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.