I have believed in the doctrine of Inerrancy at various times during my 50 years as a follower of Christ. But I can’t say I have always believed it. For me, the evidence that this doctrine is true gets slimmer as time passes.
I want to make this clear: I am not trying to convince anyone. This is just my journey. This article may help others who are in situations where they cannot express their doubts about Inerrancy and still maintain relationships with other Christians of their tribe.
Just so you know. You can believe whatever you want. These are my struggles.
This morning, I texted my wife and asked if she would read Numbers 31 again. I suggested she read it as if she was not a follower of Christ, and not someone with a high opinion of the Bible. As we digested its contents together, we realized it was saying that God had ORDERED the Israelites to:
- Kill all the Midianite boys
- Make all the virgin girls their sex slaves
- Kill all the women who had sex before
- Kill all the men
- Set fire to all their towns
- Reward the most violent soldiers with more spoils from the massacre.
Get your head around these stated “facts”: God commanded sex slavery. God commanded slaughter of children.Get your head around these stated "facts": God commanded sex slavery. God commanded slaughter of children. Click To Tweet
But apparently, even with those disturbing violent commands of God, this chapter clearly shows God is still concerned about righteousness. God appeared to be clear on a few things:
- The Israelites were ordered to wash their clothes properly after killing people
- They were ordered to kill even more women and were chastised for leaving any alive.
- All the gold, silver, bronze, iron, tin, lead was to be purified. Purifying metals was more important than preserving human lives.
I felt sick. I had read this chapter before, but always with a voice in the back of my head saying that these commands were a concession God made to people who didn’t understand.
But then I remembered: The Bible is supposed to be error-free. All of it is God-breathed. If inerrancy is true, God did command them to do this.
One argument used by Bible Inerrancy apologists is that God had an agenda in terms of when he introduced certain truths. This agenda is called “Progressive Revelation”. Just as a parent teaches simple truths first and then more complex ones later, this doctrine proposes that God commanded them to do ethnic cleansing and systematic rape and pillaging because they were going to do it anyway. This was not the time to correct such behavior.
Even if that was true, I stumble over this. God didn’t think it was time to teach these violent men regarding the wrongness of raping women and owning sex slaves, but apparently it was the time to teach how to clean up oneself after killing people all day.
If Progressive Revelation means God was more concerned about ceremonial cleansing than rape and murder, I will not accept Progressive Revelation as valid. Unfortunately, if I reject Progressive Revelation, all I am left with is the realization that God wanted them to commit genocide and sex slavery.
There is nothing in my experience of God that would allow me to accept either Progressive Revelation or a straight reading of this chapter.
This is only one of several reasons I struggle with the modern concept of Bible Inerrancy. In this essay, I want to chronicle several other reasons why it is a stretch to believe this doctrine as it is presented in our day. I start with the minor reasons I cannot accept inerrancy and then go onto the three major reasons.
The Minor Reasons I Don’t Agree with Inerrancy
I call these the “minor reasons” because if any of them are demonstrably wrong, I would still have troubles with inerrancy. But they add credence to my thought that an inerrant bible–as we understand the term in 2019–is improbable. The “major reasons” which follow are the core of what I struggle with. But these minor ones often trip up other people.
By the way, some will say I am presenting straw man arguments with each of these. And this may be true. With each of these reasons I have heard more appealing refutations than I am noting. I just don’t find any of the more well-presented counter-arguments to be convincing–to me. You have to decide for yourself.
Real Errors Are Found in the Bible. The most fundamentalist bible believers will agree the Bible notes errors. For instance, Paul had an argument with Peter, Barnabas, and many other church leaders (Galatians 2). They were arguing over whether or not the Jewish Christians were allowed to eat with the Gentile Christians. We are left to assume that Paul was correct, but that is because he wrote the book. It is possible that Peter and Barnabas were correct. Or, it is possible none of them were correct. But what is absolutely true is that at least one of them was incorrect. They were in error. They did not believe what is true. And all of them were involved in shaping the Church and writing Scripture.
The disciples of Jesus were wrong to prevent little children from coming to see him. They were all writers of the Bible and shapers of the Church.
The Thessalonian Church was in error because they believed that Jesus had already returned and they missed it.
The Ephesian Church in Revelation was wrong because they were doctrinally sound but lacked love toward others. Shall I continue?
Immediately someone will say this is not what is meant by errors. They will say that it is only when the Bible makes a Truth Claim that it is should be considered inerrant. But how does one determine where the Bible is making a Truth Claim?
