Monday, July 25, 2011

Bible Problems--A Few Reasons I Don't Believe in Biblical Inerrancy

Hello, fellow revolutionaries!

It is late, and I can't sleep; so I'm passing along some thoughts that have been going through my brain lately on the subject of biblical inerrancy--the belief that the scriptures are free of error/contradiction.

Most of this stemmed from a conversation I've had with some folks over at the iMonk monastery, where they thankfully have a very open and congenial forum for discussing issues like this in a civil manner. Here goes.

I don't believe--and haven't for quite some time--that the Bible is completely inerrant. And while I am a seminary student, a person of faith, a lover of God and of people, and a passionate follower of Jesus, I think that to believe the scriptures are free from all error is asinine; it's the proverbial ostrich putting its proverbial head in the proverbial sand. I present the following instances to support my understanding of the scriptures as writings that are just as flawed as the human men (and women?) who wrote them. It is by no means an exhaustive list, just a few things to get you thinking.

1) In Genesis 1, the author claims that all of life was created in a calculated order, with humanity being the pinnacle of Elohim's Creation. However, in Genesis 2, humanity is pretty much the first thing created, with all of the animals being created last for the purpose of giving Adam a chance to name them. Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 are two completely different creation accounts, with different orders and even different understandings of God--the former describes a vast, cosmic, transcendent deity, while the latter describes the kind of God who walks and talks with Adam and Eve in the garden.

2) The narrative of Joshua claims that the conquering of Canaan was swift and complete, in an idealized and miraculous show of military might. However, in the very next book (Judges), the claim is made that the conquering of Canaan was slow and incomplete.

3) In 1 Samuel, we find the old familiar story of David facing down the giant, and we are told that David son of Jesse killed Goliath son of Gath by using a slingshot to hit the dude between the eyes (and then a sword to cut off his head). However, in 2 Samuel, the claim is made that Elhanan son of Jaare-oregim killed Goliath son of Gath.

4) The prophets Isaiah and Micah both describe a time when people will "beat their swords into plowshares," while the prophet Joel explicitly calls his readers to "beat your plowshares into swords." (Admittedly, this could be explained away by the fact that Isaiah and Micah are speaking about a future kingdom, while Joel is giving a command for the present. However, this still serves as an example of how biblical authors used other sources and texts, and even used disagreement and contradiction as literary devices.)

5) Even the gospels have their little eccentricities--for example, Jesus saying both "Whoever is not for me is against me," and "Whoever is not against us is for us," is logically inconsistent. Rather than try to explain away how Jesus means both statements to be equally true, it is simpler (think: Occam's Razor) and more likely to believe that perhaps someone may have copied it down incorrectly. It is not a stretch to think that somewhere in that long game of telephone that eventually gave us the scriptures, someone innocently and accidentally wrote down the wrong thing--the two phrases are certainly easy enough to confuse.

Unless we are to use some extreme linguistic and exegetical gymnastics (or simply read something into the Bible that just isn't there--recently someone tried to explain to me that David and Elhanan could have been the same person), the fact remains that the Bible is full of little errors and contradictions. The difficulty with much of modern apologetics is that apologists often attempt to make the Bible jump through their hoops, rather than letting it speak for itself.
via ASBO Jesus

HOWEVER. When we view the scriptures as monolithic--some call it bibliolatry--we fail to recognize that the Bible was written over centuries--millennia, even--by dozens, if not hundreds, of authors and editors (read: "people liable to screwing up") who disagreed with one another, and had differing ideas of the nature and character of God. But to me, the true narrative of God shines through the scriptures--beautifully, mysteriously, divinely--despite the frailty of the Bible's very human writers.

It all just seems like people try too hard to force the Bible to fit together perfectly, when in reality, it does not. It's complicated--just like life and history are complicated. And I would argue that that's the beauty of it all. It's simply a fallacy to believe that just because the Genesis accounts contradict one another, or the fact that Esther, Job, and Jonah are very likely fictional accounts, means that God doesn't love us, that Jesus didn't have something to teach us, and that there is an ultimate plan for this whole ball of wax we call earth. The scriptures include letters, fiction, history, hagiography, poetry, songs, fables, melodramas, and allegories, and it is the most expansive collection of writings available to us that deal with the subject of who God is. We can't afford to take it too seriously.

To recognize that the scriptures are not infallible is to recognize their frailty, and make both the Bible and ourselves vulnerable. But vulnerability is exactly what Jesus was about--relying on God and on each other rather than our own understanding. And as a wise man once said, All instruction is but a finger pointing to the moon; Now, dear student, do not confuse the finger with the moon.


  1. What do you mean by "we can't afford to take it too seriously?" I certainly believe the Bible is full of contradictions and human perspectives. I also believe it to be inspired. The more I study the Bible, the more beauty I see and the more excited I become. I don't need it to be perfect, because I see in the Bible a God who works through imperfect humans. I believe it to be true, even when not factual.

  2. Jennifer, I wholeheartedly agree with you. I also happen to believe that the concept of infallible, inerrant scripture is ironically unbiblical.

    When I said, "We can't afford to take it too seriously," I was referring to the act of mistaking the finger for the moon. There are folks out there who--whether they know it or not--worship the Bible, and not the God who inspired ("inspirare," to breathe) it. To them, if one part isn't factual, then the whole things crumbles. This is the same logic atheists use, by the way.

    However, I'm beginning to have doubts about the whole "all of it is true, even if not all of it is factual" logic. It's hard for me to see laws concerning the selling of daughters into slavery as "true," in the same way I have difficulty grasping as truth the concept of a God that sends out evil spirits to torment people. I am by no means judging your understanding--it's just something I'm struggling with.