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Yes, the Bible has errors, and that’s a good thing
Is the Bible really right about everything?
Last week, on our podcast (Resist and Restore, please review, like, and subscribe), our pastors had a dialogue about the Bible and a term used to describe it called “inerrancy.” Inerrancy means that the Bible is exempt from error; and not just error concerning spiritual and theological matters, but all matters, including science, geography, history, and really any other thing that the Bible addresses, even tangentially.
I grew up with an inerrantist view of the scripture thanks to the Evangelical Free church I attended. It was important for the people in my church to maintain a very high view of the Bible. They saw it essentially as a perfect book, because they saw the Bible as the only way they could learn about God and about their lives. The Bible is held in incredibly high esteem in response to the liberals who may question things like whether it is historically accurate and thus question whether it is useful for anything at all. I remember this being so drilled into my head, that I needed to stretch the meaning of passages, just to fit them into our contemporary understanding of the world.
We’d come to youth group and small group as teenagers with Bibles with exhaustive concordances to not only prove each other wrong, but also to prove the haters wrong. I remember endless conversations about what the writer of Genesis (who was certainly Moses, by the way) meant when he wrote “day” (yowm, י֔וֹם) in the first chapter’s account of Creation. We assumed it had to be long periods of time because we were inclined to believe in “old earth Creationism,” that is to say, the idea that God used evolution as a means for creation. That the world could really be 4.5 billion years old because “days” were longer than just 24 hours. Of course, there would be others who would insist that carbon dating was inaccurate, and that we didn’t need to change what “day,” or “yowm,” really meant because seven days was all that God took to make everything.
I understand why I did this growing up. I wanted certainty. I wanted assurance. I didn’t want it all to be left to my faith alone. The Bible, and its bulletproof accuracy, and my defense of it, allowed me to have confidence in my faith, even if it was just within a small fundamentalist enclave. And honestly, contextual grace for my own viewpoint allows me to give the authors of the Bible the same contextual grace, which is, ironically, antithetical to inerrancy.
But that sort of thinking is fraught with problems, not least of which is the fact that in Genesis 2 we get an entirely different Creation narrative. If we read the Bible plainly, as it were, I think we see that prioritizing its accuracy or its exemption of error is not what the Bible writers really cared about. This basic idea lampoons both the liberal critics and the conservative defenders of the Bible because they ask the wrong questions about the text.
God’s story is told in dialogue
The liberal critics of the Bible who discard it because it doesn’t appear to be “accurate,” and those who insist it is entirely accurate on all things it addresses, suffer from the same problem. The idea being that if the Bible isn’t totally without error than it is useless. I not only think this is a problem when reading ancient literature, it’s also a problem when reading literature that deals with metaphysical things.
From the outset, it’s clear that the Bible isn’t trying to be a perfect historical or scientific account. As I mentioned above, Genesis 1 through 2 show us, from the very beginning that the framework for understanding the Bible as inerrant is not the best one. Additionally, defenders of inerrancy also suggest that it is only inerrant in its “original manuscripts.” That means, it’s without error in the first copy of the text. This is an interesting argument because we don’t have any of the original documents, we only have copies. And for much of the Bible we only have pieces of the copies. And if you go back to the oldest ones we have, they are not exact matches (but they often correspond largely with the text that we have today). So that’s good news: the Bible has been largely unchanged over the years. But it’s also not so good news for people who are insistent on original complete manuscripts, because they don’t exist.
In fact, the version of the Bible we have today is stitched together, and definitely not seamlessly, by the editors or the redactors of the text. In the Torah, or the Pentateuch, we see different authors or voices that composed the text. Sometimes one author refers to God as “Yahweh” (or the Tetragrammaton, יהוה) and another one calls God “Elohim” (אֱלֹהִים), and scholars speculate about two other sources, too. You can read more about that theory here.
