Let’s start simple, and define biblical inerrancy. Thanks to Wikipedia we know that, “Biblical inerrancy, as formulated in the “Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy“, is the doctrine 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”. And that is a fine starting point since what I want to write about now is a very popular critical tactic, finding fault with the Bible.
If anything Biblical inerrancy sets a sort of challenge to the atheist, the believer in another religion, or just the skeptic, and that challenge is simple: If you can find one fault, flaw, error, mistake, or contradiction anywhere in the Bible then you win, and Christianity, or at least those denominations in Christianity which rely on the authority of the Bible, lose. Now the Bible is a large book/collection of books, and it was written down by numerous people over the course of hundreds of years. It has since been copied and translated into numerous languages. (But if you just came for some fun Bible stats, then check this link out!)
When you consider all of the hands that put work into writing the Bible down and putting it onto your nightstand you might start to wonder if the skeptics have a point. I mean, what are the odds that the Bible doesn’t contain one single mistake? Really? Not one error? Not even one? Come on, there must be at least one tiny mistake somewhere in there. (Argument trick: Ask the same question several times in a row and then end your questions with a vague statement that seems like a kind of moderate compromise. Your opponent will be ready to accept your compromise simply because we are socially conditioned to doubt ourselves under repeated questioning.)
Well now that you know that little trick let’s elaborate on what is at stake.
The Bible is perfect
The Bible is without flaw, at least that is the basic position of just about every Christian who derives their theology, morality, lifestyle, and religion from the teachings contained therein. This is an important starting point and core doctrine of Christianity. Indeed, if we thought the Bible had mistakes, then we would have compelling reasons to doubt the validity of our theology, morality, lifestyle, and religion. Perhaps it would depend on what mistakes we thought were being made, but biblical perfection is a crucial and absolutely essential teaching in Christianity.
At the same time Christians are not fools, we understand that language changes over time, and that new scientific and archaeological discoveries might lead us to doubt certain interpretations of the Bible. We are quite conscious of the possibility of mistakes in translations, of which there have been many, and mistakes in copying, of which there have also been many. So when Christians claim that the Bible is inerrant, we are conscious of how that sounds.
I now want to direct you to a very clever website http://bibviz.com/. The author of the site has this to say: “This website aspires to be a beautiful and interactive resource for skeptics and believers alike to explore some of the more negative aspects of holy books, such as Bible contradictions, biblical inerrancy and the Bible as a source of morality. It was heavily inspired by the Reason Project’s poster of biblical contradictions, which in turn was inspired by Chris Harrison’s Bible Visualizations.”
This website presents a version of the strongest of these types of critiques, namely that the Bible contains contradictions. The claim is that the Bible contains moral, logical, historical, or scientific claims which either contradict each other, or else contradict well known and established facts. The site represents some brilliant visuals and well checked sources that put Bible verses side by side which seem to present contradictory claims.
If the Bible is perfect and without flaw then we must have an explanation for these problems. We must have answers for these apparent contradictions. In short, Christians must present an apology for Biblical Inerrancy.
Response 1: The Bible contains passages which ought to be interpreted figuratively or metaphorically. Since such passages do not present logical, historical, moral, or scientific claims then such passages cannot contain contradictions
This one is pretty popular, even Augustine relied on this when he was just starting to get into Christianity. This is a sound and defensible tactic, so long as one can make clear distinctions between the parts of the Bible that are meant to be taken literally and those which are meant to be taken figuratively. Take the creation story in Genesis for example. Certainly at least some of this, if not perhaps most, is meant to be taken figuratively. That is to say, the actual biochemical processes by which an omnipotent Being managed to convert inert matter and energy into all of the various forms of animal life currently on the planet are probably not the exact same thing as the animals “coming forth from the ground”. This does not discount the miracle of creation, rather it illustrates the narrative simplicity of the story of creation. God would have a real rough time explaining how to convert matter and energy into life for people who were shepherds in the desert.
Response 2: The Bible contains passages which ought to be interpreted as part of a progressive and larger narrative whereby passages in the Old Testament see their fulfillment and completion in the New Testament.
So yes, the old Testament has some very particular things to say about eating bacon and whether or not touching a menstruating woman is a death-worthy offense. Although the way that theologians present this can be complex the gist is simple. The moral claims of the old testament see their fulfillment in the moral claims of the new, and so there is no contradiction between them, rather they are parts of one process.
Response 3: Certain Biblical passages seem contradictory until they are properly understood in the larger context of the Biblical chapters, books, and the overall arc of the Biblical narrative itself.
If you pick and choose random verses and read short little phrases here and there you are bound to get a wrong impression of the thing. Imagine doing this to one of Shakespeare’s plays. I might start with Juliet is dead, skip back to Romeo in love with Rosaline, and finish with Tybalt killing Mercutio. It’s doubtful that I would have a good understanding of what that play was about, and I would probably be confused by the title.
Of course this tactic is a bit problematic since taken to its logical extremity it is a version of the defense which claims that you must accept the entire Bible as a complete text and that you are not allowed to pick out parts of it for study or analysis. I.e. if I can only understand the Bible passages in their proper context then I must become an expert in theology, history, and science to properly read it. That would make the Bible rather inaccessible to most people.
It would be the easiest thing in the world to argue that Theologians have been aware of these apparent contradictions for some time and that they have presented numerous defenses over the years. They have, it’s true, and there’s even some great stuff about this on the internet.
Like this resource, although fair warning the author here accepts a 6000 year old earth and rejects the reliability of science.
But here is the challenge for Christians: Our defenses may be solid, but they are also old, outdated, and often inaccessible.
Bibleviz is cool, simple, elegant, and internet savvy. This is a culture wars kind of distinction but where is Christianity’s response? We need to drag apologetics out of the seminaries and put it back in the public light. Also we need a new approach.
We need intellectual honesty, scientific credibility, and an updated vocabulary. We do ourselves a great disservice by oversimplifying or obscuring doctrinal issues we would rather not admit. We do ourselves no favors by continuing to reject scientific claims which we suppose contradict essential doctrines. Finally, the work of theology needs to be accessible physically, socially, and psychologically. We need to learn how to talk to people without invoking the abstract language of theological jargon, or the exclusionary lingo of church life. If we can’t communicate the truths of Christianity in terms that our society will understand then we are in trouble. Billboards that insist that “Jesus is the way” don’t mean anything to a person looking for the nearest motel at 2am. Jesus still saves, but people are increasingly starting to wonder whether he saves more at Target or Wal-Mart.
The Bible is inerrant, and we need to work on how we present that truth.