Biblical inerrancy is one of the most sensitive issues within the Christian culture. Those who adhere to its doctrine cannot fathom a world where the Bible can be from God and not inerrant at the same time. Inerrancy is the cornerstone doctrine for evangelicals. All theology for evangelicals is built upon this premise.
It is my purpose in this article to make a concise, yet definitive stance against the inerrancy of the Bible. This is not just one argument, but several that when taken together demonstrate that not only is the Bible NOT inerrant, but that to hold such a doctrine is not glorifying to God either. Furthermore, I will argue that it is only by taking a progressive perspective that God is ultimately glorified.
I attended a prominent evangelical seminary. One day while attending a lecture on the Minor Prophets the professor (a well-known theologian) made a statement about a particular prophecy. This particular prophecy required that we first believe a specific fact about history. The problem was that the historical premise was clearly untrue. I challenged the logic of this so-called fact and the professor’s statement was: “but if you believe the Bible is inerrant, you have to believe this is a historical fact.”
It was this experience, in particular, that really made me question both biblical inerrancy, as well as the evangelical version of truth.
What Does It Mean for the Bible to be Inerrant?
When someone says that the Bible is inerrant, they mean one of two things depending on who they are speaking to. For the average layperson, they just mean the Bible is “perfect”. However, most inerrantists would agree that the more technical definition of inerrancy is: “without error” as designated by the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy
Unlike what many evangelical scholars argue, inerrancy is not a historical doctrine, but a relatively newer phenomenon. Although some argue that it can be found in Augustine, it does not become a widespread belief until the Middle Ages. In fact, one could argue that it was of such unimportance to the Early Church it is not mentioned in any creed they produced.
What’s more, a parallel can be drawn between the rise in science and the increase in the widespread belief in inerrancy. It only becomes an important issue for the early 20th century fundamentalists who were desperate to disprove the scientific worldview, which they viewed as a threat to their belief system.
The Inspiration Problem
It does make sense that if the Bible is inerrant, then those who assembled Scripture must have also been under some kind of inspiration. By inspiration, we mean that those who assembled the canon were persuaded by God to include certain writings over others. However, this leaves us with a perplexing question. How do we know that inspiration occurred during this time? Nobody during these generations claimed that their list of writings was “inspired” by God. Instead, they used a series of criteria to determine which books they believed should be included in the canon and those which should be eliminated. In the end, it was only a select few whose canon was chosen.
That poses yet another question: Why is inspiration closed at the end of the established canon? How does anyone know that it does not continue even today, or that it even continued beyond the last book of the New Testament? None of these questions have good answers.
Not only is there a problem of inspiration, but there is also a problem of multiple canons. There is more than one version of the Bible. In fact, the version that most evangelicals use is relatively new – it is not the version codified by the Early Church. The codified version is used by Catholic Christians. The Protestant version was not formed until the mid-19th century.
Regardless of this technicality, there exist other canons that contain different books. There is the Roman Catholic version, the Protestant version, the Eastern Orthodox version, the Oriental Orthodox version, and the Ethiopian version. So, which canon is inerrant exactly?
Far from Perfect
Although the Bible is not “full of errors” as some atheists might contend, it is the case that several errors exist, ranging in type and frequency. I don’t say this to disparage Scripture, but instead to argue that the focus of scripture has never been to be infallible, but rather to convey a particular message. The message is written over a thousand years by various people and, oftentimes, contains various perspectives on a single event.
If it is true that the Bible is inerrant, then it must also be the case that there are no errors of fact or contradiction of ideas whatsoever. However, both are numerous throughout the Bible. It is not my intent to name every contradiction contained within scripture, but for the sake of the argument, I provide a few from various categories.
Errors of fact: Matthew says that Judas’ payment and death were prophesied by Jeremiah, and then he quotes Zechariah 11:12-13 instead of Jeremiah.
Using non-inerrant works: Jude 14 quotes Enoch, a book said not to be a part of the canon. So, is Jude in error, or are those who were responsible for compiling scripture in error for not including it? Or is only the portion that Jude quotes a part of the inerrant Word of God?
Contradiction of ideas: For example, when will Jesus return? Despite the fact that not even Jesus knows when He will return (Matthew 24:36), it is claimed in the following passages that He will return in the same generation as the disciples (Mark 13:30, Matthew 10:23, 16:28, 24:34, Luke 21:32). Yet, Jesus claims that the life of the disciples will be hard and that they will be martyrs for Him. (John 17 tells of the hardships the disciples will face and He prays for those believers who will come after the disciples.)
Historical Errors: The genealogies contained in Matthew and Luke completely contradict each other. It is often stated that one is Joseph’s line and the other is Mary’s, but the context does not warrant this interpretation. Regardless, the number of people contained in each genealogy should be the same but are very different in quantity.
What is the Bible?
It is not the purpose of the Bible to be a metaphysical treatise on truth. Making lofty claims about God that are not true takes away from the miraculous times when His acts are true. Many within the Church fail to understand that the truth of the Bible is no different than the truth they experience every day in the “real world”. This is partly the case because there is a fundamental misunderstanding regarding the nature of truth as it relates to God. That is the belief that we as humans have the ability to understand “(T)ruth” from a Being higher than ourselves. This is not possible unless we think we are in some way coequal to this Higher Being.
This is not to say that we cannot know “(t)ruth”. We can observe parts of truth, which means those parts are in and of themselves true, but we are not able to view truth in its entirety – (T)ruth. If we could, we would not need God.
Scripture is God’s revelation to humans – through humans. That means humans were in some way inspired as to what they should communicate, and that inspiration is translated through their own perspective. To believe that another human has the capacity to transmit divine (T)ruth is not only arrogant but an ontological misunderstanding.
The Progressive Perspective:
Even though progressives vary widely in their understanding of Scripture, there is one fact that unites most – truth. Most progressives care more about the truth of Scripture above and beyond the doctrines some traditions assert.
The doctrine of inerrancy takes away from the message of Scripture because it necessitates that some interpretations be false for the sake of preserving the doctrine instead of the message.
The doctrine of Inerrancy significantly alters theology! It is for this reason that this discussion is so important. If we are to construct a theology that is more accurately based upon what the biblical authors intended, then it is necessary to get rid of this doctrine.
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