Do you mean the Bible is inerrant, or that you are inerrant?

I recently came upon the following quote attributed to Fred Clark of The Slacktivist:

Text: “We claim that we are treating the Bible with great respect as the final arbiter of all things. What we are really doing is making our interpretation of the Bible the final arbiter of all things. Therefore what we are ultimately arguing is that WE are the final arbiter of all things. Our assertion, in other words, is not really that the Bible is inerrant and infallible, but that we are.”

Evangelicals and fundamentalists are not like Catholics. There is no one leader setting down doctrine and no accepted catechism of beliefs. Instead, evangelicals and fundamentalists insist that the Bible is the final authority in all things, and that all they are doing is following the Bible. The trouble is that not only do evangelicals and fundamentalists disagree with other faith traditions on how to interpret the Bible, they also disagree among themselves. In other words, while they all agree that the Bible is the final authority in all things, they do not and cannot agree on what the Bible means. This is why when the United States’ earliest public schools were founded they included Bible reading, but did not allow teachers to make any explanation at all of what was read – after all, every denomination agreed that the Bible was the inerrant word of God, but they could not agree on how to interpret it.

And this is where Fred’s quote comes in. Evangelicals and fundamentalists claim that they are simply following the Bible and holding it to be inerrant, but because there is disagreement on what the Bible actually says, Fred suggests that what they are really doing is holding their own interpretations as inerrant. And in doing that, they are holding themselves as inerrant.

There are two contributing factors that help convince evangelicals and fundamentalists that their interpretations are inerrant. First, they will claim that they are not “interpreting” the Bible at all, but simply accepting what it says at face value. This seems to make sense until you realize that that’s often not actually what they’re doing, and that besides, those claiming that they are simply accepting the Bible at face value inevitably contradict each other. Second, they will also claim that they are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, which helps them interpret the Bible and guides them to the correct understanding. Once again, this makes sense on some level until you realize that they all claim this and yet often contradict each other.

I ran into a lot of this with my own family when I began questioning some of their beliefs. At the time, mind you, I didn’t question the inerrancy and inspiration of the Bible. I simply questioned their understanding and interpretation of the Bible. But it didn’t matter. To them, I had questioned not simply their understanding of the Bible but the Bible itself. At the time, I wanted to ask “do you mean that the Bible is inerrant, or that you are inerrant?” But because my parents were convinced that their interpretation of the Bible was right and every other one was wrong, they would likely not have admitted the distinction. And of course, both they and I claimed to be listening to and following the lead of the Holy Spirit.

While many/most evangelicals and fundamentalists go to churches that belong to specific denominations and therefore embrace specific creeds or lists of beliefs, I grew up in a nondenominational megachurch. Basically, this meant that the senior pastor’s interpretation of the Bible was what went for the rest of the church. There are thousands of churches like this across the country, whether they are strictly nondenominational or nominally belong to a denomination, where the senior pastor (or only pastor, in the cases of small churches) sets the doctrine with his own personal interpretation of the Bible. Interestingly, replacing a senior pastor can be a very trying time for a nondenominational, more so than for churches that belong to denominations, because it’s so important for the church that the new pastor believe the same things the former pastor did.

For many in homeschooling families influenced by the Quiverfull and Christian Patriarchy movements, it’s less about what the pastor believes than about what their father beliefs. Some families even form “home churches,” making the supremacy of the father/pastor’s interpretation of the Bible completely obvious. In my case, we grew up knowing that even though we went to said nondenominational megachurch, we as a family disagreed with the theology and practice on several points. Why? Because dad disagreed.

Yet this very function of evangelicalism and fundamentalism that grants so much theological power to individual pastors or fathers also serves as a tool to be used in resistance. When I began questioning my father’s interpretation of the Bible, I used my own developing interpretation of that same book to buttress and support my arguments. Of course, doing so didn’t mean my father accepted my interpretations as valid. He didn’t. It meant, however, that I could use the Bible as a tool of resistance and that questioning my father’s beliefs did not necessarily have to mean giving up my faith entirely.

And here is where we get to the sticky point. What does all this tell us? Do all Christians who believe the Bible is inerrant in effect fancy themselves inerrant? The only way to get around the problem would be to arrive at the True and Correct Interpretation of the Bible. And there are Christian scholars who do study the history of the Bible, its cultural context, and the original languages in which it was written. There are Christian scholars who engage in higher criticism of the Bible, examining it as a text. Is it possible, then, to arrive at an objectively “true” and “correct” interpretation of the Bible?

