Would an Errant Bible Be a Big Deal?

Sometimes it feels like my blog is kept alive by people named “Luke.” I appreciate both Luke S. and Luke A. (aka “Cogito”) and their willingness to discuss these issues with me. Cogito brought up so many important things in the previous post on inerrancy that I thought I would respond with another post instead of crowding my comments section with a lengthy response.

Cogito wrote:

“I think that you bring up a good point that there is a difference between ‘erring’ and ‘being mistaken’ in literature.”

I do not remember making that point, nor would I consider it a good point to make. In my view, to err and to be mistaken are the same thing. If I somehow communicated a difference between these two things, that was not my intent. Please reread my post and, if it doesn’t clear up for you, then cite for me the relevant portion so that I may better clarify my intention. I believe that this misinterpretation, wherever it may have arisen, has affected much of what you wrote in your comment.

“There are plenty of examples of errant writings that are celebrated and enjoyed, both in poetry, philosphophy, as well as holy scriptures. Take a look at Shakespeare, his plays and poems are packed with inconsitencies and ‘errors’ that do not take away from the beauty or meaning of the texts. Or take a look at Goethe, who almost celebrated inconsistencies saying that to remove them would basically destroy the text itself. This is a big point that a lot of the Higher Criticism crowd missed so many years ago.”

Well, it is certainly true that inerrancy is not a requirement for literature that is to be celebrated, enjoyed, even revered to some degree. But neither Shakespeare nor Goethe ever wrote anything claiming to be the authoritative Word of God. When I read Shakespeare, I am looking for beauty, artistry, inspiration (not in the 2 Timothy 3:16 sense), entertainment, and some penetrating insight into the human condition. But I never approach Shakespeare thinking that whatever he says, I am morally obligated to believe. So I can live with errors in Shakespeare. But if the Bible comes to us as the Word of God written, demanding absolute submission to it in whatever it claims (provided, of course, that it is interpreted properly and in light of the whole canon), then how can I believe that it contains errors? Does the Bible ask me to believe things that are not true? (Do not confuse “true” here with “true in a literalistic way”; that is not what I am arguing; see below for a fuller discussion of what I mean by the “truth” or “inerrancy” of Scripture).

“That being said, I think that you did a nice little dance to save the term ‘inerrancy’. If you’re not going to treat the Bible as ‘inerrant’ then why use the term? Why not just call it the Word of God? I think the Word of God commands that ‘whatever it means, it should be believed and obeyed’.”

Again, I think this is based on a misinterpretation of my post. I do treat the Bible as inerrant. As for the Bible being called the “Word of God,” I fully agree and echo David when he writes, “The law of the LORD is perfect, restoring the soul” (Psalm 19;7). To my mind, the Word of God can be nothing other than perfect, without flaw, inerrant, true in all that it affirms. But here I must offer a definition of what I mean by this term “inerrancy” in order to avoid misunderstanding. The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy has a number of affirmations and denials, one of which reads as follows:

“We affirm the propriety of using inerrancy as a theological term with reference to the complete truthfulness of Scripture. We deny that it is proper to evaluate Scripture according to standards of truth and error that are alien to its usage or purpose. We further deny that inerrancy is negated by Biblical phenomena such as a lack of modern technical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, the reporting of falsehoods, the use of hyperbole and round numbers, the topical arrangement of material, variant selections of material in parallel accounts, or the use of free citations.”

The inerrancy of Scripture must be measured by the intentions of its authors. If the purpose of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John was not to give us a strict, chronological, and complete account of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, then we cannot judge them to be in error if that is not what we have. We must evaluate their truth claims based on the degree of precision that they themselves intended.

Let me give a modern example. Let’s say Jones made $51,782.61 last year. In a conversation with a friend, Jones says, “I made $50,000 last year.” Is this an error on his part? No, it isn’t, because his purpose is not to be technically precise. The degree of precision that he intends to communicate is well-known in the communicative context. His friend knows that $50,000 is a round number and that it would be exceedingly odd for someone to make exactly that amount in a year. Now, if Jones says, “I made $150,000 last year,” then he would be in error, because that would communicate falsehood within the parameters of precision of that particular communicative context. However, when Jones fills out his income tax returns, a round number will not do. Different levels of precision are required for different contexts. It is illegitimate to measure a statement by a degree of precision that its author does not intend.

