“Do you believe the Bible contains errors?” I am often asked some version of this question by Christians who wish to know if I share their belief in the truthfulness of Scripture. This is an important belief held by nearly all Christians, and for good reasons.
First, the Bible comes from God, and we do not expect God to promulgate error. Second, without such a conviction, it would be difficult to trust the Bible as the source of our other theological beliefs.
But anyone who wants to take the Bible seriously has to find some language to express its truthfulness and trustworthiness, and figure out how to apply that language consistently to the Bible—a challenging task. What would constitute an error? Are there errors that don’t matter? Are there errors of varying magnitude?
Different traditions have chosen different ways to express this doctrine. Some talk about the Bible as an infallible guide to truth; others squabble over whether the Bible is truth or contains truth.
Others, like me, use the word “inerrancy” to describe their belief. I am part of an Evangelical tradition heavily influenced by the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy, which was written by a group of scholars in the 1970s to give Christians language to express their belief in the Bible’s truth. It has become a standard of reference, even for those who do not agree with it on all points. It is where the conversation begins, even if it is not where it ends. Here’s some of the key language the Statement’s introduction uses to define “inerrancy”:
From Article II: “Holy Scripture, being God’s own Word, written by men prepared and superintended by His Spirit, is of infallible divine authority in all matters upon which it touches: it is to be believed, as God’s instruction, in all that it affirms; obeyed, as God’s command, in all that it requires; embraced, as God’s pledge, in all that it promises.”
From Article IV: “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.”
In these, inerrancy is qualified as a characteristic of all that the Bible affirms, in all of its teachings. Many people, Christian and not, seem to think that inerrancy means that anything they read in the Bible must be free of error, according to what it appears to say, at first glance. But to understand what the Bible affirms requires a careful process of interpretation. Inerrancy does not, by itself, tell us what the Bible is truly affirming. It only states that whatever the Bible is affirming is fully true, and free from error.
From the earliest theological discussions about the nature of Scripture in the opening centuries of Church history and through the Reformation into modern times, theologians have recognized the need to distinguish between the inerrant message of Scripture and the limited, human cultural context in which Scripture was written. This idea is often called “accommodation.”
For example, consider Psalm 16:7b, which literally translates to “my kidneys instruct me in the night.” All ancients believed that all cognitive processes took place in the heart, liver, kidneys, and other internal organs (they had no knowledge of the physiology of the brain). The Psalmist appears to have no advanced knowledge of how human cognition works, on a scientific level. Is the Bible in error? No, because this passage is not trying to make statements about how the human body works. It does not affirm a view of physiology. The Holy Spirit accommodated the divine message of God’s faithfulness to the cultural vocabulary of David’s time.
This is not an isolated example. Throughout the Bible, we find constant accommodation to the way that people thought in the ancient world. In the realm of science, the Bible makes no claims that transcend what someone in the ancient world would have thought and believed. They believed in a geocentric universe with a flat earth at the center, and the Bible speaks in those terms; but the Bible does not affirm this particular cosmic geography.
The Bible’s claims about the natural world are all about agency; that is, that God is the agent of creation at every level and in every way. All things were created by him. In contrast, science cannot make any claims about agency. Science’s claims concern mechanisms, and the Bible makes no claims about mechanisms. If the Bible is not making claims contrary to those made by science, it is then compatible with science. If the Bible is compatible with science, reservations about modern scientific ideas would have to be founded on critique of the science, not on some inherent contradiction with Scripture. And the statements of Scripture cannot be judged as truth or error by the tools of science, alone.
It is common for Christians to intertwine biblical claims with scientific claims. Some believe that to honor inerrancy they must read the text literally. And their “literal” reading leads them to conclude that the Bible is teaching a global flood and a young earth, and, if this is so, the Bible’s claims are in conflict with the claims of mainstream science. The potential flaw in this thinking is that it is only particular interpretations of biblical passages that lead some to draw these conclusions. They are not irrefutable statements of the biblical text itself, and therefore cannot claim the support of inerrancy. Accommodation in the biblical text must not be mistaken for error.
Others believe that the biblical writers made divinely inspired “prophecies” about future discoveries of science, and that biblical authority thus extends to these statements. In such a case, a general statement about God stretching out the heavens can be interpreted as a supernatural revelation of the modern concept of the expanding universe. Such interpreters realize that the biblical author could not have consciously meant that, but they claim it as the anticipatory work of the Holy Spirit that transcends the human author’s intentions. Regardless of the merits of such an approach, these “prophecies” cannot be construed as inerrant claims of Scripture. When scientific positions change, these interpreters must then change their interpretations.
Christians also need to be careful to distinguish between theological traditions, and clear biblical affirmations. A great example is the claim that the Bible teaches humans were created immortal and only became mortal after the Fall. Though many Christians believe this, it is difficult to substantiate it from the Bible itself. In Romans 5:12, Paul indicates that people are subject to death because of sin. But arguably, the existence of a tree of life in the garden, of which Paul is well aware, implies that people were mortal and in need of a remedy. Alternatively, then, in Romans 5 he may simply be observing that since sin brought the loss of the remedy (tree of life), we are subject to death because of sin. Whether someone agrees with that interpretation of Romans 5:12 or not, the point is that the Bible does not clearly and explicitly claim that people were created immortal. That is a theological tradition. And in cases where the Bible does not clearly teach something, we should not tie the Bible’s authority to the truth of that tradition.
Inerrancy is connected to what the human author intended, and it must be so. God worked through human authors and vested them with his authority. Yet their claims must be measured with accommodation in mind, because God did not upgrade their science in order to use them as his mouthpieces. In turn, the author’s intentions take shape in the context of their culture and using their language—the words mean what they and their audiences would have understood. This approach to interpretation is essential to understanding the authoritative and inerrant claims of the Bible.