If I were to ask you why you believe in inerrancy, would you answer with any of the following?
1) The Bible affirms that it is inerrant.
2) It’s a logical inference from other things I believe (e.g. about God’s perfection).
3) Without a perfect record of divine revelation, anything goes. What’d be the point?
I left off one likely response, as it doesn’t get to the root cause: “Because it’s never been proved wrong.” The problem here is that this response shifts the burden of proof off of the inerrantist, despite the fact that an expectation of complete perfection is not a natural position; no one expects that anything is perfect until it is proved to be flawed unless they have a prior reason for that expectation. So assuming the Bible is perfect until proved otherwise assumes something not in evidence. What I’m asking is, “Why do you expect it to be perfect?”
Let me look at the remaining answers one at a time.
1) For the Bible tells me so.
Ok. Forget the circularity of “I trust X because X told me to”; after all, presuppositionalism has nifty ways of embracing such circularity as a “feature, not a bug”. There are other problems.
Where does the Bible tell you so? Before answering that, realize what that question really means: does any passage ever refer to this specific collection of books as they were canonized centuries after the individual books were written? If so, does it additionally refer to them as entirely free from error? In other words, can you find even a single passage that refers to the sixty-six books of the Protestant Bible (“the word of the Lord” doesn’t count)? Do those passages also refer to this canon as inerrant, or with an unarguably synonymous term? If not, does it even say something like that in a way that doesn’t require philosophical/theological (i.e. extrabiblical) extrapolation?
Pretty sure I know what the answer is. But I won’t spoil it for you: go look for yourself.
2) Ok, maybe it’s not spelled out precisely in the Bible, but it’s a logical inference based on other Scriptures and on what one should expect from a perfect God.
A common pitfall is to suppose that because Passage X:YZ makes a claim about a passage or portion of “Scripture” (e.g. Psalm 119 speaking of the Law), we can extrapolate that everything the Church eventually determined to be “Scripture” somehow gets grandfathered in. So when one verse proclaims, “The Word of God shall stand forever,” it must be referring to what inerrantists now think of as the totality of the Word, the Bible. That’s clever: but it’s not biblical. In fact, it’s unapologetically extrabiblical; that is, it requires you to add other assumptions to the text, assumptions about the Church’s role that Protestants by definition reject when applied outside this one issue. What I mean is this: you’re rallying around Source A for authority while rejecting Source B, yet citing Source B as the authoritative body that proves Source A’s authority.
Many hold on to inerrancy because they believe that God does not lie, and so by extension we must assume that this must be applied to everything we call Scripture. By now you should be able to anticipate my response: what makes you think that everything we call Scripture is comprised of God’s words? This is yet another mask of a presupposition that needs to be peeled away so that we can ask the underlying question. There has to be a reason you believe that Scripture = God’s very words, and preferably it’s more defensible and less based on personal ignorance/incredulity than, “I can’t imagine it being any other way.”
A typical response to this is rhetorically asking why God would leave us without an unimpeachable source about Him and His ways. I return, do you mean to ask why He wouldn’t ensure that we had a source of knowledge that was capable of proving His truth to us and that was free from human obfuscation, manipulation, misunderstanding, and exploitation? Why indeed! Instead, what we actually have is a book whose truth claims are very easily disputed and that has been obfuscated, manipulated, misunderstood, and exploited for all kinds of nefarious purposes–and all the more because of its supposed authority! If God intended to invest it with an authority used properly so rarely and misused so commonly, it would not go toward lessening the problem of God’s transcendence from our plane of existence: if anything, it would compound the problem of why He has chosen to (ineffectually) intervene in our affairs only to deliver us a much misinterpreted and too often dangerous collection of ancient writings while leaving everything else in our world in such a state of glaring imperfection. On the other hand, if our very human Bible is instead yet another example of humanity’s grasping after the ethereal, always just out of reach, and frequently misunderstood regions of the Transcendent, there’s no hollow exception. All told, everything makes much more sense: the Bible’s not perfect because its authors weren’t, either. Nothing’s perfect.
At this point, most will have asked or at least thought the third possible response to my initial question.
