1. Use of Hyperbole and Exaggeration

Just because one believes in inerrancy does not mean that he or she believe in a “technically precise” view of truth. The Bible can and does contain exaggerations and hyperbole while not effecting inerrancy. Take John 4:39 as an example. In this passage, a Samaritan woman spoke of Jesus and said: “He told me all that I ever did” (emp. added). Did Jesus really tell her everything she has ever done? That would take quite a bit of time! As well, Paul says of false teachers that they “understand nothing” (1 Tim. 6:4). Do these false teachers really understand nothing? Nothing at all? Or is Paul speaking hyperbolically concerning their ignorance of truth? The latter is most definitely the case.

2. Speaking According to Cultural Convenience

Sometimes the Bible speaks in accordance with cultural understanding without any attempt to correct that understanding. For example, in Mark 4:31, Christ claims that the mustard seed is the smallest seed in all the earth. This does not necessarily mean that if agricultural science ever found a seed that was smaller (and they have), Christ was wrong. Christ could have just been making a statement that was in concert with the cultural understanding of the day without making a objective universal claim about this seed. The mustard seed was the smallest seed that these Palestinian farmers knew of.

While I don’t have any strong convictions about the age of the earth or how literal we should take the early chapters of Genesis, it is quite possible that much of what is being said is one of cultural convenience. This does not affect inerrancy, but is a matter of one’s hermeneutics (rules of interpretation).

3. Bad Grammar

Some of the writers of Scripture wrote very elegantly and would receive an “A” from their language teacher for not making any grammatical mistakes. For example, the writer of Hebrews not only knew the language well, but wrote very elegantly. Others, however, would not fare to well in their language class. John did not write to elegantly, more like he knew Greek as a second language. Peter was a bit clumsy too. Paul, while he could write well, would often get excited and run into some grammar problems. For example, Paul, in Romans 5:12 introduces a protasis without ever (grammatically speaking) concluded it with the apodosis. The protasis/apodosis usage in grammar has to do with conditionality and its results. It is the if/then statement or (in the case of Romans 5) the just as/so also introduction and conclusion. In Romans 5:12, Paul introduced the argument with “Just as through one man sin entered into the world . . .” but never, (grammatically speaking) gets to the “so also” (even though he does conceptually).

Thankfully, ones mastery of the language does not affect the truth it communicates (it just makes it harder to interpret).

4. Round numbers

The Bible often uses round numbers to communicate truth. In the book of Numbers we are told that Joshua had 600,000 men fighting under him. However, we later find the number to be 601,730. Is the first record wrong? Writers—even inspired writers—can use round numbers. Inerrancy does not require technical accuracy.

5. Summaries of Events

There is no reason to believe that if one summaries an event that they are somehow in error in their reporting. For example, the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew is much longer than it is in Luke (and Matthew’s version itself is probably a summary). This does not make one of them in error as it is the right of the author to record the events as they remember them and for their own distinct purposes. After all, each of the Gospel writers write different Gospels of the same story. Multiple perspectives will always lead to multiple points of view and multiple purposes will inevitably produce unique accounts. All of this adds to the historicity of the story and does not affect inerrancy.

6. Recording Wrong Theology

Each book of the Bible represents God’s truth in its own unique way. There is a wide range of literary types (genres) represented in Scripture. There is national history, chronology, poetry, personal letters, public letters, and prophecy (among others). Each type of literature teaches truth differently. Sometimes its through bad examples and sometimes wrong theology. For example, the friends of Job should rarely, if ever, be quoted for their worldview. It was wrong. Yet the Bible records their words. The Bible also records the words of Satan, most of which are wrong (remember . . . “You shall not surly die”?) As well, it is hard to understand how one is to understand the Book of Ecclesiastes. Is all really “vanity”? Does one really not know whether a man’s soul goes to heaven? (Eccl. 3:21). Yet all this bad theology is recorded in the Bible, but this does not mean the Bible teaches this bad theology.

Remember, just because it is in the Bible does not make it right. Inerrancy does not mean everything in the Bible is true, it just means that everything is accurate and everything being taught is true.

