Saturday, 28 November 2015

The Bible and Me Part III - Inerrancy

[I've struggled for a long time with my relationship with the Bible. It has been a rich source of insight and spiritual nourishment to me, but also at times, a source of deep doubt and confusion. My intention in this series is to share a little of how that relationship has developed over time. If you're a Christian and you're trying to work out your own approach to the Bible then it won't give you all the answers, but it may give you some questions and insights that could help you along the way. If you're not a believer, but you're interested in the Christian faith - or in Christians in particular - then it may give you a little insight into how some of us tick!]

[The Bible and Me Part I - Beginning to Question]
[The Bible and Me Part II - Creation]

One of the arguments often given by Christians - usually to other Christians - in favour of Biblical inerrancy (the idea that the Bible is perfectly accurate in every literal detail), goes something like this:

If you believe there are inaccuracies in the Bible, then you no longer have any way to reliably determine which bits of the Bible are true and which aren't. This means you can't really trust any of it, so maybe none of it is true and therefore your whole faith ends up collapsing. (I am obviously paraphrasing, and there are many versions of and approaches to this, but from my personal experience this more-or-less captures the general gist.)

This argument basically just boils down to scare tactics. It doesn't prove anything of course - it says nothing about whether or not the text is actually reliable - it just gives Christians a very strong reason for not asking too many questions about it! But is this really something Christians need to be worried about? I think there are a number of good responses to this:

First of all, if the Christian faith is basically true, then we have nothing to fear. And if we're really that worried that it might not be, then perhaps we already have a somewhat bigger problem...? We shouldn't be afraid of honest questions and honest answers. We should also be aware though, that our answers will never be perfect and are likely to mislead us at times. Being a Christian is about putting your trust in Someone who is much bigger than all your questions and all your attempts to answer them, and who will lead you gently into truth if you look to Him for guidance. To quote from the Bible itself, "Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding" (Proverbs 3 verse 5). But note that the author doesn't say, "don't use your understanding", he (probably male!) just says, "don't lean on it". Our intellects are God-given and can be useful and powerful tools, but they're not big enough to understand everything, we certainly can't depend on them absolutely, and they are likely to mislead us badly if we're proud enough to think we don't need God or have it all figured out!

Secondly, the nature and size of the problem is massively over-stated. For example, if we discovered an error in one of our history books, we wouldn't then suddenly decide to throw the whole book away, or conclude that none of the rest of it could be trusted! It might lead us to question other parts of the book and - depending on the nature of the error - to hold parts of it a bit more lightly, but we would probably have to encounter quite a few very serious errors before we would consider abandoning it altogether.

Thirdly, the Bible is not a single book! It is a whole library of different types of books, written by different people, over many hundreds, if not thousands of years. Part of the problem when trying to read these books sensibly, is figuring out - in each case - what type of book it is that we're dealing with. Some of these books are obviously meant to be taken literally, others are a bit less clear. There are letters, stories (historical or otherwise), books of poetry, books of prophecy, books of wisdom, and apocalyptic books. None of the Bible is really "history" in the straightforward sense of that word - all of it is written with an agenda. This isn't a bad thing and doesn't necessarily mean it can't be trusted, but it does affect the material it contains and how that material has been presented. The Biblical authors are not just presenting facts, they are telling stories in a way that is intended to make some kind of point. If that wasn't the case then it wouldn't have become the central textbook of the Christian faith!

Given the varied nature and history of the different books that make up the Bible, there is no reason to assume that every book is equally historically reliable. For example, we know quite a bit about the four gospel books in the New Testament. We have good reason to believe they were written within a few decades of the events they describe. We know the early church grew massively under intense persecution, both during and after this period, as a result of the message they contain. We know that those who lead the early movement and spread this message, including the authors of these books, put their lives on the line - and often lost their lives - in order to do so. These are all good reasons for accepting the basic truthfulness of their contents. We know a lot less about the Old Testament books though. Are they reliable historical accounts (at least the ones that present themselves in this way), or are they handed down stories that have been told and retold until the details have become confused? Do they even include fiction presented as fact in a deliberate attempt to deceive? We know that the authors of the New Testament, including Jesus himself - if the words attributed to him are to be believed - held the Old Testament in extremely high regard. We also know that Jesus and his followers understood his whole life and message in the context of - and as a fulfilment of - the bigger story of the Old Testament, which all those different books contribute to. So if we take Jesus seriously, then we have good reason to take the Old Testament seriously as well, but from a historical perspective we may not be able to lean on it quite as heavily as we do on the New.

I think perhaps the strongest appeal of the inerrancy theory - and hence why so many Christians are so wedded to it and so fearful of undermining it - is the claim to "certainty". If the Bible is the perfect and unadulterated words of God, then we have unparalleled access to truth. Nothing in those books can ever be contradicted, so we know exactly where we stand. We (meaning those of us who believe the Bible) have a monopoly on truth. We have a perfect yardstick against which to measure the beliefs and behaviour of ourselves and others. All we have to do is decipher it and we will have everything important that we need to know about life all figured out. In fact a great many of us seem to feel like we've already achieved this, since applying the Bible is (apparently!) simply a matter of believing and/or obeying the "literal meaning" of the text!

Generally speaking though, life is not like this - and even if the Bible were inerrant, understanding the Bible would not be like this either. There are many different English translations of the Bible which all differ slightly from one another over minor details, because it is not straightforward to translate from one language to another (in fact it's usually impossible to do so perfectly), especially as languages evolve and change all the time, and the languages it was written in are thousands of years old. Then there is the issue of culture and context. Spoken and written language is full of idioms and assumptions, and the Bible is no exception. If you're not completely familiar with the world view of the speaker, then you're not going to be able to fully and correctly understand everything they're trying to say. The authors of the Bible are from various long-dead cultures that were very different from ours, and which we now have only very limited access to. Then there's the fact that we have multiple copies of the source texts to work with, and they don't all perfectly agree with each other either! Deciphering which is (or is closest to) the "original" is a significant scholarly exercise, which is often dependent on educated guesswork.

So we are dependent on common sense, best guesses, and the expertise of others - as with so much of life! We cannot completely "know" everything, but we can live our lives on the basis of what we think we know and - in submission to the Holy Spirit and in co-operation with others - what seems to us to make the most sense. This is the kind of obedience I believe God wants from us - an obedience of the heart which pursues truth and attempts to live by it, rather than what might appear to be a more "perfect" kind of obedience, which can only be achieved by those who have perfect knowledge (which none of us do!).

[The Bible and Me Part IV - Scripture vs Tradition]
[The Bible and Me Part V - Job]
[The Bible and Me Part VI - The Difficult Bits]
[The Bible and Me Part VII - The Supernatural]
[The Bible and Me Part VIII - Noah and the Flood]


  1. The Holy Spirit can certainly give us understanding when reading the Word....

  2. Agreed Nick! I did mention Him briefly in the last paragraph, but I have tended to concentrate on the more "technical" aspects of the text. There's no doubt in my mind that He also works through all the other elements of this process.


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