Is the Bible claiming that God really did tell the Israelites to wipe out the Midianites, or did the Israelites have a legend they did this? Is God trying to tell us that Noah really built an ark, or just that people believed he did? Did Jeremiah’s manuscript really get torn up and thrown into the fire? If it did, was that the true prophecy, or was it the one he wrote the second time?
Don’t rush to judgment. It is not easy to tell. In 1 Corinthians 1:14-16, we read:
“I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanus; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.)
In these three verses, Paul admits to two errors. First, he admits in v. 16 that he was wrong in what he wrote in v. 14. Then, he admits he doesn’t remember if he baptized anyone else. If you’re writing Scripture inerrantly, these things are not possible. You can’t say one thing and then say the opposite two verses later and not have an error. And he leaves open the possibility he may not be correct. If Paul, while writing the Bible, says he might be wrong, it makes Truth Claims hard to accept as absolute.
Problems With The Canon: The “Canon” is the name we give to the books of the Bible which conservative Protestants consider Inerrant and legitimately breathed out by God. In modern protestant churches, the Bible has 66 books–27 in the New Testament and 39 in the Old Testament.
However, historically not everyone has agreed whether these books should be in the Bible. Some people think other books should be there: The Epistle of Barnabas, the Didache, Clement, Shepherd of Hermas and all of the Intertestamental books of the Catholic Bible were included by various sources. Conversely, Hebrews, James, 2-3 John, the books of Peter, Jude, Gospel of John, Revelation, Ephesians, Song of Songs, and Esther have all been seriously challenged. Church leaders like Martin Luther advocated the removal of some of these.
What can be said about all of that? The doctrine of Inerrancy teaches that God superintended the formation of the current Canon by protecting some books and eliminating others. But if you know the history of the production of the New Testament through the various councils, you know a lot of their process for making canonical choices involved political infighting and factions rather than prayer and the leading of the Holy Spirit.
Men we probably wouldn’t trust with our children were making decisions about our Bible. Did they include the right books? We cannot know for sure.Men we probably wouldn't trust with our children were making decisions about our Bible. Did they include the right books? We cannot know for sure. Click To Tweet
Making the Bible Say More than it Does: This difficulty is more with the modern interpretation of inerrancy than with the general concept itself. In today’s theological discussions, inerrancy means that the Bible is literally true on any subject it literally asserts as being true.
But what do we mean by “true”?Do we mean scientifically true? Do we mean philosophically true? How about historically true? Does it matter if the numbers are estimates or actual counts? Does it matter if the place names are accurate or just guesses? Does it matter if a nation was truly destroyed with no survivors or if that was just an ancient way of saying that the other combatant won a victory?
Though I’m not going to take the necessary space to show this, there are many places where what the Bible claims is just not scientifically accurate. There is no solid roof over the world as the Bible claims in a number of places. The sun does not move around the earth as Copernicus and Kepler both disproved. The moon is not a “light” source as the Bible notes in two places.
Some would say these are just problems with interpretation or translation, but I think the problem is simpler: The Bible is not intended to be read as a science textbook.
Of course, the biggest problem is the age of the earth. I cannot accept that against every scientific measurement the earth is only 6000 years old. The evidence is overwhelming to me that the universe is almost 14 billion years old. The sheer distance from one star to another proves this. If light travels the speed it does (and that speed is the constant upon which all astrophysical mathematics is based) then it takes millions of years for light to travel to us from some stars. The universe has to be at least that old.
Every means to measure age confirms the Bible is NOT true in its assertion. But then, we actually have at least two different accounts of creation even in the book of Genesis. Which one of these is right? Are they metaphors or scientific data? Since they do not agree with science, I find it hard to accept they are anything but creation stories that elements of Israel’s priestly orders passed on to others.
Translation and Interpretation Impossibilities: Here is the problem. If the Bible is inerrant and comes from God, then the translations should be straightforward to interpret.
But the opposite is true. Throughout the 2000 years of the church, much of the Old Testament and a good percentage of the New Testament has been extremely difficult to understand. The reason is simple. The Hebrew language of the Old Testament does not come with a dictionary of meanings created when it was written.
Koine Greek, the language of the New Testament, also comes with no dictionary. The method translators use to understand a word meaning therefore is to look at how it is used in other places. But here is the difficulty. The phrase “hapax legomenon” refers to a word which is only ever used once in writing. The New Testament contains almost 200 of these, and there are 1500 of them in the Old Testament.
Some argue that because we have other Hebrew words with common roots to the 1500 hapax legomena, that the number of words may be as small as 400. But I don’t agree; even in English, there is a huge difference between the words “love” and “libido” though they share the same original cognate.
