What does the Bible really say about inerrancy?

So I’ve come to the end of this series on the Bible. This post is a finisher-off for completists, and also for anyone who still believes that the Bible claims to be inerrant.

Of course, trying to prove that the Bible is without error by quoting the Bible is a circular argument, only truly convincing to the converted. But many people do still accept the argument, so here I’d like to deal with each so-called proof-text in turn and show that in context none of them are talking about inerrancy at all. Rather, in almost all cases, they’re talking about God’s consistent character and his covenant faithfulness.

2 Samuel 22:31
As for God, his way is perfect: The LORD’s word is flawless; he shields all who take refuge in him.

(The wording here is identical to Psalm 18:30 and Proverbs 30:5).

So what’s the context? ‘David sang to the LORD the words of this song when the LORD delivered him from the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul’.

Reading the verse in its context then, it’s a song about God’s faithfulness; his keeping of his covenant promises of protection and provision. It’s not about scriptural inerrancy. Furthermore, David clearly isn’t intending this description of God’s perfection to be extended to his own words here in praise of God, even though these words do now form part of the scriptural record pointing to God’s goodness.

Psalm 12:6
And the words of the LORD are flawless, like silver purified in a crucible, like gold refined seven times.

Again, what’s the context? The preceding verses make it clear:

2 Everyone lies to their neighbour; they flatter with their lips but harbour deception in their hearts.
3 May the LORD silence all flattering lips and every boastful tongue—4 those who say, “By our tongues we will prevail; our own lips will defend us—who is lord over us?”
5 “Because the poor are plundered and the needy groan, I will now arise,” says the LORD. “I will protect them from those who malign them.”

So the whole passage is comparing the deceitfulness of humans – false flatterers and those who oppress the poor – with the truthfulness and integrity of God. Once again it’s about God keeping his promises; that unlike humans the Lord is good and true to his word. It’s about God’s integrity and faithfulness (and his power), not about scriptural inerrancy.

Psalm 19: 7-8:
7 The law of the LORD is perfect, refreshing the soul. The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy, making wise the simple. 8 The precepts of the LORD are right, giving joy to the heart…’

Context? Look at verses 1-4:

1 The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
2 Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge.
3 They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them.
4 Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.

So this psalm is about God’s word and wisdom, both in Scripture (here specifically the commands and laws of the Torah) and in creation; God’s speaking to his people via Moses and also via ‘the heavens’. It’s not about the whole of the Bible as we now have it, nor is it limited to the Bible alone. And ‘perfect’ here is not about inerrancy but about completeness, goodness, health-bringing (‘refreshing the soul’).

Proverbs 30:5-6:
Every word of God is flawless; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him. 
6 Do not add to his words, or he will rebuke you and prove you a liar.

This expands on 2 Sam 22:31 and Ps 18:30, starting the same and then (slightly ironically!) adding the line about not adding to God’s words.

In context it isn’t particularly about written scripture, and it certainly isn’t saying that the words of this psalm or the psalmist are flawless. Its meaning appears rather to be that you aren’t to say that God commanded, promised or revealed something that he didn’t.

Isaiah 40:6-8
All people are like grass, and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field… The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures [or stands] forever

Again, this is about God’s eternal faithfulness, his unchanging character, his keeping of his covenant promises, compared to the fickleness of short-lived people. It’s not saying anything about scriptural inerrancy.

Matt 5:18 (spoken by Jesus)
“until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means pass from the law until everything is accomplished”
(or ‘until its purpose is complete’ OR ‘until all be fulfilled’)

This is an interesting one, because Jesus himself did in a sense change the law (for example, on unclean foods and arguably on Sabbath observance). And more importantly, he instated a new kind of covenant not based on keeping the written ‘law’. There’s an argument then that ‘until all be fulfilled’ refers to Jesus’ fulfilment of the Torah and old covenant on the cross – so no longer applies.

But either way, Jesus is referring here specifically to Torah, the OT law, not to the Bible as a whole. It’s not about scriptural inerrancy; it’s about God’s character being consistent, and the covenant relationship with his people being based in that character.

Mark 14:49 (spoken by Jesus)
“Every day I was with you, teaching in the temple courts, and you did not arrest me. But the Scriptures must be fulfilled.

Jesus is referring specifically to prophecy here – that what was prophesied about him must come to pass. It may also mean that all Scripture has a wider purpose which must be fulfilled – and that purpose is arguably to point to Christ (see John 5:39).

It’s also possible that Jesus’ words here could be an ironic statement. Those who have come to arrest him believe in the Jewish Scriptures which predict the Messiah, but have entirely failed to see that those Scriptures point to Jesus (and to his rejection at their hands). Yet in so doing they are actually, strangely, fulfilling the Scriptures.

