How critical is inerrancy?

Someone recently wrote something to the effect that if they ever encountered a historical error in the Bible, it wouldn’t shake their faith because the Bible is so overwhelmingly accurate in the main. They added that Biblical inerrancy is not the central doctrine of the Christian faith, but the resurrection is.

The statement bothered me when I saw it, and it has bothered me since for a couple of reasons.

First, if I ever encountered a historical error in the Bible, it wouldn’t shake my faith either - but for a different reason. I’d simply assume that the error was on man’s part, not God’s. Either a copyist had miscopied something or a translator had mistranslated something or an interpreter had misinterpreted something.

But every jot and tittle that God inspired His holy men of old to write was absolutely inerrant when it came steaming from the stylus of the prophets and apostles. Either a perfectly inerrant God wrote it or He didn’t. This really is an all or nothing proposition.

And secondly, the statement seemed to downgrade the importance of inerrancy.

Now I understand that if Christ be not raised, our faith is vain, so I can see why one might characterize the resurrection as “the” central doctrine of the Christian faith. But I’m more inclined to think that the closer one gets to the “center” of Christianity, the more intertwined those innermost, non-negotible doctrines become. So I would think it more accurate to characterize the resurrection as “a” central doctrine rather than “the” one and only.

Because if the Bible’s original text correctly understood isn’t inerrant, our faith in it is also vain. If Christ isn’t God in the flesh - if Jesus wasn’t born of a Virgin - if He wasn’t sinless - if His death on Calvary was not a completely satisfactory substitutionary atonement - if salvation isn’t through the grace of God upon penitent believers - if any of these core beliefs, that are all inter-related and central to the faith, are untrue, then the whole theology unravels, and our faith is vain.

How do we know about a resurrection except through a divinely inspired revelation? How can you have a resurrection without an atoning death? How can it be atoning without a sinless Substitute? How can He be the sinless Son of God unless virgin born?

And you can keep weaving all of these core beliefs back and forth in an endless knot.

So, is there only one indispensable doctrine to the Christian faith? Is the original inerrancy of God’s Word as important to die for as the resurrection, the deity of Christ, the virgin birth, etc.?

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May I ask a bit more about what this person wrote? (I know the arguments around this topic can be easily misunderstood, misquoted, or written incorrectly, and there has been plenty of bad blood spilled over this topic in the past decades - and many have been due to misunderstandings. Christian apologist Nick Peters has written a lot on this topic on his blog - he does present the different sides, but does hold to one side. I’ll note that it also depends on what you define inerrancy to be, and what is truly considered Biblical inerrancy)

The view that I currently hold on inerrancy is this: “For the unbeliever, it is not important. For the believer, it is important”

My reasoning is this: for the unbeliever, with or without inerrancy, I think there is enough to prove the fact of the resurrection (the work of Gary Habermas and others can be referenced) - and Jesus asked that unbelievers to believe in Him, not believe inerrancy and then Him i.e. it’s not part of the Gospel. For the believer, the argument is this: I believe in Jesus, and Jesus trusted the Scriptures, so I also trust the Scriptures.

Though, I do somewhat hold to what you described in the first paragraph. But, mostly by the fact that I don’t believe a historical error exists (same reasoning as your “First…”). And even if it existed, at most it would show one part to be an error. That doesn’t automatically mean the other 99% of Scripture is in error as well; you’ll need to prove it is.

If I recall correctly, there has never been something in the Scriptures that was suspected to be an error that undermines anything central to the faith in the past two millennia, despite all sorts of objections. In other words, I don’t think there is a domino-effect historical error that would take down the entire Scripture with it.

I’ll stop here, as Nick Peters has written much more, in greater detail and accuracy on this subject (and I’m much more prone to mis-speak on this subject than he is. In fact, I probably have somewhere here already, and I’ll apologize in advance), and there are many links to go further - but unfortunately, it does lead to a whirlpool of (past) disagreements among many figures in the church.

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This is a subject that I wrestle with even now. I can tell you that my view of the Bible is not the same as it was 30 years ago. 30 years ago anything that contradicted or challenged scripture I would have dismissed as error on the part of the critic but not on the Bible. I have since come to understand that in a lot of ways I was a fideist, one who argues faith over reason in the matters of religion. But reason abounds in the Bible from the OT to the NT God reasons with men. You could argue that in the OT that God never commanded the Hebrews in what they should believe but only how to live. Contrast that to the Book of Believe (John) and God in the flesh is actually reasoning with men in what he should believe and consequently, this belief would change the way that men should live.

The idea of inerrancy is a common thread in Islam and Judaism as well as Christianity.

In Islam the Quran is considered the very text of Allah, Allah becomes a book in Christianity the book becomes God who dwelt among us. In Islam, there are 3 rules as it relates to the Quran’s authority in all matters. 1) If something is in the Quran and the Bible and they disagree then the Quran is correct. 2) If something is in the Bible and not in the Quran the Quran is correct. 3) If there is something that is not in the Quran then Allah only knows. I am not bringing this up to poke at Islam but in a lot of ways, this is how we treat our scripture. If it is in the Bible, then it has to be correct regardless of the topic. The science question always comes up, but the anatomy lessons are just glossed over at least that is what my kidneys are feeling. We will divide a church over science, but we now have indoor plumbing to handle our kidneys.

