Is the Bible Inerrant?
Inerrant [Latin in- (not) + errāre (to wander, stray) < prob. Indo-European root ers- (to move around, be in motion). The term 'inerrant' first came into English in the 17th century to describe the fixed ('non-wandering') position of the stars.] In its best sense that's most in line with Christian tradition, it means that the Scriptures are always right (do not err) in fulfilling their purpose: revealing God, God's vision, God's purposes, and God's good news to us. The teachings of Scripture are not to be disregarded or tossed away as if they were a mistake. They must be dealt with straightforwardly, in a way which affects what we say and do as persons and as a body of believers.
Some Christians ('fundamentalists' or 'literalists') teach that the Bible is without error in every way on all sorts of matters: chronology, history, biology, sociology, psychology, politics, physics, math, art, and so on. There can't be any mistakes in a divine work, fundamentalists say, for God is perfect and cannot lie. The idea behind an inerrant Bible existed long ago, but the word 'inerrant' itself wasn't used in a specific way about the Bible until the late 19th century. Though the literally-taken Bible is sometimes more right than many people think it is, it is quite far from being an inerrant authority on such matters. It wasn't written to be; that's not why it's there. It's a divine work, but it never claims to be inerrantly dictated from on high, like some other holy works. The books of the Bible were written by divinely-inspired human beings, for the good of other human beings. The Bible itself shows how the inerrant Holy Spirit works through errant people, for that's the only kind of people there are. (Remember, that means you, and your favorite teachers.) In a way, the Bible is God's communication incarnated into the stuff of material earth -- pages and ink, literary forms, languages, human minds, and spoken words. This combination gives us a Bible that can be mistaken on matters which are not directly tied into what the Bible exists for. It must be learned and interpreted, not assumed. Because of the literalist misunderstanding of the Bible, 'mainline Protestants' (such as the Methodists, American Baptists, United Church, Anglicans, most Presbyterians, and most Lutherans) choose to reject the term 'inerrant'. This helps to set the record straight. How true are we being when we make exaggerated claims for our most precious written resource?
Some Evangelicals show a somewhat better understanding of the term in the Lausanne Covenant, which holds the Bible to be "without error in all that it affirms" (Sect. 2, The Authority And Power Of the Bible). That is meant to put the focus on the Bible as an instrument of God for a particular task ('what it affirms'). This is the approach of African churches and the 'new breed'
Pentecostalist churches. It's much like the view of the Lutherans in the Missouri Synod, the European Inner Missions, and (in practice) most of the 'church growth'-oriented community churches. However, these churches have long felt fundamentalism pulling them toward a larger realm for inerrancy. The term 'inerrant' is foreign to Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions, even though the idea behind it can be found in some parts of their traditions.
For postmodernist Christians, the whole concept of an inerrant Bible is 'foundationalist' (that is, that the framework of the Bible stands on something rational or demonstrable). Postmodernists reject foundationalism, by holding that any philosophy, set of ideas, the Bible, or even life itself, can only have meaning as a part of the web or relational network of all life, truths, and facts. And their 'web of truth' is different than the rigid "modernist" form of truth which inerrantists speak of. This approach can at times be helpful in arguments about inerrancy that generate much more heat than light.
Progressive Christians see evidence that the Bible itself 'evolved', in several ways. One is that it was gathered from materials which, for the most part, had to prove their way into their place with the other such books. Also, there is movement in the Bible from earlier understandings (such as animal sacrifice and wars seen as divinely commanded) to fresh understandings through new revelation (Jesus and his way of peace). A 'progressive' Christian would think of those changes as part of the normal process of 'evolving'. Moderate and conservative Christians point to it as 'fulfillment' or 'completion' of the earlier way, as intended by God all along. (The latter two terms are how the New Testament describes what happened.) An inerrantist would have trouble understanding change within the Bible, because they set up such a rigid, unchanging system about what it says to us today.
Changes in Points of View
Some writers further claim that most philosophical differences, truth claims (such as those built on inerrancy and a literal Bible), or even factual conflicts simply 'dissolve away' by looking from a different angle, so that they don't really matter or mean anything. They say, "change your point of view, and see how what you have always held to be true just goes away". There is a partial truth in this. The new angle reveals some things, however it also hides others.
Look at the inside face of your hand. You see the fingerprints, the palm, the lines formed over time by the gripping action of your hand. Now turn it slowly. Eventually, you see the side of your hand, and no longer see the palm or any fingers but the thumb and pointer. Turn it more, and you see the back of the hand and the knuckles, the small folds, the hairs, the other fingers, but still not the palm. Each angle misses something and reveals something, but that does not mean what's seen on the other side 'dissolves away' or becomes irrelevant. The palm is still there and is still important, even when it's unseen.
