The reason biblical inerrancy simply makes no sense is this: It’s simply not true to human and universal reality.
Conservative Christians generally believe in a literal creation and fall, and because of the fall we are all sinners. Progressive Christians generally believe in some form of theistic evolution — that human beings and all forms of life have evolved, but God has been and continues to be engaged in the process in some way. Both camps offer myriads of variations and explanations to go with these two basic positions, but no one denies that human beings are flawed. We do not, of course, agree on how we became flawed, but we all readily admit that all life is flawed.
Conservatives emphasize original sin; progressives emphasize original blessing (which, by the way, is reason enough to compel anyone to be a progressive). But either way human beings are imperfect and flawed. The earthly creation is flawed. The universe is flawed. Jesus himself never claimed to be flawless. According to Mark’s Gospel Jesus was asked, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus replied, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone?” (Mark 10:17-18). (It was later in the development of Christian doctrine that the institutional church attributed to Jesus sinlessness.) I suppose one could even argue that God, in light of universal flawed reality, is (I would say possibly, but not probably) flawed. (Process theologians believe God is evolving along with the universe). My point here is that there is nothing, with the exception of God himself/herself, in our known universe that is not flawed.
To posit an inerrant Bible written by flawed human beings makes no sense. That is not to say that the writers were not in some sense inspired. I suspect they were, though not all inspiration is good, helpful, constructive inspiration. The biblical writers responsible for the genocidal passages purporting that these whole-scale slaughters of men, women, and children were done in obedience to God’s command were certainly not writing under the inspiration of a good, loving Spirit. The very attempt to justify a divine decree to kill even one child, which of course, inerrantists must do, demonstrates the unreasonableness, futility, and abject blindness of belief in inerrancy. I know inerrantists will accuse me of insensitivity, arrogance, and a lack of understanding here, and that’s okay. I’m simply being honest, and honesty can cut deep. Whatever inspiration may or may not mean, and there are as many definitions and descriptions of inspiration as there are theologians who write on the subject, it most clearly does not mean or imply inerrancy.
As I often say, no one reading the Bible for the first time, unless he or she is told beforehand that the Bible is inerrant, would come to that conclusion on their own. Human imperfections are all over the pages of sacred scripture. The Bible didn’t just float down out of heaven on the wings of angels. Numerous and diverse genres of material were passed down orally, going through a number of changes and alterations, then written, edited, redacted, adapted, and collected through a very human process. Flawed human minds and hands were involved from beginning to end.
Can God use these human documents to form human character and create peace-seeking, just, grace-filled communities? Indeed! God has, is, and will continue to transform lives and communities through sacred scripture. Can the Devil (I am speaking metaphorically here) use these human documents to deform human character and to justify religious, national, and cultural exceptionalism, elitism, sexism, materialism, and racism? Indeed! The Devil has, is, and will continue to inspire evil actions in the name of God.
Every Christian group I know of that is known for its prejudice, condemnation, and its exclusionary practices believes in some form of biblical inerrancy. They read the Bible selectively to justify their harmful beliefs and actions. Evil done with God’s approval is the worst kind of evil, because one can do harm to others without any sense of guilt. Remember Saul of Tarsus. He considered himself “blameless” (Phil. 3:6).
Lest I distort the truth, let me remind my readers that there are many good, gracious people who believe in inerrancy. I have family members and friends who are biblical inerrantists. They believe what they believe because almost all of the people in their life whom they love and respect also believe in inerrancy. To not believe in inerrancy would put them at odds and outs with their whole support network. I suspect that is the greatest reason of all why many of my friends and family will not even entertain the notion that inerrancy may not be true. So they will continue to claim to believe that the whole Bible is the word of God, but then they will read and apply it selectively in ways that conform to the Christian culture they are enmeshed in. They will simply ignore all the bad and crazy stuff in scripture.
Another reason why some inerrantists will not even consider the possibility that they could be wrong relates more to psychology than theology. They equate giving up inerrancy with giving up their faith altogether. Of course, that would probably not be such a bad thing. Many who give up their faith in the interests of honesty and truth end up finding it again at some point along their journey, only the second time around it is much healthier, healing, and life-affirming.
The title of Peter Enns’ latest book, The Sin of Certainty, would suggest that having to have an inerrant Bible out of a need for certainty is a sin. I don’t know if it is or isn’t. I have enough sin in my life to keep me plenty occupied without trying to find it in others. But what I do know is that belief in biblical inerrancy simply makes no sense.
Image by Dan Wilkinson.
Chuck Queen is a Baptist minister and the author of several books on progressive Christian faith, including his most recent, Being a Progressive Christian (is not) for Dummies (nor for know-it-alls): An Evolution of Faith. Chuck blogs at A Fresh Perspective, has contributed to the blog Faith Forward and is a monthly columnist for Baptist News Global.