Why Inerrancy Is a Bad Idea (Part 1): My Personal Story

(As a disclaimer, I am aware that sometimes people use the word ‘inerrancy’ in very different ways [cf. Witherington, The Living Word of God, Walton & Sandy, The Lost World of Scripture]. While as part of this series I will turn to such definitions of the term, my main criticism is simply that they are just not what most people think of when they use the term ‘inerrancy.’ Thus, the main aim of this series is not necessarily to suggest that all conceptions or definitions of ‘inerrancy’ are wrong but rather that what most people think of when they speak of ‘inerrancy’ is more in line with the Chicago Statement. On alternative definitions, I just don’t think the terminology is helpful).The-Bible-and-Inerrancy-cartoon

Having sat on both sides of the fence on any issue often gives one a unique perspective concerning the fundamentals, consequences, and nature of a debate. Not that it ensures one is correct in perspective or conviction, but there’s quite often some benefit in rethinking a particular issue after making the rounds. Conviction is good, of course; unchallenged and uncriticized conviction, however, can ultimately be inimical to any real pursuit to truth and, especially concerning evangelical theology, can be a danger to the call to make disciples.

So, having sat on both sides of the inerrancy issue, I think I have gained a bit of perspective over time. I’m not sure how many actually believe me when I say it now (there’s always some suspicion), but I was for a good number of years a ardent proponent of plenary verbal inerrancy (that is, God chose the very words of Scripture such that Scripture contains no legitimate contradiction whether that be in terms of history, geography, politics, science, etc.). With my introduction to Christian apologetics at 17 with Josh McDowell’s Evidence That Demands a Verdict, through a B.A. in Philosophy and Religion from a secular university, and up to my initial year of seminary I was a pure bred bonafide inerrancy advocate. If you don’t believe me, just ask my old college professors or Myspace atheists (remember Myspace…yeah…)!

I knew by heart the famous tautology and used it often against my more “liberal” friends: 1) God cannot err; 2) The Bible is the Word of God; 3) Therefore, the Bible cannot err. This philosophical argument paved the way for the way that I saw the nature of Scripture, the way I sought to read it, how I saw the life and teachings of Jesus, my own purpose especially as a Christian apologist, and my eventual career as a New Testament scholar. Everything was shaped by my understanding of Scripture as an inerrant set of documents.

There was through those years, as you might have already put together, a simple sense of dissatisfaction with this conviction within my heart; this dissatisfaction would eventually find itself to my head, though my entire college program would pass before I could make sense out of it all.

For starters, I didn’t actually like to read Scripture because my conviction made it exceptionally difficult to do so. In the first place, I felt like in order to read Scripture I had to open it up along with Gleason Archer’s Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties or keep having to check the contradiction alongside the Chicago Statement’s list of “what doesn’t count” as a contradiction. This proved all the more frustrating, of course, when I found a passage that hadn’t been addressed–or adequately addressed–by the apologists of inerrancy.

Perhaps more than the frustration of always having to find someway around a discrepancy was the subconscious brooding conviction that inerrancy as an “other-worldly” explanation for the nature of Scripture. What I mean by that is that in the plenary verbal view of revelation, it was as if God had just gone “around” his creation in revealing Scripture, as if the only reason why humans were involved in the process in the first place was due to the lack of a hand for which God to take up a pen and write it all down himself! I always thought Joseph Smith’s ‘Golden Tablets’ or the story of Mohammed’s instruction to “RECITE!” seemed quite odd and just out of touch. But of course, the Christian view of plenary verbal inspiration only is distinguished from these two traditions by the quantity of authors and time of composition, not really in the means (it’s worth noting here that both Muslims and Mormons hold a plenary verbals view of inspiration as well).

Eventually, I began a career towards biblical scholarship. Beginning with reading Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus (which is not as terrible a book as many, including myself, have made it out to be–he’s fairly spot on, albeit with a certain rhetorical ax to grind), I entered into a period of some serious doubt. All of a sudden, Scripture looked a whole lot more “human” than I was taught. Some stories were put into the Bible which were not originally there. Others (like creation and the flood) were drawn out of other cultures and repackaged for a new audience. This surprises a lot of people but these are things that scholars have known for centuries. Sometimes both small and major details were changed from one book to another retelling. Other parts seemed to reflect a certain “looking back” into history to shape present identity and national/political concerns. Confused but strangely captivated by such problems, I spent the next four years in college trying to work around the various problems in order to hold onto “inerrancy” despite the theological and historical constipation it routinely gave me (I’m also fairly certain my arguments also gave some professors constipation).

A year into my seminary program, however, I began to see something that I had never seen before: evangelical scholars that were not committed to inerrancy. In fact, and this is crucial, I saw a whole lot of evangelical scholars that were not committed to inerrancy. Indeed, I would even be so bold to say that I saw the majority of evangelical scholars not committed to inerrancy. Now, most of them were aware enough not to make an issue out of it lest they, like so many others recently, might lose their teaching positions. But in practice, this was definitely the majority. Indeed, several private conversations with numerous leading scholars (those who have often been trotted out as “leading evangelical scholars) has supported my initial impressions (here I make two caveats: #1 I’m talking strictly biblical historians, not apologists or theologians; #2 This realization becomes even more stark when one drops the qualification of “evangelical” and just look at the Christian scholarly world in general.)

