The Bible and Alternatives to Inerrancy

Inerrancy is the view that the Bible contains no errors of any sort – factual, moral, theological, historical, scientific – and so on. This belief stems from the idea that the very words of the Bible are inspired by God. Therefore, to attribute an error to the Bible is to attribute an error to God. As Ravi Zacharias puts it in this pithy Tweet:

This way of putting the argument is, in my opinion, unhelpful pastorally because it raises the stakes of the conversation to a question of whether or not one is, in denying inerrancy, rebelling against God. It can be a way of scaring people into accepting inerrancy even if they have not been given a convincing reason for its truth or if they have noticed one of the many apparent theological tensions, factual errors or discrepancies in the Bible. They must deny their own observations because they don’t want to question God.

The reason I am writing this post now is because I want to say something positive before I develop some reasons for not believing in inerrancy. Suffice to say that I strongly doubt that inerrancy is true. But I don’t want it to be understood that I am denying the Bible its authority. (In fact, I absolutely believe that it is the inerrantist fundamentalist who denies the Bible’s authority by not paying attention to what it says.) The fact is that there are different and vastly superior ways of thinking about the inspiration of the Bible than the inerrant/fundamentalist suggestion. In this post I will outline three.

Firstly though, let’s think about this word ‘inspiration’. My claim in this post is that the Bible can be thought of as ‘inspired’ without needing to attribute the doctrine of inerrancy to it. By this word ‘inspired’, all I mean is that there is some very important connection between God and the Bible: God inspired (or inspires) the Bible. The key question, however, is how did he inspire the Bible? Or, what kind of Bible did he inspire? The inerrantist view is that God inspired the Bible by getting the Biblical writers to write down the exact words that he wanted to be written. This is why the inerrantist cannot believe that there are errors in the Bible because to believe so would be to attribute errors to God. This view is more-or-less identical to the mainstream Islamic view of the inspiration of the Koran. Indeed many Muslims claim that the main proof of the truth of Islam is the miracle of the Koran. This is because there is no way that a single, illiterate human being, using his own resources, could have written such a book. It is not uncommon to hear Christians who hold to the doctrine of inerrancy making similar apologetic arguments using the Bible. The problem is that this makes the truth of Christianity dependent upon whether or not the Bible is right in every minute detail. And when people find that it is not, they often abandon the faith entirely. (Just a quick side note here, one of my main criticisms of fundamentalism in general is that it shifts the object of Christianity away from Christ and to the Bible, making the Bible the central focus. I am certain that I used to have an idolatrous view of Scripture in which I equated Scripture with Christ himself. In other words, I used to think that a certain book was an object as worthy of worship and adoration as the second person of the Trinity. This was a serious mistake.)

But, is there another way to think about the inspiration of Scripture? The answer is: yes. In fact, there are several. This post is simply an introduction to some of them and by no means exhaustive.

Other Ways to Think About Inspiration

James Barr outlines at least four alternative ways to think about inspiration in Escaping from Fundamentalism.

1) The Incarnation

The incarnation is the moment when the Word became flesh, when the second person of the Trinity became the God-man Jesus Christ. The doctrine of the hypostatic union says that Christ was not one thing – God or man – nor was he two things – God and man – but that he was both at the same time – fully God and fully man. If we think about the Bible in this way it may be helpful. Barr writes:

(This analogy) would suggest that scripture could be at one and the same time a completely human product, having all the weakness, the variability, the contingency, the historically-relatedness of the human, and yet at the same time be the Word of God, through which the eternal God communicates with us, and we with him. Inspiration might then be thought of as the link, the bond, that holds the being of scripture as word of God and its being as word of man together in one.

2) The Effect of Scripture
The concept of inspiration is traditionally attached to the power of the Holy Spirit as it inspired the writers of Scripture, but could it be thought of differently? This view sees the concept of inspiration as the work of the Holy Spirit as it inspires those who read the Scripture now. Scripture on this view takes on a dynamic edge that implies that the Holy Spirit may speak powerfully through it at any point. On this view:

The Bible is the Word of God as and when the divine Spirit breathes through it…It is attached not so much to the origin of scripture, to the time when the words were first formed or written down, but to its effectiveness in a spiritual sense.