When a word has never been used anywhere else, it is literally impossible to translate with any certainty. How then, can we know if God said something, if we have no idea what it means? It can mean anything. So that begs the question: If a word can mean many different things, how can it be inerrant?
Ironically, one of those words is “theopneustos”. This is the word used in 2 Timothy 3:16, the verse that people use to prove that the Bible is inerrant. It is the word the King James Version translates as “inspired”. As in, “All Scripture is inspired by God…” Later on, I will show why this word is a significant problem I have with inerrancy.
In addition to hapax legomena, sometimes translators do whatever they want just to make the text sound the way they want it to theologically. Few translations escape this tendency.
For instance, the New International Version, 1984 edition, made a translation “call” based not on the Greek text, but the translation team’s own theological point of view. In the New Testament, the word for “flesh” is the Greek word “Sarx” or “Sarkos”. When the translators came up to sarx to describe the physical body, they translated it “flesh”. But when they came to verses where sarx is ambiguous, they translated it “sinful nature”. They did this first to differentiate between the physical body and the decision to act in a sinful way.
But who gave them permission to do that? For centuries sarx had been universally translated as “flesh”. Now it is the sinful nature? And where did they get that translation from? It came from their theology, plain and simple. One problem with this is that the concept of a “sinful nature” is not universally believed in Christianity. Many people do not believe in original sin as an influence on humans. If the Bible is without error, how can translators be allowed to get this so wrong? Most people don’t read Greek and don’t realize what they’re reading is not in the Bible.
[Note: The NIV translators changed “sinful nature” back to “flesh” in their 2011 edition because New Testament scholars around the world created such an uproar over it].
Or consider the King James Version and its many egregious translation errors . In Revelation 1:11, the KJV added the words “Saying, I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last” to the verse. Those words are not found ANYWHERE in any manuscript of the Greek New Testament. They just added them for their own purposes. This was continued by the translators of the New King James Version and 21st Century KJV as well. But the phrase is just made up for that translation. In addition, the word “ekklesia” was translated “assembly” before the KJV. King James and two of his advisors demanded that the word be translated “church” for the first time (from the Scottish “Kirk” meaning “house”). They wanted to biblically give credence to the church being the place where people meet, not the meeting itself.
King James himself decided his name needed to be in the Bible. He demanded the translators place his name there. So, when an Old Testament character named “Jacob” is referred to in the New Testament, they translated it “Jacob.” But when they came to a New Testament character, they translated the same Greek word “jacobi” as “James”. No reason whatsoever.
Of course, these examples sound frivolous and to an extent they are. But they underscore my point: The concept of the Bible being Inerrant is meaningless as soon as it is translated. The average person is appealing to verses that do not mean what many teach that they mean.
And this can even affect our understanding of crucial ethics such as sexual morals.
Take the word “porneia”. It comes from the word group which includes pornos and pornei, which refer to male and female prostitutes. Outside of the Bible, the vast majority of documents that contain this word porneia are referring to having sex with a prostitute. But Bible translators have completely given it the meaning of “immorality” or “fornication”. No translator ever uses this word to refer to sex with prostitutes even though this is the translation outside the Bible.
Why would they do that? Because if they don’t, there is actually no other word in the New Testament to describe premarital sexuality. So they borrow that concept and imbue “porneia” with it.
This way, when theologians want to emphasize that premarital sex is wrong, they can point to the English Bibles which speak of immorality or fornication as proof. But the word porneia probably doesn’t mean either of those.
Here is how that affects the concept of inerrancy. If people feel free to translate and interpret the Bible according to their theological preconceptions (and they have for millennia) then what absolute meaning can any verse have?
I personally translate every passage I preach on, and I consult dozens of sources to determine meaning. I cannot ignore the vast difference in meaning just in a single verse if acceptable alternatives are used.
We Do Not Accept that God Speaks Inerrantly to Humans any longer: This may seem trite, but no one believes that people today hear God accurately enough to keep writing scriptures. Has humanity changed that much since the days of the Bible? Has God changed how God acts with us?
I will never know. But this much I do know: If it is impossible for anyone now to hear God without error, why would I believe there ever was anyone who heard God without error?
Spelling and Grammatical Errors: Throughout the New Testament–and a few occasions in the Old Testament–there are spelling and grammatical errors. These are quite frequent. Over 20% of the New Testament verses contain one. Most defenders of Inerrancy say that this can be the result of the New Testament being copied over and over, and these errors were put into the manuscript.
