Our error-free, perfect bible?

INERRANCY ɪn'ɛr.ən.si noun. Belief the bible contains no errors of any kind.
[Inerrantist ɪn'ɛr.ən.tɪst noun.]

We Christians put a lot of trust in the scriptures. We trust their authors to steer us right when it comes to God, to Christ Jesus, to salvation, to eternal life. We use them as confirmation the stuff God tells us personally, the stuff he reveals to Christians as we follow him, is valid. We’re basing an awful lot of our beliefs on the bible. It had better be up to the task.

I believe it is. As far as God and Jesus and salvation is concerned, the bible’s infallible: It’s an accurate, trustworthy, truthful description of the stuff we need to know to connect with God, and corrects us when we go astray. That’s why God inspired it, why Christians kept it, and why we read it. 2Ti 3.16

Inerrantists claim this isn’t good enough. They insist the bible has no errors. At all. Period.

In order for the bible to be truly authoritative, inerrantists figure it has to be perfect—as they define perfect. Errors would make it imperfect. Therefore it can’t have any. And anything which appears to be an error or discrepancy in the scriptures, simply isn’t. Can’t be. There’s gotta be a reasonable explanation for it, and with a little investigation they’ll find it. But it doesn’t matter how much it may look like an error: There are none.

Why do they believe this? Mostly because humans are creatures of extremes. “You believe the bible’s trustworthy? I believe the bible’s absolutely error-free. Hah. In your face. You don’t have faith. I have faith.” Of course that’s not faith. That’s dick-measuring.

But that’s not the only reason Christians insist the bible’s inerrant. Really it’s because they’re putting a lot of trust in the bible… which really, properly, oughta be put in the Holy Spirit instead. See, when we read bible, if we’re reading it with wrong or ulterior motives, we’re gonna lead ourselves astray, despite having the bible’s fully accurate testimony of who God is and how salvation works. Doesn’t matter how perfect the bible might be; in the wrong hands we’ll go so wrong, as heretics and cults demonstrate all the time.

Whereas when we’re following the guidance of the Holy Spirit—the same Holy Spirit who inspired the authors of the bible—he’s gonna steer us right. And even if the bible were full of errors and factual inaccuracies (and it’s not), the Spirit can steer us right around every landmine and lead us to truth. If you’re gonna put your faith in anything, put it in him.

Well, inerrantists don’t. They put it in bible. Then they fight anyone who says, “Waitaminnit.”

Bible difficulties.

I have a whole article on bible difficulties, but in short I’ll just say the bible contains a few things which at first glance look like errors. And when you look at them in a little bit more depth… well it’s really hard to explain why they’re not errors.

Numbers of people or armies, once you bother to do the math, don’t add up. Genealogies don’t line up. (Jesus himself has two significantly different genealogies.) Parallel passages, like stories about King David ben Jesse from 2 Samuel and 1 Chronicles, or about Jesus in the synoptic gospels, or Paul’s background in Acts and Galatians, differ in their details. Really minor details, but still: If you’re gonna claim inerrancy and mean it, these inconsistencies shouldn’t exist.

Yet there are proverbs in the bible which not only contradict one another; it’s like they’re meant to. The author of Proverbs even deliberately put two of ’em right next to one another.

Proverbs 26.4-5 KWL
4 Don’t respond to a fool’s foolishness, lest you be compared to them.
5 Respond to a fool’s foolishness, lest they become wise in their own eyes.

Almost like the author wanted a contradiction there, just to make a point.

Then there are the things which don’t jibe with nature or recorded history. True, a lot of things in the bible which were believed to not correspond to history, turned out to be totally accurate, so we had to fix our historical record. Historians are discovering new stuff all the time, so that’ll happen. But what I’m talking about are the historical anachronisms: Names in the bible got updated by later authors, so they’re no longer consistent with the history of their day. And I remind you—despite what young-earth creationists would have you believe—the Genesis creation stories still can’t stand up to scientific scrutiny. ’Cause they were written by people who believed the universe was finite, and the stars stuck to the back of it.

