If you have been a Christian for any amount of time, especially if you grew up going to church, you have probably heard that the Bible does not have errors. The fancy academic phrase for this view is “Biblical inerrancy.”
Most Christians I know believe this view about the Bible to be true. I did too for many years, but I no longer share this conviction for reasons that I will get to below in this post. Let me be clear though: I love the Bible. I read the Bible nearly every day. It has been one of the biggest (and main) sources of life and hope and joy and instruction on how I live my life with meaning and purpose. And yes, I meet God in the pages of Scripture. I am, in that sense, a “Bible believing Christian.”
More than all of this, I make it my life’s ambition to love and follow Jesus, and to do so in Christian community. At the same time, I cannot in good conscience hold to Biblical inerrancy due to the mounting evidence that strongly suggests otherwise.
For a great many Christians, when it comes to believing (or not believing) the Bible to be inerrant (error-free), what is at stake is not just maintaining a difference of opinion about the nature of the Bible. What is literally at stake is the foundation of their entire faith. For others, holding the view of Biblical inerrancy actually affects a person’s eternal destiny.
Many sincere Christians were taught by influential pastors and leaders that the Bible is “either all true or none of it’s true.” It’s what some theologians call the “all or nothing view.” It is argued that “if even just one part of the Bible is incorrect or false, then how could we trust that any part of the Bible is true.”
My intention in writing this post is in no way to cause people to turn away from their faith in Jesus, immediately switch political parties, or become atheists. While it’s true that some people do some or all of those things when they discover that the Biblical inerrancy view is on shaky ground, this does not mean it is the most reasonable and likely outcome (or that everyone should do the same). Anything and everything can be cause for why someone leaves their faith or religion; fear of losing our faith should not be a reason to not deal with the question of Biblical inerrancy.
Raising questions about Biblical inerrancy is not in and of itself a rejection of Jesus, the incarnation, or any other important pieces of Christian faith.
I have two intentions for this post.
My first intention is to show that many Christians carry some basic assumptions to the topic of Biblical inerrancy that are often taken for granted. In other words, these assumptions are so deeply connected to the Biblical inerrancy view that they don’t often realize how influential the assumptions are to maintaining the credibility of the view.
My second intention in writing this post is to demonstrate that instead of maintaining the view of an error-less Bible, it is far better ground for the Christian to root one’s faith in the person of Jesus himself.
While you may read this post and not become persuaded by my reasoning, I hope you will at least keep an open mind.
There are 10 assumptions often associated with the Biblical inerrancy view. Together, these 10 provide the reasoning behind why this view is so popular and often unquestioned. Stop and consider them with me and see for yourself if these assumptions hold up to scrutiny.
Assumption #1. In order for any of the Bible to be true and without error, all of the Bible must be true and without error (“the all or nothing view”). For many Christians, this assumption is attached to the doctrine of Biblical inspiration. If God really and truly did inspire the writing of the books of the Bible, then we should also assume that every verse of every passage of every book of the Bible is true and without error. In other words, the Bible can’t contain some parts that are true and some parts that are false, contradictory or inconsistent. Because the Bible is inspired (or “God breathed”), each and every part of the Bible must deliver factually true information from cover to cover irregardless of its literary genre, when it was written, or other contextual elements that may suggest otherwise. From human relationships to divine beings, to salvation and judgment, and everything else in it, the Bible is absolutely true. In other words, Biblical inspiration necessitates and requires that the Bible is in fact a perfect book with absolutely no errors (not even minor ones), no contradictions, and no inconsistent teaching.