Many inerrantists (and some others) speak like the Bible, and the faith as a whole, shares a 'different kind of truth' that is beyond (or outside of) logic or proof or testing. But at what point does the claim to a 'different kind of truth' become like the dark side of the moon, or like the other side of the hand, which leaves too much undiscovered? Or perhaps, it becomes a mask to hide behind, a way to duck the questions? Even worse, if it doesn't matter that there's anything factual behind the Bible, why would a non-believer bother to think about even its good news? Why would they bother taking up with the poor deluded people who actually believe that a real God really is forgiving us and is giving us life beyond death in God's new world? The postmodern non-believer would create their own matrixed philosophy of love instead, which would be much shallower than the meaty, bloody, dirty, un-nice, demanding, tough stuff of the Bible. Or, they would treat the Bible much as they would Lord of the Rings or Dianetics or Celestine Prophecy or even Green Eggs and Ham. The Bible is much more than that - not totally different from other books and not fully outside of reasoning, but nonetheless it is different in kind. We don't understand enough to make up a worthy substitute.
The Bottom Line
While it's impossible to draw a clear line as to when 'interpretation' becomes dishonest with its source, at some point it does. We interpret away the Bible at our own risk. Truth matters, and in different ways so do fact, logic, and rational processes. Taking rigid stances through concepts like 'inerrancy' are no help, but it also doesn't help to say that the Bible should be followed because the church traditionally has said so, or because 'I feel it in my heart'. None of those make the Bible true or right, and certainly not inerrant. Ultimately, the Bible's authority comes from the Spirit of the God who keeps choosing to work through Scripture in a unique and special way. The Spirit turns the hand to the other side, but still reminds you about what you don't see. All our words about the Bible, including 'inerrant', do little more than try to describe some small part of how that can be. Because 'inerrant' is a word that misses so many important points, and because its use is almost always for polemics (fighting words), it's best to use other terms in its stead.
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You'll also find a definition for
'inerrant' in the dictionary. But the dictionary itself is not inerrant.
Also, Derek Ouellette takes a look at what this term, combined with 'perspicuity', when pushed to an extreme, leads to.
And, Ian Paul looks at 'infallible' and 'inerrant' from an English Evangelical perspective, stimulated by Brian McLaren.
What Is A Literal Interpretation of the Bible?
literal : One of the most misused words about the Bible. The word 'literal' is defined as 'what the words say', or 'letter by letter'. Yet the same exact word with the same exact spelling says different things in different settings around different other words, using different literary forms. (For instance, 'love' means one thing in Jesus' command to love, and a very different thing in a steamy sex poem, and still another when a child talks about a pet puppy.) A literalist believes that every word of the Bible is not just a part of the divine creative Message (Greek logos), but is also a specific word from God. Yet the human writers of the Bible were inspired by the Spirit to tell stories and histories, write poems and songs, and share visions with their readers. It is literature. And that is the context in which you discover each word's true 'literal' meaning. Biblical literalists act like the Scriptures were written to teach high theology and support sermons, but they were written to show us how God works in the day-to-day world we live in.
This word is often used when Christians fight amongst themselves. When people fire out words like 'infallible' and 'inerrant', 'literal' is usually launched with them.
What many people mean when they say 'literal' is 'face-value' or 'in the strictest / narrowest sense'. But the
Bible's human writers, like most writers everywhere, don't just operate at face value. How can anyone who believes in an unseen spiritual realm be satisfied with learning just the face value or the narrowest sense of anything? Spirituality is about what lies beneath the face, a wide realm of complex simplicity and the deepest of meaning. There is another side to it, though: it's foolish to simply disregard the literal face value meaning, for it's what the fuller meaning of the word grew from. A word starts from its face value, but rarely stays there. And you can learn a lot from the trip it takes.
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You can also find a definition for 'literal' in the
Literalism and the Bible
A site user emailed me this :
> Another problem I have is my continued doubt about the inerrancy
> of the Bible and the need for literal interpretation of the
> Bible (particularly the account of creation and the rejection
> of science by many denominations).<
I try not to use terms like 'infallible' or 'inerrant' word of God, because the church of today uses them for dividing people instead of helping them embrace truth. It's best to look to the Bible for faith and faithful living rather than science. It tells facts, yes, but it tells them in order to tell the truth. You can look at the site http://www.spirithome.com/bible-descriptives.html, if you want more on that. You may not agree with all of what's there, but that's fine - you are to believe Scripture, not a web site.
One of the lessons of biblical criticism is that the Bible is a completely, totally, entirely, unrepentantly biased resource, first word to last. As I see it, that's what makes it so good. The prophets, priests, story-tellers, and apostles who wrote the Bible wrote it not as a neutral or impartial observation of fact, science, or history, but as an account of God's work written and passed along by His enthusiastic, passionate, extreme, committed, monomaniacally partisan supporters. They want you to lay your life into God's hands. They want you to believe the Good News, follow Christ, love your neighbor, and trust the Spirit. They want that because they discovered for themselves that nothing else matters -- or better, that all else matters because these things matter. That's why they wrote! The Spirit enabled them to see through the events of their day to get at the grand purposes behind them. Those grand purposes still underlie the events of our day. God speaks to us through the Bible as it is, above any other source. Most of us are too busy being obsessed partisans of our selves to see God's purposes. The Bible takes us out of that. Trust the Spirit who's using the Bible, rather than the words people invent to describe the Bible.