I don’t believe the Bible is necessarily without error (i.e. inerrant). It doesn’t specifically claim to be, and I don’t think any of the arguments for inerrancy stand up to scrutiny.
But I’m not going to argue about that here.
Rather, I want to suggest ways that this doctrine, which I believe is not Biblical, is also doing great harm to christianity.
1. It achieves nothing
It seems to me that the doctrine of inerrancy achieves nothing of value, for three reasons.
We don’t have the inerrant documents
It is generally said that it is the original documents were inerrant, but the fact is we don’t have them now. We can’t even be sure there was one original document, because it is likely that many of the books of the Bible were written over time, revised, and added to, and who can say which one was the “original”? They were then copied, often many times before the earliest copies that we have. And then translated into the language we now read.
So the Bible we read is not believed to be inerrant, and has gone through a number of processes to get to us. If we needed an inerrant Bible, we don’t actually have one.
It doesn’t lead to agreement
It is sadly true that those who believe the Bible is inerrant disagree, sometimes deeply, about what it teaches us – at least as much as christians who don’t believe it is inerrant, and arguably more. They can argue about pre- post- and a-millennialism, Calvinism vs Arminianism, the place of the charismatic gifts, baptism and the way to do evangelism.
So what’s the point of believing the Bible is inerrant if it doesn’t lead us all to unity on doctrine and behaviour?
Faith is still required anyway
We cannot prove that the Bible is a revelation of God, inspired, useful for teaching, etc; it requires faith to believe it. (I believe there are good rational grounds for believing that, but they are not “proof”.)
So if faith is required to believe the Bible and follow its teachings, what have we gained by proposing it is inerrant?
2. It can encourage legalism
It seems to be a psychological fact that the more certain we are about something, the more likely we are to be dogmatic and to refuse to consider alternative views.
Christians tend to be viewed as often dogmatic and having closed minds. I don’t believe that is necessarily or always the case, but we can appear that way, and it can make the christian faith unattractive to non-believers, contrary to Paul’s advice that our speech always be full of grace (Colossians 4:6).
Inerrancy can also lead christians into a legalism – holding to the letter of some verse even when other verses say something different. We should be allowing the Holy Spirit to guide our interpretation and application, but legalistic response are sometimes easier. I think this may be why inerrantists sometimes are the most argumentative about minor doctrines.
3. It wastes valuable time
We have been given a mission by Jesus – to live lives that are built on loving God and loving our neighbour (Matthew 22:36-40), to be seeking to make disciples of Jesus (Matthew 28:19-20), and to be caring for the poor, the hungry, the sick, the oppressed, the homeless, the strangers and those in prison (Matthew 25:31-46, Luke 4:18-21).
That’s a big task! And we don’t have the luxury of spending time arguing over doctrines that don’t assist that mission.
It happens so often. A sceptic picks up some minor matter, for example, the location of one of Jesus’ exorcisms – was it around the city of Gerasa, the territory around Gadara, or the territory of the Gergesenes? It doesn’t really matter, they are all on the eastern side of the Sea of Galilee and the Jordan River. There are important matters about the person and life of Jesus that could be discussed, but instead the inerrantist is forced to provide an explanation of the apparent discrepancy that preserves inerrancy.
And sometimes, instead of arguing, preaching and reading about inerrancy, we would do better to be getting on with serving the poor and victimised.
4. It forces christians to defend the indefensible
Some parts of the Old Testament present real difficulties for christians. Some of the commands attributable to God, requiring wholesale slaughter, virtually genocide and ethnic cleansing, are extremely problematic, to say the least. It is impossible to imagine Jesus giving those commands, so if Jesus revealed God’s character, then it is hard to see how a loving God could have given those commands.
Now it does seem as if the commands can be taken as an ancient form of “trash talking” – putting your opponent down to build yourself up – and archaeology seems to indicate that many of the ethic cleansing events didn’t actually happen. But to a believer in inerrancy, this cannot make any difference – if it’s recorded there, it must have happened.
And so christians who believe the Bible is inerrant are forced to defend the indefensible. Tragically, their defence of the character of the Bible leaves God’s loving character in ruins. I’ve even seen noted apologist, William Lane Craig, struggle with this issue.
Much easier is to admit that some of the OT commands reflect a primitive understanding of God which Jesus came to correct, and the supposed history of the conquest of Canaan contains exaggeration or even myth. These events don’t show the full character of God; we need to go to the New Testament for that.
