Inerrant or infallible?




Is the Bible the inerrant word of God? Or is the Bible written by people, inspired by God, but not exactly true as it is written?


This is a big debate, and I don't think anyone really knows the answer. Inerrancy by definition means that the Bible is incapable of being wrong. But define "wrong." Is it all true exactly as written? I don't think so, and I hope even if you do you will keep reading. Even if some of the people didn't exist, and some of the events never happened or were embellished, it still brings to us the word of God. And the word of God is never wrong - we just sometimes have to look for it between the lines, behind the text, and under the words on the page.


Those who believe the Bible is the inerrant word of God argue that if we claim that if we believe that there is error in our holy scriptures, all of our faith falls apart. I disagree, but we'll get to that.


In my mind, first of all, how can the Bible be inerrant when there are words in Hebrew, Greek, and Aramaic that don't translate well into English? How can it be inerrant when it was passed down through oral tradition for so many generations? How can it be inerrant when it was written down by human beings, with their limited understanding of the world around them, and God, Godself? How can it be inerrant when there are books and accounts that aren't included in the Bible, and the Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox Bibles are all slightly different? How can it be inerrant when it doesn't include more modern revelations that were received by people such as the saints and Martin Luther, for example?

How can it be inerrant when there are so many inconsistencies?


Look at the creation story, for example.


Genesis 1:26, And God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air..." (NRSV) God had created the living creatures on the fifth day, and humans on the sixth day. Genesis 1:27, So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.


Chapter 2 gives us a little more detail about how God created the heavens and earth, and then in verses 18 -19, "The Lord God said, "It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him." God brings all the creatures to Adam to see what Adam would call them. That must have been an exhausting task for a man, even if he was only naming the animals in the Garden. And verse 20: And no suitable helper was found. So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep and while he was sleeping he took one of the man's ribs ... the Lord God made a woman from the rib.


Some will argue that there is no contradiction here, but were man and woman created at the same time, or was woman created later? Was woman created from Adam's rib or was woman created the same way Adam was? This is important because the Bible has been used for centuries to justify the subjugation of women.


Then there is the serpent. If God created all the animals, did God not create the serpent, too? If God created the serpent, the serpent was inherently good, though had clearly taken a wrong turn somewhere.


So Adam and Eve go forth and multiply, and have Cain and Abel, who marry and have children of their own. So this begs the question, where did Cain and Abel's wives come from? There had to be other people living outside the Garden of Eden. This does not trouble me, because I read the story of Adam and Eve as a creation story - not a historical account. Adamah is a Hebrew word meaning "land" or "ground." The name Adam, then, connects humankind to the earth, and reinforces the concept of God creating humans from the dust of the earth. Clever for the people who first told this story to think of that! The thing is, who was there? How could anyone really know what God was thinking? How could even Adam have known what happened before he was created? Every culture has it's creation story, and it makes sense that the Hebrew people needed a story too - one that would describe the way everyone is created by and connected to God, and one that would create boundaries for themselves and set them apart from the rest of the world (think of American exceptionalism but much older. We do it too).


There is no archaeological evidence of the parting of the Red Sea. If Pharoah's army was really drowned (Exodus 14:28, The water flowed back and covered the chariots and horsemen - the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed the Israelites into the sea. Not one of them survived.), wouldn't historians and archaeologists be able to find some evidence somewhere? Not saying it didn't happen, but still - the whole army? Shouldn't there be gold chariots under the water somewhere? My Dad enjoyed embellishing his stories, which is why there was a wall hanging titled "Grampa's fish story" hanging at their lake house. The fish was so big it hung over the back and over the cab of "Grampa's" truck. Couldn't this story have become more fantastical as it was told, over and over? Again, that doesn't trouble me - the Hebrew people needed to teach their children who they were, and no where does it say that the Israelites carried pen and paper to write all this down.


And where did these former slaves get enough gold to fashion a golden calf (Exodus 32)?


Skipping way ahead, look at the stories of Jesus' birth. Matthew, chapter 2 talks about Joseph and only mentions Mary as the vessel carrying the baby Jesus and as Joseph's betrothed. Mark begins his gospel with the ministry of John the Baptist. John also starts with John the Baptist after he calls Jesus the Word - I think John may have inhaled too much smoke, or was a really good and interesting poet. Luke is the one who really delves into the birth narrative of Jesus. He doesn't say much about Joseph, and never mentions the Magi. Each writer chose the stories that he wanted to make his point.


