Can a person be saved without subscribing to biblical inerrancy?

Questions about God, the Bible and the Christian culture 

(Click here to read Monday Musings ... the place where I discuss the thinking that went into this article.)

Question: I was just reading on your website about the person who is skeptical about biblical inerrancy. You wondered how this person could become a Christian without the Bible. Now, I have been a believer for 50 years, and I have recently come to believe that a person can become a Christian by believing in the historical Jesus and the claims He made from written documents called the gospels. But I believe he can do this without believing in an entire inerrant Bible. Am I somehow condemned now by my stand on biblical inerrancy?

Didn’t Paul declare this as well in 1 Corinthians 2:2 where he said: “For I determined not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.”

Now, I have no desire to go tit for tat on this. But what is your take on what I just said? I appreciate any response... and I do praise God for your ministry.

Answer: Greetings friend. Thank you for asking this important question. I believe that a person can be a true born again believer in Jesus Christ no matter what he or she believes about biblical inerrancy. Why? Because biblical inerrancy is a secondary issue of the faith... although many believers will vehemently reject that label.

But before we get into the meat of this discussion, we should talk about three technical terms that I’ll be using in this discussion: inerrancy, infallibility and inspiration. In casual conversation, these terms are often used interchangeably. But they are not equal, and we will be using them in their technical senses today... and to accentuate their differences, I’ll compare the Bible to a phonebook.

We could say of a perfectly crafted phonebook that it was inerrant. But we could not say that it was inspired or infallible. First, such a volume would be man-breathed and not God-breathed. Second, it could have contained errors; it just didn’t. So, all “inerrancy” buys us here is a phonebook that happens to contain no errors.

Now, since that phonebook could have contained errors, the thing we could not say about it was that it was infallible. An infallible phonebook would be incapable of containing errors. Therefore, although infallible works are also inerrant, not all inerrant works are infallible… as the phonebook demonstrates.

Also — and unless God was particularly bored one day — we could not say of the phonebook that it was inspired by God. Inspired literally means “God-breathed”… and this we apply to the product of Scripture — that is, to the Scripture itself — and not to its human authors, its processes or to any other documents (2 Timothy 3:16).

Furthermore, this sense of inspiration applies only to the autographa. This is what we call the collection of original documents in their original languages. Unfortunately, we have no extant autographic documents. But we have thousands of early documents that contain the autograph’s text — and we’ve rebuilt the original Scripture from these... and we’ve translated these into many of today’s languages.

But there is one more issue about inspiration that we have to cover before we move on. We must answer the question, in what manner was it inspired? This question spawns three more technical terms: plenary, verbal and confluent.

Plenary inspiration means that the whole of Scripture was inspired by God. This speaks to its breadth. Plenary inspiration opposes the idea that the Scripture contains God’s word but is not wholly God’s word (2 Timothy 3:16).

Verbal inspiration means that every word in Scripture was inspired by God. This speaks to its depth… and to the idea that the individual words (or even letters) — and not just the whole — are the exact words that God wanted (John 10:34; Galatians 3:16).

Confluent inspiration speaks to the manner in which God and the human authors wrote the Scripture. The image is one of two steams coming together and becoming a single water body that has characteristics of both. You don’t have to read too far in Scripture before you pick up on the human author’s “voice” — and finding God’s is not so easy! But this is because he interacted with the human authors as a ship interacts with the wind... the ship being the authors and the cargo being the inspired Scripture.

“For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Peter 1:21, NIV)

So, the “highest” statement we can make about biblical inerrancy is that the Scripture is verbally, plenarily and confluently inspired by God. If that is true, it will automatically be infallible and inerrant — and we account for the human “voice.”

But people who do not subscribe to biblical inerrancy can still logically claim that the Scripture was inspired. It is plausible that God superintended the production of Scripture so that it would contain his word… and that one of our jobs on this earth is to find which words are his. Just note that under this scenario, we cannot claim that Scripture was either inerrant or infallible in spite of it being inspired... so biblical inerrancy would not have been achieved.

This ends our section on critical terms — and this has been instructive in itself. Look at how complex the topic of inerrancy is... I mean... it took several paragraphs just to introduce the topic! So, here’s the thing: even seasoned Christians do not understand the ins-and-outs of biblical inerrancy. As such, it would be unreasonable to make those who are coming to Christ assent to it before they get saved. And if belief in biblical inerrancy is not a requirement for salvation, it is a secondary issue — this, by definition.