- Response: Probably the biggest issue with this 1st assumption is the one historians bring to the conversation. Here’s the issue: doing historical research requires that we are honest about the material we are reading. That we are honest about the times and places and people involved, what they believed or assumed about the world (their worldview), and where our worldview and assumptions differ. The truth is no other book or document in all of world history, ancient or modern, is treated by historians with the assumption that if some of the information in those documents is historical then all of the information is historical (without question). But many Christians assert that the Bible is somehow exempt from this normal way of treating historical artifacts and writings. To show the shortsightedness of this assumption, take for example the way we treat professors at a university. No one claims (or at least no one should claim) that just because a professor shares a lot of helpful, true, and accurate information in their classroom, their students should also assume everything that comes out of their mouth is true and accurate without question. Sometimes college professors (even Christian ones) share their opinions and interpretations which may or may not be correct. Ancient writers and teachers also shared their opinions (take for example Paul’s opinions shared in read his first letter to the Corinthian church in chapter 7). Just because our Bible’s reveal truth about life, God, ourselves, and the love of God found in Jesus Christ, this does not automatically necessitate that everything in the Bible should be taken without question as “truth.”
Assumption #2: The Biblical authors are in perfect agreement with each other. In other words, there are no actual contradictions or inconsistent teaching. It is assumed that the books of the Bible do not contradict one another on the topics they speak to and that when there’s an “appearance” of a contradiction that is happening between books of the Bible, it is just that–only an appearance of a contradiction.
- Response: What if however, the “appearance” is more than an appearance? What if the appearance is an actual contradiction? Let me give two examples. First: there are two different tellings (or accounts) of ancient Israel’s history in the Bible. If you don’t believe me, read it for yourself. In particular, the first telling, recorded in the Samuel and Kings’ books (believed to be the same author), is significantly different than the 2nd telling recorded in the two books of the Chronicles. Some major differences when contrasting the two tellings is the descriptions and portrayals of the kings. One author attributes high morals to a number of kings (in terms of righteous living) and the other author attributes bad morals (unrighteous and idolatrous living) to those same kings! And the contrasts are no small differences! They are eye raising-jaw dropping contrasts. Some minor differences included are the amount of items kept in King Solomon’s palace and how many advisers he had. Second: there is a dramatically divergent instructions given to God’s people about how they should treat their enemies between the time of Moses and the time of Jesus and the early apostles (see Deuteronomy 2:32-34, 7:1-26; and 20:16-18 contrasted with Matthew chapters 5-7 and Romans 12:9-12 with specific attention given to Matthew 5:43-48). Some Biblical authors, like that of Deuteronomy believe God commands retaliation and violence against enemies. And some Biblical authors give instruction to do the exact opposite; instead of returning an “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” they instruct people of faith to love and pray for their enemies, to express self-sacrificial love and mercy out of the abundant grace and love God has shown them in Jesus Christ. These are just 2 examples of contradictions in our Bibles! At one level, just because there are two tellings of a story in the Bible or two commands (albeit big ones!) that don’t align perfectly, this doesn’t mean the Bible can’t be trusted in its entirety. We simply must not ignore or fudge over the the very real contradictions that we come across. To learn more about specific contradictions within our Bible, click on the following link: “Problems with Biblical Inerrancy.“
Assumption #3: While we can’t say the manuscripts of the Bible are inspired by God, the original autographs were. After doing research, some Christians do acknowledge that, “yes, there are some contradictions, discrepancies, and inconsistent teaching.” But…in order to maintain their strict view of Biblical inspiration and inerrancy, they claim that the original documents (autographs) were inspired and inerrant even though our copies are not.
- Response: One of the key issues with this 3rd assumption is that we don’t have any of the original documents of the New or Old Testament so using that as the main reason you believe in Biblical inerrancy is highly suspect. Also, if God wanted to give humanity a revelation to us that was perfect and error-free, wouldn’t it make sense that God would ensure even the copies of the books of the Bible were error-free? Let me clarify: I am not claiming the Bible is not inspired by God. I do believe it’s inspired. I am simply saying the reasoning given about the original documents is highly suspect. It demonstrates that for many Christians, the view they hold of Biblical inerrancy is so foundational, they seem to ignore the mounting evidence that suggests otherwise to the degree that they make extraordinary claims to convince themselves of their prior belief.
Assumption #4: If you reject Biblical inerrancy, you are on the “slippery slope” to losing your faith. At this point, someone is bound to say, “Well Peter if you begin to go down that route of asking “too many questions” then you are liable to compromise on other matters of faith and eventually deny Jesus is Lord and give up on God entirely. You going down a slippery slope man.”
