In this writing I use the word inerrancy to mean that the Bible contains no errors. That every event it describes as history happened exactly the way it is written. That everything it says is fact, including those statements that contradict modern science. That everything the Bible says to do, we should do, and everything it tells us not to do, we should not do. Inerrancy is often seen as different from infallibility. Infallibility can be defined as the view that in matters of faith and practice, the Bible is true and completely sufficient. That this Bible can be trusted as a guide for faith and living a God-centered life. According to this understanding, I agree with infallibility but not inerrancy.
When I was a child, my mother told me where babies came from. Her explanation lacked detail, but it was the truth, and it was all I could handle or understand at that age. The story went something like this: “A husband and wife lie down together and feel so much love for each other that they decide to have a baby. A seed is planted in the mother’s tummy, where the tiny egg is, and the egg starts to grow into a baby, until months later the baby comes out through an opening at the mother’s bottom. The husband plays a part in planting the seed.”
While that was all true, my childhood imagination augmented the process. If I had been asked to write an account of baby making, I would probably have described how the husband got out of the bed, got the packet of baby seeds that he had ordered from the baby store, placed one in his wife’s bellybutton, and watered it.
I tell you this story, because I think it is a good analogy of how God gave us His Word, which was recorded in the Bible. Nowadays, there are many children’s books about where babies come from, and those meant for small children are similar to my mother’s account. They are truthful, and they are what children that age can comprehend. I think of the Bible as a children’s book, because the ancient Israelites were babes in their understanding of God, and in many ways we still are. God’s detailed thoughts could never have been recorded precisely in words, at least not words that humans could understand. Instead, God gave us the Truth in a form that we could comprehend. Can you imagine God telling the writers of Genesis about the Big Bang, the expansion of the universe, and the scientific principles of natural selection and how He used these to create the world? (That is assuming that these were the processes God used). The writers would be so confused that they either couldn’t write this down, or they would be bound to get it wrong!
I would like to help people understand my faith, but I have found that many people do not. One of the biggest misconceptions of people like me is that we accept parts of the Bible that we like and discard parts that we dislike. I will address this issue later. Right now, I’ll just say that some of the parts I don’t like have brought me the greatest blessings. And if you read the Bible with an open mind, you too will find that the more disturbing and difficult passages are those that speak most effectively to you. Do not accept people’s judgment that just because your theology is left of center that you discard parts of the Bible that you dislike.
Non-Inerrancy is a legitimate and reasonable view for Christians, and I wish to point out a few reasons why.
Inerrancy is not the predominant view of Christians in the U.S. Of course, that does not mean that there is anything wrong with belief in biblical inerrancy. Many people argue that very few of those who call themselves “Christians” truly are Christians, anyway. I wouldn’t disagree with this assertion, but I certainly do not think that inerrancy is what determines who is a Christian and who is not. Gallup polls from 2005-2007 reveal that 31% of Americans believe the Bible is the inerrant Word of God, but 41% agree with the statement “The Bible is the inspired Word of God, but not everything in it should be taken literally.” Jeffrey Hadden, in a poll of 10,000 American clergy in 1987 found that in some denominations, 67-95% of clergy answered “No” to the statement “Do you believe that the Scriptures are the inspired and inerrant Word of God in faith, history, and secular mattersWhat this reveals is that those who see a belief in inerrancy as evidence of a strong faith would have to draw the boundaries of their fellowship pretty tight.
What we know about the Scriptures, science, and history suggests that non-inerrancy is a reasonable point of view. There is nowhere in the Bible where the text says that written Scripture is the Word of God. There is no place where it says it is inerrant. Of course, we could not expect the Bible to say that about itself, because what we know as the Bible was not canonized (compiled into one book that was considered authoritative) until several hundred years after the last Scriptures were written. When the Bible refers to the Word, it is referring to one of 3 things: 1) The Law, or the Torah (as in Psalm 119); 2) The direct communication of God to a person (as in Jeremiah 1:1 The words of Jeremiah to whom the word of the Lord came), or 3) Jesus the Incarnate Word (as in John 1).
Another reason for doubting the inerrancy of Scripture is that a few Scriptural accounts are contradicted by all of the non-Biblical sources. For instance, Matthew declares that the birth of Jesus occurred during the reign of Herod the Great, who according to historical documents died in 4 BC. Luke says Jesus was born during a census ordered by Augustus at a time that Quirinius was governor of Syria. Quirinius was not governor of Syria during Herod’s kingship.
