Note: This page was written some time ago, when I was still a Christian. I'm not any more, so it's likely that some material in here no longer reflects my current opinions.
This is extremely unfinished: full of omissions and "fix me later" signs, and probably of mistakes too. It should improve with the passage of time. If you spot any mistakes or omissions or unfairnesses or any other infelicities, please do let me know. My e-mail address is at the foot of the page.
- 0. Introduction.
- 1. Bad arguments in favour of inerrantism.
- 1'. Pragmatic and ad hominem arguments.
- 2. Arguments against inerrantism.
- a. Contradictions in the Bible.
- a'. A note on some apparent contradictions.
- b. Disagreements between the Bible and established facts.
- c. Morally suspect things in the Bible.
- d. Implausible things in the Bible.
- e. The lack of other perfect things in the world.
- f. Inerrantism leads to unnatural interpretations.
- g. Too many miracles.
- 3. Other things.
Inerrantism is the doctrine that the Bible is free from error. There are various strengths of inerrantism. Some inerrantists allow for the possibility that the Biblical texts we now have may not be error-free due to corruption; some insist that we still have a guaranteed inerrant text (and in very extreme cases, a guaranteed inerrant translation). Some inerrantists insist only on inerrancy in matters of Christian doctrine; others hold that the Bible must be wholly accurate in what it says or implies about physics, history and the like. There are different views among inerrantists about the extent of the authority of the Old Testament, the reliability of the traditional attributions of the books of the Bible, and the extent to which it's permissible to read portions of the Bible as metaphor or allegory.
I think they're all wrong. This essay explains why.
There are two basic reasons. Firstly, all the arguments known to me that seem to support inerrantism are in my opinion too weak to sustain their burden. Secondly, the Bible says things that appear to contradict each other, and other things that are consistent with each other but inconsistent with other things I think I know, or at least have good evidence for. Neither reason would be conclusive on its own: inerrantism might be right even though I haven't yet seen good evidence for it, and conversely given good enough evidence for inerrantism it is probably possible to find explanations for almost any apparent error. In combination, though, the two reasons are a powerful argument against inerrantism: no good evidence in favour, and some good evidence against. I shall take these reasons (which are really families of reasons) in the order mentioned above, and then make some concluding remarks.
Before I begin, I'd like to make it clear that I'm a Christian, and am not in the least trying to argue that Christianity is wrong, or that the Bible is rubbish. I believe that the Bible is a wonderful thing, and vitally important for Christianity and for Christians; I just don't believe the specific claims made for it by inerrantists.
I shall collect here all the arguments known to me that suggest that inerrantism is true, and explain for each why I think it defective. Under this heading I shall also consider a rather curious notion that goes by the name of `presuppositionalism', which is not exactly an argument in favour of inerrantism but probably belongs here anyway.
`All scripture is inspired by God', writes St Paul to Timothy. `No prophecy [of scripture] ever came by the impulse of man, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God', writes Peter. There are other passages, here and there, that seem to proclaim that the Bible is reliable. Are these evidence for inerrantism?
No; or, at least, not very good evidence. If you begin with the assumption that the Bible is always right, then I suppose you can deduce from these passages that the Bible is always right. But that's hardly surprising: it's a circular argument.
But perhaps there's a more subtle argument. If we assume, not that the Bible is always right, but merely that it is usually right, then surely it follows that the Bible is probably always right? After all, on our new assumption the chances are that any particular statement we choose will be right... I don't think this works, for two reasons. Firstly, if the Bible is usually but not always right then perhaps the more extravagant statements are less likely to be right. Secondly, I don't think our new assumption is much better than the old. A better assumption would be that the Bible is usually very close to the truth; and this doesn't support our not-quite-circular argument at all.
There are a few other minor problems. Firstly, when the books of the New Testament were written, the New Testament itself did not exist; it can hardly have been what Paul meant when writing to Timothy, because from context it's clear that he was referring to scriptures which Timothy had known from childhood. So these passages only argue directly for the reliability of the Old Testament, not of the New. To deduce that the New Testament is also reliable one presumably makes use of an unstated principle like "The NT is even more inerrant than the OT".
Secondly, the most unequivocal of these apparently inerrantist passages is the one I quoted first, from 2 Timothy; but its translation is not at all obvious. It might be that the correct translation is something like `All scripture inspired by God is useful ...', in which case it provides no support at all for an inerrantist position.
Finally, even if we accept those writings of Paul and Peter as (1) saying just what they appear to and (2) being entirely true, they still don't do all that the inerrantist wants. The statement about prophecy in 2 Peter applies only to prophecy, and not (e.g.) to law or history or aphorisms. The statement about scripture in 2 Timothy says that "all scripture" is inspired, but it seems to me that this need not mean "every word is inspired" or even "every sentence is inspired". If I say "All Beethoven's work is touched by genius", this doesn't exclude the possibility that here and there in his work there might be unimportant bars that anyone could have written.