- Response: I understand the good heart behind that quote because that was the same thing I believed for so many years and it was my go-to response I gave to others asking similar questions. At the same time, when you come to see the mounting evidence that the Bible is in fact not error-free (in the sense of no contradictions or inconsistent teaching), then what is the point of talking about a slippery slope? The reason I think people talk about a slippery slope is that they already assume and believe the Bible is inerrant, so for someone (like me) to suggest another interpretation or view seems like a compromise of one’s faith. But then again, if you become persuaded (as I have) that a view, like Biblical inerrancy, is not an accurate way of talking about the Bible, then of course we are not on a slippery slope so much as we are acknowledging that there are real issues with that view. As an expression of my faith, I now believe there is a better way of talking about the Bible other than error-free. And I believe there is a better foundation for my faith, which I will get to. Let me clarify for now that rejecting Biblical inerrancy is not in and of itself a rejection of Jesus, the incarnation, or other important pieces of Christian faith. It is an unnecessary correlation to make those one and the same thing. While it’s true that some Christians who reject the Biblical inerrancy view do in fact end up leaving their faith, that doesn’t necessitate you or I do or that it’s an inevitable outcome.
Assumption #5. Trusting God means not depending on human reason. The Bible passage Proverbs chapter 3 verses 5 and 6 is often shared with this in mind. It states, “Trust in the Lord with all of your heart and do not lean on your own understanding, but in all of your ways Him and He will direct your paths.” The argument goes that when Christians question Biblical inerrancy or no longer believe that view, they are depending on their “human understanding” or reasoning. Trusting God, it is argued, leads us to believe in Biblical inerrancy, and likewise, human reasoning leads us to question or reject it. Human reasoning, in other words, is pitted against trusting God as if they are mutually exclusive actions. But what if they are not mutually exclusive?
- Response: A lot can be said, but let me say right away that “trusting God” and using your brain are both good things we engage in. Our capacity to reason simply means that we can think, become aware, learn new things, and make decisions for our lives. The capacity to reason is a basic human function. Getting out of bed in the morning, eating your breakfast, getting dressed, go to work, love your family, all require the human capacity and ability to reason. They involve more than just human reason of course (like emotion and will), but they don’t require anything less. “Trusting God” is simply one way we use our capacity to reason. Many of us came to faith in Jesus, at least in part, because we believed it reasonable to do so. The point is that disbelieving or questioning Biblical inerrancy does not necessitate a compromise of our faith, but rather can be an expression of a thoughtful faith, one that led us to believe an alternative view that is more reasonable.
Assumption #6. Christians should never question our beliefs or matters of faith. This assumption followed the last because our ability to reason and our ability to ask questions are closely related. I separated them because they deserve closer attention. For a lot of people within the larger Christian community, asking questions is a problem. But what if a Christian who loves and follows Jesus genuinely finds that there are some significant questions we need to ask about the Biblical inerrancy view? Should they be silent? Disregard their questions?
- Response: For too often and for too long, questions have been seen as problems to faith rather than an expression of faith. You might want to reread that last statement over and over until it sinks in. Unfortunately when questions are not asked within the Christian community, learning stops! What is odd about assumption 6 is that on the flip side, Christian communities I have known over the years are often the first to say that we should question the beliefs and practices of people who are not Christians, whether because they are part of a different religion, spiritual practice, political party, or simply “in the world.” The irony is that when it comes to matters of faith and Christian doctrine, we were often told by pastors and other spiritual leaders to not ask too many questions (or perhaps, stop asking questions entirely!). It’s been said by many preachers, “Don’t think too much about other interpretations and opinions; just believe the Bible.” They say this not realizing their own ignorance that whatever they claim the Bible says or teaches is actually their interpretation. This kind of thoughtless and immature faith has to be called out. The other oddity about this assumption is that it’s a double standard. If you assume it’s important to ask questions in any other sphere of life but not in matters regarding our Christian faith (that somehow we should turn a blind eye to disconcerting teaching in our churches or in the Bible), then your assumption are highly suspect? Don’t you think? It has been far too long that Christians leave our brains at the door of our churches. We need to begin approaching Bible related topics & our faith in Jesus with a similar (if not more) eye to positive critique, open-heartedness, and the permission to ask questions of each other as we do with other subjects and situations we find ourselves in life.
