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Inerrancy Means “Without Error” Until it Doesn’t 

inerrancy

Repost from 2015-2016. Edited, updated, and corrected.

Several years ago, The Gospel Coalition (TGC) posted an interview of Dr. D.A. Carson. Carson is the president of The Gospel Coalition and a research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity SchoolIvan Mesa, an editor for TGC, conducted the interview. Mesa begins the interview by defining what he believes has been the historic Christian belief on inerrancy. Mesa writes (link no longer active):

“Scripture cannot be broken,” our Lord Jesus said without qualification (John 10:35).  Throughout history his followers have believed the Bible, as a divinely given book, is fully trustworthy and contains no error. To use a more specific term, it’s inerrant.

Carson repeats this well-worn Evangelical belief:

The word “inerrancy” simply means without error; the doctrine of inerrancy is nothing more than the affirmation that the Bible always tells the truth.

Based on what Mesa and Carson have stated, it is easy to conclude that Evangelicals believe that the Bible, from Genesis 1:1 to Revelation 22:21, is without error. This article of faith is the foundation of Evangelical belief, and the vast majority of church members believe that the Bible they hold in their hands is without mistakes. On Sundays, countless Evangelical pastors will remind parishioners that the Bible is the inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God. Evangelicals will leave church on Sunday believing their precious KJV/NIV/NASB/ESV Bible is without error, mistake, or contradiction.

Yet, these very same preachers will go to a pastor’s meetings on Tuesday and participate in discussions over lunch about the errors and contradictions in the Biblical text. These men of God KNOW that there is no such thing as an inerrant translation, yet they deliberately deceive church members about the nature and history of the Bible. These preachers know that doubting the Word of God is the first step out the door of the church. Better to cross one’s fingers behind one’s back when saying the Bible is the inerrant Word of God than have church members doubting the infallibility, perspicuity, and veracity of the Bible

While both Mesa and Carson unapologetically claim to believe in inerrancy, they are less than honest about what they REALLY mean when they say the Bible is inerrant. Mesa asked Carson, “If the word ’inerrancy’ requires so much careful definition and discussion, is it still the best word to use today?”  Why does the word “inerrancy” require “much careful definition and discussion”? If the Bible is “inerrant,” what further explanation is needed?

Carson goes on to state:

a) Inerrancy is not to be confused with precisionism. We expect more precise statements only where the context demands them. “It took him three hours to walk home” may be a true statement, even if it took him two and three-quarters hours, provided the context leads the reader to expect rounded-off figures.

(b) Inerrancy does not refer to grammatical irregularities. To think otherwise is to misunderstand how language works: usage drives change, and in every culture the degree of conformity between usage and a somewhat artificial grammar-book ideal varies with different strata.

(c) The Bible includes countless passages where its “truthfulness” is not the controlling issue. Consider, for example, the anguished laments of Scripture—for example, Jesus’s anguished lament “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It is true, of course, that Jesus said this, but as for the words themselves, the focus of interest is less on their truthfulness than on their meaning. By contrast, the assertion that Ehud was left-handed (Judges 3:15) makes a factual claim that is either true or untrue. This is one of the reasons why inerrancy is a useful expression. It is potentially misleading to say “all Scripture tells the truth” if we thereby convey the impression that “Scripture is nothing more than factual expressions.” But to say “all Scripture is inerrant” is to affirm that it is without error, and this negation of untruthfulness covers all of the Bible indiscriminately.

These and similar discussions of inerrancy may seem like nitpicking to some conservatives, while many liberals infer from such discussions that the term itself is useless if it requires so much “careful definition and discussion,” as your question puts it. But the obvious riposte is that once a word or concept is challenged, there is no important term that does not require “careful definition and discussion.” God? Love? Justification? Truth? Spiritual? Trinity? Messiah? Inerrancy is no different. Like the other words, and countless more like them, it can serve as a useful one-word summary, even while it needs unpacking with care and with great attention to what Scripture says.

In other words, Carson’s “inerrant” Bible is not without error after all. And what neither Carson or Mesas state in the interview is that, for Evangelicals, inerrancy applies only to the original manuscripts — the original texts that no one has ever seen. There are no original manuscripts so, strictly speaking, inerrancy is a myth. It is a derivative belief based on the notion that since God is perfect in all his ways, somewhere in the process of giving his Words to man, there must have been perfect texts.