It would appear that Jesus had a high view of the Old Testament. He criticises the Sadducees for not knowing the Scriptures; he quotes them in debate as if they are conclusive; he has clearly taken the trouble to become familiar with them. If Jesus was an inerrantist, shouldn't we be?
I consider this to be the strongest argument in favour of inerrantism; but it still has some important holes.
Firstly, I think Jesus's words and actions are consistent not only with a non-inerrantist opinion, but even with a much lower opinion still of scripture. (I am not suggesting that his opinion of scripture was as low as the one I'm about to describe; I'm sure it wasn't.) Imagine that you find yourself among people who regard the work of Isaac Newton as flawless; when faced with any scientific question, their first recourse is to the `Principia' or the `Optics' or some other of Newton's works. You, being an enlightened modern, know that Newton was (through no fault of his own) wrong -- albeit in most cases wrong by an imperceptible amount -- in almost every physical statement he made. So, what do you do if confronted by one of these people who proclaims that rocket-powered space travel is impossible because `there is nothing to react against'? (Note to the non-physicist: this is a plausible but completely wrong refutation of the principle of the rocket; it is wrong for reasons that Newton could have told you.) Do you explain carefully that actually they are wrong in thinking that Newton's laws of motion have anything to do with it, try to teach them relativity and quantum mechanics and then explain that rockets can work? Or do you say: `So, since you think so highly of Newton, why don't you take the trouble to understand what he means? His second law of motion does permit rockets to work in outer space.'? I submit that the latter is likely to be more useful. The point of this analogy should be clear, but in case it isn't I'll state it explicitly: even if Jesus's attitude to the Old Testament was the same as your hypothetical attitude to Newton's ideas of physics, he could still have said most of the things he did. I repeat that I don't actually think this was his attitude to the Old Testament; but if his words are consistent with this low an opinion of it, they certainly don't imply inerrantism.
There is one notable exception: his statement that `till heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the law until all is accomplished'. Much has been written about this saying. I will say only (1) that if the obvious reading of the verse is right then we should all still be refraining from eating pork and wearing mixed fabrics, so general Christian practice (including that of most inerrantists) is in favour of being circumspect about applying it; and (2) that these words (unlike those that immediately precede them, which don't conflict with the sort of attitude I described above) apply only to the law, and (in context) only to the requirement to obey the law; this says nothing about the accuracy of the Bible on scientific or historical subjects.
The second hole in this argument for inerrantism is that it is also circular; but, in my opinion, quite benignly so: I don't think this is a very serious problem. The point is that we can only use Jesus's words and actions as evidence for inerrantism (or for anything else) if we really know what they are. If the Bible might contain errors, then perhaps Jesus's words on the subject of scripture contain errors. The reason why I don't think this a serious objection to the argument is that I don't think it likely that the gospels contain a lot of errors of this kind.
The third hole: the argument only works if we assume Jesus to have been an authority on the question of inerrancy. Maybe he was; but maybe he wasn't. The best argument that he was is very simple: it goes `Jesus was God, so he knew everything, so he knew whether the Bible was reliable or not'. But I don't think it's clear that Jesus knew everything. Indeed, it isn't even clear that he knew everything about theology; consider his admission of ignorance of the date of the Eschaton, and his apparent misprediction at Luke 21:32. So maybe he didn't know whether the Bible (strictly, the Old Testament) is inerrant or not.
This is pretty uncomfortable. If Jesus might have been wrong on a matter of theology, doesn't that cast doubt on everything he said? I don't think it's as bad as all that. I am suggesting that on some tangential issues he may not have known everything (and yes, I consider the question of whether the Bible is entirely free from error to be tangential, though not all questions about the Bible are); not that he may have been wrong in the message he proclaimed.
Everything I've said on this point so far has been rather vague. Here's my guess about Jesus's attitude to the Bible. I think he took it as read, for the most part, that the Bible was right; that if he ever came across a point on which it was deficient he was aware of the deficiency. (I would say that the fact that he found it necessary, in the Sermon on the Mount, to expand on the commandments in the OT, suggests that he wasn't entirely satisfied with what the OT had to say about ethics. He came to fulfil and not to destroy; but the fulfilment was needed.)
Another argument runs as follows. If the Bible is fallible, then we have no really authoritative source of truth. How, then, can we know anything? How can we be sure of our faith? How can we be confident of what we are proclaiming?
The trouble with this line of argument is that it proves too much. Even if the Bible is inerrant, we are not; so our interpretation of the Bible is potentially subject to error. Hence, no matter how strictly inerrantist a view you take, you still have no absolutely infallible source of truth: your only access to the truth contained in the Bible is via your own fallible mind, and you cannot be sure that you aren't misunderstanding it.
