January 16, 2021

iMonk Classic: We thought he was such a nice boy—and then we found out he didn’t believe in Inerrancy!!

Classic iMonk Post
by Michael Spencer
From February 15, 2005

Dear Sir: What a total disappointment.

I do like your wisdom and passion. However, you have become too smart.

May God have mercy on you regarding your responsibility to adhere to the inerrancy of scripture.

• • •

The discussion on inerrancy at the BHT and here at IM always fills my mailbox with mail that I can’t answer. All I can do is make an attempt to say what I believe is a reasonable approach to Christian scripture. That approach doesn’t do well with those who need perfection in their hands before they can say they have truth in their minds. I am not an inerrantist. It’s costing me friends, and it makes me uncomfortable. Here’s some of my thoughts. I know they will make a lot of you unhappy, but I’m nailing it to the door anyway. We need to articulate what we believe about scripture in a way that comports with the real nature of the Biblical texts, not inerrant, perfect autographs no one will ever have.

When I first wrote about Why I Am Not A Young Earth Creationist, I knew that eventually I would have to write more on scripture itself. So I have, and you can access various posts on the subject here.

There is a lot more to be said, and I am really not up to saying it, but comments like these over at the Boar’s Head illustrate the problem well. (Three different writers, btw.)

One reason inerrancy is so important is that if we give it up in part the logical outcome will be the eventual giving up of the Gospel(not that you would of course). This is so is because the gospel is inextricably tied to history. Undermine the historical details of the Gospel and we undermine the Gospel itself.God, through the Holy Spirit, has written and preserved the Scriptures…If we don’t believe that, then why don’t we just toss it out the window, really…Do we believe in a literal six-day creation? I certainly hope so. Or do we try to turn some/all of the Bible stories into “allegories”?

What you are asking is the same as saying: “Since different people are reading the compass and their interpretation of true north may vary, then it doesn’t matter whether the compass is broken or not!” I disagree. KNOWING the compass is right is at least a starting point.

I could cite so many more things. I am constantly getting mail about my view of scripture, which really puzzles me. I obviously believe in the essentials of the Gospel and preach them out of the Bible. I teach the Bible to high school students, and have never been accused of being a liberal. I am a confessional Christian who enthusiastically embraces the Westminster Confession on the subject of scripture.

The whole counsel of God, concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture….our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit, bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts.

The authority of the holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or Church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself), the Author thereof; and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God.

…it pleased the Lord, at sundry times, and in divers manners, to reveal himself, and to declare that his will unto his Church; and afterward for the better preserving and propagating of the truth, and for the more sure establishment and comfort of the Church against the corruption of the flesh, and the malice of Satan and of the world, to commit the same wholly unto writing; which maketh the holy Scripture to be most necessary..


The problem? I don’t believe in inerrancy, a view of how scripture is inspired that means well, but just can’t get traction with me. My problems with inerrancy have been going on for a very long time, and I’ve heard it presented and taught by the best. It’s never sat well with me, probably because I have a lot of literary interest in the text of scripture, plus I don’t like to be bullied. I get a rash.

1. What the heck is it? It takes a major document to describe inerrancy.

2. The document in question contains the following paragraph (Chicago Statement on Inerrancy XIII):

We deny that it is proper to evaluate Scripture according to standards of truth and error that are alien to its usage or purpose. We further deny that inerrancy is negated by Biblical phenomena such as a lack of modern technical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, the reporting of falsehoods, the use of hyperbole and round numbers, the topical arrangement of material, variant selections of material in parallel accounts, or the use of free citations

Excuse me, but did I just read that I am off the inerrancy hook if I can assert that the passage in question did not intend to come up to a particular standard of truth?

OK….I don’t believe the Bible was ever intended to be true in comparison to contemporary science, history, astronomy, geology, medicine, anatomy, psychology or the Bill James Baseball Abstract. Can I go to lunch now?

3. Inerrancy is asserted for the original autographs.

We don’t have them.

4. While the Bible is supposedly inerrant, none of those who interpret it are inerrant interpreters. That’s a problem. If there is a perfect compass, and you give it to a chimp, what have you got? A chimp with a compass.

5. Inerrancy is almost always tied up with things that really bother me: Young earth creationism, of course. Spiritual warfarism, where people with problem kids and screwed up marriages thing that Satan is in the house and/or in their head. Secret knowledge schemes, like What did Jesus eat? Diets. Conspiracy theories. Bible only Christian education. Lunacy like the Bible Codes. It goes on and on. Magic Bookies run amuck.

