Let’s say for argument’s sake that the Bible is inspired in some sense. Does this mean that every word, every clause, every comma of Scripture must be 100% accurate, inerrant and divinely-ordained?
I don’t believe so. To imply inerrancy from inspiration is, I believe, to confuse two entirely different and unrelated ideas. It’s also demanding that the Bible conform to our standards of accuracy and perfection, rather than that we accept it on its own terms.
What do we mean by inerrancy? That there are no mistakes or errors in the Bible? I could possibly affirm this if we meant no divine mistakes, but certainly not if we mean no human mistakes. The Bible is riddled with human authorial and scribal errors. However, it’s just conceivable that God intended these human flaws to be there, or more likely is content for them to be there.
My own belief in a perfect, coherent and inerrant Scripture started to unravel when I read the four gospels closely side by side. They simply couldn’t be reconciled in a number of key places. Jesus said or did quite different things according to the different sources; his entire meaning was different at times. The same events or speeches as reported in different gospels come out in entirely different ways. Particularly problematic are the birth narratives, the calling of the first disciples and the resurrection accounts.
This is of course what you’d expect of eyewitness reporting, and it actually gives the ring of authenticity to the gospel accounts. But it does remove the claim of inerrancy. People don’t remember perfectly, even apparently when aided by the Holy Spirit.
There are other mistakes too. The author of Matthew’s gospel is notorious for misquoting Old Testament passages. Most notable is his ‘he shall be called a Nazarene’ (Matt 2:23), for which no source has been found, and the mangled quote from Jeremiah about the potter’s field (Matt 27:9).
Matthew’s nativity references to ‘out of Egypt I called my son’ and ‘Rachel will not be comforted’ are also questionable in their claim that these passages are fulfilled in Jesus’ life. That’s not to say that the quotations are wrong exactly, but they belong to a very different interpretive tradition to the literalist, fundamentalist model. And other NT authors also use OT quotations in similar ways, which may be valid but which are certainly not following the ‘plain’ meaning of the text.
Some NT authors also quote apocryphal works, or even in Paul’s case racist pagan poets (‘All Cretans are liars’, Titus 1:12)! This raises the question of whether the Bible endorses these sources as inspired – given that many evangelicals argue that Jesus quoting from the OT endorses it as ‘God’s Word’.
Of course there are various well-known proof-texts for inerrancy, in particular ‘all Scripture is God-breathed’ (2 Tim 3:16). I’ll try and deal with these another time, but I don’t believe most of them do mean what inerrantists claim. And as these text are all taken from within the Bible, the argument is circular anyway.
There are also certain scriptural passages that undermine the case for inerrancy. The classic is Paul’s ‘I say, not the Lord’ in 1 Cor 7:12 – stating that these particular words at least are not God’s.
Similarly, Proverbs 30:5 refers to God’s words being flawless, but this is clearly not meant to refer to the words of the proverb itself.
And then there are the troubling footnotes in the Bible which acknowledge that the earliest manuscripts don’t have the end of Mark’s gospel, or the section in John 8 with the woman caught in adultery. There are the frequent notes acknowledging that the meaning is unclear or that there are different versions in different sources. There are also some troubling questions over the authorship and authenticity of some of the letters which bear Paul’s name – including the one from which the ‘God-breathed’ quotation comes.
It’s also worth recalling that the whole biblical canon wasn’t set in stone for the first two centuries or so after Christ. Heated dispute raged over which books should actually be in the Bible, a debate which did not cease when the canon was officially decided. Roman Catholics have extra books in their Bibles. Martin Luther wanted to lose the epistle of James. Others have questioned the inclusion of Revelation, and of Jude.
We have to take largely on trust that the books in the Bible are the ‘right’ ones; not all Christians, not even all prominent Protestants have agreed. There are reasonable reasons for a working acceptance that the canon we have is good and sufficient (at least adequate), but we can’t use the Bible itself to prove this.
The canon of scripture is the product of the Christian community, as well (we trust) as the Holy Spirit. It was arrived at through argument and prayer, in the context of relationship and of spiritual living. All this is in many ways a model for how the whole of scripture works, and how the interpretation of scripture works. It’s not divinely imposed and fixed but worked out (and continuously re-worked) in relationship and practice.
Not inerrant, but still useful
None of this is to say that we can dismiss whichever chunks of the Bible don’t fit with our preferred theology. It’s simply to underscore that the Bible isn’t inerrant or perfect in the sense that some modern evangelicals require.
I don’t wish to overplay ‘errancy’. I’m not saying the Bible’s a load of rubbish or that most of it’s false, or that the errors it contains are huge and deeply problematic. On the contrary, I’d suggest that the Bible is still for the most part good and useful, and even true – depending on what you mean by truth. It just isn’t perfect – or not in the way we’ve mistakenly demanded of it.
So next time, alternative ways of looking at truth and perfection – and why losing our belief in a perfect Bible needn’t mean losing our faith.