Inerrancy is not Literalism and other thoughts on the matter

The topic of Inerrancy is going around the biblioblogosphere, among other topics, so I thought I might take a moment to dialogue this post. In part,

….From where I stand, slavish, ritualistic belief in a set of rigid propositions strikes me as much more a “religion” than a “relationship” (to evoke a phrase I have always despised).

Commenting on some remarks from a well-spoken non-inerrantist that sound very much in line with some of my beliefs on Scripture, Kidder says:

This is the start of the “slippery slope” argument that is soundly resisted by most purveyors of the YEC model—Genesis must be read literally or else there is no barometer for how we should read scripture at all.

If I had a dime for every time I’ve encountered this objection, I’d be one wealthy son of a gun. But in the end, it’s simply a fear-based, not a faith-based (much less an evidence-based) approach to the issue….

I believe that a part of the the belief which drives people headlong, without question, into biblical inerrancy, and further, into literalism and fundamentalism, is quite simply fear (not all of them, mind you – I don’t want to generalize). I say this, because of the people who are so deeply into inerrancy, find a problem, and then lose all faith in a short time. If it is fear, then fear will hold and grasp the mind so long before it dissipates.

What if the bible contains an error? Well, of course it doesn’t, right? To many, this requires that one translation be held as the only inspired word of God. To others, everything in the bible must be literal. Why? Because, they have their faith founded on the pages of the bible – not found in the pages of the Scripture. The bible is not inerrant – the Scriptures are because the Scriptures contain the Message.

I am an inerrantist – although this comes more by logic and assumption than Scriptural proof and is really not found until lately. By logic, and starting with faith. First, I point to Paul’s assertion,

All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; 2 Timothy 3:16 NASB

All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. 2 Timothy 3:16

We know that this means that all Scripture is breathed out by God – along the same lines as Adam’s soul, among other things. By faith, I assent first that there is a God, that it is the God of the Bible, and that Paul was a man of God. By logic, if the Scripture came from God, it is Inerrant as it is very much as extensionof Him. By history, we know that while in the same way, Creation came from God, the bible can be corrupted. Thus, the lower criticism which we label textual. Further, by logic, I know that I cannot possibly know the deep things of God and thus, while things were given by God to the prophets, I may not sitting in the 21st century know everything as they wrote it. So, by faith, I realize that there are somethings written which may not be ‘true’ by my understanding. Prophecy. Genesis 1. Simply because I don’t understand it, or empirical evidence says something else, doesn’t make the Scriptures untrue, just my understanding faulty. Further, it is the the Message of the Scriptures which is the most important.

Further, I don’t accept the Scriptures as a document which is flat – however, it is united – but one which details the progressive revelation between God and Humanity in ways which we don’t understand, yet. I believe that cultural contexts plays into it greatly – not ours, but theirs. Further, I do not believe that the Scriptures were written to explain every small detail in the known universe. I do believe, however, that the Scriptures were handed to us as a theological document. It is not a science book; it is a book of theology.

I do believe, however, that we can place the bible in such a way as to take away from the Living Christ. We look for the Spirit, not the letter. The Spirit of Christianity is not bondage and enslavement, but liberty and freedom. If we would measure our doctrine and practice by that of the complete bible, we might find ourselves a little unChristian in certain areas. If we would measure our doctrine by Christ, what then would we find? For me, I want a relationship with Christ – one which binds, a religion if you will – not one with a book. Without Christ, the book is a flawless paper idol.

Anyway, that’s my continuing position and brief thoughts. I am an inerrantist or maybe I just believe that all Scripture is inspired and because of that, regardless of any ‘error’ I find, I consider the Ultimate Source. Beyond that, let the discussion ensue. I have no problem trying to dig deeper into this, so please, engage.

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58 Replies to “Inerrancy is not Literalism and other thoughts on the matter”

  1. I remember reading the Bible looking for what it said about my chosen sin. When I found it spoke out against it, I told myself that there are Christians who only use the New Testament, so I read the New Testament looking for what it had to say regarding my chosen sin. When I found it spoke out against it, I told myself that there are Christians who only use the Red Letters, so I read the New Testament looking Red Letters (Jesus’s words) for what HE had to say regarding my chosen sin. He spoke out against it also.