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. 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. Find him everywhere: Find him everywhere

    68 replies to "Six Factors that Do Not Affect Inerrancy"

    • WhereToNow

      … part 2

      Proposed explanation for the use of “smallest seed”:

      Jesus is telling a story about the Kingdom of God and for that parable wants to illustrate radical, mind-boggling growth – not just general growth, but growth from the “smallest” into the “largest.” Jesus selects a plant they would all be familiar with which has a very small seed and grows into a fairly large plant: the mustard plant. Now this plant is the largest among the herbs/garden plants so its status as largest is easy (also, as an herb it would be familiar to just about everybody, not just farmers). However, say Jesus and the farmers of his day actually knew of some seeds smaller than the mustard seed, but these smaller seeds grow small plants so Jesus doesn’t want to use them as examples. So to get around this, Jesus asserts that – for the purpose of this parable – the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds. Such an assertion is well within his creative freedom and actually allows him to communicate the point more clearly: not just growth from small to large, but from smallest to largest.

      I wouldn’t die for this interpretation, but it seems plausible and explains why Jesus might have felt the need to specify.

    • JB Chappell

      For the most part, I am perfectly willing to say that the “meaning” of whole gospels/epistles/texts aren’t changed by variants that are found. Probably the only exception that I can think of would be the longer ending to Mark, which I think ends up being a significantly different ending with material added that seems very different than how the author originally wanted the gospel to end.

      As for your proposed explanation, I think it suffers from Jesus’ specificity. By that I mean, Jesus was perfectly content to ONLY say that the mustard seed would grow into a tree larger than herbs. If He felt such a creative license, as you seem to think He would, then why not just say it grew into the largest tree ever, kinda like Jack & the Bean Stalk? Probably because the genre is not fable. Given that is the case, we have some options:

      1. Jesus was simply using the cultural understanding of the time, but knew better
      – This preserves omniscience at the expense of honesty and inerrancy. Whether you want to chalk it up to a “white” lie or not, the fact remains that Jesus would have been telling them something that was untrue, and for no good reason. He could have easily just left the seed unspecified, and just referred to a seed that was the smallest in all the world, but He didn’t. He felt, apparently, the need to be specific.

      2. Jesus was using His own understanding at the time
      – This makes perfect sense of the narrative, makes no appeals to unknown factors, etc. It just has implications that people don’t like. Jesus was wrong.

      3. Jesus said something that was untrue, sure, but it was in the idiom of a parable, so we shouldn’t take it as an assertion of fact.
      – Like I said above, this seems to me to ignore just how specific Jesus was being, that Jesus obviously does refer to real-world facts (i.e. Samaritans, wineskins, weeds, etc.) and also ignores that He could have just referred to unspecified seeds (as He does elsewhere).

    • WhereToNow


      I guess we disagree in that I see all three of the options you listed as possibilities with no serious issues. In (1) the use of parable means it isn’t a lie, any more than any untrue detail given in a story. (2) is the simplest plain-reading interpretation and actually has no problems with theology if one holds to the (fairly common) position that Jesus incarnate (as a man) was subject to (many/all) normal human limitations during the time of his incarnation on earth. I was proposing how (3) is a possibility, and I definitely appreciate the feedback there. That said, this passage poses no problems to me personally as I can be content with all three possibilities you listed.

    • JB Chappell

      It is perplexing to me that simply because this is a parable, you think (apparently) anything could be said without it being a lie. The fact that Jesus is telling a story doesn’t mean He’s immune from telling lies. If He knows that mustard seeds are not the smallest seeds, yet deliberately reinforces that idea, then that is lying. Again, it isn’t as if He had no other choice to express this idea.

      With (2), I agree that the most common move here is to separate Jesus’ natures. As a man, He is fallible. As God, He is not. Etc. The “problem” (if one is concerned about such things) with that is that is actually a completely unorthodox idea. The creeds are pretty explicit: there was no division of the natures. The more theologically sophisticated move, as CMP points out, is to say that Jesus simply didn’t “tap in” to that nature, or made Himself forget, etc. In this case, Jesus’ omniscience is preserved by being, essentially, willfully ignorant (which, again, sounds worse than I mean it to be).

      And while I think that has some issues as well, the more important issue there (for me anyway) is that this renders Jesus’ omniscience meaningless – such that it is obvious He still makes mistakes. And, what’s more, these mistakes are recorded in scripture. Seeing that most people don’t approach scripture with potential errors in mind, I think that is a problem. For instance, now we have to ask the question, when Jesus referred to Genesis when discussing marriage, did He do so according to 1,2, or 3 (or some other option) above? Preserving Jesus’ omniscience by rendering it meaningless and preserving inerrancy by making it unverifiable and unfalsifiable has its drawbacks.

