Sunday Meditations: Inerrancy

Occasionally, people read this blog who are not from the United States of America and, as such, you may be unaware that a person’s position on what we call “biblical inerrancy” is a huge deal in the States and often used as a boundary marker between “true Christian” and “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

It is worthy of note that different people can mean different things by “inerrancy,” so for the purposes of this article, I’m going to define inerrancy as the view that the canon of Protestant Scriptures contains no statements which could be considered false from the standpoint of 21st century interpretation.

Or, to sum it up a little differently, whatever we as modern readers think the language of the Bible claims, those claims cannot be false.

So, for example, in Genesis 1, it describes the world being created in six days.  We know that a day is 24 hours, so it must be the case that the Earth went from non-existence to plants, animals, and human beings in less than a week.  This is what it means, for the purpose of this article, to affirm inerrancy.

To state that that the author of Genesis 1 does not mean this and/or to state that the Earth was actually formed over a period of time much longer than a week would be a violation of inerrancy.  In other words, to an inerrantist, you are essentially saying the Bible is wrong, and it cannot be wrong.  Even if rabbis don’t understand Genesis in this way, they are also wrong, according to this view.

This principle applies to the totality of statements to be found in Scripture.  Each one must be true in every way we as modern readers could regard a statement to be true.  Whatever evidence or argumentation can be produced to show that this is not the case needs to be reinterpreted in such a way as to maintain the inerrancy of the Bible, which is the primary axiom on which we should evaluate anything.

So, as we discover things like the life-cycle of new stars and planets, the dating of various strata, the distribution of minerals, etc. – all these things must be understood in some kind of framework that still allows for the Earth to have been fully formed in less than a week.  Because, if it turns out that the Earth wasn’t formed in less than a week, that would imply the Bible was claiming something that is factually untrue.

Some of you may be thinking, “Wouldn’t that just challenge our understanding of the passage?  What if we’re just reading it wrongly?”  Please stop asking questions, you godless heathens, because as it turns out, “my 21st century Western white guy reading of a passage” and “what the Bible says” are functionally the exact same thing.

As you can probably tell from that last bit, I don’t have a lot of respect for this view.  I do respect the intent of the view.  People hold to this view for various reasons, but at least one of them is usually the desire to honor God as trustworthy and truthful.  That is a noble thing to do, and something I would also affirm.  However, I think at least the firmer versions of inerrancy actually fail to do this and sort of force God into being deceptive.

Before I get too far into this, I should note that there are statements of faith on this issue that only affirm inerrancy for the original, biblical manuscripts.  I am bemused by this position.  Nobody has seen the original manuscript of a biblical writing in two thousand-ish years or more, which basically makes the value of this statement nonexistent, at least from any kind of practical perspective.  As a profession of faith, ok, thanks for that, but why?  All we have to work with – and all we have had to work with for a very long time – have been copies of copies of copies that display a great range of diversity.  I guess I would say that I don’t really have much of a beef with this particular view of inerrancy so much as I consider it pointless.  And, functionally, the people who hold to this view tend to behave in the same way as people who hold to stricter forms of inerrancy – as if the manuscripts we have / have been chosen for their preferred translation / the English translations therein are also inerrant.

Here are some of the issues I have with inerrancy, at least the way it typically comes across.

The Bible Does Not Claim This About Itself

This is one of the bitter ironies about inerrancy – it depends on coming to the Bible with this assumption already in your head.

One of the things we as modern readers of the Bible need to be reminded of is that no text in the Bible ever refers to the Bible because the Bible did not exist when that text was written, nor was the text written for the purpose of adding it to the Bible.  Terms like “word of the Lord” or “word of God” or “the Law and the Prophets” or “Scriptures” need to be understood within the historical context of the passage in which they appear, and these references vary.  Sometimes, “the Law” refers to the book of Deuteronomy.  Sometimes, the “word of God” refers to the man Jesus Christ.  Sometimes, the “word of God” refers to the news about the man Jesus Christ.  So, when you read a verse that uses terms like this, you have to figure out what the boundaries are, and that boundary is never “the Protestant canon as we know it, today.”

