Is inerrancy a useful and credible belief?

Introduction

So far we have looked at why people want to believe in the inerrancy of the Bible and what they mean by this.

We have seen that people want the Bible to be inerrant because:

  • With an inerrant Bible as support they gain authority for what they teach and support for their points of view
  • Otherwise, their faith will crumble, they think
  • They can find the answers to all their questions; they gain certainty
  • They don’t need to be guided directly by the Holy Spirit because it’s all in the Bible.

In the second part of this series we saw that even eminent theologian cannot agree on what they mean by inerrancy. 

Here are the possibilities we considered:

  1. Everything written in the Bible you read, or that is sitting on your shelf, or electronically in your phone or computer, is absolutely true.
  2. Everything in the best translations in English is true.
  3. Everything in the original texts written by prophets and apostles etc is true
  4. All the important statements are true – in the original texts.

We found three statements from three organisations representing various parts of the protestant church. Two believed that all important statements are true and the third believed that all statements are true even to the extent of contradicting the evidence for climate change, for example (not that the Bible talks about that, but they feel that God could not have made a world subject to climate change).

In all cases, they refer to the original text of the Bible, but there are two problems here:

  1. We don’t have the original manuscripts – though we do have extremely reliable copies
  2. We can’t read the original manuscripts because they are written in Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic. Granted, some people have studied these languages, but then we have to reply on their translations, which, as we have seen above, can vary.

Now we come to the question of whether such a belief is useful and credible.

Is inerrancy a useful belief

If you want answers for everything, or if you want a weapon to prove your point, then inerrancy could be useful for you.

But I would suggest that really these are counterproductive. Peter Enns has written a whole book called The Sin of Certainty, and I won’t try to reproduce his excellent points here. A couple of quotes will suffice.

Here’s how he puts it:

Aligning faith in God and certainty about what we believe and needing to be right in order to maintain a healthy faith—these do not make for a healthy faith in God.

The deeper problem here is the unspoken need for our thinking about God to be right in order to have a joyful, freeing, healing, and meaningful faith. The problem is trusting our beliefs rather than trusting God. 

The long Protestant quest to get the Bible right has not led to greater and greater certainty about what the Bible means. Quite the contrary. It has led to a staggering number of different denominations and sub-denominations that disagree sharply about how significant portions of the Bible should be  understood. I mean, if the Bible is our source of sure knowledge about God, how do we explain all this diversity? Isn’t the Bible supposed to unify us rather than divide us?

Even worse than wanting answers or ammunition for your arguments is the case of pastors and teachers who want to control their congregations claiming that their teaching is based on the inerrant Word of God and therefore, if they don’t agree, they are rejecting God Himself!

This is blatant manipulation and abuse of the power of the pulpit. You would not expect to see it within the Church; but sadly it is common – to a greater or lesser extent. Even adding the belief in inerrancy to a local church or denomination’s articles of faith is manipulation: if you don’t agree, you can’t join, and essentially you don’t belong!

Is inerrancy a credible belief

What basis do we have for believing in the inerrancy of the Bible more than the inerrancy of the Koran, for example, or any other ancient set of teachings, history, poetry, prophecy and wisdom?

Does the Bible claim inerrancy for itself?

To answer this question, let’s look at the verses the Lausanne Covenant (see my previous post) gives to support its belief in inerrancy and see what they say. 

At the same time we should remember that claims a book makes about itself need to be verified independently. Otherwise, we could all write books and claim they were inspired and inerrant and should therefore be believed wholeheartedly. Such claims would be quickly dismissed, and rightly so!

Verses supporting inerrancy

  • 2 Timothy 3:16: All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness…
  • 2 Peter 1:21; 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.
  • John 10:35; If he called them gods to whom the word of God came—and Scripture cannot be broken—
  • Isaiah 55:11; so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
  • 1 Corinthians 1:21; For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe.
  • Romans 1:16, For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.
  • Matthew 5:17,18; “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished.”
  • Jude 3; Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.
  • Ephesians 1:17,18; …that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him,  having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints …
    3:10 …so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.
    3:18 may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth…

(All verses are taken from the ESV translation.)