I don't have a problem with that, either. It would be pretty boring if all four gospels were identical. But how did Luke know what the angel said to Mary? Let's watch this movie for a few minutes:


The setting: a room in ancient Nazareth.

The characters: Luke, a physician and disciple of Jesus Christ.

Mary, an elderly woman, the mother of Jesus Christ.

Props: Luke has a writing utensil and something to write on. Mary holds a spoon because she is stirring a pot of dinner while they talk.


Luke asks Mary to recount to him what happened when she learned she was going to have a baby, and she recounts to him all that she recalls of the visit from the angel, her visit to Elizabeth, her conversations with Joseph, to whom she was not yet married, their trip to Bethlehem, and the night her baby was born.


Luke: What did the angel say to you?

Mary: The angel said that I was blessed among women. That I would have a baby.

Luke: What did you think about that?

Mary: Well, I didn't know how that could be because I had never lain with a man, but he told me that is what would happen. I was a little worried about telling Joseph, but you know, when an angel visits you it is pretty overwhelming and he said it would be ok.


The conversation continues, with Luke prompting Mary to remember, until she tells him what she said when she visited Elizabeth - what we have come to know as the Magnificat, from Luke 1:


46 And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; 49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. 50 His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. 51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”


Now, I treasure my memories of the times when Jeff and Julia were born, but I cannot tell you what I said or did. I wasn't carrying the son of God, I'll grant you that, much as I love my kids and think they are perfect. If you were to sit Jay and me in separate rooms and ask us to describe a conversation we had yesterday, you'd probably get two different answers, although the gist would be similar. My point is that how could Mary, a poor, presumably uneducated young girl, remember what was said to her? There were no tape recorders, and if she was humble, as the Bible says she was, she wouldn't have thought to write down everything she thought or said. Luke wasn't there, and I'm going to guess that Mary chose not to share a few things with him when (if) he spoke with her. So I'm going to suggest that Luke embellished some of the story with scripture that he would have known very well, because the oral tradition was strong and books were rare.


There was another mother who sacrificed her son in the Bible, though he survived. Hannah was barren, and at that time the worth of a woman was limited to what came out of her womb. She prayed earnestly, to the point that Eli thought she was drunk. But God answered Hannah's prayer, and she conceived and bore a son, who she named Samuel. Hannah raised Samuel until he was weaned, and then she took him to the temple and presented him to God. He was to stay at the temple for the rest of his life, although she was able to see him each year when she and her husband went to the temple to make their annual sacrifice. When she presented him to Eli at the temple, Hannah prayed:


“My heart exults in the Lord; my strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory.

2 “There is no Holy One like the Lord, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God. 3 Talk no more so very proudly, let not arrogance come from your mouth; for the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed. 4 The bows of the mighty are broken, but the feeble gird on strength. 5 Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry are fat with spoil. The barren has borne seven, but she who has many children is forlorn. 6 The Lord kills and brings to life; he brings down to Sheol and raises up. 7 The Lord makes poor and makes rich; he brings low, he also exalts.

8 He raises up the poor from the dust; he lifts the needy from the ash heap, to make them sit with princes and inherit a seat of honor. For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s, and on them he has set the world.

9 “He will guard the feet of his faithful ones, but the wicked shall be cut off in darkness; for not by might does one prevail. 10 The Lord! His adversaries shall be shattered; the Most High will thunder in heaven. The Lord will judge the ends of the earth; he will give strength to his king, and exalt the power of his anointed.”


This is from the second chapter of 1 Samuel. Look closely at both. They are very similar, and I suggest that Luke took some license and embellished Mary's story by adapting Hannah's song of praise. Mary would also have known Hannah's prayer very well, so perhaps she did sing it at the time of her pregnancy, but I think she had other things on her mind. Nevertheless, the words are powerful and remind us of what it means to submit to God.


Regardless of whether Luke did or didn't take license and whether Mary did or didn't sing Hannah's prayer, I have a hard time accepting that Luke could have possibly known everything that the characters said and did all those years ago. Remember that the gospels were written decades after Jesus was crucified.


If you enjoy reading mysteries, think about this. If someone asks you what you are reading and you haven't yet finished the book, you would describe it one way. Once the mystery is solved, though, your synopsis will be very different. And if you go back and re-read the book, you'll see things you didn't the first time through because, now that you know how the story ends, you'll realize that what seemed trivial was really important. You can't read it the same way once you know the ending. So I think it had to be with Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter, Paul, Timothy, and all the other disciples. Once they knew how the story ended, it changed the narrative. Everything had to point to the resurrection, and their goal was to help people understand and believe.


