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Is the Bible Inerrant?

According to some evangelical and fundamentalist Christians, the inerrancy of the Bible is an essential doctrine. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary opines, "I do not believe that evangelicalism can survive without the explicit and complete assertion of biblical inerrancy. " The website Got Questions? defends biblical inerrancy this way: "The Bible itself claims to be perfect." Brian Edwards of Answers in Genesis asserts, "We cannot have a reliable Savior without a reliable Scripture."

Dave Miller and Eric Lyons of Apologetics Press expressed it like this:

The fact is, if Paul, or any of these men, made mistakes in their writings, then they were not inspired by God (cf. 2 Timothy 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:20-21), because God does not make mistakes (cf. Titus 1:2; Psalm 139:1-6). And if the Scriptures were not “given by inspiration of God,” then the Bible is not from God. And if the Bible is not from God, then the skeptic is right. But the skeptic is not right! [emphasis in original]

Well, it's hard to argue with that logic.

But despite the Got Questions? assertion, the Bible does not explicitly claim inerrancy. The doctrine is usually affirmed through a set of miscellaneous quotes taken from disparate Bible books and pieced together like a patchwork quilt.

The typical defense of inerrancy starts with poetic lines from the Psalms and Proverbs, such as, "Every law of the Lord is perfect." (Psalm 19:7) and, "Every word of God proves true." (Proverbs 30:5)

Next, the inerrantist notes how many times the words "God said" appear in the Bible. It's a rather large number. This is reinforced with a reference to 2 Peter 1:21, "No prophecy ever came by human will, but men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God," and is supposed to indicate that the entire Bible consists of words spoken by God. But none of these references, including the 2 Peter one, claim that God spoke the entire text of the Bible.

For that, the inerrantist turns to 2 Timothy 3:16. "All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness." If God inspired all Scripture, and every word of God is true, then Scripture can contain no errors. Or so the reasoning goes.

There are a number of ways to respond to this. I could point to holes in the logic. I could point to the circularity of looking to the Bible for proof of the trustworthiness of the Bible. But I'm going to focus on what I think is the deepest flaw in this reasoning: It's impossible to put into practice.

Let's grant, for the sake of the discussion, that "every word of God proves true" and "every law of the Lord is perfect". Let's grant, for the sake of discussion, that at least some of these words and laws can be found in the Bible. Does that give us a set of infallible rules to guide our daily actions?

Suppose we'm trying to decide what to eat for lunch. Should we order the ham sandwich or the crab salad? Or maybe just get a cheeseburger? Does the Bible have any rules for us?

First, we might look at Leviticus 11, which gives dietary instructions. The passage even begins with "The LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron" which sounds promising. It looks like pig meat is out because pigs don't chew cud, and crab salad is out because crabs don't have scales. No rock badger, ostrich, or bat, either. But if locusts or grasshoppers are on the menu, they'd be OK. Failing that, we'll have to settle for cheeseburgers.

Or maybe not. According to rabinnical interpretation, mixing meat and dairy is forbidden due to the prohibition, "You shall not boil a kid in its mother's milk," found in Exodus 23:19 and repeated in Exodus 34:26 and Deuteronomy 14:21. We may have to eat locusts after all.

But maybe there's a loophole. Maybe the rules of Leviticus 11 aren't meant for everyone. The passage does, in fact, specify that Moses and Aaron should give these rules to "the people of Israel". Maybe if we're not Jewish, we can have that ham sandwich after all. The Christian web site Got Questions? uses exactly this loophole, reinforced by select New Testament verses, to argue that the Bible's dietary laws aren't applicable to Christians. Most Christians would agree with that interpretation.

Can this idea be built into a general principle? Are all 613 Mosaic laws binding on Jews but not on Christians? Or are some laws binding on Christians as well, and how do we determine which ones? Christians have wrestled with this question from the beginning.

Jesus seemed to affirm that all the Jewish laws were applicable to his followers, on one occasion stating, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill." (Matthew 5:17) But at other times he seemed to have a relaxed attitude toward the law, to the extent that his adversaries accused him of being a glutton and a drunkard.

The early church wrestled with this issue as the apostle Paul began winning converts mostly from the Gentiles. If the dietary laws didn't apply to Christians, what else in the Torah could they ignore? What, if anything should they ignore? Church leaders met in Jerusalem around the year 50 to work out the details, and came up with a set of what they considered the essentials of Christian practice.

For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication.

But as the New Testament came together, later generations of Christians had to wrestle with the issue again. What about Jesus' teaching on divorce, where he upheld the strictest interpretation of the Torah? What of his teaching on murder and adultery, where he went far beyond the Torah's requirements? Just how much of Jewish Law is applicable to Christians anyway?

There have been many attempts at a definitive answer. The most popular approach today is to classify the laws into cermonial, civil, and moral. The ceremonial laws are those related to ancient Israel's worship. Civil laws are those related to ancient Israel's daily living. Moral laws are those that apply to all people at all times. It's a nice framework that is accepted among many Christian denominations, but it doesn't provide a simple breakdown of which laws fit into which categories.

For example, most Christians would agree that the Ten Commandments are moral laws, binding on all people at all times. But if you ask a Seventh Day Adventist (SDA), you'll hear that most Christians don't keep the sabbath. On the other hand, even SDAs don't keep the sabbath in the way Orthdox Jews do. So should the sabbath commandment be classified as a ceremonial law? If so, we can't assume the Ten Commandments are moral laws. Are there any objective criteria to help us determine which parts of the Bible are applicable today?

It might be helpful if we had an inerrant instruction book to guide us.

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