Biblical Inerrancy: A Conversation

I have witnessed (and been a part of) many arguments between the ardently religious and the passionately anti-religious over the nature of the Bible. Certain strands of Christianity contend that the Bible is without error, completely perfect, and directly from God. Many non-religious critics of the Bible take this as their starting point for criticism, and in pointing out inconsistencies or contradictions, believe that they have diminished the veracity and value of the Bible. For both sides, if the Bible is not “perfect,” then it is useless.

Where did this notion of the Bible being “inerrant” come from? It is widely assumed that Christians throughout history have always believed the Bible is inerrant, and thus, any criticism, whether historical, literary, linguistic, theological, or what have you, is perceived as a direct attack on the Bible. However, the concept of inerrancy is a relatively recent invention that was created in reaction to Modernity and Enlightenment ideologies. In the year 1881, two theologians from Princeton, Archibald Hodge and Benjamin Warfield, published a work that sought to present the Bible as being completely free of error. As they wrote: “The scriptures not only contain but are the Word of God, and hence all their elements and all their affirmations are absolutely errorless and binding on the faith and obedience of men.” Every statement and word made by the Bible was absolute “truth to the facts.” (See A.A. Hodge and B.B. Warfield, Inspiration, Presbyterian Review, pg. 2, 1881)

It should be noted that this phenomenon of inerrancy can only be found in recent Protestantism. However, this is something that even the Protestant reformers would not have endorsed. As Luther wrote “When one often reads that great numbers of people were slain - for example, eighty thousand - I believe that hardly one thousand were actually killed.” (See Luther’s Works, Volume 54, Philadelphia, 1967, pg. 452) Luther recognized that hyperbole was used in the writing of Scripture, and this did not deter Luther from seeing the Bible as sacred or holy, it was simply an acknowledgement that the Bible is more complex than just a mere presentation of “the facts.”

Another famous Protestant reformer, John Calvin, likewise noted that the Bible does not fit into simplistic categories. As he wrote almost mockingly “Who even of slight intelligence does not understand that, as nurses commonly do with infants, God is generous in measure to ‘lisp’ in speaking to us? Thus such forms of speaking do not so much express clearly what God is like as accommodate the knowledge of him to our slender capacity. To do this he must descend far beneath his loftiness.” (See Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 1, Chapter 13, Section 1). In simpler language, Calvin saw that God accommodated to our weakness and finitude. The analogy he makes of nurses speaking to infants is accurate: God speaks “baby-talk” to us and communicates in terms that the authors of the Bible could understand and put into words.

This is not exclusive to the Protestant movements that emerged later in church history. We can find a similar perspective amidst ancient church fathers who were highly educated and extremely influential in the formation of the church. One being none other than Origen of Alexandria, who believed that whenever we find glaring inconsistencies in the Bible, this is not a road block to cause us to dismiss the Bible, but to force us to look deeper. Indeed, Origen wrote that the “impossibilities and incongruities [in Scripture] present a barrier to the reader and lead him to refuse to proceed along the pathway of the ordinary meaning.” (See Origen, On First Principles, 4.2.9) The point being that contradictions in the Bible are not somehow a “problem,” they instead show us that we cannot be superficial in our reading of Scripture, and when faced with a contradiction, rather than trying to twist two passages into say the same thing, we must ask better questions as to why the contradiction is there in the first place. There are myriads of apologetic movements that aim to downplay if not outright ignore contradictions in the Bible, and I believe this is a seriously misguided effort. If two different authors present conflicting information, we must ask “Why did they write different things?” More often than not, you will find that there is a significant reason why this is, and we will find that there are multiple perspectives attesting to truth, but fleshing them out in significantly different ways.

One example of this is in the New Testament, in 1 Corinthians 8, when St. Paul explains that eating meat sacrificed to idols is really not that big of a deal - it is something that can be done according to conscience. Conversely in Revelation chapter 2, the writer explicitly condemns eating meat sacrificed to idols. Surely there are interpretive gymnastics that can be done to “explain away” the alleged “problem” here. However, I think we should simply ask “Why did they write different things?” I think there is a plausible explanation.

St. Paul was working to unite Jews and Gentiles as followers of Christ - and the communities in Corinth were fighting and creating division over things that were not important. What Paul is saying here is that, essentially “This isn’t worth fighting over, if it doesn’t bother you, do it, if it does bother you, don’t do it. Don’t impose your personal conscience onto someone else and insist that they eat meat sacrificed to idols, even though you know that it is just meat, because they may have serious (albeit seemingly superstitious) reservations about eating it.” This letter of St. Paul was probably written in 53-54 CE. Revelation was likely written around 90 CE, in a completely different setting, to a different audience, experiencing different things. The author of Revelation may have been a Jewish Christian who survived the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome in 70 CE, and after the death of Nero, much of the persecution of Christians subsided for a time. Under the reign of Domitian, some Christians began to make compromises and accommodations to the Empire - this is likely what fueled the author of Revelation to write some of the scathing things that he did. When he condemns the eating of meat sacrificed to idols, it is because he saw followers of Jesus carelessly taking on characteristics of the Roman Empire, eating meat sacrificed to idols being one. Had the author of Revelation and St. Paul sat down to talk about this, they very well may have disagreed.

All this being said, there are still vital principles that we can take from both: St. Paul is calling people to be united and not to squabble and condemn one another over peripheral things. The author of Revelation is calling people to be faithful to Jesus and not accommodate themselves to the ways of the Empire. Paul would say “Look, it doesn’t matter what you eat, we are here to serve and follow Jesus.” The writer of Revelation would say “Don’t think that you can mimic the empire and fully follow Christ at the same time.” These are both true and important for us today.

This is only one example showing that Bible cannot be crammed into rigid categories of “inerrancy.” When I see people arguing about whether or not the Bible is inerrant, I can only think “You are completely missing the point.” When a Christian (such as myself) does not use a term like “inerrant” to describe the Bible, they are often decried as heretics. As we saw earlier, it is easy to find influential Christians throughout history that would have been shocked by this, and the notion that the Bible is “inerrant” is a rather new idea.

Letting go of the notion of inerrancy is often frightening and disorienting for many people. I can recall this part of my own journey being riddled with anxiety, terror, and much inner turmoil. When you are told that the Bible is “the only absolute truth,” it is very painful for this to be deconstructed. This raises the question, where do we go from here? I think as Luther once said is a good starting point, as he once wrote: “In the whole of scripture… there is nothing else but Christ, either in plain words or involved words.” The Scriptures serve as a sacrament in which we come into contact with the living Christ through the words of our spiritual ancestors. They inform our journey by continually challenging us, imparting wisdom, inviting us to ask questions and wrestle, and find encouragement on our own pilgrimage. As the words of Jesus read “You search the Scriptures because you think they give you eternal life. But the Scriptures point to me!” (John 5:39) The Bible points beyond itself - when you find contradictions within the Bible or something that doesn’t line up with history or archeology, it important to not get lost in the labyrinth of questions that can be asked therein. Instead, it must be seen that the Bible is a witness to the living Word of God, who is Christ.