In matters of faith, the Bible is the final word but even that is a difficult position when you consider God’s sovereignty versus man’s freewill discussion that is 500 plus years old.

I think that an overarching question might be the question of inspiration. Not, did it happen but was it a flash or something that happen over time? Is it one and done? Is it the equivalent of the 6 o’clock news, i.e. eye witness account? Would inspiration allow for edits other than the original author?

My thoughts.

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@jlyons To clarify my comment, I do believe that Scripture, as originally written, is inerrant. But the Bible is not what gives us life—Jesus gives us life. You can be Christian without believing in inerrancy and you can believe in inerrancy without being Christian (actually knowing Jesus).

That is my point. I would defend the inerrancy of Scripture and its inspiration by the Holy Spirit any day. I trust the Bible completely. But if someone is struggling with inerrancy I would tell them to start with Jesus and let God walk with them through their struggles with that doctrine. It’s not as important as beginning the journey with Jesus.

John 5:39-40 - You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, 40 yet you refuse to come to me to have life.

2 Peter 1:19-21 - We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. 20 Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. 21 For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

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Thank you for your reply @Daniel_K - I cannot think of any better way to describe the inerrancy of the original text than how I did in the original question. Were the words as Moses and the rest were moved to write them really the words of an inerrant God or not? Would God, correctly understood, be capable of inspiring a historical detail that was wrong? I understand that such a detail may not directly domino down the others, but the problem is not just in the branches - it is also in the roots. Any crack in the Bible’s integrity is disturbing. “Hath God said…?” Once the Bible’s integrity is on the table anywhere, it’s reliability is that much more suspect everywhere.

All the doctrines, including the resurrection, are explained to us by the Biblical source that was once delivered to the saints. Might a historian be able to defend the resurrection outside of the Bible? Perhaps - but to understand it apart from revelation would be impossible.

You say that Biblical inerrancy is not part of the gospel. But I believe Paul would disagree with you on that. In his definitive “go to” passage on the gospel (I Corinthians 15:1-4), he specifically said that the death and resurrection were according to the scriptures. The historical details of the burial in between are what we’re left to defend historically.

You say that you believe in Jesus, and He trusted the scriptures, so you do also. That’s good, but I think you should finish the circle. Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so. Secular historians have also believed in Jesus, but what He said about the scriptures meant little to them.

As you say - important to believers, but not to “nons”. But then, all the core doctrines of the faith are important to believers but not the “nons”.

It is true that a lot of bad blood has been spilled over this issue - it is even sadder that a lot of good blood has been - at the Grand Inquisitor’s burning stake - in Soviet and bamboo gulags - at the point of ISIS’ sword - in Caesar’s arena… Everything the Church has held to through its darkest hours has come from faith in the revelation of an inerrant Author.

Again, if you say any error in the scripture is manmade, I have no problem with the errancy of man. But to say that God Himself blundered when He gave it - but that it was only a little blunder - is untenable. An infinite God does not make finite blunders.

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Thank you for your clarification @SeanO - I am greatly relieved by it!

I do have a question about your statement that the Bible is not what gives us life.

Jesus said in John 6:63, the words that I speak unto you, they are Spirit, and they are life. In verse 68, Peter says to Him, Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of life. In Acts 5:20, the angel tells the apostles, Go, stand and speak in the temple to the people all the words of this life.

In what sense do you mean that the Bible is not what gives us life? It is true that Jesus gives us life, but surely He does not do it apart from His word. How shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? Again, these core doctrines seem very intertwined to me.

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@jlyons Jesus makes this distinction Himself. Jesus affirms that it is the Scriptures that testify about Him - not some other document - but He also emphasizes the need to actually come to Him. Like a signpost that points to the right road, the Scriptures are a light for those who live in darkness, but we still have to walk down that road ourselves if we want life. We can’t spend our whole lives studying the signpost and expect to get anywhere…

John 5:39-40 - You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, 40 yet you refuse to come to me to have life.

I see - like saying, “This map will get you to Atlanta.”

But not if all you do is stare at it. You do have to actually believe it enough to follow it!

Hmm, but wouldn’t the same be true of Jesus? He’ll take you to heaven, but not if all you do is look at Him. You do actually have to believe Him enough to follow Him.

And by believing Him and following Him, we mean doing what He says - and then we’re right back to His word again.

Intertwined!

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@jlyons Yes, of course saying that you believe in Jesus is meaningless if you turn around and deny His words recorded in Scripture. I am not saying that God’s Word is not essential to our faith. I am also not saying that there is not an obvious connection between Scripture and God Himself.

What I am trying to say is that the doctrine of inerrancy is not necessary for salvation, whereas belief in the resurrection of Jesus is necessary for salvation.

For example, consider someone who believes that most of the Bible is God’s inspired Word, but struggles with certain books - like Esther, Job, Jude, and Hebrews. Their belief would fall short of what we would define as Biblical inerrancy, but it would not keep them from being saved.