    • Chris

      So the point here JB is that there are more explanations that what you have either considered, or are willing to consider. It really looks like you have already closed your minds to other possibilities. Ive now demonstrated that a figure of speech solves the problem, as well as the use of a well known Jewish idiom. And in both of these explanations, there is no attempt to justify Jesus calling the seed the least of all because that’s really not even considered to be what he means by serious scholars…

    • Chris

      Looks like all but one part of the (approx) 7-part response that I posted today to JB have been deleted?

    • John W

      A small point but regarding Jn 4:39 and the Samaritan woman: this is direct speech so inerrancy is not affected by the accuracy or otherwise of her statement. It is sufficient to meet the criteria if her words have been accurately recorded.
      If direct speech must always be true then the Devil’s, “You shall not surely die” invalidates inerrancy.

      • C Michael Patton

        I see what u r saying. But not all recorded speech evades inerrancy. Peter’s sermon in acts 2 is recorded , but I don’t think it dodges the inerrancy problem. It all depends on the context and the light that the author is shinning on them. In the case of the Samaritian, I think the author is placing her testimony in a positive light.

    • Uber genius

      In their book, When Critics Ask, Geisler & Howe state: “The Bible, like any other book, should be presumed to be telling us what the authors said and heard. Negative critics of the Bible begin with just the opposite presumption. Little wonder, then, that they conclude the Bible is riddled with error.”

      When someone decides that e authorial intent is not important they become lost in a sea of speculation and detach themselves from the ability to engage those author’s ideas. If someone did this in college paper they would get an F. If you continued to try and create your own meaning separate from the author in graduate school you would be shown the door. Literary postmodernism which states “There is no meaning in the text,” is self-refuting because the author of that statement is imply that it is a meaningful statement. So too Bart Erhman’s and other’s willful disregard for authorial meaning is fallacious, due to the fact that they extend or equivocate the author’s meaning and then attack that extension (see the Botany references above) and doesn’t lead to progress of knowledge on any subject. Sencondly, this approach leads to nihilism, I think. Since there is no authorial meaning, can’t I take Bart Erhman’s text and say that what he is really saying is, “The scriptures are very reliable!” This is not just wordplay here, if we are free to ignore the author’s intent and use of types of speech with wooden literalism, then we are equally free to ignore those authors who ignore the Biblical authors. And if we use this approach towards all knowledge we quickly become unable to get ANY knowledge about ANY subject.

      In the last few weeks I have looked at over a dozen commentaries on Matthew 13:31-32. From liberal (new interpreters) to conservative (Matthew Henry’s) not surprisingly, there is no suggestion in any of them that Jesus is teaching (even secondarily) a truth about Botany! This is why I quoted Geisler’s above and find claims to the contrary to be suspect.

    • Über genius

      I am willing to be proved wrong on my Botany statement above. If someone wants to :
      1. Find a commentary to support that Matthew’s intent in 13:31-32 was to teach that Jesus was attempting to teach his audience the mustard seed was the smallest seed on earth (botany).
      2. Commentary must be a Bible commentary not someone trying to disprove inerrancy such as Erhman (or anyone else with an axe to grind).

      However, even if one reference is found the fact that of 12 or 13 commentaries I have looked at (that are considered classics and represent both liberal and conservative points of view) failed to mention it, suggests that the Botany reference is at best an extreme outlier. In other words one would needs to show that the next 12 of the top 25 commentaries believe the passage is in some way about botany in order to refute the claim that they are not extending the Matthaean authorial meaning. And then attacking their own extension.

      One could say that inerrancy is not he most important or top-10 doctrine in relationship to how you live out our Christian life. And I would grant that statement! But once you wade in to the debate you can’t attack straw men with impunity.

    • Chris

      I went through about 25 commentaries on Logos and could not find a single one that even suggested that anyone was trying to make the point that Jesus was teaching literal truth about botany. On the contrary, I found references to substantiate that the “mustard seed” was used proverbially to represent anything really small, and thus Jesus’ reaffirmation that it was the smallest was to make sure that the audience was aware that He was now using the well known proverb. I posted some of these commentaries however my posts were deleted for some reason….See my comment number 59 above.

