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I was asking this question:

How do Christians that do not believe in inerrancy interpret the Bible?

when I realized that my definition of inerrancy is probably different from others'. One definition (in my own words) is "The Bible is inerrant so long as it is translated and interpreted correctly" but a more extreme definition is "The Bible is inerrant and must be interpreted literally".

It seems to me that there are several things that could make the Bible errant (keep in mind that I'm not necessarily suggesting that any of these are the case):

  • It is dis-proven by science or historical fact
  • Its original text was misrecorded
  • Its translation into our native language was incorrect
  • Its interpretation is not correct

Between the two examples I gave you will either hit up against the facts of science/history (sorry Young Earth creationists, just bear with me), and the infinite possibilities of non-literal interpretations (which, so long as they are not the same, cannot all be right). Therefore there must be some error between God's mouth thousands of years ago and our heads today. It is inescapable the way I see it.

Maybe it's just syntax that's holding me up, but where do people draw the line when they talk about inerrancy? Is it without error between God's mouth and the original transcription? That neglects to recognize the potential for error downstream to the reader. It seems to me that as soon as you allow for interpretation you taint the inerrancy.

In other words, doesn't the fact that we are constricted by the boundaries and limitations of language (whether spoken, written, or read) make inerrancy impossible?

closed as primarily opinion-based by Nathaniel, curiousdannii, Lee Woofenden, Flimzy, Matt Gutting Jul 19 '16 at 20:44

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    Also bear in mind that there's often no "the" literal interpretation. There are often multiple "literal" interpretations. By some extreme understandings of literal, every word must be read without any knowledge of metaphor or idiom. Since most Christian who read scripture "literally" at least incorporate idioms, you naturally find differences of opinion in the literal readings. – svidgen Jul 22 '13 at 22:18
  • As an example of this, Christ said, "Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go with him for two miles." By the most literal reading, Christ might be speaking only about those who physically push you downward into service! Not those who, as we naturally understand the passage, "insist by threat of force or imprisonment that you serve." – svidgen Jul 22 '13 at 22:21
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    A decent starting point for answering this question would be the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, which does limit it to the original manuscripts (but the existing text is recognized by critical analysis as being very close to the original) and "allows for figurative, poetic and phenomenological language" to quote wikipedia. – Paul A. Clayton Jul 22 '13 at 23:35
  • @PaulA.Clayton: But is that the best or most common definition of inerrancy? Among American Evangelicals it might be, but I'm not sure it would apply to other denominations. – Bruce Alderman Jul 24 '13 at 5:04
  • @BruceAlderman I do not know. I suggested it as a decent (i.e., not extraordinarily great but by no means bad) starting point (i.e., doing little more than quoting from it would not form a good answer). – Paul A. Clayton Jul 24 '13 at 14:15
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I'm going to try to give you a good answer to the exact questions you asked; then I am going to suggest a perspective for your consideration based on the issues you have raised in the comments you made surrounding your questions.

1) If you don't believe in the inerrancy of scripture, on what basis can you interpret scripture?

If you believe that scripture may contain errors, then it could contain errors at any point. There is really no passage that would be off limits. You would be forced to decide which scripture you think matches what God originally said, and which scripture you think got messed up somewhere along the line. You could do this a variety of ways, for instance you could examine the oldest documents. But ultimately you would have to decide which parts were pure.

2) Where do people draw the line when they talk about inerrancy?

Some groups say that the original writings were inspired and inerrant. If you google half a dozen denominations you will probably hit on this a few times. Unfortunately, no one has the original writings as penned by the apostles and prophets. So we are back to trying to figure out which readings are probably the closest match to the original writings based on the age or quality of the manuscripts and our skill in interpreting the languages into English.

Examples:

Christian Missionary Alliance cmalliance.org/about/beliefs/doctrine

First Baptist Atlanta: fba.org/main/statement-of-faith "without error in its original manuscripts";

Westminster Confession section 1.8 OT Hebrew and NT Greek are to be appealed to as a final resort epc.org/about-the-epc/beliefs/westminster-confession/#ch1

Other groups say that the concepts are inspired, but not the details. Since concepts are built up from details, again you must decide what is a concept and what is a detail, as well as which concept reflects accurately the ideas in the text.

Example:

Inerrant in what it intends to teach, not the details: peterballard.org/errancy.html

3) Is it without error between God's mouth and the original transcriptions?

Again, that is where many groups draw the line. And you are right to point out that it leaves room for problems down the line. And if we accept that premise, those problems are not resolvable without the original writings, which no longer exist.

If there are possibilities of error in the Biblical text, then you are right to point out that those errors could be generated by transcriptional mistakes or translation into our language. Errors could by exposed by science or history. Errors of interpretation could also be incorrect, but that would not affect the text itself.

Another perspective

However, let me propose another perspective for your consideration. Instead of asking "Where do people draw the line on inerrancy?"; I want to suggest a perspective on "Where does the Bible itself draw the line on inerrancy?" that I hope you will find interesting to consider.

Psalm 12:6-7

"The words of the Lord are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times. Thou shalt keep them O Lord, thou shalt preserve them from this generation for ever."

2 Timothy 3:16

"All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness."