Great verses, but not one of them comes even close to affirming the inerrancy of the Bible and I really wonder why they listed some of them at all.

The first, 2 Timothy 3:16, is one that is most often used to support inerrancy, but we can see that Paul only states that scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching etc. We might infer that there is inerrancy in the inspiration, but it’s a bit of a stretch. In addition, it is clear from the preceding verses that Paul is talking about the Old Testament scriptures since he writes: “from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” What we call the New Testament did not exist as such and was certainly not what Timothy had been acquainted with since childhood.

Granted, you may say, but surely the Bible is the Word of God and since God does not lie it must be inerrant!

However, the Bible does not claim this title for itself; only Jesus is the Word of God. 

In addition, the prophet Jeremiah suggests that there may be deliberate errors in the text: “How can you say, ‘We are wise, and the law of the Lord is with us’? But behold, the lying pen of the scribes has made it into a lie.” (Jeremiah 8:8)

So I would maintain that there is no evidence in the Bible for its inerrancy and I have yet to see any outside either. Don’t get me wrong, many facts in the Bible have been borne out by archaeology and the Bible is indeed useful as Paul says; God still speaks through the Bible by His Holy Spirit bringing it to life as we read it, but this is a far cry from inerrancy

The declarations as to the Bible’s inerrancy have no basis and may be – if we are cynical – simply self-serving, as an inerrant Bible allows the theologians who make such declarations to set themselves up as authorities whose teaching cannot be questioned.

When did the idea of inerrancy begin?

Maybe this is a question we should have looked at earlier, but let’s look at it now anyway.

You may think that theologians have always believed the Bible to be inerrant. But this is not the case. 

In an article on inerrancy on Wikipedia we read as follows:

By the time of the Reformation, there was still no official doctrine of inerrancy. For Martin Luther (1483-1546), for example, “inspiration did not insure inerrancy in all details. Luther recognizes mistakes and inconsistencies in Scripture and treated them with lofty indifference because they did not touch the heart of the Gospel.” 

This means there was no idea of inerrancy for about 1500 years and only in the last 700 years  has it been developed.

Wikipedia once more:

According to an article in Theology Today published in 1975, “There have been long periods in the history of the church when biblical inerrancy has not been a critical question.  It has in fact been noted that only in the last two centuries can we legitimately speak of a formal doctrine of inerrancy. The arguments pro and con have filled many books, and almost anyone can join in the debate”.

You may think that theologians have always believed the Bible to be inerrant. But this is not the case. In fact, only in the last two centuries can we legitimately speak of a formal doctrine of inerrancy.
Theology Today (1975)

Conclusions

I’ll now summarise the three posts on inerrancy. We have seen the following:

  1. People find inerrancy useful to bolster their faith, support their arguments and sometimes manipulate their congregations.
  2. Theologians cannot agree on the extent to which they believe the Bible to be inerrant.
  3. It is an idea that is counterproductive as it encourages reliance on what you believe instead of Who you believe in. 
  4. At the same time, it encourages reliance on a (very useful) written text, instead of the God who inspired men to write it.
  5. It is not credible, has no basis in fact and only became a formal doctrine in the last 200 years. It is a man-made myth from start to finish.

Epilogue

Why do I care? 

I care because truth is important, and too often I see and hear verses being taken from particular translations to prove a preacher’s point of view, which another translation would not support, and this being justified by the supposed inerrancy of the Bible. I meet people who believe in their beliefs instead of believing in their God and Saviour. I read that the Bible – because it is inerrant – should be the final authority in our lives, whereas this position belongs to the Holy Spirit, often speaking through the Bible but also in many other ways (other books, friends, films, almost-audible impressions etc.)

Jesus said, “You will know the truth and the truth will set you free!” (John 8:32)
But inerrancy is not the truth and will only bind you to the interpretations of preachers and teachers, which often vary wildly one from another.

Do yourself a favour – read the Bible often, let the Holy Spirit speak to you, listen by all means to preachers and teachers who communicate in a way that inspires and challenges you, but also free yourself from the myth of Biblical inerrancy.

Bibliography

Enns, Peter. The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our “Correct” Beliefs – HarperCollins
Wikipedia – Biblical Inerrancy

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