Biblical Inerrancy Makes No Difference

Biblical Inerrancy Makes No Difference August 18, 2015

Last Sunday, my Sunday school class began talking about what it means to have a canon that came to us through natural human processes.

I suggested that, in one sense, it makes no difference. Those who subscribe to Biblical inerrancy do not agree on what these supposedly inerrant texts actually mean. And so one is left to puzzle out and deduce and decide. Indeed, if Biblical inerrantists are correct to claim that God gave an inerrant Bible to ensure that humans who believe the right things about the Bible will also believe the right things about other matters, then God has failed miserably – that is the natural implication of Biblical inerrantism. For one can survey the denominations and sects that claim the Bible is inerrant, and which agree even on what translation to read, and yet disagree radically with one another in belief and practice. Indeed, they will engage in reciprocal condemnation of one another as heretics and not really Christians, despite their agreement on Biblical inerrancy. Doesn’t that tell us something important – that Biblical inerrancy has no real impact on making the Bible clearer or making those who read it correct, but rather the only effect of Biblical inerrancy is to make its adherents more dogmatic?

But in another sense, it makes a huge difference if we take seriously the humanness of the Bible and the processes that produced it, because we can begin to actually apply to the texts all the things we do when we think texts are human products rather than mysterious oracles. The Bible is not a Christian I Ching. It is a collection of letters, laws, poems, historical fiction novels, and much else. Recognizing the Bible itself to be as human on the composition, copying, and compilation end of things, as on our end as interpreters, opens up so many new, important, insightful, and frankly exciting avenues of approach to these writings.

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  • Jonathan Bernier

    Very good post, James. Let us look at the evidence. Inerrantists groups are the most heavily fragmented, very often consisting of little more than single congregations. And what’s the world’s largest inerrantist group? It’s probably the Southern Baptist Convention, at all of 16 million people. Compare this to the 80 or so million Anglicans, the 250 or so million Orthodox, the 1.6 or so *billion* Catholics, none of whom are inerrantist. Inerrantists are little more than a fringe heresy that makes up a statistically negligible portion of world Christianity. The great tragedy is that the average inerrantist is so ignorant of Christianity that she or he thinks that the heresy is actually orthodoxy.

    • Don Lowery

      The only flaw in the numbers of these fringe groups is the more educated their members get and the more rabid toward said members…these people become former members. For instance…when I left the Southern Baptist cult over 20 years ago…eventually drifted toward the American Baptists…but have ended up as a Mennonite and Church of the Brethren member. Whether or not Anabaptism works for others…I can’t say…but for me…it’s what I’ve been searching for for 40 years. One thing I do enjoy is I never hear about inerrancy or other fundamentalist BS in any service from any Anabaptist congregation. It’s such a welcome change.

  • David Evans

    “The Bible is not a Christian I Ching.”

    Though people have used it as such, by opening it at random and pointing to a random verse. Which must have led to some bad decisions.

  • Phil Ledgerwood

    It is strange that you find people so rigorously committed to an idea that actually comes from outside the Bible. You have to assume its inerrancy to establish its inerrancy. Also, this seems to be a primarily American phenomenon, and I’m not sure why.

    In my own theological tradition, we’ve hedged our bets. Only the original manuscripts, which we don’t have, are inerrant. So, we’ve sort of formalized the doctrine’s uselessness.

    But the hermeneutical effects are very real, because it seems like the primary definition of inerrancy is “literal, correspondent truth.” I can’t say “It’s raining cats and dogs outside” and be inerrant because it isn’t actually raining cats and dogs outside. This is a HUGE barrier to understanding the Bible. One basically predefines not only what it says, but how it has to say it.

    • Alan Christensen

      I can find nowhere in the Bible that it claims something called “the Bible” IS “the word of God.” It certainly can take on the characteristics of God’s word. I’m thinking in particular of Heb. 4:12–“the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.” I’ve experienced it that way at times. Good point about the “original manuscripts” as well.

