MUST the Bible be Inerrant to be Truthful and Authoritative?

Nov 8, 2022 | Blog

If there was ever a dicey topic among theologians in the modern era, this is it. 

And it’s not reserved for “professional” theologians alone. 

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The belief that the Bible is God’s inerrant, infallible, perfect, and sovereignly inspired word is very common for even the average believer to hear in church and believe. 

It may surprise you, then, to learn that there are many today who either (1) do not affirm the Bible to be inerrant or (2) believe that it is, but define the term in such a way as to functionally allow for error. 

In this post, I want to wade through the territory of belief on this subject to answer a very specific question, and please take note because I am using my terms very carefully

The question is this: MUST the Bible be Inerrant to be Truthful and Authoritative?

What I Believe

The danger in crafting a post like this is giving you, my reader, the incorrect idea of my personal belief on the topic. 

Just to be clear, I hold to the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. It would be wise to familiarize yourself with this Statement. 

There is a key piece of this Statement around which much of the controversy lies: 

Holy Scripture, being God’s own Word, written by men prepared and superintended by His Spirit, is of infallible divine authority in all matters upon which it touches: it is to be believed, as God’s instruction, in all that it affirms, obeyed, as God’s command, in all that it requires; embraced, as God’s pledge, in all that it promises.

The phrase “in all that it affirms” raises a new question, one that many feel is not satisfactorily answered by the statement itself. 

Namely, “Just what does the Bible ACTUALLY affirm?

You see, we can’t make blanket statements like “Everything the Bible says is true” because there are statements in the Bible where a person is lying (think Abram telling the king that Sarai was his sister). 

The Bible truthfully affirms that Abram lied. See that? 

That’s easy enough to understand, but what about when it comes to matter of science or history? Most scientists do not believe in a global flood, and yet most Christians throughout the millennia have believed that Genesis 6-8 teaches one. 

What is to be done with that? Is the Bible affirming that this event happened? Is it merely affirming that biblical writers THOUGHT it happened? Is it affirming neither of these? 

These are puzzling questions that there is no way we’ll get to the bottom of in this post, but we will attempt to think about it as coherently and biblically as possible, so you can feel confident taking a position of your own. 

Defining Our Terms

There are really four terms at play, here: 

  1. Inerrancy
  2. Infallibility

  3. Truthfulness

  4. Authoritativeness

Let’s take each in turn: 

Inerrancy is the view that the Bible is essentially free from error. In other words, there are no factual errors present in the Bible, at least as it relates to what the Bible actually affirms. 

Whether it affirms truthfulness in science and history vs merely theological accuracy is a very heated debate today. We will touch on this further as we move on. 

Infallibility is the idea that is it impossible for the Scriptures to fail at fulfilling God’s intended purpose for them. 

Insofar as God has purposed for the Scriptures to accurately do the job of leading people to see their need for Christ, it will accomplish that task without fail. 

Truthfulness is downstream from inerrancy. Virtually everyone who affirms inerrancy also affirms the Bible’s truthfulness.

And again, many will differ on just what the “content” of that truthfulness is. 

Authoritativeness is important, because most evangelical Christians consider the Bible to be the final, authoritative Word of God for all matters of faith and practice. 

Can the Bible truly be authoritative if it is not inerrant? That is part of what I want to ruminate on in this post.

Does Inerrancy Actually Matter? 

In my thinking, there are two overarching assumptions that inform the issue of inerrancy. For our purposes, I am going to label them the Perfect Being Assumption (PBA) and the Scriptural Claims Assumption (SCA).

The PBA goes like this: Since God is perfect, and seems to have intended to communicate to mankind about himself in a way that is clear and understandable, his Word to mankind must also be perfect in that it accurately reflects his own nature and character. 

Put in simpler terms, why would God—who clearly has the ability to ensure his Word is accurately communicated and preserved, and who, according to his own Word, cannot lie (Titus 1:2)—allow for error to be recorded in the Bible? 

