As an evangelical I was taught that the Bible is inerrant (contains no mistakes about anything) and infallible (absolutely trustworthy). Some evangelicals temper this with ‘as originally written’. The second statement is a matter of faith, since no original manuscripts exist. But for practical purposes it makes no difference, since it is the Bible we have which is used as the basis for faith and life.
The reason inerrancy and infallibility matter so much for evangelicals is their understanding of inspiration. Since ‘All scripture is inspired [literally ‘breathed out’] by God’ (1 Timothy 3.16), the argument goes that it must be inerrant and infallible, since God does not make mistakes and always tells the truth. Any suggestion that there are inconsistencies or mistakes in the Bible must be strongly refuted, for two reasons. Firstly it would be blasphemous to suggest God would make mistakes, and secondly, to accept an error in the Bible would be undermine and negate its entirety, and the whole of Christianity into the bargain.
Many make the case against against Christianity based on the Bible: ‘it can be proved there are errors in the Bible therefore the whole of Christianity is false’. Ironically evangelicals adhere to the same belief, that Christianity stands or falls on the inerrancy and infallibility of the Bible. Historically both views are extremely modern. Inerrancy and infallibility simply were not an issue for Christians before the enlightenment. It was a given that the Bible was written by ancient writers and reflected their varying understanding, worldviews, particular agendas and reasons for writing.
By way of three questions let me provide examples that illustrate why this view of the Bible is dishonest.
- In the creation accounts, in what order were animals and man were created? (see Genesis chapters 1 and 2)
- Who incited King David to take a census of Israel – God or the Satan? (see 1 Samuel 24.1 and 1 Chronicles 21.1)
- When did Jesus carry out the ‘cleansing of the temple’ – near the start or the end of his ministry? (see Matthew 21.12 and John 2.13)
These are just three of literally hundreds of ways the Bible shows us it is not one book with one overriding message. It was written by dozens of authors over many centuries. It reflects the particular agenda, understanding and worldview of its authors. In many places it attempts to correct or revise earlier instances of history or theology, and in other places flat contradicts itself. (The writers of Chronicles seem especially keen to ‘correct’ or ‘revise’ the accounts of Samuel and Kings.) Just consider for a minute that some words attributed to God are outright contradicted in other places, again supposedly by God. Attempting to iron out and resolve these differences into one ‘flat’ narrative is simply not possible and insisting on this has let many people to reject the faith altogether. In my view is misses the point about what the Bible actually is.
One further example: why do we have four gospels, not one? If historical and theological consistency is the aim, then one definitive gospel would be far preferable. However the church fathers rejected early attempts to consolidate the gospels into one definitive account, regarding retaining the differing accounts as preferable.
Let us be honest about what the Bible is and what it is not. Let’s be honest about what ‘inspiration’ actually means. To do so is not ‘liberal’ or a sign of weak faith. To be really honest about the Bible honours it for what it is: a collection of different genres of writing, written over many hundreds of years for many different reasons. I would go further: the Biblical writers obviously thought it was legitimate to challenge, re-interpret and re-purpose earlier writings and to be faithful to the Bible one must be free to engage in this today.