So, no, I don't think the Bible is inerrant. Infallible though?


Well, I know the Bible still speaks to me today. I read the words and the stories and sometimes I am struck by something that is there, and I ponder it and study it and wonder at it. Sometimes it changes my understanding, and sometimes it changes me. And that, I think, is a miracle of the Bible - it is still vibrant and relevant. I don't care if Potiphar's wife seduced Joseph, or if Joshua blew a trumpet or if John ate locusts. I do care about the message of the Bible - that I am called to be in relationship with God and to share the love of God with others.


My friend Buzz asked me recently if the Bible should influence culture or if culture should influence the Bible. My answer has to be both, and neither. We are called to love our neighbors as ourselves - imagine a world where that actually happens! And I don't mean just saying hi and smiling at everyone - I mean a world where everyone has comfortable shelter, good food to eat, clean water to drink and clean air to breathe. A world where everyone has enough and no one has too much or too little. I think the Bible must influence culture.


But the Bible has also been used to justify cultural things that I think are abominable to God. People have killed and been killed because someone said the Bible said it was OK - from the Crusades to the Spanish Inquisition to chattel slavery to the recent insurrection at the Capitol. People have used the Bible to bludgeon others into submission, starting with women. The Bible has been used to justify culture - and I think that continues today - which means that culture is influencing the Bible.


Our understanding of humanity and the human condition has changed, too. Race is a human construct - no where in the Bible does it say that people are more or less valuable based on the color of our skin. We constructed it, it is up to us to deconstruct it. Homosexuality was considered a choice and we now know it is not. But the words of the Bible cannot adapt as our understandings change. So our culture is going to influence our understanding of what God is trying to say to us through the scriptures.


When we insist that the Bible is inerrant, I hear us saying that the Bible says what we want it to say, and so we don't need to wrestle with it, dig into it, and understand it. Because there are some contradictions: are we all forgiven? Do we have to obey the law? Jesus died to save us all, but only those who believe in Him? Which is it?


When we insist that the Bible is inerrant I hear us saying that our 21st century intellect is up to the challenge of reading, interpreting, and understanding something that was written by and for ancient peoples, who didn't have our world understanding. I think we are insisting that God is who we understand God to be, no more, no less. I think we put ourselves into God's head, and claim we know better than others what God thinks. How can that possibly be? "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways," declares the Lord. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. Isaiah 55:8-9.


To say the Bible is infallible? Well, in and of itself, I would say yes, it is. When we use it to advance our own agendas or to condemn someone else, we are using it in ways God would never intend. You might ask, "Isn't that what you are doing?" Well, yes. But in my best understanding, the Bible boils down to two things: Love God, and love each other.


When I opened this post, I said that we would get to the question of whether "errancy" ruins our faith. On the contrary, I think it deepens it. If I know something to be true, I don't need faith to believe it. To me, the struggles documented in the Bible - the stories that can't be verified, as well as the historical records that can - deepen the mystery and increase the miracle. I saw a show on PBS (I think) some years ago about the tomb that someone thought was the tomb of Jesus. The show set out to prove that it was or wasn't. There was impelling evidence that it may have been (I can't remember it all), but of course there was no proof because there was no DNA evidence. I was somewhat disappointed until it occurred to me that of course there was no DNA - there were no bones, because if Jesus was truly resurrected, there would be no bones. I'd love to know where Jesus was buried, but if Jesus' bones were discovered - THAT would be an existential shock to me. I can believe that SOMETHING happened with Pharoah's army at the Red Sea, and I can believe that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit without believing that things happened just the way the Biblical writers said they did. I can believe that I am loved and valued as a daughter of God just as much as the sons of God (lower case s) are loved and valued, even though the faith of my fathers used the Bible to say otherwise.


I had a little trouble focusing when I sat down to write this, so I turned on Spotify and was listening to the Fleetwood Mac song, World Turning. "Maybe I'm wrong, and who's to say what's right? I need someone to get me through the night." Interesting where God chooses to speak to us, isn't it? I don't claim to know any of this - I only share what I have come to believed and what my faith tells me is right. And don't we all need God to get us through the night?






McVie, Christine and Lindsey Buckingham. "World Turning." Fleetwood Mac. 1975.


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