I began to see through my studies that if I am to hold Scripture as God’s Word in any meaningful sense, inerrancy had to go. Years ago I asked a friend, “If the Bible contains an error in it–I mean, a true, genuine, beyond a shadow of a doubt error–does it cease to be God’s Word?” His answer: “Absolutely.” My answer: “Absolutely not!” As an emerging biblical scholar (admittedly I’m using the term loosely, having gone through a rigorous dual M.A. program but no Ph.D), I realized that I cannot put the foundation of my faith on the Bible, much less on a specific interpretation of how it came about! I’ve watched too many young Christians abandon the faith in part because they took a college class which exposed–and not in a God’s Not Dead sort of way–the humanness of the Bible. They were, like myself, taught or at least bred into the inerrantist world and when that world went so did everything else. The answer is not, as in the estimation of some apologists, to reinforce the inerrantist model by “answering objections” but, rather, to open the wider evangelical spectrum of how to see Scripture! When we treat inerrancy as a cross to die on, it’s no wonder that so many walk away and look for life elsewhere, for they’re convinced the Bible must not offer it.

Since allowing myself to let go of inerrancy, I have certainly in the process removed a great deal of career possibilities that could have otherwise been open to me. I have been passed over for jobs and ministry opportunities over the way that I see the revelatory process as having worked out (the assumption, I think, is that I’m trying to “humanize” or “liberal up” the Bible–which of course is nonsense). In fact, in one recent exchange I was informed (not asked, mind you) that I “do not believe the Bible.” Again, nonsense! In fact, ditching a commitment to inerrancy has reinforced a commitment to the Bible but, even more so, to the only proper foundation of faith: Jesus Christ.




  • Jason

    Excellent stuff, Randy. And I think you’re right to frame it in terms of a personal story, as opposed to a philosophical or theological polemic. There’s a progression, I think, for a certain kind of thinking Christian raised in a Western evangelical context, which begins with adopting and defending certain tenets of that evangelical context (such as innerancy), only to find them increasingly untenable as life goes on. Ultimately, one asks the questions, “Why am I defending these? For whom am I defending them? What do I lose if I stop defending them?” If this isn’t part of the journey of every American Christian kid who reaches adulthood, that’s certainly okay. But for a number of us, we have to find different language and different categories for how we view faith. And that’s gotta be okay, too (although I suspect a Geisler or Mohler would disagree).

    A couple of especially poignant (to me) thoughts I wanted to respond to:

    1) [Your answer of “Absolutely not.” to the question of:] “If the Bible contains an error in it–I mean, a true, genuine, beyond a shadow of a doubt error–does it cease to be God’s Word?”

    A lot of Christians (I’m thinking my friends who, like me, were also raised in this American evangelical context) believe this to be true about the Bible — “If any part of it is untrue, then the whole thing is untrue”. But, as far as I can tell, it’s not a claim that the Bible makes for itself anywhere. Pete Enns talks about the Jenga tower illustration — you pull one piece out and the whole structure collapses — that’s an assumption we bring (or we are taught to bring) to the text; the Bible never demands it of us, and the Bible never sets those as the ground rules for the reading and interpretation of itself. And when the Bible, under the inerrantist model, collapses (as it inevitably will), then the only option left to a “rational” person is to throw the baby out with the bathwater and abandon one’s faith. I reject innerancy on the grounds that I reject the doomed-from-the-outset nature of the rules of this particular game.

    2) “Perhaps more than the frustration of always having to find someway around a discrepancy was the subconscious brooding conviction that inerrancy as an ‘other-worldly’ explanation for the nature of Scripture.”

    Chris Hedges calls this “magical thinking”. Sarah and I will frequently say that a lot of American evangelicals are of the firm conviction that Moses went up onto Mt. Sinai and returned with the NIV English Bible, exactly as God had dictated it. This brings to mind a Hitchens line: “One thinks of the Texas schoolteacher who said, ‘If English is good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me.'”

    3) “…I didn’t actually like to read Scripture because my conviction made it exceptionally difficult to do so.”

    That’s extremely insightful: reading scripture, with a certain, rigorous, no-room-for-the-spectrum-of-interpretation framework, is actually difficult to the point of being painful. In this innerantist model, my understanding of what scripture is is so inflexible that, when the testimony of my personal experience creeps in to contradict it, it causes me trouble. So much trouble, in fact, that I’d prefer to leave the whole thing alone, rather than “fight the good fight” every time I pick up my Bible. There are probably a lot of grown 2nd- or 3rd-generation Christians who can relate to this experience.

    Again, great stuff, Randy. Thanks for writing it and also for the invitation to read it.