Inerrancy of the Bible

bibleDoes 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.

burning bush

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 JacobHe 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 Torah

The Torah

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. Bar MitzvahThe 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.

stand for reading the gospelNotice 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.

printerWhen 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

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.


About Mark

I was raised in the conservative non-institutional churches of Christ and attended Florida College in Tampa, Florida. I served as a minister for 8 years in the non-institutional churches of Christ, and 4 years at a mainline church of Christ in Vermont.
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15 Responses to Inerrancy of the Bible

  1. garycummings says:

    I guess I believe that the original Scriptures in the original languages are infallible and inerrant. That is my stance.

    • Mark says:

      So, Gary, how did you come to that stance? What witnessed to you in the Scriptures such that you concluded they were inerrant?

      • garycummings says:

        When I was saved at the age of 17, I had a very high view of Scriptures. That being said, a year later at a COC college, I was introduced to the concept of the Bible in the original languages. That made sense to me and I used the RSV as soon as I came across it. I learned the history of the canon. Needless to say, in the COC, the “Fundamentals” were not taught as such, so I never called myself a fundamentalist. Years later I went to a liberal seminary run by the Disciples of Christ, and studied the history of theology and New Testament Greek for a couple of years. Years after that I returned to Earlham School of Religion (Quaker) and resumed my theological studies. There I studied theology and Higher critical thought. To be honest, I came there as “Neo-Orthodox”-that the Bible was not the Word of God, but only contained the Word of God. This fit in well with Quaker theology, which denies the Bible is the Word of God. They say only Jesus is the Word of God. I did not consider myself fundamentalist at that time. My last year, I was really confronted with a choice-to go the Quaker and Higher -Critical way, or to believe the Bible was the written Word of God. I studied what Fundamentalism was.I found out that classic fundamentalism meant: Belief in the Bible as the Word of God and Inerrant, the Deity of Jesus Christ, the substitutionary atonement , the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ , and his literal return to judge the world. This is what fundamentalism meant, without the cultural right wing crap.
        When I prepared sermons for preaching class, I was the only one who said “The Word of God says:” I took the statements of Jesus seriously and literally when He said: “It is written.”, “The Word of God can not be broken” and ” I say to you.” When I left Earlham with my Master of Divinity degree in 1981 I had become a historic fundamentalist and am one to this day. During that time, I had some very deep and meaningful visions. I left there to be a minister among the Friends Churches, which were the more conservative of the Friends movement. But they were divided among cultural/religious right-wingers and nominal members who attacked fundamentalists (without knowing what they were attacking). Needless to say, I lasted about a year with that group. I resigned and we moved on to Texas where my wife could finish grad school. So, today I am still a historical fundamentalist. I believe we can take the Bible both seriously and literally (in those places where it is meant to be literal). The misuse of the Bible by a cult like the Churches of Christ can drive people away from the historic fundamentals. I do understand that. I do believe however that the misuse of the Bible to hurt people does not justify abandoning the integrity of the Bible. Thanks for listening.

  2. SteveA says:

    As you’ve outlined, the concept of inerrancy is at least in part, a development of the transition from oral to print culture. The invention of printing was necessary for creating the Reformation, Science, and the Enlightenment. I was raised thinking that there were only a few apparent contradictions or difficult places in the Bible. But, a closer study reveals many. Inerrancy is an assumption. If one assumes it then one can make almost any two statements harmonize. It is a matter of being creative and clever, not necessarily being right. For example, I heard Josh McDowell talk in Charlottesville, VA back in the 74-75 school year. He mentioned a pious and devoted Christian scholar he knew who was an expert in Greek. He made the point of extolling the man’s virtues. He claimed this eminent Greek scholar was so fantastically good that he, after twenty five years of study, was able to harmonize all the apparent contradictions in the Gospels. That indicated to me that if it required that much effort then maybe the assumption of inerrance was not the best model for scripture. No engineering or medical text is inerrant. Yet we are still able to put a man on the moon, rovers on Mars, and steadily improve medical treatments.

  3. garycummings says:

    I accept the differences in the Gospels as well as the inerrancy of the story of Jesus. I think each writer saw what they saw or investigated it enough to write their own inspired version of the life, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus. What is inerrant is what Jesus said and meant, not the precise wording, which does vary from Gospel to Gospel. All of the accounts of the resurrection vary, and I am glad of that. It means they did not sit down together to “get the story right”. John has the most complete historic account of the resurrection. I accept each one for what it says: the tomb was empty and Jesus was risen. I do not think the Gospels were meant to be harmonized, as each one stands as a witness on its own.

