I find that one’s answer to this important question predicts a lot of how the rest of one’s thinking takes shape.
One group says yes, the Bible is inerrant, right down to the last detail, including the literal six-day creation. This position is usually maintained either through exaggerated claims about archaeology and prophecy, or on the fear that compromise on that point leads down a slippery slope.
A second approach is to say that the Bible is inerrant, but qualify that word heavily. For example, the influential Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy states:
WE AFFIRM the propriety of using inerrancy as a theological term with reference to the complete truthfulness of Scripture.
WE DENY that it is proper to evaluate Scripture according to standards of truth and error that are alien to its usage or purpose. We further deny that inerrancy is negated by Biblical phenomena such as a lack of modern technical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, the reporting of falsehoods, the use of hyperbole and round numbers, the topical arrangement of material, variant selections of material in parallel accounts, or the use of free citations.
A similar perspective is conveyed by the use of words like “infallible” (instead of inerrant), or “inspired”, or “authoritative”, or to admit that the copies we have contain errors, but claim that the lost “autographs” (originals) are free from error. While there are subtle differences, the general idea when such terms are used is that concepts taught by the Bible can always be trusted, even if the details have errors. Most churches’ statements of faith say something to this effect. It looks firm and uncompromising on paper, but leaves some room for a great deal of interpretation in practice. For example, the leading ancient and medieval Catholic thinkers (Origen, Augustine, and Aquinas), as well as Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, all held to Genesis as being true in an allegorical, not literal, sense.
As for me, I have not been quite able to make my peace with inerrancy, or infallibility, even in an allegorical sense. There are many places in the Bible where there seems to be a real contradiction not just in some minor detail, but in what one passage reveals about God and what another one does. For example, as I expand upon in another post, I have difficulty reconciling some of the things attributed to God in the Old Testament as being consistent with the character of God as revealed in the person of Jesus Christ. To defend the proposition that each and every one of these cases can, in principle, be explained (let alone furnishing all such explanations) is not only difficult, but unnecessary.
There are many justifications given for biblical inerrancy. The four I see most often are:
(1) the Bible can be shown to have divine origin, through archaeology and accurate prophecy,
(2) that if you can’t trust the inerrancy of the Bible, you can’t trust any of it
(3) that the Bible itself claims to be inerrant, and
(4) that Jesus Christ claimed the Bible to be inerrant.
The first point is simply not well supported by the facts. I’m not going to elaborate on that, since my primary goal with this post isn’t to talk people out of believing in inerrancy. On net, holding a belief in inerrancy is probably beneficial to an individual (although widespread belief in inerrancy presents a stumbling block to those outside the faith). Rather, I assume most of my readers are skeptics who reject archaeological and prophetic “proofs” of the Bible already. My goal is to show that one can hold to a robust core of the Christian faith that does not include biblical inerrancy.
Points two, three, and four are circular reasoning if taken by themselves, in that they do nothing to establish the reliability of the Bible in the first place. They are only supporting evidence of inerrancy if one already accepts the first point. However, I feel it’s necessary to cover them because, if they were valid, they would disprove my own working thesis, which is that the Bible is a generally good guide to supernatural and moral truths, as well as a significant source of real history, but also contains some legends and errors.
To the point about trust, I’ve never heard a good justification for saying the Bible as a whole must be completely true or totally unreliable. I don’t think this is a reasonable assumption to make about a single author, let alone a collection of authors. Suppose, for example, that someone were to point out several pieces of information on Wikipedia that, upon careful review, I would agree are errors. Must I declare Wikipedia completely unreliable? No. I might still have plenty of good reasons to believe that Wikipedia is mostly right, including numerous examples where its facts were correct, and knowledge of the process by which it is assembled, and the testimony of others who rave about its usefulness. I could legitimately continue using it as a generally reliable reference tool, even if I admit that in some cases it contains errors. Another Christian blogger makes the same point using the more outdated example of a telephone book.
To the point about the Bible claiming itself to be inerrant, the clearest proof-text in this regard is 2 Timothy 3:16-17.
16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
It is therefore commonly the one verse cited in very brief affirmations of inerrancy, or the first verse cited in lengthier ones. There are many problems with this approach. First, if there are errors in Scripture, this could be one of them. Second, it isn’t clear what the author (St. Paul, or possibly another disciple writing on his behalf) means here by “Scripture” (which is more literally translated simply as “writing”); it isn’t he is including his own letter in that categorization. Dennis Bratcher (who also wrote a long essay on inerrancy) argues that the New Testament was not yet assembled by the time of this letter, and even the Old Testament canon had not yet been officially finalized. Third, the phrase “God-breathed” (or “inspired” as rendered in other translations) doesn’t have to mean perfectly accurate. In the biblical narrative only Jesus is perfect; Adam was God-breathed and he made mistakes.
