“I’m going to get run over by a bus or struck by lightning for saying that!” This was the thought that ran through my head shortly after I uttered the words, “Maybe the bible isn’t perfect.” When I first uttered those words, I was standing outside of a Pizzahut while discussing the book Misquoting Jesus with a friend.¹ As you can imagine, feeling like you’re going to get struck by lightning can produce a lot of anxiety.
Its been my experience that I am not the only one who has had this sort of anxiety. I’ve watched others encounter similar claims about the inerrancy (or lack thereof) of the bible or about the dubiousness of a literalistic reading of Genesis in light of the last 100 plus years of biology. I can see the anxiety on their faces. I can hear it in their voices as they argue passionately against these threatening claims
And when I see this anxiety, I’m reminded of myself when I was freaking out outside of Pizzahut. I think to myself, “Why didn’t anyone prepare me for this? I’ve been in the church for 18 years and you would think that someone would mention something this big: Hey, by the way, there are a bunch of people who think that the bible isn’t perfect. And they are way smarter than you. Some of them have been studying the new testament for decades and all of them know Greek, the original language of the text.” Since no one spoke to me about this issue, I’m willing to bet that there are others who are also unprepared for this sort of discovery.
(If you’re wondering about the different text colors, click here.)
This post, then, is an attempt to alleviate some of the anxiety that any of my spiritual siblings might feel when they encounter claims that the bible is not inerrant. Its not that spiritual anxiety is necessarily bad. In fact, I think much of the time it is a good thing (as I have argued here). However, the anxiety that is produced by these questions and resulting doubts can be dangerous. Paul Tillich, a 20th century theologian, perhaps expresses this best when he says,
The threat to spiritual life is not doubt as an element but the total doubt. If the awareness of not having has swallowed the awareness of having, doubt has ceased to be methodological asking and has become existential despair.
This is all just a fancy way of saying that when the questions and doubts become so big that you know more about what you’re confused about than what you understand, something troubling happens in our soul. It feels like the meaning of our existence is being questioned. We might wonder, “Is everything that I have been living for a lie?” or “What is the point in going on?”
Thus, this inerrancy question, for some, is not some abstract theological exercise. This question might just strike at the heart of their reason for existing, so this is not a question that can always be asked with the coolness of a “philosopher.” If you are in a place where the questions are too big right now and one of your questions is not about the inerrancy of the bible, then stop reading this post right now. Questions are absolutely wonderful, but they are not worth more than your soul. This question will be waiting for you when you get back from that place of “existential despair.”
If, however, you have anxiety or are in despair over precisely this question, then perhaps the following remarks will be helpful to you. Unfortunately, I cannot know if they will be helpful. It may be the case that you will find these remarks unpersuasive and that you will continue to feel anxiety after considering them. Only you and God can know. Thus, it is absolutely necessary that the following remarks be read and considered only if they are considered in the light of The True Light (i.e., the Divine).
One final note before I begin: I wish to remain agnostic about whether the scriptures are actually inerrant. I do have an opinion on the matter, but I am not an expert in biblical studies and thus, I’m not really entitled to ask anyone to read my thoughts on the subject. I do, however, know a little about how to do philosophy, and it is the philosophical method (whatever that is) that I will be applying here. Here, I simply want to argue that it does not matter either way whether the bible is perfect.²
Worry #1: “If the bible has an error, then I can’t trust the whole book.”
Patient: If the bible has an error, then I can’t trust the whole thing, and if I can’t trust anything in the bible, then my life is without meaning because being a Christian is what makes my life meaningful. It gives me a purpose.
Doctor: I think I understand your anxiety, but tell me more. I cannot not treat you if I do not fully understand the problem. Now, what was the first thing you said?
Patient: If the bible has an error, then I can’t trust the whole thing.
Doctor: What exactly do you mean by that? Do you mean that you have to “throw it all out,” so to speak?
Patient: That is precisely what I mean.
Doctor: I see. Well, that seems kind of a strange response to finding out that there is an error in the bible.
Patient: Really? Why is that?
Doctor: Well, is that how you treat all of your other sources of knowledge?
Patient: What do you mean?
Doctor: Do you, for example, upon the discovery that your eyes sometimes deceive you, conclude that you can no longer trust any information that your eyes give you? Do you conclude that you must “throw out” all of the information of your eyes?
Patient: Of course not.
Doctor: Well then why would you do that for the bible? Why would you reject all of the information presented in the bible simply because it contained a single error if you wouldn’t reject all of the information your eyes give to you if in a single instance you found that they were in error?
