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. Hi unkleE — as always, thanks for the comments!

    In some ways, I suppose it is strange that I stayed in the church of Christ for so long. I have some ideas why I did, but I guess it’s all pretty moot now… 🙂

    Anyway, I don’t find the Bible to be good enough evidence to overcome my skepticism. And since you also agree that it’s not a perfect document, I think you understand why I feel that way. See, I haven’t experienced the other ways that God communicates with us, so I don’t have any of that to fall back on. You may be right that he’s really there and that he really communicates in some very personal ways, but until I have those experiences myself I don’t feel that I have any reason to believe. Does that make sense?

    Thanks

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  2. Nate, I’m not going to keep pushing my barrow ad nauseam, but I find some things strange, so I figure a blog is a place to ask questions. (If I’m being a pain, just ignore me or tell me – I won’t be offended.)

    “since you also agree that it’s not a perfect document, I think you understand why I feel that way.”
    No, I don’t really understand. In no other part of life do we have perfect knowledge, but it doesn’t stop us making choices and believing or concluding things. Why have a different standard here? I think your answer is that you’d expect God to be able to do better. But is your expectation of what God ‘should’ do really a strong reason? I wouldn’t have so much confidence in my thinking to second guess God with such assurance!

    “until I have those experiences myself I don’t feel that I have any reason to believe”
    I have had few such experiences, but surely all the other people’s experiences don’t count for nothing? And surely the objective evidence counts for something too?

    One last point – really a question. Did you have no personal belief (as opposed to a faith in the Bible) in, or relationship with, Jesus, that provided a reason to counteract your feelings of what the Bible should be like?

    Thanks for being patient with me. It’s partly I’m curious, but partly I feel you’re too nice a guy not to be on Jesus’ side! : )

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  3. Hi unkleE,

    We have countless books and manuscripts in our world the vast majority of which no one thinks was divinely inspired. So I think the burden of proof for an actual divinely inspired document would be very high. Having said that, I just don’t feel the Bible contains anything that regular people couldn’t have written.

    But is your expectation of what God ‘should’ do really a strong reason? I wouldn’t have so much confidence in my thinking to second guess God with such assurance!

    But this presupposes that God actually inspired the Bible. I’m not willing to concede that. And I don’t think that I’m putting so much stock in my own opinion of what God should do. I feel like I’m comparing the qualities that the Bible says God possesses to the actions and commands that the Bible attributes to him. I don’t find that the two fit together very well.

    I have had few such experiences, but surely all the other people’s experiences don’t count for nothing? And surely the objective evidence counts for something too?

    I think other people’s experiences show that there may be something more to existence than just this life, but I don’t think it points to anything more specific than that. After all, people of every faith tradition have claimed to experience such things… so which god should we give the credit to? And we can’t ignore that the brain is a complicated organ that’s known to cause hallucinations of all kinds. So until I have actual communication from God, I don’t see why he would expect me to have any other position than the one I currently hold.

    As far as the objective evidence goes, I do think it counts for something. But I don’t find it to really stack up in the Bible’s favor.

    Did you have no personal belief (as opposed to a faith in the Bible) in, or relationship with, Jesus, that provided a reason to counteract your feelings of what the Bible should be like?

    No, not really. I had faith in God and Jesus — I “knew” they were real. But when I really examined that faith, I found that it was actually just an extension of my faith in the Bible. I had no knowledge or experience of God or Jesus outside the Bible.

    I don’t know if that helps explain my position any better or not, but thanks for the questions.

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  4. ” think the burden of proof for an actual divinely inspired document would be very high …. I just don’t feel the Bible contains anything that regular people couldn’t have written.”

    I will continue a little longer Nate because I believe we are getting to a useful point of clarification. I don’t think in any of my arguing for the truth of christianity that I have said the Bible (or the NT) is inspired, or anything more than what regular people have written. Any conclusion about inspiration would come at the end of a consideration of the historical realities, not as an assumption.

    So if we put the issue of inspiration aside for the moment, I wonder could you accept what I believe is the broad consensus of scholars, as expressed by one of the most respected, EP Sanders:

    “Historical reconstruction is never absolutely certain, and in the case of Jesus it is sometimes highly uncertain. Despite this, we have a good idea of the main lines of his ministry and his message. We know who he was, what he did, what he taught, and why he died. ….. the dominant view [among scholars] today seems to be that we can know pretty well what Jesus was out to accomplish, that we can know a lot about what he said, and that those two things make sense within the world of first-century Judaism.”

    That to me provides quite sufficient basis for discussing belief in Jesus.

    After all, people of every faith tradition have claimed to experience such things… so which god should we give the credit to?
    I am prepared to remain agnostic on which God – just giving a god credit would be a significant thing!

    “No, not really. I had faith in God and Jesus — I “knew” they were real. But when I really examined that faith, I found that it was actually just an extension of my faith in the Bible. I had no knowledge or experience of God or Jesus outside the Bible.”
    I think this is interesting, and what I was wondering. I think it is sad, but I will say no more for now. Thanks for answering so honestly. Best wishes.

