Why Liberal Christians Won’t Win the Inerrancy Battle

inerrancy of bible

I appreciate the attempt by James McGrath and Fred Clark to remind people that not every Christian thinks the Bible is inerrant.

Clark writes:

The doctrine of “inerrancy” is often referred to as a “high view of scripture.” It is not.

It’s a low-down dirty trick to play on the Bible and on anyone who tries to read it. Inerrancy is not a victimless crime. It chases some people away from the Bible and prevents others from reading it intelligently.

I respect that this idea comes from a place of respect, but that is not where it leads. It leads to a profound disrespect for the Bible, and for those who seek to read it honestly. And, ultimately, it always shifts from being a claim about the Bible itself to being a claim about the person making that claim. After all, what good is an inerrant, infallible text without an inerrant, infallible reader, exponent and enforcer?

McGrath writes:

And so this provides a nice test case for my point about the incompatibility of inerrancy and giving one’s ultimate respect to the Bible. If one is committed above all else to a doctrine of Biblical inerrancy, then you will be forced not just in this particular instance, but time and time again, to sacrifice what the Bible actually says in order to harmonize texts. Those two Gospels can say explicitly and unambiguously that they are giving Joseph’s genealogy. But you will deny that they mean what they say, in order to insist that both are right – even though, ironically, you are in fact saying that one of them, taken at face value, is wrong. And so with the very sword you picked up to try to defend your doctrine of the Bible, you do damage to the Bible, cutting off anything that is a threat to your doctrine.

Inerrancy is not and can never be a doctrine that respects the Bible. It is a framework imposed on the Bible and which is antithetical to giving the Bible respect, to say nothing of authority.

As I shared in a quote by Theodore Vial earlier this month, there are Christians who claim to be committed to inerrancy and the literal truth of the Bible, but the two inevitably conflict, and when they do, it is the latter that is sacrificed at the altar of the former.

I agree completely with what Clark and McGrath have written on inerrancy, However, it doesn’t matter. No matter how much they rightly protest, their protests will not make a difference outside of the seminary classroom or pastor’s study.

What do we know about Americans and their religious inclinations? Take evolution. Wikipedia states:

In a 1991 Gallup poll, 47% of the US population, and 25% of college graduates agreed with the statement, “God created man pretty much in his present form at one time within the last 10,000 years.”

Fourteen years later, in 2005, Gallup found that 53% of Americans expressed the belief that “God created human beings in their present form exactly the way the Bible describes it.” About 2/3 (65.5%) of those surveyed thought that creationism was definitely or probably true. In 2005 a Newsweek poll discovered that 80 percent of the American public thought that “God created the universe.” and the Pew Research Center reported that “nearly two-thirds of Americans say that creationism should be taught alongside evolution in public schools.” Ronald Numbers commented on that with “Most surprising of all was the discovery that large numbers of high-school biology teachers — from 30% in Illinois and 38% in Ohio to a whopping 69% in Kentucky — supported the teaching of creationism.”

Here we are in 2013, a century and a half removed from Darwin publishing On the Origin of Species, and over half of Americans believe God created human beings in their present form exactly the way the Bible describes it. Two-thirds of Americans believe that creation is probably true.

What drives the unwillingness of Americans to accept evolution? It can’t be the science behind evolution because most Americans couldn’t explain evolution if their life depended on it. Evolution is taught at the high school level and the college level, yet large numbers of high school biology teachers support the teaching of creationism.

The reason the majority of people in America believe God created human beings in their present form exactly the way the Bible describes it, is because they believe, to some degree or the other, in the inerrancy of the Bible. (and I am using the word inerrancy in a broad sense)

Despite the fact that science tells them differently, the majority of Americans believe the Genesis account of creation best explains the universe and the human race. Attempts by people like Fred Clark and James McGrath to suggest other ways to interpret Genesis 1-3 falls on deaf ears. Their minds are made up, and all the evidence to the contrary won’t convince them otherwise.

mcgrath quote on inerrancyMost Christians in America are woefully ignorant of what the Bible says. The Bible is a best-selling book that is never read. What Bible knowledge most Christians have comes from whatever their pastor or some TV preacher says on Sunday. The old adage, ignorance is bliss, is quite appropriate when describing the pervasive ignorance in Christianity.

The average Christian does not care about alternative readings, textual variants, or historical context.  What they want out of Christianity is the strength necessary to get to tomorrow. They want to know that their life has meaning and purpose, and most of all, they want to know that there is life after death. They don’t want questions, they want answers. They don’t want ambiguity, they want certainty.

