Inerrancy and the death by a thousand qualifications

September 17th, 2015

Every now and then, someone asks if I believe that the Bible is “inerrant.” And with some regularity, the conversation unfolds something like this:

Person: Do you believe in inerrancy?

Me: Yes, but let me explain what I mean by that. A lot depends on what you mean by “error,” what it means for ancient texts like those contained in the Bible to be in error, whether or not those texts use the same standards of error, whether we’re talking about originals or copies, and so on. (Depending on time and situation, these qualifications can take a fair bit of time.)

Person: If you have to spend so much time explaining what you mean, the concept must not be any good. That’s a slow death by a thousand qualifications.

In other words, because I have to spend so much time explaining what I mean when I use the term “inerrancy,” I should stop using it. The qualifications kill the concept.

But does this objection really work? Does it make sense to say that my extensive qualifications render the term “dead”? I’m not convinced.

The qualifications fallacy

According to one website, this “death by a thousand qualifications” is a logical fallacy. It’s what happens “when a term is used to define something but then there are so many qualifications to the definition as to render the original term meaningless.”

On this view, then, “inerrancy” is a useless term because I can’t use it without spending at least fifteen minutes explaining what I think it means.

Intuitively, that makes sense. What’s the point of using a term if no one understands how I am using it? Rather than making it more clear what I think about the Bible, the term actually creates confusion. Wouldn’t it make sense just to drop it?

Qualifications abound

What confuses me, though, is that most theological terms require this kind of careful elaboration. Suppose, for example, that I said that I believe in the “gospel.” In many contexts, this would be taken as a relatively straightforward claim using a term that every Christian understands reasonably well. But anyone who follows contemporary discussions about the gospel knows that the meaning of the term “gospel” is far from obviously clear. People have written entire books about the gospel, and they differ considerably in what they think the terms means. Indeed, when I tell people that I think the gospel is important, I sometimes have to spend almost as much time clarifying what I mean by “gospel” as I do when I use the term “inerrant.”

You could say the same about something like “God is love,” another statement that some people will hear without noting any significant lack of clarity. Yet a sentence like this raises any number of difficult questions that almost beg for further qualification. What is “love”? (This question is particularly important given that modern definitions of love often differ considerably from the biblical usage — just as modern definitions of “error” may differ from ancient ones.) How does our human understanding of love relate to the infinite reality of this divine attribute? What does it mean to say that God is love? (Yes, you can have interested conversations about the meaning of “is.”) Is God somehow identical to this attribute? If so, how does it relate to all the other attributes we predicate of God (e.g. holiness, mercy, justice)? If not, what are we saying? And, of course, who is God? But that raises its own set of intriguing questions.

I challenge you to say anything theologically meaningful with a single term that would not require quite a range of qualifications.

Qualifications help

In the end, I’m not sure what to make of the claim that having to explain a term carefully means that we should stop using it. Wouldn’t it make more sense to define our terms carefully so that we can go on to use them meaningfully? Isn’t that how most complex terms function? Wouldn’t you rather know what I mean by a term, even if it takes a few minutes of careful qualification, rather than wallow in the misunderstandings that often result from assuming that you’ll understand a term the same way that I do? I find it far more frustrating when people use complex theological terms without offering clear definitions, as though these terms actually have some kind of obvious and already-established meanings that we can simply assume.

Yes, when I use the term “inerrant” to describe the Bible, I have to define what I mean carefully to avoid miscommunication. But that’s true for most theological terms, even (perhaps especially) those that we assume people already understand. That doesn’t mean I stop using it any more than I would the rest of those terms. Indeed, if I had to stop using theological terms that require clarification, I wouldn’t have many words left to use!

Maybe we should worry more about the “death by inadequate qualification.”

Marc Cortez is a theology professor at Wheaton College, husband, father and blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books and life in general. You can follow his other posts at Everyday Theology

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