    I still had many doubts as to the trustworthiness of the Bible. But God worked on me about that. And it IS a matter of faith. You either have a big enough God who could write through man without error, and maintain it through languages, cultures, and time, or you dont.

    If your image of God does not allow for Him to be loving and caring enough to interact with mankind, then how is it you think your image of god could be considered loving, let alone all powerful?

    If your image of God does not allow for Him to have man write something without error, then just how powerful and loving a god do you believe in?

    If your image of God does not allow for Him to have man maintain something through the years, accross languages and cultures, without error, then just how powerful and loving a god do you believe in?

    I could share through scripture how it attests to itself. I could share through external evidence how it is attested to by others. I could share about how reading it has changed lives. I could share how hearing it has changed lives.

    But regardless of the amount of information shared, ultimately, it comes down to faith. Do you believe in a god, and is he loving and all powerful? If so, then it makes just as much sense to believe God sent Christ to suffer and die for your sins as it does to believe the BIble was written by God and maintained accross time/language/culture using men.

  2. Good post.

    As someone who believes in a six-day creation, I’ve bumped up against a lot of folks with ridiculously rigid views on what the Bible says. And I think we all need to take a step back and try to think through things without letting hysteria cloud our thinking. It happens on both sides of the aisle–the creationist feels a ridiculous absolute need for all the Bible to be literal (seriously? have any of you ever read ecclesiastes?), while the evolutionist either throws the Bible out or tends to view it as some sort of fuzzy old documents we can never fully appreciate. Either view, in my opinion, sets out to destroy the foundations of biblical authority, because an absolutely literalist framework will show the Bible false the moment it says some like “all is vanity,” while an obscurantist framework will show all the Bible to be irrelevent by saying that interpretation is impossible.

    A good balance has to be found somewhere in the middle: a recognition that God gave the Bible to us, and that he didn’t make mistakes, and that we can come to understand a lot through it, while still acknowledging that we are flawed creatures and that God is not limited to flat literal speech.

    1. Mitchell, thank you for your comments and continued participation in this blog.

      I think you are correct regarding interpretation methods – often times, one side goes way too far.

      Does Genesis 1 have to be literal? And if so, why? And should we then apply that to the rest of Scripture?

      Instead, we can all take Genesis 1 – regardless of literalism or literalism in context – and see that many theological truths which are present in the first Creation account.

      1. Does Genesis 1 have to be literal

        That, Polycarp, is a great question. I would say in principle, no. For God can write his history any way he wants, and we need to be sensitive to genres. So I recognize that I could be misunderstanding Genesis 1, but as far as I can tell it seems that the context demands it. Genesis 1 gives a 6-day account (complete with evenings and mornings), which results on the 6th in the making of a guy named Man who lives 130 before having a son named Seth, who lived 105 years, and had a son named Enosh, etc., with a complete history that includes the lifespans of otherwise irrelevant characters. As I see it, it seems Moses (and thus by extension, God) is going out of his way to paint a picture of Genesis as actual, documented, historical fact all the way through. I’ve yet to find another treatment of Genesis (and I’ve read a lot of them) which doesn’t to my mind descend into chopping up the text and ignoring crucial facts.

        All the metaphorical or long-age interpretations of Genesis seem to me to be attempts, however well-intentioned, to make the biblical account say what we need it to say. And that doesn’t seem to me to be the approach to be taken toward a text with inspired authority.

        All that being said, it doesn’t mean that I believe the universe is six thousand years old. Thirteen billion seems like a reasonable number.

          1. 13 is an unpleasant number for some folk, isn’t it? Well, then, let’s say the universe is between 12 and 14 billion years old, and not worry about the exact number of billions.

            Days in Daniel, let’s see (here’s my initial thoughts):

            literal days: 6:10, 6:13, 10:4

            it doesn’t really matter: 9:7, 9:15, 10:12

            I don’t really see any exegetical difficulty in any of those verses, to tell the truth.

