Is the Bible Inerrant and Infallible?

July 15th, 2021

Many Christians speak of the Bible as “inerrant and infallible.” “Inerrant” means simply “without error,” or some would say “incapable of error.” “Infallible” is from the Latin in, meaning “not,” and fallere, meaning “deceive.” “Infallible” would then mean that the Bible does not deceive or, more commonly, that it is incapable of being wrong. To say that the Bible is inerrant and infallible is to say that it contains no mistakes. Some have replaced “inerrant and infallible” with the phrase “totally true and trustworthy.” Because these words have become a kind of litmus test for some Christians regarding the orthodoxy of one’s faith, this is an important question.

Those who hold to inerrancy and infallibility sometimes point to Christians like Augustine, who noted in the fifth century,

"I most firmly believe that the authors [of scripture] were completely free from error. And if in these writings I am perplexed by anything which appears to me opposed to truth, I do not hesitate to suppose that either the [manuscript] is faulty or the translator has not caught the meaning of what was said, or I myself have failed to understand it.”

 This quotation points to the fact that even Augustine found things in scripture that perplexed him or appeared opposed to the truth. Yet despite this, he believed that the original documents written by the apostles and the Old Testament authors were “free from error.” However, the fact that Augustine and other church fathers may have held to inerrancy does not prove the doctrine is true. Augustine and many other church fathers also believed in transubstantiation—that the bread and wine of the Eucharist actually become the body and blood of Christ—yet conservative Christians reject this understanding of Communion. Augustine and many fathers of the church believed in the perpetual virginity of Mary, yet conservative Christians typically reject this view as well.

Many mainline Christians and an increasing number of moderate evangelicals have rejected the idea of inerrancy (and verbal, plenary inspiration) that has been championed by conservative Christians, offering instead a view of scripture that takes seriously both the Bible’s inspiration from God and the humanity of its biblical authors.

The definitive statement on inerrancy was drafted in 1978, when three hundred conservative evangelical theologians, biblical scholars, pastors, and laity met in Chicago and produced the “Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.” This statement has been adopted by the Evangelical Theological Society as defining the doctrine of inerrancy. In the document’s “short statement,” it makes this claim regarding the meaning of biblical inerrancy:

"Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God’s acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God’s saving grace in individual lives."

Norman Geisler, one of the participants in the Chicago convocation, edited a book with papers written by scholars who drafted the Chicago Statement. The book, entitled simply Inerrancy, continues to be a standard for the defense of the doctrine. In the chapter titled “The Meaning of Inerrancy,” Paul Feinberg offers this definition:

"Inerrancy means that when all the facts are known, the Scriptures in their original autographs and properly interpreted will be shown to be wholly true in everything they affirm, whether that has to do with doctrine or morality or with social, physical or life sciences."

Both statements have a ring of truth. If God chose every word of scripture, of course every word must be true, for God does not lie or deceive and God is all-knowing. But there are two things that keep me from adopting this view. The first is that the Bible doesn’t actually teach this view. I would encourage you to read every passage of scripture put forward by those who advocate the position. Inerrantists start with a particular view of scripture, then interpret a variety of scriptures in the light of their presuppositions, leading them to read into them a meaning that may not have been held by the original authors. In other words, few if any of the scriptures cited, read in context, actually teach what inerrantists proclaim as the “biblical position” on the Bible.

The second reason I don’t accept the doctrine of inerrancy is that the Bible, as we have it, is easily demonstrated to contain errors and inconsistencies. The writers of the Chicago Statement and most informed inerrantists are aware that there are many places where the plain meaning of the biblical text is inconsistent with what we know from modern science, archaeology, or history. They understand that there are inconsistencies within differing accounts of the same story. They acknowledge that there are some teachings in scripture that are no longer binding today, and they typically note that these teachings were shaped by the culture or times in which the scripture was written.

Supporters of inerrancy go to remarkable lengths to smooth over these inconsistencies and apparent errors. In cases where the Bible is inconsistent with history, archaeology, or science, they typically say one of three things: either that science, or archaeology, or history is wrong and the Bible is right regardless of the evidence; or that there is a perfectly logical explanation for the inconsistencies but we simply don’t have all the facts at this time; or that this is an error from a copyist of the manuscript, and the error was not in the original “autograph” (an autograph is the original document of a biblical book as drafted by its original author).