It is time for Mesa, Carson, and Evangelical pastors to admit to their congregations that the Bibles they hold in their hands (or read on their iPads) are not inerrant. They need to frankly confess that there are no original documents, and all that Christians have are cobbled-together Bibles littered with errors, contradictions, and internal inconsistencies. The so-called “inerrant” Bible is an Evangelical urban legend, believed only by those lacking training in theology and the Biblical texts. The man shouting THUS SAITH THE LORD, on Sunday? He doesn’t really believe what he is saying. At best, all he can say is this: THUS SAITH THE LORD, MAYBE.

Bruce Gerencser, 63, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 42 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen awesome grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist. For more information about Bruce, please read the About page.

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16 Comments

  1. Avatar
    archaeopteryx

    Let’s assume for a moment that the Bible is in fact, inerrant. If this is so, the following must be true:

    “On that day they read from the book of Moses in the hearing of the people; and in it was found written that NO AMMONITE OR MOABITE SHOULD EVER ENTER THE ASSEMBLY OF GOD; for they did not meet the children of Israel with bread and water, but hired Balaam against them to curse them – yet our God turned the curse into a blessing. WHEN THE PEOPLE HEARD THE LAW, THEY SEPARATED FROM ISRAEL ALL THOSE OF FOREIGN DESCENT.”

    — Nehemiah 13:1-3 Revised Standard Version (RSV) —

    “No bastard shall enter the assembly of the Lord; even to the tenth generation, none of his descendants shall enter the assembly of the Lord. NO Ammonite or MOABITE SHALL ENTER THE ASSEMBLY OF THE LORD, EVEN TO THE TENTH GENERATION, NONE BELONGING TO THEM SHALL ENTER THE ASSEMBLY OF THE LORD FOREVER; because they did not meet you with bread and water on the way, when you came forth out of Egypt, and because they hired against you Balaam the son of Beor…to curse you…You shall not seek their peace or their prosperity all your days for ever.”

    — Deuteronomy 23:2-3, 6 RSV —

    We must also assume the following to be true:

    “Ruth the Moabite married Boaz,….”
    — cf. Ruth 4:13-22 and 1 Chronicles 2:1-15–

    “Salmon was the father of Boaz by Rahab, Boaz was the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David.
”
    — Matthew 1:5,6 —

    The New Testament provides two accounts of the genealogy of Jesus, one in the Gospel of Luke and another in the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew’s starts with Abraham, while Luke begins with Adam. The lists are identical between Abraham and David, but differ radically from that point. Traditional Christian scholars (starting with the historian Eusebius) have put forward various theories that seek to explain why the lineages are so different, such as that Matthew’s account follows the lineage of Joseph, while Luke’s follows the lineage of Mary.

    Either way, both lineages trace back to David, yet according to Matthew 1:5,6, David, and consequently, according to the lineages in Matthew and Luke, Yeshua (Jesus) as well, was part Moabite, as confirmed by both Ruth 4:13-22 and 1 Chronicles 2:1-15, when they insist that Ruth, the Moabite, was David’s great-grandmother, and by virtue of the commandments in both Nehemiah 13:1-3 and Deuteronomy 23:2-3, “NONE BELONGING TO THEM SHALL ENTER THE ASSEMBLY OF THE LORD FOREVER“.

    Either Yeshua actually was NOT a descendant of David, in which case he did NOT fulfill the prophecy of the coming Messiah, that he be descended from David, or he was part Moabite and by the ‘god-breathed‘ laws set forth in Deuteronomy and Nehemiah, forbidden to ever “ENTER THE ASSEMBLY OF THE LORD FOREVER“.

    I suppose it’s up to Christians to determine which part is inerrant, as clearly, they can’t both be.

    • Avatar
      david

      According to sources I have reviewed, your quote misrepresents the actual command given in Deut 23:-3. That prohibition was apparently only to the tenth generation. With length of Abrahamic generation (100 years?), this would still have been appropriate, By Jesus generation, command expired.

      (There are apparently other biblical generational lengths by which it would have exceeded ten generations, and so one might consider if Neh’s generation was overlooking a part of it [as you seem to have done?], or was it not part of the copy they were reading [or yours?]?)

      Also FWIW, IIRC, one of the NT genealogies is missing a generation somewhere.

  2. Avatar
    david

    Bruce, perhaps you are unaware that there are some pastors who do not claim the current bible text to be without error, perhaps you have overlooked them.