            And as to Revelation, I don’t know how to take that book.


  3. Joel,
    I’ll try and add an opposing viewpoint to the discussion. I think your use of the term “scripture” raises a lot of questions.

    I don’t know if you saw the link Joseph placed in my comments section, but I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts. So, I’ll try to sum up and bottom-line it. For more, you can follow the link Joseph placed in the comments section.

    There are two versions of the book of Jeremiah, one shorter (LXX) and one longer (Massoretic Text). The Dead Sea Scrolls contain examples of both textual traditions in Hebrew. Most translations use the MT; however, many scholars believe the shorter version of Jeremiah is an older, better witness. Which version of Jeremiah do you consider inerrant LXX or MT?

    1. I don’t really know, Jeremy, regarding the rendering. Of course, I have a certain preference for the LXX because the early Church considered it inspired, among other reasons. It was Scripture to them, long before the MT was. Because of this, I’ll just say that what ever Jeremiah wrote down, was inspired, and was inerrantly received. Now, how’s that for a dodge?

      I don’t want to confuse inerrancy with preservation, though.

      1. Joel,

        Here’s where I stand in reply to your response: If there are two different versions of Jeremiah, we don’t know exactly what he wrote. With that in mind, if only what he wrote is inerrant as you have said, the doctrine of inerrancy is in a very practical sense meaningless. In theory, perhaps there was an inerrant text of the Book of Jeremiah, but we have absolutely no access to it.

        I do believe that there are other obstacles to the doctrine, but I think this is a very basic issue that renders the doctrine at the very least very problematic. As always, I mean this with no offense to anyone, but you have always kept your comment section as a place for discussion and dialogue.

        1. Indeed, Jeremy.

          Perhaps inerrantly delivered then? If Scripture was delivered from God, God-breathed – then at least on delivery it was inerrant. We do know that (here and here) even in Jeremiah there is a discussion of the loss of the original, so while God does preserve His word (which doesn’t always equate with what we have in our hands) humanity can corrupt it. But, I don’t want to confuse preservation with inerrancy.

          This is why I am not too concerned about ‘errors’ that I may or may not find. If my faith is in the Infallible God and the Living Christ, I can trust that what I read is what God wants me to read and that anything in there not wholesome won’t affect me.

          I have no doubt that the doctrine is problematic, and indeed, I admit that this issue is coming at a time when I am examining certain key issues in relation to how others are living them. I do believe, however, that the Scriptures are inspired, exist in the Bible, are to be the rule and guide of our faith. I believe that which comes from God is inerrant, although we have a nack of corrupting those things.

  4. Joel

    Nice post. I would call myself an “inspiredist” as I do believe that the Scriptures are inspired by God. I like the way that you can differentiate between “the Bible” and “Holy Scripture.” You are dead on in this and I too am a proponent of the LXX for the same reason that you are.

    Also your comments about how some place the Bible even above Jesus is dead on.

    Blessings partner

    Peace, Steve+

  5. Hi, Joel. I started to write a comment to respond to this, then considered a full-on post. Then I remembered that I have already written that post. 😉

    In short, your appeal to 2 Tim. 3.16-17 is the weakest part of all, given that “Paul” (a separate but not irrelevant issue) is certainly not referring to our canon of sixty-six books, but the Jewish Scripture, which incidentally was not formalized into a true canon at the time and so was viewed by the author to be a bit more open-ended than inerrantists assume. That sets the whole logical progression off kilter, for without a verse declaring the whole thing to be “God-breathed”, we don’t have a reason to presume that God’s perfection, omniscience, or honesty will be imparted to Scripture.

    The “God surely would have done it like this” argument, which to your credit you did not present, is usually the fall-back argument at this point. As I am wont to point out, Lewis made a profound critique of this argument:

    One can respect, and at moments envy, both the Fundamentalists view of the Bible and the Roman Catholics view of the Church. But there is one argument which we should beware of using for either position: God must have done what is best, this is best, therefore God has done this. For we are mortals and do not know what is best for us, and it is dangerous to prescribe what God must have done-especially when we cannot, for the life of us, see that He has after all done it.