Patient: Hmm…I can see that there is an inconsistency there. But suppose that I meant something else when I made my first statement. Suppose that I meant something like, “If there is one error in the bible, how do I know that I can trust any of the claims made in the bible?”
Doctor: I’m not sure I understand your question. How is that different from your previous one?
Patient: Well, before I was claiming that if there is a single error in the bible, then I should throw it all out. Now, I am saying if there is a single error in the bible, sometimes I should throw out parts of the bible and sometimes I should keep parts of the bible. How will I know when to do which of these things?
Doctor: Ah, I see. This raises another matter entirely.
Worry #2: “If the bible has an error, then I have to pick and choose what is true, and how will I be able to do that?”
Patient: So then, what do you say to that?
Doctor: Hmm…you know, the bible is a historical document.
Patient: Yes, I do know that.
Doctor: And it developed over the course of thousands of years…
Patient: I know that too. Where are you going with this, Doctor?
Doctor: Well, I suppose I am trying to say that the bible had a beginning.
Patient: So what, Doctor?
Doctor: Well, weren’t some of our spiritual ancestors alive before the bible was written?
Doctor: Well then they were in the same boat that you are, right? They had to face a similar question. They probably thought to themselves, “There’s a bunch of stuff that could be true or could be false. How do I know which is which without the bible [because it didn’t exist yet]?” The answer to this question was probably pretty obvious for them: God will help us find the truth.
Patient: Come on, Doctor, you can’t seriously expect me to take that answer seriously.
Doctor: Why not?
Patient: God doesn’t really show up like he used to. When was the last time you saw a talking burning bush? When was the last time you saw an angel who had a message from God? Since God doesn’t show up clearly, all sorts of mistakes can be made with people just trying to “hear from God” by themselves. I won’t know what is true if try to hear from God. Just the other day, someone killed their neighbors because “God told them to.” Clearly, then, we can see that this is a bad idea. The bible keeps our ideas in check.
Doctor: I think you are only half right on this point.
Patient: Only half right?
Doctor: Well yeah. You might be right that God doesn’t show up like he used to, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that God cannot still guide our lives. Think about what you are saying with your objection here: God cannot communicate with us without a perfect bible. Isn’t it strange to say that an all-powerful God cannot do x, y, or z?³
Patient: I suppose you are right, but it just seems like a perfect bible would do a better job at that.
Doctor: I’m not even convinced of that. Didn’t people use the bible to justify slavery? And the crusades? And the inquisition? And…you get the picture. In our case, what seems to be important is not the means by which we attempt to gain the truth but our earnest seeking of God’s guidance.4 In Jesus’ words, “Ask and you shall receive, seek and you shall find, knock and the door will be opened.”
Patient: Yeah, I guess I do think that Jesus is usually right…but wait, if the bible isn’t perfect, then couldn’t the passage you just quoted be wrong? After all, the bible is the foundation of our faith. It is the means by which we come to know any divine truth.
Worry #3: “If the bible has an error, then what reason do I have to think that the verses which assure us that God will guide us are true?”
Doctor: To be sure, much of what we learn about God comes from the bible, but as we were saying, that isn’t the only way we know about God.
Patient: Right, but how do I know that God is actually going to show me the truth?
Doctor: I’m not sure what you mean. Isn’t the fact that God loves us sufficient for us to think that God will provide truth?
Patient: My question is more fundamental than that: If there are truths in the bible that I doubt because the bible isn’t inerrant, then how do I know that God loves me in the first place?
Doctor: Hmm…I am surprised that you even have this question. This issue might be more serious than I thought.
Patient: Why’s that?
Doctor: Well, I’m just surprised that in all of your years as a Christian you have not encountered God’s love outside the pages of the bible. Have you not felt the overwhelming joy of the life of discipleship? Have you not experienced God’s sincere delight in us as we give God praise? Have you not heard that gentle divine whisper that comes in a cool breeze on a beautiful day, “I love you.”? Have you not felt the burden of sin be lifted through Christ and God’s subsequent loving embrace? Has God not shown God’s love toward you in any way aside from words on a page? My dear patient, we need to have another conversation entirely if this is the case.
Patient: I suppose I have had some of these experiences.
Doctor: And if you think about, it is not really that strange that you might be familiar with God’s love in a way that is independent from the bible. After all, as we’ve said above, the bible, at one point, did not exist.
Patient: I guess God has shown me God’s love in my life. But suppose I hadn’t had these experiences or suppose that I was trying to explain myself to someone who did not think God existed. How then could I argue my points or show the truth of the gospel if the bible is not inerrant?
