A Plea For Honesty and Realism
Ask an evangelical Christian today what the center and heart of Christianity is, and they’re likely to say something like “Jesus is the Son of God,” or “Jesus saves sinners.” But they’re just as likely, in my experience, to say something like “the Bible is God’s inerrant and infallible Word.” A recent interview with Norman Geisler by the Billy Graham Institute underscores the intense manner in which many Christians are doubling down on “biblical inerrancy” as a sort of moral stand against non-believers and the greater culture.
So this is an awkward but opportune moment for me to chime in and explain why I do not subscribe to the doctrine of inerrancy and why I think it’s actually harmful to both faith and personal sanity.
Biblical Inerrancy is a Christian doctrine about the factuality, reliability and authority of the Bible. It comes in harder and softer flavors, the hardest claiming the text is infallible in all forms and softer versions asserting that the original texts were correct in every fact they affirmed. The major implication of the doctrine, according to its adherents, is that every teaching of the Bible is as true and reliable as every other, and that God’s own authority is carried by every word. This is meant to give the Christian believer a measure of confidence and certainty as they read and proclaim the Bible.
Inerrancy in History?
Proponents of inerrancy assert that it has always been a central part of historic orthodox Christianity. While it’s true that the inspiration and authority of Scripture have always been integral to the faith, “inerrancy” is a distinctly modern category. The early Church writers like Clement of Alexandria spoke often about the sacred and inspired nature of the Scriptures, but they had no concept of inerrancy (and many like Clement himself subscribed to mystical and allegorical readings of the Bible that most inerrantists would reject). The question of factual veracity as a measure of reliability and value is a product of post-Enlightenment thought.
Historically, biblical inerrancy is a major tenet of the American Evangelical movement of the 20th Century. The concept developed throughout the 1950’s and 60’s but was expressed publicly and explicitly in the “Chicago Statement On Biblical Inerrancy” in 1978 (within my lifetime!). This is not an ancient doctrine fighting against modern sensibilities, it is a modernist attempt to describe the authority of the Bible in the most extreme terms available.
Inerrancy in Scripture?
What does the Bible say about its own inerrancy? Keeping in mind everything we just observed, and setting aside the question of whether any text could conceivably establish its own “inerrancy,” it is helpful at this point to clarify a few things about the Bible and the way it talks (or seems to talk) about itself. For instance:
- Our term “the Bible” does not refer to a single work of literature, but to a collection of ancient texts that were celebrated and preserved by religious communities and collected together many centuries after they were written.
- In biblical texts, the word “scripture” does not refer to the canonized collection of texts we call “the Bible,” it simply refers to writings that were known and cherished by the author and community which produced that text. Many writings that were considered sacred to ancient communities were never canonized into the Hebrew or Christian Bibles.
- The phrase “word of God” in Scripture does not refer to the Bible. In the Hebrew Scriptures it refers to the wisdom, decrees, and will of God expressed through creation, providence, and messengers like the prophets. In the New Testament, Jesus is the “Word of God” embodied.
And so, a few quick examples of how this affects our reading of Bible passages frequently quoted in support of biblical inerrancy:
- “The words of YHWH are flawless!” Psalm 12:6. The poet David compares YHWH’s promises to refined silver.
- “Every word of God proves true!” Proverbs 30:5. The prophet Agur celebrates God’s reliable character.
- “All scripture is breathed out by God, and is useful for teaching, for rebuke, for improvement, for training in righteousness.” 2 Timothy 3:16. Paul implores a younger minister not to forsake the sacred writings of the early church community when teaching and serving his congregation.
Bible texts have much to say about God’s own “words” and the value of the “scriptures” cherished by the ancient Jewish and Christian communities, but the onus of authority and infallibility is always on God and never on the writings themselves.
The Heart of the Problem
You might assume at this point that I’m mounting a technical or scientific argument against inerrancy. While I think I’ve already demonstrated how that might work, it’s actually not what I’m on about. I certainly have no desire to convince my fellow Christians that their Bible contains errors, general or specific. I don’t find inerrancy to be historical, biblical, or technically tenable, but my real objection is to the ideological assumptions behind the doctrine.
