One of the greatest attacks on Scripture comes from those who misunderstand the doctrine of inerrancy. A couple of years ago this chart was brought to my attention. I did not think it was serious, but it really is. It is supposed to represent the thousands of contradictions in the Bible. However, all it really represents is that the person who created it has no idea what inspiriation and inerrancy mean, nor how to do basic interpretation of literature (ancient or modern).

Sadly, though, it is becoming increasingly clear (again) that even some of those who believe in the inerrancy of Scripture have different interpretations of what inerrancy means. I believe in inerrancy. But maybe not how others define it. I am not trying to redefine anything, but the fact is that when it comes to this issue, there is a spectrum of belief among those who confess the doctrine. I am sure there would be some out there who would see my view of inerrancy as a liberal compromise.

Inerrancy: the Biblical doctrine which says that Scripture, in the autographs (originals), when interpreted correctly, is true in all that it teaches and upon which it touches.

I remember when I was young and I first began to read the Gospels. I was rather confused about the repetition of the story of Christ. I was further confused that there seemed to be many places where the same event was told in different ways, using different words, and sometimes with different people involved. Whether it was Christ’s encounter with the demoniacs (Luke 18:27ff; Matthew 8:28ff) or the words written above the cross (Mark 15:26; John 19:19), there were differences. I noticed that differences of this type were a primary criticism to which skeptics would refer when attacking the reliability of Scripture and the truth of Christianity. This disturbed me. If the Bible was inspired, these differences should not be there. Isn’t the Bible inerrant? If it is, it cannot have discrepancies. How could God have gotten it wrong? As I sought answers, I found initial comfort in those who would explain these “discrepancies” in some very creative ways. Most would say that the parallel accounts that I was having problems with were not really parallel at all. They were different encounters altogether!

These explanations satisfied me at the time. I thus unknowingly adopted a strict view that I call “technically precise inerrancy.” This means that all the writers of Scripture, by virtue of their ultimate source of information (God), recorded everything precisely as it occurred. It also means that we attempt to take the Bible with an absolute literalism until forced to opt for another approach.

I later came to realize that this methodology was not only unnecessary but was actually birthed, I believe, out of a very gnostic view of Scripture. I was so emphasizing God’s role in the writing of Scripture that the role of man could not be found. Yet if God used man in writing Scripture, and Scripture was intended for man, then would God not have used a common means of communication that did not require technical precision in describing events?

To make a long story short, I moved toward a view I call “reasoned inerrancy.” “Reasoned inerrancy” is a definition which recognizes that the Scriptures must be understood according to the rules of interpretation governed by genre, historical accommodations, context, argument, and purpose. In other words, the modernistic need for things to be technically precise with regard to Scripture, ironically held by both ultra-conservatives and skeptics who seek to pick apart the Bible, is just that – a modern need that produces a warped apologetic and a faulty hermeneutic.

Let me further define the faulty presupposition of the “technically precise” view of inerrancy. The presupposition is this: All writers of Scripture, by virtue of divine inspiration and inerrancy, must have recorded everything in a technically precise way. I take issue with this presupposition. I do not believe that inspiration and inerrancy require technical precision. Why would it be so difficult to believe that the authors of Scripture would take liberties in their recording of the Gospel narrative? Does “taking liberties” in the way someone recounts an event mean that they are producing fabrications or lies? Can’t people tell the same story different ways and even nuance that story according to their purposes and still be accurate?

We would never place this type of restraint upon people today. The Gospel writers were simply telling the story of Christ as enthusiastic reporters of good news who were emotionally committed to the truths which they were reporting. This happens every day in our own news reporting system and we don’t hold those reporters’ feet to the fire of technical precision.

Let’s do a test. Let’s look at multiple accounts of one event. We will take three accounts of the recent staff meeting at Credo House and see how they fare.

Original statement from me during the staff meeting: “This year has been a tremendous year at Credo House. The place is full of young people hanging out, playing pool, and enjoying Saint Nicholases (double shot espresso, red velvet, with a hint of mint). Just today, I was telling a young couple about how to verify whether or not historical events of the past actually took place, then I applied that to the resurrection of Christ. I could see in their eyes the excitement and intrigue that our faith is really true! I am now going to try to get people to stand behind this ministry.”