Furthermore, when I argue that the Bible is inerrant, I do not mean that everything that it says must be interpreted literalistically, by which I mean in an overly-literal manner (I intend a forthcoming post on the distinction between “literal” and “literalistic” to help clarify this often misunderstood topic). For example, does inerrancy require that the story of the Good Samaritan be historical fact? Of course not! Only a literalistic hermeneutic would distort Scripture by turning the story into something that it is not. Jesus taught with stories and parables, and Luke presents the story of the Good Samaritan as one such story Jesus told. Nothing in Luke’s narrative indicates that it was a historical account; however, Luke’s account that Jesus did in fact teach the story is historical, and his account of that fact is inerrant. As for the story itself, can it be considered inerrant if it does not make a claim to provide a historical account of fact? Yes. The story of the Good Samaritan is inerrant in that the truth that it teaches is God’s will for us. Jesus offers an authoritative interpretation of the command “Love your neighbor as yourself” by means of a story that he created. Genres of Scripture must be attended to carefully in order to avoid making inerrancy something that it is not, namely, an indefensible distortion of Scripture that squeezes every part of Scripture into historical narrative, when clearly not everything in Scripture is that. One of the persistent problems of biblical interpretation is how to determine what should be interpreted as history and what should not (I think of Genesis 1-2 primarily in connection with this question).

“If the Bible contains errors, so what? I don’t think anyone can reasonable argue that it does not. The real argument shouldn’t be whether it is free from error, but what is the meaning behind what was written–when it was written–and what does it mean to me now.”

Many people (very, very smart and reasonable people!) have argued that the Bible contains no errors. In fact, this has been the orthodox position of the church from the beginning. Inerrancy only began to be questioned around the time of the Enlightenment. See John Woodbridge’s Biblical Authority for a historical survey of the church’s historic position on this.

But what about the “so what” question? What would be the big deal if the Bible contained errors? I can think of many problems that would create:

(1) It would conflict with Scripture’s own testimony to itself, thereby undermining Scripture’s credibility.
(2) It would conflict with Jesus’ testimony to Scripture, thereby undermining Jesus’ credibility.
(3) It would shift the locus of authority from Scripture to the interpreter, because it would force the interpreter to decide where the Bible is right and where it is wrong. But on what basis would one make this determination, and if one sits in judgment over the Word of God in this way, then where is the real authority?
(4) It would lead to a canon within the canon, because portions of the Bible considered more reliable would inevitably begin to exercise a controlling influence over its “less reliable” portions. But again, on what basis could one determine what is “more reliable” and what is “less reliable”? In all likelihood, these determinations would reflect the subjective preferences of the interpreter.
(5) It would call into question the whole edifice of Christian theology. If the Bible cannot be trusted when it speaks to issues pertaining to history and science (things that are empirically verifiable), why should we trust what it says about spiritual matters (things that are not empirically verifiable)? In other words, if I consider the Bible to be wrong about things that I can verify, why should I trust it to be right about things that I can’t verify (such as the nature and existence of God, his purpose for mankind, salvation in Christ, etc.)?
(6) It would make God less than completely true in all that he has spoken, even though he knows all truth. It would, in effect, make God a liar. Some appeal to the doctrine of accomodation here to reject this conclusion, but I reject that argument. Yes, I believe God has accomodated himself to human language and understanding in his revelation, but I deny that this necessarily entails error. That is essentially what I argued in my previous post about the human character of Scripture and its compatibility with inerrancy.

These are the primary reasons why I think this issue matters.


3 Responses to “Would an Errant Bible Be a Big Deal?”

  1. L.B. Jeffries Says:

    Well, as a random ‘Next Blog’ surfer, my man here is touching on lots of fun things. I’ll just throw out a little list that I think responds to most of it.

    1) The Episcopalian church is basically a text book example of what happens to a faith when they engage in the list you very poignantly outline. Is a gay bishop or female clergy bad? Not in my opinion, but their church attendance is at an all time low. So yeah, not taking a literal approach to the Bible is bad, in the sense that most people don’t want to sit and hear you talk about not knowing exactly what was meant.