The trouble I kept running into is that there are verses and passages that are downright contradictory. Whatever view you take, you’re going to have to explain some other passage away. You point to the verses about female submission to support complementarianism (i.e. patriarchy)? Okay, but what about instances of female leadership in the Bible? You have to explain those away. You point to instances of female leadership in the Bible to support egalitarianism? Okay, but what about the verses about female submission? You’re going to have to explain those away.

At this point it honestly appears to me that people find what they want to find in the Bible. You believe that women should be stay-at-home moms and homemakers? There’s an interpretation of the Bible just right for you. You believe that women should be able to get jobs alongside men, and that childcare should be shared between men and women? There’s an interpretation of the Bible just right for you, too! Personally, this is a huge part of why the Bible appears to me to be no more than a man-made book.

Note: After writing yesterday’s post I read an exchange between Chris Hallquist and James McGrath regarding this very quote by Fred Clark. Tomorrow I will respond to their posts with some additional thoughts.

The Cold, Unforgiving World of Geoffrey Botkin
On Orgies, Bisexuality, James Dobson, and Evangelicals
Red Town, Blue Town
Nine-Year-Old Sluts and Masturbating Dinner Guests
About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Jason Dick

    Here’s a nice blog post that talks about a scientific study demonstrating exactly this point, that “God believes” is just a substitute for “I believe”:

  • RowanVT

    There’s a big inerrancy problem just in Genesis:

    Was man made before animals… or after? Story one says after but the second one says before.

    And that’s why my religion teachers in highschool hated me. :3

  • wanderer

    wow, what a great point. I hadn’t thought of this before. Interesting, yes…. in effect people are saying THEY are inerrant. wow…scary.

  • NoriMori

    Great article. YouTuber QualiaSoup also discusses this exact problem in a couple of his videos, most notably “Morality 2: Not-so-good books”. One thing he says in that video (as well saying something similar in another earlier video, “In the beginning, God created injustice”) is, “Books that endorse all viewpoints ultimately endorse none.” I would say that neatly summarizes this article.

  • ContextMakesAllTheDifference

    @RowanVT – Your religion teachers probably disliked you because you didn’t do your homework.

    Gen. 2:19-20 “Now the Lord God *had* formed out of the ground all the wild animals and all the birds in the sky. He brought them to the man to see what he would name them; and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name. So the man gave names to all the livestock, the birds in the sky and all the wild animals.”

    Past tense. Don’t think even the author of Genesis would have fumbled the ‘one has to precede the other’ issue here. The animals would have to exist in order to be named, no?

    • NoriMori

      @ContextMakesAllTheDifference, And you would know this how? Did you stalk RowanVT when they were in school? Were you in their class?

      And your argument about Genesis, whether valid or not (it doesn’t look valid to me, the fact that it’s past tense is exactly RowanVT’s point), is irrelevant. It doesn’t even scratch the surface of what’s wrong with the Bible.

      • RowanVT

        I very much did my homework. I found typos in my study bible (some guy sinnned and Ruth was Roth at one point) and I constantly asked questions.

        I never had read the bible until I was 13. That is far too late to read those tales and see them as anything separate from every fairy tale I grew up with. I first read, on my own, The Lord of the Rings at age 9. The mythology in *that* book was more coherent and made more sense the bible. The Silmarillion STILL has a better and more coherent mythos than the bible.

        They hated me for the questions:

        If God gave us free will, why did he take it away from Pharaoh?
        If God is kind, why would he kill babies for Pharoah’s non-choice?
        What sort of kind god would kill people to bring glory to his name?
        Why did God consider Lot offering up his virgin daughters for gang rape to be okay?
        Honestly, what was so horrible about looking back that it deserved death?
        How did Noah fit 7 (14? A male AND his female) of EVERY clean animal and 2 of EVERY unclean animal into a boat that size PLUS enough fodder for 40 days of rain and another 100 days of floating on the ocean? And what did the carnivores eat afterwards?
        Why did God kill Job’s family in what was basically a friendly bet with the Devil? I thought he was supposed to be benevolent.