6. Inerrancy looks, smells and feels remarkably like a philosophical imposition on the Bible, going beyond what the Bible CAN say about itself, and forcing those of us who believe in the authority and truthfulness of the Bible to take a “loyalty oath” that goes beyond what should be said. Typical of evangelical attempts to show they are really really really really really right. Catholics do it with the Pope. Pentecostals with experience. Evangelicals with inerrancy.

It’s like a philosophical security system to keep everything safe. It’s been called Protestant Scholasticism, and I agree.

7. No major confession requires that you use the word “inerrancy”. Even the Southern Baptist Convention’s Faith and Message Statement avoids the exact word, and doesn’t harp on the concept. Reformation confessions don’t use it at all. We can live without it.

I’ve got news for you….but the Bible may be wrong on the resurrection. It may be wrong on lots of things. I don’t really have any way to inerrantly prove it one way or the other. And neither do you. At some point, you’ve got to accept it on faith, as do I. Accepting or not accepting the idea of inerrancy has little to do with whether or not I place my faith in Christ. In fact, I think inerrancy has a tendency to get in the way of our trusting Christ. We spend so much time sweating all these little inerrant details and trying to scientifically/historically “prove” the Bible that we can miss out on the entire point of the whole thing: Christ. Isn’t Christ enough? Why does it have to be Christ and inerrancy? Call me crazy, but I’m THANKFUL that the Bible doesn’t line up factually or theologically 100%. It would make it too easy to “stand pat” with my current understanding rather than having to spend a lifetime wrestling with scripture.

I could expand this list but I won’t. I want to say something about the comments quoted at the beginning of the post.

Defenders of inerrancy send me lots of false dilemmas. Thing like: If we don’t believe in inerrancy, the Bible must go out the window. Shred it. Go ahead. Shred Grandma’s KJV because you don’t believe in inerrancy so YOU JUST DON’T BELIEVE THE BIBLE ANY MORE YOU OVER-EDUCATED KNOW IT ALL.

Or this one. If you don’t buy the six day, young earth creationist view of Genesis, then you are saying it’s all an allegory. And that’s stupid. So it’s literal history with Ken Hamm or it’s allegories with all the devils of hell.

That’s it? Those are my choices? Ken Hamm or “allegory?” The great thing about that one is I’m pretty sure the author doesn’t know what an allegory is.

Or the Bible is a perfect compass. Or a perfect map. Or a perfect book. Because God is perfect. And if God said it, it must be perfect. It’s perfect. Really, really really perfect. Not just true. Not just a book that brings us Christ and the Gospel. Perfect. And if you don’t come out and walk around saying the Bible is perfect, then you reject the Bible.

And of course, without inerrancy, we lose history, and we lose the resurrection, and we lose the Gospel. The only way we know that the Gospels are telling the truth is the doctrine of inerrancy, modern version. Without it, we float off on a cloud of mythology. Or so I keep hearing. Why this doesn’t seem to be applying to N.T. Wright hasn’t been explained.

You will have to forgive me, readers, but this all just amazes me. I mean, it really amazes me, because it simply isn’t so.

The Bible is, first of all, not a book at all. IT IS NOT A BOOK AT ALL. It is 66 books, from a very long time ago. A wide selection of literature in the human conversation. The church selected these books because it believes that God speaks through those books to tell us the truth of the Gospel, and to tell us about Jesus and our salvation by the mediator. Therefore, the church asserts that these 66 books are a message from God. Since the Bible doesn’t know the “Christian Bible as canon” exists, it doesn’t have a word for itself beyond the New Testament calling the Old “scripture.”

Confessions like the WCF do a good job of saying God revealed himself, the church wrote down not only what was revealed about the Gospel, but a lot of other things surrounding the Gospel that make it understandable. The church selected a canon, and the church endorses that canon as scripture. God didn’t pick these books. We did. Christians will discover, on their own, that the Spirit speaks through those books and brings us to a saving knowledge of Jesus. They do a good job of this without talking about science, anthropology, anatomy, the latest issue of Biblical Archeology or any other standard of modern “truth.” The Bible is historical, but nowhere do I read a claim that it is perfect history. It’s “here’s the story from the God-point of view, where all kinds of strange things are more important than what you learned in school.”

