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If God can preserve an inerrant Bible despite the fallibility of the humans who transmitted it, shouldn't He also be able to ensure an inerrant interpretation of that Bible despite human fallibility? Yet, disagreements on interpretation persist among Biblical inerrantists. After all, we only have access to our understanding of the text, not the text itself. So, what's the point of presupposing that we have an inerrant manuscript if its interpretation is prone to error?

Take, for instance, the dispute between Old Earth and Young Earth Creationists over Genesis 1-11. Why presuppose the inerrancy of Genesis if interpretations are likely to be flawed?

Similarly, consider debates about miracles, like whether we should expect miracles from God or only those of Satan in the end times. Or the debate between cessationists and continuationists on the interpretation of 1 Corinthians 13. Or disputes over how to interpret certain writings from Paul, with implications on the role of women in ministry. What's the use of assuming textual inerrancy if most interpretations are bound to be fallible and ambiguous anyway?

How do Biblical inerrantists make sense of this prevalent phenomenon of exegetical disagreements? According to Biblical inerrantists, why hasn't the God who inspired an inerrant Bible also inspired an inerrant interpretation thereof?

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  • Many evangelicals say that the Bible is a "textbook of life", yielding countless of books like "What the Bible say about finance", "How the Bible helps you find your spouse", etc. I disagree, since philosophy & psychology are better disciplines, and the Bible has been misused in those books, just like by Creationists. But if you want to know who God is, the Bible is indispensable. Like the Catholic church since Vatican II, I agree that there are kernel of truths about God in other religions, but Christians believe that the picture of the true God more accurately seen in the Christian Bible. Apr 18 at 15:24
  • The Bible provides lots of principles that apply to any situation in life. The fact that it can and has been misused doesn't discount its usefulness when those principles are applied correctly. But on the other hand, those principles are not the primary purpose of the Bible; the main point is to reveal our sin, God's judgment of sin, and Christ Jesus as the only sacrifice for sin.
    – Jed Schaaf
    Apr 21 at 9:21

5 Answers 5

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How do Biblical inerrantists explain disagreements about the interpretation of the Bible?

The same way I fundamentally understand that two different people could misunderstand something I said even if they heard the same thing. Human language is just...limited. It's a pretty inefficient form of communication but the best we have. It's is a cooperative effort. I cannot force anyone to understand me. I don't personally see a conflict with Biblical inerrancy there. I believe the Bible is inerrant not that people are. I'm not sure why I'd expect that anyone just reads it and gets it immediately. What would be the point of studying it then?

If God can preserve an inerrant Bible despite the fallibility of the humans who transmitted it, shouldn't He also be able to ensure an inerrant interpretation of that Bible despite human fallibility?

Yes but He can stop all evil as well but He doesn't. Fundamentally because doing so would compromise our autonomy and thus our ability to be good. This, apparently, is important to God. The same issue applies here. Preserving an inerrant Bible doesn't require the humans who transmitted it to be inerrant (Example: Daniel didn't have to be an inerrant human for inerrant truth to be conveyed by his story). But ensuring that everyone, ever, who ever reads the Bible understands it in it's totality every time, perfectly, does basically require humans to be inerrant. God could make humans inerrant but I think it's beyond the scope of the question to speculate on why He doesn't. But humans are capable of error (see Genesis 3, pretty sure everyone pretty much agree that it conveys the truth that humans are errant). This question seems to ask that no one ever disagrees and there is no opposition to truth.

What's the point of presupposing that we have an inerrant manuscript if its interpretation is prone to error?

To me, this is backwards. I don't first ask "how accurately can I interpret this information" before asking "do I care about the information in question". I don't interpret for it's own sake. I interpret because I care about the information that could be gained. I don't care about the information because I can interpret it. No one would interpret anything difficult if that was the case.