My sister could report this to a donor to the Credo House in this way: “Michael just told us during a meeting that the ministry is accomplishing exactly what we hoped the Lord would do through it. People are believing more today than yesterday. But he says we need funding to keep this going.”

One of my baristas could have described the same event to a friend this way: “Today at our staff meeting we learned something ground-breaking about how historical events can be verified! Michael was talking to people at the Credo House about this today. He says that we can verify whether the Gospels are without error.”

Both gave a summation of my speech which focused on the elements that they needed in order to accomplish their purpose. My barista did not need to talk about the funding of the ministry, so that was left out. As well, he embellished a bit when he quoted me as saying we can verify that the Gospels are without error. I did not originally say that. However, I would not say that he spoke untruthfully. He knows me well enough to know I believe in the total truthfulness of Scripture. Therefore, he knows that “the Gospels are without error” is a correct implication of what I was saying. As well, was this groundbreaking news? From his perspective, it was. But from the perspective of others who have been involved in this issue, it is nothing new.

My sister, who is calling donors, chooses to focus on the implications of what I said with regard to the mission of the Credo House. But she also included her interpretation of what I meant when I said, “I am now going to try to get people to stand behind this ministry.” She turned that into, “we need funding to keep this going.” This is perfectly understandable, considering her audience.

The point is that both my sister and my barista accurately represented what I said at the staff meeting. But they both put it in their own words and chose what they wanted to include and what they wanted to leave out to suit their purposes.

This is the same when it comes to Scripture. We must allow the biblical authors this right. We must allow them to have a particular purpose in writing. We must allow for this type of freehanded, nuanced, yet altogether accurate (inerrant) method of recounting the events. This liberty is part of inspiration. We believe that the Bible is a product that involves 100% man’s input and 100% God’s, don’t we? If we don’t, then we might as well take man out of the picture altogether and admit we hold to mechanical dictation (that God simply used the human authors’ hands in writing the Scripture, not their heads – this is sometimes called biblical docetism). If mechanical dictation is true, then we should not care who the authors were writing to and we certainly should not care why they were writing, since their motives do not influence the interpretation.

Some may accuse me of adopting “redaction criticism.” Redaction criticism is the critical method of study that assumes the Gospel writers changed the events surrounding the life of Christ to fit their purpose. I do understand that people have taken redaction criticism too far. Some have gone to the point of denying the truthfulness of the message, based upon the expediency of the moment. This is not what I am doing or suggesting. I am just giving the authors liberty to write an accurate account of the events, while not having to be technically precise with the wording, structure, or what they choose to include or leave out.

Scholars refer to these issues by discussing the difference between ipsissima verba (the very words) and ipsissima vox (the very voice). Did the writers record the very words of Christ or the spirit of truth that his words represent? I would say any inductive approach to arriving at a correct hermeneutic demands the latter. Only if we deduce that our theology of inspiration demands a strict level of preciseness within Scripture in order to be true will we adopt the former. I believe I have demonstrated that this is not only altogether unnecessary and naive, but misleading and dangerous.

Do I believe in inerrancy? If you mean “technically precise inerrancy,” the answer is no. But if you mean “reasoned inerrancy” that holds to an authorial intent hermeneutical method which includes ipsissima vox, then the answer is yes.

By the way, this is nothing new. It is simply how the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy defines the subject. I only wish that skeptics like those who produce these charts would at least attempt to avoid creating straw man arguments. Then again, it would not be much of a poster if they did not! However, I do think we need to give them the benefit of the doubt and know that they may be like some of my ultra-conservative friends in believing that inerrancy demands technical precision. This is getting inerrancy wrong.

I look forward to your comments.

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Find him on Patreon Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Join his Patreon and support his ministry

    65 replies to "Getting Inerrancy Wrong"

    • Aaron Walton

      I would recommend Biblica’s presentation of the NIV called “The Books of the Bible.” There are no chapter or verse divisions and their intention is that the reader will understand each of the books as books and to read them with all the literary intentions that they would read any other book with.

      Also, with your final statement, yes. I would agree with the gist of the statement. Clearly, errors between manuscripts or inadequacy in translation does not hinder God in anyway.

