of scriptures, while others have concluded it speaks more to the manner of interpretation. The latter view is plausible in that the author of the letter later warns against those who being untaught and unstable would distort or twist the proper meaning of the scriptures (2 Pet. 3:16). In short, “private interpretations” must be “checked out” with the larger body. Only in this way can we be sure to be led by the Holy Spirit who works through all the members of the body. William Barclay makes this point well when he states: “If a man finds that his interpretation of scripture is quite at variance with the teaching of the church, then he must humbly examine himself, and he must ask whether his guide has not been his own private wishes rather than the guidance of the Holy Spirit.” 8

It would seem that in accepting the Protestant principle of sola scriptura we have also accepted the false notion that the church (its scholars, pastors, teachers, confessions of faith and other laypeople) are not needed to guide us to a correct understanding of scripture. In accepting a belief in the inerrancy of scriptures we have accepted the false notion that we have inerrantly understood what those scriptures are telling us.

It would greatly help our understanding of scripture and its authority if we would have many more serious study conferences at a local church level followed by further conversations at a conference level. The Bereans were depicted as models because “with great eagerness they were examining the scriptures daily, to see whether these things (Paul’s exposition of the Scriptures) were so” (Acts 17:11). This will be necessary if we as a church body are to speak with clarity and one mind on the great moral and spiritual issues of our day. This will be necessary if we are to stop the inroads of secular ideologies into the church and the demise of biblical authority.


Besides questionable and doubtful methods of interpretation biblical authority is also being undermined in the failure of the church to discipline its members. The predominant need in our churches today is purity. That requires clear and strong expository preaching as well as church discipline.

If unity is to be maintained in the church, it must be sustained in righteousness. The great spiritual dearth in many local assemblies today, and which threatens churches that are not in full spiritual health, is the result of impurity that is tolerated. This has been allowed to creep in because the church has {7} been unwilling to discipline those within its fellowship. 9

The church has been given the responsibility and authority by Christ to carry out discipline but it has failed in its corrective responsibility. This failure, perhaps more than any other, has undermined the authority of the Bible as a standard for Christian living.

We are living in an age where there is a general distrust of and rebellion against most law and authority. In the time of the Judges, “every man did that which was right in his own eyes.” This same spirit has crept into the church. Because of the lax and independent spirit that pervades many churches it would almost be felt to be presumptuous to carry out church discipline. Rarely is church discipline practised for anything but sexual sins and sometimes not even then. What would happen if the church also considered covetousness (greed), idolatry, railing (slander), drunkenness and extortion as grounds for church discipline as Paul indicated they should be? (1 Cor. 5:11). Of course church discipline must be carried out in a proper and loving manner. Where church discipline has been an exception rather than the rule much teaching, planning and discussions must precede such actions if they are to bring about hoped for restoration, a fear of the Lord and church unity. Our reservation and laxity in this matter only adds to the demise of biblical authority in our churches. Where churches fail to take action in matters of discipline Christ will, sooner or later, act in judgement: “Remember, therefore from where thou are fallen, and repent, and do the first works, or else I will come unto thee quickly, and will remove thy lampstand out of its place, except thou repent” (Rev. 2:5).

We have assumed here that a strong, practical expository teaching ministry in the local church is essential since biblical illiteracy is actually on the rise among evangelical Christians. When considering biblical authority in the church we must also not fail to recognize the hardness of our hearts in refusing to submit to the Lord’s way. Like Israel we have “made our hearts like flint so that they would not hear the law and the work which the Lord of hosts had sent by His Spirit through the former prophets” (Zech. 7:12). For a return to biblical authority in the church should we not pray with broken hearts for God to revive His church again? Jonathan Edwards listed third among his five signs of the operation of the Holy Spirit in genuine renewal of the church “a heightened respect for the authority of scripture.” 10 {9}


  1. Gordon Kaufman, What Shall We Do With the Bible?, pp. 95, 96.
  2. Clark Pinnock, Biblical Revelation (Chicago: Moody Press, 1971), p. 10.
  3. J.I. Packer, Fundamentalism and the Word of God (Grand Rapids; Eerdmans, 1958), p. 42.
  4. Carl F.H. Henry, God, Revelation and Authority Vol. 4. God Who Speaks and Shows (Waco, TX; Word Books, 1976), p. 179.
  5. Richard Lovelace, “Inerrancy: Some Historical Perspectives,” in R.R. Nicole and J.R. Michaels, eds., Inerrancy and Common Sense (Grand Rapids; Baker, 1980). p. 26.
  6. Ibid., p. 38.
  7. Ibid., p. 45.
  8. William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible, Letters of James and Peter (11 vols.; Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1956-60), Vol. 11, p. 370.
  9. Paul Van Gorder, “The Call for Church Discipline,” (Radio Bible Class), p. 2.
  10. Lovelace, p. 25.
[NOTE: The text on pages 7 and 8 was inadvertently switched in publication so that one needed to read page 6, then 8, then 7, then 9 for proper sequence. In the presentation above, the material is put in proper order, but the page numbers are given as in the original publication.]
Steve Miller is pastor of the Community Bible Church (Mennonite Brethren) at Arleta, California. He is currently also enrolled in a Doctor of Ministries program at Talbot Theological Seminary.

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