Since God is a perfect being, his Word must also be perfect (free from error). 

This assumption seems reasonable and justified. 

Here’s a thought experiment:

Let’s imagine ourselves as spiritual beings sans creation of the physical universe, with God, assisting him to create his plan for communicating his thoughts, intentions, and will to humanity. 

Of course, God has perfect knowledge of the future on my view, and other spiritual beings do not. So it is clear God has knowledge of events that they do not, and yet throughout the Bible we see evidence of God using spiritual beings in the planning and implementation of his will. 

Looking forward, it is difficult to imagine God and his council planning to communicate theological truth through factual error, especially knowing that humans have difficulty believing things in front of their eyes, let alone things they cannot see at all. 

In the New Testament, we see myriad claims from biblical writers that speak to the importance of communicating truthfully, and premier New Testament scholars today base many conclusions about the spiritual truths (like salvation) of the Bible because of the factual and self-proclaimed accuracy of its physical truths (like geography). 

Thus, most appeals to either redefine inerrancy or abandon it altogether seem to be a posteriori rescuing devices meant to “save” the spiritual truths in the face of allegedly inaccurate physical truths. 

If the Perfect Being Assumption is accurate, then, there seem to be implications for the character of God in the inerrancy conversation. 

The SCA could be defined as: The Scriptures themselves claim that God’s Word is both perfect and accurate, and do not seem to make a distinction between the kinds of claims that they make. 

For example:

Every word of God is pure: He is a shield unto them that put their trust in him. Add thou not unto his words, Lest he reprove thee, and thou be found a liar. (Proverbs 30:5-6)

The words of the LORD are pure words: As silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times. (Psalm 12:6)

For we have not followed cunningly devised fables, when we made known unto you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received from God the Father honour and glory, when there came such a voice to him from the excellent glory, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. And this voice which came from heaven we heard, when we were with him in the holy mount. We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts: Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. (2 Peter 1:16-21)

The words translated “pure” in a few of the examples above are tsrphthoroth and tehoroth. The former has the idea of refining, tested, and flawless. The latter has the idea of clean, pure, and flawless. 

Tehoroth is the same word used to describe how God’s eyes are too pure to look on evil, and also to depict an animal who has been ceremonially declared clean; that is, fit for the Lord’s presence. 

It would seem that the Scriptures testify to their own purity and flawlessness, then, and there is no indication that some words are meant to be taken more seriously than other words. 

Therefore, it seems difficult to imagine that the biblical writers had any notion that the Scriptures could be flawed or inaccurate in any way. Meaning that, if factual error is allowed in the Bible, we must also consider the possibility of theological error, because the Scriptures’ claiming their own accuracy is not a matter of physical truth, but of spiritual truth. 

And if the Bible can err in speaking theological truth, how do we know which theological truths are accurate and which are flawed? 

It would seem that the PBA and SCA both testify to the dire importance of Scripture’s inerrancy.

The Biblical Battlefields That Challenge Inerrancy

So, what’s all the fuss about anyway? Those who actually challenge inerrancy—on what merits do they do so? 

There are two battlefields on which this war is most commonly waged: The Limits of Accommodation and Irreconcilable Contradictions. 

The Limits of Accommodation

Accommodation is the term theologians use to denote how God speaks to humanity. 

Isaiah 55:8-9 says, 

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, Neither are your ways my ways, saith the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are my ways higher than your ways, And my thoughts than your thoughts.

This verse summarizes the notion that there are ways in God is simply unrelatable to humanity, despite the entire message of the Bible being the story of how God relates to humanity! 

In order to bridge that divide, God seems to accommodate himself to humanity. One way this accommodation works out is through the use of anthropomorphism. 