    • I am one myself who simply “lives” in the reading of the Bible and biblical text, I mean from the standpoint of spiritual food and devotion! And I am not sure that a “definition” of biblical inerrancy is really helpful, at least for those who believe. As has been pointed out inerrancy in and of itself, does not guarantee orthodoxy. And as Nick also said, I am sure people like Arius perhaps also believed in inerrancy. But again, this proves little, but that even those who misuse the Bible or biblical text, might be here. What is really needed is orthodoxy in orthopraxy!

    • Aaron Walton

      Fr. Robert,

      I think defining inerrancy is helpful in that if one holds the text to be inerrant than they know what to expect. If one called the Bible “useful” but didn’t know why, that too would be a problem! We’d ask “What do you mean useful? Is it like a divining tool? A paper-weight? or what?”

      Likewise, defining inerrancy, and doing it as Michael does, keeps us from expecting greater things out of the scriptures than they intend to do: Is Jesus really teaching botany when he says that the mustard seed is the smallest seed, as Bart Ehrman would have him say? Or is he trying to make an illustration that teaches much more than the size of seeds?
      In this, I think Michael provides good correction to a topic that needs to be understood more thoroughly.

      I think misunderstanding inerrancy can easily result in a misusing of the text! I have had one professor tell me that John the Baptist wasn’t Elijah on the basis that they did not accept him. He made this statement because of Matt 11:14 which says ” if you are willing to accept it, he is Elijah who is to come.” Since they weren’t willing to accept it, he wasn’t Elijah.
      However, this over emphasis on verbal plenary inspiration misses a simple linguistic concept. Using similar sentences, we linguists joke: “There is cheese in the refrigerator, if you are interested. However, if you are not interested, there isn’t.”

    • @Aaron,

      The whole issue of inerrancy is much more apologetic in the Protestant Church and evangelicalism, since the former has in some places departed from even the authority of Scripture itself, but in both Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism, the belief in the authority and sufficiency of Holy or Sacred Scripture is held together with the authority and spiritually qualified Church Catholic. Here the loss of the doctrine of the Church is really also part of the issue in Protestantism.

    • PS..@Aaron: Note I did not press the idea of “infallibility” in the EO or Rome. I think even the early Reformation Fathers, Luther to Calvin, etc., believed in a very strong authority in the Church, though the Church – as it is – is always a Pilgrim Body.

    • I should say clearly that I believe in biblical inerrancy! Though like CMP, I tend toward a reasoned or theological inerrancy, which again tends toward the ‘ipsissima vox’ (the very voice). Here there is a more spiritual sense and openness, yet with the theology of reason.

    • Deof Movestofca

      When discussing inerrancy, one of the major pitfalls that people fail to avoid is judging ancient historical texts by modern standards of historicity. For example, Tony Woodman writes that Tacitus’ frequent use of of what Woodman calls “‘substantive imitation’…. may sound scandalous to the majority of his modern readers, who evidently still regard him as a faithful historian[*], but that is because they fail to take account of the way in which ancient writers wrote history…. [A]ncient historians resorted to ‘substantive imitation’ far more regularly than is sometimes supposed”
      (from his essay in Creative Imitation and Latin Literature, pp. 152-153 [emphasis added]; see ). Rather than utilizing a “just the facts” approach to recording history, the ancients were more interested in imitating the writings of past worthies and writing dramatic narratives- both which, they hoped, would make their writings more memorable. Thus, they saw nothing wrong with arranging events in achronological order or utilizing such rhetorical devices as mimesis (another word for Woodman’s “substantive imitation”), telescoping events, etc. as long as the basic facts were correct. Applying this to the biblical texts, it would be just as wrong to judge their historicity by modern standards as it would be to similarly judge the writings of other ancient historians.
      * I’m not sure whether Woodman is implying that Tacitus wasn’t a “faithful historian” for failing to live up to modern standards of historiography. If so, I would argue that one would first have to show that the modern standards are somehow more accurate in recording history than the ancient standards before doing so.

    • Jonathan

      Amazing post Michael, thanks!

      I was thinking about this issue lately and came to the exact same conclusion, along the same line of thought.

      Very helpful when dealing with Muslims. I don’t really think sceptics care that much about these alleged contradictions, this is just a smoke screen argument. On the other hand, Muslims really do care!

