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Not all Christians hold to the view of Biblical inerrancy. For example, whenever there are alleged inconsistencies or alleged scientific errors in the Bible, they consider that the verses in question don't give the exact events. How are those views justified in the Bible?

What verses do opponents of Biblical inerrancy cite to support their views and contradict the idea that the Bible is inerrant?

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    Could you start by editing to clarify if your question relates to "literal" or "inerrant"? They aren't synonyms. "I am the Good Shepherd. I know my sheep and my sheep know Me." This is inerrant -- He knows us and we know Him -- but we aren't literally sheep.
    – Maverick
    Commented Nov 20, 2023 at 2:15
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    I agree with @Maverick that the OP is mistaking 'literal' for 'inerrant'. That some interpretations view parts of the narrative as symbolic or figurative does not imply that any part of the biblical text is erroneous. The question requires more research, more clarity and more detail.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Nov 20, 2023 at 6:14
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    Johnathan, as Luke says, this is potentially a good question, but to be saved it needs to ask about literalism or about inerrancy, but not both. As it stands, there are four different points of view being asked about, and the resulting answers will appear confusing. ¶ Please choose one and edit out all references to the other. Later, after that has been answered, you could post another question about the other term. (Yes, Stack Exchange sites do have requirements that can take a long time to learn, but stick with it and it's worth it.) Commented Nov 20, 2023 at 14:03
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    Welcome to C.SE. Your question is good, but should be made more clear because of your (possible) unawareness of the many senses of "literal" (linguistic) which then affects discussions of "inerrancy" (doctrine). As @Maverick indicates, it's obvious the Bible uses "metaphor" too, so for question to be more useful, I recommend you tighten the definition of "literal" that you want to ask. As a preview, here are related senses of "literal": "symbolic", "figurative", "metaphorical", "analogical", "typological", "historical", "scientific", "physical" (as opposed to "spiritual"), etc. Commented Nov 20, 2023 at 17:30
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    Jesus said "I am the vine". The Scripture saying this is inerrant... but its not literal. The same is true when He said "Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees" - its inerrant, but not literal. The same can be said for a host of Scriptures in both the New Testament and Old. As others have requested... please sharpen the question. Commented Nov 21, 2023 at 17:03

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It is good that the focus of the question is the biblical basis, and not biblical verses, for (despite what some Christians might think, or claim) there is not even one verse in the entire Bible that could be rightly used to support the idea of the Bible being in error. This is the view of Reformed Protestants who still stick to their credal statements on the topic. Some Protestant groups, however, have moved away from this fundamental stance.

What is done by some who are critical of the Bible in that respect, is to take bits - various accounts - and subject them to higher criticism, which has its scholars then decree that those are in error (for example, the Bart Ehrman school which has many supporters today, some of whom say they are Christians). That could be historic events, or miracles, or just a few words wrongly translated, here and there. It needs to be pointed out, though, that the doctrine of biblical inerrancy only ever has applied to the autographs - the original manuscripts, and not copies of them. But this brings us to a closely related point; the manuscripts used.

A truly critical point is that the most controversial matter here is not how the text has been translated so much as which texts are translated.

Reformed Protestants believe not only in the divine inerrancy of scripture, but in the divine preservation of scripture. Here is one example:

"The Old Testament in Hebrew... and the New Testament in Greek... being immediately inspired by God, and by his singular care and providence kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical." The Westminster Confession of Faith (1.8), 1646

The like stance is stated in the Savoy Declaration (1658), the Helvetic Consensus Formula (1675), and the London Baptist Confession (1689).

But, starting in the late 1800s and continuing to this day, other manuscripts not used by the Church from the first century till the 20th, began to be preferred over all that the saints had preserved and promoted, translating from those ancient Hebrew and koine Greek manuscripts that had come down to them, into modern languages so that the populace could read the inspired word of God for themselves. An example of the subtlety of sneaking those in is with the New King James Version, which claims (in its preface) that the O.T. is a translation from the Hebrew Masoretic text, and the N.T. is translated from the same texts used by the A.V. of 1611. Not so when the NKJ margins are examined, where many deviations are shown to have been slipped in, using other modern texts from the Critical text. Many subtle points of difference have been missed by many, as detailed in a 15-page booklet produced by the Trinitarian Bible Society, examining the claims of the NKJ:

"...the character and testimony in our churches will radically change... for the worse... The Authorised Version is far superior, and while not perfect it remains the best and most accurate English translation of God's Holy Word." Critique of the NKJ Version, p.14, Trinitarian Bible Society, 2008 See also their article "The Twin Doctrines of Scripture" in their Quarterly Record, Issue No. 624, July-September 2018, pp.39-40

Their gloomy prediction has proved true. We now find those who use the NKJV supposing it's the same as the AV, just without thee, thou, and strange words like 'shambles' for the market-place. Not so. Worse, teachings based on subtle distortions in the Critical Text have corrupted the relationship of Christ and God, with some feeling so liberated by the Critical Text that they can now teach false doctrines, and get off with it, almost unchallenged.

My five-fold answer is that today's disbelief in the doctrine of biblical inerrancy arises from (1) disbelieving God would preserve his inspired scriptures throughout the centuries; (2) that the comparatively recent discovery of supposedly better manuscripts (because of being older) has caused those to replace what was "once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude verse 3) in the first century; (3) that modern translations based on those have given Higher Critics a field-day because of the many conflicting translations we now have; (4) that availability of many modern versions has perversely caused many Christians to be less well-read in scripture, even to being almost biblically illiterate, happily being spoon-fed by those who claim to be 'qualified' teachers, the drip-drip influence of the Higher Critics hastening their 'take-it'or-leave-it' attitude to the Bible. (5) a corrupted biblical text is the main basis for disbelief in the inerrancy of scripture, for it gives rise to error.

I base that on over 40 years as a Protestant Christian, mixing in various denominations, where even my own one has largely succumbed to using modern versions based on the Critical Text. Truly we see the fulfillment of the scriptural warning, that...

"...the days come, saith the Lord God, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. And they shall wander from sea to sea, and from the north even to the east, they shall run to and fro to seek the word of the Lord, and shall not find it." Amos 8:11-12 A.V.

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    And I add my own 60 years of profession to thine, making a full century. Plus an up-vote +1. Especially because you so rightly point out that the fundamental stance of Protestantism (the three documents you refer to) based their belief in inerrancy . . . . . on the Textus Receptus. Which faith is now undermined by two manuscripts which are given vastly too much preponderance and have led to the shaking of the Christian foundation to its very core.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Nov 22, 2023 at 12:56
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    Liberal theologians have much to answer for. See this question/answer: christianity.stackexchange.com/questions/97467/…
    – Lesley
    Commented Nov 22, 2023 at 15:39
  • It's a little hard to see how this answers the question, which specifically asked for the biblical basis for disbelief in the inerrancy of Scripture. This seems instead to be an apologetic supporting belief in the MSS used by the KJV as the authentic, inerrant Word of God. Commented Nov 23, 2023 at 5:17
  • @LeeWoofenden I did list some points taken as evidence against Bible inerrancy: biblical historic events, miracles, or a few words wrongly translated (para. 2). I chose to detail MS error as my example here, using the word 'example' in paras. 4 & 6. This is because, if the foundation for producing the Bible is wobbly, the whole structure might later be pushed over, or, plastered over to cover the cracks, by those still wishing to appear to support the Bible. The question of which school of MSS can be trusted is fundamental to the whole Q here, I would suggest.
    – Anne
    Commented Nov 23, 2023 at 9:24
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As others have pointed out, it is perhaps useful to distinguish between "inerrancy" and "literalism."

That said, I do think the two are deeply tied together. If you interpret the Bible symbolically, allegorically, anagogicaly, etc., then seeming "errors" or "contradictions" can be resolved in ways that are not possible given a commitment to a more strictly literal interpretation.

In defense of allegorical readings, I have seen commentators note that Christ himself often uses symbolic language. For example, in John 2:19, when Christ refers to rebuilding the temple in three days, he is referring to his body. This is a case where we are helpfully informed of the symbolism, but such symbolic meaning is also obvious in many of Christ's other words. Christ did not come for actual "sheep," nor did God dwell among us to tell us stories about seeds getting scattered on the ground, etc.

There is pretty much universal agreement on the symbolic/allegorical character of the parables, although there is definitely disagreement on exactly what the meaning we are meant to glean from them is. Thus, the disagreement is generally more about how far we are supposed to take this style of reading.