And it is for these reasons that Clark’s and McGrath’s protestations about inerrancy will never gain traction with people in the pew.

Most pastors, if they have any kind of decent education, know better when it comes to inerrancy. Maybe they even have a secret stash of Bart Ehrman books hidden in a drawer in their study. They know inerrancy is a house of cards that is easily brought down. They know  the Bible is errant, and that when taken literally can lead to all kinds of crazy beliefs. Simply put, they know Clark and McGrath are right.

However, in Joel Osteen like, This is my Bible fashion, they stand in the pulpit and give parishioners what they want to hear. They reinforce their certainty, rarely, if ever suggesting, that maybe, just maybe, there are other ways to interpret the Bible.

Pastors are well aware of why people are there on Sunday. They want encouragement and certainty. They don’t want their pastor causing them to “doubt” the Bible and the  veracity of the Christian religion.

So…pastors lie.

I live in rural NW Ohio, an area dominated by conservative Christianity and Republican politics. Virtually every public office is held by a Republican, and in November’s election many of the offices up for election have no Democrat running against the Republican incumbent. Most of these Republican attend local churches that reinforce the belief that the Bible is inerrant. Here in the Promised Land, virtually every Christian church, even those affiliated with liberal denominations liked the United Church of Christ, are conservative in belief and practice.

I have no doubt that more than a few pastors know what Clark and McGrath say about the Bible and inerrancy is the truth, yet you wouldn’t know it by what they preach on Sunday.  Church unity and a weekly paycheck are more important than the truth.

The Letter to the Editor section of the paper is routinely filled with letters from local Christians decrying the socialist Obama administration, gay marriage, abortion, and the general decline of the human race. Their letters are peppered with proof-texts and Bible inerrancy is on public display for all to see. As an atheist, I write letters to the Editor trying to counter the Bible-thumpers, but I suspect my letters are just a reminder and proof of their contention that Satan is at work in NW Ohio.

The only place where I see a glimmer of light is in Christian colleges and seminaries. Take J.R. Daniel Kirk, professor of New Testament studies at Fuller Theological Seminary. In a recent blog post, Kirk wrote:

When we communicate the either/or of Christianity or a Bible that has mistakes or of Christianity or a world that is 4.5 billion years old, we are setting up Christianity for an increasing number of people heading toward the door.

Here’s the script: if you tell a high school kid that it’s either inerrancy or bust, and this kid goes and takes an introduction to OT or introduction to NT course in seminary, this young adult is going to have to go for bust unless she can reconfigure her Christianity to make room for a Bible that is not, in fact inerrant.

Sometimes it doesn’t even take a class.

What if your student is particularly “diligent” (*ahem*) and decides while working at summer camp that during the time when the kids are off sailing during sailing class he will sit down and outline the last week of Jesus’ life according to the four Gospels? (I have a “friend” who did this once…)

That’s right: if your students actually read the Bible rather than just talking about what the Bible “is,” they will discover that the Bible that you have bundled up with Christianity does not exist. And then they will have to choose to either deny the actual content of the Bible, cling to the system they’ve been given, and stay Christian, OR to leave Christianity because the options before them are clear, OR to reconfigure their faith in light of the Bible we actually have.

This is an unbearable burden to place on Christ followers. It is a false choice to create a choice between inerrancy or atheism. In short, marrying inerrancy to Christianity is pastorally disastrous.

Many Evangelical colleges and seminaries are moving away from the long-held belief in inerrancy. They are moving, every so slowly, towards where liberal Protestant colleges and seminaries have been for decades or a century.

The question that remains then is this…will these newly trained pastors communicate what they learned in seminary to their parishioners? Will they be bold enough to take on creationism? Will they have courage to say that Paul was wrong on homosexuality and women? Will they tell what they know or will they retreat to the safety of certainty and a paycheck on Friday?

I am a pessimist, and I have my doubts that inerrancy will be dealt a death-blow any time soon. Liberal Christians,also known in some circles as modernists, having been waging war against an inerrant Bible for a hundred or more years. Inerrant Bible killer, Bart Ehrman, continues to churn out New York Times bestsellers that destroy Evangelical beliefs about the Bible, and men like Shelby Spong have waged war against inerrancy in the past. Yet, for all the good work these men have done…here we are…most people still think the Bible is, to some degree or the other, inerrant.

