Digging into the doctrine of inerrancy has been an eye-opener over the past couple of months. I’ll recap two thoughts from recent articles as a foundation for this article’s main thrust:
- We cannot read the Gospels honestly without accepting that Jesus broke, reinterpreted, and overrode the Law as part of his teaching and ministry. I have to conclude then that though Jesus loved the scriptures, meditated on them, memorised them, and quoted them, he did not see Old Testament writings as inerrant in the way that many modern Christians do. For more on this, here’s a link to my previous article.
- The notion of Biblical inerrancy was not preached or even perceived in Biblical times, nor for the majority of church history. It will surprise many to learn that the (false) doctrine of inerrancy is a modern invention, concocted in the 19th century in response to Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859), in order to defend a literal reading of Genesis and oppose the important scientific discoveries of that time. The doctrine of inerrancy was a fearful reaction to uncomfortable questions, giving people permission to switch off their brains as a purported act of service to God. This was further compounded in 1978, when hundreds of conservative evangelical leaders crafted the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, in order to counter what they perceived as liberal or non-literal interpretations of the Bible that were emerging. We do not have to believe or think this way – Jesus didn’t (and therefore doesn’t)!
I believe inerrancy is a false and carnal doctrine, imposed on the church to keep us from thinking too deeply about difficult questions. It stems from fear, lest we come up with even more challenging answers, but the Bible was never meant to be a legal, literal text. We can’t rely on it for precision or full instruction – it is not an unquestionable manual for life, but instead reflects the perspective and limitations of each writer. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Bible. It is beautiful, inspiring, and full of seed power for personal growth. It overflows with wisdom and draws us to love, but only when interpreted to us by the Holy Spirit. We have tried to make the Bible God – unquestionable, perfect, permanent, rather than use as a resource to draw near to God himself. We’ve made it a prison and thrown away the key, preferring to exalt the word of God over the living Word of God.
The irony for me is that Evangelicals don’t really believe in inerrancy. Instead we rely on a convoluted tangle of excuses (dressed up as theology) for why we don’t apply this passage or that, while desperately trying to preserve the notion of inerrancy. I’m going to present a selection of passages that are universally ignored/reframed in terms of their literal meaning:
- Matthew 5:29-30 – If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell.
So why aren’t we mutilating ourselves? The general consensus is that Jesus wasn’t being literal, but he certainly didn’t make that clear, laying traps for the lazy thinker. I’m glad we don’t take this as instruction, but it interests me that we have given ourselves permission to read the words of Jesus from a distance, reinterpreting them according to sound, modern principles. My own belief is that Jesus’ intent was to reveal the impossibility of righteousness by law, but however we interpret this passage, we are not treating it as beyond question or a manual for life. That’s an awful lot of interpretation, resulting in a completely different message from the one being spoken. I’m not saying that’s wrong – merely pointing out that we do this all the time, including with the words of Christ!
- Matthew 5:33-37 – ‘Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “Do not break your oath, but fulfil to the Lord the oaths you have made.” But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply “Yes,” or “No”; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.
Why do we make legally binding wedding vows? What of swearing on the Bible in court? No doubt the answer is that these things are part of modern Western culture, but let’s be honest – we have decided it’s okay to filter our reading of the Bible through this additional lens.
- Luke 14:25-26 – Large crowds were travelling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: ‘If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters – yes, even their own life – such a person cannot be my disciple.
Are we really meant to hate our parents? Our spouses and children? The explanation I have been offered it that this is a metaphor, implying that the love we have for Christ ought to supersede all other loves. Again, I’m happy with this reading of the text, but let’s be candid about the extreme level of reframing we’re clearly comfortable with.
- Matthew 5:42 – Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.
Do you always lend to the one who asks? If not, why not? What permissions have you given yourself to overlook this clear Biblical injunction? What do those permissions imply for how you interpret the Bible in general?
- Matthew 6:19-21 – Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.
Arguably, anyone with a savings account is rebelling against this scripture.
- Proverbs 13:24 – He who spares his rod hates his son, but he who loves him disciplines him promptly.
If the Bible is to be read literally, and has no error, then we should use an actual rod. Thankfully, this is taken by most as a metaphor for discipline, but on the question of inerrancy, who gave us permission to do that? The word translated ‘rod’ means a literal stick. Once again, we wisely allow the advances of model social science to inform us against a literal application of this verse.
- 1 Corinthians 11:13-16 – Judge for yourselves: is it proper for a woman to pray to God with her head uncovered? Does not the very nature of things teach you that if a man has long hair, it is a disgrace to him, but that if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For long hair is given to her as a covering. If anyone wants to be contentious about this, we have no other practice – nor do the churches of God.
Most churches have elected to quietly put this teaching aside. We have trusted our guts, accepting that ‘the very nature of things’ is a subjective matter.
- I Cor 14: 33-35 – As in all the congregations of the Lord’s people. Women should remain silent in the churches, They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says.
I’m happy to say that I’ve never been to a church where women are required to be silent. We have overridden Paul, offering some pretty thin apologetics for doing so rather than admitting the truth – this no longer makes sense in the modern day, so we’ve put it on the shelf.
- Ephesians 6:5 – Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.
The general interpretation of this verse is as an encouragement to thrive in whatever job we’re in by ‘working unto the Lord’. Though there is some value in this idea, it still requires us to ignore the actual intended meaning of the verse. Surely we would not offer this passage as instruction to a victim of modern day slavery.
- James 5:14 – Is anyone among you ill? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up.
Most Evangelicals I know don’t believe this but offer no argument for their position. Whatever the motivation, believers have given themselves permission to entirely overlook the unambiguous promise of this verse in favour of their lived experience. In this case I prefer a literal reading, but am including it as an example of the Evangelical movement’s contradictory thinking when it comes to inerrancy.
Why have we done this to ourselves? We’ve dived headlong into a swamp of cognitive dissonance, claiming the Bible is an instruction manual for life when it was never intended to be so. The Lord chose to use the writings of flawed human beings from diverse cultures living in different eras of human history to map out the Gospel message. He gave us Jesus as the clear and full manifestation of his nature and the Holy Spirit to lead us into truth, but apparently that’s not enough for us. In crafting the false doctrine of inerrancy, we have chosen the letter over the Spirit and forged our own idol, enthroning and exalting it over the Lord.