Assumption #7. Truth is exclusively found in Christianity. Many Christians believe Biblical inerrancy because they were taught that the only “truth” in the world is found in the Christian faith and the Bible. That means that all other religions or spiritual paths are completely off kilter and that “truth” is exclusively found in Christianity. When you combine this assumption with the view of Biblical inerrancy, all of the sudden we have placed a lot of pressure on the Bible to have and deliver “all the answers.” But what if the Bible does not have “all” the answers?
- Response: Consider the following. Have you ever learned something (anything) in a setting outside of church? Like let’s say a public school setting, whether in grade-school, college, or during you trade-school? Have you read a book or watched a documentary on a subject (say World War 2 or the Holocaust or the signing of the Declaration of Independence), and you learned something new that you hadn’t known before? The “truth” is we all learn all the time or at least we are in situations where learning is possible no matter where we are (whether church, in school, on the job, or talking with your agnostic neighbor). If all truth is found only in Christianity and the Bible, then why would we ever read books by authors who aren’t Christians, watch any movies with actors who are not Christians, or have an intelligent conversation with anyone who is (you guessed it) not a Christian. I hope you see how foolish that is! According to Jesus and other New Testament authors, truth can be found in looking at the sparrows in a field, the foreigner from a different religion, the representative of an enemy country, a philosophy that is “worldly” and “unChristian” (Matthew 6:25-34, Luke 10:35-37, Acts 10-11, Acts 17:21-28). Truth about God, life, death, love, joy, human relationships, and ultimate hope is found under every corner of the earth (Read the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament book Ecclesiastes). We just need to keep our eyes open more to learning in places that some religious folk assume we can’t learn anything from. Just because we learned something new worth knowing from a “non-Christian” doesn’t mean it’s not the truth. As some modern philosophers today say “All truth is God’s truth.”
Assumption #8. Never trust your feelings. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve heard that said, I’d be a rich person today (pennies will work too if you’re trying to save money!). Many-a-pastor and Christian teacher has said “You can’t [ever] trust your feelings.” This statement is used sometimes to demonstrate that if we are “feeling” something is off about the doctrine of inerrancy, then we shouldn’t trust our feelings.
- Response: Question: Didn’t you come to faith in Jesus because you felt something? True you likely thought something too, but for the sake of argument, something happened inside you when you came to faith in Jesus Christ that you felt. The reality is the different parts of our brains are inextricably connected so that when we are making sense of something (i.e. reasoning something out), we are usually feeling something out too. It may not always be dramatic with an extremely heightened sense of deeply felt emotion, but we all have likely felt something associated with our Christian faith (both at conversion and still today). It’s true that some people have cut off all feeling due to psychological and spiritual trauma but this is a condition that requires counseling, prayer, and soul searching; not something to be considered a normative practice. How we think affects how we feel. And sometimes visa versa, how feel affects how we think. The point is that most likely you came to faith in Jesus and felt something. Something shifted for you internally. Not only are our emotions important to the life of faith, they are essential to it! Don’t settle for people telling you not to trust your feelings. Can our feelings deceive us at times? Sure. Absolutely. However, just because our emotions can deceive us doesn’t mean we need to safeguard our lives from our feelings permanently. Sometimes we go through times in life when we need to relearn how to feel and express our feelings. Dramatically negative experiences can throw our neurological system out of wack. All that to say, that sometimes our feelings are off. But the same is true with our thinking, our minds. Christians are all to eager to say “Don’t trust your feelings” and are less likely to say “Don’t trust your mind.” But the truth is both can be off kilter at times. Just as our thinking can be off at times, so can our emotions. That doesn’t mean we should throw in the towel on our feelings or our mind! They are a gift from God to help us sort out life with meaning and yes, truth.