    I’m pretty sure Richard Kremer’s congregation (if he still has one 🙂 ) would not be leaving on Sunday’s thinking the biblical text is completely without error.

    IIRC, he does however have his own thoughts regarding what is inerrant.

    And in the past hundred years, such pastors would seem to be in the minority. While the notion of inerrancy apparently does go back a very long ways, my recollection of readings is that it only gained significant ‘traction’ within the past several hundred years.

    In particular, it would seem to me that those responsible for producing a (the) critical text, could not possibly have considered it inerrant.

    As for inerrancy of the original autographs, we seem to be in no position to even attempt an evaluation of that (Kremer’s ‘intellectually dishonest’ idea).

    Were such an effort to even be worthwhile.

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      Sure, there are pastors who deny inerrancy, but they are not Evangelical. Inerrancy, however it is defined, is an inviolable tenet of Evangelicalism.

      I actually wrote a critique of Kremer’s view of inerrancy. I found his view to be contradictory. Kremer wants to believe parts of the Bible are inerrant and others aren’t. He provides no coherent way of determining what is inerrant.

      Kremer wrote:

      Kremer said Shorter University’s new statement of faith “We believe the Bible … is the inerrant and infallible Word of God” is true to a point. “When you come to talking about the character of God, the Bible is indeed inerrant,” he said. “When you’re talking about the revelation of God in Christ, we can trust that information with perfect confidence.” –

      https://baptistnews.com/faith/theology/item/7586-pastor-blasts-biblical-inerrancy

  3. Avatar
    archaeopteryx

    While the notion of inerrancy apparently does go back a very long ways, my recollection of readings is that it only gained significant ‘traction’ within the past several hundred years.

    My guess is that that’s not coincidental, considering that for a thousand years after the Bible was finally compiled, no one was allowed to study it without the guiding assistance of a member of the clergy. From 600 AD to 1600 AD, the ‘Church’ forbade the printing of the Bible in any language but Latin, under penalty of death. In those days, only roughly 3% of the population could read, and of those, only an equally small percentage of THAT small percentage could read Latin, and the majority of those were clergy. In one year, seven people were burned at the stake for the simple act of teaching their children to say the Lord’s Prayer in their native language.

    When the edict was finally lifted in the 1600’s after the invention of the printing press resulted in copies of the Bible in native tongues popping up all over Europe, John Selden, philosopher and mathematician, was prompted to say,

    “‘Scrutumini scripturas’
    (‘Let us examine the scriptures’)
    These two words have undone the world.”
    — John Selden —
    (1584-1658)

    Finally, those who could read in their native tongues were able to study the Bible on their own, and no sooner had that door had been opened, than discrepancies began to be discovered.

    Carlstadt, a leader of the Reformation movement in Germany, wrote a pamphlet in 1520 arguing that Moses did not write the Pentateuch, for the style of writing in the verses reporting Moses’ death (Deut. 32:5-12) was that of the preceding verses.

    In 1574, A. Du Maes, a Roman Catholic scholar, suggested that the Pentateuch was composed by Ezra, who used old manuscripts as a basis.

    Thomas Hobbes, the English philosopher, concluded in 1651 that Moses wrote only parts of Deuteronomy (Leviathan III:33).

    In “Tractatus theologico-politicus” (1677), Baruch Spinoza, the Jewish philosopher, recognized as one of the founders of modern biblical criticism, reached a conclusion much like that of Du Maes, that Ezra compiled Genesis to II Kings from documents of varying dates. Shortly afterward, Richard Simon, a Roman Catholic priest, often called “the father of biblical criticism,” gathered together the substance of critical analyses up to his time and raised the problem of literary history, thus opening the door to the application of techniques used in the study of non-sacred literature to the Bible.

    If it has been only in the last few hundred years that people have found criticisms of the Bible, it’s because prior to that time, study of the book was forbidden to all but a select elite.

  4. Avatar
    ratamacue

    The man shouting THUS SAITH THE LORD, on Sunday? He doesn’t really believe what he is saying. At best, all he can say is this: THUS SAITH THE LORD, MAYBE.

    What did you believe when you were that man?