    I do appreciate that you cautiously allow for the possibility of errors and retreat at that point to a position of “inspiration”, and I can respect that. I tend to view the Scriptures we have as a product of some divine intentionality (i.e. God knew the Bible was going to happen and intended its existence), but i imagine much less direct divine influence than you probably do. In perspective, as someone who accepts the theory of evolution, I view God’s action in the Bible’s creation/compilation to be quite parallel with His action in the emergence of humans from lower life forms — all intended, but not directly manipulated, and not without some natural “flaws”.

    Sorry this was so long! Thanks for clarifying your position. I look forward to continuing the conversation!

    1. Take long if you need, Steve.

      But, note that I did separate bible (canon who for some is 66 books :)) and Scripture. Regarding Scripture, we do know that ‘Peter’ considering Paul’s writing Scripture. Just as Isaiah was writing certain things which presently (for him) were taking place, they were fulfilled in Christ so then (completion of) Scripture could have been fulfilled in the time of the Apostles as well. And, we do know that Paul felt as if he wrote certain things by God’s direct command.

  6. Genesis 1 is written in a form of poetry. Given that, I have no real issues if someone wants to interpret it as poetry or even observational. (the observational approach is that Genesis 1 unfolds the way an observer standing where the earth would be formed would have seen things rather than how things actually happened with the thought being that God showed Moses what occurred and Moses accurately reported his observations) I personally ascribe to the Cambridge documents which state the Bible is inerrant in its original manuscripts but that no translation is inspired in the same way. Also I am a YECer until someone proves to me that is not a valid position. Where the Bible is harmonious when reading literally and the context of scripture justifies it then I read the Bible literally, this is different from literalists who demand that the Bible always be read in a literal fashion and ignore little things like context or textual style.


      1. I am at least vaguely familiar with the ANE (Ancient Near East) View of Bereshith/Genesis I have listened to a lecture to physics students Given by Dr Walton of Wheaton College (who I believe is the same one you are referencing if not please correct me and ignore the rest of this post as it will be way off base 🙂 )

        If I had to respond to the ANE hypothesis my initial reaction would be to look at how the rest of the Bible treats it. From what I recall I found it unsatisfactory in scope. John seems to reference physical creation when he talks about Christ’s role in creation and that parallels Genesis 1, and I am sure there are others. If you remind me Beale and Carson did an excellent work on Usage of the OT in the NT I have a copy assuming I have not lent it to my pastor I will try and remember to take a look and see what references directly back to chapter 1. Again I am going on memory, but I remember thinking that it was a point often over looked the idea of order from disorder similar to temple texts and while I admit it plays a part, it is incomplete. So I suppose for right now I would have to go with unsatisfactory.

        If you take a look at and click on the creation subsection then the first note so that it brings up the footnotes at the bottom you will find ,amy other correlations that the Westminster Divines felt existed. I know you are an early church guy and the Divines are a bit after that by a day or two (or 1200+ years) but they did a pretty solid Job.

        I am not yet a strict subscriptionist to the WCF, but anywhere I vary from it is usually in a place where I have not yet done a full study with the exception of 25.6 about the Pope. WCF seems to imply a definite article where I would place him in a subset so “an” rather than the implied “the”

        Of course the divines were typically historists where I am generally Bealeian or a “redemptive-historical form of modified idealism” which encompasses some of preterism, futurism historism and idealism based on context. not that hermeneutic has anything to do with anything right? 🙂

        Also correct me if I am wrong but doesn’t Walton espouse that Genesis is a temple document? If so I would soundly reject that idea. Lastly I will leave you with a quote from Beale on ANE … Well I was trying to find the quote online and found an entire section on theopedia (good resource generally BTW) so since it is under CCL i will just quote the larger chunk:
        “Old Testament view of the cosmos