So, even the inerrantist is faced with some uncertainty. If this doesn't make shipwreck of his faith, why should the uncertainty that comes of not being an inerrantist make shipwreck of mine?
Furthermore, in no other area of life do we have the sort of certainty the inerrantist is demanding here. We manage to survive, even so.
One can vary the last argument by adding some such claim as this: God would not let his people be led into error; he would not leave us without a reliable source of truth.
This, too, proves too much if it proves anything at all. If God is so concerned that none should go astray in doctrine, why has he not also prevented schisms in the church? Why has he not also prevented disagreements about the content of scripture (the Roman Catholics, the Eastern Orthodox and the Protestant churches all have different ideas about what is part of the Bible and what is not)? Why has he not also prevented major misunderstandings of what the Bible means? (There is so much disagreement on some issues that someone must have misunderstood badly.)
It seems clear to me that either God isn't so very determined that his people shouldn't be led into error, or else his will in this is somehow thwarted. In either case, we cannot deduce that the Bible is free of error.
Furthermore, even if we decide that God has provided some infallible source of information, why does it have to be the Bible? (The Roman Catholics would say that the Roman Catholic Church is a source of infallible information (although not, except when it explicitly says so, an infallible source of information!).)
Luther wrote: `Those who are taught inwardly by the Spirit acquiesce implicitly in Scripture.'
I don't know exactly what he meant by this (I have never looked it up to find its context), but it seems to me that there are two possibilities.
Perhaps he meant something like "The same Spirit who teaches us also inspired the writers of the Bible; therefore, if you are taught by the Spirit then by trusting that Spirit you are really committing yourself to trust his other utterances: for instance, the Bible". Or, perhaps the word "implicitly" is misleading and he meant something like "All who are taught by the Spirit are taught by the Spirit that the Bible is inerrant".
I can deal quickly with the second of these possibilities. I am, so far as I can tell, not taught by the Spirit that the Bible is inerrant. Others may say that they are; I cannot see that I am required to believe them. They might be mistaken.
The first possibility is more interesting. The trouble is that it assumes the Bible to be an utterance of the Spirit in a way that I'm not convinced it is. If we start with the premise "the Bible contains precisely the words of God", then of course I agree that anyone who trusts God should trust the Bible; but that premise is very doubtful.
So, to what am I committed by trusting the Spirit? I am committed to accepting anything once I know it to have come from the Spirit, probably. But does everything in the Bible come from the Spirit in this way? I don't think so. "All scripture is inspired by God", perhaps; but I don't think that means "every word", or even "every sentence". Only if the Bible is assumed to have been dictated by God does this argument require me to believe everything it says.
"The Bible says X, and modern archaeologists have discovered X". "The Bible says X, and I have found X to be true in my own life". "X was prophesied, and it happened."
Arguments like these would be of some use against someone who declared that there is nothing good in the Bible. But I don't say anything remotely like that. There is an enormous amount that is good in the Bible; there is an enormous amount that is true in the Bible. I willingly agree that much of its history is good, that much of what it promises is true, that much of what it prophesies is truly from God. I just don't believe that everything in it, without exception, is right.
If these arguments were proof of the inerrancy of the Bible, they would prove the inerrancy of all sorts of other documents too, some of which contradict the Bible in important ways.
Both sides of this debate like to claim that tradition is on their side. On the one hand we have claims like "Fundamentalism is a 20th-century phenomenon: it didn't exist at all until recently"; on the other, "Fundamentalism as such is only a modern phenomenon because the liberal ideas that provoked it are a modern phenomenon. Until recently, everyone took the reliability of scripture for granted". I am no expert on this subject, but my guess is that the latter is much nearer the truth: isn't this an argument in favour of inerrantism?
I don't think it's a very good one. As I've said before (under c'), I don't think any statement like "God would never allow his people to be led into error" is correct. So maybe most Christians have been wrong on this point; too bad.
There is a strong correlation between inerrantism and enthusiasm for Christ. Christian churches and organisations that hold to inerrantist views are often lively and numerically successful. Many Christians noted for their commitment or enthusiasm or other gifts are, or were, inerrantists. Doesn't all this suggest that (1) inerrantism is good for you, and (2) inerrantism is blessed by God and therefore likely to be right? And maybe also that (3) inerrantism is more plausible to people who are more full of the Spirit (which would suggest that it's right, of course)?
Perhaps it does. On the other hand, there are other explanations. For instance, because inerrantism has so many problems, no one is likely to be an inerrantist unless they are very committed and very sure of their faith: if they were less committed or less sure, there would be little reason for them to remain inerrantist. And inerrantism is a simple doctrine, easy to proclaim with confidence, and therefore attractive to many people in search of certainty. So it is not surprising that inerrantism tends to be associated with enthusiasm and commitment, and with church growth. This would be so even if it were entirely false. It is worth mentioning that among Muslims, similar correlations hold. [FIXME: check this] But clearly the Bible and the Qur'an cannot both be entirely free from error.
