A brief history of Biblical Inerrancy
The claim that the Bible is inerrant has been around for a long time:
Of [the canonical books of Scripture] alone do I most firmly believe that their authors were completely free from error. And if in these writings I am perplexed by anything which appears to me opposed to truth, I do not hesitate to suppose that either the manuscript is faulty, or the translator has not caught the meaning of what was said, or I myself have failed to understand it.
~ Saint Augustine (354-430 AD)
The Scriptures have never erred… The Scriptures cannot err… It is certain that Scripture would not contradict itself; it only appears so to the senseless and obdurate hypocrites.
~ Martin Luther (1483-1546 AD), Werke, Weimar edition (WA), vol. 34.1, p. 356
The Bible as we now have it, in its various translations and revisions, when freed from all errors and mistakes of translators, copyists and printers, IS THE VERY WORD OF GOD and consequently without error.
~ 1893 the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of America
We affirm that canonical Scripture should always be interpreted on the basis that it is infallible and inerrant.
~The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, 1978
The Bible is divinely inspired and inerrant throughout.
~ AnswersInGenesis.org, Statement of Faith, 2013
Belief in inerrancy still remains popular in America. According to a 2013 poll conducted by The Barna Group, 81% of practicing Protestants, and 71% of practicing Catholics, currently believe that the Bible is inerrant.
Why are so many Christians inerrantists?
Most Christians believe the Bible is inerrant because the Bible says so:
Every word of God is flawless;
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness…
~ 2 Timothy 3:16
…prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.
~ 2 Peter 1:20-21
“For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.”
~ Matthew 5:18
But letting Scripture testify to its own inerrancy sounds a bit like circular reasoning. Brian Edwards at Answers in Genesis explains the logic this way:
To say the Bible is the Word of God and is therefore without error because the Bible itself makes this claim is seen by many as circular reasoning. It is rather like saying, “That prisoner must be innocent because he says he is.” … If people were reliable, witness to oneself would always be enough… Because Jesus is God and therefore guiltless… His words can be trusted. In a similar manner, since the Bible is God’s Word, we must listen to its own claims about itself.
So… we can trust the Bible because God wrote it. But how can we be sure God wrote it? The Christian website GotQuestions.org explains:
Because the Scriptures are the inspired Word of God, we can conclude that they are also inerrant and authoritative… Because God is all-powerful, all-knowing, and completely perfect, His Word will by its very nature have the same characteristics. The same verses that establish the inspiration of the Scriptures also establish that it is both inerrant and authoritative.
But which verses prove the divine inspiration of the Scriptures? If they exist, I still have yet to find them. But if you’ve already concluded such verses exist, then it’s probably not a very big leap to accept whatever else the Bible may have to say about itself.
You would think that pointing out an error in the Bible would be a simple matter — it’s not. For better or worse, Christians have been working for millennia to put a positive spin on every alleged error and contradiction. While some of these explanations may be correct, even apologists can’t seem to agree on which ones.
For the skeptic, it may prove impossible to explore and disprove every possible explanation, because there are so many ways in which an apologist can defend an alleged error. The apologist can claim it was poorly copied, poorly translated, is being misinterpreted by the reader, that the verse carried a different meaning in a different culture, or it has a spiritual meaning; even miraculous explanations aren’t out of the question. For contradictions, the apologist can claim that both of the alleged contradictions are true when considered from different points of view, or that the contradictions are describing unrelated events, or that one description is literal and the other spiritual.
Some inerrantists claim that the original manuscripts (or “autographs”) were perfectly inerrant, and that only the copies contain errors. Unfortunately, no original manuscripts exist today, so this claim must be accepted on faith. But even if this is true, if God didn’t take His words seriously enough to protect them, how can we take them seriously? If God has not protected the Bible from errors, what else is included in the Bible that we shouldn’t believe?
If the error can’t be easily dispelled, the apologist can also suggest we just assume an explanation exists, even if we never know what it is.
In short, if an apologist can’t find a way to explain an error, he can turn it into a claim that can never be disproved, thereby forever protecting the belief in inerrancy.
Can Christianity survive the existence of errors in Scripture?
If an error ever could be proven, apologists are split on what that would mean for Christianity. Some insist that all errors relate only to “secondary details,” and it would not be detrimental to the core doctrines of Christianity:
At the center of our web of beliefs ought to be some core belief like the belief that God exists, with the deity and resurrection of Christ somewhere near the center… If inerrancy goes, the web will feel the reverberations of that loss, as we adjust our doctrine of inspiration accordingly, but the web will not collapse because belief in God and Christ and his resurrection and so on don’t depend upon the doctrine of biblical inerrancy.