The next thing we need to keep in mind is how to interpret whatever statement is made about the Scriptures or the word of God or whatever passage we happen to be reading.  For instance, Psalm 19:10 says, “The Law of the Lord is perfect.” (Sorry narrative, prophecy, wisdom literature, and… oh yes… psalms).  But what does this mean?  We might assume it means “complies with 21st century standards of verification,” but this is unlikely.

It turns out that even words like “perfect” are contextually defined.  If I’m trying to get a crate open, and you hand me a crowbar, I might say, “Oh, thanks.  This crowbar is perfect.”  What I mean is that it’s perfect for the use I have in mind.  The crowbar is not a perfect meal or a perfect orator.  My statement also does not imply that the crowbar has no flaws or weaknesses.  It means that the crowbar is perfect for the intended use in that situation.

I’m not declaring that’s what Psalm 19:10 necessarily means (although that’s probably what it means), but I’m just illustrating that even very strong terms used for Scriptures do not automatically equate to an inerrantist view.

Perhaps the most famous example is 2 Timothy 3:16-17, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”

There is some debate over whether or not that opening phrase is best rendered “all scripture that is inspired by God is useful….”  It certainly can be translated that way, but I think the traditional translation is probably correct for a number of reasons linguistic and otherwise.  Of course, we have to keep in mind that when Paul says, “All scripture,” the very most he can mean is, “everything in the Protestant canon that was written up until 2 Timothy.”  And he probably doesn’t mean that.

But the thing is, what does “inspired by God” actually mean?  The word theopneustos is an invention seemingly just for this passage.  We have nothing to compare it to.  Does it mean, “Factually true according to all standards of verification throughout time?”  It might mean that, I guess.  But you know what else was breathed out by God?  Adam’s life.  You know what else had the Holy Spirit in it?  David.  You.  Me.  Has that been a guarantee of perfection?

You might counter with, “Well, the Holy Spirit is perfect.  But when it works through me, my own sins and limitations will sometimes produce imperfect results.”  Well, I hesitate to bring this up, but the “Holy Spirit working through Person X” way of operating is pretty much how we got the Bible.

And isn’t it interesting how Paul says the Scriptures are “useful” and then defines the purposes under which they are useful that end up with equipping people for good works.  Does this mean the Bible is also “useful” for geology or aging fossils or constructing a seamless genealogy from me to Adam?  And if you want a reference for that word “useful,” it’s ophelimos which makes another appearance in 1 Timothy 4:8 where Paul says that exercise is a little useful, but godliness is useful for everything (ironically, godliness appears to be useful in more in more areas than the Scriptures are, according to 2 Tim. 3:17).  It’s kind of a loose word to use for something that is supposed to be the inerrant guide to all truth about everything.  Can you imagine an ordination exam where the candidate says, “I think the Bible is pretty useful for instruction in righteousness.  Definitely worth studying for pastors?”

And then of course, there is the logical problem.  Let’s say that 2 Timothy 3:16 definitely means that every statement in the Bible, including itself, is factually true in every way a statement can be evaluated.  Isn’t this question begging?  What if that verse is in error?  If it is, then it is wrong about itself.  It’s basically like someone claiming that they never lie.  Well, that’s great, unless they’re lying.

This is what I mean: inerrancy depends on you bringing inerrancy to the Bible, not discovering it from the Bible.  You have to begin with the assumption.

Inerrancy Can Cause Us To Miss What the Bible Says

Inerrancy is a form of eisigesis – we are basically bringing expectations to the Bible and reading it in such a way as to make our expectations work out.  In this case, the expectation is that whatever statements the Bible makes, they have to be factually accurate according to our modern reading of a text.  Our reading is assumed to be axiomatically correct, and the texts must conform to this.

Did you know there are Christians, today, who quite seriously maintain that the Earth is the immovable center of the universe?  They are called geocentrists, and they are a real thing.  Because if it turns out that the Earth moves around the Sun, then the Scriptures would be in error.