There are other correlations that work the other way, too; for instance, inerrantism is more popular among the unintelligent and poorly educated than it is among the intelligent and highly educated. [FIXME: check this] I am not suggesting that inerrantism is only believed by the stupid and ignorant; I know some very intelligent and well-educated inerrantists. The point is that these correlations don't prove much.
This is not exactly an argument for inerrantism, but it is sometimes used as a defence of inerrantism. Presuppositionalism is a (to my mind) very strange body of ideas. Its central claim is this: no one can get by in the world without making some assumptions that are not fully justifiable by the evidence (for instance, it is probable that no one will ever provide a theoretical justification for scientific induction); therefore, one set of assumptions is as good as another, and in particular there is nothing wrong with assuming at the outset that the Bible is inerrant. This assumption is no different from the other assumptions everyone makes.
If non-inerrantists assumed as an axiom that the Bible is not inerrant, there would be something to this argument. "The Bible is not inerrant" is little better as an axiom than "The Bible is inerrant". However, non-inerrantists don't generally take the non-inerrancy of the Bible as an axiom. The non-inerrantist assumes less than the inerrantist; the inerrantist assumes all the same things as the non-inerrantist, and on top of them assumes that the Bible is inerrant.
Furthermore, we are not free to choose our basic non-negotiable assumptions entirely as we please. Someone who assumed as an axiom that snow is green would rightly be regarded as silly, because there is good reason to believe that snow is not green, and one can only maintain the belief that it is by messing around badly with other more important and more widely held beliefs. As I shall argue shortly, there is good reason to believe that the Bible is not inerrant, so "the Bible is inerrant" is not a good basic assumption.
As well as arguments that support the doctrine of inerrantism, anyone professing non-inerrantist views in the presence of inerrantists is likely to come up against a number of claims directed not at their beliefs but at themselves, and a number of arguments which purport to show not that non-inerrantism is false but that it is dangerous.
I shall discuss some of these, and explain why I do not think the non-inerrantist need be bothered by them.
This is a difficult criticism to answer, because it is rather vague. If the criticism means something like "You are giving your own opinions priority over those in the Bible in all cases", it's clearly false; non-inerrantism doesn't imply taking no notice at all of the Bible. So, if it's to bite at all, it must mean something more like "You are giving your own opinions priority over those in the Bible in some cases".
The question then arises: why shouldn't I? "Because the Bible is infallible and your opinions aren't" -- well, obviously if you assume inerrantism you can deduce that non-inerrantism is bad. There's no value to that. "Because the Bible has been shown to be reliable, in such-and-such ways" -- but anyone who advances such an argument is evidently trusting the Bible because their reason tells them to; if that isn't "putting reason above scripture" then I don't know what is.
It seems to me that the only way to avoid this criticism would be to decide, for no reason at all, to accept everything in the Bible, and then to stick to that consistently. But why should that be a good thing? It seems we're back with presuppositionalism.
The fact is that, in practice, we all put our own reason (broadly conceived, as the term must be if the criticism is to have any plausibility) first, and we could not do otherwise, simply for the boring reason that our beliefs are ours. If I believe that the Bible is reliable, then it is because I have decided to do so; why should it be better to do so for no reason than for some reason?
Perhaps our critic would reply by saying "My decision to trust the Bible was not really my decision. It was taken for me by God." Perhaps so. But, since no such decision has been taken for me by God, it makes no sense to reproach me for not behaving as if it has.
And, of course, it's a dangerous game to assume that one's opinions are the result of the direct intervention of God. We know that some people have believed such things and been terribly wrong (being led, in some extreme cases, to rape and murder in the name of God). How can our hypothetical critic be certain of not being similarly misled?
The first thing to say about this criticism is that its language is tendentious. Not being an inerrantist doesn't entail dismissing anything in the Bible. One can believe that something has mistakes in it without dismissing it altogether.
With that out of the way, what about the substance of the question?
Frankly, the question is a very silly one. This becomes obvious when you consider parallel questions with "the Bible" replaced with almost anything else: a reference book, a textbook, a tourist guidebook; a teacher, a friend, a colleague. We all manage, all the time, to make use of fallible sources of information. So what is it about the Bible that's supposed to mean the only choices are "accept everything" and "reject everything"? I can't imagine.
This observation is supported by the fact that, as it happens, Christians who aren't inerrantists do typically accept plenty of things in the Bible. For instance, I'm not an inerrantist, but most of my theological opinions are quite conservative.
Perhaps our critic has a slightly different argument in view. Maybe the idea is that the only reasons for trusting the Bible at all are actually reasons for thinking it inerrant, so that if we decide it's not inerrant then all our reasons for trusting it at all fall down. The only problem with this is that there are plenty of reasons for trusting the Bible that don't require it to be inerrant.
