When approaching the Bible and deciding how to interpret its meaning there are three main approaches used by Evangelicals . All three approaches overlap to some degree and on their far ends may even be completely dissimilar. These categories and descriptions can be considered my own and be viewed as a general way in which these approaches are used in practice.
Here are some descriptions pulled from Wikipedia.org:
Biblical Literalism: the interpretation or translation of the explicit and primary sense of words in the Bible. The essence of this approach focuses upon the author’s intent as the primary meaning of the text. It does not mean a complete denial of literary aspects, genre, or figures of speech within the text (e.g., parable, allegory, simile, or metaphor).
Biblical Inerrancy: the doctrinal position that the Bible is accurate and totally free of error, that “Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact.”
Biblical Infallibility: the belief that what the Bible says regarding matters of faith and Christian practice is wholly useful and true. It is the “belief that the Bible is completely trustworthy as a guide to salvation and the life of faith and will not fail to accomplish its purpose.”
The three terms are occasionally conflated or synonymous with one another. Literalism is often used a pejorative for Inerrancy and occasionally Inerrancy and Infallibility are synonymous with one another.
In all three views the genre of the specific passage must be taken into account. Just like a person wouldn’t read the front page, the opinion section and the horoscope of a newspaper in the same way, someone reading the Bible should read the historical sections, the parables and the epistles each in their own intended context. On the extreme end of Biblical Literalism, concerns for genre are disregarded. The extreme end of Literalism would also define those who believe that the KJV is also inerrant. Bart Ehrman’s attacks on Christianity are typically only threatening to Literalistic interpretations.
In Mark 4:30-32 Jesus says
And he said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
This passage might be controversial for some because the mustard seed is not the smallest seed. Some point to this as a clear error in the Bible, no less stated by Jesus the supposed God-man.
A Biblical Literalist might look at this passage and insist that the mustard seed is in fact the smallest seed and any evidence to the contrary is false. A Biblical Inerrancist would look at the passage and suggest that the mustard seed was regarded as the smallest seed in the historical and geographic context in which Jesus was talking. It also might have been a colloquial expression and not intended to be any more precise than that. With Biblical Infallibility the concern for the accurateness of the statement is secondary to the broader spiritual truth that within the Kingdom of God even a miniscule amount of trust can become something extraordinarily beneficial.
I think it’s safe to suggest that Evangelicals can hold any of these three views. Others would suggest that only Inerrancy and Literalism define Evangelicalism. The Barna Group, an authoritative voice in Christian sociological research, only screens Evangelicals for Infallibility.
My own views on these interpretive styles has moved back and forth at different times from being strongly Inerrant, to weaker Inerrancy, to a view that the term is not at all helpful. Currently my view is moving back into Inerrancy. Part of the reason for my vacillation is due to my own misunderstandings of the term and some artificial constraints put on it by other people.
I attended Biola University, which takes a clear and definitive stand on Inerrancy. Several years ago a new University President was installed. He stated that without nuance he believed the Bible to be the inerrant word of God. I thought at the time that was a difficult thing to say because I mistakenly believed that any time a theologian tried to make allowances for the genre or historical context of a particular passage they were nuancing the passage. This was too strict of a definition of Inerrancy. Biblical Inerrancy does in fact recognize metaphor. What it stands against is defining a passage as metaphorical when it was never intended to be seen metaphorically. It also stands against defining a passage literally when it was intended to be metaphorical.
The most important word in Inerrancy is “Hermeneutics.” It is the practice of studying a passage in its historical and literary context. Simple stated it’s making sure you read each passage the way it was originally read. Failing to do so leads to mistaken conclusions about the passage.
It would be just as wrong to say that Proverbs 22:6 is true for all children in all contexts as it would be to say that the Resurrection is a metaphor for how Jesus is simply alive in our hearts and minds. Proverbs are intended to be viewed as generally true, not emphatic universal promises and the Gospels are intended to be historical biographies of real events in a real man’s life. Taking too literal or too metaphorical an approach to any passage of the Bible might be the same mistake as far as Inerrancy is concerned.
Currently Biblical scholars are beginning to prove the elasticity of Inerrancy beyond what many Evangelicals have been comfortable with. For instance Mike Licona has met some stern critiques for his interpretation of parts of Matthew 27 as “apocalyptic.” Others have stated that the Hebrew conquest of Canaan is written in the genre of Ancient Near-Eastern History, in which the authors were expected to exaggerate in order to support tribal or nationalistic endeavors. In neither case are the scholars saying that the passage is merely metaphor because they are uncomfortable with it, but instead they are applying hermeneutic concerns to studying to the passage before they come to conclusions on what is and is not literal.
If you want to learn more about Inerrancy the place to begin is “The Chicago Statement on Inerrancy”. In 1978 leading Evangelical scholars gathered and came to a consensus on exactly what was and was not meant by the term. I think
in many regards a similar statement on scriptural interpretation would be helpful in the LDS church. I do not think the LDS church should necessarily adopt Inerrancy for itself but it should clarify how it thinks its Institutions and followers should go about studying and interpreting scripture.