Biblical inerrancy is the belief that the Bible is without error or fault in all its teaching, or, at least, that Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact.
Biblical infallibility is the belief that what the Bible says regarding matters of faith and Christian practice is wholly useful and true.
“Inerrancy is nothing less than the affirmation that the Bible, as the Word of God written, is totally true and totally trustworthy. When the Bible speaks, God speaks. This is the Bible’s own testimony about itself, and it is the historic faith of the Christian church.”– Al Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
Biblical inerrancy was like the air I breathed. I didn’t notice it– it was just taken for granted, like the sky being blue and water being wet and other self-evident facts. I have no memories of hearing anyone– adults, pastors, teachers– explain inerrancy. Sunday school lessons, devotions, sermons, Christian school curriculum discussion questions, Christian books, Christian audio drama (1)– they were all places where I would hear or read the phrase, “The Bible says…” followed by the quotation of a verse or two. The verses were the proof of the postulate, the summing-up of the moral, the answer to the implied “why” behind whatever statement was being made.(2)
What “inerrant” and “infallible” meant, and how we could know the Bible was both, was just never really talked about. Did it mean that God dictated word-for-word with audible voice into the ears of the many, many different humans who wrote the Biblical text? Did it mean they were possessed by the Holy Spirit so that their human minds, thoughts, wills were subdued by the Divine as they wrote? Nobody ever said. The unspoken assumption was that the Bible is the Word of God. It is how we know God, it is the perfect representation of what he is like, the perfect guidebook for living a life that pleases him, the map that leads you out of hell and into heaven. My black and white child’s mind naturally adhered to the basic idea: the Bible = true, anything that contradicts the Bible = false. This thinking was enhanced, not tempered, by the faith world in which I grew up.
I wondered about all the laws, the do’s and don’ts of my faith. I had been taught that the Bible was timeless. We didn’t get to just pick and choose what commands we followed. Or at the very least, I didn’t get to decide what was as relevant to 21st century believers as it had been to ancient ones: laws about mixing fibers in clothes and tithing and circumcision and forbidding a bastard child from entering into the assembly of the Lord. I was told that there was usually a moral principle behind each law that probably still had relevance. Further questions were usually dismissed with the reminder that Israel was under the Old Covenant in the Old Testament and we were now under the New Covenant after Christ, and so we didn’t need to worry about the Old Testament laws– except the “moral laws”– which meant the Ten Commandments and the prohibition against homosexual relations and incest and witchcraft were still applicable, but not the prohibition against charging interest, having sex with your wife when she’s on her period, or tattoos (though that was debated.) I didn’t know who got to decide. I just knew it wasn’t me.
I got older. I learned church history, and wondered about the various councils of men who decided on the biblical canon. Were they inerrant and infallible too? Did they hear the voice of God commanding them which books to include and which to toss? And what about the Apocrypha, the books that are accepted by Catholics but not by Protestants? I wondered about the thousands of Christian denominations. I wondered about the fact that Christians have been fighting (often with bloodshed) for centuries over the most basic stuff of Christianity. By what method do we baptize and what does baptism mean? What is communion (also called the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, and probably other names that I don’t know) ? How can we know that we are going to heaven and not hell? Devout believers burned each other at the stake over these questions.
Countless times I had heard the phrase, “the Bible clearly teaches…” Yet, I wondered, if the Bible is really so clear, then why is there so much disagreement? Why are there hundreds of different interpretations, and everybody so adamant that their interpretation is the correct one? And how did I know that the leaders and authorities, under whose teaching I had grown up, had the “right” interpretation? And what would be the consequences of having the “wrong” one?
