Agnosticism, Atheism, Christianity, Culture, Faith, God, Religion, Truth

Must the Bible Be Inerrant?

If God were to write down his will for mankind, what would it look like? When Christians talk about God, they are talking about a supremely powerful being that is eternal, omniscient, and omnipotent. Such a being would be perfect, by definition. So if this being decided that we should have his instructions in written form, wouldn’t they be perfect? The Bible even claims that all its words are true and all its laws eternal (Psalm 119:160).

But there are many Christians who don’t think the Bible has to be inerrant. They believe that certain details may not be completely accurate due to the humanity of those who wrote, copied, and translated the Bible, but that the major aspects of doctrine are correct. This is a position that’s always been difficult for me to rationalize.

Here’s the problem: The Bible claims to be of utmost importance – it’s our avenue of salvation – and it also claims that all other avenues (religions) are dead ends. So if it has the same kinds of imperfections that other religious texts have, then what is there that would cause someone to believe it? Most Christians believe in some sort of a literal Hell. Many have tried to soften its characteristics by saying that it’s just separation from God, that Hell is “locked from the inside,” etc. But regardless of how it’s presented, the overall idea is that it’s unpleasant. In fact, if we take the New Testament at its word, Hell is a place of torture. If that’s really so, and if God really loves us all and wants us all to be saved, then his word can’t afford to be imperfect — not if it’s the avenue that’s supposed to save us.

If God’s word could have small errors, then how do we know his true word isn’t the Koran, the Book of Mormon, or the Bhagavad Gita? This is why most people never change their religious affiliation. When problems within their religion are pointed out to them, they can simply say that those are only minor details and are irrelevant to the overall message. They can also say “God’s ways are higher than our ways,” which is simply a convenient way of saying that they don’t have answers to the problems and don’t want to think about the consequences.

It is incredibly difficult to change one’s beliefs. Yet, if the Bible is true, then many people would have to change their beliefs in order to be saved. How can they do this rationally? What information do they need to make a clear decision about religion? Religion deals with things we don’t actually know, only what we believe. Why should our decisions about those things determine what happens to us for eternity? It’s like asking a 3 year old what they want to be when they grow up, and then holding them to it.

If we really have to make such a life-or-death decision, then we need clarity. If God wanted us to have his message, and if it really made the difference between eternal bliss and eternal torment, then there should be some way for us to recognize it. And while signs, miracles, and direct revelation would be preferable, an inerrant text would at least be better than nothing. To put it simply, if the Bible’s not perfect, then it’s not from God. Too much is at stake for it to have the same kinds of errors we would expect humans to make. That’s the position I was raised with, and it’s the position that I still hold. My future posts will be based on the assumption that the Bible must be perfect, if it’s really inspired.

33 thoughts on “Must the Bible Be Inerrant?”

  1. Perhaps if you were God you could have written anything the way that wanted, but you are not God. God’s Word must be perfect and it is if we look. You obviously are not aware of the countless prophecies that have been fulfilled in just the way the scriptures prescribed. Jesus’ birth and crucifiction, his reserection, just to name a few. “God is not the Author of Confusion.” Man makes it confusing when there is something in it that they do not like.

    And what about an eternal punishment for rapists and murderers that are unwilling to repent is there that you think is unfair?

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  2. Hi Trenton, thanks for the comment.

    Are rapists and murderers the only ones going to Hell? It would make a lot more sense to me if that were the case, but I don’t see that the Bible teaches that.

    As far as prophecies, etc, are concerned, I have actually looked into that quite a lot. I don’t think they’re nearly as convincing as you’ve made out, but that’s a subject I’ll cover soon in another post. Hopefully you’ll check back then.

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  3. This is a great post! I have many liberal Christian friends who do not believe that the Bible is inerrant and I’ve always wondered how one could honestly hold that position and still claim to be a Christian. Such an individual is basically saying that they pick and choose what they want to believe and discard the rest–which of course all Christians do since the Bible is full of contradictions, but it’s a lot more obvious when you posit that human error is present in the central text that is the foundation for your entire belief system.