5. It drives people away from Jesus
This may be the biggest drawback of all.
The Bible doesn’t look as if it’s inerrant. There are many examples of apparent errors that make little difference to the truth of the Bible and our understanding of it. Similar apparent errors in other historical works don’t prevent historians from accepting the accounts. It may be that every one of these apparent errors can be explained, but some of the explanations require a lot of faith, and it is hard to believe that every last one of them is the truth. Worse than the apparent errors, of course, are the Old Testament commands for ethnic cleansing, as discussed above, which really cannot and should not be defended.
Whatever each of us may think about that, it is clear that many young christians, brought up to believe in inerrancy, find it difficult to believe that all the claimed discrepancies can be explained. Often they are away from their home and church for an extended period for the first time in their life. Their belief is at its most vulnerable, and a belief in inerrancy doesn’t help – in fact it is the major problem.
They have been led to believe it is all or nothing. The Bible must be inerrant or we can have no confidence in it. (That’s not the view of historians, but it is a common view in churches.) So when they are faced with apparent errors, they sometimes find they cannot continue to believe at all. If they had been brought up with the understanding (which I believe is true) that the New Testament is broadly historical so we can trust its teaching without having to believe it is inerrant (just as we trust textbooks to be reliable though not without error), then minor discrepancies need present no difficulty.
I have come across quite a few ex-christians who have travelled this path, and I believe it is all so unnecessary. Inerrancy is growing some bitter fruit!
What can we do?
If someone believes inerrancy is the truth, then they have no option but to believe it.
But if we come to see that it ….
- isn’t a Biblical teaching,
- rests on doubtful assumptions
- doesn’t help us much, and
- actually does some serious harm
…. the perhaps we will be able as a christian community to let go of it and just get on with believing God’s truth, and following Jesus.
I’d love to think so.
- CS Lewis on the Bible, history and myth – an eminent scholar and strong christian makes sense.
- In what way is the Bible a special book? – treasuring the Bible without making doubtful claims about it.
- Three different views of the Bible, and three different ways to read it.
- When the Bible becomes a reason to disbelieve.
- How should a christian read the Bible?
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Nicely written UnkleE!
Thanks for this …
I think you are quite correct. The belief in the literal word of the Bible is coming into conflict with science and is increasing being shown to be apocryphal. “True believers” are now becoming figures of ridicule with little credibility.
I think the Bible needs to be presented as allegorical, with lessons to be learned rather than being literally believed if it is going to survive the modern age.
Hi Invernest, Karl, thanks for your interest.
Hi Anonymous, thanks for your interest also. It is a fair jump from my post that the Bible isn’t “inerrant” to your view that it is apocryphal and allegorical. I’d be interested to hear why you make that jump, if you are interested in sharing your ideas thanks.
Hi Unklee, Anonymous was me sorry.
Apocryphal – should we really believe that the Universe was made in seven days or that the Garden of Eden actually existed, and woman was made of a man’s rib etc ? These things contradict the scientific view where there is evidence to the contrary. So if we don’t believe them literally, the only other interpretation is that they are parables with some sort of deeper meaning attached.
The teachings of Jesus are pretty straightforward. Even if you don’t believe that he was the Son of God etc you can live a good life by following his basic instructions. Inaccuracies or errors could be attributed to the passage of time, the politics of the era, successive translations with personal biases introduced and so on. As you have pointed out they don’t really detract from the central message.
Hi, maybe I should have guessed! But no worries.
I asked the question because I think there is a great distance between inerrant and apocryphal and allegorical, and a great difference between Adam & Eve and Jesus.
So even though I think Genesis 1 is not history but myth, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t contain truth, it is just a different type of truth. I guess that’s what you mean by allegorical. And even though I think Genesis 1 is myth, that doesn’t make Mark’s gospel myth.
My view on the stories about Jesus is that he is important for more than his teachings. Most christians (not all) believe that what he did was also important – beginning a new phase of the kingdom of God on earth. His death was not just a sad ending, and his resurrection (I believe) really happened, and has meaning. Of course many people don’t believe these things but can respect the teachings, and I guess that is your view?
“Of course many people don’t believe these things but can respect the teachings, and I guess that is your view?”
I prefer to say I keep an open mind about alleged miracles and resurrections. As I wasn’t there I don’t know the truth and neither does anyone else really so it’s a matter of Faith which you obviously have. His Apostles could have exaggerated and embellished for greater effect for all I know. I certainly respect his teachings as to how we should live our lives and treat others, they are only basic decency really.