Doctor: Well, you’ve raised two separate issues here. Let’s think about the first issue you mentioned.
Worry #4: If I have not experienced God’s love outside of scripture, how can I know that God loves me?
Patient: Alright then, let’s talk about this issue. You said earlier that we can know that God loves us through our experience of God’s love. But what if I have not had that experience?
Doctor: This is a great question. I think that it uncovers a part of the Christian walk of which people are often unaware.
Patient: What do you mean?
Doctor: Well, often times the decision to become a Christian is presented as something that happens instantaneously after some dramatic experience or influential speaker or something. And sometimes this is how it happens, but this divine moment of decision sometimes happens in a different way.
Patient: And what different way is that?
Doctor: Well, I suppose its the way that it happened to the original disciples.
Patient: What do you mean?
Doctor: Think about the original disciples. They did not understand who Jesus was until after his death. They did not even know Jesus’ mission of love while they were following him around the ancient near east.
Patient: Why is that relevant?
Doctor: Well, it shows that there is room in our walk for those who do not understand who Jesus is. It shows that we can be like disciples: we can step out on faith and follow this Jesus fellow and “kick the Jesus tires,” so to speak. When the disciples follow Jesus, they eventually learn of his love for them and for humanity. Isn’t this strange to our modern minds? For the original disciples, following Jesus preceded their acceptance of certain propositions about Jesus. We moderns, on the other hand, flip the process. We say to others, “Accept these propositions, then you can follow Jesus.”
Patient: This is definitely a strange suggestion, but that is how it happened to the original disciples I suppose. But what does this have to do with my question?
Doctor: Well, what I am suggesting here is that those who have not experienced God’s love do the same thing as the original disciples did: step out in faith; follow and seek God’s love and see what happens. It might take time and it might take effort to seek God’s love and to understand God’s will, but that’s no different than what the disciples experienced. They left everything and followed Jesus. They stopped their entire lives and tried to understand who Jesus was for the first 7 chapters of Mark. That’s half of the length of Mark’s gospel!
Patient: That sounds like a fine suggestion for someone like me, someone who knows what the result of that process will be, but why would anyone step out in faith like that? I can see others rejecting that suggestion by claiming that it is irrational or somehow inappropriate.
Doctor: Yes, you are right to note that. Some people will definitely see this step as irrational. Think about why the original disciples made the decision to follow Jesus: there must have been something captivating about the opportunity to follow this Jesus fellow. But now we are getting into the second issue you raised.
Worry #5: If the bible isn’t perfect, how will I convince others that my faith isn’t irrational.
Doctor: Let me ask you this: What does it even mean to say that something is irrational?
Patient: Let’s see. We’ll it seems to have something to do with reasoning that is illogical.
Doctor: Illogical? You mean like contradictory?
Patient: Uh, not quite. There’s nothing logically contradictory about stepping out in faith to experience God’s love. Maybe illogical isn’t really a good word. How bout this: Someone might say that this stepping out in faith is irrational because there’s no evidence that Jesus is worth following.
Doctor: I see. There’s quite a lot to be said about this, and I am by no means an expert, but I will do my best. But first let me ask you this: Suppose that someone is right when they make the above claim. Suppose that there really is no evidence for belief in Jesus and that stepping out in faith is irrational. What’s so bad about that?
Patient: Well then its all a lie, a delusion!
Doctor: I’m confused. Didn’t you say that irrational means there is no evidence for something?
Patient: Of course.
Doctor: Well, what does that have to do with something being true or false?
Patient: What are you saying, Doctor?
Doctor: Just because there is no evidence for some truth doesn’t mean that it is false. Suppose that I see a man standing in a corner. Suppose further that I have no reason at all to think that he will like me. He has not looked at me and he does not know who I am. On your definition of irrationality, if I went up to this man to speak with him hoping that he might want to converse with me, this stepping out in faith would be irrational since I have no evidence for thinking that this man will like me.
Patient: Yeah…your right. Maybe my definition of irrationality isn’t quite right again.
Doctor: Maybe, but that isn’t even my point. Even if it is irrational to talk to the man, he might in fact enjoy conversing with you, despite the fact that you have no evidence to think that that will be the case. So, just because something is irrational, doesn’t mean that it is necessarily false.
Patient: I see. And if we suppose that this man may become my best friend, then we would have a reason to step out in faith, even if we don’t have any evidence that he will become our best friend.