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  4. I believe the Bible is inerrant. I believe God inspired the writers to record it the way it is. I believe that we have to take it all together to come to an understanding of it. I believe there is overwhelming evidence from within the Bible as well as from external sources that support the claims of the Bible. Just because I don’t like something or I think I would have done it differently doesn’t give me the basis to reject it.

    To reject the Bible requires dismissing all the evidences for it and forces one to accept some incredible premises to explain it. The only logical explanation for not believing in the Bible is because one just doesn’t want to believe. How sad!!

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  5. Sorry, I’m going to probably post comments here and there as I work my way forward to most current.

    I think it’s important to distinguish between “inerrant” and “perfect.” In order for the Bible to be perfect God would have to reveal everything about Himself in perfect understanding, so we would then also have a perfect knowledge about His omniscience, His love, His justice, etc. But in order to have a perfect knowledge about such things, we must ourselves be perfect. And since there is an inherent problem in this line of thinking, the Bible can’t logically be “perfect” as the term applies to God.

    That said, the message can be inerrant and internally consistent, which is what I think most (including myself) would argue. That is to say that while there may be grammatical typos and/or errors that may have occurred during transcription, the overall message and context of every verse in the Bible is carried over and clear.

    So God’s Word does not have to be perfect, it just needs to not have internal inconsistencies which render part of its message invalid. That is the basis for which one should judge the Bible. I’ll be interested to see if that’s what you’ve done in subsequent posts. I’m sure I’ll comment more on the subject then. 🙂

    Thanks!

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  6. Hmm, I see your point. But I don’t mean that the Bible should tell us every piece of available knowledge, I just mean it should be perfect in that it makes no mistakes — in other words, I’m using it as a synonym for inerrant.

    Here’s how I see it: If the Bible isn’t perfect in details, how can it be perfect in its message? Or at least how can we have any confidence in its message? Most of what we think of as the message of the Bible is spiritual in nature: the nature of God, grace, faith, sin, the supernatural, etc. But we only have knowledge about these because of the Bible. So we can’t really read about those things and say, “oh, look how right it is about that,” because we have no independent knowledge of those things.

    That’s why the details matter so much. We could actually verify some of that. If they don’t pan out, then there’s not much reason to think the overall message pans out either.

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  7. If the errors in the text are limited to grammatical things (i.e. misspellings, punctuation placement, etc.) then the message can be preserved.

    So if we agree that the Bible must be inerrant in its message, then I think we’re on the same page. That’s what I mean by internal inconsistencies and such.

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  8. I think we’re close on agreement. I think the message has to be inerrant, but I also think details have to be. I’m not as worried about grammar because that deals with translators and changing language. But I mean details like numbers, facts, etc. For instance, if one passage says Mary, Joseph, and Jesus went to Egypt, another passage can’t contradict that.

    Thanks

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  9. I agree with that type of logic. But it’s also easy to see how one verse can say Solomon had an army of 4,000 while another says 40,000, where someone in transcription either lost or added a zero, but it has no impact on the outcome of the story or its effect. Agree?

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  10. Actually, I disagree. I do see the logic in your point, but I think that God, if he created the Universe, should be able to keep people from making changes to his word, even if they seem minor.

    I realize that may be a point we won’t be able to agree on, and I completely understand that. But I also think that the issues within the Bible are much bigger than textual corruption can account for. So it may end up being a moot point.

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  11. So what you’re asking is for God to limit free will? To eliminate the mistakes of man? This seems quite a slippery slope my friend. Because you can’t just say, “Well this instance was important enough for Him to intervene,” because where does it end? Which instance is NOT important enough for Him to intervene? Earthquake in Japan? Holocaust? Your disagreement puts you on treacherous ground, friend.

    I know this discussion is trivial to the point at hand, but it’s all of a sudden become critical to the shaping of your new worldview.

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  12. Interesting point…

    But in the same way, didn’t God then limit the free will of the writers of the Bible? If not, how do we know we can trust them? I think it would be great if God continued to perform obvious miracles, but I don’t think it’s necessary. However, if he’s going to bother putting his will down on paper, then it just makes sense to me that he would make sure it isn’t tampered with. Otherwise, if it looks as thought it’s been altered by man, how can anyone rely on it?