3) Without an inerrant Bible, why should I believe in Christianity – or God Himself – at all? How are we supposed to know what to believe? Christianity is just not intelligible unless God left us a clear, miraculously accurate demonstration of His activity in the world, which is what the Bible is.
What it comes down to for those of you asking that is that you were sold a bill of goods. You believe the Bible, and therefore Christianity, because the Bible is inerrant; the moment you stop believing the latter, despite having had no good reason for starting to believe it, your foundation is gone. You become fallible; your beliefs become less than 100% sure; you stand the chance of being wrong about it all. And it’s uncomfortable, isn’t it? I felt more secure when I was confident I knew everything–or if not everything, I at least knew enough to consult the complete Source of All Knowledge, which conferred absolute truth to me on demand (magically, my interpretations were spot on as well). How much simpler things were then!
Let’s just say that, given only a Bible that’s human rather than divine, you decide that it’s all a sham and a scam. Let’s say you throw in the towel on faith. Are you so worshipful of Almighty Certitude and the Right to Be Right that, in place of your shattered inerrancy, you’d be willing to embrace a version of certainty that affirms, “There is no God, no transcendent meaning, and nothing but the material world”? (This is a very popular choice, unfortunately.) If so, I weep for you and for all the people you take with you into that rigid, harsh realm of fundamentalism. Good thing you don’t base everything in your life off of complete certainty, or you’d never leave your bed in the morning!
The difficulty is in managing expectations and dealing with disappointment: if you were never accustomed to forming your beliefs and outlook on life from the belief that the Bible is a codified list of unquestionable direct messages from God, I don’t think you’d miss it. It does, however, hurt a bit to have what you’ve planted your feet on suddenly jerked from underneath you.
Thankfully, the situation for the non-inerrantist isn’t nearly so bleak as the former inerrantist might be tempted to believe. Most of us are used to living in expectation of things not seen (that sounds familiar, doesn’t it?). Human beings can’t escape living by induction; the assumption that the sun is going to come up tomorrow is based only on inferences from our prior experiences and our unverifiable trust that past events are indicative of the future. We assume a lot in our daily lives, and have literally nothing we can say with certainty. We use Wikipedia. We Google to find answers from fallible people all over the Internet, having to pick through what is and isn’t credible on our own (well, Snopes helps). And by and large, we’re ok with that. That’s just the way it is. And for non-inerrantist Christians, the same goes with our faith; we don’t go around pretending we’re exempt from uncertainty because of some special knowledge we have about the world through our divinely authored handbook. We don’t set our gaze on the window with all its smudges and imperfections, but on what’s on the other side, which we can still see remarkably well.
For those brought up without such unrealistic expectations of the Bible as inerrancy, the faith is still communicated as it always was: the sacred but not necessarily infallible word of the saints’ testimony, leading to personal encounters with God. The earliest church spread by passing on their beliefs about their encounters with Jesus by word of mouth long before it was written down and spread around: even then, there were soon quite spurious testimonies as well, and so, like us, they couldn’t just trust that everything they read was…well, the gospel truth. The testimony of those changed by God in Christ was passed down and continues to be replicated. My father was brought to faith in his adulthood not because anyone had demonstrated the Bible inerrant, but because someone demonstrated the risen Christ in his life.
A faith without a perfect, unquestionable source for knowledge and truth is a light that shines in darkness without completely eliminating the darkness; in fact, when pointed in the wrong directions it can cast some pretty ominous shadows. Dim places are navigable as long as we tread lightly, but the inerrantist plows through boldly while pretending to see it all clearly, often with results that harm others more than themselves (which is the only reason I bother critiquing inerrancy). For instance, without permission to critique the Bible, we cannot convincingly condemn slavery, which is prescribed (by God, apparently) in the first part and never truly repudiated in the second.
“The faith once delivered to the saints” is bigger than will fit between the covers of a book. It’s unwieldy at times, and full of mysteries that can frighten some of us (and thrill others). But it’s entirely adequate for giving us insight into the backend of our universe and teaching us to recognize our place within it.
So what’s your answer? Why are you an inerrantist?