Difficult issues series
The inerrancy of the Bible has become a divisive doctrine in recent years. Many churches and colleges, in the US in particular, treat this as a “make or break” doctrine, lecturers have been sacked for denying it, and accusations are made against those who hold a different view. At the same time, a growing number of christians, it seems, are questioning the doctrine or saying flat out that it isn’t true.
Is the doctrine worth the fight? Is it necessary to hold it, or the whole of our faith is thrown into doubt? Is it even true?
This post is a summary of what I have written in In what way is the Bible a special book?, and if you want to consider this matter further, please check out that page.
The arguments for inerrancy
There seem to be three main arguments for inerrancy.
- The Bible is God’s Word, inspired by him, so it couldn’t possibly be anything less than perfect.
- There are verses that talk about God’s law being perfect, and these are referring to the scriptures.
- If we don’t believe in inerrancy, we have no certainty and no message to give to the world.
However it seems to me that none of these arguments stands up to scrutiny.
What the critics say
The critics of the doctrine of inerrancy have several arguments:
The Bible doesn’t claim to be inerrant
There is no passage that makes this claim for the whole Bible, or even for any book. There are some claims for some portions of the Bible to be perfect – e.g. “the law of the Lord is perfect” (Psalm 19:7) but this cannot be construed as a reference to the Bible as a whole.
It doesn’t seem to be inerrant
There are many places where the Bible appears to have small mistakes or inconsistencies. The gospels sometimes disagree with each other over minor matters. Archaeology suggests that some parts of the Old Testament (e.g. the accounts of the conquest of Canaan) are not historically accurate, but real events that have been “talked up”. Perhaps all these inconsistencies can be explained, but on the surface, it doesn’t look like it is without error.
The doctrine is based on human logic
A common argument is that the Bible is the word of God and so logically must be perfect and without error. But:
- There is no statement in the Bible identifying the Bible as “the word of God” (see more details here). In the Bible, “word of God generally refers to (i) a message given directly by God to a prophet, (ii) Jesus, or (iii) the message about Jesus (in Acts).
- The world and human beings and the church are all creations of God, but we know none of them are perfect. There is no necessary reason to suppose that even if the Bible was the word of God, it would have to be perfect.
We don’t have the original text anyway
Most of those who hold to inerrancy believe it applies to the original writings, none of which we have. We only have copies of copies. So the Bible we read isn’t inerrant anyway.
Inerrancy doesn’t guarantee agreement
Those who believe in inerrancy still argue over many, many doctrines. Inerrancy does not provide certainty as is often claimed, only an appearance of certainty.
It does a lot of harm
Many christians lose their faith because they can no longer believe the Bible is inerrant. Often these issues would be little problem if the Bible wasn’t regarded as inerrant.
Need doesn’t guarantee truth
If some christians feel they need the Bible to be inerrant, that doesn’t mean it actually is, though it may explain why they believe it is.
How do we get assurance?
The New Testament makes it clear that we walk in the Spirit, not according to the written law (Romans 7:6, 2 Corinthians 3:6), and the Spirit was given to us to give us assurance (John 16:13, Ephesians 1:13-14). The Spirit uses the Bible to do this work, but ultimately it is God the Holy Spirit who we depend on.
Where does this leave us?
All the evidence suggests to me that the Bible isn’t inerrant, and the arguments in its support are weak, though understandable. I wonder whether it is mostly fear that keeps people believing it.
Should we be worried?
Our trust is in God. The Holy Spirit is with us to guide us. It requires faith to follow Jesus. We have no need to worry.
Inerrantists say that without inerrancy the gospel is compromised, but I can’t see it. Whatever view we hold, we can still believe the Gospels give us sufficiently reliable information about Jesus, and we still face the same daily choice of obeying God, following Jesus and walking with the Spirit.
In the end, it is those daily choices that will determine whether the good news is lived out and shared. I don’t think that a theological change from inerrant to otherwise changes how the Holy Spirit will teach us through the scriptures.
So what changes?
Without inerrancy, I believe christians become more humble, less likely to be over-confident in our ability to know true doctrine, ready to admit we don’t know everything. We must be more dependent of the Holy Spirit to interpret the Bible, and we must always be praying for his enlightenment as we examine the Greek and the context.
Making the change will also be more honest to the evidence. Instead of trying desperately to find a plausible explanation for every Bible difficulty, we can admit we don’t know, that some inconsistencies are real, but God still speaks to us through the scriptures.
I honestly have never felt that concluding that the Bible contained some human errors made any negative difference to my faith or my willingness to follow Jesus. And I know many ex-christians who left the faith primarily because they felt the Bible didn’t live up to the inerrant claims made about it.
But how do we know which bits to believe?
This is a question we shouldn’t have to ask. The Spirit will guide us into all truth, so we pray, trusting that God will show us.
Some things are quite clear and inerrancy doesn’t change them – e.g. the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, our need of forgiveness and to forgive others, our responsibility to show the truth of the good news in word and action, and our calling to serve the poor and marginalised.
Other things are less clear, and if we need to know them, we need to pray and trust the Holy Spirit to lead us to the correct understanding. But it may be that we don’t need to know or argue about many of these things – we are, I think, too prone to concern ourselves with arguing doctrine when the clear commands to care for the poor and love our enemies are waiting for us to learn and obey. Theology can be a way of avoiding the hard task of actually following Jesus.
How did we get to here?