    Let’s say for a moment that God set it up so that the Bible could NOT be altered by man at all. Would that mean he would have to intervene in everything else too? I don’t think so. That could just be the one area that he kept away from man’s meddling.

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  13. I think it’s achieving the right end–that the necessary message is evident, no matter how it gets put down. Clearly man is “tampering” with it, because each human author is putting his own personality and writing style into it. But as long as the point of the text is correct, God could have easily allowed the authors the free will to get it down in writing in their individual ways.

    To the second hypothetical, it would then beg the question of why. Why would God intervene here but not elsewhere? And that’s where it could get sticky, trying to differentiate where intervention is necessary, where it is important, and where it is meaningless. There is really no good way of distinguishing between these value judgments on our own volition. It would then mean we would be placing various values on free will depending on the circumstances, instead of making it an absolute part of our nature. And that’s how it easily becomes a slippery slope.

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  14. Then that would quickly lead me to the position that there’s no God at all. If he needs to intervene in everything just because he intervenes in something, then there’s not much room for belief in him. After all, it doesn’t seem like he intervenes at all these days.

    At the very least, it would make me confident that he never tried to author a book.

    Hope that makes sense…

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  15. What do you mean by evident? All the different religions in the world, not to mention all the differing types of Christianity – which of those is evident and to whom?

    the only real thing that is evident to everyone is that man wrote the bible. the debate is whether or not God inspired those men to write it.

    Again, continue to look through these issues, and then say that the issues are just grammatical in nature or the result of faulty translation.

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  16. Since we’re only talking about the Bible here, I think the “other religions” argument is sort of a red herring.

    I am continuing to read through these, and I haven’t seen anything written here so far that shakes my belief in the slightest. I’m not commenting on everything I see, but I see some misuse of context and misunderstanding on what constitutes prophecy. I’m sure I’ll have more issues when I get to the actual contradictions series, but I’ll get to that when I get to it.

    For now though, we’re discussing what the definition of inerrant is, because we have to establish that before we can apply the term to the Bible. You’re putting the cart before the horse.

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  17. Actually, it doesn’t make any sense to me. Are you saying that if God eliminates free will there’s no reason for belief? If so, I would agree with that, which is precisely why He has allowed free will to persist. So asking Him to suspend the free will of human authorship is to beg the question. I think the issue is with your argument, not mine.

    Am I mis-interpreting your statement? If so, can you clarify?

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  18. Sorry, I dont mean to. You’re coming into this conversation later than the rest of us, and I need to remind myself of that.

    I will let you get through the different posts then, but i think the consideration of other religions must be made in this discussion because it forces us to examine as to whether we actually apply the way we approach the bible fairly. If our argument is that we must approach the bible this way, but look at other religious texts that way, then we should really examine how honest we are actually being. You think God inspired the Bible, fine; Muslims think that God inspired Muhammad – which is it, and how would we know? See what I mean?

    “Inerrant” would mean “without error.” And we all agree that a small translation error, such as the examples you gave, would not be what we’re talking about. An Error is saying that so and so did this, when another place says that it was someone else. Or that Mathew’s genealogy is Jesus’ line through Joseph, when Luke’s says its genealogy is through Joseph too even though they are vastly different – and neither match what’s in the old testament. And yes, people try to reconcile these, but they all boil down to “the bible didn’t really mean what it said in that place,” which to me still means “error.” But, I’ll let you read it and make up your own mind.

    I once thought like you did – doesnt mean I’m right now, nor does it mean that I was right then.

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  19. I’m not sure I completely follow either side on this.

    Sabe, you were saying that errors in numbers and such should be allowed as acceptable variances because people transcribing the words could make mistakes.
    Nate then said that God could preserve his word from any mistake if he wanted people to find it and know it was from him.
    Sabe said that would eliminate free will.
    That’s the real point I dont understand. How would that stop someone’s free will, if god just ensured that we all got the message he wanted us to get? If he allowed people to mess it up, then how could people be responsible for mistaking the bible as being a product of fallible men when it has fallacies in it? How would a fallible book, to any degree, be a product of a perfect God?
    And if God would intervene here, to say that he’d have to intervene everywhere is a stretch. God intervened in the OT and the NT, if we can trust the bible, but then God would draw the line at ensuring people would have his word as he wanted us to have it?
    I dont understand why God didnt just tell each of what to do – there’d be no confusion that way. If you didnt want to obey, that’s up to you, but at least there’d be no mistaking who God was or what he wanted.