  • DonaldByronJohnson

    I see inerrancy claims as an over-reaction to the liberal claims.

    • ccws

      Yeah, pretty much.

  • Antônio Sette

    This article, though expounding some good ideas, starts from a false premise and, thus, cannot help but arrive at fallacious conclusions. The Bible is really, actually, factually inerrant, even if believers can’t agree on the meaning of many things. This does not detract from its inerrancy but only shows believers themselves are imperfect and their “interpretations” are, ipso facto, fallible. Nevertheless, I do agree inerrantists are often very foolish, which, again, does not affect the Bible’s perfection in the least. It only shows WE HUMANS are fallible and arrogant.

    • The article’s premise is based on the evidence which the Bible itself provides. Merely stating that it is “really, actually, factually inerrant” does not render the Bible really, actually, or factually anything of the sort, when it shows itself not to fit that category.

    • Don Lowery

      Having taken a class on the Hebrew Bible from one of the top teaching rabbis in the US…if many Hebrews and rabbi’s don’t believe their own Bible is inerrant in the same way as the religious fundamentalists…something is wrong with fundamentalists and their theories…rather than believing everyone else is wrong.

    • Alan Christensen

      Would that factual inerrancy include . . . the age of the earth?

  • Larry

    Finally I agree with you…….on the title. The only thing that makes a difference is what we are responsible to God for knowing and believing. We are responsible to God individually, not by groups, denominations, or movements. You will not be able to point at some translators, or preachers, (or blog hosts) when you stand on judgement day.
    If God is real He would want to communicate with us. If He has communicated with us, the closest thing we have to know what He has said, is the bible. If the bible is wrong, then we are not responsible for the errors. However, bible fallibility cannot be used as a license to fill in the blanks. Jesus definitely held the pharisees, and Jewish high council responsible for not getting the scriptures right. You don’t need a bible to believe in Jesus, but once you read it you are responsible for what it says. Like in John 15:22 & 24.

    • Cecil Bagpuss

      Larry, I agree that God would want to communicate with us, but I think that the communication is indirect. The biblical tradition represents a series of attempts to peer through the veil that separates us from God. We have to accept that the veil can never be removed and that our vision will always be obscured. Certainty in these matters is not possible.

      • Larry

        I agree. (1 Cor 13:12). We must be sure of the “gospel” with certainty. We also can not stray very far from the written word. For example, 7 literal days is OK with me, why? Because that is what I have to go on. I can think about it, try to scientifically dis/prove it, or just accept it. It makes no difference to me, because I know all questions will be answered. I am not going to get hung up on that during my +/- 70 years. However we must be careful not to trivialize God’s word. Direct or indirect, it is all we have. When you start picking and choosing, what to believe or not, the fallen man will choose the wrong way. My opinion we must try to decipher through prayer and with the help of the Holy Spirit. I have convictions that are not even in the bible. I trust the Holy Spirit to guide me, but I can only instruct others by what is in the bible. I guess you could say the bible is the standard we will be judged by.

        • This is completely mixed up. You ought to have said that the Earth is billions of years old because that is what we have to go on. You can accept what the evidence consistently points to, or you can dismiss it based on the writings of ancient people who did not have the tools we do today with which to analyse the natural world. If you choose to elevate the writings of humans over the testimony of the work of God’s own hands, that is serious, disturbing, and not without consequences.

          • Larry

            You say I am mixed up? Did you read this before you hit send? You spoke from both sides of your mouth.
            Who did the “evidence” come from? Is it absolute? Maybe if we find more “evidence” we can dismiss the bible altogether, right?
            I said it makes no difference to me. My salvation does not depend on it. The ancient writings of men breathed by the Holy Spirit is all we have. The scriptures line up with what the natural world shows us (see Hugh Ross). Every person who reads the bible does not have a PHD. They must accept the book at face value. Are you trying to say that only modern man through scientific discovery can be saved? Do you also count Jesus (who consistently referred to the scriptures) as one of the “ancient people” who didn’t “know” anything.

