What is the Bible? Pt 2: Inerrancy

This is Part 2 in a series of posts about the Bible.  The format of this series is an imaginary conversation between 2013 Me (in bold) and present-day Me (in regular type).  In the previous post, we (I? I’s?) explored the problems with thinking about the Bible as the exhaustive answer book.  But what about inerrancy?

2016 Me: Last time, we talked about how your curiosity is inevitably going to bring up questions about the Bible.  How have things been going since that little revelation?

2013 Me: Not well!  Once I stopped assuming that the Bible is true, I started to notice all kinds of problems:  God’s command to commit genocide seems to contradict the command to “love your enemies”, James seems to disagree with Paul about faith vs. works, Mark and John have Jesus cleansing the temple on opposite ends of his ministry, –

2016 Me: -I’m gonna have to stop you there because we don’t have all day.  I get your point.  Sounds like someone is having doubts about inerrancy!

I don’t have any idea what that word means.

“Inerrancy” is a term that many of your favorite pastors and speakers would use to describe the Bible.  It means that the Bible is totally error-free from the smallest detail to the most recurring theme – this includes everything it says about God, morality, science, history, etc.

Side note: The generally accepted statement of the doctrine of Biblical Inerrancy was written in 1978 and can be found at this link.  (It’s worth noting that even that document makes two giant qualifications: (1) The Bible can contain a “lack of modern technical precision” while still counting as “inerrant” (2) Only the original manuscripts of the books in our Bible are inerrant, even though no one claims to have access to those documents.  (We only have older copies.)  For an Evangelical Christian’s problems with inerrancy, check out this post.

First of all, the official version of inerrancy seems way more comfortable with error in our Bibles than I would’ve expected.

Second of all, I think I’m supposed to believe in inerrancy, but it’s not working anymore!  I bet that many of the contradictions I’ve noticed in the Bible can  be resolved, but what if even just one of them remains?  I don’t know how to think about the Bible apart from inerrancy, but I can’t honestly believe that the Bible is inerrant until I explain away all of the potential errors that I notice – and there are many!  How can I make it work again?!

When certain Christians oppose inerrancy, they tend to bring up that exact problem.  If your faith is based on a completely error-free Bible, then you’re always one  error away from a crisis of faith.

(For more on that, scroll down to “The Language of ‘Inerancy’ and its Dangers” on this Evangelical seminary’s website and/or check out Chapter 5 of this awesome book by James D.G. Dunn.)

I guess that makes some sense.  But let’s suppose that I am eventually able to resolve each apparent contradiction once and for all – then could I finally go back to inerrancy?  I miss my old relationship with the Bible?

Maybe you could.  But maybe you shouldn’t go down the road of inerrancy even if the Bible seemed completely free of contradictions.  Although most of your favorite Christian speakers and churches would call the Bible inerrant, does inerrancy really match the practical ways of reading the Bible that you learned in church?  After all, much of your formation in church had to do with Bible stories.  But how could a story be free from error?

I don’t understand the problem.  Saying that a story is error-free just means that it accurately reports historical events.

So what about the parables that Jesus tells in the Gospels?  Are those accurate historical reports?

Well, no; parables are made up.  Parables aren’t the same as history reports.  They’re a different genre.  But excluding the parables, why couldn’t the other Bible stories be inerrant historical accounts?

If the entire Bible is inerrant, then the Parable must be completely true, too – even the parables.  And if parables could be meaningful (and perhaps in some sense “true”) without being historically accurate, then should we really expect that we can do justice to the other Bible stories by thinking of them in terms of inerrancy?

On a more practical level, thinking about stories primarily in terms of “lack of error” makes for awkward reading.  After all, when you were growing up in church, were you taught to treat the other stories in the Bible just like an error-free World History textbook?  Do you read the stories about Jesus in the same way that you read the stories about Napoleon?

I guess not.  Bible stories are supposed to change us, but I’ve never experienced that kind of transformation in history class.  And aren’t we supposed to read the Bible in order to hear from God?  Hearing from God isn’t the same as just learning accurate information.  I guess I can see how inerrancy could cause me to miss the point.

Wait – are you trying to trick me?  Just because there’s more to those stories than true history doesn’t mean that they aren’t also historically accurate.  Inerrancy isn’t necessarily wrong unless those events didn’t really happen. 

Please don’t rule out inerrancy!  I really, really want a foundation for truth, and inerrancy might help me get one!

First of all, remember that Hebrews 4:12 calls the “word of God” “living and active.”  What if the Bible is living and active?  Maybe treating the Bible as a “foundation for truth,” to use your analogy, is like building a house on any other living thing (like a lion, for example): construction can only begin after you’ve killed and flattened out the creature.  Living and active things don’t make for very good foundations.

What does that even mean?

Don’t worry about it.

Second of all, I’m not trying to convince you that the Bible stories didn’t actually happen.  I’m just trying to show you that the official description of the Bible that you grew up with, summed up best in the doctrine inerrancy, can actually get in the way of reading the Bible.  At the end of the day, if you try to treat the Bible as primarily error-free lists of information, then you can easily get bogged down with addressing apparent contradictions, reduce stories to history lessons, and forget to listen for God.

If your doubts have problematized your earlier view of the Bible, why not get an upgrade while you’re here?

That will have to wait for another time.  Right now I need a break.

Fair enough.  Next time, we’ll talk about truth and interpretation.

Click here for What is the Bible? Pt 3: A ‘Ground’ for Truth?

6 thoughts on “What is the Bible? Pt 2: Inerrancy

  1. too bad the author of hebrews wasn’t talking about the bible. logos/memra has nothing to do with texts.

    to believe the bible is inerrant is to merely fiat “originals” had no error and then to admit necessarily that 1) we don’t have originals and 2) that there ARE dadgum errors in the scriptures we DO have, which completely 3) defeats any and all reasons for claiming scripture is error-free!!!

    simply say as a matter of empty imagining that the bible is the great dictation of god and that’s what you believe and that’s the entire basis of what you mean by “authoritative”, or continue to pretend there’s some other basis.


    1. Thanks for the comment, Steven! I love it.

      I would’ve guessed that the “word” in Hebrews 4:12 (interpreted through the lens of historical criticism) would have more to do with the divine word that created the world, inspired the prophets, and maybe even the Stoic-style “principle” governing the universe. Am I close? In any case, I agree that linking the “word” in Hebrews to the text of Christian Scripture in general (as I do at the end of this post) is pretty crazy. But when I was in my first naivete (the “2013 me”), I took for granted that the Bible was the “word of God” (that’s what I was always told in church), so making Hebrews 4:12 “about” texts would’ve seemed perfectly reasonable to me at that time. My purpose in using Hebrews 4:12 in this post is merely to undermine a fundamentalist understanding of Scripture from within that very framework (instead of “from the outside”), playing its simplistic interpretation of texts (like Hebrews 4:12) against its foundationalist approach to scripture.

      I also agree with your points about inerrancy, especially the link you draw between verbal plenary inspiration and inerrancy (even though the ICBI itself says “the mode of divine inspiration remains largely a mystery to us”). Couldn’t agree with you more. Yet rather than attacking inerrancy with a head-on assault (for example, by insisting that it DOES have errors and fighting the endless harmonization attempts of Evangelical apologetics), I try to take a sideways approach, arguing that the Evangelical practice of Bible-reading conflicts with its formal views (including inerrancy). The problem with a head-on assault, in my mind, is that it inevitably produces many casualties, scaring doubting Evangelicals and reinforcing the narrative of “the enemies of inerrancy are out get the true Bible-believing Christians.” Once that happens, the conversation becomes unproductive.

      Liked by 1 person

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