Doctor: That sounds right to me. By the way, did you know just now we’ve constructed an example that is quite similar to that of a doctor of another sort, William James? James was a philosopher and psycholog-
Patient: Doctor, no one cares about philosophy.
Doctor: Right. Sorry about that. Anyway, let’s return to the issue at hand. I think we can see with this example that if someone defines irrationality in such a way that I am not allowed, for example, to attempt to meet a potential friend, we might reply, “Well so much the worse for rationality.” In other words, who cares if its “irrational?” This same line of reasoning can easily be applied to stepping out in faith when it comes to Christ.
Patient: Hmm…I wonder if that would convince others to “giving Jesus a try” isn’t irrational?
Doctor: Maybe, but to be completely honest with you, there’s a lot more to be said on this issue. These points might not definitively settle the issue, but my purpose here in raising them is just to show that we shouldn’t be too hasty in thinking that just because the bible isn’t perfect, we’ll never be able to evangelize. If you want, I could refer you to some of the literature on the subject of rationalit-
Patient: Doctor, no one cares about philosophy.
Doctor: Darn. I keep forgetting sorry.
Patient: Well, this has been really helpful. I think I’m gonna go home and burn my bible and probably kill some infants or something too, since inerrancy doesn’t matter and I can just pick and choose what is true.
Doctor: Oh no! That is not what we’ve concluded here at all. Just because the bible isn’t inerrant doesn’t mean that it isn’t the most important text in the world for Christians. It is the text with which we must all wrestle as Christians. It is a sacred (set aside) text that unites the Christian community acro-
Doctor: -ss space and time. And we didn’t say that we get to pick and cho-
Doctor: -oose whatever we want to believe. Its about letting God guide our steps and earnestly seeking God’s will even though it might be harder if we can’t just open up a book and find “the answers.” And-
Patient: I was just kidding. Relax.
Doctor: Right. Well, either way, there are still more things to be said about the issue.
Patient: Doctor, you’ll never say everything that needs to be said about the issue.
Doctor: Uh…perhaps you’re right.
Patient: I just need to spend some time talking to God about all of this. As we’ve been saying, God is, after all, my guide to these sorts of things. And you are not God.
Doctor: That is the truest thing that has been said this whole time!
Patient: You could be wrong about all of this.
Doctor: Certainly, which is why I’m glad you’ll be speaking to the One-Who-Cannot-Be-Wrong about all of this. But before you go, can I at least say more about the inadequacies of what has been said so far. There really are some important issues.
Doctor: Here they are: (1) Someone might question how we can even know that our experiences of God’s love are the “real deal” when they happen and (2) Someone might argue that the bible is inerrant because Jesus believed it was inerrant. Depending on how we answer (1), this might all be nonsense; inerrancy might matter a whole bunch. But there is quite a lot to be said in favor of being able to trust Divine-Love-experiences. I know no one cares about philosophy, but William Alston has done some interesting work on this issue in this book. There’s also a lot to be said about (2). I’m not familiar with any literature that responds to this issue, but I am indebted to Archer’s remarks in The Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties for making me even think about (2) as an issue. (2) is an issue that should more properly be discussed in a Christological discussion, a discussion about what exactly it means to say that Jesus is divine.
Patient: Wow that was boring. Can I go now?
1. I later found out that Misquoting Jesus really isn’t the best book to be reading about biblical innerancy. There’s a lot of issues with some of the things that Bart presents, some of which are discussed in Misquoting Truth and here. By the time I found out about some of the spotty claims made in Bart’s work, it didn’t particularly matter to me, mostly because of the considerations outlined in this post.
2. In saying “it does not matter,” I do not mean that it is absolutely inconsequential. Instead, my claim is that we need not feel that our entire faith, and thus, our reason for existing, rests on the innerancy of the scriptures.
3. A related argument could be made here. Instead of saying God cannot communicate to us outside of the bible, we might just say he does not communicate with us outside the bible. Therefore, inerrancy does matter that much. In response to this argument, I might ask, “Where is the scriptural basis for that?” Is there a place in the bible that says, “I [God] will only talk to You through this book?” On the contrary, it seems like God tells us constantly that God will be with us. Unless by “Surely I am with you even to the end of the age.” Jesus meant, “Surely I won’t be with you, so look at your bible that doesn’t exist yet for answers.”, this verse might be a good example of what I’m talking about.
4. I’ve spoken loosely here, but I do not mean to say that it is absolutely inconsequential what means we employ to get to know God. My point here is that if we are intentional about knowing God, then we are “more than halfway home,” so to speak.