This is the ninth in a series of posts on Understanding the Bible in the 21st century.
Christians generally believe the Bible, and believe in the Bible, but what should we believe about the Bible?
Probably the strongest claim christians make about the Bible is that it is inerrant – it contains no errors. There are various limits put on this – e.g. it only applies to the original writings, it only applies to the meaning and intention of the writers – but within those limits it is perfectly accurate without the slightest inaccuracy.
Should we believe this? Does it matter?
Is the Bible inerrant?
There are many reasons to trust the Bible as a document that reveals God, especially the New Testament, but it is harder to justify going further and claiming it is inerrant.
It doesn’t say so
I don’t know of any verse which clearly claims this (a view apparently shared by christian scholar Peter Enns). I have looked up a dozen or more christian websites supporting inerrancy (a couple of examples: bible.org and John Frame), and I don’t recall seeing any of them quote a verse which unambiguously supports the idea. The nearest I can find are these:
- Several Psalms make statements like “the law of the Lord is perfect” (Psalm 19:7). (Similar statements are found in, for example, Psalm 12:6, Psalm 119:89 and Proverbs 30:5-6.) But it isn’t at all clear that this refers to the written text of the Old Testament, especially as much of it wasn’t written at that time. It seems more likely that it is referring to God’s commands, not the written text.
- Jesus said (John 10:35):“Scripture cannot be set aside” (sometimes translated as “the Scripture cannot be broken”). But while this makes clear we should not ignore or disbelieve the Scripture, it doesn’t say that the Scripture is without any error.
You would think that, if the doctrine of inerrancy is as important as proponents claim, God would have made it clearer.
The main argument
It turns out that most christians who support inerrancy do so on the basis of logic, not scripture. The following arguments are commonly used:
- “If the Bible is the inspired Word of God, it could not contain error.” But we have seen that the Bible never claims to be the Word of God (see Word of God?) while the passage which describes inspiration can be interpreted several ways, and perhaps more likely refers to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit when we read it (see What does the Bible say about itself?). The argument is based on what appear to be wrong assumptions.
- “The Bible contains many places where God spoke to the authors, so the Bible must be without error.” But this is an invalid argument. I could write a book that quotes the words of God in the Bible, but that wouldn’t make the rest of my book inspired or inerrant.
- Jesus promised his disciples that the Holy Spirit would lead them into truth (John 16:13) and remind them of the things he said (John 14:26, 15:26, 16:15). But again, this says nothing about the written text of the New Testament – in fact it would appear to say something much more general, perhaps applying to us today.
These arguments don’t seem to follow. And the fact that an important doctrine about the Bible relies not on the Bible’s teachings but on human reasoning, should tell us something straight away.
It doesn’t seem to be inerrant
While historians and other scholars find the New Testament to contain a bunch of generally good historical sources (see The gospels as history and Jesus and the historians), there are nevertheless internal reasons why it doesn’t appear to be inerrant:
- There are a number of minor inconsistencies and mistakes in the New Testament – misquotes, making wrong references to OT books and history, etc. These don’t change the meaning or the reliability of the writer in any significant way, but they do suggest the writers were subject to normal human limitations, like quoting Old Testament text from memory or only roughly quoting it. Believers in inerrancy have ways to explain these minor inconsistencies, but it doesn’t alter the fact that it doesn’t seem to be inerrant.
- Archaeology has confirmed many aspects of Old Testament history, especially during the period of the kings. However, despite what some christian websites claim, archaeology is not so supportive of earlier Old Testament history. Now archaeology is notoriously random and incomplete in what it finds, so we can certainly believe that many of these gaps are not based on errors but on incomplete information. However it is fair to say at least that, at this time, the Old Testament doesn’t seem to be inerrant in its history. (Here is the view of Peter Enns and a National Geographic summary of the scholarly state of play.)
People need it?
Finally, it is sometimes argued that we need the Bible to be inerrant, or we lose our assurance of God’s message to us. While this is not a very good argument for inerrancy, it may be a real reason why some people believe it.
It doesn’t matter …..
We don’t have the originals
Inerrancy is generally applied only to the original documents – no such claim is made for the copying and translation. This is a strange distinction to make, for if God could keep the writing free from error, he could surely have kept the copying and translation free from error also, if he wanted to. But this limitation on inerrancy does mean that the Bible we read is not inerrant. Proponents argue that the doctrine is still important, for if the original was without error, it makes it likely that the copies are more reliable.