The Chicago Statement and most other statements on inerrancy contain the caveat that inerrancy only applies to the “original autographs,” meaning that only Paul’s actual handwritten copy of Galatians was without error. Of course, we don’t have the original manuscripts of any biblical documents, so there is no way to prove or disprove this hypothesis. But would we not expect that God, who is said to have provided the grace of infallibility in the writing of the original manuscripts, would also ensure that they were infallibly passed on to us?[4] Otherwise what is the point of infallibility? This idea of the inerrant original manuscripts allows the inerrantist to speculate that any error that cannot otherwise be harmonized or explained did not exist in the original manuscript of the document.

The Chicago Statement goes on to affirm verbal, plenary inspiration. Again, this states in essence that while someone like Paul or Luke thought he was writing the documents that bear his name, God was actually “superintending” them as they wrote, such that God chose every word of scripture down to the exact word order.

Yet supporters of inerrancy say that God did not dictate every word. This seems to defy logic, which is why I think the Chicago statement notes, “The mode of divine inspiration remains largely a mystery to us.”

When it comes to the conflict between scientific explanations of the world around us and biblical teaching, the authors of the Chicago Statement deny that “scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.” In other words, the biblical teachings regarding creation and the flood are accurate regardless of what science can discern.

Article 13 of the Chicago Statement offers this denial:

"We deny that it is proper to evaluate Scripture according to standards of truth and error that are alien to its usage or purpose. We further deny that inerrancy is negated by Biblical phenomena such as a lack of modern technical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, the reporting of falsehoods, the use of hyperbole and round numbers, the topical arrangement of material, variant selections of material in parallel accounts, or the use of free citations."

This is a loophole big enough to drive a truck through. But the next statement should cover any other apparent errors: “We deny that alleged errors and discrepancies that have not yet been resolved vitiate the truth claims of the Bible.” So whatever apparent errors are not resolved by all the other denials still do not negate the fact that the Bible is inerrant!

Let's be grateful for Article 19: “We deny that such confession [of inerrancy] is necessary for salvation.” That’s a really important statement and greatly appreciated by those of us who reject inerrancy. But the article goes on to say, “However, we further deny that inerrancy can be rejected without grave consequences, both to the individual and to the Church.”

The consequences include subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, persecution of those who deny inerrancy. Scholars have been ostracized from theological societies, pastors have lost their pastorates, seminary and college professors have lost their positions, and authors have been blackballed, all for not affirming inerrancy. Many evangelical scholars and pastors who have serious reservations about the doctrine seem to have professed inerrancy with their fingers crossed behind their backs just to keep their jobs or to continue publishing. They found ways to think about the doctrine so they could affirm it. If you can make the definition broad enough and add enough caveats, anyone can accept it.

For instance, if by biblical inerrancy we mean that “those truths that God wants humanity to know are preserved without error in the Bible,” I’m ready to sign on. But if by biblical inerrancy we mean that the Bible contains no errors, no logical inconsistencies, no facts that are not historically accurate, I’d have to say, no, the Bible is not inerrant.

Let’s consider a couple of errors or inconsistencies in important biblical texts. Genesis 1 states that planet Earth, with its atmosphere, water, dry land, and vegetation, was created on the first three days of creation. Some conservatives see these days as epochs; others see them as twenty-four-hour days. Genesis then tells us that on day four, God created the sun and the moon.

From modern science we know that Earth’s distance from the sun makes it possible for the earth to sustain life. It is in the “habitable zone” of our solar system. The gravitational pull of a sun plays a key role in the creation of planets. Day and night result from the rotation of the earth on its axis: as one part of the planet faces the sun, then rotates away from it, it experiences day and night. Modern science tells us that the sun played a critical role in the formation of our atmosphere. And even an elementary school child knows that the sun is essential for plant growth. Yet Genesis says that the planet was formed without the gravitational field of the sun, and it experienced day and night without the sun. It developed an atmosphere without the sun. And plants sprang up and grew without a sun.