Assumption #9 Fearing deception should be a daily discipline for Christians. Now it’s true that any one of us can be deceived about any given topic or situation on planet earth. In fact, we likely have even in minor matters of life. In some contexts, however, you get the sense that there’s a devil behind every bush (or perhaps behind every question). The possibility of being deceived in life is sometimes preyed upon by preachers using people’s fear as a way of keeping them believing certain things. Believing the Bible to be inerrant is no exception. It’s been said, “If we just stick with the Bible,” meaning if we just stick with the view of an error-less Bible, “then we are in good standing with God and can do no wrong.” An inerrant Bible, then, becomes the means by which we ward of deception.
- Response: Deception is real, true. But an overemphasis on it can be toxic to our lives and our faith. While being aware and having some concern about human deception is reasonable, no one should live with a high amount of anxiety about “being deceived” at the drop of a hat. Concern is one thing. To live in fear is quite another. To live with the kind of fear that debilitates your ability to live and be productive and maintain healthy relationships should make you give pause about the level of concern you live with. I have met many Christians (and I was one of them) who have lived with an exaggerated sense of fear that someone or a group of people are trying to deceive them. Or that the devil is behind every bush or that they are one conversation away from losing their faith. That might seem extreme to some of you, but there are glimmers of that kind of fear functioning in a large number of churches. The reality is too many people of faith were taught that fearing deception was an essential Christian value and practice. And this fear played into the assumption of “not thinking too much” about things outside of Christianity… which played into living in a Christian bubble where they formed a very uninformed faith… where truth was provided almost entirely by Christians… and every one in this world was going to hell in a hand-basket (that’s an interesting metaphor BTW).
Assumption #10: The foundation of the Christian faith is the Bible.
- Response: As I mentioned above, but I’ll say it again: I love the Bible. I read the Bible nearly every day. It has been one of the biggest (and main) sources of life and hope and joy and instruction on how I live my life with meaning and purpose. I am, in that sense, a “Bible believing Christian.” At the same time, I have come to see that there is an almost idolatrous tendency Christians have with regards to our holy book. We have made the Bible the central foundation of our faith rather than the One the Bible points to! How can I say this? Consider what Jesus once said to the spiritual leaders of his day, “You search the Scriptures because you believe that in them is eternal life, but it is they that speak of me” (John 5:39-47). For Jesus, it is possible to read the Bible religiously, talk about what we are reading with others, and attempt to live a life of faith in God but still miss Jesus! While it is true that the Bible points to Jesus, the Bible is not an end in and of itself. And St. Paul follows suite (check out 2 Timothy 3:16-17). Now while it’s true that believing in Biblical inerrancy does not automatically mean someone will “miss Jesus,” this view lends itself to putting an incredible amount of weight onto the Bible to deliver more than it can deliver instead of putting that weight on the person of Jesus himself. Food for thought. And perhaps prayer.
Where do we go from here?
So Peter if it’s true that the Bible is not error-free, then how do I trust any of the Bible to be true? Or for that matter, how do I know that what Jesus said was true? How do I know my relationship with God is real? How in the world am I supposed to be a Christian anymore when the foundation of my faith is no longer Biblical inerrancy?
Those are all great questions and I respond to them in the next blog post. For now, I will say from experience that it is possible to still trust Jesus and the Bible without expecting or assuming the Bible to be inerrant. I and many Christians in our world share this view and practice it daily. My point in showing the inadequacy of Biblical inerrancy is not to cause you or anyone else to lose faith, but instead to have the kind of faith that is thoughtful and meaningful. My hope is to encourage the kind of faith in Jesus that does not depend on faulty assumptions about the Bible or what it delivers. To encourage the kind of faith that is honest and informed, gracious and considerate, inclusive and empathetic toward each other and to those who have no stake (yet) in the Christian faith. Jesus once said of himself, “Whoever will come to me they can drink of the water of life.” This is what the Christian faith is really about. It’s about Jesus, not the Bible. As important and necessary to our faith the Bible is.