Biblical inerrancy (freedom from error)
According to mainline,
and progressive Protestants
Beliefs of mainline Christians:
Mainline denominations, like the Presbyterian Church (USA), and their
membership, often take
an intermediate position on inerrancy; in fact, many try to avoid the term where
Conflicts over inerrancy has caused internal rifts within the
Presbyterian movement. In 1973, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) split off
from the Presbyterian Church (USA), partly over the matter of inerrancy. The PCA
left because the PCUSA "...had shifted from its
historic beliefs to a theological liberalism that denied core biblical
doctrines, such as the inerrancy and authority of Scripture."
During 2001-JUN, the inerrancy of the Bible was at
the core of a dispute at the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church
(USA). The representatives were debating whether to remove a church rule
that banned gays and lesbians from ordination.
According to ReligionToday:
"In debating the issue, officials from the PC (USA) stated: 'We
acknowledge the role of scriptural authority in the Presbyterian Church, but
Presbyterians generally do not believe in biblical inerrancy. Presbyterians do
not insist that every detail of chronology or sequence or pre-scientific
description in scripture be true in literal form. Our confessions do teach
biblical infallibility. Infallibility affirms the entire truthfulness of
scripture without depending on every exact detail.' "
Many liberal Christian theologians believe that the writers of the
Bible naturally exhibited a "high degree of religious insight, something akin to
artistic ability...The net effect of this position is to make the scriptural authors as
qualitatively no different than Plato, Buddha, Mohammed etc. The Bible thus becomes the
spiritual experiences of the Jewish people." 1 But
they do not believe that it is inerrant. In fact, most believe that no book is inerrant.
Many liberals believe that the Hebrew and Christian scriptures:
|Sometimes incorporated text from earlier writings that had been created by unknown
|Sometimes incorporated text from other Middle Eastern cultures. The two creation
stories in Genesis, the story of the Noachian flood, the Ten Commandments, the passage in Exodus 21 which devalues the life of a fetus, etc. were
adapted and copied from nearby Pagan societies such as the Assyrians and Babylonians.|
|Sometimes expressed the ideas and promoted the beliefs of the religious group that the author(s) were part of.|
|Sometimes described an event as an allegory. That is, a story that was intended to have
a hidden or symbolic meaning. They did not intend that the passage relate to an event that
really happened or to a person who actually existed.|
|Sometimes involve the combined writings of many authors and editors. Richard Simon, a 17th
century theologian, wrote a book called Critical History of the Old Testament. He
analyzed the Pentateuch, the 5 books which had been attributed to Moses. He found
different writing styles, different names used for God, and groups of laws that seem to
have patched together from various original sources. Jean Astruc during the
and Julius Wellhausen during the 19th century further developed these thoughts. A
consensus of liberal theologians now accept the "JEDP"
theory, that most of the Pentateuch was written by four authors or groups of authors:
"J" (who used Jehovah as the name for God). "E"
(who used Elohim); "D", the author of the book of Deuteronomy
and "P" who wrote the "priestly" sections which deal
with ritual, liturgy and the dates and genealogical passages. To this was added additional
material obtained from other Mid-Eastern sources. The Pentateuch was assembled circa 950
BCE by "J", 750 BCE for "E" and 539
BCE for the "P" source. However, these were the dates that
"editing" occurred; the authors sometimes used much older material, from Hebrew
and Pagan sources.|
|Sometimes were not written by the persons that are traditionally considered the authors. e.g. the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were not written
by apostles with those names. The names of the gospel authors are unknown. Some
theologians believe that the Gospel of John was written by a group of authors.
Most theologians believe that none of the gospels were written by
authors who actually heard Jesus preach and were eyewitnesses to his ministry. Many books of the Christian Scriptures that identify St. Paul as
the author were in fact written many decades after the apostle's death by anonymous
writers. This also holds for the general epistles.|
|Record a gradual evolution of religious thought over many centuries. The
writings contain errors and passages that exhibit highly immoral practices by today's
standards. For example, the Bible promotes religious intolerance, the death penalty for
behavioral transgressions, extensive genocide of neighboring tribes, etc.|
|Contain hundreds of internal contradictions.|
|Discuss many individuals who never existed, and events that never
In summary, most religious liberals believe that the scriptures were
written by very human and capable individuals, but that their works were not inspired by
God. Their writing is not inerrant.
Retired bishop John Shelby Spong answered an inquiry about biblical
inerrancy from a Sunday school teacher who had just been fired from a
Presbyterian Church in Tennessee because he would not present the Bible as
perfect and infallible to his class. Bishop Spong responded:
"The idea that any educated person would today try to defend the idea
that the Bible is either perfect or infallible is difficult for me to
"When I confront people quoting biblical texts literally and thus in
defense of some theological agenda or prejudiced attitude, I tell them
they are asking the wrong question of the Bible. The appropriate
question is not, 'Is this literally true?' for the world of biblical
scholarship settled that question years ago with a resounding 'no'. The
proper question is rather, 'What does this story mean?'
Then I might
inquire about 'What need in the life of the person making the literal
claim does the presumed literal authority of scripture meet?' Religion
has always been more about the search for security than it is the search
for truth - people crave certainty. When there is no certainty or
insufficient certainty, people will go to great lengths to create it.
The more irrational the claim, the more the insecurity is apparent.
There is nothing rational about claims for the inerrancy of the Bible,
or for the infallibility of the Pope. There is nothing rational about
religious anger, religious persecution, religious wars, religious
inquisitions or religious hatred of other faith traditions. However, the
way to confront this irrationality is not with rational arguments no
matter how tempting it is to try that approach."
"If you were dismissed in order for the myth of biblical perfection to
continue to live, proving them wrong by rational argument will not touch
the issue. What you have done is to threaten the security system of your
congregation's leadership. You have two choices for an appropriate
- Remain in the congregation and bear your witness lovingly -
hoping to bring about change.
- Find a new church whose leadership is not so threatened and help
to make an alternative available for people like you...."
"My first advice is always to stay where you are and to work for
change. If change is impossible, my second choice is to go to a place
where you can be fed." 2
Related essays on this site:
Biblical inerrancy as understood by
- "Homosexual ordination vote widens gap between Presbyterian factions,"
ReligionToday, 2001-JUN-20, at:
- "Bishop Spong Q & A on Biblical Inerrancy," 2006-MAY-31 weekly
newsletter. You can subscribe at:
Copyright © 1997 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants
on Religious Tolerance
Author: B.A. Robinson
Latest update: 2009-APR-17