18
Oct

A Reflection on Biblical Inerrancy

indexAtheists are fond of scouring the Bible in search of contradictions or other types of error. The underlying logic is simple: Christians believe the Bible is the “inerrant” word of God; if the Bible is indeed meant to be inerrant, then evidence of errors in it – whether misstatements of facts, like historical events, or contradictory passages – would prove that it really isn’t God’s word.

One person put the question this way:

What does it matter that the bible is supposedly inerrant when so many pastors and others quote so many verses out of context (judge not lest ye be judged, where two or more are gathered God is there etc.) It’s frustrating to see just how often that happens. Today I was handed a Sunday school lesson book in which the Trinity with the water analogy – the Trinity is like ice/water/steam. I had to just throw my hands up in the air and ask: With so much misinterpretation, what does it even matter if the bible is inerrant or not — the message is being corrupted and miscommunicated on all sides!”

Yes, it’s true that Christians view the Bible to be inerrant. By that, they don’t mean to convey that God actually wrote the words, or that he intended the book to be a science or history text book – a book of facts. Parables, for instance, are meant to teach a moral or spiritual lesson, so it isn’t particularly relevant whether the persons or events described were real or fictitious.  Just as with metaphors generally, the hearer understands what underlying point is being conveyed, even if the thing used for comparison is an exaggeration. Generally, when reffering to the Bible’s accuracy, Christians mean that God inspired the writers of the Bible to reduce to writing the important message he intended to convey, a message about man’s origin, his fall from grace, and the means for reconciliation with God. It is a story that unfolds over the course of centuries, as prophecies of a Messiah to appear to God’s chosen people find their fulfillment in the person of Jesus Christ. It contains moral instruction, history, information and prophecies, as well as letters written to specific groups of people who were attempting to reform their lives in the way Jesus invited them to. Most importantly, it conveys the invitation to accept the gift of eternal life – our deepest desire –and provides the way to attain this gift.

Personally, I don’t think the Bible needs to be without error for me to remain a believer. I do believe it was inspired by God, but proof that it is mistaken in some way – about say the details of an historical event – would not be a deal-breaker, assuming the mistake does not involve core doctrines, like Jesus’ life or his resurrection. References to the sun rising or setting, for example, don’t concern me, even though God could have used that opportunity to point out that it is the earth that is moving relative to the Sun and not vice-versa.

The bigger problem, in my view, is in interpretation. Even assuming the Bible is correct about what it says, what difference does it make if people interpret it differently? Genesis for instance can be read literally, as a scientific account of creation, or as a metaphor designed to teach primitive people that a single, omnipotent God created, in contrast to the Egyptian views that some Jews had adopted during their enslavement. Moreover, there may be disagreement about what something means, even if the people disagreeing both are treating the text as literal, as opposed to metaphorical.  For instance, passages dealing with regulating slavery may have been literally intended for the recipients, but no longer meant to apply to us today, as economic and social systems evolved, and the Old Covenant was replaced with the New.

Why couldn’t God have made all this easier? Was He trying to confound us?  Perhaps, in a way, he was. Perhaps what he wanted was for us to spend a life-time studying his word, reflecting on it, discussing it, and praying for guidance. He wants it to be that tool suitable for all purposes, for reproof and correction for the godly man, as the epistle-writer says. In other words, the Bible wasn’t meant to be a science or a math book, where we can go for “the answer.” While it does provide answers, its purpose is to tell this wonderful story of God coming after his prodigal children, ready to welcome them back into the fold. There are lessons to learn about right living, of course, and there are core doctrines that we must “get right,” but it’s more than just that.

God reveals himself as a personal being. He is not a computer, spewing out facts and statistics. He is a father who wants to restore the relationship with us that we broke, and continue to break, with our rebellion. He wants that relationship to be based in love, freely given and received. So, it cannot be forced. Nor can it be reduced to downloadable bytes of information, for we too are not computers.

Yes, God could have made the Bible a different book. And in so doing, he could have made himself a bit less hidden. But that was not his purpose. It is up to us to make the effort to get to know him.

Posted by Al Serrato

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2 Comments

  1. DGS says:

    Al Serrato,

    What methodology do you utilize to differentiate between “passages…literally intended for the recipients, but no longer meant to apply to us today…” and passages literally intended for the recipients and continue to apply to us today? Seems to me you created a HUGE escape clause just about anything could walk through.

    If I were to claim, for example, the passages on homosexuality were “literally intended for the recipients, but no longer meant to apply to us today,” how could you argue against it?

    What method do you use?

    • Al says:

      DagoodS, there are a number of steps that you would take, including: examining the context of the sentence or paragraph in question; considering the historical conditions which form the context; assessing the apparent intent of the writer/speaker; comparing conclusions you are reaching with other apparently contradictory positions in other writings so as to eliminate such inconsistencies, if possible; understanding ambiguous passages in light of clear passages. Entire books and courses are devoted to this endeavor, which is way beyond the scope of a brief blog post. My experience is that many people are looking for quick answers – black and white views that support their particular position. They cherry-pick passages that they think help them. The Bible provides moral guidance on all the hot topics of our time, as it as always done. But the purpose of the Bible is not to provide quick answers; it is not an almanac. That was the point of my post.

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