My friend Rhology has cross-posted an inquiry about Orthodox views on inerrancy both at his blog HERE and at a corporate blog to which he contributes, Beggars All, HERE. I chose to respond on the latter blog but am posting my response here as well. I've altered the original post so that it will not look like a response to an inquiry but simply to stand alone and present the content of said response.
In debates with conservative or fundamentalist Protestants (the two terms are not synonymous), Orthodox are charged with "acting like liberal Protestants." What is ironic here is that liberal Protestants accuse us of being fundamentalists. What was that Chesterton said about orthodoxy again...?
I understand that certain camps within Protestantism label themselves as "conservative" and others as "liberal," while other camps label themselves as "liberal," while still others resent the label of "liberal" given them by the self-appointed "conservative" wing of Protenstantism. Certain hot-button issues seem to be the litmus test for this (inerrancy of Scripture, satisfaction atonement, authority of Scripture, for example), and said issues come complete with lexical definitions for each issue, provided as well by the self-appointed "conservative Protestants" themselves, thus framing the debate before it even gets started.
I would state at the outset that I view their rather arbitrary claim to be the, well, arbiters of "conservative orthodoxy" (little "o") to be rather unfounded and, therefore, not pertinent to this debate. The more I read of the way the Church Fathers (most particularly Chrysostom, Irenaeus, and Basil) interpreted and read the Scriptures, the more I'm convinced that the labels "conservative" and "liberal" -- and, in particular, the way they are arbitrarily used within some Protestant circles -- means very, very little to an Orthodox Christian. I do not mean to cast aspersions on the desire of so-called "conservative" or fundamentalist Protestants to be faithful to the Scriptures or to the saving events to which they attest. Rather, I would state that the degree to which they are forced to stretch in order to do so sufficiently (at least, to their own satisfaction) is misguided and unnecessary.
We are accused, when stating that minor factual or historical errors may exist in the biblical text, of confusing the roles of God and man, or as Rhology put it, making "a strong distinction between God and man," This dichotomy, however, often drawn by fundamentalist or "conservative" Protestants between God and men is not based on a sound Christology. A sound Christology demands just such a distinction between divine and human natures, as the human and divine natures of Christ were, in fact, sharply distinct one from another, though they were never separate. As a man, Christ needed to sleep. As a divine One, however, He "neither slumbers nor sleeps." As a man, Christ thirsted. As a divine One, He has no need of any sustenance.
Likewise, as a document written by humans, the Scriptures contain minor, inconsequential inconsistencies, such as exactly what was written above the cross.A commenter in Rhology's combox (Seth, whose comment can be found HERE) looked to harmonize the four accounts by distinguishing between a τιτλος (a title, as in, Christ's name and town of origin) and a επιγραφη της αιτιας (an accusation made of Him), but such a resort misses the point of a biblical account entirely.
From the Orthodox point of view, it makes no difference whatsoever if the precise words on the sign are reported incorrectly. What is important here is that there was a Cross onto which said sign was nailed, and that a divine Savior hung on said Cross for our salvation. This major event was reported by all four evangelists with σταυρωσαντες δε αυτον (Matt.) and εσταυρωσαν αυτον (Mk., Lk., Jn.), and all four are translated to mean "He was crucified" and "They crucified Him." It is clear to us that we may never know what the sign said, as the gospel writers, being men, reported different things. Yet this (ultimately inconsequential) detail does not get in the way of the Scriptures providing a faithful witness, consistently, to the fact of the Crucifixion. One may also refer to the details of the sign as inconsequential since the discrepancies in question are not ones of contradiction but rather mere addition or subtraction of details; the former would be a much more severe charge than the latter.
Just as we do not see every minor detail in Scripture as needing to be airtight, neither do we see every detail in icons as needing to be historical; Mary is depicted in the Ascension icon. St. Paul (and, sometimes, even Mary!) is present at Pentecost. These are included to make theological points. While, granted, the differing inscriptions (and/or "accusations," if one prefers) make no other theological point than the fact that He was accused of being the "King of the Jews" (which He was, of course, the Church Fathers nevertheless later preferring to place the title "The King of Glory" over icons of the Crucifixion), the fact that minor discrepancies were present in no way invalidates the divinely inspired proclamation of our Lord's suffering on the Cross. Any skeptic who would dismiss the unanimously attested-to latter proclamation based on the former inconsistencies is so insincere a searcher and so blindly dismissive of Christianity at the outset that it would be fruitless, in my opinion, to engage such a person in the first place.
Just as both Christ -- who experienced weakness and humiliation as man yet was ever omnipotent God -- and Scripture -- which contains minor, inconsequential inconsistencies yet remains god-breathed and inspired -- simultaneously show forth divine and human natures, so the Church manifests itself as theanthropic, both vulnerable to horrible abuses within it, yet still guided by the Holy Spirit into all truth. Bishops engaged in power struggles, they anathematized whole swathes of Christendom out of sheer ego…yet the council of Nicaea declared Christ to be ομοουσιους with the Father and with us.
The idea of an incarnate Lord, susceptible to weakness and death, Who is yet the unchanging Source and Ground of all Being…is scandalous.
The idea of a Bible written by men who got some details wrong yet preserved a Holy Tome breathed by God…is scandalous.
The idea of a Church whose very shepherds have beaten and neglected the sheep in shameful ways and to shameful degrees yet which has yet been led into all truth and continues to be the Pillar and Ground of said Truth…is scandalous.
Yet there it is: Divine. Human. Incarnate. Salvific.