The fourth point is probably the most challenging one for me. I believe Jesus is the Son of God. I also believe that He, not the Bible, is the “Word of God“. The written Gospels are our primary source of knowledge about Him, but not the only one (everything coming out of the early church has some weight, the Gospels are just the earliest organized narratives that survived to the present). I believe one can be convinced of Christ’s authority and the basic truth of the Gospels without assuming either their inerrancy, or the inerrancy of the rest of the Bible. I agree, however, that it presents a significant problem if Christ Himself can be shown as a champion of inerrancy. If He is, then the reliability of the Gospel not only supports the reliability of the rest of the Bible, but also depends on it. So I have given this matter quite a bit of thought, and I still find myself revisiting it from time to time.
Some of the sayings of Jesus do appear to take for granted the reliability of the Old Testament, even in the details. The most difficult ones for me are Matt 5:17-19 and John 10:34-36. First, here’s Matthew. This is from the Sermon on the Mount:
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
If we assume for the moment that Jesus in fact spoke these exact words (albeit likely in Aramaic, not the Greek in which Matthew wrote), then we need to parse them carefully. First, what is the Law? The word usually refers to the first five books of the Bible (the Torah), but elsewhere in Matthew (here and here) we find the Law summed up as being the Golden Rule. Does the “least stroke of a pen” refer to the details of the commands listed in the Torah or just the seriousness with which the Law – in its more spiritual and holistic sense – must be taken?
If the former, what does one make of the Antitheses of the Law section of the Sermon on the Mount, which immediately follows this. In this section, Jesus repeatedly uses the phrase “you have heard it said” in introducing (and then expanding upon, modifying, or contradicting) various Old Testament precepts. The clearest and most memorable of these is His replacing the “eye for an eye” maxim with “turn the other cheek”.
38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. 42 Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
If “eye for eye” was God-breathed to begin with, why preface it with “you have heard it said”? If Jesus is doing what it looks to me like He is doing here – repudiating an entire attitude that is present in Old Testament teaching – then it follows that the “least stroke of a pen” preface is not an assertion of inerrancy but rather a rhetorical device of some kind (remember Antony’s speech about Julius Caesar?), possibly easily lost in translation, linguistic or cultural.
Also, while Jesus often quotes Scripture in conversation to make a point, He is selective in doing so, preferring those places where the Hebrew writers got it right, even if the larger context of His message is that they sometimes got it wrong. In Matthew 12:1-8, for example, we find Jesus quoting the Old Testament approvingly:
1 At that time Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath. His disciples were hungry and began to pick some heads of grain and eat them. 2 When the Pharisees saw this, they said to him, “Look! Your disciples are doing what is unlawful on the Sabbath.”
3 He answered, “Haven’t you read what David did when he and his companions were hungry? 4 He entered the house of God, and he and his companions ate the consecrated bread—which was not lawful for them to do, but only for the priests. 5 Or haven’t you read in the Law that the priests on Sabbath duty in the temple desecrate the Sabbath and yet are innocent? 6 I tell you that something greater than the temple is here. 7 If you had known what these words mean, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the innocent. 8 For the Son of Man is Lord of the Sabbath.”
It almost seems to me like Jesus is having a little fun here, saying “Haven’t you read?” to his critics, the Pharisees, who themselves embody the careful study of the Old Testament. Perhaps Jesus quotes Scripture so frequently because He is arguing with people who themselves likely embraced the idea of inerrancy; He was speaking their language. The reference to David is likely a symbolic reference to Jesus’s own authority above all religious rules. The reference to God desiring mercy, not sacrifice (Hosea 6:6, a favorite verse that Jesus quotes not only here but also in Matthew 9:13), calls into question vast sections of the Torah, which spell out in minute detail the kinds of sacrifices God supposedly wanted from His people.
We also find Jesus questioning the Old Testament teaching on divorce (a thorny issue which I’ll take up in another post), saying “it was because your hearts were hard that Moses wrote you this law“. It’s a curious phrasing, if Moses was just supposed to be passing along God’s commands, and not supplementing them with his own ideas.
Let’s take a look at John 10:34-36, another verse often used to argue Jesus’s support for biblical inerrancy:
34 Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your Law, ‘I have said you are “gods”’?35 If he called them ‘gods,’ to whom the word of God came—and Scripture cannot be set aside— 36 what about the one whom the Father set apart as his very own and sent into the world? Why then do you accuse me of blasphemy because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’?