If any written or verbal conveyance of information has to somehow guarantee that it can't be misunderstood by any audience that may receive it StackExchange is pretty much useless. But I don't think it is. It's a great place for people to bring together insight, great questions (such as these), disagreements, research, etc to increase everyone's understanding of things.

My Conclusions

These dilemmas all boil down to "because that's how communication is in human language". Thus, a follow up question might reasonably be "then why did God choose to preserve information in human language". It is perhaps the most mysterious of His mysterious ways when I think about it. I cannot claim to know of course, but I think it probably has something to do with what we're doing right now: coming together to understand better.

We must interpret in order to communicate. We must risk misinterpretation in the pursuit of truth. We may be wrong sometimes, but the thing we're digging for isn't and that hope is more than I have in anything else.

To the higher topic of inerrancy, it's important to remember that part of interpreting a claim is interpreting what is being claimed and what isn't. If someone tells me "I could eat a horse right now" I know they are claiming to be really hungry, not claiming to be able to eat an entire pachyderm. In such a case, to interpret such a thing literally is to misinterpret it's meaning. You could say "that's not true, you couldn't eat a whole horse" but it doesn't matter, because the person was not claiming they could, and anyone honestly attempting to understand them knows that (unless they have a limited understanding of the language and context). Again, this is just the basics and difficulties of communication. I believe the Bible is written in a human language and so I believe it intrinsically comes with all the same difficulties human language does and have no reason to expect anything else. However, I do not believe being errant is an intrinsic property of human language. Things that are true can certainly be said in human language. So I have no reason to believe the Bible must be errant simply for being written in human language and having the difficulties it comes with.

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    "[God] can stop all evil as well but He doesn't." This is IMHO the most important point in understanding why differing interpretations exist. It's also in the same boat as why God doesn't simply provide undeniable evidence of His existence.
    – Matthew
    Apr 16 at 18:34
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    On the subject of the ambiguity of communication... does "I could eat a horse" mean an entire horse, or that one is hungry enough to consume something that would otherwise be unpalatable? 🙂
    – Matthew
    Apr 16 at 18:35
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    Yes, I think about how the serpent twisted God's words to Eve, and how Satan quoted scripture to Jesus in the wilderness. It's almost as if the Bible itself gives you reason to expect that the scriptures can be interpreted and used incorrectly.
    – Ben
    Apr 16 at 18:39
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    In Judaism where the Hebrew Bible is also deemed inerrant, unlike Protestant fundamentalists they are surprisingly not worried at all. Actually, disputations are very much welcome among Rabbis and become vehicle of training for their youths who were trained to memorize hundreds of verses (such as the entire Psalm 119) before their Bar mitzvah. People say that's why they become natural lawyers. So this is congruent with your answer that God purposely uses the vehicle of ambiguous human language, expecting us to wrestle with the text to obtain the "right" interpretation. Apr 16 at 18:42
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    "If any written or verbal conveyance of information has to somehow guarantee that it can't be misunderstood by any audience that may receive it StackExchange is pretty much useless." Straw man. No one is claiming that SE is inerrant. The question is rather simple: what is the point of ontological inerrancy, when there is no epistemological inerrancy? What does ontological inerrancy even mean? What does "meaning" mean, apart from what people interpret something as? Apr 17 at 2:01
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The specific Catholic answer would be: God did give us Holy Scripture and the teachings of Jesus Christ not found in the Bible but passed on by the apostles (we call those Traditio) and a divine guaranteed system of interpretation (we call it the Magisterium).

Of course, other Christians will not completely, or will completely not, accept that idea. But for Catholics there is no real problem with interpretation this way. It does answer the question why God would not make sure His word is understood correctly. He does.

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TL;DR

Borrowing @Acccumulation's philosophical terms distinguishing

  • "ontological inerrancy" (which I associate with the truths primarily in the mind of God and only secondarily in the text) and
  • "epistemological inerrancy" (which is obviously non-existent in the face of multiple Bible interpretations in secondary issues)

I propose an answer that the Bible + its "well-versed & well-intentioned" reader is blessed with

  • "teleological inerrancy" (achieving God's purpose through His embodiment in Jesus, through the Bible as His inerrant witness to His salvation history, and through the Holy Spirit who speaks to the reader).

