I’m not sure that anyone who did not come from a church that stressed the importance of the doctrine of Biblical Inerrancy realizes the impact this doctrine has on many believers. About 63% of Americans believe the Bible is literally true with that number jumping to 77% among Republicans and 89% among those who classify themselves as evangelicals (World Net Daily). Even if these numbers seem inflated, there is little doubt that a whole lot of people that think the Bible is some kind of magical book that has no “relevant” errors in it. “Relevant” in that Inerrancy can be qualified in several ways. Two qualifications are very common. The first tries to get around the thorny issue of obvious errors in the Bible. The claim is made that Inerrancy only pertains to the original autographs of the Bible. It’s a clever ploy that can’t be tested since no original manuscripts of the Bible have ever been found. The other main way that Inerrancy is qualified is by stating that the Bible is Inerrant in all that pertains to faith and practice. Again, this is an attempt to get around the obvious errors in the Bible, while leaving up in the air what verses actually pertain to faith and practice. (If you doubt there are errors or as evangelicals like to day “difficulties” in the Bible take a look at Gleason Archers Handbook of Biblical Difficulties. It is written from an evangelical standpoint and attempts to explain the “difficulties” away.)
Why is this doctrine so important to the vast majority of evangelicals? Simply put, it gives the believer assurance and a black and white world. It assures the believer that the ideas and commands in the Bible aren’t man’s opinion but are the very words of god. After all, if Christians are to take their commands from scripture, they better know that those commands are truly from god and not something made up by men. For many, if there is even one error in the Bible, then how would they know there isn’t another and then another? How would they know that the errors didn’t encroach on the realm of faith and practice? After all, if there are errors in facts that can be checked, what makes someone think there are no errors in “spiritual” areas that, by definition, can’t be checked?
I used to believe and defend the doctrine of Biblical Inerrancy. I believed that if scripture is the inspired word of god, it should be held to the highest standards of scholarship and investigation and it should pass those tests flawlessly. We shouldn’t have to make excuses. Instead I’ve found that the Bible is usually subjected to the least demanding of standards:
- Don’t question since every problem has a solution, even if you can’t see it.
- It just seems like a difficultly but really isn’t in god’s mind (free will vs. sovereignty comes to mind here).
- History is wrong. The Bible will be proven correct. There is no historic evidence for the Exodus or the plagues of Egypt, but not to worry, the Bible is true and archeology will eventually find the proof.
- Science is arrogant (as if religion isn’t). The Bible is true when it comes to our origins. Evolution is a myth. The evidence will eventually show it.
- Don’t confuse errors made by scribes in copying manuscripts with “real” errors. You can’texpect perfection from man.
- That isn’t a contradiction, you just aren’t understanding it correctly.
We aren’t talking about just a few errors here and their. In the New Testament alone, with some 5700 Greek manuscripts or parts of manuscripts found, as well as numerous ancient translations and quotes from church fathers, there are more discrepancies than there are words in the New Testament. Granted, most of these are minor spelling, word order or word missing errors, but others are not. As one scholar put it:
“If one wants to insist that God inspired the very words of scripture, what would be the point if we don’t have the very words of scripture? .. It’s a bit hard to know what the words of the Bible mean if we don’t even know what the words are! This became a problem for my view of inspiration; for I came to realize that it would have been no more difficult for God to preserve the words of scripture than it would have been for him to inspire them in the first place. If he wanted his people to have his words, surely he would have given them to them… The fact that we don’t have the words surely must show, I reasoned, that he did not preserve them for us. And if he didn’t perform that miracle, there seemed to be no reason to think that he performed the earlier miracle of inspiring those words” (Misquoting Jesus by Bart Ehrman)
I have to agree with Dr. Ehrman here. If every biblical manuscript we ever came across was identical to all other biblical manuscripts, wouldn’t that, in and of itself, point to a powerful god who valued and preserved his word for all mankind? Alas, we don’t have anything close to this.
If god wasn’t faithful in preserving the Bible from the smallest of errors how can we trust scripture when it in comes to the big things? Things like heaven and hell, life and death, belief and non-belief, and the ultimate question for some – What must I do to be saved? While the doctrine of Inerrancy may be a small thing to some people, and you certainly can be a Christian and believe in god without it, for me it was a huge deal. A deal breaker so to speak. If I can’t trust what is in the Bible, why should I believe in it or the god of which it speaks? Frankly, I can no longer do either.