As christianity has endured and grown through two millennia, it has faced many different challenges which have led the church to more definitely define its doctrine. This is good in many ways, but greater definition often means subtlety is lost. Matters which may be best left ambiguous, because God is beyond our definitions, become over-defined. I can’t help feeling sometimes that our theological confidence is an expression of human pride in our ability to understand things that are actually beyond our abilities.
Questions of authority and certainty have always been with us, but since the renaissance, many previously well-accepted christian teachings have been threatened by science and Biblical criticism. The result has been an increased emphasis on holding to the truth of the Bible, and the supposed truth of particular views of the Bible, leading to The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.
So a doctrine that was not very well-defined for millennia and never really a major part in christian teaching, became (i) an essential doctrine to protect the Bible against criticism, and (ii) a test of orthodoxy. Christians who didn’t hold to the doctrine are criticised as denying the core of the faith, and lecturers and teachers have lost their positions for questioning it.
This ‘warfare’ is unnecessary
There is nothing in the Bible that requires us to believe it is inerrant. At the most it is an inference, and I believe a poor one. Jesus prayed we would be united (John 17:20-23) and Paul condemned divisiveness (1 Corinthians 1:10-12, Philippians 2:1-2).
Unity is one of the essentials of our faith, along with Jesus, forgiveness, serving, etc – inerrancy is not an essential, or else it would be clearly taught. I believe it is time to end the unbiblical warfare about the Bible.
I believe the inerrantists are holding onto old ways when God is leading his people into new understandings Time will tell if this view is correct! But if some christians cannot let go of this doctrine, at the very least we should be more accepting of each other.
Read much more
I have been examining these questions in more detail, and I encourage you to check these pages out:
- In what way is the Bible a special book? – inspiration, word of God,inerrancy, and the alternatives.
- How to interpret the Bible – how people interpret the Bible today, how Jesus and the apostles interpreted it, and a “better way”.
- What scholars tell us about the New Testament – the best evidence from the best scholars.
- What scholars tell us about the Old Testament – the debate over the Old Testament, and where archaeology and history support the Old testament, and where they don’t.
Photo Credit: mrbill via Compfight cc
A lot of very good stuff here. It needs to be said–repeatedly.
One of the better explanations in plain language for a 21st century approach to reading and understanding the Bible.
Thanks very much to both of you.
Marvelously thoughtful essay, with sensitive evaluation and clear headed points made. I might prefer to depend rather more than you on the texts and letters of the New Testament as God’s means of guiding us by his Spirit however. I know you aren’t saying it is just a matter of following the Spirit versus the “letter” of the scripture as Law. But Paul was referring to OT Law right? So, there may be a bit more need to say explicitly what you imply: we need to follow everything Jesus taught (as recorded in the New Testament)
Hi, thanks for the positive comment. If I gave the impression that I don’t give great authority to the NT then I need to amend my page somewhere – thanks for the heads up. I read the Bible most days, know it well, and allow it to guide me in many ways. I intended my emphasis to be the Bible interpreted by the Holy SPirit, not the Spirit without the Bible.
Yes, I think Paul must have been talking about the OT because the NT didn’t then exist. But I think the principle applies. For instance (and this is a topic I will come to soon), in evaluating the NT teachings about the role of women in church, we can read the text, argue about the Greek and apply the text legalistically, or we can read the text, discuss the Greek and then pray for the Spirit’s guidance in how to interpret and apply those passages today. I’m for the latter.
Hope that explains things better. I’ll now re-read my text. Thanks.
The “But how do we know which bits to believe?” question seems to be the rub for me. Once one/we opens/open oneself/ourselves to picking and choosing which scriptural texts to believe we are unfortunately on that extraordinarily steep and satanically slippery slope on which we begin to become our own authority, rather than depending altogether on God’s ability to give us the precise scriptures he intended us to have and conform our lives to believing and obeying.
Now, I do think you get all the basic doctrinal nuggets of the Gospels clearly in focus. I am not inclined to argue that all the major doctrinal matters which the church has pronounced on have stuck to the nuggets–quite the contrary, as I tend to think that while the church reacted appropriately to some divergent thought by creedal pronouncement it also went well beyond Apostolic scriptural simplicity in the process by creating new and therefore non-authoritative teaching. Similarly the evangelical church has created more problems than it solved with its doctrine(s!) of inerrancy of scripture. Which does give us a muddled mess to clean up, so I appreciate your efforts!
Hi, I think that is an important question, but I think your worries depend on how we phrase the problem.
For example, you say we should be wary if “we begin to become our own authority”. But the reality is that we all have to take responsibility for our thoughts and actions – which could be seen as being similar to being our own authority.
Further, we all pick and choose which scriptural texts we believe now, that’s why I put the section in Interpreting the Bible on how none of us believes everything in the Bible. All I’m suggesting is that we pray for and allow the Spirit to guide us in doing this.
If the Bible was clearly an inerrant guide (i.e. it said so and it could be seen to be) than we would have to go with that, but I don’t think either reason holds.
Your comment seems a little ambivalent. Where do you sit in the end?
I’m 100% with you on this. Good read 🙂
Hi Wesley, thanks for your positive comment. I had a quick look at your blog and found we had a lot in common – I too live in the colonies (in my case Australia), I too have a beard (39 years old and still going strong, though white!), I agree with your list of 10 reasons why you left the institutional church (I still attend one, but not because I believe in it, but because I can minister to people there) and I too “know” (on the internet only) Jeremy Myers (I even wrote a chapter in one of his books).
I look forward to reading some more. Nice to “meet” you.