Biblical inerrantists of all stripes agree that one aspect of Biblical infallibility is in the effect (teleology). As to inerrant interpretation, this is something that the whole Body of Christ needs to strive for. But we have enough: inerrant God and inerrant Bible.

Defining Biblical inerrancy

Evangelicals and Catholics are two prominent examples of Biblical inerrantists and provide their own solutions by elaborating proper understanding of Biblical inerrancy to avoid most difficulties:

  • For Evangelicals, two recent scholars offering the most nuanced understanding of Biblical inerrancy are Kevin J. Vanhoozer (whose essay can be found here) and Michael Bird who both contribute to a 2013 book Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy.
  • For Catholics, see Wikipedia that cites a major Vatican II document Dei Verbum that locates the truths of Biblical inerrancy to those pertaining to our salvation, rather than a strict identification of apparent assertions of historical and scientific truths.

For the purpose of this question, I think it is helpful to visualize a FLOW of communication,

God -> Text -> Reader,

by differentiating and summarizing the 3 associated properties: inspired (property of the author), inerrancy (property of the text), and infallibility (property of the reader) while affirming that God is intrinsically related in various ways to those 3 concepts.

  1. Inspired: In Christianity, the Bible is primarily God's self-communication for a purpose (salvation of humanity). But there is a debate as to the scope and vehicle of this communication: whether the scope secondarily includes scientific and historical assertions, and whether the vehicle is God's accommodation for the original authors to use

    • outdated scientific worldview,
    • ancient literary convention, and
    • ancient historiography of national mythos and epic

    for the purpose to communicate God's dealing with their nations to the original audience.

    Two other very important points:

    • To say that the Bible is "truthfully inspired" is to affirm that God must be trying to communicate truths (i.e. not deceives, as though God wants to play with us). We have to start here as the foundational assumption before discussing Inerrancy and Infallibility.

    • To say that the living God is speaking to us through the Bible today means that we should allow for new meanings of the same text that God tries to communicate truthfully for us today through new understanding in light of advances in science, archaeology, ancient research, anthropology, philosophy, etc. We follow how early Christians read some OT verses typologically to point to Jesus Christ, who is God and Truth incarnate. So responsible new readings must be Cross centered, not a free-for-all.

  2. Inerrancy: What's uncontroversial is when God covenants Himself to Israel, and then to the Church, He is being truthful regardless how this intention and this promise is encoded, otherwise how can Christians have sure hope? While it's quite easy to see that God DOES covenants Himself (as the general message of the Bible), the challenge is to locate where and how exactly the supporting truths are encoded in the text, separating the kernel from the husk.

  3. Infallibility: It follows from the purpose of the communication that the reader should find the truths that God wants to communicate in the first place, which then dictates the expectation and attitude to read the Bible productively.

    • If one only wants to find faults in the Bible by reading it the wrong way, then they will not find the truths that God tries to communicate in His inspiration.

    • If one doesn't take into account the reading posture of the original audience, then trying to find modern scientific truths would be misguided. Worse, they will say that the text is faulty (not inerrant).

    • If one only expects that the Holy Spirit guides only individual reading so that the truths are infallible for himself/herself, then one will miss the force of communal truths that God tries to communicate to infallibly change the Body of Christ to be more like Christ.