  4. Kimberly says:

    I remember going to study groups while in college and pointing out that Paul made distinctions between what was inspired knowledge from God and his own opinions. Alas, I was just a girl and my discoveries were quickly glossed over. :/

    • garycummings says:

      Yes, Paul did give his opinions as well as inspired knowledge. Both accurately recorded in the Bible. We may confuse at times “correct doctrinal belief” with inerrancy, but I do not believe the two are the same. I do believe there are core doctrines, and secondary doctrines or teachings which are non-salvation issues. I do believe in both. The infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture. Jesus said “The Word of God can’t be broken.” I view that in terms of both inerrancy and infallibility.

      • Richard says:

        Jesus said to live by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. God gave commandments to be able to identify both liars and truth tellers. The sad fact is we have forgotten those instructions in Deut. 4, 12, 13,18; which were paraphrased by Jesus when warning us to take care not to be deceived. Rome put the Bible together. Rome put Paul in the Bible. How can Paul be the author of Scripture if he fails the tests to have spoke according to the Law, the Testimony and the Teachings of Jesus Christ?

        I fear we have much to repent of.

        After almost a year of careful study, I had to agree with the author.

        Since the gospel is about the teachings of Jesus – we need to return to be hearers and doers of His words of life – not Paul’s circular reasoning that even denies God gave the Law to Moses.

      • garycummings says:

        I have to say that Paul was an inspired writer by the Holy Spirit. What he wrote m which was not his opinion, was Scripture. He was not against the Old Testament, as that was the Bible of the early church, for the most part in the Septuagint version. The Word of God can not be broke. Jesus said that. Also, he said the “Holy Spirit will lead us into more truth.” There is a Sensus Plenior interpretation of Scripture. This means a deeper meaning revealed by the Holy Spirit. This was how Jesus and Paul approached Scripture. Read Paul’s use of the OT (Leviticus 18:5) in Romans 10:5.Read all the verses there, and you will see that the Holy Spirit led Paul to a deeper meaning of the original OT text to write NT Scripture.Also Paul quoted almost verbatim through the Septuagint Bible, rather than the Hebrew text.

  5. SteveA says:

    Gary, you are a great man and may God bless you in every way. I do not desire to change your view. For some reason, this thread interests me and I am hoping for more discussion. Looking back over the past two thousand years it is evident that there are many styles of Christianity. The view of the Bible and Tradition keeps changing too. Perhaps all of these except one are wrong. Or, perhaps the skeptics are right and it is mythology that no longer needs to be taken literally or seriously. I’ve been seeking a third option all my adult life and I think I’m getting somewhere with that. I’ve been thinking that the way the history of Christianity has unfolded over these two millenia is part of the process of the way things ought to be. The Protestant Reformation could not have happened in 500 AD or 1000 AD. The insights it obtained were only possible after the invention of the printing press which led to widespread literacy and the way which that changed how people think. Likewise, we have now moved into the Postmodern era, what with the internet and social media and GPS etc. New views and knowledge are thereby enabled. These means to me that it is perfectly valid to interpret scripture in ways that our ancient and our reformation fathers could not have conceived. We are in a new place and only now can we perceive some of these new understandings. I’ve been reading Michael Hardin’s – The Jesus Driven Life. Half way through I’ve come across this quote by him of (no relation) James Alison’s – The Joy of Being Wrong.

    “…. it permits us to consider divine revelation as a process of human discovery. That is to say, it is not frightened of the utterly contingent, human, historical process by which cultures arose and declined, events occurred, peoples were formed, previous events were reinterpreted, the texts themselves edited and reedited. It is not as though divine revelation needs somehow to be protected from all such happenings, in order really to be divine revelation.”

    and later quoting Michael,

    “Rather than perceiving revelation as a divine communication or telegram, we ought to be able to recognize that revelation occurs constantly in the anthropological process of discovery. Alison asserts that “this means that the slow development of the understanding of who human beings are and the slow development of the understanding of who God is are a simultaneous process, and impossible the one without the other.”

    • garycummings says:

      Steve, I appreciate your attitude and am thankful to discuss this in a non-polemic way, Yes, I do believe in the inerrancy and infallibility of Scriptures, and I have been to two liberal seminaries. For one to accept “non-inerrancy”, in my opinion, a person must first decide the Bible is not inerrant and then look for errors and inconsistencies. Nothing I have read from more liberal anti-inerrancy has convinced me over the years to abandon that view. That being said, I do believe the message and not the structural form is the most important element to keep in the mind. The text is the bearer of the message of God. I do believe in both the written Word of God and the Living Word of God. Jesus is the latter, who gave us the former. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

      Jesus said in John 10:35: The Word of God cn not be broken” This is the basis of Biblical inerrancy from the mouth of Jesus. That being said, there is a living Word within the written Word.:Both are inerrant and infallible.We can read the text for years, even in the original languages and not get it. Then one day we read it again and it becomes alive to us and we get it. That is just our humanity and the Spirit overcoming our limitations.

