What’s Wrong with Inerrancy?
It is not hard to see why non-evangelicals might object to the idea of an inerrant Bible. But why would someone who has already bothered to affirm that the Bible is true, and God-breathed, struggle with the idea that it does not contain mistakes? Come to think of it, what does it even mean to say that something contains mistakes but is nonetheless true? If Scripture is a reliable record of what God said (which evangelicals believe), and if what God says does not contain statements which, when interpreted correctly, are contrary to fact (which evangelicals believe), then surely nothing in Scripture, when interpreted correctly, is contrary to fact. Right? So what’s the problem with inerrancy?
The most common answer I encounter is that the word “inerrancy” is a post-Enlightenment, positivist capitulation to a scientific age that wants everything tied down into neat boxes: a product of conservative American neuroses, as expressed in the Bible wars of the 1960s and 1970s. Inerrancy, it is said, makes the Bible sound like a textbook, an unstoried mass of data, a repository of doctrine and information that simply needs to be sorted by systematic theologians so we can know what to believe and what to do. People who believe in inerrancy generally miss the wood for the trees, quotemine for Reformed theology at the expense of the storyline of Scripture, and use their “inerrant” Bible to browbeat people into supporting young earth creationism, wars, infant baptism, capital punishment and limited atonement. Why do we need a word like that? We don’t even have the so-called inerrant manuscripts. Surely it’s enough to affirm that the Bible is divinely inspired, without it having to be correct in every last detail, with all the pedantry that causes? Have you ever heard the one about the cockerel crowing six times?
Well, let me say upfront that I don’t personally support young earth creationism, wars, infant baptism, capital punishment or limited atonement (although even if I did, none of those things would necessarily flow from a belief in inerrancy), and that I find the rooster’s sextuple-whammy as unlikely as the next man. I might also add that I don’t believe the word “inerrancy” to be the most helpful word available, as it can (and sometimes does) lead to precisely the textbook mentality its critics abhor, and that I think there are far more important things to affirm about the scriptures than that they were originally right about the age of King Jehoiachin. So I’m not the guy who thinks inerrancy should be the defining feature of our doctrine of Scripture, nor that it should be the litmus test of who is or isn’t “evangelical”. But at the same time, I’d urge people on all sides to appreciate that belief in inerrancy is simply a result of answering a very specific question: when interpreted correctly, does the Bible contain mistakes? Inerrantists say no; errantists say either yes or maybe. We might argue that it is the wrong question to ask, or that there are many questions that are more important - but given that it has been asked, and given that it has implications for how we study and understand God’s word, it would be churlish to chide inerrantists for answering in the negative.
Unless, of course, they are wrong. And that is the way that a second group of evangelicals respond to inerrancy: there would be nothing wrong with affirming that the Bible is without error if it was, in fact, without error - but it isn’t. There are all sorts of errors in the Bible: internal tensions or even contradictions (how old was Jehoiachin? how did Judas die? who was Jesus’ grandfather? talk me through the cockerel again?), discrepancies with external records (when was the Roman census? who on earth is Darius the Mede? how was Antiochus Epiphanes defeated?), and examples of ancient scientific beliefs that have since been debunked (how old is the earth? is it really built on pillars? does the rain live in storehouses? is infertility always the woman’s problem?) For many evangelicals, these problems do not undermine the reliability of the Bible’s witness to Jesus, since they simply reflect the ignorance of the original writers and God’s accommodation of his revelation to that ignorance; but they do mean that we should read the Bible Christologically, and hold on lightly to the (let’s face it, largely irrelevant) scientific and historical minutiae.
There are at least three types of response which need to be made to a position like this. The first is the slippery slope argument: overused, perhaps, but in this case important. It would be convenient if the scriptures could easily be divided up into the central and the peripheral, matters of faith and matters of detail, Jesus and the rest. But Luke, to take the most obvious example, stakes the reliability of his witness to Jesus on his meticulous historical research (1:1-4), and if we happily reject things which he affirms, like the historicity of Adam (3:38), the descent of Jesus from Nathan via Heli (3:23, 31), a census which brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem (2:1-3), Judas’ death by falling headlong (Acts 1:18), Herod’s death for accepting idolatrous worship (Acts 12:20-23), and so on - all of which are connected to the witness to Jesus - it is hard to know where to stop. Was Jesus actually rejected at Nazareth, or was the source who told him this as unreliable as the source who told him the other things? Did he really raise the widow’s son at Nain? Or weep over Jerusalem? Or ask forgiveness for those who crucified him, or pardon the dying brigand, or appear on the road to Emmaus? Did people really speak in other languages at Pentecost? Was Stephen really stoned, or might he have died of something else? And if he didn’t, and if the other early Christian writers were similarly blighted by sloppy historiography or a penchant for invention, then…what?
The second is to review all the alleged errors, and to consider them carefully. The internal tensions and supposed contradictions have been addressed frequently; a helpful, brief-ish paper by Jay Smith and others, addressing 101 “contradictions” cited by the Muslim apologist Shabbir Ally, can be found here. The disagreements with external sources are a far weaker basis for charging the Bible with error, because (a) ancient source material is scant enough to make gaps in the evidence inconclusive, which renders argument of the form “X did not exist” very dubious, (b) the extrabiblical source material we have is far from infallible, which means that where a tension exists between (say) Luke and Josephus, there is no reason to assume that Luke is wrong as opposed to Josephus, and (c) in many matters on which biblical writers were formerly assumed to have made mistakes, they have subsequently been vindicated by further research (politarchs, anyone?). An outstanding review of numerous Old Testament examples by a leading scholar is Kenneth Kitchen’s On the Reliability of the Old Testament; Craig Blomberg’s equivalent for the gospels is also worth a read. The point about ancient scientific beliefs requires a further post, but in advance of that it’s worth flagging up the importance of literary genre in the discussion; the texts that speak of storehouses for rain and pillars for the earth also speak of constellations having children, ostriches laughing and God having all sorts of body parts, none of which (we may safely assume) the ancient Hebrews intended literally. And the Shulammite didn’t have fauns for breasts, either.
The third response, however, is by far the most important, and that is to consider how Jesus viewed the scriptures. He quoted them frequently, so it isn’t actually that difficult to form a picture of whether or not he viewed them as containing mistakes. Quite clearly, he didn’t. Again and again, he based what he said or did on the simple words “it is written”; he affirmed in theological debate that “the scriptures cannot be broken” (John 10:35); he spoke of the everlasting validity of every minute detail of the Torah (in which, we may recall, many of the alleged “errors” appear) in Matthew 5:18; and he conducted his entire ministry on the basis that God had spoken in the scriptures, and that they were therefore to be submitted to regardless of the consequences (just do a search for “scripture” in a concordance). When he taught his disciples to do something other than what the Mosaic law had taught, he was careful to explain this in terms of fulfilment and not abandonment, and gave no indication whatsoever that the original commandments had been mistaken (as I posted in response to Steve Chalke last year). Frankly, if we asked the Jesus of the gospels whether he thought the scriptures contained mistakes or not - whether or not that is the right question! - it is inconceivable to imagine him saying that they did.
So I don’t see the problem with the inerrancy of Scripture. It’s not the main word I use to describe the Bible to people, but if someone asks - as, in our day, they often do - whether God’s word, when interpreted correctly, contains mistakes, I am delighted to respond with a resounding “no”. And a big grin.
Andrew is the author of several books including, most recently, If God, Then What?.