God does not have body parts, because he is an immaterial mind. Yet, the Bible speaks of the eyes of the Lord, the arm of the Lord, etc. These are instances of anthropomorphic accommodation, where we are given a way to understand God that is physically inaccurate

Such accommodation is uncontroversial. Nobody thinks—and rightly so—that it is a lie for God to say he has a physical arm when he truly doesn’t. It is a figure of speech meant to communicate an important point. 

While this debate is actually quite old, in recent years, an effort has been made to drive the notion of accommodation to further limits than ever before. 

Allow me to craft a concise statement summarizing the teaching of scholars who support this expanded definition:

God chose and inspired writers who did not have access to the tools of modern discovery. Our definition of inerrancy must therefore allow for the possibility that beliefs, worldview assumptions, and physical descriptions of the world that are not consistent with modern knowledge will be present in the Bible. While such beliefs, assumptions, and descriptions may themselves be false or otherwise erroneous, any theological truths they are used to convey remain accurate and faithful to God’s intended purpose. 

(For simplicity, I will hereafter refer to these “beliefs, assumptions, and descriptions” as “Artifacts” in the text.)

Dr. Vern Poythress refers to the above as a vehicle-cargo approach(Poythress, 2014). This approach wants to allow for the “vehicle” of, say, a factually inaccurate Artifact such as ancient cosmology to nevertheless carry a truthful “cargo” like “God created the heavens and the earth.”

What can be said of this particular challenge?

I would encourage a read through Poythress’ paper, as it is wholly dedicated to the issue, using the example of Genesis 1 and explaining three modern myths when it comes to its interpretation. 

Briefly, I would like to point out four issues of my own with this approach. 

The Assumption of Ancient Stupidity. Firstly, this approach requires the assumption that ancient people were largely quite brutish and did not have access to knowledge that we have today. 

Now—of course—there is a measure of truth to this. Ancient people did not have telescopes, robots, modern machinery, spaceships, etc. 

However, they were far from ignorant. One of the best books I’ve personally read on the subject is actually just a chapter from the book Searching for Adam (edited by Terry Mortenson). 

Chapter 14, written by Don Landis, documents some of the incredible knowledge held by the ancients. They made complicated devices, buildings that were perfectly positioned for astronomical purposes, and more.

If the early chapters of Genesis are true, we should instead assume that man was created to be quite intelligent. The text bears this out, and so does the archeological evidence.

The Assumption of Modern Omniscience. On the other hand, we must also avoid the foolish assumption that we are virtually omniscient in our modern knowledge. 

While I don’t know anyone who would consciously admit that we are, many act as though we have the absolute truth about a matter. Look no further than those who claim that the Big Bang Theory or the General Theory of Evolution are “absolutely true.” 

It’s as though there is not the slightest possibility these ideas could be wrong, despite the fact that the history of science is predicated upon new ideas overturning the “settled science” of the time. 

I often refer to this as “chronological snobbery.” It would be unwise to assume the ancients knew nothing and we knew everything. If the timeless, eternal God inspired the Bible, it is entirely possible that ideas are recorded within that may seem untrue based on knowledge today, and yet, will be accepted as true before it’s all said and done. 

For the record—this is exactly how prophecy works in the Bible. We believe in the prophetic fulfillment of events today, because we have the benefit of hindsight, that readers near the time of writing interpreted differently and/or did not understand at all. Why think the Bible’s teaching on historical truth would be any different. 

More on that in my next point, but it would also be prudent to consider that this has also happened already in the scientific discipline of archeology. Until the early 1900s, archeologists were convinced the Hittite civilization spoken of in the Bible did not exist. 

In fact, until the early 1990s, there was zero archeological evidence for a ruler in Israel named David! Pretty astounding, if you think about it. 

I have no reason to think that mainstream ideas (such as evolution) are but a mere stepping stone in the story of humanity, as it ultimately finds the Bible has been right—about everything—all along. 