Conclusion: I think infallible interpretation has to be possible for God's inspired and inerrant communication to produce the intended effect infallibly in the readers (i.e. salvation). We in the West tends to be individualistic. Several ways to help resolve the phenomenon of exegetical disagreements is to:

  1. Triage essential truths from secondary truths. Example: Gavin Ortlund's Finding the Right Hills to Die On: The Case for Theological Triage. Evangelicals and Catholics agree on a lot more nowadays.
  2. Allow that the same inerrant truths can be conceived in multiple ways, thus finding equivalency in what's apparently different interpretations. Kevin Vanhoozer compares this to how Paul's language in Phil 2:6 about the Son's isos theos ("equality with God") is reconceptualize in the Council of Nicaea as homoousios ("of the same subtance").
  3. Make interpretation a GLOBAL and ECUMENICAL communal effort by conducting Biblical scholarship together. I have seen Evangelicals and Catholics cooperation in this, despite their entrenched theological disagreements.
  4. Every denomination should refocus their attention to what Jesus (one Lord) wants to communicate to His one Body through the written scripture, and exchange views charitably in the common goals of saving the world (which is God's purpose for the Bible in the first place).

Answering your questions

  1. What's the use of assuming textual inerrancy if most interpretations are bound to be fallible and ambiguous anyway?

    Interpretations are downstream from God the Author who must be truthful for the Bible to be useful, and secondly from the communication itself (the Bible) which needs to contain truths from God. There are much common readings attested in the 2,000 Christian history. Even inerrant fundamentalist Protestants distinguish between those common readings and disputed readings, assigning the common undisputed readings under the heading Clarity of Scipture. For example, the debate of young vs. old earth doesn't change the fact that Jesus rose from the dead to become the new head of our humanity in order to save us, which is very clearly communicated in the Bible.

  2. How do Biblical inerrantists make sense of this prevalent phenomenon of exegetical disagreements? Allowing that multiple groups of Biblical inerrantists point to experts that their own church look up to, and yet, most of them disagree with each other in at least one point, creating a paradox.

    They usually point out to

    • God's decision to use time-bound, culture-bound, and language-bound way to communicate His truths.
    • Human's tendency to misrepresent God's communication out of selfishness and wanting to read the Bible for their own (denominational) agenda rather than subject the reading for ecumenical truths.
    • etc.

    I don't think it's a paradox, since incompatible readings of a minor issue doesn't invalidate the large number of agreements. It's just the whole population of Christians need to work together better.

  3. According to Biblical inerrantists, why hasn't the God who inspired an inerrant Bible also inspired an inerrant interpretation thereof?

    This MUST be a matter of opinion because it's ultimately a mystery (we cannot read God's mind infallibly). But denominations advance some solution, for example:

    1. Catholics deem the Magisterium is inspired communal interpreter.
    2. Protestants settle on having fallible denominational churches that each try their best (with the leading of the Holy Spirit) to discern as best they can to arrive at the truths that God intends for us today. Their slogan is semper reformanda.
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  • When re-reading my answer I realize that my key premises involve redefining some terms, inevitable to move away from the modern Enlightenment era mindset, because we are dealing with ancient text, ancient authors, and ancient original readers who don't see the Bible the same way as we moderns. Kevin Vanhoozer warns of "cronkitis" / wooden literalism (see point #2 in this article). Please read his essay linked in my answer for his Augustinian concept of inerrancy. Apr 17 at 20:07
  • I'm interested in feedback whether my answer is philosophically coherent, despite obvious supernatural factor (God's purpose). Apr 18 at 1:47
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    I think it's really key to start with the establishment of the source of information as being truthful. While not something that any Christian denomination disagrees on, it's an important factor to remember and I'm glad you spent some time on it. The preliminary assumption that God is trying to communicate truth to us through the Bible is very important to the conversation.
    – Ben
    Apr 18 at 11:41
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    And obviously I fundamentally agree with the conclusion that regardless, the way forward is cooperation with brothers and sisters in Christ to continue to discover what God is communicating through this text. As Christians, this is inherently Christ centered. Christ was, among many things, an incredible revelation of God to us. Forget should, we CANNOT read the Hebrew Scriptures the same in light of Him. And if Jesus set to create a community of followers, His church built upon the rock, then it is to be expected that we should commune together to explore the word.
    – Ben
    Apr 18 at 11:55
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    This is a fairly comprehensive answer, but it excludes those (like me) who do hold to a literal understanding of Scripture (not hyper-literal, where nothing can be figurative/metaphorical) that treats passages as actually true statements unless something internal to the text clearly indicates that it's representational. E.g. I believe Genesis 1-11 is literal history due to its treatment in Scripture (including genealogies and by Jesus Himself) as real history, its genre style as factual, and its simple integration with modern science (as opposed to modern mythology disguised as "science").
    – Jed Schaaf
    Apr 21 at 10:19
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There's a dispute between those who believe the bible is inerrant and those who believe it is infallible. Those who claim the bible is infallible admit that there are inconsistencies in it because scripture was written by fallible men. However they believe that in spite of this scripture is inspired by the Holy Ghost and therefore trustworthy. Those who believe the bible is inerrant however believe that the scriptures don't contain any error and that it's only those who interpret it who see errors in it but that it can all be resolved by closer inspection.

