As a Christian student in New & Old Testament Studies approaching the end of his time at university, I have discovered a number conflicts between conservative, fundamentalist Christian views of biblical inspiration (of which we will refer to as “classical inerrancy” or “inerrancy”) and what I have come to deem, more often than not, sound biblical scholarship. I will provide examples as we go.
Biblical inerrancy is best described as the view that for the Bible to be the word of God it cannot err in any matters it touches on, including history, science, or philosophy. Simply, the Bible has no errors in it. The thrust of this argument is that if the Bible makes an error, no matter how insignificant that error might be, then it cannot be said to be God inspired for God is incapable of making errors or revealing error via revelation. Admittedly, for Christians proposing alternative views to classical inerrancy, these arguments require serious consideration especially if one wishes to take the Bible seriously and authoritatively.
But the problem for conservative inerrant views of scripture is this: the Bible is not inerrant. In other words, the Bible really does make errors historically, morally, and scientifically, a view that took shape within me over the last four years. Prior, however, I used to hold to inerrancy. I also once believed that every single challenge to the Bible was easily answered and refuted, and, for a time, thought that conflicts an inerrant view had with scholarship was a result of some anti-Christian “agenda” or “hate” towards Christianity. That was until I actually examined the alleged errors themselves, and soon realized that the answers provided on conservative apologetic websites were often grounded on little more than revisionist historical theories, fringe scholarly interpretations, fringe science, and contrived explanations attempting to explain away biblical inconsistencies.
Note that I am aware that what I am saying here will step on the toes of most Christian readers. It is not my goal to deliberately offend sensitivities or sow doubt, though these might happen. Rather, as a Christian myself, it is my goal to be as honest as I possibly can in conveying my own views as they’ve developed. I am more than willing to engage concerned readers in the comments below, or to forward material seeking to clarify what I am writing here in some more detail (see footnotes).
Nonetheless, one might want to know what conflicts I am referring to. These conflicts are numerous and can be found within, though not limited to, matters of archeologically, science, and history. For one, inerrantists contend that archeologically fully and comprehensively supports Old Testament historical accuracy (as well as New Testament). But as Old Testament scholars will confidently say, though archaeology does truly support historicity (geography and people) in certain places, it demonstrates the mistakes the biblical authors made in others (by in large the historically problematic conquest narratives in Joshua). Inerrantists also have a fascination with preserving vastly outdated views of biblical authorship. For example, they fight for traditional views of gospel authorship (i.e. Mark, Matthew, Luke and John actually penned the gospels with their names on it). Mainstream New Testament scholarship has long viewed our gospels as anonymously written. Inerrantists insist single authorship behind Genesis (by Moses’ hand) and the book of Isaiah. Scholarship has long since accepted that these books owe their existence to multiple authors, and that Moses most certainly did not write the Pentateuch (first five books of the Bible). Many inerrantists hold to a fringe theory that all 13 Pauline epistles in the New Testament owe their existence to Paul’s hand. To the contrary, Paul probably penned roughly half that number, says informed scholarship. Inerrantists deny that the author of Genesis used ideas and concepts from other mythological accounts in circulation both prior and contemporaneous with the date of writing of the Genesis account. To the contrary it is a widely established belief in Old Testament and biblical scholarship that the author(s) of Genesis did in fact draw material from other mythical accounts (the Babylonian story of the Enuma Elish, for example; see my exegetical, research essay in OT Studies). Inerrantists believe that there was a literal global flood that inundated the world as a result of God’s punishment of humankind’s sins. Majority of Old Testament scholars will confidently retort that the biblical flood account is one mythical narrative the biblical author(s) of Genesis derived from older accounts, and that was never intended to be a historical account, as opposed to a theological narrative, in the same way we’d expect by 21st century standards. Moreover, scientists across the board in the fields of geology, stratigraphy, geophysics, physics, palaeontology, biology, anthropology, and archaeology are well aware that there never was such a climactic flood event. Scientifically, as opposed to overwhelming scientific consensus, some inerrantists reject evolutionary theory because it is perceived to be incompatible with the view that Adam and Eve were the progenitors of the entire human race. Some inerrantists argue that Genesis presents a scientifically accurate depiction of the creation of the Earth. To the contrary, most biblical scholars see Genesis as pre-scientific explanation of origins. Inerrantists believe Jesus was incapable of holding false beliefs. Jesus thought Moses penned the Pentateuch, scholars don’t. Jesus thought (or imbibed Jewish tradition, we do not know) that there was a global flood, scholars don’t. And though views of the historical Jesus vary between scholars, most tend view him as an apocalyptic prophet who believed he would return to destroy God’s enemies, usher in God’s kingdom and rule a renewed Earth directly within the life time of his disciples. It has been 2000 years since. Inerrantists assert that the Bible is an example of perfect harmony between all the books and authors. However, to the contrary, Old Testament scholars widely debate the paradoxes and inconsistencies present in the different perspectives of the biblical authors. In fact, inconsistencies in terms of diversity in literary style, terminology, and ideological and theological perspective inherent in chapters and pericopes of specific books (like Genesis and Isaiah) are exactly what convince scholars of multiple authorship. Many inerrantists see messianic prophecies were none exist. They insist that the prophet Isaiah prophesied not only the virgin birth of Jesus but also his crucifixion and resurrection, a view not held by historians because nowhere does Isaiah even reference a messiah, nor is he prophesying events several centuries removed from his context. This list is not exhaustive.
