Much depends on what is meant by "inerrant". Let us consider the following grid of potential meanings:
||A. All Bibles
||B. Some modern critical text
||C. Autographical text
|1. Grammatically without error
|2. Historically without error
|3. Doctrinally without error
Some of these possibilities are clearly consistent with the Chicago Statement, others clearly are not (that said, the Chicago Statement on inerrancy is not the only existing view on inerrancy), but the chart, while not exhaustive, is helpful in acknowledging that an "all or nothing" argument is unnecessary.
A1 would be the strongest claim, and I'm unaware of anyone today who believes it. C3 would be the most cautious statement, and is by far the hardest to reject (especially if the Bible is considered the source for doctrine).
Contradictions within the text
There are many purported pairs of contradictory statements in the Biblical text.
- The most popular example is (probably) the account of the death of Judas -- Matt. 27:3-7 vs. Acts 1:18-19 -- what did Judas do with the money and who bought the field?
- Acts 9:7 vs. Acts 22:9 - did Saul's companions hear the voice?
- Joshua 10:40 vs. Judges 1:28, Joshua 11:21 vs. Joshua 15:13-15, etc. -- did Joshua really destroy all that breathed or did some people remain alive?
There are hundreds of such examples--those who do not believe in inerrancy have compiled extensive lists and those who do believe in inerrancy have compiled extensive responses. As already noted by Dan Fefferman, the abundance of examples makes the possibility of an error compelling. If even one is a genuine contradiction, and we rely upon an all-or-nothing paradigm, inerrancy leaves us with nothing.
Contradictions with the outside world
- 1 Kings 7:23 appears to suggest that pi = 3; although other interpretations of this passage have been suggested, pi = 3 would be the most straightforward reading. Modern mathematics has shown pi is an irrational number: 3.14159.... One can thus claim that the Biblical text was rounding--understandable for an audience that hadn't discovered the use of decimal places--but this would be "good enough for the contemporary audience", not an exact reflection of the real world.
- Genesis 26:1 speaks of the Philistines during the lifetime of Isaac, yet the Philistine people almost certainly were not around until many centuries later.
As in the prior section, there are many such examples and various proposed responses to them.
To my knowledge, no scholar argues that the Bible is grammatically inerrant, though I have seen the topic come up in lay conversation. The reason no scholar holds this view is that the text--especially the Greek text of Mark--unambiguously contains grammatical oddities (e.g. Mark 4:41 has a plural subject use a singular verb)
Why does the grammar argument matter? If God is perfect but His servants writing holy write are not, it demonstrates that--at least sometimes--God allows people to put what they have learned through inspiration into their own words, and God considers such efforts adequate and acceptable.
Authoritative claim or authoritative text?
There are number of claims made about the Bible that the Bible does not make about itself. In addition to spawning some interesting discussions regarding the authority upon which such claims are made, one is left with the question if this were an essential Biblical truth, why is it not in the Bible?
- The Bible itself does not delimit a canon
- No book in the Bible claims itself to be inerrant
Thus, while 2 Tim. 3:16 gives a clear statement regarding the inspired nature of scripture, it does not:
- Indicate which written records the statement applies to (and several Biblical books were most likely written after 2 Timothy)
- Define inerrancy (see 9 potential definitions above; other possibilities could be listed as well)
- Require that the humans recording what was inspired by God preserved the message in an inerrant manner
While 2 Tim. 3:16 does explicitly state that these inspired writings teach doctrine, it does not make the claim that the inspired writings teach history or grammar.
Error by omission is another broad category all its own. Does it count as an error if something was inspired but never recorded, or was inspired & recorded but subsequently excluded or lost? And what if one or more such statements provided vital clarity to passages that have been preserved? (the degree to which Christians disagree on many topics strengthens this argument)
- Some assert that the Protestant Bible is imperfect in that it lacks 7+ holy books that ought to be part of the canon.
- The Biblical text refers multiple times to apparently authoritative texts that have been lost (e.g. 1 Chron. 29:29, 1 Cor. 5:9)
- John concludes by informing the reader that he has left much material out (John 21:25). Surely other things Jesus said were authoritative too?
- Early Christian writers assert that passages were removed from the book of Jeremiah by Rabbis intent on weakening arguments for Christianity
- There's a reasonably robust case that the original ending of the Gospel of Mark was lost long before the Biblical texts were compiled (the link is to my own work on the subject)
- The New Testament frequently quotes the Old Testament but quotes a text that differs from both the Masoretic & Septuagint texts known today (more generous exegetes allow that the New Testament authors paraphrased the Old Testament)
Finally, there is the practical argument from utility. What is the value of an inerrant text if it will not be read, or if it is sufficiently unclear that it will not be understood?
It is often asserted that the utility of inerrant autographical (original) texts is that we know we can trust the Bible because it makes no mistake. However, how would knowing that an ancient manuscript was inerrant help me believe the Bible I read today, which is not inerrant?
Even if we adopt the bold claim (I do not--see discussion on the ending of Mark) that every original word of the autographical texts has been preserved in at least 1 manuscript:
- Of what utility is this knowledge in cases where it cannot be determined which variant is original and which is the error?
- Of what utility would this be for those who accept the authority of the Alexandrian texts (which would be most textual scholars), given that modern knowledge of the Alexandrian texts puts a great deal of weight on manuscripts that were lost/unknown/out of circulation for many centuries?
Furthermore, even if one accepts that the original manuscript of each of the 66 books of the Protestant Bible was inerrant, there never was an inerrant Bible -- the first Bibles were not compiled until the 4th century (and they included more than 66 books), allowing a millennium for textual errors to creep into the Old Testament (and a few centuries for the NT).
If the Bible's value derives from its inerrancy, and modern textual scholarship is needed to extract the inerrant text, then the Bible's value has been inaccessible to most of the billions of people who have read/heard its words over the last few millennia. If producing & preserving an inerrant text was so central to God's purposes, why did He exclude most people from His purposes? If we should trust the Bible because modern scholarship has reconstructed (most of) the original text, were Christians of past centuries wrong to trust the Bible?
If one cannot believe in an Omnipotent God unless one also believes that He preserved a set of writings without error, discovering that no Bible in all of history was without error would lead to rejecting the existence of God. Indeed, many Christians' fall from faith was precipitated by the commitment to an all-or-nothing view on Biblical inerrancy (Bart Ehrman being one of the more famous examples).
To be clear, I'm not claiming God couldn't preserve a text perfectly; rather, I'm pointing out the apparent lack of utility in His doing so. We wouldn't be talking about a very Omnipotent God if one mistake by Tertius while penning Romans (he was Paul's scribe) would have frustrated the entire work of God.
I listed above 9 of the many possible meanings of inerrancy. The case for row 1 in the original chart is essentially non-existent, and even most believers in Biblical inerrancy reject columns A & B, so the crux of the debate here revolves around cells C2 & C3.
I have shared textual, historical, and practical arguments regarding C2. I acknowledge, however, that none of these arguments impeach C3. I submit that it is possible to believe C3 is true while acknowledging that there would be no utility in C2. The scriptural texts were given to teach doctrine (C3), not history (C2) (see 2 Tim. 3:16).