The Absence of Scriptural Precedent. Above, we discussed what I call the Scriptural Claims Assumption. Recall, we found that the biblical writers seemed to think the Bible itself was, in fact, pure and flawless. 

Some might object that the Bible does not clarify which of its claims are pure and flawless, though. The problem with the objection is a misplaced burden of proof. 

If the biblical writers made claims that all of the words of God and pure, clean, and flawless, and did not clarify further that some words of God do not fit that description (i.e., those fitting the “vehicle” description), then the burden of proof is on the denier of inerrancy to show where this distinction is made. 

I’ll remind you that the Scripture’s own testimony to its purity is itself a claim of theological—not physical—accuracy. So if one wants to make distinctions between which words are accurate and which are not in the face of physical evidence, one of must also deal with the implications of the Scriptures incorrectly claiming their own flawlessness, since that distinction does not seem to be apparent in the Scriptures themselves. 

The Problem of Theological Congruence. This final consideration lies in the nature of the Artifact beliefs held by ancient people. Taking the obvious example of cosmology, many scholars say the Bible reflects an erroneous physical conception of the universe, which was also held by other ancient cultures. 

There are two big problems with this, though. 

First, there was no universal ancient conception of the universe. In his landmark paper (and book) titled Mesopotamian Modern Geography, Wayne Horowitz observed that beliefs about the physical structure of the universe differed greatly between many ancient cultures. 

To think there was a consensus here that the biblical writers also latched onto is simply mistaken. 

Second, the biblical writers held a fundamentally different worldview than all of their ancient neighbors. This is explained elegantly and thoroughly in Dr. John Oswalt’s book, The Bible Among the Myths.

Oswalt argues that all of Israel’s neighbors believed in a “continuity” worldview, where their warring gods were one with the universe. This is over and against the biblical worldview, which teaches “transcendence”—the idea that God is other than creation. 

In other words, the creation story in Genesis—though it shares similarities with other ancient creation stories—is fundamentally different in content. There is no battle with chaos, there is no war among the gods, etc. Yahweh had complete control and dominion over his creation. 

Why is this significant? Because ancient conceptions of the universe held by Israel’s neighbors were virtually inseparable from their theological views about creation. It is not clear that ancient people, holding whatever view of the structure of the world they did, were interested in the physical nature of it at all.

Irreconcilable Contradictions

The second battlefield on which the war of inerrancy rages is alleged contradictions in the Bible that do not seem solvable with a mere appeal to harmonization. 

Harmonization, as the name implies, is the attempt to find harmony in passages of Scripture that seem to prima facie disagree. This method would allow for differences to be accounted for, while honoring the truthfulness of the text. 

This approach seems to be taken most often in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). These accounts write of mostly the same events, and yet there are subtle differences in the details of each account, as they are each written from a different perspective. 

In my opinion, there is no work which threads the gospels together quite like The Four in One Gospel of Jesus by Nikola Dimitrov. This is a masterful work, acclaimed by some of today’s brightest biblical scholars, that beautifully integrates these accounts and shows how such differences bolster the Bible’s truthfulness rather than undermine it. 

While we’re on the gospels, let’s touch on Dr. Mike Licona’s approach to explaining differences in these texts. Licona relies on the work of Plutarch (a writer from the same time period) to show how particular literary devices are in use, which seem to “excuse” inaccuracies and inconsistencies in these accounts. 

Licona argues that it was acceptable, given the genre of the gospels, for the writers to deliberately move events, crunch and expand timelines, or change the wording of characters intentionally in order to make a theological point to their reader. 

As you might have guessed, this example is a sort of New Testament parallel to the vehicle-cargo approach above (which seems to mostlypresent in Old Testament studies). 

The most outspoken opponent to Licona’s approach is Lydia McGrew, an analytic philosopher and student of the New Testament, who has published extensively in this field and has linguistics degrees as well. 

My objective is not to comment on their (quite public) debates, but actually, to deal with a surprising reality: Lydia McGrew, an extremely conservative Christian (and fellow lover of Southern Gospel Music, I might add), is not an inerrantist. 