~ William Lane Craig
Apologist Greg Koukl claims that “inerrancy is neither necessary for salvation nor necessary to prove the truthfulness of Christianity.” Still, he strongly cautions against even entertaining the idea that the Bible might contain errors:
If you don’t believe in inerrancy — and I’ve just seen it happen time and time again — when the authority of the Word of God is undermined, then the genuinely necessary doctrines of Christianity begin to topple. Because let’s face it, the doctrines of Christianity are odd.
Other apologists claim that even a single error would be devastating to Christianity:
The question of ultimate authority is of tremendous importance for the Christian. If the Scripture is unreliable, can we offer the world a reliable gospel? How can we be sure of truth on any issue if we are suspicious of errors anywhere in the Bible? A pilot will ground his aircraft even on suspicion of the most minor fault, because he is aware that one fault destroys confidence in the complete machine. If the history contained in the Bible is wrong, how can we be sure the doctrine or moral teaching is correct?
~ Brian Edwards for Answers in Genesis
The Christian “Errantists”
But at least one quarter of practicing Christians don’t believe in inerrancy, and haven’t lost their faith. These Christians freely admit that the Bible contains errors:
The doctrine of Biblical inerrancy seems inherently improbable… the Scriptures contain what seem to be evident errors and contradictions (although great ingenuity has been applied to explain these away).”
~Anglican Bishop Hugh Montefiore, Credible Christianity
I could not believe that anyone who has read this book would be so foolish as to proclaim that the Bible in every literal word was the divinely inspired, inerrant word of God. Have these people simply not read the text? Are they hopelessly misinformed? Is there a different Bible? Are they blinded by a combination of ego needs and naivete?
~John Shelby Spong, Retired American Bishop of the Episcopal Church
Even the famous Christian author C.S. Lewis once admitted that the inconsistencies found in Scripture should lead us to “rule out the view that every statement in Scripture must be historical truth.”
While these believers acknowledge the existence of errors, they do not see them as undermining God’s message, which was expressed by imperfect men in various ways.
But not everyone’s faith survives this realization. New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman first became troubled by Biblical inerrancy while still in seminary, and eventually concluded that the Scriptures contain hundreds of thousands of inexcusable errors. This discovery, along with others (primarily the problem of evil), prompted Ehrman to begin speaking out against Christianity.
Unlike believers, nonbelievers have long argued that the Bible contains errors. Even apologist William Lane Craig admits that a nonbeliever reading the Bible “would likely conclude that the Bible, like almost every other book, has some errors in it.” But why is this? Are facts not facts?
If the Bible said “1+1=2,” both believers and nonbelievers should be able to agree that this fact is correct. But if the Bible says “1+1=3,” the nonbeliever labels it an error, while the inerrantist labels it “a difficult verse” and then spends the next 2,000 years trying to explain it.
Not surprisingly, I was unable to find any secular scholars willing to defend Biblical inerrancy. You don’t find them defending inerrancy for the same reasons you don’t find them defending creationism or global floods; these ideas are more a matter of faith than a matter of fact. It’s readily apparent that belief in inerrancy is dependent upon first having a belief in Christianity.
So are these errors and contradictions even worth investigating?
If believers can maintain their faith despite having acknowledged the existence of errors, is there any point in examining them? I think so, because if the Bible appears to contain errors, it certainly does cast doubt on the claim that it was divinely inspired.
If the only way we can see the Bible as inerrant is to become a Christian, then it’s pretty clear that the only reason claims of inerrancy exists at all is because Christians feel obligated to defend the claims of their religion, not because there’s any observable truth to it.
Author, motivational speaker, and self-help guru Anthony Robbins used to say that a belief was like a tabletop, and the legs that support the tabletop were like the various pieces of evidence we use to support that belief. The more legs, the stronger the belief. For many Christians, Biblical inerrancy still remains one of the legs propping up their belief in Christianity. Granted, it’s not the strongest leg, in fact, it probably doesn’t even reach all the way to the ground, and even needs a piece of paper folded up and tucked underneath it to keep the entire table from wobbling, but it is a leg, nonetheless, and so it should probably be evaluated (especially since three-quarters of Christians believe it). If it turns out there’s some truth to it, then it would certainly lend some credibility to Christianity.
But I don’t believe that Biblical inerrancy can ever be fully proven, because it’s impossible to prove every historical statement. And even if it could be proven, it wouldn’t prove that it was divinely inspired, no more than an inerrant phone book can claim to be divinely inspired. Errors and contradictions can only tell us if the Bible is imperfect, which is in potential conflict with the perfect nature of God and with His Word that claims to be “flawless.” But if the Bible was written by mere men, we should expect to see a few errors and contradictions.