    • Atomic1964

      Gen. 1:25-27 “And God made the beast of the earth after his kind, and the cattle after their kind … And God said, Let us make man … So God created man in his own image.”
      Gen. 2:18-19 “And the Lord God said it is not good that man should be alone; I will make a help-meet for him. And out of the ground the Lord God formed every beast of the field, and every fowl of the air, and brought them to Adam to see what he would call them.”

      • RowanVT

        This is the one I read. Basically Man was alone, and so God made animals. After Adam. The phrasing makes it really very clear that those animals were made after Adam in Gen 2. But in Gen 1, all the animals were made well before humankind. Plus the fact that in version one, humans were made male AND female at the same time, but version two has Adam alone.

      • Rosie

        Hence the myth of Lilith. She was the first woman, created equal to Adam, but since we can’t have equality Eve was made later, to be subservient. That still doesn’t solve the problem of whether Adam was created before or after the other critters, though.

        Another take on it can be found here:
        This interpretation solves all the contradictions, near as I can tell, but not in a way that any believers I’ve ever met would be happy with!

    • Jayn


      Gen. 1:27
      “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them”

      implies that man and woman were created at the same time, while in Genesis 2 Eve is clearly created after Adam. And so we get the story of Lilith.

      Personally I find interpretation of religious texts quite interesting, and I think the people who insist on there being a single ‘right’ way to read the Bible are missing just how rich the text can be.

    • Jason Dick

      The translators of the NIV basically just added that “had” in there in a vain attempt to make the passage consistent. Most other translations do not use this verb tense, and it is nowhere indicated in the original documents that it should be this tense. Furthermore, the context of the immediately-surrounding text make it absolutely clear that the creation of animals was intended to solve a need that man had, so that it makes no sense to impose a preemptive creation.

  • Eamon Knight

    Realizing this is what probably saved me from the worst excesses of fundamentalism. “OK, the Bible is infallible — but you aren’t, so thanks for your input, now leave me alone while I figure this out for myself”. Of course, it didn’t hurt that I got around enough to encounter a people espousing a variety of different doctrines, all quoting chapter and verse to back it up — made me realize that it wasn’t as simple as some of them made out.

  • http://n/a Chris

    When I was much younger, I sold Bibles and Bible study books door-to-door in the rural and suburban South. I talked Scripture one on one to well over 100 different sects of Christians. During this incredible experience, I realized that all of these sects only had TWO beliefs in common across the denominational divide. All Christian sects believed 1) that Jesus Christ was the son of God who came to earth to redeem us of our sins by dying on the cross, and 2) each believed that THEIR interpretation of Scripture was the ONLY correct one. And, as you say, within each congregation there were many discrepancies between congregants. This discovery started me down the path of disbelief, because it was SO illogical and impossible. But, now, we are on the verge of electing the first non-Christian POTUS. So much for our “Christian” nation. Lol. And it’s Evangelicals that are pushing the non-Christian over the non-white candidate. Politics over faith. I’m simultaneously ecstatic and aghast at their hypocrisy. JS

    • machintelligence

      And how many who call themselves Christian really believe that Jesus was The. Son. Of. God. (without adding: in a sort of metaphorical sense). A recent poll of Christians in England suggests it is less than half.

    • Amyc

      Whose the non-Christian? If you’re referring to Romney, I think Mormons consider themselves to be Christians.

      • Ibis3

        They may. They also consider Native Americans to be Isrealites. As external observers, we don’t have to take their word for it.

  • Ibis3

    What I don’t get is why, once a person realises that every denomination or church leader has their own interpretation, they don’t immediately transport that realisation to the first few hundred years of (at least) Christianity when the books of the NT were being written down from oral accounts and selected or dismissed from the canon? The Holy Spirit? But why does “The Holy Spirit” allow such a profusion of doctrines now–from Quakers to Fred Phelps, from Coptic Christianity to snake-handling Pentecostals, but somehow you trust the Council of Nicaea to have got it right then? And then the Council of Ephesus and then Augustine and so on. They *all* thought they had it right, all thought God was giving them the inside goods, but what if any of them were just as wrong as {insert the denomination furthest from your own}? How can you tell the difference?

    I think that’s why Christianity never caught on with me. I never could trust that a book written in such a fashion, cobbled together as it was, interpretations argued over to the point of war, transmitted, edited, translated, rehashed, was divinely inspired every step of the way, encompassing every single person involved. It’s just preposterous. Which is quite a relief because the contents, whether at face value or interpreted, are repulsive.