Inerrancy as a “category error”

From a post by Blue Raja on the Boar’s Head Tavern. This is great stuff:

I’m sort of a Vanhoozer-ian sort of guy when it comes to the nature of language (i.e. his theological version of speech-act theory) and I think the most basic observation it contributes to an understanding of inerrancy is that stating the truth/falsity of some proposition is only ONE speech-act in the Bible.

The Bible has many more sorts of speech-acts for which “error” is simply a category mistake (i.e. promises can be faithful or faithless, but not “in error”; poetry can cause you to feel certain things, but it can’t be “false”; commands can be reliable or unreliable, but they’re not “true or false” in the same way factual statements are).

So at best “inerrancy” could ever only apply to those portions of scripture that are actually making some propositional truth claim – but of course Scripture does much more than this in all of it’s promising, commanding, inspiring, encouraging, etc.

The implications of that are somewhat common-sense – if mustard seeds aren’t actually the smallest seeds known to man, Jesus is only “in error” if he’s making a claim about mustard seeds. But if he’s engaging in an entirely different speech-act than propositional speech (i.e. making a truth claim about mustard seeds) – say urging or admonishing faith – he can’t be accused of error.

Being married to an English graduate, I’m a sucker for speech-act theory ;-). Raja’s point also fits with my own view that, by and large, the Bible was written to confront us rather than to inform us. It’s a proclamation, not an encyclopaedia.

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18 Responses to Inerrancy as a “category error”

  1. Phil Walker says:

    I think the problem with inerrancy isn’t so much what it denotes, as what people think it connotes: namely that it only applies to propositions, and that it has to apply to the text, rather than to the text’s aims in a genre-sensitive manner. The internal syllogism is that if Scripture is entirely inerrant, and inerrancy only properly applies to propositions, then it follows that all Scripture is propositional. But if inerrancy is a concept which has to be applied in a manner which is sensitive to telos and genre, then that syllogism breaks down.

  2. John H says:

    Phil: I think that’s the problem. By the time you’ve added all the qualifications and clarifications to the word “inerrancy”, it’s light-years away from how the word actually functions in Christian discourse: “God said it, I believe it, that settles it”, that sort of thing.

    Give me half an hour and I’ll show you how I believe in inerrancy provided you define it properly. Or give me ten seconds and I’ll say: “I trust what the Bible says”.

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  4. Chris Jones says:

    Or how about “when we use the Bible in the manner that God gave it to us to use, it unfailingly does what God gave it to us to do”?

    Your point, John, is exactly right and tremendously important.. The telling point, historically, is what the question was that the Church was trying to answer when she was discerning the canon. The question was not “what books can be relied upon from which to deduce doctine?”; it was “what books is it fitting to use in public worship for the proclamation of the Gospel?” It cannot be stressed strongly enough nor often enough that the Bible is and always has been a *liturgical* book in the first instance, and that all other uses of Scripture are secondary to, and contributory to, its use as a liturgical means of grace.

  5. Chris E says:

    Though whilst I could see the canon being smaller if doctrine rather than lithurgy was the focus, I wouldn’t have thought it would be bigger – or include anything outside the present canon.

    Though my sentiments on inspiration/inerrancy are similiar, speech act theory sometimes seems like an attempt to play linguistic games to say what something isn’t, whilst simultaneously never saying what it actually is.

  6. J Random Hermeneut says:

    An interesting approach – though perhaps it side-steps a little bit one of the points, if not the main point, at issue in many of these inerrancy debates: much of the Biblical literature is narrative story set in the historical past rather than propositional statements per se. With the rise of historical-critical consciousness and methodology of studying ancient textual traditions the questions arise: does passage x, y or z of the Bible correspond to actual historical reality – yes or no? How can we know? If not, does this mean the Bible is in error? Why or why not?

    Speech-act theory can certainly contribute to the discussion and the thinking through of these questions. But to simply invoke it in the hope of dispelling the question as a “category mistake” is, it seems to me, a bit hasty since Christianity is a religion ultimately grounded in an event which occurs in actual historical reality (ie Jesus Christ).

  7. J Random Hermeneut says:

    Oh, that and, yes the Bible is first and foremost an “altar book”. There wasn’t even such a thing a “Bible” until the church bound up all the Holy Scriptures into one volume in order to put a big old fat and fancy book in the sanctuary. So what Chris Jones says is spot on.

  8. Rick Ritchie says:

    There is a lot I like about this approach. But I would want to suggest this whole question has a very long history. As much as I wouldn’t want to feel bound to a lot of the more recent and tighter formulations of the doctrine, I’m not sure that I want to reject it, either.

