Clothed In Inerrancy
“Habit with him was all the test of truth,
It must be right; I’ve done it from my youth.”
George Crabbe 1754-1832
Hans Christian Andersen wrote a popular children’s story titled The Emperor’s New Clothes. In it, he told the story of a proud emperor who loved fancy clothing and the two con men who used that fact to their gain. They told the emperor that they could weave a special, magic cloth that was invisible to those who were unfit for their office or were very stupid. The emperor paid dearly for a new set of clothes made from this special cloth, hoping to discern those in his kingdom who were unfit for their office or very stupid. He wanted to view the fabric as the weavers worked, but feared that he might not see anything. He sent his faithful old minister to get a report on its progress. The minister was shocked when he saw the men pretending to work on the cloth, but could see nothing in their loom. “Am I unfit for my office?” he wondered. He decided to lie to the emperor and told him the cloth was beautiful.
The emperor went to view the cloth with the rest of his officers, each man thinking that he was the only one who didn’t see the cloth, and all of them praising its beauty. The emperor held a parade when the clothes were finished and marched proudly through town to display them. The people of his kingdom all applauded to avoid looking stupid even though they saw no clothes. Then a small child spoke up and said “But he has nothing on at all!” Soon, all the people began to whisper that the emperor has no clothes. The emperor felt very silly, for he knew that the people were right, but he thought, “The procession has started and it must go on now.” So the lords of the bedchamber held their heads higher than before and took greater care to pretend to hold up the train which wasn’t there at all.
This story is a wonderful parallel to modern, fundamentalist Christianity and the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. The emperor is the fundamentalist, Christian establishment, the church. The clothes are the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. The fundamentalists are sold on the idea that if you can’t see the Bible’s inerrancy you are either unfit for your office or very stupid. The church has clothed itself in this doctrine of Biblical inerrancy and gone proudly on parade. In the past the subjects of this particular kingdom have applauded the doctrine of inerrancy and pretended to see it as clearly as the next one. But everyone in the kingdom has seen something in the Bible that troubled them at one time or another. Not wanting to be labeled as unfit or stupid, they played along.
Now more than ever, people are whispering around the crowd and acknowledging the fact that the emperor has no clothes. Yet even as word spreads among the people you can be assured that this proud emperor will hold his head higher than ever and proclaim, “The procession has started and it must go on now!”
What Is Inerrancy?
“There is no God higher than truth.”
Mahatma Gandhi 1869-1948
What is inerrancy? It is a state of being free from any and all error; perfect. Biblical inerrancy is the doctrine that teaches that the Bible is free from any and all error. Most who teach this doctrine will attach the qualifier that the Bible in all of its original manuscripts is inerrant. That qualifier is attached because there are numerous errors in the Bible that the inerrantist would like to write off as scribal errors made only in copies of the original manuscripts.
The problem is that there are no surviving, original manuscripts of any part of the Bible. So the assertion that the errors appear only in the copies of the Bible is one that can never be proven. If the originals no longer exist, then we can say almost anything we want about them and no one can prove us wrong. Therefore, it is absurd to claim inerrancy for the original manuscripts as a matter of fact because no one has an original of any manuscript to confirm or refute it. The only evidence we have of what the original manuscripts said is the copies, and the copies contain errors. The fact that all of the known copies, while coming from different sources, contain the same errors would indicate that the originals were erroneous as well.
Inerrancy is not a new idea. It is something that people simply presupposed until it was challenged. God was the only explanation ancient man could muster to explain the mysterious forces of nature he observed. Man had created God, and in an ironic twist, credited God with creating man. No one objected to these views because no one had a better explanation to offer. So, the Bible seems to have gained its initial authority by default. There was no explicitly stated doctrine of inerrancy because no one had cause to doubt its accuracy.
Knowledge of our universe was primitive, to say the least. So, the primitive ideas about our universe that are contained in the Bible went unchallenged. Comparative analysis was more difficult because all copies of the Bible were handwritten and very rare. Most were single books or mere fragments of books. Reading and writing were rare skills as well. Most common men had to take the word of the priests and religious leaders as to what the Bible said.