This view makes a lot of sense of the experience of reading Scripture, both communally and individually. Is it not true that there are certain times when the Bible seems to be more inspired? Certain times when a passage of Scripture comes alive and speaks something very deeply to the heart? This doesn’t happen all the time, but it does some of the time. Could it be the case that when we experience such a thing we are experiencing the reality of the inspiration of Scripture? A good example would be St. Augustine’s conversion, preceding which he was led by the Spirit of God to pick up and read a certain passage from the book of Romans. Upon reading quite a simple verse of St. Paul’s moral teaching, all of Augustine’s struggles and doubts dissolved and he was wholeheartedly converted.

3) The Inspirational Teacher

This is similar to the view above and it sees the inspiration of the Bible as analogous to an inspirational teacher. The teacher inspires his students, but that inspiration will vary depending on the temperament of the individual, whether he was listening and how hard, his prior knowledge, willingness, abilities and so on. This type of inspiration may only occur from time to time when reading the Bible, but its effects continue throughout the life of the believer as he thinks back to those times of inspired revelation.

4) Justification by Faith

This is another analogy that tries to take seriously the weaknesses and flaws of the biblical writers. There are not many people who think that the apostles were perfect individuals. Indeed, look at St. Peter’s betrayal of Christ and his cowardice before the Jews for which he was rebuked by St. Paul (Gal. 2.12). All the writers of the Bible were partially sinful and limited people just like the rest of humanity, and the things that they wrote indicate their limitations: they didn’t know everything about the world and sometimes made minor historical errors or had different particular viewpoints on certain matters of faith and doctrine and so on. Even given these things, the Holy Spirit still uses the Bible to contain or to transmit ‘the substance of the divine communication through which man is brought to be at peace with God’. This is like justification by faith: even though we are sinful individuals who deserve judgment for our sin, God justifies us by our faith in Christ. On this analogy God “justifies” the Bible by using something which is flawed in order to communicate the message that he wants humanity to hear.

In all of these different models, the main problem that Barr and others are trying to take seriously is the limitations of the humanity of the biblical writers. He writes:

The fundamentalist idea of inspiration seems to imply that all the weakness, human error and even sinfulness that attached itself to the biblical writers as persons, and as they are to be seen in the Bible itself, is suddenly and miraculously turned off when they assume their capacity as writers of the biblical books – surely a very strained and artificial idea.

These alternative views of inerrancy provide ways of thinking about inspiration without the need to believe that the biblical writers became perfect for as long as they were writing the scripture or the need to believe that they became automatons who mindlessly wrote down the exact words of God as though they were in a trance. Rather, the writers were still sinful and some of the things they wrote were factually wrong, contradictory, inadequate pictures of God and so on, and yet God still uses the Bible to communicate himself to mankind and to inspire it to faith and holiness. It seems to me that to abandon inerrancy is not to abandon faith in God but to entrust oneself more fully to God as one becomes aware of one’s need for the continuing presence, guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Scripture and Fundamentalism

In addressing an issue like this, it is important to acknowledge the subtleties that exist in reality. This is important because, as I see it, one of the most serious deficiencies with the fundamentalist viewpoint is that it is simplistic. By simplistic, I mean that it simplifies complicated matters to the point of absurdity. So I want to make a couple of distinctions in order to avoid making the same error. 