Most Christians would probably mock this, but I don’t understand why when inerrantists basically agree on all the same assumptions but aren’t gutsy enough or find themselves incapable of standing against such a huge tide of evidence.  We forget that there was a time in Church history when everyone just knew this was how cosmology worked because that’s what the Bible said.  Because the Bible is useful for training us in astronomy, right?

Honestly, even though I think the geocentrists are a flock of fruit bats, they are far more consistent (and gutsy) than their non-geocentrist inerrancy counterparts.  Inerrantists who are not geocentrists have capitulated in a sense.  They’ve said, “In light of overwhelming evidence, obviously we were reading the Bible wrongly and making figurative statements based on early cosmology literal scientific statements, and this was a mistake.  But we are totally not doing this for anything else.  It’s a fluke.”

Let’s take a test case that has come up with me in recent discussion – Isaiah 34.

In this chapter, Isaiah describes the destruction of Edom.  It begins with God destroying the sky and all the stars, and then turning that destructive power toward Edom.  When this happens, Edom’s soil will turn to sulfur and her streams will turn to pitch, and the whole land will turn into burning pitch that will burn forever.  At the same time, owls and hyenas and buzzards will live there.

Edom had a prosperous national empire for several hundred years, then things started to go downhill and they were ultimately destroyed by Babylon in the 6th century BC.  What remained of the people were forced out of their territory, and they became sort of a satellite of Judea until, through assimilation, they more or less vanished altogether.

One could (and I would) argue that Isaiah 34 is describing this.  Yes, hyperbolic and cosmological language is being used, but this is typical of apocalyptic/prophetic judgement literature both inside and outside of biblical writings.  Edom is destroyed, their power is broken, their nation is razed, they never get it back, and they gradually disappear altogether from the world stage.

This, however, is unacceptable to the inerrantist.

Because stars were not actually destroyed and lands were not actually turned to burning pitch that never goes out, this prophecy (along with several Old Testament passages) is unfulfilled.  Since these things did not happen, the prophecy must be referring to a future event, where Edom will come into existence, again, and God will wipe it out in a format more literally appropriate to the imagery of Isaiah 34.  Oh, and somehow owls and other animals will have figured out a way to live in the burning pitch and sulfur.  Maybe technology will have advanced to that point by the time this prophecy occurs.  I’ve got my eye on you, owls.

Because, you see, the Bible says that, when this day happens, the skies will roll up and the stars will be destroyed.  And the soil will turn into sulfur and so on.  If Edom’s destruction and expulsion in the 6th century is what’s being described, then those verses are wrong.  Heck, lots of that stuff didn’t actually happen in the 6th century.  The Bible can’t be wrong, though, so it must be referring to something that just hasn’t happened yet (the last refuge of all “unfulfilled” prophecy).

Harmless?  Well, maybe within the walls of your Sunday School class, but you only need to look at the violence and death tolls on both sides of the Israel / Palestine conflict or America’s relationships with various nations in the Middle East and the strong evangelical influence in America’s policies in those areas to know that hermeneutics matter.  Sometimes, they’re life or death.

One of the ironies, here, is that if we just allowed the Bible to be “wrong,” (I don’t really consider the use of non-literal language to be wrong, but whatever) Isaiah 34 would be a strong statement of hope to the original audience that the God who they covenanted with would punish their oppressors and deliver them, and historical events would bear out the veracity of God’s words and purposes.  If Isaiah 34 is about some event in the far future, it has no value for the original audience and one wonders why it even needed to be in the Bible at all.  The only purpose it could possibly serve is just to demonstrate that prophecy works.  Ok, well, great, I guess.  Way to go, Isaiah.

We are losing our ability to hear the Bible because, instead of just letting it do its thing, we have to construct a meaning where the text is not “wrong,” and that becomes the meaning.  In some cases, maybe this makes little difference.  In other cases, it makes a big difference.  In all cases, if we really cared about the Bible the way we claim, we’d want to make sure we allowed it to be what it is, warts and all, instead of hammering it into a book that is “perfect” by our standards.

