Does the Bible claim to be inerrant? Evangelicalism, and fundamentalist Christianity is based on the claim that the Bible in its original manuscripts is the inerrant word of God for today.
Is this what the Bible claims for itself?
First of all, the Bible never speaks of itself as the Bible, never speaks of itself as a whole, or with one voice. Jesus spoke of Moses, the Prophets, the Law, or the Scriptures. Jesus referred to Scriptures many times, referring to them as “commandments” (the 10 commandments), calling the writers “the prophet Isaiah”, or “the scriptures” (literally, “the writings”). This last term, “the Writings”, is closer to our term “the Bible” than any other term used by Jesus. Throughout the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) Jesus keeps saying, “You have heard it said”. Jesus never makes any particular claim of inerrancy about the scriptures he quotes.
Fresco, Palazzi Pontifici, Vatican
There is at least one argument Jesus makes that indicates he had a high view of the accepted Hebrew scriptures, at least the book of Exodus, when he argued with the Sadducees (who did not believe in life after death) and told them that God said of Himself at the burning bush, “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob…He is not the god of the dead, but of the living.” Indicating that the recorded present tense of God speaking to Moses was important to Jesus in believing in the after life. God did not say, “I was the God of Abraham.” So Abraham must have been still alive in some manner if God said, “I am the God of Abraham…”
However this reference to God using the present tense in the burning bush falls short of Jesus claiming absolute inerrancy for the book of Exodus. The words of God to Moses in the burning bush are a turning point for the nation of Israel. Those words are some of the most important that the Hebrews based their faith upon. Jesus was saying, “If you believe in any of the great promises of our heritage, then you have to believe in life after death. Those promises are based on God being the God of a living Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, even after their deaths here on earth.”
Jesus never states that the Hebrew scriptures are the inerrant word of God.
My father loved to quiz the children at church on Sunday evenings. He would call them up to the first two pews and ask them Bible questions for five minutes. Three of his favorite questions were: How many books are in the Bible? Answer: 66 books. How many writers wrote the Bible? Answer: About 40 writers. Over how many years was the Bible written? Answer: 1500 years.
The Hebrew oral tradition was eventually written down, an expensive and time consuming process. All of the papyrus or leather they were written on had to be hand made or hand tanned. The ink and quills had to be hand made as well. Each synagogue would save up money to buy their own copies of Moses and the Prophets, as they could afford them. Very few people could read. As the study of the Law was commanded by Moses, so reading became an important part of a Hebrew boy’s education. Later tradition was that at age 13 each boy was to prove he could read the scriptures to the synagogue, then he was accepted as a male member. The apostle Paul instructed Timothy not to neglect the public reading of the writings, because people didn’t have the Bible at home. They had to gather together and hear it read out loud by someone who had been taught to read.
The fundamentalist’s and evangelical’s favorite passage about inerrancy is the one penned by the apostle Paul writing to his protege Timothy that all of “the writings” that he had been taught from a child were “God-breathed” and “profitable for teaching,” etc. (II Timothy 3:16). Notice that none of these “writings” included the gospels or the letters of the Greek New Testament. Paul was of the opinion that believing in and following Christ was firmly rooted in the Hebrew writings, and that Christian congregations were more or less synagogues that had been enlightened. The officers of the church that Paul encouraged Timothy to install in each city (elders and deacons), were the same officers that existed in the synagogues of the day. When Paul uses the term “God-breathed” he is referring to the creation of Adam out of the dust of the ground, “And God breathed into him the breath of life and he became a living soul.” Just so Paul viewed the Hebrew writings as living and breathing.
Notice also Paul does not say these writings that are God-breathed were the inerrant word of God, with zero mistakes, and no human opinions mixed in. (This argument makes no sense to fundamentalists and evangelicals. Either the light is on or off, it can’t be some dimmable dining room light.) The Roman Catholics, Episcopalians and some Lutherans have usually had no problem with degrees of god-breathedness. For instance, they have seven extra books in the Hebrew Bible that they include in their canon, but they don’t view them as highly as the rest of the writings. However, they usually ask the congregation to stand whenever they read from the gospels, regarding the gospels as more God-breathed than the rest of the writings. Evangelicals and fundamentalists get upset when discussing this, but when you get them off on their own and relaxed, they will tell you that they have favorite passages that they read, because those particular passages speak to them more than other passages. It could be argued they are saying that some passages of the scriptures are more God-breathed than others. These same fundamentalists and evangelicals will also point to current writers, hymns and choruses that they find breath the word of God, without being inerrant.