          • Yes, I did read it after I composed it. Did you read it, and if so, do you plan to respond to my point, instead of rambling on offering ridiculous misconstruals about things my comment obviously didn’t say or mean?

        • Cecil Bagpuss

          I agree that we shouldn’t trivialise God’s word, but we should also be wary of trivialising the capacity that God has given us to discern the workings of the Universe. When we look billions of light years out into space and hence billions of years back in time we should be filled with awe at the grandeur of Creation. To reject such insights in favour of the myopia of Young Earth Creationism smacks of ingratitude.

          • Larry

            We can look billions of light years into space, and it is a wondrous sight. But can we really comprehend a billion years, a million years, or even two thousand years? To elevate one billionth of a grains worth the knowledge of man to a level of esteem smacks of arrogance. Then, to set aside His word, and replace it with our drivel, is disastrous. What do we really gain in elevating our pitiful knowledge above what God has given us? In 1 Cor 2, God urges us not to rely on the wisdom of men rather to search out the things of the Spirit, that we may know the things given to us freely from God. Do you know how trivial the workings of the earth knowledge will be to us in the hereafter? In my case, I will set my mind on the things of God, and of the Spirit, with the full promise that God will soon fill in the blanks for me. This earth may be billions of years old, or not, evolution may be true, or not, but one thing is for sure, our life is but a breath in comparison to all eternity.

          • You still seem confused. You seem to emphasize – as the Bible also does – the limits of human understanding. But then you try to set aside the testimony of God’s own handiwork in creation, the testimony of the stars and the rocks and so much else, and to substitute human writings from the past which are the work of human hands. If you actually esteemed the Biblical writings, perhaps you ought to not merely pay lip service to their teaching about matters such as the limitations of human beings (including the Biblical authors themselves) and the faithfulness with which God’s creation provides testimony.

          • Larry

            Not confused, rather, forward looking. This earth will pass away and be replaced by a new heaven and a new earth. I will enjoy exploring the new earth, with my newly acquired knowledge.
            I do not set aside God’s handiwork, I enjoy it every day. You ought not place the “creation above the creator” since in so doing, you make the “handiwork of men” seem very accurate.

          • Are you suggesting that the Creator might have created in such a way that the combined testimony of what God created could deceive us?

            Your last statement is unclear, but I am in favor of studying the handiwork of human beings carefully too, and the Bible is obviously included in that category.

          • Larry

            You assume God made His creation as a testimony.
            As for my last statement Rom 1:25

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            Larry, the view that you have just expressed is quite close to the heretical beliefs of the gnostics. Remember that they denigrated the physical world and looked forward to the time when they could escape it. True Christians, on the other hand, saw the physical world as a reflection of God’s majesty. I regard scientific exploration of the world as an important way of celebrating Creation. It should enhance rather than challenge our view of God. There is no question of making God subservient to a scientific understanding of the world.

            Of course, it is fine if you have no interest in science. You may simply wish to avoid the subject.

          • Larry

            Close, but the gnostics had far more heretical beliefs that I do not even come close to. I do not go so far as to denigrate our physical world. I believe God requires us to preserve nature even study it, and enjoy it. I like science. God created so science could be performed. I do see the universe as a reflection God’s majesty. I just draw the line when scientific theories presented as fact, undermine God’s majesty. I guess you could say when scientific theory forces us to make a choice between God’s word (I believe the bible is God’s inspired word) and man’s theory, I will choose God’s word. Especially when it does not make a hill of beans difference, like the age of the earth, or the fossil record. I believe if scientist started with God’s word and worked from it as an absolute, it would cut down on the many useless, time consuming tangents. I also believe the ultimate goal of many scientists, is to disprove God, and remove responsibility for sin, (there I said it).