This video on her YouTube channel explains her reasoning for taking this position, where she points out a few specific examples such as the slaughter of innocent canaanites being inconsistent with the Bible’s otherwise explicitly pro-life position, as well as the order of events between Matthew and Mark on Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree. 

Once again, dealing with the specifics of these issues is outside of the scope of this post. I will say, however, that I have heard some reasonable suggestions that fit with a more traditional harmonization/explanation of these events which do not rely upon extravagant literary device theories. 

Lydia explains these Artifacts as “good faith errors” on the part of the biblical writers. For example, she thinks Matthew might be trying to gently correct Mark on the timing of the fig tree event. 

What can be said about this?

Here, I would make two important observations. 

(Note: I am using Lydia’s ideas as an example, not to “pick on” her, actually the opposite. She is simultaneously the most gracious, conservative, and intelligent inerrantist I know, and thus I think she is to be taken very seriously on these matters since she would be quite likely to have an explanation for the alleged errors she points out). 

Observation #1: I believe all Christians are within their rights to approach the Scriptures with an Inerrancy Bias.

If you observe Lydia’s appeals to potential “good faith errors” in the Bible, note that she is very aware of others’ solutions to the problems, but she does not find them persuasive. 

In fact, it might even be fair to say that, even though she is willing to accept a harmonized approach (which she has made clear), she is more interested in what it would look like to have the option for a small error to exist. 

There are similarities in her approach here to another very public dialogue in which she often engages, called the Maximal Data approach over and against the Minimal Facts approach of Licona, Habermas, and others concerning the resurrection of Jesus. 

To make the connection: Lydia would rather levy all of the data available as a cumulative case for the resurrection (Maximal Data) rather than stick with the bare minimum required to make the case (Minimal Facts). 

In the same way, Lydia seems more interested in the possibility that we can hold strongly to the reliability of the biblical text while admitting the possibility of small errors in a few very specific cases, than the mere possibility of escaping the contradiction via an unsatisfactory solution. 

A case in point of is the potential slaughter of Canaanite innocents. There are a few quite popular approaches to this issue, but Lydia is not persuaded by them. She finds it more plausible to say there could be an error in the way biblical writers interpreted these commands from God, rather than finding a creative way to make the command work in the text. 

This is fair enough, but given the Bible’s commitment to its own truthfulness discussed above—taken together with the reasonable assumption that if fallible human authors today can write an error-free book, an infallible author (Yahweh) can sovereignly attend to the creation of a perfectly error-free book written by humans—it seems a reasonable assumption to say there’s a solution to the “problem” whether or not it is currently known or understood. 

A 19th century conservative inerrantist might have made a parallel argument to Lydia’s (e.g., maybe the Hittites just didn’t exist, and the Bible was wrong), but would have been proven wrong come the turn of the century. 

I believe the 19th century conservative inerrantist would have been well within his rights to think the solution was forthcoming and not even entertained the possibility of error. 

Thus, I believe it is more spiritually profitable to embrace a temporary solution that is able to escape the contradiction (even if not wholly satisfactory at this time) than to admit the possibility of an actual error in the text. 

Observation #2: If there are truly errors in the Bible, on what basis does the Scripture claim its own flawlessness?

The second observation is more for thinking and reflection. 

We’ve discussed multiple times now the notion that the biblical writers assume the Scriptures and pure and flawless, and they do not seem to qualify that purity and flawlessness according to any genre or type of instruction. 

I am not one to “throw the baby out with the bathwater” by any means. I am quite willing to make important distinctions and allow the Bible to be what it is, whatever that may be. 

Regardless—I have not heard a convincing solution to the problem that, if the biblical writers claim it is pure and flawless (a theological claim), there is at least precedent to cast doubt that it fallibly reports other theological claims as well. 