    As to whether “error” is a factual category in the first place, I think that is a question worthy of some investigation in its own right. Who named this doctrine, and what kind of category did they have in mind? When I look at my King James Bible, which likely formed the language of those who formulated the doctrine for English speakers, “error” tends to be a moral category. So whether or not some Inerrantists make the category mistake mentioned above, I doubt that the first formulators necessarily did.

    Chris Jones’s point is right up to a point. But if our whole discussion is an attempt to frame this not only accurately, but so that people won’t go astray, can this not go bad, too? The talk of a liturgical means of grace being primary and all other uses secondary could be used to shut down a lot of theological argument. Jesus’ appeals to the Old Testament seem to be given not merely to clear up individual points, but to suggest how people ought to have been reading all along. It seems that their uses of Scripture were not too broad, but too narrow.

    I’ll happily label myself an Inerrantist. It might connote all kinds of things that I’ll have to explain away later. For me it denotes two things: 1) Scripture is God’s Word, and 2) God does not lie. But to reject the label connotes a belief that the Bible contains error. I could wish the whole history had gone such that the language wasn’t muddy on both sides. But it has not.

  9. Chris Jones says:


    I can’t argue with either “Scripture is God’s Word” or “God does not lie” (nor would I want to). But it won’t do to take God’s Word and put it to uses God never intended. And I am not ashamed to say that the use for which God intended it, was to give the Holy Spirit through the Church’s ministry of Word and Sacrament, in order to work justifying faith in us. If people are going to use Scripture outside of that rather narrow compass, to make arguments that have little to do with engendering justifying, life-creating faith in Christ, then I am not unwilling to “shut down a lot of theological argument.”

    There is an awful lot of what passes for “theological argument” that deserves to be shut down.

  10. Rick Ritchie says:


    Well, that narrow compass might be framed to exclude all talk or argument about the Law. as the Law does not engender justifying, life-creating faith in Christ. And I know of bishops who make such arguments, too. I’m not suggesting your formulation was derived in order to make this possible. I’m saying that defining the Word of God by Gospel alone can come back on you another way.

  11. John H says:

    Rick: like Chris, I don’t argue with either of your statements. The main reasons I avoid (rather than disclaim) the word “inerrancy” are:

    1. The term almost invariably goes hand-in-hand with a particular approach to interpreting Scripture. However carefully inerrancy is defined, in practice it functions not as a statement that the Bible is inerrant, but that a particular approach to interpretation of the Bible is inerrant – namely, a so-called “literal” one. (This can be seen when people put forward alternative interpretations, and are straightaway shot down for “denying inerrancy”. The recent absurd spat in the Lutheran blogosphere/Twitterverse over Exodus 7:20 is an illustration of this; debates over Genesis 1-3 even more so.)

    2. Similarly, use of the term is strongly correlated with a view which makes an inerrant Bible the basis for our faith in Christ, rather than the other way round. The atheists are completely correct when they say that this means the whole Christian faith is only one error away from collapse: find a single error in the Bible – and unfriendly interpretations of the Bible can find thousands – and the whole of Christianity collapses. This results in a siege mentality which reinforces the tendency described in #1 above: because if we accept any criticism of (the literalistic interpretation of) the Bible, then this means we are opening the door to people finding errors in the Bible, which means the whole of our faith collapses.

    However, if we base our faith on Christ, this doesn’t mean we ditch the concept of a trustworthy, reliable, “inerrant” Bible – quite the opposite. But it does enable us to suspend judgment on particular passages where people question a particular interpretation.

    For all these reasons I prefer to use positive statements about the Bible – trustworthy, reliable and so on – rather than negative terms such as “inerrant”. (This also reflects the influence on me of people like John Stott.)

  12. Chris Jones says:

    What John said.

  13. Rick Ritchie says:

    “Similarly, use of the term is strongly correlated with a view which makes an inerrant Bible the basis for our faith in Christ, rather than the other way round.”

    This kind of thing is always hard to gauge. The two defenders of it that I primarily learned the doctrine from argued inductively. We used B.B. Warfield’s Inspiration and Authority of the Bible as a textbook for David Wells’s class at Gordon-Conwell, and Warfield argues this inductively. Likewise, John Warwick Montgomery, who argues the nonsensicality of affirming Inspiration apart from Inerrancy, puts this as a late move in the apologetic, after arguing the the Resurrection from the New Testament accounts as historical documents that are not assumed to be (or not to be) inspired. The argument is from Jesus’ view, who is to be trusted if He is raised, to what we should hold.

    That many will then frame the arguments in ways that are disappointing seems very secondary.

    I wouldn’t reject a doctrine over what someone said about a “literal” reading or not. Once the word has entered ANY conversation, you almost always have to define where you are on every question, anyway. Many people want to recognize only two options, 1) Wooden literalism, where every single word stands for something concrete, or 2) Poetic subjectivism, where anything slightly out of the ordinary as true “spiritually” — that is, it teaches a moral point.