However, not every error is the result of copying mistakes. Some errors must have been come from the original documents since the same errors show up in manuscripts widely separated by geography from each other.
This is the perfect lead-in to the first of the three major problems I have with Inerrancy.
The Major Problems I Have With Inerrancy
These three reasons seem to me to be so substantial that I cannot find even a valid answer for them. Most of my theological friends will tell me “that’s why we need faith”. But my faith means making God the center of my life, not the Bible. So my faith is not affected by these problems, but rather it is released to see so much further than I have seen by just looking at an inerrant Bible.But my faith means making God the center of my life, not the Bible. So my faith is not affected by these problems, but rather it is released to see so much further than I have seen by just looking at an inerrant Bible. Click To Tweet
The Lost Original Manuscripts: This is simple. We do not have the original manuscripts of the New or Old Testament. We don’t have any manuscripts that even come close in time to the originals. We have copies of copies of copies. We do not know if the original manuscripts were a little like what we have now or a lot like them. What we know is that the manuscripts from which we make our flawed translations are themselves flawed.
To be fair, those who defend Inerrancy say this shouldn’t bother us. They assure us that there aren’t that many verses affected and none of the most disputed copied mistakes involve major doctrines.
But I am bothered in this respect: We have no way of proving that we have an accurate account. None. You can believe it all you want, but you cannot prove it. Therefore, crucial sections of the Bible may have been placed there by a person copying things down really early…long before the copies we now have were found. What is the point of talking about the originals being inerrant if we have none of them? It’s a nice theory that no one can prove in any way. If we cannot prove it and we no longer have the documents, how can anyone be dogmatic about the doctrine? It becomes a moot point when all is said and done.
I am all for living out my life in Faith. Faith is feeling reasonably certain that something is true though I can’t prove it. But after decades of trying to ignore the real reasons why Inerrancy doesn’t make logical sense, I have to conclude that it is stretching Faith too far to include Inerrancy as one of its underpinnings.
Inerrancy is Impossible Because of Humanity: I used to give oral exams to pastors who wanted to be ordained. When we came to the doctrine of Inerrancy, I always asked them this question: How could God transmit the information so that no errors in transmission are found? There are only two possible means: Dictation and Automatic Writing
Dictation means that God just told them each word to write down. For those who believe in the verbal, plenary inspiration of the Bible (meaning the whole Bible AND every word is inspired, thus without error), this is the way they believe it happened. But it didn’t.
Look at 1 Corinthians 7 some time. In that chapter, Paul goes back and forth on the issues of sex, marriage and divorce. Several times he tells them that God commanded him to write certain things and then God didn’t command him to write certain things.
Or take into account the Book of Revelation. Several times the writer of the book is told to write certain things down. So what are we to make of all the other things he wrote down? This is also true of Jeremiah, Daniel, Hosea, and many others. They are told to write some things down but not others.
David wrote several Psalms where he personally asked God to torture the children of his enemies. We call these the Imprecatory Psalms. As David speaks this desire he is differentiated from God who must grant his wish. Therefore, there can’t be any sense of God dictating the Psalm to David. It makes no sense for God to tell David to wish that the children’s heads be dashed against rocks.
Dictation theory has been rejected by many theologians as nonsense. So what can we say about Automatic Writing? This implies that God possessed and carried along the minds of each writer of the Bible so that their final result was the exact thing God wanted to have written. With Automatic Writing, the author is God. The writer has no say in what is written down.
To counter this, I could point you again to 1 Corinthians 7. In that chapter, Paul waffles back and forth between concepts of “God says this” and “I say this” several times, creating opposing views between himself and God. Those who believe in some form of Automatic Wring say that God wanted Paul to write down the dilemma of that chapter in exactly the way it was created. To me, that just makes God out to be a Trickster. If God is trying to trick us into thinking Paul had any freedom in what he wrote, then God is not to be trusted.
To my mind, there are two overarching problems with Automatic Writing. First, this invalidates any human choice. The writers had no choice in what they wrote. But so much evidence suggests they did have a choice in what they were writing. Why tell both Daniel and John in Revelation not to write something down? The command not to write something demands free human agency.
Second, how is it possible each book by different authors exhibits such completely different personalities and writing styles? If God is the only author of all the books, and if Automatic Writing is the methodology, then that would negate any personality and style.
Yet the Greek language utilized in Hebrews, Acts, and Luke is scholarly, whereas the Greek of the writings of John is common and simplistic. Paul uses long ellipses and no one else does.