So while a stitched-together narrative wouldn’t comfort inerrantists, it comforts me because it exposes the dialogical and communal nature of the Bible. It makes the Bible real, and it shows us that the Bible writers and redactors weren’t concerned with our modern problems of “accuracy” and “inerrancy.” In fact, they were so unconcerned that they didn’t mind putting together, alongside of each other, different narratives, or stories, of the same historical events. The Deuteronomist, who wrote Deuteronomy, as well as Joshua through Kings, tells one story of Israel’s history. And the Chronicler, who wrote Chronicles, tells entirely different stories. These stories are both told from the perspective and the context of their writers, too; one told in Babylonian Captivity, and the other told after captivity.
These stories are talking to each other, relating to each other, and demonstrating how we might do the same, both in our biblical dialogue, but also in our life together. The Bible shows us how to be, instead of what to do. The Bible itself shows us that understanding the Bible is a group project, because the Bible’s composition is a group project.
The Bible is written for community
This communal view of the Bible is essential for us because it allows the Bible to be the living document that it is, instead of a science or a history textbook. It allows us to see that the Bible is a product of real people relating to God, just like we are. And it allows us to use the Bible in our current times without being flustered when we find what seems to be a contradiction in the Bible, or a scientific, historical, or geographical error.
We would really be missing out, for example, on the Gospel of Luke, that is Luke’s version of the story of Jesus, if we take his likely errant use of the Census of Quirinius, and then we throw out the entire narrative of Luke-Acts. We miss the idea that Luke is beginning his gospel with a political event because he is writing a political Gospel, writing a Gospel about the political and economic liberation of the Kingdom of God and the coming of Jesus. Matthew starts his Gospel with a Jewish genealogy, because he is writing a Gospel about the Son of David, the new Jewish King, Jesus Christ. These differences matter but they don’t mean we should discard the Bible as a result.
The inerrantist view makes the Bible into an easily refutable document. And it makes our faith very fragile too, like a house of cards, ready to topple when one card is loose. That approach causes us to miss the beauty and the meaning of the Bible. And it is evidently not the view of the Bible writers, or even Paul or Jesus. Both Jesus and Paul look back at the texts they find sacred and assign new meaning (sometimes rather haphazardly) to them. This shows us a flexibility that we have with the Bible, and bringing it to our present context without fear.
The inerrantist view also limits the fruit that can grow from the Bible. It limits what voices we can use to learn from. And it limits the framework of the Bible, too. I was listening to a great podcast called God Is Grey the other day about how the word “homosexual” got into our Bibles. It was a recent advent, but it changed how churches approached inclusion of LGBTQIA folks. But it was all a translation error! Many scholars agree that our understanding of human sexuality and gender identity isn’t something that the Bible writers would understand. But that doesn’t limit the ethics of love and inclusion that the Bible writers offer us as we relate to LGBTQIA people today. So just because the Bible writers don’t directly address LGBTQIA people, doesn’t mean we can’t use the Bible to learn how to love them.
The same applies to race relations. Most people do not consider the Bible writers directly addressing race as we know it today. Categorizing people by their skin color is a new phenomenon. However, we can draw clear parallels to relating to race and racism from the Bible. The inerrantist view (and the view that suggests we throw out the whole book because of an error) doesn’t allow for this.
I made this point on my Twitter handle the other day and I was surprised to see the pushback I got from the same two groups that I have been talking about!
Some people insisted that the Bible addressed race, because as people opposed to racism they couldn’t understand how their inerrant text would leave such a pressing issue untouched. They thought I had a narrow view of the Bible. To be fair to them, I didn’t explain how I thought the Bible could be used to address LGBTQIA and race matters, but the point was made. And similarly, I heard from critics of the Bible who suggested that it was not a useful or inspiring book because it was so outdated. I think this person’s response was illuminating:
There are real life consequences to how we use the Bible. If we hold a rigid view of the text, we might not see the beauty and insight that it can provide us regarding our contemporary dilemmas. We miss the story, the dialogue, the humanity, and the divinity of the text if we want it to act like it’s a history or a science book. The Bible is so much more alive, so much more human, and so much more Divine, than to be understood through a modernistic, rigid framework. God’s children are telling us the story of God through the Bible. It has remained useful for revelation and discipleship for thousands of years. It gets its authority from the community that has found it inspiring over generations, not because it is exempt from error.