Conversation with a Colleague about Inerrancy (Part 3)

Conversation with a Colleague about Inerrancy (Part 3) June 1, 2018

Here is the final installment in this series of posts allowing you to listen in on a conversation that I had with a colleague about biblical inerrancy (although I expect that our conversation will continue, and so this is the “final installment” of this part of it):



What evidence from the Bible led you to abandon inerrancy?



It was the sheer accumulation of examples of problems, contradictions, and/or human fallibility that changed my mind – not because it isn’t always possible to come up with some explanation of how a given passage doesn’t really mean what it appears to in those cases, but precisely because I was allowing my doctrine about the Bible to dictate what the Bible was or was not allowed to mean. The biblical texts could shout loudly “I’m a fallible book written by human beings” and I would find a way of explaining that in a manner that safeguarded inerrancy. Eventually I realized that, in the very act of doing so, the Bible was not serving as my ultimate authority.

Examples include:

  • Paul saying “I speak as a fool and not according to the Lord” in 2 Corinthians.
  • The divergent dates, geographical movements, and other such things that become apparent when trying to fit the infancy stories in Matthew and Luke together.
  • Acts’ discrepancy on whether those with Paul on the Damascus Road saw but didn’t hear, or heard but didn’t see.
  • The divergent ways that Jesus is depicted as speaking in the Gospel of John vs. the Synoptics.
  • The prediction that the generation contemporary with Jesus would not pass away until they saw the kingdom of God come (or, according to Matthew, until they saw the Son of Man come in his kingdom).

As I said, it wasn’t any one of these, or only these, or the idea that they cannot all be explained away, but my becoming convinced that explaining away biblical evidence that runs counter to my doctrine is inappropriate.


That concludes the conversation thus far. AS I have said, I expect that it will continue. What did you think of it? What else ought to have been mentioned, whether by me or by my colleague? Was it useful that I shared it here with a wider audience? If and when the conversation continues, where would you like to see it go from here?

Of related interest, see the recent article by Molly Marshall in Baptist News on the perils of selective inerrancy, in which she writes:

Selective inerrancy is as damaging as cherry-picking of texts that reinforce liberal presuppositions. Reading the whole of the human-divine text tells the story of God’s engagement with humanity in the various epochs of forging the Judeo-Christian tradition. The Bible relentlessly speaks of societal changes and the hope that the new community forged by Christ will override patriarchal structures.

Hiding behind inerrancy in order to preserve male privilege does irreparable damage to a lucid Christian witness. Lord knows, we need to tell our story better and live it more fully, so that both women and men might flourish.

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  • John MacDonald

    A good source for biblical errancy is the Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, published online for free here:

    • Johannes Richter

      Although that often relies on the same assumptions that makes inerrancy unsustainable in order to claim many ‘contradictions’. In that sense I don’t find them critical enough!

  • Marcia Culligan

    It seems to me that inerrancy (speaking right now only in terms of English translations) must contend with the notion of the translated Biblical corpus as equivalent to a photocopy of a photocopy of a photocopy. Since any translation must involve choices for each and every word, not to mention contexts for those words and the sentences of which they are a part, people who support inerrancy must advocate not only for divinely inspired original-language writers of God’s words, but also for divinely inspired translators of those words. Even with just a single translated edition of the Bible, there are many hands involved in translating, editing, etc. There is a need for too many divinely inspired people here, all knowing precisely the same word and Word of God. This just seems untenable to me.

    • John MacDonald

      Like when the Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Scriptures translated almah (young woman) into Greek as παρθένος (parthenos), which generally means “virgin”.

    • Phil Ledgerwood

      That’s a big difficulty. The Mormons actually tackle this problem head on; their English version of the Bible was divinely dictated, so the story goes. I don’t believe that, personally, but I appreciate that they recognize the problem.

      What’s more is that we clearly have different textual traditions in the original languages as well. They can’t all be correct. This has led to the profession that the Bible is inspired “in its original manuscripts,” which is fine as a statement of faith, but nobody has those original manuscripts, so one wonders how valuable such a statement is.

  • Phil Ledgerwood

    You teased out something I was noticing in my own experience as well. It’s not that you -can’t- come up with some (highly unlikely) convolution to explain away most of the difficulties; it’s just that, at some point, you have to stop yourself and ask why you’re having to do that.

    If you haven’t read it already, I think you would absolutely love Rehabilitating Inerrancy in a Culture of Fear by Carlos Bovell. Pete Enns recommended it to me, and he wrote the Foreword. Bovell wrote the book for his grad students who were beginning to realize some of these issues.

    • The Mouse Avenger

      It’s not that you -can’t- come up with some (highly unlikely) convolution to explain away most of the difficulties; it’s just that, at some point, you have to stop yourself and ask why you’re having to do that.

      Well, if you can come up with an explanation that seems at least a little bit plausible or understandable, what’s the harm in doing so? I mean, IMO at least, you’d have a far better time explaining a difficulty in the Bible in a convincing manner, compared to a difficulty in the Book Of Mormon.

      • Phil Ledgerwood

        I think that’s the trick, noticing the difference between “likely” and “gymnastics.”

        There are plenty of times people point out “contradictions” in the Bible that are generally easily explained by things like genre or the conventions of ancient historiography.

        But there are other times when someone is just really, really reaching because they -have- to make the difficulty go away. Usually those kinds of explanations crop up trying to make prophecy literally work out in all the details or explain numerical differences between accounts.

        Back of all that is an assumption – that if the Bible is in some sense from God, then the writings can’t differ or be wrong about things. But I don’t know why that has to be the case. It’s just that – an assumption.

    • Thanks for the recommendation!

  • I had a crisis of faith when I entered seminary the first time, in the late 1980’s (ironically at a Baptist seminary!). There I encountered Rudolph Bultmann and Albert Schweitzer and biblical criticism, all which profoundly challenged my assumptions of scripture. I was also introduced to the concept of “theology from above” (the neo-orthodoxy of Karl Barth) and “theology from below” (as Barth criticized Schleiermacher as being). In general, the problem of “theology from above,” conceived as being from revelation, is that we still stand “below” as we theologize – we cannot get “above” our own vantage point as human beings. Even when evaluating scripture, we can’t look behind the curtain, so to speak – we can only see it from where we are, now. IMHO, therefore, ALL theology is “from below,” where we are, as human beings. This includes those who take the Bible literally – their vantage point is the same as mine; they cannot peek into the heavens to see God writing scriptures for us, whether that scripture be the Bible, the Quran, the Tanak, or the Sutras…every believer believes their scripture is divinely inspired.

    With this, we also must remember that the Bible was written by the church, for the church. It was written for the church’s purposes: evangelism and establishment of the faith. It was written to create orthodoxy by those who were creating a new faith, and to maintain that orthodoxy in the face of both opposition and heterodoxy. When we look at the Bible from the point of view of these objectives, it changes how we approach it. This does not demean or diminish scripture, but it does indeed relativize it as we understand it in the needs of its day.

    The challenge for those of us who take the Bible non-literally is to find meaning in those stories which we may decide not to take literally, like some of Jesus’ miracle stories, or even bodily resurrection (Paul the apostle does not insist on bodily resurrection – see 1 Cor 15:44). We as humans seek meaning in a chaotic world, and we use stories to create and find meaning. So it is with the Bible – the meaning of our lives comes from the story of “the crucified God” (Luther’s term) who comes to redeem us from our sin, and is raised to life and glory. Not taking the Bible literally does not necessitate discounting it altogether – it means practicing discernment to find how God calls us to live in love with God and one another.