John 10:35 (spoken by Jesus)
If he called them ‘gods,’ to whom the word of God came—and Scripture cannot be set aside” (or ‘cannot be broken’)

This is an odd verse and not easy to interpret. The context is the Pharisees’ criticism of Jesus for claiming to be the son of God.

So in context it’s clear that Jesus isn’t claiming that all ‘scripture’ is inerrant, certainly not the whole Bible as we now have it. On the contrary, it seems likely that Jesus is using the Pharisees’ own ‘High’ view of scripture – their belief that it ‘cannot be set aside’ – to challenge their other preconceptions and assumptions about him. So once again, Jesus is saying that if the Pharisees truly believe the scriptures, they’ll see that these scriptures point to him.

Mark 12:36 (spoken by Jesus)
David himself, speaking by the Holy Spirit, declared: ‘The Lord said to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet.”'”

It’s worth comparing this with 1 Corinthians 12:3: ‘and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit’).

In other words, we all in a sense speak ‘by the Holy Spirit’ when we agree with what God says, and specifically when we acknowledge that Jesus is Lord – which may be what David is doing in the quoted psalm (‘The Lord said to my Lord’, i.e. the Christ or Messiah, Jesus). Also, David appears to be prophesying about the Messiah here, which means that in this rather special case he may actually be relaying God’s prophetic word to him by the Spirit’s inspiration.

2 Tim 3:15-17
15 …from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

This is the biggie of course, the crucial ‘proof-text’ for the Bible being ‘inspired by God’ (God-breathed). Note though that this passage is actually relatively modest in its claims. And nowhere does it claim inerrancy, only inspiration.

Firstly, the Bible ‘is able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus’ – in other words, the Bible points or leads you to the person of Christ and encourages you to have faith in him, which is what ‘saves’ you. So the Bible here is simply the witness to Jesus.

Secondly, it is ‘God-breathed’, not God-dictated. God breathes his Spirit, his life, into and through the words of Scripture rather as he breathes his life into us to make us living beings. This is in a rather different sense to how many fundamentalists understand the divine inspiration of the Bible.

Thirdly, the Bible is ‘useful’ – a considerably more modest description than ‘essential’ or ‘vital’ or ‘the ultimate authority’. And what is it useful for? ‘…for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.’ By this description it’s a practical spiritual training guide, with the express purpose of equipping us to do good works. It’s not a complete divine answer-book, nor is it a textbook of science, history or even theology.

Fourthly, what are ‘the Holy Scriptures’ referred to here by Paul, that Timothy has known ‘since infancy’? They can’t be Paul’s letters or indeed any part of the New Testament. That’s not to say that Paul’s letters aren’t Scripture (Peter apparently refers to them as such). But they’re not what he’s referring to here.

Hebrews 6:18b
It is impossible for God to lie
Rick Warren uses this to ‘prove’ that the Bible is ‘right and true’ (see Warren’s post here). But that argument only works if you already accept that the Bible is God’s written word in a very specific and particular sense, one which the Bible itself does not endorse. Furthermore, the full clause is ‘two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie’, specifically referring to God’s swearing an oath by himself to Abraham.

2 Ptr 1:19-21
19 We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it… 20 Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. 21 For 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.

This is often used as a proof-text about the whole of Scripture being effectively authored by God, but this goes well beyond what the passage is actually saying.

Firstly, it refers specifically to OT prophecy, not to the whole of the Bible as we now have it.

Secondly, ‘spoke from God’ does not necessarily imply inerrancy. The origin of the prophetic thought is divine, but the wording and expression are human and so not necessarily unflawed. The writer does describe the message as ‘completely reliable’, but there are different senses in which something can be reliable. My own view is that the point here is that the Messianic prophecies concerning Jesus can be trusted, and that we can believe that Jesus is the one they point to. The writer’s concern here is to lead his readers to the full truth and new way of life found in Christ.

Let me know if I’ve missed any verses that you’d like me to pick up on!

And that’s really it on the Bible. For now.

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
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13 Responses to What does the Bible really say about inerrancy?

  1. jesuswithoutbaggage says:

    Harvey, I have really enjoyed your series on the Bible, but this post is incredible. I have never seen so many inerrancy proof-texts dealt with in one place. Even though you were only able to discuss each one in a limited way, you did an excellent job of packing your brief statements with important insights. Thanks!

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    • Wow, thanks Tim, that’s a lovely comment! Yes, unfortunately there are so many ‘proof-texts’ to deal with that it’s not possible to go into each in great depth in one post – I really just wanted to show that in context none of them are really talking about inerrancy.

      If there are any other aspects of the Bible – or other verses – you’d like me to look at in future, do let me know! I’m always up for ideas and suggestions.

      Like

  2. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings and commented:

    I’m not sure if I entirely agree, but this post provides an interesting take on biblical passages often cited in support of biblical inerrancy.