Let’s be clear: None of these things are monumental, worldview-upheaving problems. They’re really minor errors. None of them get in the way of the bible’s trustworthiness. When John tells us God loves the world enough to send us his son, Jn 3.16 there’s not some contradictory verse elsewhere claiming no he didn’t. The trifling scriptures which are contradicted by nature, history, or other verses, aren’t enough to get in the way of our beliefs about God and salvation.

Inerrantists don’t understand how people like me can believe the bible has errors, yet still trust the bible. Which is kinda goofy. Don’t you have people in your life whom you trust? And you know they’re not perfect, ’cause no one but Jesus is. But when it comes to particular fields of expertise, they’re the ones you always go to. Same with the bible: The prophets and apostles and Jesus are the go-to experts about God. When it comes to him, they won’t lead us astray.

But when it comes to every other subject, they’re not gonna get every factual detail correct. Anyone who regularly, honestly reads their bible is gonna come across these slip-ups. And if they haven’t yet, I guarantee you antichrists have found ’em all. They made lists. For fun, they like to fling ’em in us Christians’ faces: “What about this?

They expect to freak me out by pointing out bible discrepancies. They’re frankly surprised when they never do. My trust in God isn’t based on holding the bible to an unrealistic standard: It’s based on my God-experiences. Which are supplemented by bible—and again, I trust the Holy Spirit to direct me through the bible. I definitely don’t trust the antichrists.

“If it has errors, toss the whole thing out.”

Errors in the bible don’t bother me, but they bother the bejeezus out of inerrantists. For good reason: They’ve turned inerrancy into a make-or-break belief. If the bible has errors, any errors, they’ll actually state Christianity itself will fall.

I’m serious. I grew up in a Fundamentalist church, and that’s precisely what they taught me: “The bible has no errors. And if it had any errors, we couldn’t trust it. It’d be unreliable. We couldn’t trust anything it ever said about God. We’d have to be rid of it. We’d have to throw it out.” They seriously did threaten to throw it out. That’s how hardcore people get about inerrancy: No inerrant bible, no Christianity.

It’s basic logic, they argue:

  • Imagine a long run-on sentence. It consists of things like “Adam is tall“ and ”Ben is old“ and “Carl is asleep“ and “Dan is shouting,” and so on down to “and Zach is eating.”
  • According to the rules of logic, if all these statements are true (i.e. Adam truly is tall, Ben truly is old, etc.) the entire sentence is logically true.
  • Likewise according to the rules of logic, if any statement is false (i.e. Adam’s short, Ben’s young, Carl’s awake, Dan’s not shouting) the entire sentence is logically false. It’s like those strings of Christmas lights where when any one bulb burns out, the whole string won’t work.

This, Fundamentalists insist, is our bible. Any verse in error? Throw out the whole bible: It’s all error.

Okay yes, that’s how logic works when we’re determining the truth value of one complex sentence, namely when we’re looking for legal obligations and loopholes. But it’s not how logic works when we apply the rule to entire books, or book collections like the bible. Fr’instance I have a copy of the Encyclopedia Brittanica. (I bought it on CD-ROM, but for fun let’s say I bought the 32-volume print version.) Say I found an error in one of its articles; say it reports Abraham Lincoln was born in 809, not 1809. Simple misprint. But following Fundamentalist logic, I need to make a bonfire of all 32 volumes, then climb atop the highest building in town with a bullhorn and proclaim, “The Brittanica is wrong! Let no one be led astray by the devil-corrupted editors of the Brittanica!”

Christians and pagans alike recognize the Britannica’s an authoritative reference tool. Same with the Oxford English Dictionary, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or almanacs, biographies, concordances, desk references, thesauruses, etc. Even Wikipedia, more or less. Now, do any of us believe any of these references are inerrant?