The invention of the printing press by Johann Gutenberg came in the fifteenth century and began to change some things. One of the first books printed was the famous Gutenberg Bible. Copies became more readily available, but still the Bible remained in the hands of those who could read it, the rich and well-educated.
Then King James commissioned an English translation of the Bible which was completed in 1611. Common men finally had a Bible. Over the next few centuries, as literacy rates improved, people became more and more familiar with the Bible. The emphasis on education brought something else as well – the scientific age.
A new, higher criticism of the Bible began to emerge. People on all levels began to question the Bible’s accuracy in areas of science, history, geography, etc. As a result, some religions began to merge areas of religion and science and developed ideas like evolutionary creationism. That idea was to concede that evolutionary principles were at work, but to maintain that God had set them in motion.
Many others were not so willing to compromise. They claimed that the very nature of God was at stake in the matter of inerrancy. If God is a perfect and holy being, he cannot err in any statement or say anything that is not true. If the Bible is God breathed, that is, inspired, then all of its statements must be true and accurate. If they are not then the very nature of God is compromised.
They also knew that if the Bible is errant in matters of science or history, then it could not be completely trustworthy in matters of redemption, heaven, hell, or any other matter. They asserted that the Bible was inspired by God and, therefore, perfect as he is perfect. It was to be taken literally, not figuratively, for it was the inerrant, infallible word of God.
It became, and still is, a common teaching among inerrantists that where the Bible and science disagree, the Bible is always right. Where the Bible and secular historians conflicted, the Bible was to be considered correct. Basically, anytime anyone was not in agreement with the Bible, no matter how compelling their evidence, they were wrong and the Bible was right. The International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, in Article XII of the Chicago Statement made the following affirmations and denials:
“We affirm that scripture in its entirety is inerrant, being free from
all falsehood, fraud, or deceit.
We deny that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual
religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of
history and science. We further deny that scientific hypothesis about
earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of scripture
on creation and the flood.”
That statement presents a clear double standard in the field of Biblical study. Inerrantists deny that science may be used to overturn Biblical teachings. There are, however, several pseudo-scientific groups who claim to have scientific evidence that supports the Bible. If scientific methods lead to conclusions sound enough to be considered support for the Bible, why are they not considered by these same groups sound enough to overturn the Bible’s teachings?
I must explain why I referred to these groups as pseudo-scientific. Science is a process in which all of the available evidence about a particular subject is pieced together and carefully considered. Then, a hypothesis, an educated guess, is formed based on the available evidence. There may be more than one interpretation of the evidence leading to more than one hypothesis. Each hypothesis is tested, when possible, and checked against known facts and accepted theories for discrepancies. If an experiment cannot be performed to support or refute the hypothesis, (and in some cases even if experiments support the theory) it remains theory and is checked against new evidence as it is found. That process is science.
What some people are doing is taking a conclusion drawn from the Bible (an earth that is only 10,000 years old for example) and looking for and presenting only evidence that appears to support the conclusion that they began with. That is not science and it is dishonest to call it science.
Because of that double standard, a dogmatic view of an inerrant Bible remains today, even as we enter the space age. Popular preachers like Jerry Falwell make the same claims for an inerrant Bible today. Falwell has said
“It is absolutely infallible, without error in all matters pertaining
to faith and practice, as in areas such as geography, science,
It is clear that these men consider the Bible inerrant on all matters it touches, but what constitutes an error? And what if an error is found in one book and not in the others? Alexander Carson addressed that in 1830.
“If the scriptures contained one rule of poetry and oratory, that
rule must be a legitimate one, or the Bible is a forgery. And if it tells
one historical untruth it must forfeit its pretensions in everything,
seeing its pretensions extend to everything in the book. The inspired
writers may have been ignorant of natural philosophy, as the most
ignorant of British peasants, without affecting their inspiration. But
verily, if they have delivered a philosophical dogma, it must either
be true or the scriptures as a whole are false.”