This perspective would say that these passages point to God Himself preserving His words in written form on earth ("scripture") for the church to use forever. So by this point of view, at any time in history, the church has had access to His pure words in written form. Since we no longer have the originals, this view trusts that God has continued the preservation process including through the translation process so that people who believe Him and follow Him at least have the potential to access His pure words in written form.

This view depends on God to have a firm hand in the process. He has to guide translators that He chooses, and when they get it right, get that translation into the hands of believers and then bless their efforts so that those words get into the hands of everyone who needs them. All you have to worry about is whether or not you have the right version; but you don't have to really worry about that either because you can trust God, follow God, and seek after God and trust that He will put it into your hands and let you know you have it. "Seek and ye shall find" (Matthew 7:7), and "he will guide you into all truth" (John 16:13).

By this view then, you should treat the version you have as the pure words of God until God shows you it isn't and shows you to replace it with the one that is. If you have the pure words of God in front of you, and science or history disagrees with it, then either you are reading the text wrong or scientists and historians are interpreting their measurements and artifacts wrong. Not making wrong measurements, but interpreting what they measure the wrong way and using the puzzle pieces to construct the wrong picture.

God will make sure the recording and translating process results in an end product that has His pure words in the language or languages needed for that time in history so that believers are equipped. You can make errors of interpretation, but as you continue to read and study it you will realize those errors and the text will correct your understanding.

So rather than you finding and correcting errors in the text, the text will be finding and correcting errors in your mind.

This perspective is held by certain groups who would not draw the line as you have said but would put the whole process back on God to draw the line, preserve His words (Psalm 12), and put the right copies in the hands of believers as they need it.

Examples of groups who believe preservation by God through history:

group that holds to the divine preservation of all words: preservedword.com/c/pres_doc

group that holds to preservation in general but not to the detail level: gotquestions.org/preservation-Bible.html

Your last question:

4) Doesn't the fact that we are constricted by the boundaries and limitations of language (whether spoken, written, or read) make inerrancy impossible?

Only if the process is up to us with no guaranteed oversight or intervention by the God who is not limited.

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In other words, doesn't the fact that we are constricted by the boundaries and limitations of language (whether spoken, written, or read) make inerrancy impossible?

  1. What God intended
  2. What was written down
  3. What was copied
  4. What was translated
  5. What was interpreted
  6. What was understood
  7. What was believed

In the process of receiving the word of God we can only be absolutely sure of the first two steps.

2 Peter 1:21 For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.

2 Timothy 3:16 All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:

We have many Greek scriptures and the amount of deviation is relatively small. The Dead Sea Scrolls also showed very little error from the copying process.

The real problem starts at step 4. I have found most translations have problems bringing fully into the English what is in the Greek. Quite often verb tense information is lost.

The further away you get from number 3, the more likely you are to start including error in your faith. There are some very good tools (like esword) that allow the average bible student to dig into the meaning of the original Greek and Hebrew without having much studied the languages.

I think you can still make a claim for "inerrancy" at level three. If a pastor wanted to hit you over the head about doing what he tells you using the KJV translation of Hebrews 13:17a (Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves), you might be able to craft an alternative (better?) translation (Stop resisting, and allow yourselves to be persuaded by those you have chosen to follow).

  • Defining the steps 1-7 is helpful, thanks! However, your claim about #3 -- that the number of variants in our Greek texts is "relatively small" -- is only true if 200,000 is small. The question is, are the variants significant? Depending on the topic, some definitely are. Also, your reasoning on #2 is circular -- you can't say the Bible's original text is inerrant because the Bible says so. Besides, we have no original texts! The only thing we can say with full assurance is #1. All the rest, as you say, is "constricted by the boundaries and limitations of language". – Schuh Aug 22 '16 at 16:36
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I believe the correct answer to your question is that Biblical inerrancy is whatever you believe it to be.

One of the commenters pointed out the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy - a Protestant declaration - as providing one possible definition:

Inerrant signifies the quality of being free from all falsehood or mistake and so safeguards the truth that Holy Scripture is entirely true and trustworthy in all its assertions.

The Church Fathers, however, had an entirely different understanding of inerrancy, as exemplified by John Chrysostom in the 4th century:

But if there be anything touching times or places, which they have related differently, this nothing injures the truth of what they have said. And these things too, so far as God shall enable us, we will endeavor, as we proceed, to point out; requiring you, together with what we have mentioned, to observe, that in the chief heads, those which constitute our life and furnish out our doctrine, nowhere is any of them found to have disagreed, no not ever so little.

But what are these points? Such as follow: That God became man, that He wrought miracles, that He was crucified, that He was buried, that He rose again, that He ascended, that He will judge, that He has given commandments tending to salvation, that He has brought in a law not contrary to the Old Testament, that He is a Son, that He is only-begotten, that He is a true Son, that He is of the same substance with the Father, and as many things as are like these; for touching these we shall find that there is in them a full agreement.

Homily I on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew

In short, the Church Fathers did not dispute that there were certain inconsistencies or even factual errors in Scripture, but they affirmed that what Scripture affirmed about theological truth was, in fact, inerrant. This is the position of the Orthodox Church, and I believe also the Roman Catholic Church to this day.