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Biblical inerrancy (freedom from error)

As viewed by fundamentalist
& other evangelical Protestants

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Overview:

"Inspiration" and "inerrancy" are closely linked Christian beliefs:

bulletInspiration means that God inspired the authors of the Bible so that they wrote text that were free of error.
bulletInerrancy generally means that biblical books were free of error in their original autograph copies -- the copies that the authors or authors' scribes themselves wrote down. This allows for errors to creep into subsequent copies of the original documents, whether by copyist error or the insertion of forged text.

The concept of inerrancy is one belief that dramatically demonstrates differences among various wings of Christianity:

bulletFundamentalist denominations, such as the Southern Baptist Convention, and other very conservative evangelical Protestant denominations generally teach a strict view on the inerrancy of the Bible. It is a belief that is tied with their understanding that God directly inspired its authors. The writers largely played the role of a secretary taking dictation.
 
bulletAt the liberal end of the evangelical spectrum, inerrancy is interpreted less strictly. Their theologians deviate from the literal interpretation of the Bible in more cases. Biblical authors are seen as writing with their own style and content. Theologians have suggested that Biblical infallibility need not be total. It is of prime importance on matters relating to the deity of Christ and an individual's route to salvation. Historical, geographical and scientific details are of lesser consequence. Errors creeping into those areas could be admitted with little or no impact on the overall Christian message. Needless to say, this approach generates a lot of opposition with more conservative evangelicals.
 
bulletAt the other extreme, most progressive Protestants have rejected the concept of inerrancy. They generally analyze the Bible as a historical document. Their authors' purpose was to promote their own beliefs and those of their faith group. The writers incorporated stories from nearby Pagan cultures, legends, myths, scientific errors, religious propaganda, and even material which was clearly against the will of God into their writing. Examples of the latter, in the area of women's rights alone, include stoning non-virgin brides to death, forcing widows to marry their husband's brother, forcing women to marry their rapists, burning alive some prostitutes, and requiring women suspected of adultery to endure a ritual in the Temple which, it was believed, would result in her death if she was guilty, and the death of her embryo or fetus is she was pregnant.
 
bulletIndividual mainline Protestant Christians tend to take either a liberal or conservative stance on inerrancy. This is currently generating a major divisions and massive conflict within their denominations over church policies such as: the ordination of homosexuals in committed relationships, and rituals which recognize same-sex relationships. There are also theological divisions over inerrancy itself, whether trusting Jesus Christ is the only way to salvation, etc.

Future schisms between liberal and conservative wings within leading mainline denominations are quite possible. They occurred in the 19th century over the morality of human slavery, and came close to happening during the 20th century over female ordination. A schism is currently underway within the worldwide Anglican Communion over homosexuality.

In contrast, the largest conservative Christian denomination -- the  Roman Catholic Church -- had traditionally taught a belief in strict inerrancy of the Bible. However, this has recently been changed to include only passages related to faith, morals and salvation. More information.

Beliefs of fundamentalist and other evangelical Protestants

Conservative Protestant theologians regard biblical inspiration and inerrancy as among the most important of Christian doctrines. The terms inerrancy, authoritative, infallible and inspired are closely linked. If the scriptures are to be considered authoritative, then they must be inerrant and infallible. And the only way to assure these factors would be to have the writings inspired and controlled by God - because only an all-knowing God can be totally free of errors. Unaided, humans are certain to have made mistakes.

Some indications of their belief in inspiration and inerrancy:

bulletAt a Niagara Bible Conference in 1895, attendees prepared a list of 5 fundamental beliefs that could be used to evaluate the orthodoxy of a Christian speaker. A 1909 publication "The Fundamentals" repeated these same beliefs. The first, and presumably most important, was the inerrancy of the Bible.
 
bulletThe Lausanne Covenant of 1974 is a statement of faith agreed to by many Evangelical Christian groups from over 150 nations. Its Section 2 is titled "The Authority And Power Of the Bible." It states, in part: "We affirm the divine inspiration, truthfulness and authority of both Old and New Testament Scriptures in their entirety as the only written word of God, without error in all that it affirms, and the only infallible rule of faith and practice." 1
bulletAlthough the Manila Manifesto of 1989 did not refer to biblical inerrancy, it confirmed the participants' commitment to the Lausanne Covenant. 2
 
bulletA 1999 document on the Bible written by an ecumenical group of sixteen Roman Catholic and Southern Baptist theologians stated in part:

"For Southern Baptists, inerrancy means that the original biblical text was composed precisely as God inspired it and intended it to be because of God's superintendence: not just the thought comes from God, but every word with every inflection, every verse and line, and every tense of the verb, every number of the noun, and every little particle are regarded as coming from God. Scripture is 'God-breathed,' and God does not breathe falsehood, so the text is faithful and true in all it affirms, including the miracle accounts, the attributed authors, and the historical narratives. The 1978 and 1982 Chicago statements on biblical inerrancy are representative of this doctrine." 3