It seems that Mr. Carson understood that there is no such thing as partial inerrancy. It is either “legitimate” or it is a “forgery.” It is either “true” or “the scriptures as a whole are false.” Charles Ryrie expounded on that as follows:
“Remember, it takes only one error to make an errant Bible. It
may be a “small” error, an inconsequential one, an historical one,
or a doctrinal one, but if there is one, then we do not have an
Ryrie’s’ realization that only one error could negate the doctrine of inerrancy led him to stretch his definition of inerrancy by saying:
“The Bible tells the truth, but that the truth can and does include
approximations, free quotations, language of appearances, and
different accounts of the same event as long as those do not contradict.”
I’ll give Mr. Ryrie this – that is the most creative attempt I have discovered to reconcile the Bible’s errors with the doctrine of inerrancy, but it doesn’t hold water and here’s why. Approximations are only acceptable as truth if the exact number is not known. God is described in the Bible as being omniscient, that is, all knowing. If you know the exact number, as an omniscient God would be expected to, and you give any other number, whether rounded or approximate, you have been less than perfectly truthful.
Perhaps you could use language of appearances and remain truthful, but only if the language does not mislead the reader as to the true nature of what he apparently sees. In Genesis, for example, one could suggest that God was using language of appearances when he said that the sun and moon were “two great lights,” as opposed to the lesser light of the stars. Because they are closer to the earth they do in fact appear greater. But to say that they are greater is misleading the readers as to the true nature of what they are observing. The sun is, in fact, an average star. It is closer, not greater, than the other stars. Certainly even ancient man could be counted on to understand the difference between near and far. And the moon is not a light at all. It is simply a reflector of the sun’s light and minute in comparison to the stars. Surely when ancient men saw the sun’s light reflected off the water they knew there was not a light in the water. The concept of light reflection was not beyond their grasp. There is simply no reason to use language which misleads the reader when the correct view could have been presented and understood.
The singular difference between saying that the sun is closer and saying that the sun is greater is that the first is correct and the latter is an error in the Bible.
Facing the Truth
“For my part, whatever anguish of spirit
it may cost, I am willing to know the
Patrick Henry 1736-1799
What happens when an educated, fundamentalist Christian is faced with an obvious error in the Bible? Charles Ryrie proposes that because he is an inerrantist, he will not view error as a possible explanation for problems found in the Bible. Likewise, someone who is predisposed to believe the Bible is erroneous will likely conclude that each problem is an error. I would have to ask Mr. Ryrie then, “How do you become an inerrantist? Were you born an inerrantist just as people are born Irish or German? Did you inherit that status as one might inherit alleles for blonde hair or blue eyes? Did someone tell you ‘You are an inerrantist’?”
People have to believe what they believe because of experience. Belief is not a choice or a matter of predisposition. When you first come to the Biblical text, that is when you become an errantist or an inerrantist. It has to originate with the text. If you say that you were predisposed to believe that the Bible is inerrant before you were ever faced with the text, then your decision was based on something other than the Bible. The same would be true of this example:
I could tell you that on the next page of a book there is a sentence printed in the margin. That sentence is a statement that is either true or false. Without turning the page and reading that statement, can you tell me if it is true? If someone else reads the statement and tells you it’s true you may be predisposed to believe that the statement is true. You would, however, have to admit that your belief is based on what someone told you and not what you have read.
If there had been a statement printed in the margin of every page in that book and all of them that you had read were true, could you tell me before reading the last one if it was true? You could say that based on what you had read so far you were predisposed to believe that it was true as well. But until you read it you are basing your belief on your reading of previous text and not on the text at hand. Why not read the text for yourself and base your belief on what the text says, not what you’ve been told about it by someone else.
In his book What You Should Know about Inerrancy, Charles Ryrie gives an illustration of a happily married man who comes home early one day to find his wife waving good-bye to a handsome man about to get into a car. He proposes that if the man’s confidence in his wife is total and unwavering, he will assume that she had a good reason for seeing that man. But if his confidence in his relationship with his wife is even a bit shaky, his thoughts will wander into all kinds of paths of suspicion of unfaithfulness on her part.