Nevertheless, this makes it difficult to justify the importance of inerrancy over, say, a belief that it is reliable but not inerrant.
We are never promised certainty
Human beings are not perfect, neither is the church. As TS Eliot once wrote: ‘Between the idea, and reality …. falls the shadow.” Nevertheless, we make decisions in life, even in science, without certainty. And we manage quite satisfactorily, even if there are many disagreements.
We make decisions in christian belief without certainty too – in fact even the doctrine of inerrancy is not found in the Bible, so an inerrantist cannot believe that the doctrine is certainly true. We are not promised certainty – we are asked to believe on the basis of both evidence and faith, not certainty. It doesn’t seem as if we need this doctrine, except if we are fearful.
Inerrancy doesn’t guarantee agreement
This is the most important reason why the doctrine doesn’t matter, and is of little practical use. The important thing about the Bible is not what we say about it, but whether we believe and obey it (as both Jesus and James said – see Matthew 21:28-31 & James 1:22).
But it is the unfortunate reality that those who hold strongest to the doctrine of inerrancy are often also in the strongest disagreement with each other. It is often inerrantists who argue over pre- post- and a-millennialism or Calvinism vs Arminianism. Their inerrancy has not enabled them to get the same message from the Bible which they claim must be inerrant to guarantee truth!
Perhaps even worse, many of these same christians find ways to ignore some very serious Biblical teachings about wealth and materialism, about war and non-violence, about loving their enemies and about care for the poor. Somehow, they seem more concerned about inerrancy than obeying.
It must be said that these adverse remarks don’t apply to some very wonderful and admirable christians. But the point is still generally true – inerrancy doesn’t guarantee agreement on the Bible’s teachings, thus negating one of the main reasons why it is considered important.
…. or does it?
But at a deeper level, inerrancy does matter, but in the opposite way than many think.
Truth is important
Truth is very important to christians, or should be. If the Biblical and other evidence points to the Bible not being clearly inerrant, truth demands that we moderate our doctrines.
Unreasonable expectations destroy people’s faith
I have come across many, many christians and ex-christians whose faith was attacked because they believed in inerrancy. They believed an inerrant Bible was the reason why we could trust God, so when they came to believe that it couldn’t be inerrant after all, their faith suffered.
Ignoring the Holy Spirit
We christians generally know that our faith is not so much in the Bible, but in God – the Father who made us all, the Jesus revealed in the Bible, and the Holy Spirit who interprets the Bible to us. Our trust in the Bible is therefore not based on a doubtful doctrine of inerrancy, but on the work of the Holy Spirit “inspiring” it to us as we read.
It is unfortunately clear that many parts of the church today, including many inerrantists, have a very weak dependence on the Holy Spirit day-to-day, regardless of what they teach. Many churches do not allow the Spirit to speak through prophecy and healing, nor allow the Spirit to teach us new things from the Bible – many would rather hang on to the traditions of the past.
In the end, I feel this may be the most important point of all.
Freedom and the future adventure
So I conclude that while God speaks through the Bible, there is no strong Biblical or doctrinal reason to believe the Bible is inerrant, and some good practical reasons to be wary of the teaching. Those who believe in faith that the Bible is inerrant should be free to do so, but it should not be made a matter of essential doctrine or division.
More importantly, I believe we need to break loose of the restrictions of a legalistic approach to the Bible and truth. The New Testament warns us that the letter kills but the Spirit brings life (2 Corinthians 3:6, Romans 7:6). Let us live in that freedom, which isn’t the freedom to think whatever we like, but rather the freedom to allow the Spirit to teach us, including teach us new things from the scriptures.
Life following Jesus can be an adventure, as we set our sails, let loose our anchors, and allow the wind of the Spirit to take us into deep waters and uncharted territory. Just like his first disciples who left their nets to follow him, he will lead us in a new and meaningful life, where we put aside arguing about unbiblical and unclear doctrines that divide, and take up Jesus’ priorities of love, forgiveness, new life, caring for the poor and bringing God’s healing rule to all the earth.
Will you join me, and so many others, on this new adventure?