Of course not. That thought maybe never occurred to you till I asked you that. But realistically, we all know humans make mistakes. No matter how many fact-checkers they have on staff, some goofs slipped through all these reference materials. Does this mean we can’t use these references? That we gotta stop crediting them as authoritative? Nah. That’d be stupid.

But when it comes to the bible, inerrantists threaten to throw it out.

It’s an empty threat though. Show them an error, or anything which resembles an error, and an inerrantist will just put on blinders. In practice, it’s precisely what they do.

Fr’instance inerrantists produce several books on bible difficulties. I own a few, like Gleason Archer’s New International Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, and Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe’s Big Book of Bible Difficulties. A lot of theologically conservative bible commentaries are likewise edited by inerrantists. And whenever they encounter discrepancies, they go through the most foolish twists and turns to explain them away.

And sometimes they straight-up hide them. 1 Kings says Solomon had 40,000 horse-stalls, and 2 Chronicles says he had only 4,000. 1Ki 4.26, 2Ch 9.25 NASB But in the New International Version, both 1 Kings and 2 Chronicles say Solomon had 4,000 stalls. 1Ki 4.26, 2Ch 9.25 NIV Even though the original text of 1 Kings says אַרְבָּעִ֥ים/arbaaím, “forty,” not אַרְבַּע/arbaá, “four.” But you wouldn’t know there was any discrepancy by reading the NIV unless you read the footnote in 1 Kings—and who reads footnotes?

The NIV’s translators believe it’s more important to support inerrancy than show people what the bible actually has in it. It’s for this and many other reasons I consider the NIV wholly unfit for serious bible study.

Hiding the fact you’re no inerrantist.

Among Fundamentalists, inerrancy is a mandatory belief. If you don’t care whether the bible has errors, or if you dare suggest it has any, inerrantists will insist you’re trying to undermine the bible, faith in God, Christianity, God’s kingdom, everything. According to their churches and organizations’ faith statements, the bible is inerrant, period. State otherwise and you’re heretic.

I used to work for a Christian school which included inerrancy in their faith statement. Whenever people applied for a job, they had to sign the faith statement. I couldn’t as-is, so I crossed out the word “inerrant” and initialed it, signed off on the rest, and told the principal what I’d done. If he had a problem with my doing this, or wouldn’t hire me because of it, so be it: I wasn’t gonna lie. Thankfully he didn’t care. Neither did his successors (though I doubt any of ’em double-checked my application).

Other churches, leaders, organizations, and people absolutely care. New college presidents will take it upon themselves to boldly stand up for inerrancy, change the school’s faith statement to reflect this, then purge the faculty of any non-inerrantists among them. Ministries which don’t even teach bible will suddenly draft a new faith statement and likewise purge its staff of non-inerrantists. All in the name of Fundamentalism.

A lot of Christians don’t wanna lose their jobs over a Fundie witch hunt. So they take it upon themselves to redefine “inerrancy” till it’s something they can believe. Till they can claim, “Yes I do believe in inerrancy,” and sign any faith statement you give ’em. It’s the old George Costanza con, “It’s not a lie… if you believe it.” But they’re only fooling themselves.

Three of the more common compromises to inerrancy are these:

INERRANT IN ITS ORIGINAL MANUSCRIPTS. You’ll find this variant most often: People who claim the original drafts of the bible had no errors. Our copies might have errors, but these errors sure weren’t there when God first had the scriptures written. When Mark wrote his gospel, he didn’t make a single error. When Paul dictated his letters, neither he nor his secretaries miswrote. Over the centuries, mistakes were added by overeager copyists. But the originals were pristine.

How do we know this to be true? Have we any evidence? Any bible verses which describe the scriptures as inerrant? Of course not. People believe this because they wish it were so. Can’t prove it though. The originals vanished a long time ago, and every existing copy has bible difficulties in ’em.

Now when average Christians claim the bible has no errors, is this what they have in mind? Are they speaking of the original manuscripts of the bible, or the bibles they carry on their phones and quote in their memory verses? ’Cause when you say the original was inerrant, it implies the current bible isn’t. Their bible isn’t. And that’s hardly what people mean by inerrancy.