And I see no way to consistently pick and choose which theological claims must be taken as accurate. 

Linking the chain together: 

The biblical writers do not make a distinction between physical and theological teaching. (Actually, Jesus creates a positive link between them explicitly in John 3, asking Nicodemus how he will believe his teaching on heavenly things if he does not believe his teaching on earthly things). 

Thus, if the Bible is wrong about physical matters, it could very well be wrong about spiritual (theological) matters. And since its own inerrancy is a theological matter, it is wrong about theological matters. And if it is wrong about theological matters, we have no way of knowing which theological matters it is wrong about, which has implications for the gospel itself.

Where the Erosion of Inerrancy Leads: A Quick Case Study on the Reality of Spiritual Beings

Before using all of our data to answer the question of whether inerrancy is required in order for the Bible to be truthful and authoritative (though you likely already have an inkling of the answer), let us discuss where some of the thinking mentioned throughout this post has led some “conservative” biblical scholars. 

In their book, Demons and Spirits in Biblical Theology: Reading the Biblical Text in Its Cultural and Literary Context, John and Harvey Walton—leading scholars in the area of Old Testament studies and proponents of the above-mentioned “vehicle-cargo” approach—discuss the reality of demons and spirits with the literary and cultural context of the Bible in mind. 

In full disclosure, I have not read the book, but it was reviewed by Dr. Mike Heiser on The Naked Bible Podcast. Heiser is a friend of John Walton’s, and quite often deploys the vehicle-cargo approach himself. 

Interestingly, despite their very similar knowledge and beliefs about the ancient world, training in the subject matter, and friendship, they are on complete opposite sides of the spectrum as it relates to demons and spirits. 

Heiser went so far as to call the book “dangerous” and to say that he could no longer ignore the Waltons’ book and felt an obligation to comment on it. 

So—the Waltons’ conclusion? Demons and spirits—even in the New Testament—are not a product of spiritual reality. They don’t exist. Any potential conflict between good and evil we attribute to Satan and his demons, is imagined and not real. 

And, their argument? Well, Heiser makes clear they don’t ask the sort of reflective questions they should and virtually ignore any implications their conclusions may have for Christian theology. 

But they argue that the appeal to demons and spirits is just another extension of accommodation.

That’s right! Because we can accept that the ancient beliefs of people with an erroneous cosmology made their way into the Bible, and we can chalk that up to accommodation, so can we no longer ignore that the demons and spirits are no less a part of the same world and therefore fit into the same category. 

And in one fell swoop, Christian theology is destroyed, because some of the primary characters in the conflict no longer exist. 

Are the Walton’s outliers in this case? Yes—but the rest of their work is gleefully accepted in modern Christian scholarship. (Not by all, mind you, but they are far from outliers in this respect.)

If they’re right, and their conclusions about demonology flow logically from their conclusions about other matters, then the “slippery slope” is very much real, here, and not imagined.

Inerrancy absolutely has dire implications for Christian theology. 

And, therefore:

Conclusion: Inerrancy is Required in Order for the Bible to be Considered Trustworthy and Authoritative

I have to be honest—I actually don’t want this conclusion to be true. 

I had much rather side with McGrew and feel comfortable saying that the Bible can absolutely be considered trustworthy in its teaching and authoritative in its commands, even if it is errant on certain points. 

But if my arguments are sound, I just don’t see how that is possible. If we do not fully take God as his Word, here, we are left with human “seemings” to decide which spiritual-theological truths are trustworthy and authoritative rather than to trust that all of them are.

As I’ve argued, we are well within our rights to assume the inerrancy of the Bible, even in circumstances where an immediate solution is (1) not available or (2) doesn’t seem to be correct. 

This approach will allow us to avoid the slippery slope of an expanded accommodation, place our full trust in the veracity of the Scriptures (in all matters), and have a confident faith that does not sway each time an uncomfortable truth is uncovered.

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