This criticism is usually intended to insinuate that the non-inerrantist's motive for not being an inerrantist is a selfish wish to behave in ways disallowed by the Bible.
Speaking only for myself: my non-inerrantism is certainly not consciously motivated by any such wish; I don't see any evidence that it's unconsciously motivated by any such wish; and, in fact, my behaviour isn't much different from what it would be if I were an inerrantist. (Most of my deviations from "inerrantist morality" are equally deviations from "errantist morality"; for instance, I'm often selfish and lazy and arrogant, but I regard those as sinful in just the same way as inerrantists presumably do.)
However, one thing that makes some people non-inerrantists is a perception (right or wrong) that the morality implied by an inerrantist reading of the Bible is unsatisfactory; consider for instance the massacre of the Amalekites in 1 Samuel 15, or the apparently negative attitude to women expressed in many places. It might be fair to say that some people reject inerrantism in order to avoid having to accept those. I don't see any reason why that's obviously wrong; indeed, the non-inerrantist could reply by claiming that the inerrantist only clings to the authority of the Bible in order to perpetuate his sexist views. Which would be unfair; exactly as unfair, in fact, as the more common criticism of non-inerrantists.
Having spent a while rejecting what seem to me to be bad arguments for inerrantism, let me move onto something more positive: reasons to believe inerrantism is wrong. These reasons are in something like decreasing order of strength; the later a reason is in the list, the less convincing I think it is. The first two or three are, I think, pretty conclusive; without them the others, even taken together, would probably not be enough to outweigh the evidence for inerrantism. I mention them because they are weak arguments rather than bad ones: they do provide evidence against inerrantism, even though they don't come close to refuting it.
Clearly, an outright contradiction in the Bible -- two statements logically incompatible with one another -- would instantly disprove inerrantism. Exactly what forms of inerrantism it would disprove would depend on the nature of the incompatible statements.
Outright contradictions of this sort are rare, not only in the Bible but in almost any text, no matter how unreliable. Writers are seldom so pedantic as to nail down their meaning so firmly that it can't be interpreted in a wide variety of ways. And, of course, the Bible contains a lot of poetry, hyperbole, symbolism and so forth, which makes it even harder to pin down.
However, I think there are things in the Bible that can only be rescued from contradiction by adopting very unnatural interpretations; interpretations so unnatural as to imply that the writers of the Bible were hopelessly inadequate communicators. It seems to me that any argument that implies inerrancy would also imply reasonably competent communication, so this sort of near-contradiction is enough to provide good evidence against inerrantism. (Later on, I discuss the topic of strained interpretations in more detail.)
Some apparent contradictions could easily be the result of transcription errors since the original composition of the Biblical texts. These are mostly also in matters of little importance for faith or morals. I am mentioning some of these (for instance, the first of the contradictions mentioned below) simply because they provide excellent evidence against the very strongest forms of inerrantism.
In 2 Chronicles 21, we learn that Jehoram became king at the age of 32, and "reigned eight years in Jerusalem"; that the Philistines and Arabs kidnapped his sons and wives "so that no son was left to him except Jehoaz, his youngest son". In the following chapter, we learn that "Ahaziah his youngest son" succeeded him. Perhaps Ahaziah had two names? We also learn that Ahaziah was 42 when he began to reign. In other words, he was two years older than his own father. 2 Kings 8 has a parallel passage saying that Ahaziah was 22 when he began to reign, which seems very much more plausible. Some translations of the Bible correct "42" in 2 Chronicles to "22", but no Hebrew manuscript has any figure other than 42.
According to 1 Chronicles 21, Satan "incited David to number Israel"; the census recorded 1.1 million fighting men of Israel and 470000 of Judah, not counting the tribes of Levi and Benjamin. When Jerusalem was spared from destruction in the pestilence sent as punishment, David bought the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite for 600 shekels of gold and built an altar there. According to 2 Samuel 24, God incited David to number Israel; there were 800000 fighting men in Israel and 500000 in Judah. (There's no mention of Levi and Benjamin not being counted.) When Jerusalem was spared from the pestilence sent as punishment, David bought the threshing floor of Ornan the Jebusite for fifty shekels of silver and built an altar there.
These are not (apart, perhaps, from the fact that the inspiration for the census comes from God in one account and from Satan in the other) serious discrepancies; they affect no matter of doctrine. But (unless we take the desperate measure of supposing two censuses and two threshing floors bought from people of the same name) they do suffice to make it clear that the Bible is not perfectly reliable on unimportant matters of history.