LIMITED INERRANCY, or “INERRANCY OF PURPOSE.” Many Christians claim the scriptures are totally, infallibly accurate whenever they describe God and salvation. It’s why they were written, after all. But in every other subject, which they weren’t primarily written to deal with, the authors weren’t trying to be fully accurate. If they mixed up any details, so what? They got God right, and that’s the important thing.

Y’know, I believe this. Most other Christians believe this too. But we don’t call it inerrancy, because it’s not. It’s infallibility.

And again, is “inerrancy of purpose” what average Christians mean by inerrancy? Nope; inerrancy means no errors period. Not no errors in one particular subject area. Limited inerrancy means limited errancy.

“FULL INERRANCY.” This is the view embraced by most of the theologically conservative “inerrantist” scholars I know. They totally call it “full inerrancy.” But when they describe it, you realize it’s not quite so full.

The bible, when correctly interpreted in light of the level to which culture and the means of communication had developed at the time it was written, and in view of the purposes for which it was given, is fully truthful in all that it affirms.

—Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 259.

In simpler terms: When the apostles wrote the New Testament in the first century, they were “right” as far as any first-century person was concerned.

What about “right” as far as a 21st-century person is concerned? Well, we know more about science and history and archeology than the ancients, so some of their statements about such things are considered “wrong” to us. We also have different standards about factual accuracy, exact quotes, precise numbers, and chronological order. Them, not so much.

For example, we should not expect that the standards of exactness in quotation to which our age of the printing press and mass distribution is accustomed would have been present in the first century. We ought also to recognize that numbers were often used symbolically in ancient times, much more so than is true in our culture today. […]

Suppose a hypothetical case in which the bible reported a battle in which 9,476 men were involved. What then would be a correct (or infallible) report? Would 10,000 be accurate? 9,000? 9,500? 9,480? 9,475? Or would only 9,476 be a correct report? The answer is that it depends upon the purpose of the writing. […] This applies not only to the use of numbers, but also to such matters as the chronological order in historical narratives, which was occasionally modified in the gospels. Erickson 261-62

“Full inerrancy” starting to sound less full to you?

John Piper, in discussing how the synoptic gospels don’t present the Jesus stories in the same order, likewise points out how the ancients didn’t think this sort of thing mattered.

… But Matthew has these last two events before the three cited above. While Mark and Luke have them after these three events. It cannot be both ways.

But the Synoptics are not in error here […] because it was not their basic intention to give a rigid chronology of Jesus’ ministry. […] Their intention was rather to give a faithful presentation of the essential features of Jesus’ teaching and deeds. In this particular instance Matthew probably felt he could best do this by including the storm stilling and Gesarene demoniac scenes in his composition of chapters 8 and 9 where he has gathered ten miracle stories. This presentation of Jesus’ miracle working is then bracketed together with the Sermon on the Mount with the identical summary statements in 4:23 and 9:35. Thus we have a literary unit which beautifully and inerrantly sets forth the essential features of our Lord’s ministry.

—John Piper, “How are the Synoptics without error?”

So the bible has no errors… provided you’re not particular about accuracy. Again: Is this what ordinary Christians think “inerrancy” means when you claim you’re an inerrantist?

When a typical Christian layman says “inerrancy,” they mean the bible has no errors. Period. Without caveats. Everything in the bible is absolutely accurate. When Genesis describes the sun going round the earth, Ge 19.23 that’s because it does, and Copernicus and every modern-day astronomer was wrong. When 2 Chronicles describes pi as equaling 3 instead of 3.1419, 2Co 4.2 that’s because it is, and every mathematician is likewise wrong. Science shmience. Trust the bible.

Erickson referred to this as “absolute inerrancy.” And of course it’s absolute: It’s what “no errors” means! No is an absolute statement. In- is an absolute prefix. It doesn’t mean “no errors, as far as the ancients knew.” It doesn’t mean “no errors, but only in the originals.” It doesn’t mean “no errors about theology, but maybe errors of other kinds.” There’s no room for “but” in the word: Inerrancy means no errors. It’s an absolute claim.

