I recently entered into an internet dialog with a Christian scholar who says he no longer believes in the inerrancy of the Bible. What follows are some of the thoughts I shared with him in our dialog.
My understanding is that the story of the gospel of God’s grace in Christ is the story of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation. Once I have experienced a new relationship with God through the gospel, I learn to trust Scripture as God’s revelation because the Bible is simply the gospel writ large. To accept one is to accept the other for they are the same. Inerrancy flows out of my experience of the gospel. I do not believe the gospel is true because people have proven to me the Bible is true. I believe the Bible is true because the gospel has revealed God and the truth about myself to me.
Christianity is a relationship, not an academic, intellectual system. Academics and intellect are put in use to serve the relationship. I think Christianity makes the best sense of the world intellectually, but its truth cannot be proven by academic exercises, only through an encounter with God in the gospel.
So I think there are basically two ways of looking at the Scripture, the revelation of God to which I submit or the creation of man that I am free to ignore or to just pick and choose the parts I like. In first sense God is a living being who has a reality a part from me. Yes, it means I have to struggle with parts of his personality that I don’t like, that make me uncomfortable, that I don’t understand. That’s the way it is with any real person I have a relationship with. In the 2nd sense, God is a human creation that is constantly being changed by new social conditions and moralities. I can just change him if there are parts about him I don’t like. If the 2nd sense is reality, religion in general and Christianity in particular are at best foolish mind games and at worst, just a means for social control by those in power.
You are right that the inerrant/errant debate gets us off on the wrong foot if start with it in the Christian life. We should start off with the Bible as God’s self disclosure, that God wants us to know him, that God wants a relationship with us. Inerrancy is a secondary doctrine that only comes into play when we decide we don’t like what he reveals about himself and decide we want to engage in idol making, picking and choosing from the Bible what we want to believe about God and thus create a designer God in our image. For instance, you said there are spiritual truths in Paul, but of course we must reject his misogynistic views. Now I reject the idea that Paul is misogynistic, but that is not my point at this time. My point is that it is problematic to approach the Bible as its judge instead of letting the Judge of all judge me through it. All inerrancy means is that I approach the Bible with humility letting it search me to see if there be in wicked way in me instead of me approaching it as its superior to purge it of its wickedness.
If inerrancy is not true, then it means there are errors in what the Bible teaches. Then it falls to us to decide what is an error and what is not. I am a pastor and I was counseling someone who said they did not believe the Bible was inerrant. I went to meet with them prepared to deal with questions about science, history and literature. The person quickly told me that they had no problems with these questions. She believed the Bible had errors because the Bible taught that God was a judge that punished people. She didn’t like this teaching and since the Bible did not conform to her idea of who God was, the Bible could not be trusted. This is what inerrancy is all about. It supports the integrity of God’s self revelation. It means I have to accept him as he really is and not just create a self projection of my wishes on the screen on the infinite.
I realize this doesn’t answer all the questions raised from historical and scientific angles. I think we ought to engage these questions with academic and intellectual excellence. It may mean our best answer to some of these things is “I don’t know” instead of giving implausible, contrived solutions. But if we allow that there are errors in the Bible, God becomes a prostitute who becomes and does whatever we want him to be and do–he’s not real, he’s a fake. He becomes like the wife whose husband can’t accept her for who she is, but who insists she be like his mother. We force our will upon him and refuse to allow him to have his own self integrity. Healthy human beings accept others for who they are, not for who we want them to be. When we reject inerrancy, we open the door for just making God a projection of what we want, shaping him like play dough to meet our fancies, not dealing with him as he really is.
All inerrancy means is that the Bible is God’s Word and I will submit to its authority in whatever it teaches, no matter how unpopular it is to my heart, my mind or to whatever culture or subculture I belong too. All inerrancy means is that I am not able to create my own god according to my own fancy. This does not solve all the problems associated with biblical interpretation and application. But it does mean I will approach the Bible with the desire to trust and obey whatever it teaches. If inerrancy is not true, it basically means I can pick and choose what I want to believe and make a god in my image that will confirm me in my viewpoints and practices. If this is the case, all religion is just a silly human game and so why bother with it.
I am very interested in why so many who reject inerrancy want to remain active Christians and within a Christian context to argue against the Bible. If I am just making up God as I go, why belong to any group with all the time, money and effort that requires. Indeed, this is theological liberal churches are dying. When their people realize they are not really being confronted with the living God, they decide they don’t to come out once a week to be harangued with moralism that is nothing more than the pastor’s opinion which is no better than their own.
If we reject inerrancy, we institutionalize and give structural integrity to simply picking and choosing what we believe is true. So the conservative can say loving our enemies, the alien, the widow and the orphan do not fit with our modern theories of economics. It just doesn’t work. In those areas the Bible is in error and thus I am free to reject it. The liberal can say, sex is only about our personal choices for recreation and self fulfillment. It has nothing to do with bringing children into the world and the moral responsibilities that follow. The Bible just doesn’t fit the modern age.
This is the real truth about why many people reject inerrancy: they don’t like something the Bible teaches and want an excuse to reject it. It is not a problem with the head and intellectual inquiry. It is a problem with the sinful, rebellious human heart that doesn’t like God as he has revealed himself. We don’t want a Bible that sits in judgment on every culture and every person. Instead we want a Bible that supports our personal biases so that we can feel good about ourselves and sit in judgment on others who disagree with us.
Of course it is true that those who believe in inerrancy often treat the Bible is exactly this fashion. This is the nature of human sin to do so. But at least if we believe in inerrancy, when you confront them with their sin from the Word, there is the possibility of conviction and repentance. Without inerrancy, if you confront with their sin from Scripture, they can just say that is the part that is not true.
Indeed, those that believe in Christianity and reject inerrancy usually say they like the parts of the Bible about God being love, loving your neighbor, etc. But if the Word is not inerrant, how do we know these teachings are true. Perhaps they are teachings that are wrong. Perhaps all the passages about God’s anger are the true ones. If you are just going to pick and choose which passages you like to be true and reject those you don’t like, then you have made the passages you like worthless as revelation about God. Augustine said If you only believe the parts of the gospel that you like and reject those who don’t like, you don’t believe in the gospel, you believe in yourself.” Those that reject the Bible as inerrant do believe in an inerrant authority: its themselves.
The scholar that I was dialoging with asked me if there was any other reason to believe in inerrancy beyond theological necessity. I would say, “No.” It is the logic of divine revelation that drives us to inerrancy. And perhaps this is the real question that has to be dealt with, “Is the Bible a text that I approach academically and perhaps can get some devotional help from, or is it a text I approach devotionally and use academics as a means to understand its devotional message.” I would say the Scriptures were originally given that we might have an encounter with God and bow down to him in worship, love, faith and obedience. Academic study can certainly enhance this function. If I use academics to distance myself from Scripture so that I can sit in judgment on it, then I am worshiping myself.