What’s the problem?
Evangelical Christians use the term “inerrancy” to describe their belief that the Bible, in its original documents, is completely free of error in all matters on which it speaks.1 This view goes back to the Bible’s own testimony concerning itself. In 2 Timothy 3:16-17, the apostle Paul writes, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.” Likewise, Proverbs 30:5 says that “every word of God proves true,” while Jesus himself calls the Bible the unbreakable Word of God (John 10:35). Based on this biblical testimony, Christians say that the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments were written by men who were moved by the Holy Spirit to communicate God’s truth. As the apostle Peter writes, “For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Peter 1:21). This divine inspiration didn’t override these men’s unique personalities and writing styles, but it did protect them from falsehood.
The doctrine of inerrancy has met with challenges throughout the years, not only by non-Christians, but even by some Christians as well. While non-Christians may try to deny the truth and authority of Scripture altogether,2 there are Christians who prefer to speak of “infallibility”3 but not inerrancy, or “limited inerrancy,” or “inerrancy of purpose/intent.”4 According to these more restricted definitions, while Scripture might be wholly true in matters of faith and practice, it may contain relatively minor errors in matters of, say, history and science.5
All of these alternative views of the Bible stem from a variety of objections to the traditional view. Some of these objections have to do with basic worldview differences—for example, a skeptic may deny the existence of God or the possibility of miracles, and therefore cannot affirm the truth of all Scripture. Other objections come from difficulties in reconciling biblical narratives with what we understand about the world through science—for example, how do we explain Joshua’s “long day” when the sun stood still in the sky (Joshua 10:12-13)? And other objections come from perceived contradictions between particular biblical passages—for example, did Jesus cleanse the temple at the beginning of his ministry (John 2:13-21) or at the end (Matthew 21:12-13)? The list of objections is long. At the same time, nearly all of these objections have been around for quite a long time, giving Christians plenty of time to respond to them. So one should generally be very suspicious of radical new claims that allegedly undermine the reliability of Scripture; odds are a little research will show that Christians have had adequate responses to such claims for decades or even centuries.
What’s at stake in the question?
Although we wouldn’t want to make inerrancy a doctrine essential for salvation, it is not a trivial issue either. Denying it would have very damaging implications for our theology, for a number of reasons. First, if the Bible really is the Word of God, then the trustworthiness of Scripture is bound up with the very trustworthiness of God. To say that the Bible is capable of error is to say that God himself is capable of error—and such a God would clearly not be the God of the Bible.
Second, a diminished view of Scripture casts a shadow of doubt on our ability to know about God and the way of salvation. If the Bible contains errors in matters of history or science (which, according to the critics, we can verify), how can we know if it is free of error in matters of faith or morality (which we can’t always verify)? What’s more, the distinction between “history” and “faith” is one that the Bible itself collapses. Jesus’ own resurrection, for instance, seems to be a matter for both. So our doctrine of Scripture is directly tied to our doctrine of God and our ability to know him and his will. Christian critics of inerrancy may still hold to orthodox views of God and salvation in spite of their lower view of Scripture, but they can only do this by being inconsistent.
How do we respond?
Inerrancy matters, but we can’t just sweep all the objections under the rug; we need to be able to address such challenges. One approach might be to tackle each and every alleged error or contradiction point-by-point, and many evangelical Christian authors have attempted to do precisely that.6 But the problem with such an approach is that it is 1) extremely time-consuming, and 2) unlikely to persuade a skeptic. Marshaling a cumulative case for inerrancy will not be enough to bring an unbeliever to Christ.
Instead, it is probably better to defend Scripture at the level of foundational beliefs and presuppositions. A good place to start might be by asking what the critics actually mean by “error” and whether they are jumping to their conclusions too hastily. Are they reading the Bible on its own terms, or are they importing the assumptions of their own worldview (like assuming miracles can’t happen)? And have they actually taken into consideration things like genre, style, and context, or are they reading the text too woodenly? And do they attempt to give Scripture the benefit of the doubt by assuming coherence, as we ought to with any other literary text? In other words, do they allow the Bible to be innocent until proven guilty?