    • BlueCat57

      I wish there was a way to reply directly to a comment. In response to what C. Stirling Bartholomew says: December 9, 2011 at 1:28 am.

      Just look at how we debate over interpretation of the U.S. Constitution and we have the original autograph (maybe };)). Very few people take the time to look up the meaning of its words in a contemporary dictionary to see how they were defined in 1776. Nor do they read the discussions presented in the Federalist/Anti-Federalist papers and other documents to gain insight into why of the words.

      One of my pet peeves is how people will use the technical definition of a word knowing that people reading it will use the popular definition, or vice versa, to make an argument. To me that is nothing less than deception and is wrong. (Note my use of “contemporary” above. An easily misunderstood word. In this case I meant contemporary to the writers of the Constitution, many would think I meant “current.”)

      It is important, but nearly impossible, for document writers to use words with unambiguous, timeless meanings or to at least include an explanation of what they are saying. They can simply use the best wording they can come up with at that moment in time.

      The original Biblical authors did the best they could in their language at that moment in time. I firmly believe that current translators do the best they can through the power of the Holy Spirit and we have to trust that the Spirit will guide us as we read their translations.

      While translators always have bias, I trust that most try not to impose their views on their translation. I trust they understand that the place to express their personal views is in commentaries, not the translation.

      As for the Chicago Statements we have to look at the times and purposes of those who wrote them. Being the cynic that I am, I see statements designed as “got ya’s” so that the Evangelicals can call the Liberals “heretics.” Actually, I’m not that big a cynic, but I do think the statements were a response to the times and meant to set standards in a post-modern, relativistic society.

    • BlueCat: I agree that the Chicago Statements have their place in Evangelical history, especially now. They have their measure, statement and declaration. But they are more of a ad hoc statement, and as time moves along, I don’t think they still have the same authority. At least not for me, and I do consider myself a conservative and also somewhat Reformed Anglican. In the end, the Word of God is itself its own authority and statement!

    • Clark Coleman

      I suppose there is one valuable thing about the list of supposed contradictions supplied by Sam Harris.: It causes us to sharpen our spiritual swords a bit. I had long been aware that (1) there are some copying errors involving numerals in the Old Testament; (2) numerals are easier to mis-copy than words while still producing a reasonable sentence (e.g. if you mis-copy “house” as “horse” it is almost impossible to get a sensible sentence to remain, but if you mis-copy 400 as 300 it is much easier for the sentence to still be sensible and hence escape proofreading); and (3) no significant meaning or doctrine depends on numerals. Point (2) answers the objection of how we can trust the scriptures if there might be copying errors, with point (3) shedding further light.

      Because of the Sam Harris graphic and accompanying list, I realize that I need to add proper names to the easily mis-copied category. If we are dealing with the well-known (David, Solomon, et al.) then there will be no problem. For a name mentioned twice in all of the Bible, with the person not being noteworthy, a consonant could be mis-copied, leading to a “contradiction” between the two verses in which the person is mentioned. Point (3) above still applies.

      After removing duplicate entries from Harris’ list and numeric and proper name copying errors, the rest of the list seems to involve doctrinal interpretations that Harris et al. simply don’t understand. Is there anything else on the list?

    • BlueCat57

      Your final paragraph is a good summary of what the “attackers” have. They’ve got nutin’. I once did a search on “Bible contradictions” or something like that. What came back was a list of a couple of hundred. A quick glance would have dismissed many as simply logical fallacies on the part of the “attackers.”

      One key point to remember (all caps on purpose): NEVER ALLOW THE OTHER PARTY TO DEFINE TERMS IN A DEBATE.

      I would add, especially if they are the “attacker.” If they are going to attack me then they had better use my definition. I wish my immediate recall were better but I believe this is would be classified as a Straw Man argument.

      In another post I cautioned that it is important to define terms so all parties are sure they really have a difference on the issue and not just a misunderstanding of the terms.

      While I was on the debate team in high school I can’t put in words much of what I learned. Maybe it is time to stop teaching kids about sex and start teaching rhetoric again.

    • anita

      But we do have dictated inerrant autograph words directly from God. The 10 commandments. And look how well we follow those….:)

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