This is a fictional story; somewhat.
This is a true story; somewhat
Because the Doctrine of Inerrancy (the belief that the Bible is without error) is the doctrine which holds together all other traditional doctrines, most conservative theologians may allow slippage on other doctrinal positions, but not this one.
They will not even allow it to be challenged. Or questioned. Or modified in any way.
This often leaves people who prefer to examine everything without “just” believing it in a tough spot. If something cannot be challenged, or questioned, or modified, then it becomes the trysting spot upon which allegiance is called for.
In other words, you either accept the entire package or you’re out of the Club. The Club is the group of conservative Evangelicals.
Here is where this conversation comes in. In my 47 years of being a Christian, I have questioned every doctrine of the church continuously and repeatedly. As a result, the things I believe, I believe VERY strongly. The things I question, I question deeply. Because of that, I ask questions about Inerrancy that many of my colleagues have been reluctant to ask, at least openly.
And as a result, I am often cornered by pastors, professors, interested armchair theologians and asked to dialogue about my beliefs on inerrancy.
Two of those conversations are burned into my memory. They were very uncomfortable for me and them.
What I have done here is reproduce both of those into one conversation. I am probably not doing justice to what they said and probably editing/improving my comments. They both know who they are and what they said. If they want, they can publish their own conversations.
In the interest of space, here are my two conversations on Inerrancy compiled into one semi-fictional discussion. As will be obvious, I am starting somewhere in the middle.
Them: “Mike, do you believe the Bible contains errors?”
Me: “I believe it contains the same amount of errors as you do.”
Them: “What do you mean?”
Me: “You don’t believe the Bible is without errors. Do you believe that when Satan told Eve that God was lying to her that this was the truth?”
Them: “Of course not. But that’s not an error. That was obviously a lie.”
Me: “Obvious to whom? Listen, you say it is obvious, and perhaps it is in that case. But there are many instances where people lied in the Bible. Can you stipulate that those are errors in fact and statement?”
Them: “Yes, but those aren’t what we mean by “errors” in the Bible. You know that.”
Me: “No, that is something I can’t agree with. Some errors are ones that seem obvious to the outsider. Others are not that obvious. At many junctures in the Bible, people claim God told them to do something. Sometimes, what they believe God told them to do is commit genocide or murder. Are we to assume that they were telling the truth, even though others in the Bible are lying?”
Them: “If a regular person says that God told them to do something, it may be a lie. But, if a person who is a prophet or priest says that God told them to do something, then God told them to do it.”
Me: “Is it possible that if some people are in error because they weren’t prophets, that even the prophets may have been in error?”
Them: “So you don’t believe in inerrancy then? You don’t believe the Bible was God-breathed like it says in 2 Timothy 3:16?”
Me: I believe the Bible was God-breathed, yes.”
Them: So you do believe in Inerrancy?”
Me: “I do not believe the Bible is without error, no.”
Them: “I knew it. I knew you were a liberal. So you don’t believe the Bible is without error?”
Me: “Let’s be clear what I’m saying. That Bible on your desk. You believe that Bible, that New Living Translation Bible is without error?
Them: “No, not this one.”
Me: “So you believe that this translation potentially has errors?
Them: “Sure. No translation is without error.”
Me. “So what Bible is without errors then?”
Them: “The original Bible. The Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic original texts.”
Me: “Which Greek New Testament? The United Bible Society version or the Westcott and Hort version?”
Them: “No, not those. Those are compilations of the manuscripts of the Greek New Testament. I am talking about the very original documents the original authors of the Bible wrote. Those are without error.”
Me: “And where are these texts that we might study them?”
Them: “You know we don’t have any of them. They are lost to antiquity. We have copies of them, which were carefully copied. We have enough copies that we can be reasonably sure we have almost all of the Bible faithfully transmitted to us.”
Me: “Okay. Since inerrancy hinges so completely on these original documents which we don’t have, let’s talk about the copies then. Which copies are closest to the time of the original in the Old Testament?”
Them: “I don’t know. I think the Dead Sea Scrolls are closest. That would make them roughly 500-700 years after most of the originals were written.”
Me: “So, you believe that in 700 years–seven centuries–people copied the original documents so exactly that no errors were made.”
Them: “No, probably some errors were made.”
Me: “How do we know which verses are errors then? Is there any 100% verifiable way to tell if a verse is an error or genuine?”
Them: “You know there isn’t. That’s where faith comes in.”
Me: “How about the New Testament. What is the earliest complete manuscript of the New Testament that we have?”
Them: “Many of the manuscripts of parts of the New Testament date from the 3rd century. A full copy of the New Testament? Around 500 AD.”