According to Exodus 33, Moses saw God's back (I ask in passing: how many inerrantists really believe that God has a back?). According to 1 John 4, "no man has ever seen God". The passage in Exodus is a very strange one; it could be argued that seeing God's back doesn't amount to seeing God ("you cannot see my face; for man shall not see me and live", says God in that same passage). In that case, though, I have even less idea what God's "back" is than I thought... Exodus 33 does also say that God spoke to Moses "face to face". Perhaps that's just a metaphor.
Mark 15 says that Jesus was crucified at "the third hour"; John 19, that he was crucified at about the sixth hour.
Acts 9 says that Paul's companions on the Damascus road heard a voice but saw no one, when he had his dramatic encounter with Jesus. In chapter 22, Paul says that his companions saw the light but did not hear the voice.
Acts 1 says that Judas bought a field with "the reward of his wickedness", and that he fell headlong in it and burst open, and that for this reason the field is called "the Field of Blood". Matthew 27 says that Judas returned the money he was paid for betraying Jesus to the temple authorities, and hanged himself; and that the chief priests bought a field with his money, and that for this reason it is called "the Field of Blood". It is possible to reconcile these, but only if you assume (1) that there were two "Fields of Blood" associated with Judas, (2) that "the reward of his wickedness" doesn't mean the money he received for betraying Jesus, and (3) that the spilling of his entrails described in Acts 1 happened after he had hanged himself, despite the fact that the passage doesn't mention his having done so. I know people who seriously believe all these things, but I don't understand how they manage to do so.
Most lists of Contradictions in the Bible that I've seen are longer than they should be, because their authors have failed to notice perfectly plausible resolutions. Here are some examples:
The letter of James is often read as flatly contradicting the teaching of Paul regarding the relation between faith and works. However, what James actually says is that "faith" without works is dead, and that mere belief has no power to save. I think Paul would have agreed. Since Paul's letters are full of ethical demands, it is clear that Paul did not regard works as unimportant. It seems clear that the view James is arguing against is derived from Paul's teaching, but it doesn't seem to be the view Paul actually argues for in his letters. (Matthew 25 is a better place to look for ideas incompatible with Paul.)
In some places in Genesis, God is represented as saying "us" in places where one would expect "I"; this is sometimes claimed to contradict the monotheism stated or assumed elsewhere in the Bible. I don't think we know enough about early Hebrew usage to deduce anything much from these instances; it seems perfectly possible that the plural form is used to indicate greatness or all-encompassing-ness or something. Or maybe these are foreshadowings of the idea of the Trinity ...
Some parts of the Bible claim that no one is perfect, or that no one is righteous. Other parts claim that particular people are "blameless" or "righteous". All this indicates is that there is some hyperbole or inexact language in the Bible. In normal usage I'm perfectly happy to say things like "perfectly happy", even though in fact I don't believe that anyone is perfectly happy. Why should the Bible be written as if by the world's greatest pedant?
I have in front of me a document which complains about the fact that sometimes in the Bible God is said to dwell in unapproachable light, and darkness is used as a metaphor for evil, whereas sometimes God is said to be surrounded by darkness and clouds. The only conclusion I can draw is that the author of the document is appallingly literally-minded and has no notion of poetry or metaphor.
I don't believe myself to be guilty of any such error in my own examples of contradictions above.
Obviously, outright contradictions or near-contradictions provide strong evidence against inerrantism. Another sort of evidence comes from statements in the Bible that are contradicted not by other statements in the Bible, but by very well supported statements not found in the Bible.
The most familiar example of this: one reading (not the only one possible) of the book of Genesis implies that the universe is no more than, say, 10000 years old. There is very strong evidence that this is not so; if the world is so young then basically everything in present-day science is badly wrong. I don't propose to argue any further against young-earth creationism here; this is not the place.
A related topic is the great flood described in chapters 6-8 of Genesis. It could have happened, but only by means of a great succession of miracles that aren't mentioned in the Bible. For instance: how did the kangaroos get to Australia? How did the world get repopulated with people so quickly after the flood? How did the ark stay afloat? (No ship so large has been built and not sunk in recorded history, and that's even without the unremitting heavy rainfall.) How did they manage to feed and slop out all the animals? If the flood was worldwide, why isn't there geological evidence for a worldwide flood? Where did all the water go? Where did it come from?
Leviticus 11:6 says that hares chew the cud. They don't, though they do something superficially similar. Whether this is a problem depends on whether "chews the cud" is really the right translation.
Daniel 5:31 says that the kingdom of Belshazzar, king of Babylon, was conquered by Darius the Mede. There was no "Darius the Mede". There was a Persian king called Darius, who captured Babylon at something like the right time. Furthermore, Belshazzar was not the king of Babylon. He was the son of the last king of Babylon (Nabonidus, who incidentally was still alive when Belshazzar died: Belshazzar never inherited), and the crown prince. (The fact that Belshazzar was not literally the son of Nebuchadnezzar, despite Daniel 5:11, isn't a big problem; "father" could mean "predecessor" or "recent ancestor".)