I got older. I began to learn more about abuse within the evangelical Christian church. I read about children who were molested, the abuse not reported, and the victims forced by pastors and leaders to forgive the predators because, they said, the Bible commands us to forgive those who trespass against us, and if we do not, then we will not be forgiven. (3) Women were being subjected to marital rape, physical abuse, and psychological terrorism, and their husbands were being protected by pastors and church leaders who told the wives that they needed to examine their own hearts for how they had sinned against their husbands and provoked them to anger, that they were to go home and submit to the abuse so that they could “win their husbands without a word” (1 Peter 3:1). (4) I read how church members were subjected to “church discipline” that included public shaming, shunning, and excommunication because they refused to obey the church leaders who had ordered them not to divorce cheating or abusive spouses or not to speak out about abusive pastors/leaders. (5) Sometimes they were excommunicated for simply leaving a church without getting the pastor’s “permission.” (6) In all of these cases, there were Bible verses galore thrown like punches against the victims, as proof of how wrong they were and how right the leaders were.
And I thought– why is it so easy for people to make the Bible into a weapon? Why is it that if you want to go to the Bible and find a justification for violence and silencing victims, you can find it? If the Bible is so clear, then how can both the abuser and those fighting against abuse claim the Bible as justification for their actions?
I got older. I developed an increasing interest in the status of women in Christianity– the debate between complementarianism and egalitarianism, gender roles, women in leadership in the church, how Christian men and women relate to each other, and the plights and positions of women within the Bible. I began to learn about the links between a complementarian interpretation of the Bible and the mistreatment and abuse of women in Christian churches and marriages.(7) I began to read the arguments of egalitarians and– contrary to what I had heard the complementarians say– they took the Bible very seriously. Yet they argued that certain passages which had been used for centuries to justify keeping women out of the pulpit, out of leadership positions, and in the kitchen, needed to be read within the context of the culture in which they were written. (8)
Thanks to my foray into the issue of women, I began to learn about the different translations of the Bible. I learned that none of the autographs (the original Biblical manuscripts) exist any longer– all we have are copies of copies of copies. I learned that the concept of “hell”– what modern Christians understand as a place of eternal punishment– does not exist anywhere in the Old Testament, that the Hebrew word “Sheol” which is what is translated as “hell” or “the grave” referred simply to the realm of the dead, where everyone went, good or bad. (9) I learned about the female Apostle Junia, whom modern male translators have chosen to render as “Junias”. (10) I learned about the politics behind the many different translations– how, depending on the theological or even political framework of the translators, they might nudge a biblical passage closer to their preferred interpretation of the text by their choice of English words. (11)
By this point my world and my faith were falling apart on so many levels. Sometimes I imagined fleeing back to the safe familiar world from which I had come. I would stuff my fingers in my ears and close my eyes to all the cognitive dissonance, blind myself and deafen myself to the doubts and questions, force myself to accept what I had been taught and ignore the crumbling sand under the foundation. But deep down I knew that such a pretense would obliterate me. I would never survive, mentally or emotionally. It felt as though my soul had been birthed, struggling and screaming, into a strange and scary new world, but I had no choice– I couldn’t go back to the previous dark safety. To live, to grow, I had to go on.
So I began to investigate some of the voices that had always been taboo in my world, voices who had been declared “liberal”, “heretical”, even “false teachers” by the critics in the conservative Evangelical world. I read with caution, on alert for sneering disrespect of the Bible, for scoffing and dismissing. I didn’t find any of that. Instead, I found that these “liberal heretics” took the Bible seriously enough to wrestle with it, to struggle with it, to say out loud the questions that I had felt so alone in secretly thinking. I saw my own struggle mirrored in their stories of being torn between their love for Jesus and their dismay at the violence and cruelty, terror and misogyny, they saw in the Bible that they had grown up revering.
In theologian Scot McKnight, I found an evangelical voice who was honest enough to call bullshit on the idea that “real” Christians don’t pick and choose what parts of the Bible they will believe/follow. He presented a variety of ways that evangelicals read the Bible and was the first voice in my life to challenge the idea of the Bible as a “map of the mind of God,” a giant puzzle that we have to piece together to get life and faith “right.”
In writer Rachel Held Evans, I found a mentor who spoke to me from her own struggles and deconstruction and wrestling with her evangelical past. She cast a vision of the Bible as something wild, strange, unexpected and untamed- “…a cacophony of voices and perspectives, all in conversation with one another, representing the breadth and depth of the human experience in all its complexities and contradictions.”
