Is Biblical Inerrancy Necessary For Christianity? Is It Believable?
Biblical inerrancy, the belief that the Bible is completely error-free, is a reasonable expectation for a book that was inspired by the creator of the universe. Why would God inspire human authors to write down wrong or bad ideas? Why would God go through the trouble of supernaturally engineering a book, only to provide us with an end product that is unreliable and misguided in places? What would be the point? If the Bible cannot be trusted to be thoroughly truthful, accurate, and moral, then how can we know what to believe? Even if one holds that God chose to inspire a book that is mostly true, we still can’t know which parts are the real deal and which parts are simply the musings and opinions of ancient fallible men. We can guess, but we can’t proceed with confidence.
Inerrancy has been a hallmark of evangelical Christianity, and understandably so. Trust in the Bible’s accuracy undergirds Christianity’s constituent doctrines. Without the assurance of a divinely guaranteed text, on what grounds can one confidently believe that God is a Trinity or that Jesus died for our sins? Perhaps this was just human speculation.
Much of Christian theology is based on the writings of Paul, a man who claimed to have some kind of visionary experience with the risen Jesus (Paul never met Jesus during his earthly life). Some of the letters Paul wrote were preserved and included in the New Testament. Paul’s words, in effect, became God’s words. Much of Christian doctrine was meticulously crafted from the precise words Paul chose to use in these letters. But why would we assume Paul possessed the ultimate insider information about the reason for Jesus’ death on the cross, or how a person is justified before God, or the future return of Jesus, or even the morality of homosexuality? Sure, Paul probably believed his views were correct, but were they? Perhaps he was just riffing. If God was not guiding the hands of the biblical authors, then Christianity is not built on stable ground.
- Paul claims that death came into the world as a result of Adam’s sin. Did Paul really have access to such knowledge? It appears not, as science has made nonsense out of this idea. But if the Bible is inerrant, then either the science must be wrong or Christians must work to find a viable reinterpretation. Inerrancy precludes the most obvious explanation for Paul’s assertion: Paul lived two thousand years ago, so inevitably he was uninformed on matters of human origins (i.e. Paul was wrong).
- The author of 1 Timothy teaches that a woman should not have authority over a man because Adam was formed before Eve and also because women are more easily deceived than are men. Is it true that women are more easily deceived? If this passage was inspired by the creator of the universe, then we’re dealing with a very credible source. But if it is just the viewpoint of an old man who lived in an ancient patriarchal culture, then there’s no reason at all to prize his opinion.
- The God of the Bible says, “Utterly slay old men, young men, maidens, little children, and women” (Ezek 9.6). Did God really encourage the slaying of little children, or is it more likely that this is how ancient tribal people interpreted the will of their gods?
Are the above examples just human artifacts that God allowed into the text? This would definitely make more sense than claiming they were inspired by an all-knowing, perfectly good God. But this is a tricky position to hold. If one admits that some of the text is wrong, troubling questions arise. Can we reliably separate the divine bits from the human bits? And why would God allow bad ideas into holy scripture? That would be terribly irresponsible to canonize verses that demean women and condone slavery and violence. Such verses have contributed to considerable suffering through the centuries. At this point, unless one is willing to defend the morality and truthfulness of these verses, one must seriously entertain the possibility that none of the text is inspired.
But this is a no-go zone for many Christians. In their view, the “faithfulness of God” ensures that the Bible is trustworthy. Even when the Bible is difficult (which is often), we can trust that it is (somehow) true, because God speaks truth. (The possibility that these texts were not from God just doesn’t compute.) If the Bible “appears” wrong, it’s because our understanding is wrong. If the Bible claims that the sky is a dome that separates the waters below from the waters above, or that people used to live to be 900 years old, it is not wrong, it is we who do not understand the literary genre. When the Bible describes a massive exodus out of Egypt and then modern archaeology disconfirms the story, the Bible is not wrong; the fault is ours for imposing modern standards of doing history. The apologist argues for some kernel of historical truth in the story. We don’t know exactly what happened, but we can rest assured that something happened — and we can continue calling the Bible inerrant. As Old Testament scholar James Barr explained, “Inerrancy is maintained only by constantly altering the mode of interpretation, and in particular by abandoning the literal sense as soon as it would be an embarrassment.”
All that being said, in the face of modern science, scholarship, and morality there is an increasing discomfort with the doctrine of inerrancy among evangelicals. Some are opting to describe the Bible as infallible, which is meant to connote something less than inerrant. This is bizarre if you ask me. Even though the word infallible means absolutely trustworthy; exempt from error, the evangelical appropriation of the term curiously allows for a Bible that can have factual errors but is completely trustworthy on matters of salvation — the parts that Christianity needs to be true. I guess this is one way to get out of a tight spot, but it smells fishy. Brandishing a strong word like infallible, while sidestepping the responsibility of defending inerrancy is like having your cake and eating it too.
The utility of subscribing to infallibility is clear: it protects the integrity of foundational Christian doctrines. While God might have allowed the authors’ humanness to seep into the Bible, he ensured the purity of the most important parts. I hate to agree with the fundamentalists, but any paradigm that allows for human error in the Bible, brings us back to the issues discussed earlier. How can we reliably separate what’s real and what’s not? The Bible is too messy for that. Did God really call for the men of a city to stone non-virgin females to death on their wedding nights? Did he really call for kids to be hacked up by swords? These passages convey the character of the biblical God — the God we’re supposed to believe in. If they’re not accurate, why would God ever allow their inclusion. (If they are, Christians are stuck defending some very bad things.) Look at the mess Christian theology is in from the Bible’s human origins stories. The historicity of Adam and Eve is bound up with issues of salvation (check out this book!). Is the story of Adam and Eve just ancient human speculation that can be discarded, or does the story of salvation demand their historical fall from grace? I don’t see how the Bible can be both errant and, when it counts, completely reliable. And maybe more importantly, I really can’t find a reason to believe it is inerrant, infallible, or even inspired. If the sexism, slavery, violence, inconsistent theology, and less-than-accurate history and science made it in the canon, why should I believe there was any divine oversight at all?
Post Script: I suppose one could reject inerrancy and infallibility, accept the Bible’s warts and other blemishes, and yet still hold to inspiration. For whatever reason, this is the strange book that God gave us. But this is a game changer. Christianity devolves (or maybe evolves is a better word) into something different — a religion of mystery, uncertainty, and one that is not conducive to doctrine — more of a space to wrestle with big questions than a religion. But again, why assume the Bible had any supernatural oversight whatsoever?