This article covers some of my current and general thoughts on Biblical Inerrancy.
Biblical Inerrancy is a belief about the Bible held by some, or maybe most, Christians. The exact belief varies by person and denomination, but the general idea is that the Bible is either mostly or completely error-free. A typical Christian view on Biblical Inerrancy would be to state, “I believe the Bible is the inerrant Word of God.”
I believe in a kind of Biblical Inerrancy, but it is far off from that particular phrasing. This article will discuss why I think such a statement is problematic and how we might fix those problems.
First, I believe the Word of God is Jesus Christ himself according to a good reading of scripture. One of many references would be John 1:1. I believe the Bible is a message from God, but a message is very different from the Word. According to scripture, the Word of God is God. Can a Bible do any of the things God can? Nope.
The next point is that I do not believe we have “the Bible.” We have Bibles. I own several. You may own “a Bible,” but which one is “the Bible?” Is it the King James Version? I sure hope not, because in that case the Bible definitely has errors. When I talk about “the Bible” what I am really referring to is somewhat complex. To summarize, I would be referring to the collection of the original writings that most current Bibles are based on. Ironically, it is not certain that these original writings were ever collected in one place. In other words, there may technically never have been “the Bible.”
Let’s assume “the Bible” did exist for a moment and we will look at the possibility that it did not afterwards. If the Bible did exist, a Christian might be tempted to say that there is no reason to believe that the original Bible had any errors. I believe this is the line that many apologists including J Warner Wallace take these days. However, as they know, this is not quite true. We do have at least two good reasons to believe that the original Bible may have had errors, as well as at least two good reasons to believe it did not have errors.
The reasons the Bible may have had errors include the fact that it was written by people. As I frequently discuss in my writings, and as everyone knows anyway, part of being human is making errors. In another bit of irony, Christianity itself teaches as much! The second reason is that many of our fragments of ancient scripture contain small differences. In other words, if we consider any particular old piece of scripture to be the real one, there is probably some other copy which contains errors. Similarly, if we consider any particular old piece of scripture which we currently possess to be the real one, it seems likely that the original will have slight differences which would be seen as errors. Many Christians would say the original Bible has no errors by definition, but this implies that the Bibles most of us possess today are likely to have small differences from the original Bible. In other words, the Bibles most of us possess today are possibly slightly erroneous.
The reasons the original Bible may not have had any errors include the facts that the errors we do see in our copies appear to be somewhat random. If the original had errors then we would expect the copies to have somewhat predictable and systematic errors, but they generally do not. The second reason is that scripture claims itself to be divinely inspired. The fact that scripture is divinely inspired does not necessarily imply that when people wrote the original writings based on that inspiration they did so flawlessly, but it may.
There are two more ways that we can say the original Bible, if it existed, was without error. These two additional ways depend on a different idea of error. Error as we have previously discussed means a deviation from what we expect, but in some sense that is a very silly definition of error because it depends on the judgement of people who are necessarily error-prone. The first way we get away from error, therefore, is to assume the original Bible was without error by definition and necessarily. In doing that, we as readers and interpreters of the Bible take on full responsibility for any apparent error. An apparent error, which is still a deviation from expectation, becomes a problem with our expectations, logical deductions, interpretations and so on, rather than a problem with the Bible. This is an idea that many Southern Baptists, and I believe other denominations as well, take. See the video below for an example of this logic in action:
The other way to redefine error is a relatively scientific understanding of error. This definition of error would hold that the original Bible is only erroneous, or perhaps it would presume inerrancy of the original and state that our current versions are only erroneous, if the differences are significant and important. Significance here is in the statistical sense. We would look at the bible word by word, or perhaps even letter by letter. There would be a statistically significant error in one of two cases. If a version of the Bible has a particular letter or word which is different from that letter or word in the vast majority of the other versions of the Bible, it has made a significant error in that letter or word. Similarly, if enough letters or words are different in one version of the Bible from the vast majority of other versions, then that entire version can be considered significantly different. Once again, we are equating difference with error.
An important difference is one which alters the meaning of scripture. We can also talk about levels of importance. Most letters do not mean anything alone, but some do. For example, the letter “a” is also a word. In that case, a letter-level error could cause a letter-level error of importance. At the word-level we can have errors which do not change the meaning. For example, if I accidentally write “mad” instead of “angry,” there is no important error because the two words are synonymous. The larger the level, the more difficult it is to commit an important difference to meaning because the amount of context allows for interpretation of the correct meaning. If I write a whole book and I misspell two or three words, or if I use two or three words in an odd way, it very likely makes no difference in the overall message of the book.
Lastly, it may be the case that “the Bible” never existed in the sense that the original writings were never actually assembled together in a book, but this makes no meaningful difference to the ideas being discussed. It simply renders the phrase “the Bible” technically incorrect. The discussion is still on the original writings, whether they were assembled or not. To be technically correct, and also to prevent confusion based on using different translations, I do prefer to refer directly to “a Bible” such as “the NIV translation of the Bible” or “the NIV version,” and when I am speaking generally I do prefer to say “scripture,” but these are all technical details. Details do matter and they can make a large difference, but it is also silly to start arguments over things which do not make meaningful differences.
In conclusion, I believe a version of a Biblical Inerrancy belief can be warranted, but I do not think that the typical statement, “I believe the Bible is the inerrant Word of God” is the correct phrasing of that warranted belief, and I also believe that many other Biblical Inerrancy statements are also unwarranted. I would prefer to affirm a three-part Biblical Inerrancy statement which resembles the following:
Part 1: Scripture reliably expresses a message from God.
I believe that the collection of scripture we have today expresses a message from God which is without significant deviation in meaning.
Part 2: Scripture has not significantly changed throughout history.
As far as I can tell, the scripture which the Church has possessed throughout history is without significant deviation in meaning from the scripture we have today.
Part 3: Apparent problems in the meaning of scripture are due to poor interpretation, not Biblical Error.
I believe that it is more likely that any apparent error in the meaning of scripture is due to a problem with interpretation rather than an actual problem in the meaning of scripture.