Some Scriptures contradict each other. In order to resolve this problem, believers in inerrancy sometimes go to acrobatic lengths to smooth them out, but the most logical conclusions about the inconsistencies is to simply accept that somebody got it wrong. For instance, Luke’s gospel says that the Holy Family returned to Nazareth immediately after Jesus underwent the ritual of purification in the Temple (which would have occurred when he was 40 days old. See Luke 2:39). Matthew, however, has the family still in Bethlehem when visited by the Wise Men, and from there fleeing to Egypt where they stayed until Herod died (4 BC).
My personal faith has evolved to the point that I accept the Bible as authoritative, and human errors in it are not essential to my faith. My suspicion that there were human errors in the Bible was confirmed when I took college courses in Old and New Testament. This was in a United Methodist college. Through this, though, I never lost my belief that there was something special about the Bible. Since my college years, my belief in the Bible has grown to the point where despite the problems and criticisms presented by moderate and liberal scholars, the Bible is not just a book. Although it contains some human error in minor areas, and although it was influenced somewhat by cultural bias, its story, commandments, and message are the Holy Word of God. Its words should be doubted only with fear and trembling.
But why not, people ask me, believe that God gave us the Scripture, at least in its original form, as a pure, inerrant gift that one need not have any doubts about? Wouldn’t God give us something that we would and should never have to question? Why can’t I believe that? Well, I do not know why, but it is obvious that He did not. In truth, most people do not believe that, once they are questioned on a few issues that come up in Scripture. Everyone, even the most conservative fundamentalist, has a way of making a decision about what things in the Bible are literally true and applicable to us, and which things are not. Consider levirate marriage, which the Torah instructs God’s people to practice, and is described in our Bible in Deuteronomy 25. Does anyone you know practice that? That means that if your son dies and widows his wife before he has given her a son, you and your family are responsible for providing her another husband. And that husband is ideally one of your other sons who is still living. This was the commandment that Jacob’s son Judah violated when his daughter-in-law Tamar was widowed without a son and Judah refused to give her his last son Shelah. Of course Tamar tricked her father-in-law into having sex and impregnating her. The resulting son Perez was an ancestor of Jesus, and without a doubt, the villain of the story was not the incestuous trickster Tamar but Judah, who violated the commandment of Levirate marriage. Of course, virtually all Christians today have decided that this teaching does not apply to them because today a widowed woman without a son is not destitute, as she would have been during the time of the early Hebrews. True. But don’t you see? There is a method at work in which one (even one considered a flaming fundamentalist) makes a decision about a passage of the Bible not applying to us today.
Obviously, my own way of deciding what passages of Scripture are literally true and applicable differs from the ways of some other people. So, you might be wondering, how does one go about deciding? Well, I tried to think of a formula, but I could not. All I can say is that we have two sources to help us.
The first is a large body of research, history, science, and biblical scholarship that helps us interpret the Bible. As we well know, Biblical scholars disagree. It is good to study a wide variety of perspectives.
The second is the Holy Spirit. I am not saying that the Holy Spirit makes it easy to understand the Bible. The Holy Spirit literally makes it possible. What do I mean? Allowing the Holy Spirit to guide me in understanding and discerning Truth in the Scriptures first requires humility (certainly not the arrogance and intellectualism that “liberals” are accused of), and listening and waiting for God. It sometimes requires waiting, saying to God that I do not understand something and will wait for His revealing, which may not come in this life. It sometimes requires giving the Scripture the benefit of the doubt, where I am not sure if what the Bible tells me to do or not to do is truly from God, but I’m going to obey it anyway out of a strong desire to honor God.
Does all of this sound easy? Of course it doesn’t! Perhaps it would be easy to just give in and take the view of Biblical inerrancy. Still, even viewing the Bible as inerrant, it is only through the Holy Spirit (at least in my view) that it is even possible to understand the Scriptures without a high probability of being misled. I must humble myself, pray, and submit. To me, the Bible is not “just a book,” nor can it be described as “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.” It is much more complex than that. It is to me the basic source for making the decisions that are important in my life. Even many of the decisions that are not so important. And it contains the words of eternal life!