It is possible that the biblical author was recounting the order of Creation as understood by the prevailing scientific views of the time. Or perhaps, as some have suggested, the author was trying to make a theological or liturgical statement (the most important seventh day is the Sabbath), not a scientific one, as  the creation story was retold. I am not troubled by the scientific inaccuracy because I don’t think the story was written to teach science, nor do I expect biblical authors to have a prescient understanding of twenty-first-century cosmology and astrophysics. What troubles me is the fact that some who hold to inerrancy insist that modern scientific theories must conform to the scientific views held by people of the ancient Near East who lived 2,500 years ago.

Let’s consider another example. Most inerrantists would agree that the story of Jesus’s resurrection is one of the most important stories in all of the Bible. Yet the multiple accounts of the resurrection found in the four Gospels, despite agreeing on the most important fact—that Jesus was raised from the dead—differ in the details.

In Matthew 28, Mary Magdalene and another Mary went to the tomb of Jesus at dawn on Easter morning. An earthquake occurred, and an angel came and rolled back the stone and sat upon it. The guards posted at the tomb, seeing this, shook and fainted. The angel spoke to the women and told them to tell Jesus’s disciples that he was raised and to go to Galilee, where Jesus would meet them. 

Jesus first appeared to the disciples in Galilee, an eight- or nine-day walk from Jerusalem.[6] After giving the great commission, he ascended to heaven from Galilee.

Now, look at Mark 16. In Mark’s version, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary are joined by Salome. No problem—Matthew may simply have forgotten to mention her. But in Mark there are no soldiers and no earthquake, and the stone is already rolled away when the women arrive. Not sitting on top of the stone, as in Matthew, but standing inside the tomb is a young man, who tells the women that Jesus has been raised and to send the disciples to Galilee, where Jesus will appear to them. Mark does not have Jesus appearing to the women. (Either Mark’s Gospel originally ended at verse 8 or the original ending has been lost to us; the words that appear after verse 8 appear to have been added later.)

Let’s consider Luke 24. Here a whole group of women have come to the tomb (v. 10), including Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and others. They arrive and find the stone rolled away. They go inside, and the body is gone. Then, suddenly, two angels appear in their midst and tell them that Jesus has been raised. The women run to tell the disciples. Peter and John come to the tomb and find it empty. Later that day, Jesus appears to two disciples on the road to Emmaus, then to Peter, and finally, to all the disciples. Then Jesus leads them to Bethany, a suburb of Jerusalem, and he ascends to heaven from there.

Do you see how hard it is getting  to reconcile these stories? They all agree that Jesus was raised, and this is the important point. But Matthew says Jesus ascends from Galilee, while Luke says he ascends from Bethany. These towns are nine days’ journey apart. In a host of minor details, the stories disagree. This does not diminish the story for me. It does not make me question its validity. In fact, I would expect the details to differ. If three people who are trustworthy observe the same story and then retell it years later, I expect they will retell the story differently. But I don’t think you can pretend that they don’t disagree. And either Jesus ascended from Galilee or he ascended from Bethany, but both are not true.

Look at John 20–21. John seems to be trying to reconcile all three previous accounts. He also resolves the question of the location of Jesus’s ascension by not mentioning it at all!

These two stories, creation and resurrection, are foundational stories in the Bible. Yet, in the creation story, there is data that cannot be reconciled with what seem to be incontrovertible facts from modern science. And in the resurrection story, there are details from the different accounts that seem irreconcilable.

None of these “errors” or inconsistencies troubles me. Neither do they void the point about God being made in the stories. But these inconsistencies do, along with a hundred others in the Bible, call into question the dogma of inerrancy and infallibility.

Supporters of inerrancy often ask two questions of those who reject the doctrine: How could God, in his providence, allow biblical authors to make mistakes? And if there is an error anywhere in the Bible, how can we trust anything it says?