  5. Avatar
    Peter

    As a former believer and reasonably recent student of Theology, Don Carson was a person I had highly respected. There is an interesting comment in his book, Exegetical Fallacies which I will recount here:

    When two equally godly interpreters emerge with mutually incompatible interpretations of a text, it must be obvious to even the most spiritual and perhaps as well to most of those who are not devoted to the worst forms of polysemy, that they cannot both be right. Occasionally a remarkable blind spot prevents people from seeing this point. Almost twenty years ago I rode in a car with a fellow believer who relayed what the Lord had “told” him that morning in his quiet time. He had been reading the KJV of Matthew; and I perceived that not only had he misunderstood the archaic English, but also that the KJV at that place had unwittingly misrepresented the Greek text. I gently suggested there might be another way to understand the passage and summarized what I thought the passage was saying. The brother dismissed my view as impossible on the grounds that the Holy Spirit does not lie.

  6. Avatar
    Karen the rock whisperer

    What fascinates me is that, as I understand (I’m not a Bible scholar), the Bible has contradictions big enough to drive a planet through. Yet all these Evangelical folks are presumably studying this document pretty much continuously (as in, several times a week). I certainly know that a number of now-atheists came from Evangelical roots by studying the Bible. But these folks are not common. So how are all these good Christians reading, reading, reading, but not reading for overall comprehension? Is it an intense focus on single or small groups of verses, without context? Are all these folks reading nothing but Paul? What gives?

    This is a sincere question, by the way. Raised Catholic, when I was a believer I lived by the liturgical calendar, not by randomly reading the Bible. Very different way to learn one’s theology, though far more Bible-based than most Evangelical Christians will give Catholics credit for.

    • Avatar
      Bruce Gerencser

      Evangelicals start with the presupposition that the Bible is inerrant. The evidence against this belief is overwhelming, but they believe it … end of story. From this one belief all other beliefs flow. When confronted with errors and internal contradictions, Evangelicals stick their fingers in their ears, cover their eyes, and say “what contradictions?” The Bible CAN’T have contradictions because it is inspired by God God is perfect, so everything he does is perfect. Got it? This makes perfect sense only in the Evangelical bubble.

  7. Avatar
    Brian

    Karen the rock whisperer, Christians read for feelings and they sing hymns for the same ‘reason’. Comprehension without its Jesus basis in feeling leads to eternal hellfire, preceded often by Atheist Bruce Almighty blogging.
    Fundamentalist Christians just plain know what they know because they feel it. Reading snippets of scripture feeds up the feeling when it wanes. Once you are willing to say the black book is without error, anything goes!

    • Avatar
      DJ

      Brian…you remind me of a meme I have that says:

      Praise Oxytocin!
      Praise Dopamine!
      Praise Seratonin!
      Feels like Jesus

  8. Avatar
    GeoffT

    I’m not sure why an all powerful god would cause to be written anything meaningful, never mind something as convoluted and confused as the bible. Written guidance is something that seems very much to appeal to humankind, and I have absolutely no doubt that this is what explains the origins of the texts that make up the bible, but it actually makes no sense in the context of what it’s intended to achieve. We have no idea what the original documents said, as we have access only to copies, there’s no consistency in the languages the texts were written in, there are no citations, there are almost no credible claims of eyewitness testimony, the authors are largely anonymous, there are thousands of copying errors, arguments rage over the translation of the most simple words, never mind complex sentences: what on earth benefit could this undoubted mess be to a creator, wanting to convey a message?

    If there were a creator of the type claimed then it would be far more likely to achieve what it wants by manipulating our thoughts and behaviours, though evangelicals seem to think this also happens (and quite how this squares with free will, who knows?). Ultimately, religious belief of this sort stands absolutely no scrutiny.

  9. Avatar
    ObstacleChick

    I appreciate the ancient writings collected in what we call the Bible so much more now that there are no supernatural or conflicting claims attached to them. We can see some of the myths that people told. We can get a glimpse into what life may have been like for people in those times and places. We can examine what they knew or thought about the world. It’s a shame that humans weren’t freed of a lot if this nonsense though – when here we are with the technology to collect data from Mars but a large number of people believe in talking snakes and virgin births, well……it’s just sad really.

  10. Avatar
    Astreja

    It makes even less sense (from a deity’s POV) if one considers that the literacy rate wasn’t all that high when these scriptures were written. The potential audience was very small.

    (The people who did the actual writing of the scriptures undoubtedly knew that, and presented the written word as an unchanging, unquestionable authority to intimidate the non-literate people they wanted to control and exploit.)

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