However many people are decent without any knowledge of the Bible and Jesus. Buddhists are probably the calmest people on earth, but follow a different philosophy and one which does not have the political baggage of other religions (the religious Right in the US for example or the subtle influence that certain Christian sects have on government here in Australia).
So Christianity is good for some, other ways may resonate with others. As long as people don’t go around attacking others for religious reasons I respect their rights to choose what is best for them.
Perhaps you could express a view on this question. You say that Jesus came to prepare the Kingdom of God, yet two thousand years later the human race seems to be in a bigger mess than it ever has been, and sometimes it seems that we are on the point of self destruction.
Has Jesus failed ? Or is there more to come ? You would think that if a Son of God wanted something to happen, then it would. Sorry for the cynicism but I just think that we are going off the rails as a species and that the influence of Jesus’s teaching is diminishing. Your thoughts on this ?
I think it is a fair question. Let us treat it as a hypothetical – assume for the exercise that a creator God exists and wants to create human beings to share his life and creativity.
Now clearly he could create humans and force them to obey him, or so that they would never choose otherwise, but that wouldn’t be sharing his creativity, because creativity requires freedom. Any relationship between God and people would also be forced, and we all know that force isn’t the right way to go in any human relationship.
So the kingdom of God, or the rule of God, is voluntary. We get to choose to be part of it or not. Unfortunately, too many people choose not to join, for various reasons.
I’m not sure I agree about the human race being in a bigger mess than ever. It depends on what is being measured. Because there are so many more of us, and because we have developed our technology, the damage we can do individually and collectively is so much worse, but there are also some good aspects – modern medicine, the reduced gap between rich and poor (though that may be starting to reverse now), the relative health and security that an increasing number of people live in, greater equality for women and minorities, and the level of democracy (for the first time ever, there are apparently more democratic countries that non-democratic). Many of these good things have come directly as a result of the actions of followers of Jesus, though of course many have not come that way also.
So our “progress’ is a mixed bag of good and evil. But more and more people are joining God’s kingdom. I’m inclined to think that some who haven’t explicitly joined, because they haven’t really had the opportunity, may have effectively joined by doing what they can with the light they have been given, but that isn’t a view that all christians would share.
So I think Jesus has been successful within the very strict limits that God set by giving humans creativity, egos and choice.
Thanks. Maybe I’m being unduly pessimistic. I see the rise of people like Duterte in what was regarded as a strongly Catholic country as being a sign of evil rising.
I think you are portraying “The Kingdom of God” as a more personal one rather than global so maybe I am wrong in making judgements based on global political events. All I can hope is that the people in power see “the light” and use it wisely.
Yes, I think the kingdom of God is personal, but also social, so I think it has global impact. But power is an interesting thing. We know that power can so easily corrupt. We see it in politics (politicians seek power rather than the good of the country), in the church (some priests use their power over people to abuse), in corporations, families and relationships. It is no wonder that Jesus says his followers must be servants, not power-hungry. But too many christians don’t pay attention.
Interesting ideas. I don’t believe in biblical inerrancy either; I think that in doing so you are – like you said – defending the indefensible and giving others seemingly valid reasons to reject the faith. I especially liked your remark about how we ought to look at the New Testament for the full character of God. That said, do you believe Jesus (believing himself to be the Son of God) would positively affirm and accept all the violence in the Old Testament, since he declared “If you have seen the Father, you have seen me” (John 14:9)?
Hi Abdul, thanks for reading. This is a good question.
No, I don’t believe he would affirm the violence. In fact, in Luke 4:18-19 when he quotes from Isaiah 61:1-2 in the synagogue, he (or Luke) leaves out the phrase about vengeance which is part of Isaiah 61:2, suggesting that wasn’t part of the message he wanted to give.
For more on this, you might like to read Old Testament God angry, New Testament God loving. Right? Or wrong?
I think the best way to understand this is that the Old testament portrays what people believed about God at that time, and shows God gradually correcting wrong ideas. But that view would be controversial for many christians.
What do you think?
Hi there, here is my take on this conversation between the author and Abdul Kalbar (from the viewpoint of a semi-conservative Christian) 🙂
It is somewhat relieving to know that many of the Old Testament narratives where genocide and violence occurred are not factual. That is to say, we know the Flood (as described in Genesis 11) did not occur the way it is described in the text, likewise for the genocides in Exodus, Joshua, Deuteronomy, and much of the Old Testament. The challenge for someone who adheres to biblical innerancy is to find a way the same person who declared genocide against the Amalekites (1 Samuel 13:15, I believe) said that we ought to turn the other cheek.