There is a third group of people who say that God used neither Automatic Writing nor Dictation methods. They hold that God “moved and carried along” the writers, but still left them free to write it with their personality and style.
As I have wrestled with this doctrine, if God truly gave humans enough freedom to write with their own viewpoints and personality–as this group suggests–it negates Inerrancy. There is no way for any human to be without error.
We don’t accept that from anyone today. Why are we accepting it from peoples that lived so long ago? There is no good reason to. If we are given any free agency at all, we will make mistakes. God has to possess us either by Automatic Writing or Dictation to prevent that.
The Bible Doesn’t Say it is Inerrant: No one actually disagrees with my assertion. No verse in the Bible says the Bible is without error. The doctrine is formed by necessity. Since God is the author, and since God has no errors, and since we can only know things DEFINITELY if they come from a reliable source, then by necessity the Bible must be without error. But let’s look at those assertions and see if they are true.
Is God the sole author of the Bible? This belief is based upon two verses in the New Testament. The most important of these is 2 Timothy 3:16, which reads:
“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness”
This is not an easy verse to translate. For two reasons, it may be impossible to really know what the writer meant. The word “God-breathed” (NIV) is the translation of the Greek word “theopneustos“. As I noted above, this is a hapax legomenon. Not only does it not show up anywhere else in the Bible, it is not used anywhere else in any document in the ancient Greek world. The writer here probably made up the word to express his meaning.
If the writer wanted to say the Bible was inerrant, there is a Greek word for that. If the author wanted to express that God was the origin of the Bible, there are at least two ways they could have written that. So why did he choose this word?
Of course, we don’t know. But if I had to guess, I believe he was using the metaphor of breath in the same sense that the Book of Genesis does. God breathed life into dust of the earth and the dust became a human. So too, God breathed life into the words of man and they became Scripture. Man is created by God, and was perfect when God created man. But man did not stay perfect or flawless.
This is actually a great description of the Bible. Through personality, personal agendas, cultural prejudices, Patriarchal systems, etc. the true words of God in a person’s heart are modified. However, they are still profitable for teaching, doctrine, and training others.
The other problem understanding this verse coincides with the word theopneustos. There is no verb “to be” in this verse. There is no “IS” there. This can mean many things. One possible translation is “All god-breathed writings profit for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” God-breathed is an adjective which modifies the noun “writings”. This can mean there are some scriptures which are not god-breathed. Or it can simply mean that scripture has the quality of being god-breathed. Nothing in this verse demands that these words teach the Bible as inerrant.
We generally accept that the writings of Martin Luther, Watchman Nee, CS Lewis, Hans Kung, Origen, Madame Guyon, Charles Swindoll, Beth Moore, and many others are profitable for teaching and training in righteousness. The issue always boils down to how much authority one writing has over another. I truly believe that people want an Inerrant Bible so they can speak with authority. And many who want to speak with authority use that authority to subdue others who would disagree with them.
Of course, not everyone does that. But too many do. You cannot argue effectively against that.
The other verses which speak of the possible inerrancy of Scripture are found in 2 Peter 1:20-21:
“20 Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. 21 For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.”
Let me break down the major ideas in these verses:
- This may only apply to actual prophecies in Scripture
- The origin is with God, but the transmission is through humans which I address above. Humans didn’t sit down and decide to write up the Bible. God led them to do it. That doesn’t mean what is written is inerrant.
- It affirms that the prophets are human–which implies their writings are as well. This speaks against dictation and automatic writing in my opinion.
- They spoke as God’s representatives. They carry a God-message. This does not absolutely necessitate inerrancy. I accept that a check carries a message from a person’s bank while being open to the possibility that the amount the check-writer put on it may be in error.
- The words “carried along” mean to convey from one place to another. They describe a vehicle moving someone from one place to the destination. The Holy Spirit moved their minds from one thought to another. Does this mean they followed the train of thought perfectly? It might imply that, but it doesn’t have to.
I have wrestled with all of this for a long time. There are many chapters in the Bible like Numbers 31 where I find it hard to believe in an inerrant Bible. But I still believe the Bible has much to say in those chapters. It doesn’t require inerrancy to learn from them.
I do not expect this essay to be comprehensive or convincing. I don’t care what you do with it. But I suspect many of you who are teachers and leaders in God’s church also struggle as I do. Can we not lay aside Inerrancy and get to the weightier matters of our Faith? If we can’t, I won’t be walking that direction for long.
I believe Inerrancy even gets in the way of determining what God wants to say to us. But that’s the topic for another discussion.