The world would be better served if Christians understood and embraced the views of Fred Clark and James McGrath. There would be less political strife, less bloodshed, and perhaps Americans would stop waging war against with those who believe differently than they do.

We can only hope…

repost from 2012, slightly updated

Comments (17)

  1. Alice G.

    I am in a discussion now with a friend and she mentioned the prophecies that the bible writers made that did come to pass as a measure of it’s veracity.. I am familiar with some of the sketchiness of the Messianic prophecies, but what of others, especially Daniel?

    This is something I’m currently very interested in.

    I (anyone) can definitely disprove inerrancy, but I don’t know about prophecy.

    1. Guest

      Well, I can point you to rationalwiki’s section on failed prophecies, but I couldn’t swear they are all in context. I know there’s Jesus’ “this generation” remark, and it seems straightforward to me, but I’ve seen it interpreted/twisted various ways. What about the Ezekiel Tyre/Egypt prophecies? I find those interesting in the sense that the text dates itself by what it says. First it says Nebuchadnezzar will conquer Tyre. Then a little latter it’s “oops, he didn’t conquer Tyre…but he’s going to get Egypt, and Egypt will be a desolate wasteland” At least, that’s how it reads to me, but I’m afraid I am rather literal-minded, myself.

      1. Alice G.

        Thanks so much, I’ll check that out. I had stepped away from futurism to embracing preterism and mainly because of the this generationstatement. When you have it repeated to you over and over and over again that the bible predicts all these things and no one ever points out any failed prophecies, one just accepts it as fact.

        1. Guest

          Copying from biblegateway here to show why I like this one. It’s specific. And wrong. To me, it doesn’t have wiggle room.

          8 “‘Therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I will bring a sword against you and kill both man and beast. 9 Egypt will become a desolate wasteland. Then they will know that I am the Lord.

          “‘Because you said, “The Nile is mine; I made it,” 10 therefore I am against you and against your streams, and I will make the land of Egypt a ruin and a desolate waste from Migdol to Aswan, as far as the border of Cush.[b] 11 The foot of neither man nor beast will pass through it; no one will live there for forty years. 12 I will make the land of Egypt desolate among devastated lands, and her cities will lie desolate forty years among ruined cities. And I will disperse the Egyptians among the nations and scatter them through the countries.

          and then later:

          I am going to give Egypt to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, and he will carry off its wealth. He will loot and plunder the land as pay for his army. 20 I have given him Egypt as a reward for his efforts because he and his army did it for me, declares the Sovereign Lord.

          But Egypt was never uninhabited and desolate for 40 years, and Nebuchadnezzar didn’t conquer Egypt. And, I didn’t notice any caveats regarding obedience, etc. in this prophecy (but I won’t swear I didn’t overlook them, as I do find it difficult to follow from time to time).

          1. Alice G.

            Maybe it’s “spiritual” Egypt …I think that is where I’d head to next if I had to defend it.

          2. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

            While certainly that is “possible”, is this the plain meaning of the text. Remember, that a lot of the “answers” given for errors and contradictions violate the text by forcing a meaning on the text that is not warranted.

            Of course, rule number one is, you can make the Bible say most anything.

            The Bible says, Judas went out and hung himself. The Bible also says go thou and do likewise. Put together they say, Judas went out and hung himself. Go thou and do likewise. :) just a silly example of how you can make the Bible say most anything,

    2. exrelayman

      An excellent discourse (series of blog posts) about the fraudulent book of Daniel begins here:


      If this is a bit much, a more concise criticism is here:


      At this location, if you click twice in the address window, you can erase the portion of the address ‘bookofdaniel.htm’. Then press enter to see a more comprehensive critique of Christianity.

      Briefly, if you don’t want to put the effort into checking these links out, Daniel appears by internal evidence to have been written after events it allegedly foretold accurately. There are then other ‘prophecies’ going forward from where it appears to have been written, and they are all completely wrong. Daniel is a forgery, and not a clever one at that. (Well, most of the Bible is forgery, if by forgery you mean presented as written by a certain author when it is in fact the case that the alleged author could not be the real author.) But of course my recommendation is never accept my word or anyone’s (internet) word about such, but do the searches and legwork and verify sources.

      1. Alice G.

        Great, just what I was looking for to get started in my research, I read a bit of the first link this afternoon and will go through the rest of that series for sure. Thanks so much!