The dirty little secret in Christian scholarship is no legit bible scholar believes in inerrancy. Pastors may. Laypeople do. They think they have to!—their church’s faith statements tell ’em it’s heresy not to. But scholars can’t believe this, ’cause we actually read our bibles. For some of us, our seminaries showed us exactly where the errors are! If we studied Christian apologetics, some of us read skeptics’ lists of bible difficulties and are fully aware of them, and may even have written books about them.

The reason any scholar, and many a pastor, claims to be inerrantist, is only so they can condescend to ignorant people, and not get fired by absolutist college presidents, board members, pastors, and laypeople. They lack the guts to admit inerrancy can’t be proven by any honest examination of the bible, and teach it in church.

A doctrine of men.

Inerrancy came out of the Fundamentalist movement in the early 20th century. Christians were understandably upset by skeptical scholars who were picking apart the bible, claiming all of it was mythology, and none of it was true. Or trustworthy. Or inspired. So they swung to other extreme.

They claim it’s because they have such great faith in the bible. And in God, and his son, and his apostles and prophets. But is inerrancy something Jesus or his apostles taught? Is it something they stated in the scriptures? No in both cases. Oh, they’ll claim that’s what Jesus meant by saying the scripture cannot be broken, Jn 10.35 KJV but οὐ δύναται λυθῆναι γραφή/u dýnatai lythínai i grafí, “the scripture can’t be loosed,” means the scriptures can’t be interpreted so loosely we can evade their clear meaning—as some inerrantist explanations clearly do.

Infallibility is totally in the bible. Inerrancy isn’t. Nor is it in any of the historic Christian creeds and teachings. Early Christians considered the bible perfect, but inerrancy isn’t perfection; that’s a whole other deal. And inerrancy was invented by Fundamentalists. They’re the source of this teaching. When Christians talk about how they trust the bible has no errors, we’re really talking about their trust in Fundamentalists—that these men are correctly teaching bible.

Well my faith’s in God, not men. Fundamentalists don’t define Christian orthodoxy, no matter how vigorously they insist they do. In fact, insisting on inerrancy injures Christianity and damages faith. Where people would ordinarily dismiss a minor inconsistency—who cares just how many angels people saw at Jesus’s tomb?—now we’re forced into a false dilemma: The stories have to match. We have to dismiss parts of one story, pad parts of another, justify all our alterations, and prove inconsistency isn’t there. That, or reject the bible and denounce Christianity and Christ.

And when we pretend an inconsistency isn’t there, we blind ourselves to the truth. Jesus is truth, Jn 14.6 and blinding ourselves to truth means we’re gonna stop growing in Christ. We’re gonna avoid parts of the bible, if not the whole thing, lest we find more inconsistencies, and get entangled in further dilemmas.

Or worse, we’ll accept the false premise, “Throw it out if it’s not inerrant,” and quit Christ. But most Christians don’t go to either extreme. They simply become hypocrites who claim they’re inerrantist, yet aren’t, and undermine faith that way.

These options all suck. I say ditch them all. Plus the inerrancy.

When you find occasional minor inconsistencies in the bible, do as you do when you find them in the encyclopedia: Note where they are, then work around them. Who was right about the number of Solomon’s horses: 1 Kings or 2 Chronicles? Pick a side and move on. Or figure, “What’s it matter?” and move on. I don‘t care how many horses he owned; I care that he broke the Law by collecting horses. Dt 17.16 Priorities, folks.

You’ll find these inconsistencies change none of the important facts: Who Jesus is, what God did, what God expects of us, how we can be saved. None of ’em get in the way of a growing relationship with Jesus. None of ’em hinder faith. In fact we’re driven to trust God more. Because we recognize while the bible isn’t perfect, God absolutely is.

Bible.