The Bible is truthful, but it’s approach to truth is clearly something like this: God told us the truth in Jesus. Believe him. The Biblical story leading us to Jesus is true in that it leads us to Jesus. This seems to work without reference to large epistemological tomes on the nature of truth or the real “facts” of science. It’s actually quite amazing. For example:

Romans 5 says sin entered the world through one man. No history book in the world agrees with this, but Bible-believers know its true. We don’t need to worry that it is laughable to the world. This is our story.

Romans 5 says the death of one man made up for that sin for all who believe the Gospel. This also doesn’t match up with any history anywhere, and won’t be verified, so I don’t really get what’s going on. (I mean, you can historically conclude that Jesus was executed, but the meaning of it all is off the meter.) The only way you get ahold of this event, and what it means, is by faith and the Spirit. The church tells you the story in its canon of scripture, and you believe it by the illumination of the Spirit.

We also discover that the Bible’s approach to truth comes through an amazingly diverse grid of various literary types. Most all were literary forms common in prescientific cultures that thought the earth was the center of the universe, stars were angels, the blue sky was water, the moon gave light and so on. God didn’t seem to care about the limitations of prescientific accounts. Inerrantists worry about them endlessly. God actually seems to prefer them over modern “historical and scientific” accounts, as they keep the main thing the main thing. (If the Bible were being written today it would be larger than Spurgeon’s collected works. 30 times as large. Easily.)

Literary genre is the great ignored fact of the Bible that inerrantists seem unable to feel good about. They toss out “allegory” as a straw man, but if we were more accurate, the list would include EVERY kind of literary genre in the book: proverb, drama, journal, lament, imprecation, praise song, parable, didactic, story of origin, genealogy, poetry, apocalyptic, novella, and on and on and on. For some reason, the “truthfulness” of anything other than “flat” narration or eyewitness reporting really bugs a lot of inerrantists.

They remind me of people who, when asked by a four year old chide where babies come from, get out a college biology text or a video from human development class. Why? Well, allegory, story, poetry, etc. would just be abandoning the truth. (This is crazy!) So if I say the story of Adam and Eve is true, but it is prescientific, mythic, and more story than history, I’m a heretic. I will just say this once: I’m an English teacher, and you people get an F. Truth comes in all kinds of literary forms, and insisting that Genesis must produce a scientifically correct view of the universe is being brutally shallow in your appreciation of the literary nature of the material that makes up scripture.

This just in, and I have lots more like this.

History in the Bible must be perfect if it is to be trustworthy and if it is to be breathed out by God. If not, then the historical detail about the resurrection of Christ may not be true at all. And then our faith would be futile.

I respect my brothers and sisters with this view, but I cannot understand why they have come to the conclusion that Jesus and the Gospel must depend on a perfect book for “truth.” I thought if it really happened, it was true, and if God chooses to tell us what really happened in a book of poetry, symbol, music, apocalyptic, parable, prophecy, lament, proverb, saying and so forth, that doesn’t stop anything from “really” being true.

Creation “really” happened. That I am told by God about creation in a three thousand year old liturgical, poetic, prescientific story meant to assert Hebrew ideas over pagan ideas during the Babylonian captivity doesn’t take one thing away from the truth of Creation. Not one thing. Telling me I have to become a young earth creationist in order to actually “believe” this account is absurd. Saying that if I don’t become a young earth creationist, I disbelieve this account is simply unacceptable. Stronger words are really needed.

I want to say more, but I am weary from saying this much. I love and respect my inerrantist friends. When they tell me I am rejecting the resurrection by rejecting “inerrancy,” I am hurt and puzzled. But so I will remain, because the quests to insure that modernistic assertions about the Bible precede and protect the Gospel are not about to end. Denominations will split. Friendships will end. Seminarians and pastors will be shown the door. Christians will reject their brothers and sisters. It is needless, and a ridiculous waste of unity.

(For a thorough response to this article, read the Jollyblogger, David Wayne. Excellent post and totally an honor to be fisked by the best.)


  1. Adrienne says

    Oh my Chaplain Mike ~ I won’t get into the whole Inerrancy thing. As the article says, “what the heck is it any way” is about where I have taken my stand. I DO however want to comment on the pictures. My stomach hurts. I have attended church with so many of the “TSK TSK SISTERS” and what is even scarier is that I was on the way to becoming one myself until the Lord tripped me and re-routed my journey. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. I can’t wait to meet Mike Spencer when I get to heaven. He is edging his way closer to Martin Luther as my first choice after meeting Jesus, my dear Husband, Mom,sister-in-law and Paul. I figure the line for Paul will either be really long or really short. At any rate Mike was a great thinker, very articulate and just downright funny! I never met him and I miss him!