Firstly, there is a huge difference in sophistication between different types of fundamentalists. For example, although both might be thought of as fundamentalists, Dr. Don Carson and the Westboro Baptist Church really share very little in common: the former is highly intelligent, theologically engaged and erudite, whilst the latter represent a belief system so crudely reactionary it is almost universally rejected outside of their own toxic inner circle. Secondly, many people are a mixture of fundamentalist viewpoints and other more reasonable viewpoints, so some of this post will apply to them, but not all of it. Thirdly, many, many people who attend churches which are fundamentalist in orientation are not themselves fundamentalists. And there are many other distinctions like this. Finally, there is clearly a big distinction between American fundamentalism and English fundamentalism. The former tends to be highly politicised and associated with the so-called “religious right,” whereas the latter tends to be de-politicised and to view all politics with suspicion. I am English, so I am much more familiar with the latter.

The first mark of fundamentalism I would like to explore is the fundamentalist approach to Scripture. In subsequent posts, I intend to make a further five observations about the fundamentalist approach to life and faith. This is not an attempt to comprehensively define fundamentalism, nor even to engage with the strongest arguments for it (which I hope to do at some later point), but an attempt to circumscribe a fairly accurate portrait of the pathology and behaviour of the average (committed) fundamentalist. This first post is only concerned with the fundamentalist approach to Scripture.

Scripture

This is the most important feature of the fundamentalist mindset, and it is the most important to challenge and critique. But what do fundamentalists think about Scripture? I outline here four points.

– Scripture is inerrant and entirely literally true.

This is the view that there are no kind of errors of any sort – scientific, historical, moral, theological – in the Bible. Whereas almost all other types of Christianity acknowledge that questions of factual and historical accuracy are of relative importance depending on where they are in the Bible, what kind of theological point is tied to the historical claim, the genre of the particular book and so on, the fundamentalist insists that none of this makes any difference to the basic fact that the Bible does not have any errors in it and that it is all literally true in exactly the same way. This is because the fundamentalist believes that the Bible is the Word of God. Other types of Christians acknowledge that the Bible is the Word of God but also see it as the word of certain men and so conditioned by their historical circumstances, influences, particular idioms and so on. But the fundamentalist generally doesn’t pay too much attention to this aspect of the biblical witness. Without wishing to be polemical, I genuinely believe that the fundamentalist view of the Bible is more like the Muslim view of the Koran (divine dictation) than it is to the way that the Bible has been viewed within Christian history for the vast majority of its two thousand years.

The outcome of this particular view is that the fundamentalist believes that the very individual words of the Bible are as though spoken directly God himself. They therefore tend to take a very dim view of people who question this because they see it as a slight on God’s character. 

– Scripture is monolithic.

This is the idea that Scripture is all equally true in every part. A key ingredient here is that no Scripture contradicts any other, and any apparent contradiction can be sorted out by appropriate thought and investigation. So, for example, a passage like Matthew 18:1-6 – in which Christ puts forth a child as an example of the type of faith one must have to enter the Kingdom of Heaven and says that whoever receives a child receives him and warns them not to cause a child to sin – is entirely consistent with an utterance like Ezekiel 20.25, in which God is said to have given the Israelites laws specifically to mislead them, to draw them into evil and cause them to offer their children in pagan sacrifice.

Moreover I gave them statutes that were not good and ordinances by which they could not have life; and I defiled them through their very gifts in making them offer by fire all their first-born, that I might horrify them; I did it that they might know that I am the Lord. (Ezek. 20.25f.)

So the challenge for the fundamentalist here is to reconcile the picture of Christ as one who would protect and love and praise young children with the picture of God in Ezekiel 20.25 in which God is said to deliberately cause children to be burned alive. There are many, many examples of this kind of contradictory picture of God between the Old and New Testament, but the fundamentalist viewpoint refuses to acknowledge any of them.

A further point here is that this view also contains the idea that all Scripture is equally inspired. So the genealogies of Chronicles are just as inspired (and therefore just as God-given) as the first chapter of the Gospel of John or Romans chapter eight. This has the unfortunate consequence of meaning that, if indeed there is an error in even a trivial way in the genealogies of Chronicles, then the Bible cannot be inspired because God does not make mistakes.

– Scripture is transparent.