    2) I know the guy acknowledges the Bible has errors in it, but lets go into full detail about what these errors mean instead of skimping the issue. Any asshole who watched ‘Dogma’ knows basic Old Testament mythology that direct contact with God will kill a person. Moses could only be exposed to his rear end (whatever that is), and he had glowing skin and needed to wear a veil for the rest of his life as a result. Any debates about the purity of prophetic religious intent only need to remember Ezekiel sicking a bear on a bunch of kids throwing rocks at him to remember what people with only marginal divine authority used it for. The point of number 2 is that it isn’t that the Bible argues with itself, it’s that it fully explains that its own nature is undefinable. The answer is there, but only for those who ‘follow’ it. What, on any level, does this have to do with believing every word is true? I’m going to give a thumbs-up to Lao Tzu on this one, but the guy who actually knows what he’s talking about is the guy who believes he has no idea in comparison to what God actually meant. Because, to be roundabout, that would make your head blow up if you actually fully understood the word of God.

    3) When Jesus ascertains the validity of the scripture (and I really never understand why people miss this one), isn’t he talking about the Old Testament? Since, y’know, the Nicene Council wouldn’t be around for another couple of centuries.

    4) And here is the really big one: doesn’t the practice of believing in an inerrant Bible inherently imply the need to not only interpret the Bible loosely, to accomodate for all those funny logic problems like how Genesis 1-2 don’t sync up, but in all the glory of human fallibility, necessitate that man CHANGE the Bible’s meaning to his own will?

  2. Luke Smith Says:

    I appreciate your interest in enagaging with me on this issue. I tried to respond here last night but was not able to get on the page…so I posted my response on my blog. Take a look.


  3. Cogito Says:


    Sorry I’m flipping between these two threads, but I never did respond to your post.

    First, I’ll have to say that I have never heard the definition that you read above, and I would say that 99% of the laity who hear the term inerrancy does NOT think it means anything close to what you have described (See Luke’s blog). This is what I was trying to get at in my comment the other day…and why I think the term itself causes tremendous problems.

    I do think that the definition that you gave doesn’t stand well though. Under that definition I can say that most any text is inerrant. This is the exact point that Goethe made (that I described before) when he said:

    “In poetry there are no contradictions. These exist only in the real world, not in the world of poetry. What a poet creates, that must be taken as he has created it. As he has made his world, it is. What issues from a poetic mind wants to be received by a poetic mind. Any cold analyzing destroys the poetry and does not generate any reality. All that remains are potsherds which are good for nothing and only incommode us.”

    Just replace poetry with scripture.

    That being said let me respond to your points below (Really just #5)

    1) Yes
    2) Point made
    3) There’s no way around this, you’ve already admitted to doing this and chided others for doing this
    4) This also is inevitable in any work, not just scripture
    5) Let me give you a quote from Aquinas’s Summa Theolgica:

    “Human reason is very deficient in things concerning God. A sign of this is that philosophers, in their inquiry into human affairs by natural investigation, have fallen into many errors, and have disagreed among themselves. And consequently, in order that men might have knowledge of God, free of doubt and uncertainty, it was necessary for divine truths to be delivered to them by way of faith, being told to them, as it were, by God Himself who cannot lie…[man] ought to believe matters of faith, not because of human reasoning, but because of the divine authority”

    Now, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that you agree here. Good, so do I. The question then becomes, what are matters of faith?

    If you were Plato, you would say matters of faith are what are there when reason has exhausted itself. Paul, Augustine, Luther…they all agreed. The only real difference is that Plato gave primacy to reason, whereas the others gave primacy to faith.

    So, must I believe that the Bible is true “when it speaks to issues pertaining to history and science (things that are empirically verifiable),” in order to “trust it to be right about things that I can’t verify (such as the nature and existence of God, his purpose for mankind, salvation in Christ, etc.)?” The answer is clearly no, because the latter are (at present) matters of faith.

    What was a matter of faith to Paul may not be one for you and me today. The same goes for Aquinas and Luther. Over the centuries we have lost many things that were matters of faith that later became verifiable. Think of medicine, physics, and chemistry for example.

    But the things that you listed (the nature and existence of God, his purpose for mankind, salvation in Christ) go beyond the limit of finitude (remember discussing the limit of finitude with me long ago?) and will always remain as “matters of faith”. Finite, human reason cannot go there but only conjecture. This is why we’re having this debate today!

    6) There’s obviously not enough space here to go into this one.

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