The most revealing rhetoric about inerrancy, in my opinion, comes in response to the question, “Why do we need it?” Or more to-the-point, “What do we lose without it?” Norman Geisler’s answers in the interview linked above are typical:
“If we can’t trust the Bible, then we’ve lost the very foundation of our faith.”
“Once you deny the inerrancy of the Bible, you don’t have any basis for your teaching. And you’ve lost the power of God because if it’s not the Word of God—if what the Bible says is not what God is saying—then how can we preach it with authority and life-transforming ability?”
Not only does Geisler reinforce the traditional oversimplification that “God’s Word” = “the Bible,” his answers betray the fear and faulty assumptions at the heart of the inerrancy claim. If we lose inerrancy, he says, we lose the “foundation of our faith” and the “power of God” which gives us “authority” when we preach the Bible.
- Why? Why would losing the claim of inerrancy cost us our faith? Is our faith a vulnerable and open-hearted trust in the good character of God, revealed in Jesus and testified in the Bible, or is it an anxious and tenuous faith in a system of facts, a house of cards that might come crashing down at any moment? Is our certainty just a mask to hide that fear?
- Where did we get the idea that we need this “power” and “authority”? Did Jesus teach his followers to seek power and authority? Is the aim of our faith to dominate and control others into thinking and believing like us? Is the Bible a living and breathing testimony to the traditions of God’s people, or a magic trump card with which we can “win” the culture? Are we being pious or just arrogant?
My point is not that everyone who holds to inerrancy is just afraid and arrogant. In my experience the doctrine’s adherents are devout and godly people with the absolute best of intentions. But those lofty intentions are part of the reason why the troubling implications of the doctrine have gone largely unexamined. I think that an honest and humble reassessment is in order.
Finding A Better Way Forward
I understand the appeal of inerrancy, I really do. I love the Bible, and my desire to “prove” and “defend” its integrity is what led me to study it and ultimately to attend seminary. But the Bible I encountered in my studies was not a catalog of theological propositions and cultural truth bombs, it was a diverse library of stories and songs and poems and histories and visions that cried out across the millennia with a startling and broken humanity, even as they testified to the divine. Inerrancy, in my estimation, is part of a modern approach to the Bible that often silences those voices and even puts words in their mouths. There has to be a better way.
For the sake of discussion, I offer two examples of “better ways” of thinking about the Bible and its value and authority for the Christian:
- N.T. Wright’s Scripture and the Authority of God is, in many ways, a very traditional and “orthodox” take on the question of Scripture. What I find so refreshing about it is the clarity and realism it has about the nature of the texts and how they work. Wright compares the Bible to a signpost, set up by helpful people, which points you on your way, but your business is ultimately at your destination. Wright’s full of stuffy little British analogies like that.
- Inspiration and Incarnation by Peter Enns is one of the more insightful and helpful books I’ve read on this subject. Enns suggests an “incarnational” approach to understanding what the Bible is and isn’t. If God’s infallible love had to be embodied as a mortal human being so that we could encounter it, surely we can appreciate the subjective, human origins of the Bible while still acknowledging its sacred payload. (Enns was fired from an evangelical seminary for his views.)
These are the first two examples I could think of, and they aren’t perfect. That is to say they are errant, but I’m afraid those are the only types of methods available to us. What they have going for them is a combination of intellectual honesty and intense devotion to the texts of the Bible.
My original title for this post was “Embracing Errancy.” I nixed it because it’s a bit misleading and over-the-top, but I still like the phrase. I’m not talking about embracing the factual errancy of the Bible, but embracing our own errancy, and the errancy of our traditions. Our beliefs and interpretations, like the Bible itself, can be powerful tools, signposts pointing us in the right direction. But we will always struggle with the temptation to trade vulnerability and trust for certainty and pride. That’s when our doctrines and even the Bible itself can become idols.