The answer to the first question is simple: How could God, in his providence, allow anyone who speaks on God's behalf to make mistakes? Every Sunday around the world, hundreds of millions of people show up to hear their pastors and priests speak on behalf of God. Yet God does not guarantee that those who speak for God are infallible. God uses fallible people. Paul did not set out to write the Bible; he set out as a Christian leader to send letters to help small churches scattered across the Roman Empire. We recognize that the Spirit influenced Paul, but those who reject inerrancy do not believe the Spirit guaranteed Paul’s infallibility when writing his letters any more than God guarantees the infallibility of the pope or any other pastor or Christian leader when they write. Again, Paul’s letters carry a weight of authority, but not because they were given a supernatural grace of infallibility. His earliest readers surely did not believe this about them. They carry a weight of authority because their author was a founding apostle of the Christian faith!

The answer to the second question—if there is an error anywhere in the Bible, how can we trust anything it says?—is also simple. You are constantly trusting the words of people whom you have found trustworthy, even though none of those people are inerrant or infallible. You likely trust your mom and dad, your teachers, your pastor, your professors in college, the people from whom you get your news—yet none of these are given a special grace that makes them free from error or inconsistency. If they occasionally get some detail wrong or misinterpret some fact, does that suddenly mean you can’t trust anything they say? Of course not.

Those whom I trust are not perfect, but they are people of integrity. They are knowledgeable and wise, and they will never willfully mislead. Consider pastors for a moment. Pastors are entrusted with the care of their flock. Most long to hear from God, to rightly interpret and apply scripture to the lives of their congregation. They seek to give wise counsel to their members. Their flock looks to them for spiritual guidance and preaching and teaching through which they may hear God. But no pastor is infallible or inerrant. God knows this and chooses to use fallible people to do God's work. God doesn’t make them infallible when they step into the pulpit, yet God works through them nonetheless.

Rather than believing in an extra grace of infallibility given to each biblical author as he penned a proverb or a psalm, a part of the historical documents or a letter, I am suggesting once again that God inspired each writer in the same way that God continues to inspire and speak through his people to this day. God has always chosen to risk using fallible human beings to accomplish his work. The Spirit influenced the authors of scripture and the process of canonization so that today we have a Bible that is trustworthy, but not one that is infallible.

One concern I have for those who hold to inerrancy is that they seem to indicate that their entire faith would collapse if the Bible were found to have one real error. As I noted in a previous chapter, this seems a very weak foundation for one’s faith. The early Christians did not see an inerrant Bible as the foundation for their faith. For them, it was Jesus Christ, God’s Word enfleshed, that was the foundation of their faith.

I open my Bible each morning, praying for God to speak to me. As I read it, I often feel inspired and moved by its words. I have sought to build my life on its teachings. Its words help me to know, love and follow Jesus Christ. I find it to be true and trustworthy, and I believe it is “useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16–17). I am also not troubled by occasional inconsistencies or the fact that biblical authors wrote in the light of the scientific knowledge of their time. 

If we don’t believe in verbal, plenary inspiration and biblical inerrancy, then what should our doctrine of scripture be? I mentioned in a footnote earlier the statement adopted by the Church of England in 1571 as Article 6 of the Articles of Religion (note that unlike many contemporary conservative creeds, the Articles of Religion started with God, not scripture, so that articles 1–5 were all about the Holy Trinity). It was adopted by John Wesley, during the eighteenth-century evangelical revival he led, as the official doctrinal statement of Methodists related to scripture:

"Holy Scripture containeth all things necessary to salvation: so that whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby, is not to be required of any man, that it should be believed as an article of the Faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation."

The statement avoids trying to define inspiration. It makes no claim that the Bible is without inconsistency or error, but it implies that whatever God knew we needed to know for salvation is found in the pages of the Bible. It goes on, in the spirit of the Reformation, to state that points of doctrine and moral imperatives that are not clearly found in scripture must not be considered requirements of God nor necessary to our salvation. That seems to me to be a pretty good statement concerning the Bible and one which is broad enough to allow a variety of theories concerning the nature of scripture’s inspiration.

This essay is drawn from chapter 17 in Making Sense of the Bible, by Adam Hamilton.


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