Over the next few weeks, I will be posting a series that I’m calling “Tough Topics.” I will explore several theological hot-button issues that I have wrestled with, or am still wrestling with, in some cases. I don’t pretend to have all the definitive answer to any of these questions, or even to explore them exhaustively. My hope is that this series will help others who are thinking about these topics and expand the thinking of those who have never considered them before.
“Do you believe in the inerrancy of the Bible?”
That’s one of the questions that really conservative evangelical Christians sometimes ask one another, especially when the questioner has reason to the believe their interlocutor may be “liberal.” In evangelical Christian circles, the tribe that I identify with, how you answer this question can give a pretty strong indication of where you are on the left or right of the theological spectrum. In fact, if you answer this question wrong to some evangelicals, you can get ostracized, or at least held suspect that you are a closet liberal who doesn’t really believe in the bible.
It’s easy to see why this question is important. After all, if we believe that Scripture is “God-breathed” (2 Timothy 3:16) and that it is the final authority for what we believe and how we act, then we would want to be sure that what Scripture says is right. For many evangelical Christians, to say, “I don’t believe in inerrancy” is equivalent to saying, “I think the Bible is wrong.” If you believe the Bible is wrong, then you don’t believe that God inspired the biblical writers, but that it simply reflects the opinions of humans. If the Bible is just human opinion, then who knows what all they got wrong about God, Jesus, salvation, and everything else. Or so the thinking goes.
While the word “inerrant” sounds right for how we should describe the God-inspired Bible, things get a little more complicated when we actually start to read Scripture. If what we mean by inerrant is, the Bible is incapable of getting anything wrong about everything, then once we start to read the Bible, we’ll have to do some serious mental gymnastics to make it work, not only with what modern scientific knowledge tells us, but also to make the Bible consistent with itself.
Here are are just a few examples that make this strict understanding of inerrancy difficult:
In the Hebrew dietary laws, Leviticus 11:6 says, “The rabbit, though it chews the cud, does not have a divided hoof; it is unclean for you.” Well, rabbits actually don’t chew the cud.
The Bible clearly says that God set the earth on foundations and it will “never be moved” (Psalm 104:5). We may look at that today and say, “that’s clearly poetic,” but in Galileo’s day that was used as a proof text against the new discoveries he was making about the solar system.
In Mark 4:31, Jesus says the mustard seed is the smallest of all the seeds, but it’s actually not.
In 1 Corinthians 10:8, Paul uses an example from Israel’s history and mentions that God slew 23,000 people in a single day. Strangely, the story that he is referring to, in Number 25:9 says 24,000 were killed.
In the accounts of David’s census of the Israelites for which God judged him, who made David do it? Samuel 24: 1 says the LORD was angry at Israel and “incited” David to take the census. 1 Chronicles 21:1’s account of the same event says “Satan stood up against Israel, and incited David to count the people of Israel.”
Of course, most evangelicals who have observed these problems and want to still use the word “inerrant” to describe the Bible have offered a number of different solutions to this problem. The most common, and the one that you see in most statements of faith, is that the scriptures were “inerrant in the original manuscripts.”
The thinking with this is that the texts our modern bibles are based off of are copies of copies that allow us to reasonably accurately reconstruct what the original text said. Therefore, the sorts of discrepancies we see between ancient manuscripts and the little grammatical errors that crept in were not present in the original text. God produced a grammatically, historically, and scientifically perfect document when he first inspired the biblical author, but the transmission process was not inspired.
Fair enough. But, there are three major problems with this theory. 1) We don’t posses any original texts, so there is no way of proving this to be true or not. 2) If we don’t have the original inerrant text, then none of our Bibles can properly be said to be inerrant, and so the term is basically meaningless. 3) This requires us to decide what sort of text the Bible should be, rather than letting the Bible as we have it speak for itself.
A Better Way
Because of some of these problems, many evangelical Christians find the language of “inerrancy” to not be the best way of describing what the Bible is or does. They prefer language of “infallibility,” which basically means the Bible won’t lead you astray, but will adequately point to Christ. Infallibility takes more seriously the diversity within the biblical texts and does not impose a standard of accuracy on the Bible that the Bible itself does not purport to have.
If someone asks me whether I believe in inerrancy or not, I generally respond by asking what they mean. Do I believe God inspired the Biblical writers? Yes. Do I believe that the Bible we have is the one God wants us to have? Yes. Do I believe the Bible is perfectly accurate on everything it speaks of by modern, scientific standards. Well, no, and I don’t think it’s a problem.
I explain to people that just as we believe that Jesus was fully God and fully human, so I think the Bible is fully inspired by God, but also fully human. For example, Jesus would reflect the knowledge of his own day and context in the incarnation, so he would probably say and believe a lot of things that today we would say were “wrong.” For example, Jesus said the mustard seed was the smallest, but we don’t think that’s a problem because it probably reflected what 1st century Jewish people thought was the smallest seed. In the gospels, we see that Jesus’ knowledge was limited on certain things, because of his humanity.
In the same way, the Bible reflects the limited knowledge of context of the inspired authors. That’s what led to some of the “problems” in the text I mentioned above. That’s why Paul can write inspired Scripture and forget and then remember who he baptized (1 Corinthians 1:14-16), for example.
The Bible is both divine and human, because a God with infinite knowledge must accommodate himself to finite creatures when he reveals himself. Otherwise, revelation will make no sense. This is what great theologians from Augustine to John Calvin have argued. God speaks to us in terms we can understand. God’s knowledge is inerrant, but human knowledge is not. It changes with time and will continue to do so.
Martin Luther called Scripture the cradle that holds the Christ child, and I think that is one of the best illustrations of what Scripture is and does. It points us to the living God revealed to us in Christ in human history, and it does it in exactly the way God wants it to.
This is a pretty controversial topic among some evangelicals. I’ve come to the place where I deeply respect what proponents of the word “inerrant” are trying to do. However, as I’ve explored it, I think that it may not be the best word to describe what we actually find in the Bible itself. I prefer “infallibility,” or, simply “God-breathed”/inspired. After all, that’s the language that the Bible uses about itself.
What do you think?