4 Challenges to Biblical Inerrancy

As I mentioned in yesterday's post (Understanding the Other Side), I had the opportunity recently to play Devil's Advocate in a debate about biblical inerrancy.

Biblical inerrancy is a tough topic to pin down. When I think about it, I think about the idea that Bible is true and trustworthy, accurate and reliable, perfect and authoritative. I think this a great doctrine. So, how would you attack it?

Here are the four best arguments I could find to represent the anti-inerrancy side ...

Contradictions

The Bible is full of apparent, on-the-face contradictions.

What is Jesus' genealogy? Did Jesus feed 4,000 or 5,000 or both? How many angels were at Jesus' tomb? What were Jesus' last words? Google "bible contradictions" and you'll find a lot of people who excel at close reading and need new hobbies.

Contradictions seem to undermine claims that the Bible is perfect. Sure, we can still trust the Bible even if it has some imperfections, but where does this leave inerrancy?

Incoherence

The story of the Bible unravels and unfolds turn by turn. We learn more and more about God and his ways as the story unfolds. Some laws pass away (yay cheesburgers!). Some practices pass away (sacrifices for ex.). Some institutions pass away (temples and Levites).

And this raises the question: "what does it mean to say that the whole Bible is inerrant?" There are parts of it that we can learn from, but shouldn't obey. There are parts that are outright lies and errors (see Job's friends' speeches). For generations people have talked about "a canon within the canon," prioritizing some scriptures above others. But where does this leave inerrancy?

Process

The Bible you read today didn't descend from heaven and it wasn't mined from the earth. It came to us through a long and convoluted process. This process involves transcription, transmission, canonization and (for us non-Greek-readers) translation.

Most tight definitions of inerrancy hold that the Bible was only perfect in autograph form (ie. only the first edition was perfect). After that, errors creep in. As do biases. Where does this leave inerrancy?

Authority

The last challenge has to do with the locus of authority. Is the Bible your authority or someone else? Most evangelicals would say that the Bible is the ultimate authority (sola scriptura). Inerrancy protects our capacity to trust the authority of the Bible.

But where did we get the Bible? And how do we read it?

The reality is that the early, proto-orthodox church decided on the contents of the Christian Bible (for more on this, see The Canon of Scripture by FF Bruce). And we bring our community with us when we read the Bible (try to read Romans without hearing a Luther track laid over Paul). The fingerprints of men are all over the Bible.

Where does this leave inerrancy?

Can you think of other significant challenges to biblical inerrancy?

5 comments:

  1. Hi Steve. This is an amazing post from you. I never expect this kind of post from you. Truly inspirational work.

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  2. How do we deal with the fact that many well-intentioned, thoughtful, intelligent, respected Christians can come to different conclusions of how to interpret the Bible?

    And in general, all texts are read with cultural and chronological bias, no matter how hard we try to extract ourselves from them. That inevitably affects how we interpret scripture. For me, this is the beauty and frustration of why God would choose to communicate with us through text.

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  3. Katharine, I think the different conclusions people can come to should have a humbling effect on us.

    Instead, a lot of folks start throwing mud. People who disagree with an interpretation get labeled as dumb or shallow or evil or heretical. There's very little benefit-of-the-doubt in Christendom.

    Add this to the fact that we don't listen well and ... well ... we've got a problem.

    What would a better response look like?

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  4. And, Katharine, I totally agree about the inability to extract ourselves from our context.

    Did you ever get to take any classes by Stanley Fish while you were in Durham? I just missed him, but his ideas on interpretive communities were really interesting.

    (Say "Hi" to Peter, Desmond and Charlotte for us!)

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  5. Hi from all the Krafts too. :-)

    Listening and humility are good points. I guess it also makes me think we have to draw our circles of certainty carefully. We can be confident of opinions, but not necessarily certain. That makes a big difference in our attitudes and actions towards others.

    I never took anything from Fish. Sounds interesting...I'm not sure I would have been ready for anything too out of the box though.

    I appreciate your thoughts on the blog. Please keep it up!

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