    Even the quote in your original post, while it may allow the Bible to do both of these things, might lead people to think that if is doing the one, it is not doing the other. Are poetic elements sure signs that no factual claims are being made?

    I’m also not so sure that changing a label will answer a question like Exodus 7:20 to anyone’s satisfaction. Someone could still come back with, “Well, if God described that as blood, then I don’t find His Word trustworthy.” This may be a bad conclusion. But I think decisions like this always require people to grapple with what Inspiration means, which is itself not easy. People will differ on what they are willing to accept when it comes to answering “Would God really communicate in such a fashion?”

    Anyway, I do agree that some of this self-labeling may have to do with particular environments we find ourselves in. Mine may be a bit different.

  14. John H says:

    Rick: as I said, I don’t reject the doctrine. I just think it’s the right answer to the wrong question. (Essentially the same 19th century question that the RCC chose to answer with the even more unhelpful doctrine of papal infallibility.)

    Hence my response to the question “Do you believe in inerrancy?” is “Well, I certainly don’t believe the Bible has any /errors/ in it, in that it says precisely what God intended it to say.”

    But even on Exodus 7:20, I’d say that “What does this mean?” and “Can this be trusted?” are more positive and constructive questions than “Is this an error?” (or even worse: “Not blood? So are you denying inerrancy now?”). The issues may be the same, and the disagreements equally profound, but there is far less defensiveness on both sides (one side on edge about a potential threat to inerrancy, the other on edge about a perceived – or even /actual/ – questioning of their Christian profession).

    John Warwick Montgomery’s approach sounds interesting, and similar to what I was taught by people like Stott: start with Jesus, then Jesus shows us the Bible is God’s trustworthy (and, yes, /inerrant/) word.

  15. Rick Ritchie says:

    The idea that this is an answer to a 19th century question might work better if the same answer could not be found in much earlier centuries, in Augustine’s writing for example: “For I confess to your Charity that I have learned to yield this respect and honour only to the canonical books of Scripture: of these alone do I most firmly believe that the authors were completely free from error.” (Letter to Jerome, AD 405).

    Context can be found here:

    Or Luther: “We know that God does not lie. My neighbor and I—in short, all men—may err and deceive, but God’s Word cannot err” (Large Catechism IV, 57).

    I am in agreement with you on how not to frame questions on the basis of the doctrine. That’s why I like keeping my two propositions in mind, so I can remember what is really being argued. Particular developments of the doctrine may go too far. I think we’re free to reject this or that version of the doctrine. But the term itself seems to have good history behind it, going back a good deal further than the nineteenth century.

  16. Xan says:

    John said this:
    “The term [inerrant] … in practice functions not as a statement that the Bible is inerrant, but that a particular approach to interpretation of the Bible is inerrant – namely, a so-called “literal” one. ”

    This is certainly true today, and was not the case in Augustine’s time. Augustine believed in inerrancy, according to your quote, Rick. He also emphatically did NOT hold any particular interpretation of the physical details of Genesis, and believed that a Christian should not contradict a man learned in the physical sciences on such matters.

    We certainly don’t see that kind of thinking among most so-called “inerrantists” today.

  17. J Random Hermeneut says:

    We certainly don’t see that kind of thinking among most so-called “inerrantists” today.

    Indeed! Which is why Hermann Sasse had some pretty harsh words regarding Franz Pieper’s approach to this matter: “Was würden die Väter des vierten Jahrhunderts, die nicht nur große Theologen und fromme Christen sondern auch gebildete Menschen waren, über diese barbarische Theologie gesagt haben?” — the gist of his rhetorical question being, obviously, that the Fathers would most certainly not say “Amen” to this.

  18. Andy Stager says:

    Hi John H.

    Thanks for posting that. I’m also a sucker for S-A Theory and my wife, for a season, referred to KJVanhoozer as my “boyfriend.” (That was before Tim Keller came into our home. Now-a-days she’d call KJV my “counterfeit god.”

    At the same time, one of my favorite quotes comes from a medievalist historian named Carolyn Walker Bynum: “Every view of things that is not wonderful is false.” On the one hand, she requires historical readers (as KJV does Bible readers in his _Is There a Meaning in This Text?_) to read in such a way as to put themselves in a posture of non-appropriative receptivity. She wants people to respond to the types of texts (speech-acts) that are acting upon them in appropriate ways. And she simply says that not to do so is actually “false” reading.

    In other words, I don’t think truth/falsity is language that is only useful for propositional speech-acts (assertions). Depictions of the beautiful can be true or false, right? Song of Solomon on erotic love? True. Porn on erotic love? False. The stuff in between is much more difficult to call true or false, but so are a lot of pieces of propositionally-rich prose.


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