Why then do so many Christians insist on assigning this is a primary doctrine? I think they fear a slippery slope. The reasoning goes something like this:

The Christian faith is based on the Bible, therefore we must defend the Bible in the strongest terms — and if we are seen to waffle at all in our faith in this doctrine, we show lack of faith in the Bible — and that’s the thing we don’t want to do! We could start a panic! If the Bible is shown to be in error it any point — and our lack of the strongest language may indicate that we see a crack in the dike  — then the veracity of Scripture collapses… and then the Christian faith collapses.

But this argument is a non sequitur. Let me show you why I think so.

I subscribe to biblical inerrancy. The thing I don’t do is confound what a person believes about secondary issues with how a person has responded to the revelation of Jesus Christ. If a person responds in faith to that revelation, then regeneration happens. It has nothing to do with what a person believes about biblical inerrancy. Therefore, it does not follow that salvation — and/or all of its associated structures — crumbles if biblical inerrancy does (Romans 8:1).

Besides… sometimes we have to look at what’s right in front of us: there are countless genuine Christians who do not subscribe to biblical inerrancy. I wish this were not true … but note that their belief-status did not prevent — nor does it countermand — their salvation.

In support of this, indulge me in a thought experiment. Let’s say that I don’t have my Bible with me, but I’m walking down the “Romans Road” with someone I just met. He repents of his sin and accepts Jesus Christ as his Savior — right on the spot! Is he saved? Sure he is! … but wait. Should he sign off on biblical inerrancy first? Hardly. That’s a good way to test for primary versus secondary issues.

The idea here is not to inventory what we believe — and then ascribe primary status to those items! The process is to be honest about which doctrines connect directly to salvation. Belief in God is a good example of a primary issue (Hebrews 11:6) … as is belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:1-9).

But here, I have to take my own medicine. Doctrines like the eternal security of the believer fall under the same ax. I’m a strong supporter of eternal security, but I realize that many people who are truly saved do not subscribe to it — and here’s why: regeneration does not supply the believer with correct doctrinal information at the moment of salvation. It sets him up to develop orthodox doctrines, though… but “develop” indicates a process, and a “process” indicates time (Hebrews 5:12) ... but now is the hour of salvation! (2 Corinthians 6:2).

Here’s another thought experiment. Let’s say that the Song of Solomon had an error... and that it was the only error in the Bible. If that were true, we could no longer say that the Bible was inerrant. But, every other word would stand. Would such an error affect a person’s salvation? No. The Bible would still have been inspired — I mean... it still would have contained what God wanted us to know. It would just now be a Bible with a single error — in a minor book... one that is all poetry... and one that contains no direct theology. When it comes to a person’s salvation, what would that one error hurt? Nothing!

It doesn’t logically follow that if the Bible was wrong about something trivial — like the number of Solomon’s horses — that it was wrong about Jesus Christ... but please do not misunderstand me: I think it is important to support biblical inerrancy. But I think it is harmful to set up brittle inerrancy criteria — and then take an all-or-nothing attitude... and some Christians do just that.

I recommend that you steer clear of the flinty style of biblical inerrancy that is too often served up by America’s fundamentalist and/or legalistic preachers… where they say that if even one small bit of Scripture is proven wrong, then we would have to throw away both the Bible and Christianity... so you’d better hold on to inerrancy!

That’s wrong-headed. Instead, believers should become familiar with the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978). This highly nuanced document emphasizes that regular language rules are a critical part of healthy hermeneutics.

So, how is it that people who believe the Bible to be in error can still be Christians? They subscribe to the central and orthodox tenets of Christianity. They have received Jesus Christ (John 1:12) and have been regenerated by the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5) — and they’ve done this in spite of taking what many Christians consider to be a “weak” stand on inerrancy.

You see, believing “wrong things” about God, the Bible or the Christian culture do not condemn a person. Not believing the right things about the core doctrines does; it leaves a person exposed to the condemnation that he was born into (John 3:18).

Now, people disagree on doctrines all the time. But it’s the Holy Spirit who determines who the real Christians are. All we can do is inspect the fruit! (Galatians 5:22-23). But subscribing to biblical inerrancy is not on that list.

Now, some of this fruit shows up in knowledge... that’s true... but unless the issues are truly central, then we should keep the lines of communication open while we exercise mercy… because these are likely brethren with whom we are disagreeing.

I appreciate the opportunity to discuss biblical inerrancy with you — and I hope this information helped you. God bless you.

(Mainsail Ministries articles often have a preamble where I discuss the thinking that went into them. These are called Monday Musings — and if you haven’t read the one associated with this article on biblical inerrancy — consider doing so at the following link: 20200217 Must a person subscribe to biblical inerrancy to be saved?).

(For comments, or to join the Monday Musings mailing list, contact us at mainsailep@gmail.com. To submit a question about God, the Bible or the Christian culture, click here.)