I really like that illustration, but I don’t believe it was taken far enough to apply to the issue of inerrancy. I’ll explain. If all that the husband saw upon his return home was his wife waving good-bye to another man, then I would agree that his previous opinion of his wife would have the strongest bearing on the conclusion he forms. But what if, when she sees her husband approaching, she acts panicked? What if his wife is wearing lingerie? What if he enters the house and finds the sleeper sofa unfolded and in disarray? What if there is soft music playing and candles and champagne on the table? What if there are men’s boxers on the floor? What if there is an open condom wrapper next to the bed? Is this not a whole new story? Will his previous opinion of his wife have the strongest bearing on his conclusion now?
Even if she came up with some kind of explanation for each and every piece of evidence the husband has seen, her husband is most likely to believe that she has been unfaithful because of the picture that is painted when all of the evidence is viewed collectively. He may not want to believe that it could be true that she was unfaithful to him. He may even struggle to believe in her, but he doesn’t get to choose what he believes. Belief is not a choice. It is not an option. He may only choose how he acts on his beliefs. He may choose to leave her. He may choose to forgive her because he loves her in spite of her unfaithfulness. But he can’t choose to believe her and he can’t erase the fact that the evidence is there that she was unfaithful.
Here is the dilemma of the inerrantist. If a man has claimed to be an inerrantist, did he claim it before or after he was exposed to the Biblical text? If he answers honestly that he claimed inerrancy without having read the entire Bible, then there is a chance that he has not stumbled upon errors. If he says that he has read the Bible from cover to cover and never seen an error that may be true. It is by studying the Bible from cover to cover that the errors are exposed. Let’s face it; most Christians will only open their Bibles on Sunday morning when the preacher says turn to here or there. Some have endeavored to read a chapter a night and will lie in bed and mindlessly mouth the words out, then roll over and go to sleep. Few people study the Bible. It is with careful study of the text and comparative analysis that the errors are discovered. For instance, because of the length of the text and the time involved in reading it, you may not realize by the time you read to Matthew that something you just read contradicts something you read in Genesis.
Only by becoming very familiar with the text, so that little flags go up when you read something contradictory, or by comparative analysis of separate texts, are you able to easily spot errors in the Bible. Once they are pointed out they are clear and obvious.
Have you ever watched people viewing computer generated 3-D art, trying to find the image hidden in the background clutter? Some will stare until their eyes water and never see it, backing up and moving closer and trying different angles. But once someone shows them where to focus, the image seems to leap out at them and they wonder why they didn’t see it before. Soon they can see the image in all of the pictures; it was just a matter of learning to focus. That is how it is with errors in the Bible. People read right past them all of the time and swear they can’t see them. But, once they are shown how to focus the errors leap off of the page at them. I’m going to show you where and how to focus. When you look carefully past all of the clutter you will see the errors in the Bible clearly and wonder why you didn’t see them before.
Excuses, Excuses, Excuses
“The Bible has some noble poetry in it; and
some clever fables; and some blood drenched
history; and a wealth of obscenity; and
upwards of a thousand lies.”
Mark Twain 1835-1910
I must take the time to address various methods used by some in an attempt to explain away errors in the Bible. One of the most common is the one previously addressed, in which the disposition of the reader viewing the text is faulted when he sees an error. That is like saying that, in the previous illustration in which the husband came home early; he would not have believed that his wife was unfaithful when he found that condom wrapper unless he had previously thought she was unfaithful. It steers attention away from the problem with the text and attempts to place it on the reader, much like a magician using misdirection to pull off some sleight of hand.
On one occasion I was talking with an inerrantist and trying to get him to look at some problem texts with me. He refused to look at the text saying that “intent precedes content.” He went on to explain that my intention of proving the error and his intention of proving it wasn’t would have a stronger bearing on our conclusions than the text itself. What a foolish statement.