Their second favorite passage on inerrancy is II Peter 1:20.
“No prophecy or Scripture ever came from the prophet’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.”
What does Peter mean by “Scripture”? Is he including the Greek letters from the Apostle Paul to the churches? Contrast this with the Apostle Paul writing,
“To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. 11But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.
12To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her.13And if a woman has a husband who is not a believer and he is willing to live with her, she must not divorce him…25Now about virgins: I have no command from the Lord, but I give a judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. 26Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for a man to remain as he is.”
Pardon the lengthy passage, but notice that Paul repeatedly tells the Corinthian readers, throughout the passage, which items are from the Lord and which items are his own opinion, not the Lord’s. So how can every writing be prophetic, when Paul clearly states he is writing something that is not from the Lord?
The Hebrews referred to the Ten Commandments as the “Ten Words”. In contrast in the prologue to the Gospel of John, Jesus is “the Word”. When we refer to the Bible as “the Word” we are not being biblical. Jesus is the Word, and once we accept that, we have begun the move away from the elevation of the book, to the elevation of the Man.
The writing of the scripture was so expensive and so difficult and rare, that the very act of recording something on papyrus or vellum, and preserving it in a scroll, elevated that writing to a level that we cannot comprehend in our society. In our society there is so much writing, not just in bound books, or magazines, but unimaginable volumes on the internet. To us all writing is suspect: “Where did you read that? On the internet?” We approach writing from the viewpoint of a sceptic. If someone wants to write something, she has to prove what she is saying.
When did this shift occur? The major shift of looking at the scriptures from a skeptical viewpoint occurred when Gutenberg invented the printing press in the mid 1300s. And what did he print first? The gospel of Matthew, what else? It was still hard to print books. They carved words onto a block of wood, rolled ink on the wood, then laid a big sheet of paper on it. On top of that they laid wool blankets, and screwed a big press down onto the paper as hard as they could press, thus the term: printing press. Then they unscrewed it, slowly peeled off the paper without tearing it, and hung it up to dry. So books were expensive and relatively rare. But not nearly as rare as hand copied manuscripts had been before the printing press.
When movable type was invented, things started to heat up, but books were still held in high regard. A heretic was usually defined as someone whose false teaching had been published, or printed in a book, and therefore had to be opposed. Most people who just went around spouting false doctrine were ignored. It was usually those who printed their false teachings that had to be burnt at the stake.
William Tyndale was burnt at the stake for being the first to translate the Bible into English
The reformers followed closely upon the heels of Gutenberg, publishing book after book, including many translations of the Bible into the vernacular of the people, rather than the traditional Latin of the Roman church. Within 400 years most people learned to read for themselves, and there were so many books and so many opinions that people began to view books with a more skeptical attitude, a distant forerunner of today’s skepticism.
It was at this time that people revived the study of the writings of the Hebrew and Greek scriptures with a more critical eye. The early Christians discussed back and forth which books to include in the canon and which books to leave out. Now in the Renaissance, with so many opinions in print, that discussion was revived, and each claim made by each book had to be proven. The result was that most Protestants have fewer books in their Hebrew Bible, rejecting the seven books of the Apocrypha.
I knew a United Methodist preacher who had a high regard for the account of the day of Pentecost in Acts 2, but did not accept the virgin birth of Christ. I asked him how he looked at the scriptures and decided one miracle was true while another was not. He said he held the books of the Bible up to the same scrutiny he holds any book or account to. If a claim has corroborating evidence, then it is more probably true historically. Whereas if it does not have corroborating evidence, then it might not be true historically. That was a radical idea for me: to read the books of the Bible with the viewpoint that the writers had to prove themselves.
Ironically evangelicals insist that their sermons are not inerrant, their hymns and songs are not inerrant, their prayers are not inerrant, their self-help books and commentaries are not inerrant, even their Bible translations are not inerrant. But they insist the scriptures in the original manuscripts, are all inerrantly God-breathed. Catholics, and other hierarchical churches, on the other hand, insist that nothing is inerrant, but the church’s decisions are the most authoritative.