      All of that being said, the Bible has been interpreted throughout history in 4 main ways:
      (1) Literal (2) Allegorical (3) Ethical/Moral and (4) Eschatological.
      The COC historically has concentrated on #1. Pentecostals and some some groups have centered on #2. Many others have concentrated on # 3 and #4. Back in the Middle Ages, all four methods were used to get all that there was out of Scripture and some of the interpretations became very fanciful. Then the church took some of their interpretations as infallible and even burned people alive to keep their interpretations valid.

      I think a better way to approach interpretations is to read the Bible as a whole, and to keep Christ and the Cross as the “Center”. We see that the Bible is a revelation of God to us (not about God or from God) but of God himself. Keeping that in mind we see how God related to Adam and Eve, the patriarchs, Moses and all the rest. This is God working and speaking to us through his Word.
      Then this revelation of God himself causes us to love him and others as ourselves and to serve them. This is all possible through faith in Christ. The love of God is inerrant through his Word, both written and living. That is how I take it. Blessings

    • Richard says:

      You might consider what I found to be the original gospel of Jesus Christ – solely from the testimony of Matthew and John and the Hebrew Scriptures Jesus was teaching about. After all, in John 15-17 Jesus blessed those who would believe on him through their testimony. My Church of Christ brothers who are preachers have all but disowned me over it, and one local congregation did likewise – yet another, more educated congregation has found a number or men to be very interested in it.

      It comes down to what I said above – we need to do as God said to know who to hear – or who we must ignore.

      It’s only for those that seek God with all their heart and all their soul – not for the weak, faint or pretenders.

  6. Interesting article, and well stated. However, I feel as though the argument is not so much as to whether or not scripture is inerrant as revealed by God, but as to whether or not the original manuscripts can be proven to be from God. This is understandable, however in saying that these scriptures cannot be from God and that they can be in areas disproven and shown to be inerrant necessitates a couple things:
    1) The destruction of the sovereignty of God. If God cannot breath Scripture through people and if this Scripture cannot be inerrant, according to His choosing, then it would seem this God is not truly sovereign and that he has to go by our rules rather than His own. Truly if God is not Sovereign to show the men in the early Church which were inerrant and not, then we truly don’t serve a sovereign God, we serve a God who has to follow our rules.
    2) A low view of Scripture. If Scripture can be proven untrue, then where goes certainty? What about solidity in faith? What about a base to be confident? If we do not believe Scripture is inerrant and from God then seemingly we can be immediately shut down by anyone from the Atheist to the Muslim. Is it really necessary to lower the view of Scripture for ourselves and others simply so we can easier explain it in our minds? Seriously, it has been said that our of 100% of knowledge that could be known in this World, the smartest person doesn’t even begin to reach 1% of this knowledge. Knowing this, why do we seem to think that we can claim Scripture is errant, or that Scripture really didn’t come from God? Why not realize in humility that we don’t know everything, and accept the fact that some things may not be completely understood until the day we meet God? I would propose that this is the road that should be walked. Am I talking about blind faith? Absolutely not! I’m saying trusting God that when we can’t either explain nor disprove, we trust God with it.

    Basically, it is vital that we use the logical argument as we look at Scripture. This could be as follows:
    Premise A: All the utterances of God are perfect thus free from error (Titus 1:2; 1 John 3:20).
    Premise B: All the truth claims in Scripture are the utterances of God (2 Tim. 3:16).
    Conclusion: All of the truth claims in Scripture are free from error.
    It is not complicated, it simply maintains a trust in our Sovereign God and high view of Scripture.

    Once again, thank you for the thought provoking article!

    God bless.

    • Mark says:
      1. I don’t think God’s sovereignty is threatened by having an errant Bible.
      2. People who believe in an inerrant Bible have no problem using errant prayers, errant sermons, errant songs and errant elders.
      3. People who believe in an inerrant Bible also totally disagree with each other about what the inerrant Bible says.
      4. I haven’t noticed that people who believe in an inerrant Bible are more loving or more godly than people who don’t believe in inerrancy.
      5. How do you get your Premise B from 2Tim3:16? It definitely doesn’t say that all truth claims in Scripture are free from error. It only says that God has breathed his breath into them.
  7. Richard Mohr says:

    Everyone! Get a copy of Father Patrick Reardon’s “Reclaiming the Atonement” and read what he has to say about the influence of the Church on Paul’s writings.

    Part of the deal with the way Fundamentalists and Evangelicals interpret things is that the Ancient Church is removed from the picture when they argue that Paul and the others were inspired. There is no reference to what the Church sang and taught that Paul, Peter and the others included in their writings. Those things existed prior to the New Testament documents.

    By ignoring this simple fact, those that are not members of the ancient churches (I’m Eastern Orthodox) free themselves from the authority of Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, the Coptic Church and the others. Thus, they can go on their way interpreting things as they please, fighting with others that do the same and create doctrines and practices that are novelties.

    It’s rather self-serving, actually.


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