Moreover, inerrantists fall on consistency. For instance, they often point out what they perceive to be discrepancies in other holy books only to apply a entirely different standard to the Bible. I observed one inerrantist committing this double standard when he criticized the book of Mormon on grounds of archaeology. Archaeology, he argues, has not supported details mentioned in the Book of Mormon such as, though not limited to, “Reformed Egyptian hieroglyphics,” or the “land of Moron that is described in Ether 7,” and so on. His obvious inference is that the Book of Mormon is not the word of God. However, where the Bible is concerned, and a fact inerrantists seldom mention, is that there is no corroborating evidence, apart from centuries removed biblical tradition, that the biblical Exodus from Egypt ever actually happened, nor have the conquest narratives in the Bible been “buttressed by history and evidence” as the inerrantist boasts. Nor are inerrantists consistent on moral and philosophical grounds. I’ve witnessed how the inerrantist criticizes the Islamic concept of God on moral grounds in that Allah, as the Koran presents him, is openly impartial in his favouring of certain human subjects over others. The reasoning is that God, as the greatest conceivable being, is morally perfect and cannot be impartial for impartiality is a moral evil, or is an act that a morally perfect being could never commit. The same Christian inerrantist will, however, go to great lengths to explain away any moral wrongdoing on God’s part when he commanded the wholesale slaughter of population groups in the conquest narratives (usually he reasons that God didn’t actually commit genocide, he just commanded people to do it for him… so you can’t blame God. But which is worse? A God who is impartial or a God who commands genocide?).
Now, it is not at all easy for me to state these issues as they are, in fact, I would far rather focus on the positives of Christian belief of which would be mutually uplifting (things like the evidence for the resurrection, and deity of Jesus, and the arguments for God’s existence). But I maintain that challenging inerrancy is simply a necessity for it presents a false view of the Bible. These issues are really present, and over time I kept asking myself as to why, at nearly every juncture, was my adherence to inerrancy requiring me to disagree with mainstream scholarship. Why was inerrancy asking me to deny what was becoming so blatantly obvious, namely that the Bible is not inerrant? Thus, I reasoned to the view that inerrancy was not only false but also never actually about following the evidence where it leads, as opposed to it being the attempt at protecting just one view of biblical inspiration. I soon after abandoned inerrancy.
Now, bringing Bart Ehrman into the picture again, this is where he and I part ways. Ehrman is one of the leading world scholars in New Testament Studies, he is also a leading skeptic of Christianity. In fact, as an apologist, I would go as far as to say that it is next to impossible not to grapple with Ehrman’s arguments (both philosophical and historical) given the implications that they have for the truth of Christianity. However, it may come to the surprise of some that Ehrman was a fundamentalist, conservative Christian when he was quite young. In his book, Misquoting Jesus, he recounts how he believed that God had inspired the wording of the Bible and protected its texts from all error. However, during his time at university, he became convinced that there were contradictions and discrepancies in the biblical manuscripts that could not be harmonized or reconciled. Long story short, as result of his discoveries that were in conflict with a conservative, inerrant view of biblical scripture, he is now one of Christianity’s biggest critics. He has sowed doubt in the lives of many Christians who have too come to realize the falsity of inerrancy. Inerrancy is spiritually dangerous in this way (see my argument in point 4e in this article). I have witnessed instances of Christians falling away from faith as a result of buying into the false dichotomy that one either embraces full blown inerrancy or rejects the Bible (a strawman caricature often embraced by both critics of the Bible/Christianity and inerrantists). Christian scholar Michael Bird captures this well explaining that this “means that if some young Christian comes across a passage of Scripture that is historically or ethically challenging, then they are faced with the choice between belief and unbelief,” and there lies the problem.
The point I want to make is that unlike Ehrman I wish to build up fellow believers in the faith. Unlike Ehrman, I also haven’t thrown in the towel, so to speak. I haven’t rejected Christianity or the inspiration and authority of the Bible. In fact, as I have argued, I strongly believe that there are solid grounds for holding to the truth of Christianity even in the face of the issues and errors within our scriptures. What I believe is that biblical inspiration is not, nor can ever be, inerrancy.
Further, I believe that we need to ask important though-provoking questions given that inerrancy is no longer a viable view of scripture. What, for example, does a non-inerrant Bible tell us about the nature of God? What does it tell us about how God chose to reveal scripture? Are there reasons why God would allow inconsistencies between scriptural authors from vastly different backgrounds as perhaps to render the Bible rich and diverse in that it can be applied to different contexts and situations? (see the diversity God allowed in the two versions of the Ten Commandments, for example; also see here). Does the fact that God could reveal truth through what we call myth suggest he can speak through diverse categories? Maybe God is less limited than what inerrantists would have us believe. Moreover, how are we to understand Jesus who, as a 1st century human being, held to false beliefs? What does this say of his divinity and humanity, and the relationship between the two?
Thus, it is my goal to not only continue going on the offensive in demonstrating the falsity of inerrancy but also to develop a theological model of biblical inspiration and authority that needn’t entail the unreasonableness of inerrantist presuppositions. I therefore hope to develop a faithful model of inspiration that does justice for how the Bible really is as the very God of the universe revealed it to us. I also understand that this is perhaps biting off far more than I can chew, but, at the same time, no-one ever achieved something valuable and worthwhile without taking that first bite.
My Recommendations of Christian authors on the topic
For an easily accessible online critique: After Inerrancy (Kenton Sparks)
For a scathing critique of inerrancy: The Human Faces of God (Thom Starke)
For a deep look into the different views of inerrancy: 5 Views on Biblical Inerrancy
For a insightful model of inspiration: Incarnational Theology (Peter Enns)