Additionally, with unbelievers, one should first present a case that God actually exists and has spoken through Scripture. With believers who question inerrancy, one should start with the character of God and show his relationship to the Bible. That is, our doctrine of Scripture should be based on our doctrine of God. A simple argument for inerrancy would therefore run something like this:
- God cannot err.
- Scripture is God’s Word.
- Therefore, Scripture cannot err.
If that is not a persuasive enough argument, one could make a case based on Jesus’ own view of Scripture. It would run something like this:
- The Gospels are basically as reliable as any other ancient historical document.7
- The Gospels present evidence for Jesus’ Resurrection.
- The best explanation of the evidence for Jesus’ Resurrection is that Jesus was indeed resurrected. (See forthcoming post on Jesus’ Resurrection)
- If Jesus was indeed resurrected, that verifies his own testimony concerning himself, God, and Scripture.
- Jesus affirmed the truth, inspiration and authority of Scripture.8
- Therefore, we should also affirm the truth, inspiration and authority of Scripture.
Such an approach is much more effective than attempting to tackle every single apparent error or contradiction in the Bible, and it also helps us to see why inerrancy is so important. If God’s character is tied to Scripture, and if Jesus held to a high view of Scripture, then we should likewise confess a high view of Scripture.9
With this framework, we can approach Scripture from a posture of trust rather than skepticism, giving it the benefit of the doubt when we run into problematic passages. In other words, there should be a presumption of truth when we read the Bible (as with any other book!). Critics of inerrancy do not allow for this presumption of truth, so it skews their reading of the Bible in a direction that only confirms their skepticism. St. Augustine, one of the greatest theologians in the history of the church, perhaps put it best when he said: “If we are perplexed by any apparent contradiction in Scripture, it is not allowable to say, The author of this book is mistaken; but either  the manuscript is faulty,10  the translation is wrong, or  you have not understood.”11 In the end, we may not get answers to all the questions that skeptics raise about the Bible. But we don’t need to have all the answers in order to confess the trustworthiness of God’s Word. While it is helpful to seek resolutions to all the difficult passages, our own human ignorance should not undermine our confidence in the fact that God has spoken to us truly and authoritatively in the pages of the Bible.
Gleason Archer, The New International Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001.
Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2007.
Norm Geisler, Inerrancy. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1980.
R.C. Sproul, Defending Your Faith. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2009.
1 A fuller description of “inerrancy” can be found in the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy: http://library.dts.edu/Pages/TL/Special/ICBI_1.pdf
2 For example, agnostic New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman has made a career out of attacking the traditional Christian view of the Bible. See his books Misquoting Jesus (San Francisco: Harper, 2005), Jesus, Interrupted (New York: HarperOne, 2010), etc.
3 The term “infallibility” means “incapable of leading into error/falsehood.” Some Christians think this is a more modest claim than inerrancy, while others think it is actually a stronger claim.
4 This more limited view of inerrancy is supported, for example, by Fuller Theological Seminary. See their website: http://www.fuller.edu/About-fuller/what-we-believe-and-teach.aspx
5 Of course, this inevitably raises the problem of who gets to decide what counts as a “minor” error and what criteria to use to distinguish between what is major and what is minor.
6 See Gleason Archer’s New International Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001) or Craig Blomberg’s The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2007).
7 This is not the same as assuming inerrancy, so it is not a circular argument. Further, critics who deny this point are guilty of applying a double standard to the Bible by treating it with more suspicion than other ancient texts.
8 Several biblical passages reveal this: Matthew 5:18; 15:3-6; Mark 12:36; John 10:35; etc.
9 We should also remember that a proper view of Scripture is only possible through the illuminating work of the Holy Spirit in the believer’s heart. An unbeliever cannot read Scripture rightly, no matter how persuasive our arguments may be (John 6:44; Romans 8:7).
10 Skeptics often claim that the manuscripts of the Bible are so riddled with textual variations that they make the original documents unrecoverable. But this is a gross exaggeration of the facts, and most scholars agree that it is possible to accurately recover almost all of the biblical text. See Daniel Wallace, Revisiting the Corruption of the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2011).
11 St. Augustine, Reply to Faustus 11.5.