My approach to this issue is (and I understand there are issues with it, this is something I have struggled with for quite some time) is that when we approach scripture, we adapt what we read to previous knowledge. For example, hardly anyone would argue that our world is 6,000 years old and it was created in 7 days ex-nihilo. It also tells us the world was a dome, with the oceans on top. A literalistic reading of the Genesis creation narrative yields this view, but we adapt our reading to our outside knowledge (ie., geology, physics, astronomy, chemistry) and we then concede that the world cannot be 6,000 years old and took longer than 7 days to form (and there most certainly is no dome).
When we approach the problematic texts of the Old Testament in a likewise manner, we find that many of the texts do not find corroboration in the archaeological record. If we consider our knowledge of archaeology to be the outside knowledge (the same way we read the creation text through the lenses of our understanding of modern science, in particular geology, evolution, physics) I think this lends to a different reading of these texts, rather than a strictly literal one.
I do not see the same problems with the New Testament (although am not saying it is historically perfect or innerant).
Personally, I think your approach to the problematic texts is good as well, but what if someone were to ask – why did god purposely reveal himself incorrectly? Why did he need to wait until Jesus came along?
I appreciate these types of conversations and would like to know your approach to these objections 🙂
Hi KIng, thanks for your thoughts. It seems we are to a large measure in agreement.
“why did god purposely reveal himself incorrectly? Why did he need to wait until Jesus came along?”
I don’t think God purposely revealed himself incorrectly, but rather incompletely. And I think that was because of limitations on the human side, not on his side.
CS Lewis (who was expert on ancient literature and myth) wrote:
“If you take the Bible as a whole, you see a process in which something which, in its earliest levels (those aren’t necessarily the ones that come first in the Book as now arranged) was hardly moral at all, and was in some ways not unlike the Pagan religions, is gradually purged and enlightened till it becomes the religion of the great prophets and Our Lord Himself. That whole process is the greatest revelation of God’s true nature. At first hardly anything comes through but mere power. Then (v. important) the truth that He is One and there is no other God. Then justice, then mercy, love, wisdom.”
I think that sums it up. Just as a parent or a teacher starts where the child’s understanding is and builds, so I think God did the same. When he had got across the first lesson, then came the second, and so on. Even now I think he is still teaching us new lessons.
I think we see this process in the Old Testament, but I think it probably happened, and is happening, all over the world, with different races, cultures and individuals at different stages, according to how much we have responded, or not, to him.
Does that make sense to you?
As I begin my spiritual journey and learning to walk with christ, as a 27 year old hindu being brought to the Lord it has been quite hard, I have a deeply rational and skeptical world view and in my discussions with many young christians in Memphis I feel this friction they feel when it comes to accuracy of historical information in the bible, i think this is mainly the deep programming that comes with being taught religion at a young age, this scares me about following christ . Why is it that people feel the need to relate the inerrant nature of the bible to the omnipotence of god, and they want proof from scripture that the information was inaccurate. I feel like in a way we are trapping God in the scriptures and fail to really understand god.Having a relationship with god goes beyond what the scripture talks to us about,i feel like it helps me develop a better relationship with god but I do not believe in heaven and hell as some eventual outcome(nor do I fear god) but rather our current state, as I experienced my life without him was hell and having a relationship with him I can sense his goodness being poured into my cup and I keep pushing beyond the walls people build so that I can be more christ-like as I am repaying my lord for his goodness by sharing what he gives me.
Hi Ind, thanks for your very thoughtful comment. You write from an interesting perspective.
I think you are right that christians can trap God within the scriptures – clearly there is more to God than can ever be revealed in a finite book.
But I think it is also clear that God is so far beyond our human understanding that if he had not taken the trouble to reveal himself to us in various ways, we would be only guessing. So of course he reveals himself to people personally through his Spirit (some people more than others), and reveals himself through his world, but the Bible is important because it tells us about his ultimate revelation in Jesus and a lot more besides.
The Bible doesn’t have to be inerrant to do that, and we would be wrong to neglect the other forms of revelation, but I think it is reasonable to respect the Bible without claiming too much for it.
I am interested that you are a “hindu being brought to the Lord”. Have you written up your story anywhere? Would be interested in sharing a little more with me here? Thanks.