    Like

    • Thanks James! Very interested to know which parts you aren’t so sure about? I know I may well be misreading some passages or missing some of the meanings, so would be great to hear your take.

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      • jamesbradfordpate says:

        Hi Harvey! I just suspect that the New Testament authors had a high view of verbal inspiration—-like the rabbis who saw significance in every single word of the Torah. I think of Jesus’ emphasis on every letter of the law, or Paul making a big deal about Genesis saying “seed” rather than “seeds.” That’s not to say that I agree with their view of Scripture, though.

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        • Hi James, thanks, that’s a good point. I suspect you know a fair bit more about this than I do – noticing from your blog that you have various degrees in biblical interpretation and related subjects! I’d be very interested to know a bit more about the basis for this idea – how much do/can we know about the NT authors’ views of scripture?

          I can certainly see that many of the NT authors regarded the OT as very important, though some more than others, and some perhaps in different ways to others. The writer of Matthew’s gospel is obviously notable for trying to make every detail of Jesus’ life ‘fulfil’ something from the OT, not always entirely successfully or accurately! And Paul is interesting in that he clearly takes a more allegorical approach to interpreting the OT in at least some places (for example reading the story of Abraham’s two wives and sons as symbolically representing the two kinds of covenant).

          As for Jesus himself, it seems hard to be sure of his views on scripture just from the gospel text (which itself of course is already slightly interpreted by the gospel writers when we get it). He does certainly seem to have a pretty high regard for the OT in places, but then sometimes it’s hard to know whether he’s just adopting that line in order to argue with his audience of Pharisees, or perhaps to make a particular point about himself or the OT law in context. The example you mention seems to me like it could fit into one of these categories, possibly.

          So I’d say that the overall picture is complex at least! My own slightly ignorant guess is that there was a range of views in the 1st century Jewish community regarding how scripture should best be viewed and interpreted – rather as there is today in the Christian community. I’d guess that some groups like the Pharisees took the very high view of verbal inspiration that you mention, whereas others (e.g. Sadducees?) maybe didn’t.

          Anyway, interesting stuff. Would love to know more.

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          • jamesbradfordpate says:

            Yeah, I’ve taken classes, but there is still a lot to learn, especially considering all the literature out there about any given topic.

            Your comment brought to my mind Jesus’ discussion of divorce. There, Jesus seemed to maintain that the law on divorce was historically-conditioned and temporary. That may differ, at least somewhat, from rabbinic views of the Torah.

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  3. Psalm 19:7-8 is true. Signs in the heaves cry out knowledge. So, you need to know. the signs are and when they apply. Thr star of Bethlehem is a sign, but it does normally apply. It may be the sign of thr son of man. The Constellation Virgo applies to Joseph anf his brothers and to Jesus and his apostles. See my video on YouTube.

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  4. tonycutty says:

    This is a brilliant post. The Psalms are an interesting concept as the ‘word of God’ because they are basically a hymn book. So people are writing songs about God and His works – including the Scriptures – just like people do nowadays – and we accept them as Scripture. And yet nobody ever claimed that Graham Kendrick or Matt Redman write Scripture; although in my opinion they kinda do.

    But still, God speaks through the Psalms; indeed there’s prophecy in there too like (I think it’s) Ps 22 and so on.

    In your previous post, you mentioned that either all extraneous art/literature is useless or a distraction, if you hold to the sola scriptura view. And, if that were true, so it would be with modern hymns, songs, indeed any Christian literature, but in fact Christians do read other books, and they do sing other songs apart from the Psalms. And so they unwittingly agree that in fact non-Bible stuff is indeed kosher, no matter what they might say ‘officially’ 😉

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    • You’re right – it’s hard to see any particularly compelling reason why the hymns of the Old Testament writers should be more inspired or important than those from other hymn-writers throughout church history, or of today.

      Occasionally the psalmists do seem to be prophesying about Jesus, as you say, so you could argue a bit more direct inspiration there (or not, depending on your view of how the prophetic psalms work). But a lot of the time they’re simply crying out to God in need or sorrow or anger, or expressing their trust in him despite circumstances.

      I think some of Graham Kendrick and Matt Redman’s best could certainly count as equally ‘inspired’ in a sense, as could some of the classics by Charles Wesley, Isaac Watts, John Newton and so on. And I’ve said before (mostly in jest) that I’d be inclined to count some of C.S. Lewis’s writings as almost scriptural… (in fact, secretly, they’re more important and meaningful to me than parts of the Bible, but don’t tell anyone.)

      I think most conservative evangelicals get round the ‘sola scriptura’ issue in their heads by arguing that the Christian books they approve of are all expositions of Scripture, or at least somehow based on Scripture… I’m not entirely convinced by that though. 😉

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  5. Pingback: The Best Blog Posts I Read in November-December | Jesus Without Baggage

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