  2. Kerry

    Unfortunately there is little hope that pastor’s will allow such creeping literalism into their churches. My father was a pastor, and he was a verbally inspired 100% inerrant adherent. I do, however, remember there was a time when his rhetoric changed slightly to saying the original texts were perfect in every way. Of course, no one asked how he knew this since we didn’t have original texts. The controversial passages were reasoned away with ease and a wave of the hand. For anyone demanding real answers, there was always the old stand-by statement, “these are the mysteries of God,” or “if the Bible is not clear, it is because we are not meant to know all this side of eternity.”

    Yes, these were all dodges. I mean what good is this Holy Book from the hand of an infinite god that is supposed to explain the way of salvation, but is so muddled that everyone can interpret however they choose? Don’t we need to understand here and now? What good does it do to finally understand when standing before the judgment seat of Christ. It is a little late then I should think.

    When I was still in the “fold” and trying to prepare how to answer every man, I read Spong many times…there was no Bart Ehrman then. I would practice ripping his points to shreds with the help of McDowell, or perhaps Lucado or MacArthur. It is amazing how once I got my blinders off and could read with open curiosity, the sound reasoning of many arguments presented by Spong and others began to crystallize.

    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      It is so simple, Kerry! :)

  3. Pingback: Luke vs. the Inerrantists

  4. tlethbridge

    Kirk’s statement pretty much sums up my deconversion. I often wonder if I could happily be trucking along as a more theologically liberal Christian if I had been raised that way. When I lost faith in inerrancy, pretty much everything else fell apart in rapid succession.

    I think the weakness of liberal Christianity is it does not inspire the kind of loyalty inerrant fundamentalist/evangelical churches do. Mainstream churches have been declining in numbers for years and from what I have seen in my little corner, seem to mainly be made up of older parishioners. As you said Bruce, people want answers but they especially want nice tidy answers for their kids.

    Thought about trying to switch to the closest U.C.C. church but from what I can tell there is not a single kid attending and almost no one who is not retired. There is a Unitarian Universalist church not far from here that seems to attract families, but I think that might be more culture shock than my family could take.

    1. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

      Generally, I have found mainline, liberal churches to be quite friendly. Quite old too.

      At the local Episcopal Church, a long time member came up to me and said, our church is different from other churches. You don’t have to believe anything here. :)

      And that’s the problem. There seemed to be no hills they were willing to die on. Services were nice. The liturgy was great. But…there was no passion, no drive, no sense of urgency that is sometimes found in Evangelical churches. Nothing seemed to really matter.

  5. Steve Finnell

    Comment deleted

  6. MPM

    It is quite sad, but not at all unexpected, that such a piece would be written and given any credence. In my experience, it is those whose “god” is science that have their mind made up and no evidence to the contrary of what they believe will change it. There is an abundance of evidence to support (notice I did not write “prove”) that the original manuscripts of the Bible are indeed the innerant, authoritative, divinely inspired Word of God, whether one likes it or not. No one can prove otherwise, just as no one can “prove” or “disprove” God’s existence, but one has the choice of giving the evidence whatever weight they choose to give it. In the end, we all will know the truth….

  7. MPM

    I read Bart Ehrman’s “Misquoting Jesus” and it falls woefully short of even coming close to disproving innerancy. Did you read what he wrote in reference to he and Bruce Metzger being able to “hammer out” a view of the New Testament upon which they could agree? He spends a lot of time writing about “what ifs,” “maybes,” “it could be,” “it’s possible,” etc. It is very short on evidence; nothing unexpected in that book….

  8. Bruce Gerencser (Post author)

    And of course, in the end, your truth will be shown to be right.

    I am well aware of and well versed in the debate over inerrancy. There is no possible way to maintain inerrancy at any level. It is an intellectually dishonest position that ultimately appeals to faith.

    Since no originals exist claiming inerrancy for them is ludicrous. The best a person might do is say…this or that manuscript might be an approximation of what was originally written. (Something that can never be known for sure)

    Besides, here in the West , Christian churches, pastors, and church members read and preach from and study English translations that are internally contradictory and teach things that decent, moral people consider appalling. Fortunately, I have never met a Christian who actually believes every word of the Bible is true and practices every word of it. Every Christian compartmentalizes or explains away or “interprets” the verses that make them uncomfortable or don’t fit their moral code or worldview.

    If the Bible is what Christians claim it is, you’d think God would have gone a better job of getting his inerrant word to the human race. Instead, he chose a process akin to my grandchildren playing with letter and number blocks. Disorganized and scattered with blocks that have become “lost” under the couch, chair, or yard.


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