In contrast, someone who believed the whole Bible was inspired but twisted the Scriptures in such a way that they denied the resurrection, would be denying the very Gospel itself.

The Gospel is necessary for salvation. The doctrine of inerrancy is a key component of discipleship and growth as a mature Christian.

That is the distinction I am trying to draw.

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I appreciate some of the other replies, I tend to agree with SeanO. I would point to the ICBI (International Council on Biblical Inerrancy), whose last article briefly addresses this issue:
We affirm that a confession of the full authority, infallibility, and inerrancy of Scripture is vital to a sound
understanding of the whole of the Christian faith. We further affirm that such confession should lead to
increasing conformity to the image of Christ.
We deny that such confession is necessary for salvation. However, we further deny that inerrancy can
be rejected without grave consequences, both to the individual and to the Church.
I would also recommend reading the book Explaining Inerrancy, which is very cheap on Kindle.

Inerrancy is fundamental to biblical authority, and we must remember that the unbeliever will never submit to Gods authority unless his heart is changed. I dont think we should back down from proclaiming the authority of Gods word, yet recognizing what Sean pointed out, that we must believe in Jesus, and repent of our sins, which I think includes submission to Gods authority. I think Jesus, in John 5, is pointing to the fact that the people study the Scriptures, yet dont actually believe what they testify about him, and refuse to come to him, because they are rebel sinners. We neednt make a false dichotomy between believing in Christ and reading the Word, which tells us who he is.

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Well, I appreciate your patience with me, @SeanO – and your clarification that you do believe in the inerrancy of the original text certainly helps your credibility in this discussion.

I was bothered when you suggested that a "minor error” could be dismissed in light of the overwhelming accuracy of the rest, because that seemed to impugn the Author’s perfection. But since you agree that the original text is inerrant anyway, then I suppose the point is moot.

As for people who believe the gospel but deny whole books of the Bible, this is a very novel concept for me. I don’t recall ever encountering or even hearing about people like that. Not denying they exist – it’s just new to me. If I ever did encounter such a person, I think I’d be very concerned about their salvation claim in light of Revelation 22:18-19.

I think I heard that Origen maybe denied some books, but that he was also a heretic.

It seems I recall Calvin or Luther or maybe both avoiding talking about the Revelation because they didn’t understand it – but I don’t think they actually denied it.

It’s certainly true that one who claimed to believe the Bible but denied the resurrection would be lost.

I guess I’ll have to think this over a bit. I keep thinking that phrase, “according to the scriptures”, really is in Paul’s definition of the gospel.

But while I think that one over, could you give some clarification on the idea that there’s only one central doctrine to the gospel. Was that really what you meant to say?

Because using the test you’ve suggested, it seems that the resurrection is not the only belief that is necessary for salvation.

Surely you’d agree that the death of Christ for our sins is equally necessary for salvation? I mean, death is generally regarded as a prerequisite for resurrection! :wink:

What about His sinless nature – since Paul’s definition does include the point that He died for our sins – would that not imply the need for the Substitute to be sinless?

What about the related teachings of His deity and virgin birth?

I mean, surely one couldn’t enter a village where the name of Christ has never been heard, announce that “all who believe Christ rose from the grave will live forever”, take a show of hands for all who’ll now believe that, and consider them converts?

Obviously there’s some underlying teaching that is assumed here. So what are you thinking the bare bones are? The resurrection plus anything else?

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@jlyons I think there are two errors that can occur when we try to decide what is necessary for salvation.

  1. We forget that God is a living God who can reveal Himself to someone - like Paul - without the intervention of Sunday school class
  2. We reject the importance of correct doctrine in the life of the believer

I don’t claim to be able to strike the perfect balance between those two. I also think we must leave the judgment of peoples’ hearts to God.

I think Paul’s statement in Romans is pretty basic. It probably assumes a belief in God as the Creator and Judge and some understanding of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

Romans 10:9 - If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.

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Fair enough - but my main question, which it sounds like you are addressing here, is that - essential as the resurrection is, it is not “the one and only” doctrine that is necessary to salvation. That was the clarification I was looking for - thank you for resolving that issue.

Also, I want you to know that I think the vast majority of your posts are very excellent, and I usually enjoy reading them. I have gotten some really good material from them.

Also, I did not know about the Bible Project until you mentioned it, and now my mom and I spend some time each day watching one of their videos. So far, we’ve gotten from Genesis through Hosea!

May God continue to use you and guide you and improve all of our understanding!

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@jlyons So glad to year you both are enjoying The Bible Project :slight_smile: That is super cool.

The most important doctrine in Christianity is the authority and of course truth of Scripture. Everything else hinges on that.

The second most important doctrine is the Trinity.

While the atonement is often central to preaching it hinges on the Person who made the atonement.

Evangelism should assume the most important first two doctrines.

Interestingly, in my experiences with sharing the Gospel I have not had the unsaved challenge inerrancy as an objection. Nor have they challenged Jesus as the second person of the Trinity.

It seems like the saved question inerrancy much more frequently than the unsaved.