Inerrancy Makes God Deceptive

In some ways, we have to make a little room for this.  In 1 Kings 22:19-23, Micaiah says that God deliberately sent a spirit to give false prophecies to the other prophets because He wanted to lead Ahab into a trap.  Assuming this Scripture is inerrant, well, I guess we have to deal with this along with the inerrant Scripture in Titus 1:2 that declares that God cannot lie.

I haven’t looked, but I’ll bet there’s a fair share of articles explaining that God, technically, did not lie; He just deliberately sent a spirit who lied because God wanted him to lie, but He technically did not tell the lie, Himself.

This sort of argumentation litters inerrancy explanations of difficult passages or apparent contradictions.  God created the world with the appearance of being billions of years old, but it’s really only 6000 even though literally every method we have of determining age and progression says otherwise.  God gave a prophecy through an ancient Israelite to an ancient audience, but actually it’s meant for a future audience thousands of years later.  I know it probably looked to them like it was for them, but it wasn’t.

In order for inerrancy to work, we have maintain that God caused many things to appear a certain way only to discover that those appearances are false, in reality.

Along with this, the inerrantist God’s deception continues into narrative.

For instance, in Matthew and Mark, Mary Magdelene (and others) comes to the tomb, the stone is rolled away, and a single angel waiting there has a dialogue with her.  In Luke, two angels appear out of nowhere and explain things.  In John, she finds the stone rolled away and runs back to tell everyone that Jesus’ body has been stolen.

Now, folks, if you aren’t already committed to the idea that all of these stories have to be exactly correct in every detail – if you suspended that for a moment – and just read these separate accounts over time (and they were produced by very different people over a different span of time), would you ever come away from this thinking, “Yep, this is all a single, cohesive account that agrees in every detail?”

No, you wouldn’t, because they don’t.  You would most likely assume that each author had access to different information and, if you were familiar with ancient historiography, you would recognize that narratives are generally tweaked and shaped to fit the point the author is trying to get across, and this takes precedence over the objectivity of the report.

But, if we come to these stories with our preconceived beliefs about them and how they have to work, then we have to concoct some really intriguing apparatus to make them all actually be saying the same thing, more or less.

My favorite is the argument, “Well, if there were two angels, then there was one angel.”  That is mathematically correct.

However, keep in mind that these are narrative accounts, and if the inerrantist assumptions are correct, it’s actually very deceptive for Matthew and Mark not to mention the second angel and uproariously deceptive for John to omit them altogether and have Mary run back laboring under a misconception that the angel(s) correct in the other accounts.

If you asked your kid how many cookies he ate before dinner, and he said, “One,” and later you found that it was actually five, how would you feel if he said, “Well, technically, if I ate five, then I ate one, so what I said was the truth.”  Or, if your kid is John, “I ate no cookies, and I’m surprised you’re asking.  Oh, you know I ate five?  Well, of course.  How does that contradict what I said?”

Actually, I’d probably think that was pretty funny and let him off.  But regardless, we would never, ever, in any other circumstance use that mathematical reasoning to “explain” omissions.  Can you imagine a trial witness saying they saw one person commit a murder, then later it turns out that two people were involved, and they said, “Well, sure, I knew that going in, but I said one, didn’t I?  If there were two people involved, then there was one person involved, so what I said was still true.”  We’d have that person up for perjury.

My point isn’t that the gospel writers are required to report everything that happened.  I don’t believe that at all.  I think gospel writers are free to leave things out, move things around, put events in different places, and do so because their shaping of the story teaches us.  The differences teach us, which is precisely what they are meant to do.  We are supposed to have contradictory gospel accounts, and it’s not because God is a liar because God didn’t write them.  God uses them.

My point is, that if inerrantists are correct, it’s very difficult to say that God is trustworthy.  In both general and special revelation, He is making things appear a certain way, but it turns out the appearance isn’t the truth, but He is also directly responsible for both, so we have to concoct some technicality that gets Him off the hook.  Whole books have been written full of these technicalities to allow God to squeak by.