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Many conservative Protestants take an all-or-nothing approach to inerrancy. The implication is that if the Bible can be shown to contain some errors, then all passages become suspect, and unreliable.:

bulletWarren Doud wrote: "The whole of Scripture and all of its parts, down to the very words of the original, were given by divine inspiration...The written word in its entirety is revelation given by God...Confession of the full authority, infallibility, and inerrancy of Scripture is vital to a sound understanding of whole of Christian faith." 4
 
bulletJ. I. Packer wrote: "Only truth can be authoritative; only an inerrant Bible can be used... in the way that God means Scripture to be used." 5
 
bulletDave Miller wrote: "If the Bible is a mixture of truth and error, then it is like any other book and simply not deserving of any special attention." 6

Conservative theologians recognize that many Christians and skeptics point out what appear to be errors and inconsistencies in the Biblical text. However, they believe that no conflicts truly exist. They believe that the critics are themselves committing errors in their analysis, such as:

bulletAssuming that unexplained conflicts can never be explained.
bulletAssuming that the Bible contains errors, unless it is proven accurate.
bulletConfusing human interpretations of passages with God's true revelation.
bulletTaking the passage out of its context.
bulletIgnoring similar clear passages when interpreting difficult ones.
bulletAssuming that a partial description of an event is a false description.
bulletRequiring New Testament authors to cite the Old Testament without error.
bulletAssuming that God approves all events in the Bible.
bulletNot realizing that the Bible uses ordinary, non-technical language.
bulletInterpreting rounded-off numbers as false data.
bulletIgnoring the effects of subsequent copying errors. 7

Many religious conservatives believe that the Bible cannot be understood by the "natural" person. The only people who can truly grasp biblical teachings are those who have first been saved -- that is, they have repented of their sins and trusted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. (Some conservatives believe that salvation is purely a product of an individual's beliefs and God's grace. Thus, they have dropped the requirement for repentance since it is a "good work" performed by the individual.)

Some fundamentalist and other evangelical Christians consider a particular English translation of the Bible to be inerrant. This is particularly true among the King James Only Movement. A few in that movement believe that the King James Version (KJV) itself is inerrant. Where it can be shown to have translated the ancient Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek manuscripts incorrectly, they believe that the KJV is correct and the manuscripts are wrong! In essence, they believe that God inspired the translators to work without error, and to correct any errors in the originals.

However, most conservatives believe that inerrancy only applies to the original, autograph copies of the various books of the Bible. None of the latter have survived to the present day. We only have access to a variety of manuscripts which are copies of copies of copies.....

An unknown number of errors are induced due to:

bulletAccidental copying errors by ancient scribes.
bulletintentional changes and insertions into the text, made in order to match developing theology.
bulletThe incorporation of notes in the columns of the manuscripts into the text itself. Sometimes, scribes inserted interpretations beside the text. Later copyists then incorporated these notes into what they believed to be the actual text.
bulletAccidental translation errors by modern translators.
bulletIntentional bias by translators in order to make the material agree with the current theological thought of their sponsors. Essentially all English translations of the Bible have been funded by religious groups with very specific beliefs.

Sometimes, translators are faced with obscure original texts whose meaning is not clear. They often convert these passages into English without footnotes, even though they cannot be certain that they are accurate.

Usually, the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, is considered by conservative Christians to be responsible for inspiring the Bible's authors to write inerrant text.

Religious conservatives generally believe that Moses wrote all of the Pentateuch, the first 5 books of the Bible. Jesus is quoted as believing this to be true (See Mark 10:3, Luke 24:27, and John 1:17). Other conservatives believe that he wrote all of the Pentateuch except for Deuteronomy 34, which deals with Moses' own death and burial. Moses is believed to have written the books after the Israelite's exodus from Egypt, but before they entered Canaan. This would date the writing to the 40 year period when the Israelites were wandering through the desert, circa 1450 BCE. There are about two dozen verses in the Hebrew Scriptures and one dozen in the Christian Scriptures which state that Moses was the author.

Some conservative Christians believe that the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were written by apostles with those names. When the fundamentalist faction within the Southern Baptist Convention wrested control from the more moderate members, they required its employees to sign a loyalty oath which commits them to this belief. They also believe that all of the books of the Christian Scriptures which state that they were written by St. Paul were actually written by him. Other Christians accept that only some epistles were written by Paul; others were written up to 80 years after Paul's execution.

Related essays on this site:

Biblical inerrancy as understood by

bulletRoman Catholics
bulletMainline, liberal and progressive Christians

References used:

  1. "The Lausanne Covenant," at: http://www.gospelcom.net/
  2. "The Manila Manifesto," at:  http://www.gospelcom.net/
  3. "Southern Baptist - Roman Catholic Conversation. Report on Sacred Scripture," 1999-SEP-10, at:  http://www.usccb.org/
  4. Warren Doud "The Inerrancy of the Bible" http://www.realtime.net/
  5. J. I. Packer, "Fundamentalism and the Word of God," B. Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, MI, (1958), Page 20.
  6. Dave Miller, "Why I Believe in the Inerrancy of the Scriptures" http://www.infidels.org/
  7. Tony Masinelli, Ed., "Misconception: 'The Bible is Full of Errors"" http://witnessbox.com/ "The truth and salvific purpose of sacred scripture according to Dei Verbum, Article 11" Living Tradition #59, 1995-JUL, at: http://www.rtforum.org/ 

Copyright © 1997 to 2009 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Author: B.A. Robinson
Latest update: 2009-APR-16

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