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  5. No, I agree. You’ve never said the Bible is anything more than what regular people could have written. I understand that you consider that a side issue, but I do not. I’ll come back to that in a minute.

    I would agree with the quote you provided concerning the life of Jesus. However, the info we have is not enough to make me believe he actually rose from the dead. I know you feel differently, and that doesn’t bother me — but I also know that you’re aware of many other people (scholars included) who feel the same way I do. I could be wrong — maybe Jesus really did rise from the dead — but I don’t think I’m being unreasonable in my conclusion… would you agree? And I’m not asking that rhetorically or with any animosity; I honestly wonder how you view that position.

    The reason why I think the Bible is so important relates to your next point:
    I am prepared to remain agnostic on which God – just giving a god credit would be a significant thing!

    If there is a God, and if he is somehow connected to Jesus, what does he want from us? If he’s connected to Jesus, I don’t see how we can dispense with the Bible. Isn’t that what tells us how we’re supposed to live and what we’re supposed to believe? I mean, the most basic NT teaching is to have faith in Jesus. However, most other religions don’t meet that requirement. Are they lost? If they’re okay, then we apparently don’t need specific doctrines, etc. And if that’s so, why does it matter if someone believes in God or not?

    That’s where I have a difficult time understanding your perspective. I prefer your view to those who are more fundamentalist, but I’m not sure how you know what God requires of us, if anything. Could you expound on that a little more?

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  6. “I don’t think I’m being unreasonable in my conclusion… would you agree?”
    No I don’t think you’re being unreasonable. I don’t use the resurrection as an argument for christianity. I think it is quite reasonable for a person who believes in God to believe in the resurrection of Jesus. I think the historical evidence for it is good (i.e. if it wasn’t such an unusual claim, there is sufficient historical evidence to believe it) – that is why former atheist Anthony Flew called it “the best attested miracle claim in history”. But I don’t think it is an effective argument in practice. I think we need to consider the ‘Jesus phenomenon’ as a whole – his claims, his impact on people and on history, the growth of the early christian movement and what they believed about him, the resurrection, the whole package.

    “If there is a God, and if he is somehow connected to Jesus, what does he want from us?”
    He doesn’t want anything from us, he wants to give to us. But to do that we have to be willing to receive what he wants to give. That’s what I think.

    “If he’s connected to Jesus, I don’t see how we can dispense with the Bible. Isn’t that what tells us how we’re supposed to live and what we’re supposed to believe? I mean, the most basic NT teaching is to have faith in Jesus.”
    Yes, but the OT Jews were God’s people without knowing anything about Jesus, so it isn’t as cut and dried as you, and many christians, suggest. This is a complex question, so here is the briefest of answers.

    1. God is capable of communicating with every person through his Spirit, and is capable of knowing each person’s willingness to receive the gifts he offers.

    2. Jesus came to die for our sins (to use the cliche phrase), but much more – to show us God in a visible way, to start the revolution that would establish God’s kingdom on earth and to begin a community that would do God’s work of serving others and encouraging them to join the revolution.

    3. Anyone can respond to God, according to the light they have been given (I have both Bible quotes and quotes from the influential christians CS Lewis and Billy Graham to this effect).

    4. But if we see Jesus and follow him, we will have more of the truth, we’ll serve God better and better promote the revolution, so it is best to know him.

    “However, most other religions don’t meet that requirement. Are they lost?”
    Not necessarily – see #3. Most religions contain some truth (e.g. that God exists and has ethical values), but non-christian religions don’t contain as much truth as christianity.

    “If they’re okay, then we apparently don’t need specific doctrines, etc.”
    They may be “OK”, but they could be better – see #4.

    “And if that’s so, why does it matter if someone believes in God or not?”
    What matters is if we respond to as much of God as we know – see #1 & #3.

    “I’m not sure how you know what God requires of us, if anything. Could you expound on that a little more?”
    God communicates through conscience; through all religions; through books and films; through the lives of people; through events; through miracles, dreams and visions; through the Holy Spirit; through the history of Jesus as recorded in the NT; through the Bible as a whole; etc. He is capable of judging each of us fairly. He is loving, and given the smallest opportunity will show us grace. The barrier is our willingness – as is shown by the reactions of people to Jesus.

    I cannot say more specifically how God will deal with people, including how he will deal with you for example, for I am not God. (This may come as a shock to you!) But I believe there will be some surprises in heaven. But I also believe each of us must respond to the light we are given.

    Sorry about the length, but it was brief granted your questions. : ) Thanks.

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  7. Thanks. I’ll have to think on all that for a while. How do you know that your opinions on these things are anything more than just your opinions?

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  8. I don’t know. But it is the obvious explanation and has been accepted by many people for 2 millennia. All I have done is take the general belief and adjust it around the edges to fit the evidence as we now have it.

    Anyway, thanks for the opportunity to discuss. Best wishes.

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