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.] As defined in its best sense that's closest to mainstream 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 or fault in every way on all sorts of matters: chronology, history, biology, sociology, psychology, politics, physics, math, art, and so on. Every word of it is a word from God. There can't be any mistakes in a divine work, fundamentalists say, for God is perfect and cannot lie. The ideas 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. At that time, a complex ideological defense of literalism, inerrancy, and infallibility began through B.B. Warfield and A.A. Hodge, and grew over the years through the works of J. Gresham Machen. In the 1960s and '70s, biblical inerrancy became normative for the main part of evangelicalism, due largely to the writings of Harold Lindsell, an editor at Christianity Today, and his Battle For the Bible. This approach is summed up in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. Yet many evangelical writers and thinkers, especially outside of the US, continue not to hold to inerrancy.
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 the wide spread of matters mentioned above. 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 this literalist misunderstanding of Scripture, mainline Protestants (such as the Methodists, ABC 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 better understanding of inerrancy 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 much like the approach of African churches and the 'new breed' Pentecostalist churches. It's also much like the Lutherans in the Missouri Synod, the European Inner Missions, and (in practice) most of the 'church growth'-oriented community churches. However, those churches have long felt fundamentalism pulling them toward a more rigid sense of inerrancy. The term 'inerrant' is foreign to Eastern Orthodox traditions, even though the concepts and attitudes behind it can be found in some of its parts. The Roman Catholic Church, in the Second Vatican Council document Dei verbum ('God's word', 1965-11-18), used the term "without error", but in a different sense than the Fundamentalists. In it, the Bible's inerrancy concerned the truth which God wanted to convey "for the sake of our salvation", and "must be read and interpreted in the light of the same Spirit by whom it was written".
For postmodernist Christians, the whole concept of an inerrant Bible is 'foundationalist' (that is, that the Bible stands on a foundation that is rational or demonstrable, namely, its having no faults). 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 the postmodernist 'web of truth' is different than the rigid 'modernist' structure of truth of which inerrantists speak. Scripture is not seen as standing up by itself. It is held together in a net with not just God, but also with humanity and with the world of which we are a part. This critique can at times be helpful in arguments about infallibility and 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 over time. 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 Protestants see that change has a direction, but would say that it's much more accurate to use the New Testament's language and treat these changes as fulfillment or completion of what God intended all along. An inerrantist has trouble understanding the whole idea of change within the Bible and ever since, because they set up such a rigid, unchanging system about what it says to us today. Inerrancy puts the Bible and our lessons from it into an unchanging cage.
Where Points of View Fail
Some writers claim that, like nearly all philosophical differences, truth claims (such as those built on inerrancy and a literal Bible) 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 or the knuckles are still there and are still important, even when it's unseen.
Many inerrantists (and some others) speak as if the Bible shares a 'different kind of truth' that is beyond logic or proof or testing. But at what point does the claim to a 'different kind of truth' become like the other side of the hand, which leaves too much undiscovered? When does inerrancy becomes a mask to hide behind, a way to duck the questions, a way to evade not just humanity but God? Even worse, if it doesn't matter that there's anything factual behind Scripture, why would a non-believer 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 unlike the meaty, bloody, dirty, un-nice, demanding, tough stuff of the Bible. Or, they would treat the Bible like Lord of the Rings or Dianetics 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 and in purpose. Our points of view don't allow us to understand enough to make up a worthy substitute.
The Bottom Line on Inerrancy
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 intended to make a solid ground on which to stand. It fails, because the fudge factor is built-in big time, every time any humans are involved in anything. Yet, it also fails if we say that the Bible should be followed 'because the Church's tradition and leaders says so', or because 'I feel it in my heart' or 'I can just tell what's up'. Every one of these is quite often wrong, occasionally in very serious ways. Whittling it all down to a few core basics may be a way to start, but we don't grow unless we move onward to much more complex questions of how to live it and how the world really is. None of these reasons make the Scriptures true or right, and more importantly, 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, especially 'inerrant', do little more than try to describe some small part of how that can be. Because 'inerrant' is a word that distracts us from so many important matters, and because its use is almost always for polemics (fighting words), it's best to use other terms in its stead., such as those in this site's Bible word list