Here again, if we take the words as a direct quote, it’s a difficult passage to interpret. Jesus here is quoting Psalm 82, which uses the word “gods”. Jesus is using this verse to defend Himself from charges of blasphemy, but taken in context it looks strange. The word feels out of place in a Bible that, from the beginning, proclaims monotheism. There are various interpretations of Psalm 82, the most common being that the “gods” represent unjust rulers. In comparing Himself to these “gods” – who “know nothing, understanding nothing”, Jesus can’t be making a straightforward theological argument. Instead, He seems to be showing how a “technicality” – even one that reflects badly on the one using it – can be used to argue just about anything. This is the context in which Jesus says “Scripture cannot be set aside”. I imagine it spoken with a tone of voice saying “Hey, you guys are always so picky about the Law… see how silly I can make it look?”.
Another interesting verse to consider is John 5:39-40:
39 You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, 40 yet you refuse to come to me to have life.
This is another of those verses that can be read either way. The idea that the Scriptures “testify about me” can be seen as a reference to prophecy in the context of an inerrant, precise (and prescient) Old Testament. Or, Jesus could be saying (to the Jewish leaders opposing Him) that “you think” (mistakenly) that studying the Scriptures (looking word-for-word for clues) is the key to eternal life. Instead, the source of life is not in the words themselves but in that to which the words are pointing: God Himself.
I would note that there is an entirely different approach that one could take in rebutting the use of verses like Matthew 5:17-19 in claiming that Jesus preached an inerrant Bible. That is, instead of taking all of the words as direct quotations, we could consider the possibility that He was misquoted at times, in ways that in some cases distorted the meaning.
This does not leave us as adrift as it might sound, because taking the focus off Jesus’s words would put it back on Jesus’s actions. If I were to attempt to strip down the Gospels to the bare essentials, the parts most likely to be genuine, I would focus on:
1) the most dramatic events that were reported by all Gospels, and consistent with the letters of Paul as well (especially the Resurrection),
2) those sayings or parables which are naturally easy to remember (e.g., the Prodigal Son, the Good Samaritan), and
3) the general tone of His life and teaching (e.g. He was always breaking down boundaries, reaching out to outcasts, breaking religious rules and getting in trouble with religious leaders).
If in the first few years of Christianity the faith was passed down orally (other than Paul, who was last to meet the risen Jesus, the other apostles were not prolific writers), these are the things that would have been most reliable, not complicated theological statements attributed to Jesus. (Remember Lincoln’s line about how “the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here“? It didn’t turn out to be true in Lincoln’s case, but as a general principle it makes a lot of sense.)
From this perspective, Matthew 5:17-19 is especially suspect because it has no parallels in the other Gospels. (I offer this line of thinking in case it is helpful to you; I personally lean more towards the view that most of the quotations attributed to Jesus, even the complicated ones, are pretty close to what He actually taught. I believe there were written Gospels much earlier than the ones we have now, leaving little room for an oral tradition to distort the original message.)
To summarize, the Bible appears to me to be the story of man’s dealings with God, written from man’s perspective. The Bible never claims itself to be the “Word of God”. That term is applied to Jesus, the Son of God. Jesus walked among the poor, the illiterate, and those on the margins of society. The pillars of the old religious order – Pharisees, scribes, teachers of the Law – are His main adversaries, and were among the only people of that time who buried themselves in books to search for God. They ultimately believed in the God of their books more than the one that stood face to face with them.
Jesus leaves us no book of His own, just a brilliant flash of spirit and miracle that is still transforming the planet. I think this was intentional. For fifteen hundred years after He rose, the thought of individuals owning their own neatly printed Bibles was the stuff of science fiction; the story always spread person to person, heart to heart, as He intended. In our fortunate age, we have vast numbers of books at our fingertips. I am here online (often, poring through books) not to help people see that God lives in books, but rather to help clear away whatever difficulties found in the books stand in the way of receiving Jesus’s message.
None of my above comments should be taken to be dismissive of the Bible as a source of guidance for the Christian life. I reject inerrancy because trying to reconcile the entire Bible with itself stretches credulity, and the mental gymnastics required to do this tends to dilute the force of the central insights and teachings the Bible provides, and its historical witness for which there is no substitute. The New Testament is the primary source material about Christ, and Christ validated the importance (although not the inerrancy) of the Old Testament. Apart from the Bible, I would only venture to describe God in the sparest of terms, as a creator, source of consciousness, and source of the moral law. Through the Bible, and especially in the person of Christ, we can see God in a bit more focus, although still “imperfectly as in a cloudy mirror”. The Bible provides the raw material and a necessary anchor to keep the Church and the individual believer from drifting off into arbitrary directions. The Bible does not, however, interpret itself; on this issue my thinking is closer to the Catholic or Methodist ideas of prima scriptura than the Reformed Protestant’s sola scriptura.
A good expanded discussion on this topic can be found here. And as usual, I find C.S. Lewis’s comments worth reading. He explains his own rejection of narrow-form inerrancy here, and in other places suggest the Old Testament can be understood as part of a “picture gradually coming into focus“. MacDonald’s sermon on The Consuming Fire offers a similar perspective.