Content must precede everything. Content was the basis in determining whether or not these books were included in the canon of scripture. Content is what formulates doctrine. Content is what validates or invalidates any text. If I say that the earth revolves around the sun and you approach that statement with the intention of proving it wrong, does it make any difference in your ability to do so? No. And if I say that the earth revolves around the sun twice a day, does your intent to support it have any bearing on the validity of that statement? Absolutely not; it is the content, alone, that validates or invalidates any text.
Another popular answer to errors in the Biblical text is to claim that they are not errors at all, but unexplained problems that will be answered in heaven. That answer is sometimes accompanied by the statement that there are just some things in the Bible that God doesn’t intend for us to understand yet. My response is this; what audience was the Bible supposedly written for? Answer: mankind. Was it given before or after the fall of man? Answer: after. Isn’t the Bible God’s written revelation of himself and his plan for mankind? Answer: yes. So the Bible is God’s revelation of himself given to sinful man after the fall to reveal his plan of salvation for man. Simple enough? Once we die and are standing face to face with God himself, what need would we have for written revelation of God and his plan for us? Answer: none. If we were standing before God, according to the Bible, it would be too late to make any decision that would affect our position in eternity. All of those decisions have to be made while we are still alive and on earth. Once we are face to face with God, any information about how we should have lived our lives will be irrelevant. Therefore, any written revelation about God or about God’s plan for our lives must be understood while we are alive in this world, or else it is irrelevant. We can’t use it once we die and a person who is face to face with God has no use for a book to tell him about God.
A good example of the weakness of this argument would be a newspaper running an article on how to construct a safe viewing device for watching a solar eclipse occurring that day. The reader could read the article, gather the necessary materials, construct the device and watch the eclipse. But if the newspaper printed parts of the article in code and promised to print the key to the code the next day, or printed the wrong materials list and didn’t correct it until the next day, the reader would likely not be able to correctly construct the viewer until after the eclipse had occurred. For the information to possess any relevance for the reader it must be understood at a time when it is still useful. After the eclipse the information is irrelevant, just as having a clear revelation of God’s plan would be irrelevant after death. If the Bible is God’s written revelation of himself and his plan for mankind it should be understood at the only time in which it possesses any relevance, before we die. It should be the source for questions answered, not the source of questions raised.
The last answer I will discuss is one of the inerrantists last ditch answers; “It is impossible for you to understand and correctly interpret the Bible because you are unsaved and without the guidance of the Holy Spirit.” That is one answer that will ultimately come back to bite them.
When I came to grips with the fact that the Bible is errant and there is no God, it was not as an angry teenager looking for the form of rebellion with the most shock value. It was as a second year pastoral theology major at Baptist Bible College. I was studying to become a pastor and wanted to plant a church and spark revival in America. My wife and I had given up our jobs and bowed out of a contract on our first home to submit to what we believed was God’s will for our lives. I wanted only to do the will of God. I prayed earnestly, I read and I studied and I witnessed and I preached. I showed all of the outward and inward signs of being a Christian. When I discovered the truth about the Bible I was crushed. Later, people would tell me that I was never saved at all.
Today, when someone tells me that they have a better understanding of the Bible than me because they are saved and I am not, I have to ask “How do you know you are saved?” I was once told that it was obvious that I belonged in the proverbial tare category rather than with the wheat (Matthew 13) because I did not bear fruit in the end, that is, I did not remain faithful until death. What if I had died while in Bible college believing myself to be saved? Was I saved or not? If the only criterion for knowing you are saved is remaining faithful until death, how can anyone who calls themselves a Christian know for sure that the same thing will not happen to them? How can they see into the future to know that they will believe the same things a year from now? No one could have convinced me at that time that I wasn’t saved or that I wouldn’t believe in God a year later. I believed that I had the illumination of the Holy Spirit too. I was wrong.
To claim that those who deny the Bible’s inerrancy cannot understand it because they are unsaved, you must first face the question of whether or not you are saved, and unless you are clairvoyant the answer must be “I don’t know yet.” With that answer, you cannot lay claim to any superior understanding of the Bible. I find it interesting that those who do claim this superior understanding of the Bible for themselves still cannot explain, even for themselves, the textual errors confronting them in the Bible.