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  20. Sorry, I was afraid my point might not come through.

    Here’s what I’m trying to say: Christianity teaches that God is all powerful. It also teaches that he loves everyone so much that he wants them all to be saved. And most Christians believe that the Bible is how we get the info we need to meet the requirements of salvation.

    But the problem is this: there are many other religions that purport to do the same thing. How do we tell them apart? Well, an omniscient God would know that we would face this problem, and an all-powerful God would be able to make sure his message stands out from the pack. In fact, to ensure there was no confusion, he could make sure his message reached a level of perfection that mere men couldn’t duplicate. That way, it would be incredibly difficult (nigh impossible) for people to be led astray by something inferior.

    Now you pointed out that if he did such a thing, it would mean taking away man’s free will. In some ways, I agree with you. But it’s really no different than what he did with his prophets, apostles, etc. And if we believe he did it in those instances, why not do it now? Especially if he wants all men, ancient and modern, to have an equally good chance of seeing the “truth”?

    That’s the point I’m trying to make. You said that if he intervened in such a way to protect the accuracy of the Bible, why wouldn’t he intervene in everything that way? I don’t think he would have to. The main purpose is protecting the message — free will could exist in every other instance.

    But if you were right — if God would need to intervene in everything just because he intervened with the Bible, then that would lead me to the conclusion that he doesn’t exist at all, because it’s so obvious that he’s not intervening in everything.

    As it so happens, my threshold isn’t that high. I think it’s possible that God could exist. And I think it’s possible that he’d decide to inspire people to write a message to mankind. But IF he did such a thing, I believe it would be perfect, especially if people are going to be held accountable to it.

    I hope that made better sense. Thanks for asking for the clarification.

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  21. G’day Nate, I thought I’d go through a few of your archives to understand your journey. Here’s a few friendly, and hopefully helpful and challenging, comments.

    1. It is interesting to see what sort of church you were part of – e.g. no musical instruments. It really was what we might (perhaps unfairly) call ‘narrow’, and not in the centre of christian thinking, and you seem to be a fairly thoughtful person, so I wonder how you lasted so long?

    2. You seemed quite certain back in 2007, and you seem quite assured in your thinking now, yet you have gone 180 degrees. I wonder whether you are a person who likes to be certain? I wonder if further turns are likely?

    3. On the topic of this post, I’m not sure if I am repeating myself, but I think your previous christian view made a few unjustified assumptions which you seem to have carried over. e.g I have looked up every (I think) reference to “word of God” in the NT, and none of them unambiguously refer to the Bible, and most of them clearly don’t. Nowhere does the Bible claim to be inerrant or written by God. What we have are claims that God spoke to people, that God/the Spirit inspired them to write it down, and they recorded what they knew or saw or heard.

    So these doctrines are human inventions – they may or may not be true and they may or may not be justified. But they are clearly not essential.

    Even if the Bible was the inerrant word of God in its originals, we don’t have them, just copies and translations. But that’s OK. We don’t have inerrant minds to understand, or inerrant preachers and scholars to explain things to us, or inerrant memories. And we get by in all other areas of life without inerrant university lecturers, doctors, accountants and car mechanics.

    In fact the world looks very like it was made by a God who chose to do things indirectly and (as it were) at arm’s length. The big bang and evolution are like that. The creation of new human beings, our growth and learning are also gradual and fallible. So it is quite fitting that God’s communicating with us and our spiritual growth are the same.

    I think, understandably but unfortunately, this post is based on wrong assumptions. The Bible doesn’t claim to be the only way he speaks to us. God didn’t choose to “write down his will for mankind”. He communicates in many and various ways – through the Bible of course, but also through his Spirit, through visions and dreams, and in many more subtle ways.

    Once we get past some unfortunate wrong thinking on this matter, the landscape looks different. I believe you have thrown out the baby with the bathwater. I believe if you considered a more flexible and better-evidenced form of christianity, without your starting assumptions, you would find much to recommend it.

    Best wishes.

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