    • Chris

      For mustard seed as proverbially tiny, the smallest of all seeds, cf. 17:20; m.Ṭehar. 8:8; m.Nid. 5:2.17 Only a pedant would worry about whether there are in fact any smaller seeds or spores! The mustard plant hardly qualifies as a “tree,” and the term may be a deliberate exaggeration designed to evoke the echo of Dan 4:12–21 (see above), though some experts claim that the black mustard (Brassica nigra, grown in Palestine for oil and as a condiment), normally not more than two meters in height, could sometimes grow to as much as five meters (others limit it to three!), which puts it well above most “vegetables.” But the point of the parable does not depend on its botanical accuracy; parables often exaggerate for effect.18 ” 18 The proverbial smallness of the mustard seed is sufficient reason for this particular plant to be chosen to make the point about growth; there is therefore no need to follow M. Sabin, JSNT 45 (1992) 21, in regarding the choice of a garden vegetable rather than a noble tree as a deliberate “jolt, even a joke.”

      R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publication Co., 2007), 527.

    • Chris

      In all three Gospels the parable begins with a mustard seed (for the introductory formula and the verb parethēken [“he told”], see on v. 24). This seed is designated “the smallest of all your seeds,” but it becomes “the largest of garden plants” (meizon tōn lachanōn, v. 32; cf. Notes). In rabbinical thought the mustard seed was proverbial for smallness (cf. M Niddah 5:2; cf. SBK, 1:669). It becomes a tree, large in comparison with the tiny seed, large enough for birds to perch in its branches (Matt; Luke) or in its shade (Mark). The image recalls OT passages that picture a great kingdom as a large tree with birds flocking to its branches (Judg 9:15; Ezek 17:22–24; 31:3–14; Dan 4:7–23).

      M Mishnah
      SBK Strack and Billerbeck: Kommentar vein Neuen Testament aus Talmud and Midrash

      D. A. Carson, “Matthew,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Matthew, Mark, Luke, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 8 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1984), 317–318.

    • JB Chappell

      Chris and Ubergenius, the majority of what you wrote can be dismissed as irrelevant because you still insist on referring to the passage in Matthew, when I have repeatedly said it is the passage from Mark that is problematic.

      Let me ask a couple questions:

      1) could Jesus have offered a parable about seeds that people could have identified with, without being specific? Obviously, yes. He does so elsewhere, in fact.

      2) Was the cultural convention that mustard seeds = small, or that mustard seeds = *smallest seed ever*? Only the former.

      3) Can cultural conventions be wrong? Yes, obviously.

      4) Can you assert a claim without trying to *establish* that claim?

      Appealing to proverb is flawed on a few levels. He went above and beyond the convention. The question then becomes if it was just innocent hyperbole, or if it reflects (what He thought was) understanding.

      Countering my claim that we have reason to think that the seed size was important to Jesus, Chris claims that the seed/tree was a well-known reference to Ezekiel. It should be clear how that it isn’t relevant (and how it defeats the point about people not supposed to be able to understand parables). Chris then goes on to say that the seed size was important because it would signify to the Jews that the Messiah wasn’t what they expected. This is relevant, but defeats your claim that the size of the seed wasn’t crucial to His point.

      Finally, re: (4) above, I think both of you are still misunderstanding the “botany” point. I am not trying to claim that Jesus was trying to establish the truth of the small-ness of mustard seeds. I realize THAT was not the point He was trying to make. It nevertheless remains true that He used a mistaken botany CLAIM as an illustration. There is a difference between asserting and establishing. And it isn’t pedantry to call a spade a spade, that such a claim is/was a mistake.

    • Marv

      On that mustard seed thing, I think someone else has made this point by now, but the whole “problem” as classically presented (a la JB Chappell) is an illusion. Granted this is in part attributable to various translations, but the text simply does NOT present Jesus making the claim that the mustard seed is the smallest seed in existence. (JBC explicitly cites it that way).

      The NIV does read “smallest of all seeds on earth,” which could give the impression Jesus actually means something similar to “smallest in existence.”

      Seriously, take a closer look and it’s pretty clear Jesus is talking about “on the soil” a la ESV or NASB. So we need to stop citing this one in terms that are simply not even a correct reading of the text.

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