[FIXME: cross-ref to page about evolution, geology etc?]
[FIXME: geological evidence against a global flood?]
If the Bible is inerrant, then it should be inerrant in matters of ethics as well as matters of fact. For instance, anything it says God commanded ought to be right.
What, then, are we to make of 1 Samuel 15? Saul is told by the prophet Samuel that he is to destroy the Amalekite people -- men, women and children, and animals too. He took 200,000 men and wiped out the Amalekites, sparing only their king and some of their best animals. For sparing them, he is roundly condemned by Samuel, who hacks Agag (the king of the Amalekites) into pieces. "And the LORD repented that he had made Saul king over Israel."
When someone today claims that he has been commanded by God to kill people, we generally conclude that he is mad and lock him up. I haven't heard an outcry from inerrantists against this. But here, we are told, God commands what looks very much like genocide. (It's hard to be sure just how many Amalekites there were; but they had a king, and at least one city, and Saul thought it worth sending 200,000 men after them. Whether the right word is "race", "people", "nation" or "tribe", there would appear to have been rather a lot of them.)
What was the crime for which these people were being destroyed? In the time of the Exodus, their ancestors had fought against the people of Israel.
Perhaps it really is right for many thousands of people to be massacred because their ancestors had fought on the wrong side, but I find this view difficult to reconcile both with the rest of the Bible and with the conscience God has (I believe) given me.
And what of Deuteronomy 22:28ff? "If a man meets a virgin who is not betrothed, and seizes her and lies with her, and they are found, then the man who lay with her shall give to the father of the young woman fifty shekels of silver, and she shall be his wife, because he has violated her". In other words, if a man rapes a woman then she becomes his wife. This doesn't seem very fair to the woman.
I've heard it argued that it's perfectly fair because the woman's father can forbid the marriage if he thinks it should not take place. (I think this is stated somewhere else in Deuteronomy, in a different context.) If fathers always acted in the best interests of their children, this might be a good point; but they don't. (Surely it's never, or almost never, right for a woman to have to be married to a man who has raped her; so how come the passage doesn't make any mention at all of the possibility that this might not be the outcome?)
It seems to be taken for granted in passages like this one that women are not people whose well-being needs to be considered, but tools for the propagation of the species or something of the sort.
As with the Amalekites, I cannot prove that the law laid down in this passage is unjust, or that the view of women it appears to imply is wrong. But, as with the Amalekites, it doesn't seem at all plausible.
One step down from outright contradictions and discrepancies with established facts, we come to things in the Bible that are merely implausible. These provide evidence against inerrantism, but not outright refutation.
1 Corinthians 14 is mostly given over to an extensive argument for the superiority of the gift of prophecy over the gift of tongues. Paul explains, for instance, that if an outsider enters a church meeting where all are speaking in tongues, he will conclude that the Christians are mad; whereas, if he finds them all prophesying, the secrets of his heart are disclosed and he will be converted. Strangely, immediately before this pair of scenarios, Paul wrote (v22): "Thus, tongues are a sign not for believers but for unbelievers, while prophecy is not for unbelievers but for believers". I think it's clear that this is just a slip of the tongue or pen, either by Paul or by his amanuensis or by some later scribe.
(It's certainly possible to explain this without assuming such an error, but only by making rather implausible assumptions. The best such explanation known to me is that verse 22 is placed in the mouth of a hypothetical opponent, whom Paul proceeds to refute.)
Chapters 7-12 of Daniel consist of what purport to be prophecies, describing Near Eastern history from the beginning of the Persian empire to about 165BC. This description is moderately accurate until it reaches about 11:5 (describing the Greek rulers), when it becomes very detailed and accurate ... until 11:40, when it describes a military campaign that in fact did not happen, and becomes much less precise; in particular, the death of the principal character (Antiochus IV Epiphanes) is described very sketchily, whereas many petty details of his reign are given earlier.
The simplest explanation of all this is that, in fact,the book was written in about 165BC; the author had a sketchy knowledge of distant history, a good knowledge of recent history and current events, and very little knowledge of the future.
(Again, it's possible that in fact this stuff is perfectly genuine prophecy, and that the historians are badly wrong in claiming that the campaign in Daniel 11:42-44 didn't happen, and that the differences in precision are to be ascribed to the mysterious character of prophecy. This is merely implausible, not impossible.)
The numbers reported in the census of Numbers 1 are generally regarded as impossibly large. I'm not sure on exactly what grounds. There's also some difficulty in reconciling the figure of about 600,000 men in chapter 1 with that of about 22000 first-born males in chapter 3. (It seems clear from the context that it's all first-born males who are being counted; not e.g. just the very young ones.)
If inerrantism is right, then the Bible is absolutely perfect. But God doesn't in fact seem to be in the habit of giving us perfect things of any other kind. Almost everything in the world is imperfect in one way or another.