Me: “So, 500 years after the events. 500 years of copies made by people with theological opinions, with theological axes to grind so to speak. 500 years of late nights copying, candles burning low, hard to read copies from the last guy. Any chance of errors there?”
Them: “Of course there is. But we have enough different copies from different centuries of every passage in the New Testament, from different parts of the world, that we can be reasonably certain of the accuracy of most of them.”
Me: “Do you know how many verses have variants? Do you know how many verses say completely different things than other verses? Do you personally know any of those statistics?”
Them: “Not personally. But my professors assured me that there aren’t enough verses like that to worry about it. And that the errors are about subjects which do not affect the major doctrines.”
Me: ” And all of these manuscripts are in languages we no longer speak, right? From people in cultures we no longer live in. With backgrounds we no longer understand, often using figures of speech we no longer relate to. Is that true?”
Them: “Where are you going with this?”
Me: “So you are asking me if I believe in the inerrancy of a Bible we do not have, written in a language we do not speak or write any longer, composed in a culture we do not comprehend, written to deal with situations whose context we have lost, making all of our translations from copies whose accuracy we cannot be 100% convinced of, and then translated by people with many different opinions on what each individual word means? But somehow in all of that, I am supposed to just trust that way back then there were no errors before all of this took place?
Them: “Ummmm…yes. I guess.”
Me: “Okay, I can buy that. I can agree that somewhere deep in time, there were manuscripts inspired by God which are without error in a language we will never perfectly reproduce into our language. But, I will also stipulate we do not have that Bible.”
Them: “So what does that mean for you?”
Me: “Since we have lost the originals and will never have them, we must re-examine this idea of the Bible being God-breathed. The word theopneustos that we get God-breathed from is pretty colorful. Assuming that was the word Paul wanted to use (and we can never know that for sure), let’s look at 2 Timothy 3:16. In the original Greek, there is no “is” in the verse. It does not say “All Scripture IS God-breathed.” It says “All writings God-breathed and profitable…”. Here is the difference. God-breathed is an adjective. It is describing the nature of the writing, and perhaps its origin. This isn’t saying that it was written by God. It is saying that the Scriptures are in their nature something that God breathed out. Can you accept that?”
Them: “I’m not sure where you are going with this, but sure.”
Me: “Okay. What else does the Bible say is God-breathed? Doesn’t the Bible say that mankind was simply chemicals and dust until God did something? What did God do to make us more than the dust of the earth?”
Them: “He breathed into Adam and he became a living being.”
Me: “So Adam was God-breathed?”
Them: “I guess you could say that.”
Me: “Was Adam without error?”
Them: “In his original form, yes. Before sin came into the world, Adam was without error.”
Me: “Do you see my point? I do believe the truths which became the Bible when God gave them were breathed out by God. And the authors who knew what God was saying wrote it down using their personality, their understanding and their cultural context. Those documents did not contain error from God’s point of view. But when humans began to handle these God-breathed truths, then it got messy. And we have been messily handling the scriptures that way ever since.”
Them: “So do you believe the Bible is inerrant or what?”
Me: Let me give you an example of the difficulty of your question. In 1 Corinthians 1:14, Paul says that he only baptized two guys in Corinth. Then, in v. 15, he makes a bold statement about why it is crucial he didn’t baptize a whole bunch of people. But then in v. 16, Paul backs up. He says “well I did also baptize the household of Stephanas”. He admits two verses later that verse 14 was a mistake. Then he makes it even worse: “I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.” That is an admission that he doesn’t fully remember who he baptized. Is that a problem for your view of inerrancy? Sure. If he admits in Scripture that he is mistaken as he is writing scripture, then what does that say? It says that in the God-breathed nature of the Scripture, the main point God was breathing out to Paul got wrapped up in some memory detail difficulties. How do you respond to that?”
Them: “Maybe the verses you mentioned are part of those verses that got copied wrong.”
Me: “That is possible. And now you see my dilemma. We don’t have the originals. We don’t fully know their culture. We don’t know what was changed or when it was changed. So what can be said then about inerrancy? That at some time in the past, God spoke to people who did the best job they could to write it down faithfully. We believe we have a fair approximation of what they said. But we have to translate all of that, and then interpret it for our day and age. So in my mind, Inerrancy is not the problem. It is the impossibility of doing all the rest of this without the help of God every day.”
Them: “So you say you believe the Bible is inerrant?”
Me: “I am saying we must rely on the Holy Spirit to help us study the Bible and then live truth out daily. And seeing how the people of old sought to do that in the Bible is the best use of it.”
Them: “I’m still not sure if you’re a heretic.”
Me: “Neither am I.”