        Describing ANE portrayals in the “recent escalation and profusion of ancient Near Eastern studies”, G. K. Beale writes,
        “Accordingly, Old Testament writers’ minds were shaped by the typical language and conceptions of the world that were a part of the overall way of thinking in their ancient culture. The universe was commonly understood as a composition of three tiers: the heavens, the earth, and the netherworld. The significant features of each of these parts include the following: (1) the earth was composed of only one continent that had mountains at its perimeters to hold up the sky; (2) the sky was a solid mass, a tent or dome, which separated the earthly seas from the heavenly sea that was just above the dome; (3) deities dwelt in the heaven above the earth; (4) the heavens were a composition of three or more levels with pavements of different kinds of stone; and (5) the earth was understood either to float on or be surrounded by cosmic waters or to be supported by pillars.”[11]
        Solid dome or atmospheric expanse?
        G. K. Beale explains,
        “Some believe that the [raqiya] was rock-solid and formed a dome over the earth, reflecting the ANE mythological viewpoint without any qualification or critique… For example, P. H. Seely argues for such a view in an article published in the Westminster Theological Journal. He contends that the [raqiya`] in Genesis 1:6, 14, 17, 20 and in Ezekiel must be considered solid since this was the common ANE view, both from the mythological perspective and from the viewpoint of the ancient common person.”[12]
        G. K. Beale, opposing this view, writes, “[W]e just do not know that all ancients believed the sky was a solid dome or that there was anything near unanimity on this point.”[13] Hugh Ross also takes exception to this view of the expanse.[14]
        See main article: Raqiya (Hebrew)”

        1. Dr Walton has a symposium presentation on ANE st

          Having listened to it after I posted the above, my opinion about calling it “unsatisfactory” still stands. And by unsatisfactory I simply mean it is only covering a portion of what Genesis is (though an often overlooked portion so his thoughts are valuable), and he seems to need to change the intermediate origin of the text to allow for his view. By intermediate origin, I mean he believes the text to be inspired, but to have a different human intermediary.

          1. I enjoyed Walton’s book because it showed a movement to a better approach. I don’t fully, or majorly agree, but I do like the approach. I’ll check out that sym later today.

          2. Polycarp, If you have not read Carson and Beale’s book I linked to above I strongly recommend it.

            I will say this in contrast to the ANE position on the creation account. There was some very advanced either revelation or astronomy going on in the ancient near east. Job, the oldest book in the canon of scripture, shows that Pleiades was known to be a bound star cluster back then. See Job 38:31 : From the NLT just because it is your wifes not so secret competition (j/king) Job 38:31 (New Living Translation)

            31 “Can you direct the movement of the stars—
            binding the cluster of the Pleiades
            or loosening the cords of Orion?

            Just before that in Job 38:12-14 seems to say the earth spins on an axis like clay on a wheel:

            14 “It turneth itself as clay of a seal
            And they station themselves as clothed.

            (Young’s literal translation as most of the newer translations take it as being pressed rather than turned.)

            Just saying….

          3. R.K.,

            No offense, but I think you are reaching quite a bit here, though I realize you are “just saying.”

            Job the oldest book in the canon? Certainly not by linguistic criteria.

            Advanced astronomy? Astrologers also recognize that some stars cluster together. And, so do regular people, especially if you look to the skies to mark times and seasons. Besides, “cluster” is not a good translation (no offense to your NLT Joel, but it ruins the parallelism between chords and chains – see e.g. NRSV).

            In addition, “turn” means nothing like you are taking it to mean in 38.14 as in “spinning.” You can read the Gesenius entry here: . It is here being used in the hithpael.

          4. No, I am not reaching and I reject German Higher Critics and their theories.

            Yes, Job is the oldest book in the canon given that Job lived before Moses.

            As for spin, yes it mens exactly what I am implying it means. Read the rest of the text surrounding. It is context context context. The text is in reference to clay being formed in the manner of a vessel which even in Jobs time was done on a potters wheel.