Those more in favor of allegorical readings tend to suggest that Christ is trying to tell us something by teaching in the way he does. He is showing us a way of interpreting all of God's revelation in the Gospels. Likewise, when many of the prophecies about the Messiah are turned on their head, coming to pass in ways that people had not expected (the Jews expected a military leader after all), this is supposed to show us that we should not necessarily be looking for the most straightforward, literal interpretation of prophecy.

For a verse that has been particularly relevant in this debate, you can consider John 6:63-69:

The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life.

Many famous theologians have taken this passage to mean that we should be looking for a deeper, spiritual meaning to the words of Scripture, behind their more obvious, but less profitable "fleshly" meaning. Origen in the ancient church and Erasmus early in the Reformation both invoked this passage often in this manner.

Now, you might say: "Hey, wait a minute! Isn't that using an allegorical interpretation to justify allegorical interpretation?" Arguably, this is true. It's the same sort of problem of circularity/self-reference that comes up when the Bible's statements about itself are used to justify belief in Scripture. That's a whole different can of worms though, so I will move on.

The other main argument I have seen for more allegorical interpretations is that the Bible often does not lend itself to straightforward readings. You could consider the apparent contradictions in the Genesis creation story. In Genesis 1, God creates plants on the third day. In Genesis 2, we hear there are no plants because man has yet to be created to work the Earth. Likewise, we see animals being created before man in Genesis 1, whilst in Genesis 2 we see God forming animals from the ground to show to Adam, so that Adam can name them.

Now, as many scholars have pointed out, these versus are not actually necessarily contradictory. For example, God could have created extra, new animals to show to man after man was created. It could also be that there were simply no plants in the specific area of land where God created Adam, but that there were already plants elsewhere on the Earth. The great Jewish scholar Rashi had it that the plants were dormant in the Earth on the Third Day, waiting for man. Other Jewish scholars say that the two stories are actually about different things. The first story is about the creation of *essences, the second about things being instantiated in matter.

There is a great diversity of explanations here. Those in favor of allegorical readings would argue that this is meant to be instructive. Right off the bat, on the first pages of God's revelation, we are being shown that naive straightforward readings will not do. We are called on to engage with God's revelation in an active way.

Likewise, I've heard differences in the Biblical narrative (e.g. the temporal ordering of Saint Stephen's version of Genesis in Acts appears to differ slightly from Genesis itself) are saying things to us about human subjectivity and the nature of knowledge. That is, the very difficulty of some passages is taken as evidence that we are called on to glean a sort of deeper meaning from the passages than their straightforward literal interpretation.

I've also seen John 14:6 cited to this effect. Here, Christ says he is the Truth. Some take this to mean that God's divine Logos, who dwelt among us is "the ultimate truth," and that this precludes a naive correspondence understanding of truth. I've seen this used to support something like Hegel's (a Lutheran) "the truth is the whole." Which is to say, "the truth is the whole of a thing's entire coming into being, not some correspondence between the contents of propositions and the world in a strict sense."

Much could be said about different definitions of truth, which are relevant here, but I will just note that the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is a good reference here.

Finally, people who support allegorical readings often point to all the parts of Scripture that mention the Holy Spirit teaching us and giving us knowledge. The Holy Spirit gives believers knowledge of truth. They feel the Holy Spirit revealed allegorical and anagogical interpretations of Scripture to them. Their confidence in this is bolstered by Scriptures' words about the teaching power of the Spirit.

Polysemy is also interesting here. There is an idea, popular in the early church (where allegorical readings were also quite popular) that Scripture might have multiple correct interpretations. That is, different people may need to hear different things at different times. The Holy Spirit is able to accomplish this through history. This doesn't entail that all interpretations are correct however, and folks like Augustine suggested ways to tell apart good and bad interpretations.

Tradition gets invoked too. Something along the lines of: "allegorical and anagogical interpretation was very popular in the ancient and medieval church. Fundementalism is a modern innovation. How could 1,900 years of Christians be misled by the Spirit?"

The problem here is that, while it is true that allegorical readings were always popular (even in Judaism, e.g. Philo of Alexandria), people also always differed on what they took literally. While it's true that many "big names" in the early church didn't think the world was created in 144 hours, plenty also did think this was the case. Allegorical readings were fairly globally popular, but not the same readings.

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  • Welcome to the site, Tim, and for such a well thought-out, understandable answer. The one who edited your answer made changed from italics to help people with some sight problems better read the text. That is my understanding, anyway. Looking forward to your future contributions.
    – Anne
    Commented Dec 10, 2023 at 16:44

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