Ironically, many of these technicalities are not in the Bible.  Did the centurion at the foot of Jesus’ cross say, “Surely, this was a righteous man,” like Luke says or did he say, “Surely, this man was the Son of God,” like Matthew and Mark say?  Well, maybe the centurion said both of those things, or maybe there were two centurions and they each said one of those things.  Funnily enough, neither of those scenarios is in any of the gospels.  We have to make it up to make inerrancy work.  We almost literally have to add to the words of Scripture to make it inerrant.

But this is wholly unnecessary if we don’t come to the Bible with the assumption that every statement in it has to be factually true in every way a statement can be true according to our modern standards.

We Have Other Options

It is usually at this point that the strict inerrantist points out that, if the Bible is not inerrant, then it is wholly untrustworthy.  We can’t be sure what’s true and what isn’t, what really happened and what didn’t, and therefore we can place faith in none of it.

First of all, I would argue the inerrantist has this exact same problem.  Who knows what statements of Scripture appear to be true but are actually not the whole truth due to some technicality that gets God off the hook?  How do we know that God elected Israel?  How do we know God didn’t also elect Edom and it just didn’t work out?  I mean, if God elected two nations, He elected one nation, right?  How do we know there weren’t two or eight Sons of God?  How do we know that the world wasn’t created ten minutes ago, and God just created the world with the appearance that it is much older, including the presence of the Bible and the history within it?

Second, I would point out, before we even get out of the gates, that God wants our faith in trust in Him, not prophets and apostles, not the things they wrote down, but Him.  These other things may be trustworthy by virtue of God working through them, but God Himself is the epicenter of our trust.  Prophets and apostles point us to God, and insofar as they point us to the true God, they are trustworthy, but things like “perfection” and “all-knowing” belong to God alone.  Even if it turned out the Bible was totally untrustworthy (I do not think this at all), the true God who is there is there, and He was there before there was a Bible and He acted in the world before anyone put pen to parchment.  If every Bible in the world is destroyed by oppressors, God will still be there, and He will still be at work in the hearts of all those who are called by His name.  Most of the great heroes of our faith functioned without any kind of Scriptures at all.

Third, I would point out that most, if not all, of what the inerrantist or the critic might describe as “errors” in the Bible are really more problems with our expectations and interpretations.  If Isaiah 34 is talking about the historical destruction of Edom, I do not consider all the language about burning pitch and stars dying and owls and hyenas to be “errors.”  I consider them apocalyptic imagery used to get across the totality of Edom’s destruction to a people who suffer the predations of Edom who seems unstoppable to them.  If the world is billions of years old and it formed over a very long period of time, I do not consider Genesis 1 to be in “error” when it talks about six days.  I consider the six days to be a storytelling device that is used, primarily, to line up the various domains of the world with the rulers of those domains, culminating in the creation of man and experience of God being over all in the Sabbath.  Instead of making things fit my reading, I call my reading into question.  I allow my reading to be shaped by evidence.  It’s my understanding of the Bible that is fluid, negotiable, and often wrong – not the contents.  And it’s my expectations of it, such as that it’s an astronomy or a biology textbook, that can be grossly out of step with what God intends for it.

Fourth, I would point out that these ambiguities do not make the Bible untrustworthy or useless.  If that were the case, then every book ever produced would be untrustworthy and useless.  What book does not contain mistakes – at least as defined by a certain way of looking at them?  What book has not been shaped by its historical context?  What book does not have limitations, if nothing else than to its scope?  Does this actually mean that every book is useless and untrustworthy?

Well, no, not at all.  But what we have to do is approach books with knowledge of those parameters and shape our expectations accordingly.  When a young man writes his first love letter and says, “I thought of you as I watched the sun set,” the young lady does not spit on it and tear it up because that statement is not astronomically correct (the sun does not set).  I do not expect my car manual to give me information about George Washington, and if it did and was mistaken, it would not really affect the value the car manual has for me.

The question is, is the Bible useful (Paul’s word) for doctrine, reproof, and teaching righteousness so that we all might be equipped to do good works?

Yes.  Unflinchingly, unhesitatingly, yes.  Nice, inerrant statement.