Inerrantists can only explain disagreements about the interpretation of passages that seem to contradict each other or to be in error by assuming that there is only one correct interpretation and all others are false. For example the nativity stories of Matthew and Luke 'seem' to contradict each other in many places, starting with where Joseph and Mary lived before the birth of Christ.

Matthew claims they lived in Bethlehem, Luke in Nazareth. To harmonise them an explanation has to be found to explain these differences, and they are often very convoluted. For those who believe in the infallibility of scripture it is less of a problem, they only focus on those passages that agree, which are the virgin birth in this example. For those who believe in the inerrancy this is a bigger problem, because if they contradict than the foundation would crumble on which their faith rests and therefore it is of necessity to provide an explanation that makes both stories true.

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    – agarza
    Apr 17 at 14:07
  • I don't know of anyone who doesn't think this harmony of Joseph and Mary's residencies is plausible: they were both from Nazareth, got engaged and married there, went to Bethlehem for the census, where Jesus was born, stayed for less than two years, went to Egypt for a while, then returned to Nazareth. It fits with all the accounts, and matches the relevant prophecies as well. So that's not a good example issue for inerrancy or infallibility.
    – Jed Schaaf
    Apr 19 at 9:02
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I suppose the inerrancy apologist would say that for the Bible to be inerrant, we need not a uniform interpretation or even the full successful interpretation of it. Inerrancy is a dogma, and it is created as a definite concrete foundation to support their faith; for the same reason some people turned their church organization into infallible, inerrant and inspired to establish their faith. It is a human instinct and tradition to need a physical and tangible foundation for their faith.

As far as the Catholic official statement about inerrancy, I think it's more liberal and open-minded among scholars, as they basically denounce such dogmas in their broadest sense as the Protestant Councils have described it. The catholic scholars or church do not hold such dogmas in a rigid sense. The Catholic Study Bible 3rd ed., (NABRE) glossary describes inerrancy:

inerrancy: the doctrine that the biblical materials are without error. In its most expansive form, as held for instance by Protestant fundamentalists, inerrancy includes the assertion that in the original manuscripts of the biblical books, there are no errors of fact, whether theological, historical, or scientific. A more restrained version of the doctrine would claim that the Bible is an inerrant guide in matters of faith but that it may contain historical errors or assertions that cannot be reconciled with present-day science. Vatican II expressed it this way “Therefore, since everything asserted by the inspired authors or sacred writers must be held to be asserted by the Holy Spirit, it follows that the books of Scriptures must be acknowledged as teaching firmly, faithfully, and without error that truth which God wanted put into the sacred writings for the sake of our salvation” (Document on Revelation, Dei Verbum, n. 11). The final phrase, “for the sake of our salvation”—that is, not for the sake of giving us historical or scientific information—establishes the limits of inerrancy.

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  • How interesting that of all the answers, the only one that mentions a Protestant view that the original manuscripts are inerrant does so by quoting a RCC source.
    – Jed Schaaf
    Apr 19 at 9:06

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