We have no perfect churches, no perfect church leaders, no perfect books other than the Bible, no perfect minds, no perfect memories, no perfectly preserved manuscripts of the Bible, and so on. To me, this suggests very strongly that either God doesn't want us to have all the answers handed to us on a plate (maybe he wants us to learn by thinking things through for ourselves?) or, at least, he allows us not to have them (maybe for the same reasons, whatever they are, as those for which he allows sin and disease and suffering and death to continue).
There are several ways in which an inerrantist position leads to unnatural interpretations of the Bible. Firstly, when the Bible conflicts with itself or with something known from other sources, the inerrantist is obliged to come up with some explanation that preserves inerrancy. If the most natural reading of the Bible leads to trouble, then we must take an unnatural one. Thus we get, for instance, the idea that 2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21 are describing two entirely different censuses. Or that when Paul says (1) tongues are a sign for unbelievers and (2) if an unbeliever enters a meeting in which the gift of tongues is being exercised he will think the believers are mad, he really means both of these because in coming to that conclusion the unbeliever will be bringing judgement upon himself. [FIXME: check this is the real claim]
Secondly, even when there are no blatant contradictions, inerrantism tends to lead to putting too much stress on what is explicitly stated; it's less pliable, and so if one is committed to the truth of everything in the Bible it's necessary to take more liberties with things that are merely implied. To some extent, this is a sensible policy anyway; but it does, I think, lead to distortions. For instance, consider the passage in 1 Corinthians mentioned above; we have a whole paragraph arguing for one thing and a single sentence going the other way, and the inerrantist is obliged to find strained interpretations of the paragraph in order to preserve the truth of the single sentence. [FIXME: say more about this?]
Thirdly, the belief that everything in the Bible is strictly true tends to encourage the assumption that everything in the Bible is intended to be strictly true. The possibility that someone writing in the Bible might have been deliberately vague or imprecise is neglected. But, in fact, much writing is deliberately vague or imprecise, and I think the Bible is no exception. [FIXME: give examples] Failure to realise this amounts to assuming that the Bible was written in a special language (Inerrantese, say) in which it is impossible to exaggerate or speak vaguely or blur details.
[FIXME: say more about this?]
In the making and preservation of the text; and in things like the Flood (possible, but only if the ark was miraculously kept from sinking: so why bother with an ark at all?)
Note that I don't object to miracles; I just think they're rare and prefer to minimise the number I need to assume.
[FIXME: say more about this?]
Things still to put in, in some form:
- Many versions of text; many translations; uncertainties of language. (These may go better as arguments against 1c.)
- Pragmatic: bibliolatry. (Put this somewhere else?)
- Pragmatic: OT morality. (Again: somewhere else? Maybe put these with pragmatic arguments for inerrantism, for contrast.)
Here's an assortment of other comments that seem to belong in this essay but don't fit in anywhere else.
It's important to distinguish between inerrantism (the position I've been arguing against here) and literalism (the idea that everything, or almost everything, in the Bible should be taken literally rather than symbolically). Contrary to popular belief, not all inerrantists are literalists; and some people who are definitely not inerrantists insist on taking the Bible too literally, in order to discredit it.
[FIXME: arguments about Genesis above]
[FIXME: say more about this?]
The doctrine of Biblical inerrancy, despite its wide acceptance, has very little evidence to support it; each of the arguments often adduced in its favour either is unsound or supports only a weaker doctrine.
On the other hand, there is a lot of evidence against the doctrine. Most notably, the Bible is not perfectly consistent, and it says some things that there's good reason to disbelieve.
It seems reasonable to conclude, as in fact I do, that inerrantism is wrong.
Of course it does not follow that inerrantists are stupid or wilfully obtuse, or that the Bible is no good. Some inerrantists are very intelligent and reasonable people. And the Bible, inerrant or not, is a life-changing book and foundational to Christianity. Be all that as it may, what it is not is an absolutely reliable source of truth on all subjects it touches.
Explicit argument from authority. (Only works for members of churches that say that...) "Trivial" argument against: "well, it's obviously unlikely, isn't it?". What I think of inerrantists. Request for comments. Memo to self: give this thing a version number or something and RCS it; have a "rev history" section. Explain somewhere some things I'm not saying (e.g.: I'm not saying that we should ignore the Bible, that it isn't important, that we should reject its teaching in favour of the flavour-of-the-month ideas in psychology, etc.) and why I'm not saying them. Jeremiah 43; the Babylonians did not invade Egypt, apparently.
Somewhere, discuss the `argument': inerrancy is a higher view, and therefore better. (Try to find a more sympathetic way of stating it. Trouble is that it's usually not made explicitly; it's done via throwaway adjectives etc.)
Somewhere, say what I think the right view of Scripture is.