This is the idea that every Scripture is obviously saying one particular thing. This view says that there is little to no ambiguity in Scripture and that its plain meaning is easily obtainable. This viewpoint is necessary for the fundamentalist to maintain because, once the fundamentalist admits that Scripture is ambiguous in certain places, he cedes the moral high-ground which he has taken. That moral high-ground is the belief, held by the fundamentalist, that the Scripture is easy to understand and that the only reason that anyone could possibly misunderstand it is because that person is sinfully blinding himself to the truth. Thus to relinquish this and to admit that there are many people who approach the Bible with equal amounts of faith and obedience who honestly come to different conclusions is to admit that there are other people with whom he may disagree who are as holy (or possibly even more holy) than the fundamentalist.

Another point about this is that invariably what the Scripture is held to be saying by the fundamentalist is the most literal approach to the Scripture possible. (That is unless the Scripture says something that the fundamentalist doesn’t want to believe like when Jesus says, “This is my body,” in which case the Scripture is now obviously metaphorical.) The fundamentalist is often unaware of or contemptuos towards historical approaches to exegesis that include the possibility of allegorical, moral and anagogical levels of interpretations.

– Scripture is self-enclosed.

This is the view that Scripture is all that we need to guide us in terms of faith and practice and is a less sophisticated version of the Protestant doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture. This approach tends to lead to a huge amount of confusion when people of such viewpoints start to try and work out the answers to the many questions that the Bible doesn’t address. To take a particular example: the Bible doesn’t say very much about the reproductive cycle (for want of a better phrase) or how a parent should raise children. So, for instance, the Bible doesn’t say anything specific about masturbation, contraception or abortion. And the Bible will not give any guidance about whether or not it is right to put a baby in childcare whilst both parents go to work, or whether or not it is right to let your children watch TV from a young age, or what sleep techniques should be used to get your baby to nod off. Pretty much the only thing that the Bible says specifically about raising children is in Ephesians 6.4, Colossians 3.21 and Proverbs 13.24: 1) Don’t exasperate your children and 2) Discipline your child otherwise you hate him. These points, although undoubtedly wise, hardly constitute a comprehensive approach to raising children.

Important also to state here is that this view claims that there is no need of an external authority to interpret the Scripture. As such, the individual is put in the ultimate position of authority regarding the interpretation of the Bible. This is an extremely problematic position.

If you would like to see a quick precis of the sufficiency of Scripture, the excellent website Blue Letter Bible has one here. Notice the language: ‘The Bible alone has the answers.’

The above is an outline of the kinds of things fundamentalists believe about Scripture. I am open to correction and addition to these observations, but these are some basic ideas: Scripture is inerrant, monolithic, transparent and self-enclosed.

I’d like to finish this post by reiterating what I said in my previous post which is that I have a huge amount of respect for many people who are either fully fledged fundamentalists or who share in some of these views. These people are are often highly knowledgeable, committed and more Christ-like than I am. I hope I have so far addressed these issues with the appropriate amount of tact and courtesy. My point here is to enage with the ideas and not to offer personal criticism. 

Further to that, I would also like to reiterate that I think there are much better ways to be Christian than this and I am not advocating a loss of faith. I am a student of theology and hope to be a priest at some point in the future. This is because I find Christianity to be the most interesting and important object of enquiry and devotion imaginable, and I believe that Jesus Christ and all that he represents are truly who God is and what he is like. So please don’t lose heart if you are questioning as every journey presents new opportunities. Thank you for reading.

Further Investigation…

Is there anything fun about fundamentalism?