            As for being bound together the Bible mentions 2 of the 3 gravitationally bound star clusters which are visible to the naked eye as being bound. Given that there are other prima facia star clusters which are not gravitationally bound and yet appear to the eye as being clusters (they really are quite distant from each other but the eye is unable to see depth at that range so they appear close together) are not mentioned as being bound together.

          5. Jobs lifestyle as described in the book lend itself to around the time of the patriarchs. I am not saying that anything like Abraham and Job were homeboys although I am not ruling that out. Most scholars believe that Job is the oldest book in the Hebrew canon and there is good reason for holding to that belief. Moses while being the author of the Torah did not even come on the scene till around 500 yrs after the events in the book of Job took place. No one is arguing the events taking place in the book of Job took place prior to all the events in the Torah. (It would be kinda silly to have the events of Job prior to the creation of the world) Some of the sources i would recommend for looking at this issue are: Word Biblical Commentary: Job vol. 17 by David J.A. Clines The New American Commentary: Job by Robert Alden, and Semeia 7: Studies in the Book of Job.

          6. I think I’m going to leave all of your other mistakes alone, but I’ve studied Hebrew for nearly a decade now. And, I cannot let the “context context context” statement lie. How about you read the context (and perhaps a few lexicon entries while you are at it)? Do you think that the only thing that people did with clay in the ancient world is spin it on a wheel? No, they actually did a lot of things with it, like … I don’t know … maybe pressed it with a signet ring or seal … I wonder where the translation “press” or “change” comes from in most modern translations … I don’t know maybe from reading the context (i.e. the the word immediately following the word clay, which is “seal”) and the entries in Hebrew lexicons. I doubt many people “spun” their clay under a “seal.” I can just see the potter using one hand to spin the clay and the other to stamp it with his seal as he is spinning it. But then again, I guess every modern translation that I have looked at could be wrong and the one old, obscure translation you are using could be right.

            Anyway, if you still feel certain I am misreading the context, please furnish me with one other example of the hebrew word hphch being used in the hithpael to mean “spin,” as in spin on an axis.

          7. And I spent years in the the orthodox synagogues, what is your point? That you read better than the scribes? Orthodox Rabbis to whom modern Hebrew is a native language and Ancient Hebrew and Aramaic, and in a few of their cases Syric and Ugaritic, were solid 2nd languages? Because they were the ones that taught me, that particular usage.

            If you are going to claim I have made numerous mistakes then list them if not then do not bring it up. If you do bring them up be prepared to stand behind your accusations.

          8. I am doubtful being Jewish or Orthodox has anything to do with translating this properly, but in case it does:

            “It changes like clay under the seal …” (NJPS).

            If I am aware, this translation had Orthodox on the committee and is used by some Orthodox. I’m not sure you have “the scribes” on your side, whatever that could possibly mean.

            By “obscure” I meant “not known about” in the sense that most people I know probably do not know it exists.

            I feel pretty certain I am done with this conversation, especially as you furnished no other example of the usage you propose. So, you may have the last word if you wish, unless you furnish examples. Then, I might interact again.

          9. “I feel pretty certain I am done with this conversation, especially as you furnished no other example of the usage you propose. So, you may have the last word if you wish, unless you furnish examples. Then, I might interact again.”

            Please don’t respond again. I really don’t care who you know or what translations they may or may not be aware of. You could know Jimmy Carter or regularly have email discussions with the Professors at major Reformed and Conservative seminaries and it would not change anything. People who have done Bible study at any scholastic level and many who have not are more than familiar with the YLT.

            As for being used by “some orthodox” No orthodox scribe or rabbi in any of the synagogues I have attended used a translation. now I am aware that there is more than straight translation work done in the synagogues as there are references to the tractates and oral history as well.

            Lastly you are certainly free to twist my statements however you want to, but perchance do you think that my statement about the scribes and rabbis was in relation to your comment about “I think I’m going to leave all of your other mistakes alone, but I’ve studied Hebrew for nearly a decade now”?

            See I have an annoying habit of feeding trolls but don’t worry as I don’t take anyone seriously when they start off with attempted character assassinations.

            regardless, I hope everyone has/had a safe new years

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