          • Cecil Bagpuss

            I don’t believe that science can undermine our belief in or appreciation of God. When I contemplate the fact that the Universe is 13.8 billion years old and that our solar system gradually condensed out of a cloud of gas and dust, I find that my sense of reverence is enhanced rather than diminished. Moreover, if science tells us that this is how things came to be, then it is telling us that God decided to do things in this way.

            If you find that this view conflicts with your own understanding of God’s word, I shall leave that as a matter for your conscience, while suggesting that you might have misunderstood things.

            I would say that a small minority of scientists try to use (misuse) science to undermine belief in God. They should not be taken to represent science as a whole.

          • He is starting with an idolatrous view of the Bible, and then rejecting the evidence of what – if he believed the Bible – he should view as the work of God’s hands and thus a more secure source than the work of fallible human hands.

            The discussion here inspired a blog post:

  • Wheezy1952

    I’m impressed that you would discuss this in your Sunday School class.
    It tool me a long time to recover from my “inerrant” years of Sunday School and religious elementary school.

  • Antônio Sette

    The Bible itself affirms its inerrancy; it says it’s “God-breathed”, perfect (Psalms 12:6, 119:160) and unchangeable (Matthew 5:18).

    • Wheezy1952

      The Bible is inerrant because the Bible says it is inerrant?

    • John Tyrrell

      Neither of those verses affirm the Bible is inerrant. Neither of them. The Bible did not exist when those verses were written. The Bible was compiled centuries after those verses were written.

      • Both comments make the crucial points I would have. On the one hand, the Bible being a compilation, no work within it affirms anything whatsoever about the whole. But even if it did, that would not be anything other than circular reasoning.

    • Alan Christensen

      To say the Bible is “inerrant” because it is inspired by God or “God-breathed” begs the question: What does II Tim. 3:16 (I’m surprised you didn’t cite that verse since you quoted it) mean by “inspired”? Is it somehow entirely dictated by God or is it inspired in the sense we might say a movie is “inspired by a true story”?

      • Antônio Sette

        unsubscribe ——————————-

        2015-08-18 20:42 GMT-03:00 Disqus :

    • Chaprich

      If Paul was referriing to any written word, then it is to the Old Testament, not what became the New Testament. It is highly doubtful that Paul viewed his own writings as having the same authority as the Torah

    • Occupy Christianity

      What “bible”, exactly, was the Psalmist referring to? Or even Matthew? The Hebrew bible (at least that portion written before the Psalms)? The Torah? What? The Psalmist certainly didn’t say anything about the 66 books that later Church councils decided formed the canon. What makes you so sure that the Psalmist was referring to your modern bible?

  • Eric Schramm

    “When will we all agree on which version of the bible is best?”
    “When will we understand exactly what the scripture means in every way?”
    “When will all Christians stop arguing about these things and follow Jesus as a whole?”
    Answer: Either at the millennial kingdom or when New Jerusalem arrives.
    That means we won’t know it for centuries. It, therefore, is not important for us to have our theology right. It is important for us to have our relationship with God right. We have to be as close to God as we possibly can be.

  • Matthew Green

    James, I strongly agree. Not only do I find the inerrancy doctrine to be factually false but also I see it as doing a great disservice to Christians who want a healthy guide to faith. I remember reading articles when I was much younger, by Christian apologists, arguing that the Bible has such amazing unity from cover to cover that only inspiration could account for this. If it was this evident, then why do some Christian authors write books trying to defend the Bible? Gallons of ink have been wasted on publications like the late Gleason Archer’s book *The New International Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties*. And when discrepancies are pointed out to believers, they remark that the actual autographs are inerrant, not our imperfect copies. But then, how do these same believers then argue that the Bible has perfect harmony from cover to cover? That couldn’t know unless we had all of the autographs of all 66 books and they had the expert training to evaluate all of them, in their original languages.