“We put the fun into fundamentalism.” – Mark Driscoll. Founding Pastor, Mars Hill Church (defunct)

Is there anything fun about fundamentalism? My answer to this question is an emphatic “No!” And this may be the most basic criticism of fundamentalist Christianity: it is simply not any fun. It makes fun people boring, and it makes boring people aggressive. But I don’t want to get ahead of myself. What exactly do I mean by fundamentalism? Because I genuinely want to help. I constantly come across people who want to find a way out of this restrictive and narrow view of Christianity but don’t know where to turn. Indeed, as a first point, let me say this: leaders and pastors of fundamentalist churches on the whole make little effort to help people who have genuine questions and struggles with points of fundamentalist doctrine. This is often because they have never considered any of these questions themselves and become insecure when other people raise them. One of the main ploys of the fundamentalist movement is to claim total authority for its own interpretation of the Bible and to label anyone who disagrees as ‘liberal’. Now, of course, many of them do not actually know what the word ‘liberal’ means, but for them it becomes a catch-all term for everybody who does not agree with them, and it generally has connotations of faithlessness, apostasy and immorality. As James Barr writes, in his excellent and little-read book ‘Escaping from Fundamentalism’

(This) simple picture is used because of its effectiveness. It is a successful instrument for the maintenance of the fundamentalist position. For fundamentalist leaders well know that the vast majority of people will never read a book or consider a point of view if they have been told that it is liberal. (p.164)

Once the pilgrim believer does start to question the simple black-and-white approach of fundamentalism, however, she, rather than being helped by her pastor, is simply ignored or cast out into the world on her own resources. So,

The transition to a different understanding of the Bible, of faith, and of the church can be a time of deep uncertainty and often of severe personal suffering. Fundamentalist society will do little or nothing to help the pilgrim who becomes convinced that he must leave it and seek a different world of faith. (ibid., p. vii)

Although these are generalisations, they are unfortunately very common experiences for many believers. It has resonances with my own journey. I rarely speak in public about my experience of leaving a movement with fundamentalist tendencies because I am still deeply relationally involved with many believers who approach their faith in this way. I have a huge amount of respect and love for these people, and there is much that is good about their beliefs and their lives. I have no desire whatsoever to discourage them or to cause problems in their churches. However, my experience is real for me. I began to explore the roots of the movement I was involved in and the theological claims it makes for itself and I became deeply concerned that I was committing my whole life to a form of Christianity that was extremely deficient. I also began to read real theology that came from beyond the literature of the movement itself, and I expressed a desire to study theology in a secular university. I was met with almost complete indifference.

I write this not to criticise those people but simply to identify with the tendencies James Barr mentions: firstly, fundamentalist leaders tend to not engage with serious questions about their views and doctrines and, second, they tend not to help people in their journey beyond a strictly proscribed fundamentalist horizon. 

In my opinion fundamentalism is dangerous and it isolates and destroys people. To finish this post with another quote from James Barr (on whom I will rely heavily for the rest of the series):

The issues involved in fundamentalism are without doubt among the most serious pastoral problems for the church of today. Very many people are seriously concerned with them…The alienation that it brings about is extreme. Lay people come to regard their minister as ‘unsound’ or worse. Within families it is common for young persons brought up in a Christian home to become fundamentalists and to end up evaluating their devoted upbringing as little better than paganism. Irreconcilable religious tension between husband and wife sometimes leads to the verge of marital breakdown. For thousands of people, the question of fundamentalism is their central personal religious problem. And, on the world-wide scale, when one looks at the social and political implications, few can doubt what many observers have noted: that the continuance of religious fundamentalism, and of the attitutudes associated with it, may have great importance in determining whether or not mankind is to be destroyed through nuclear warfare. (p. x)

(Note that this book was written in 1983, twenty years before George W. Bush told the world that God had told him to invade Iraq.)

So, to conclude, there isn’t anything fun about fundamentalism. The good news is (the great news!) that there are much more fun and joyful and life-giving forms of Christian faith. When I was beginning to explore the wider world outside of fundamentalism, I remember hearing an interview with then Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, who said that he was first attracted to Christianity because it made his world not smaller but larger. And, although the way to that world can be narrow and the road hard, I have found that to follow it brings great joy and makes things come alive again. When once it was black-and-white, now it is filled with all the multivalent colour of God’s beauty. There is great hope.

Thank you for reading.

Further Investigation…