When God gave us the Bible, God did not give us an internally consistent book of answers. God gave us an inspired library of diverse writings, rooted in a variety of contexts, that have stood the test of time, precisely because, together, they avoid simplistic solutions to complex problems. It’s almost as though God trusts us to approach them with wisdom, to use discernment as we read and interpret, and to remain open to other points of view.”Rachel Held Evans, Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again
And in Peter Enns I found (and continue to find) a biblical scholar who challenges me to explore the Bible for what it is and helps dismantle the expectations I had been taught to have of the Bible– namely, that it would be a science textbook, a 100-percent historically accurate journalism-style record of the past, and a crystal clear, unbiased report of who God is and what God has done. “God lets his children tell the story,” Enns writes, and that story is told “…from the limited point of view of real people living in a certain place and time.” (12)
…trusting God is not the same thing as trusting the Bible—let alone my own ideas about the Bible.-Peter Enns.
So now, I’m in a gray space outside the lines of the black-and-white world. Coming from a tradition that emphasized certainty and choosing your side and lines in the sand, I am trying to learn how to be at peace in a space of wondering and wandering and uncertainty. The Bible still sits on my shelf, an aura of questions and triggers and angst surrounding it. Is it the voice of God, of men, a blend? I can’t answer that question for anyone but myself. I no longer feel guilty about leaving the Bible on the shelf to create a space for healing, until I feel safe enough to open it again. I think God can be met in the Bible, certainly, but not only there, and I believe no one book or one experience or one theology can ever encapsulate infinite goodness and beauty and love. My faith no longer rests in the words on a page, but in a God who loves Their children so much that They will meet us wherever we need to be met– in a book, in a song, in a poem, through relationships, through generosity, through beauty, through service, in a storm, by a well, in an upper room, on a cross, in a garden by an empty tomb.
God with us– in the gray space, in the black and white, in certainty and uncertainty, in wandering and arriving and leaving.
God is here. In the Bible. In the poems of a Muslim mystic, the essay of an atheist, the prayers of an agnostic. In the face of a homeless man on the corner. At political protests, churches, nightclubs. In prisons, slums, brothels. There is no space that is not sacred, no place that does not know the sweetness of the Divine breath, the touch of infinite Love.
God be with me. God be with you.
And God is.
(1) I’m looking at you, Adventures in Odyssey
(2) Some examples:
- (from an Adventures in Odyssey episode) Jimmy shouldn’t have sneaked out of the house and blown all his savings money on pizza and video games because the Bible says children are to obey their parents (Ephesians 6:1) Also here’s the story of the Prodigal Son for good measure.
- We know that Darwin’s theory of evolution as the origin of species is false because the Bible says God created the world and everything in it in six days (Genesis 1).
- Girls shouldn’t wear shirts that show cleavage because the Bible says that women are to dress modestly (1 Timothy 2:9).
- It’s sinful to date casually because you are only supposed to get emotionally involved with the person you marry because, um, that’s how marriages worked in the Old Testament… ? (The whole “biblical” rationale behind the pro-courtship movement was never very clear.)
(4) http://thewartburgwatch.com/2018/10/12/natalies-story-of-abuse-at-the-hands-of-bethlehem-baptist-churchs-pastors-elders-and-counselors/ https://www.sentinelandenterprise.com/2017/01/15/irreconcilable-differences-with-her-church/
The Blue Parakeet, by Scot McKnight
(9) Thus in Genesis 37:35 when Jacob says he will go down to the grave mourning for Joseph, the same word sheol is used as it is in Psalm 9:17- “The wicked will go down to the realm of the dead, all the nations that forget God.” (NIV) In the KJV the translators chose the word “hell.” In other words, righteous Jacob and wicked nations who forget God will go to the same place.)
(11) Such as the 2016 ESV committee translating Genesis 3:16 as “Your desire shall be contrary to your husband, but he shall rule over you,” when previous versions had said: “Your desire shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you.”
(12) The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable To Read It, by Peter Enns