  2. Randy Thompson says

    Thanks for raising this issue.

    I’ve never liked the term “Inerrancy” either. It promises more than it can deliver, it seems to me. I prefer to speak of the Bible as “reliable.” Given the Biblical texts’ various cultural, literary and historical settings, given the limitations of human knowledge, given the fact that the Bible is a collection of very human documents inspired by God, I believe it still shows itself to be a reliable guide to who God is, who we are, what God has done, who Jesus is, what Jesus did, and what the plan of salvation is. As Luther (I think) put it, the Bible is the manger in which Christ lies. You go to the “manger” for the sake of Christ.

    I’ve also been struck by the fact that our Lord Jesus, the Word made flesh, taught in parables. Doesn’t that suggest that God might also speak in parables as well, as in the case of Genesis 1-11?

    The Bible isn’t the journey. It’s the road map for the journey. As such, it will guide you and get you where you need to go, even though it’s an “old” map!

    “Inerrancy” says more about people wanting infallible systematic theologies than a clear understanding of what the Scriptures actually say, it seems to me. I think they tend to subvert even the best of systematic theologies. (I believe the Bible defies systematization, but that’s another issue.) The Bible is coherent because it’s essentially one story told by numerous writers and editors, and as such it becomes our story, and as it does so, it demonstrates that it is a reliable guide that shapes our story so that it conforms to the Great Story.

    Another analogy I find helpful when it comes to thinking about Scripture is this: The Bible is the vocabulary and grammar of the language we need to learn if we’re going to communicate with God. Before you can live and function in France, for example, you need to learn the language, which means building a vocabulary and learning the grammar necessary for the words make sense. The same is true of the Bible. The Bible provides us with the vocabulary and grammar of the language of Heaven, and the point of it is to enable us to talk to God and make sense. Praising, repenting and growing in Christ-likeness are key parts of that language.

  3. conanthepunctual says


  4. I’m with Michael Spencer on this. Using the term “inerrancy” kills the usefulness of language in talking about the Bible. For example, there is poetry in the Bible (psalms, etc.); how can one call poetry “inerrant”? You can say it’s “true”. You can even say God inspired it and is speaking through it, but to call it “inerrant” seems weird. How about a lament? There are all sorts of things in Scripture that just don’t fit in black and white terms like “inerrant” or “errant.”

    You can even assert (by faith) that the Bible we have is what God providentially has provided for us through various means and preserved through history. But that’s not the same thing as saying “inerrant” (or “errant”) to refer to a mixture of books and genres in a way that goes outside the normal English application of those words.

  5. Tim Becker says

    MS will never cease to be a breath of fresh air!

  6. The line that killed me was the second one: However, you have become too smart.

    Translation: “you disagree with my favorite shibboleth(s), and you have evidence to back up your views, unlike me. Clearly you’re someone I have no skills to argue with, because you’re not as ignorant as the blockheads I follow while claiming to follow Jesus. So I’m going to jump into the River of Denial and act as if your God-given intelligence is actually a liability, so I have an excuse for keeping my religious blinders on.”

    As someone who’s been accused of being “educated beyond my obedience” (and I plead guilty), I have learned that people who say such things can be trusted about as far as you can throw the average mountain.

  7. Great thoughts. My single greatest reason for not believing in biblical inerrancy is that it is simply self-contradictory. Seriously, scripture contradicts itself ALL THE TIME. And all it takes is someone who actually knows their Bible to understand this.

    • Ok. I gotta be the fundagelical to poop on your enlightenment parade. Apparent contradictions, not actual contradictions. Seemingly contradictory statements are easily harmonized by a skilled exegete, but the effort is not taken by some who needs contradiction in order to dismiss the message and be free from its AUTHORITY. There are just too many leaps of logic between saying Josiah reigned for 5 or 7 years, and concluding the whole book is hogwash, there is no forgiveness of sins.

      • I think this is oversimplified, Miguel. The account of Judas’ death is a good example of a contradiction that can not be “easily harmonized by a skilled exegete.” I have seven commentaries on the passages in question, and none of them match in their explanation! I am certainly not implying that these or any passages serve to make the idea of inerrancy “self-contradictory” (I think Joshua goes too far above), but your response simply doesn’t deal with the facts as we have them.

        • It is blatant contradiction when Genesis 1 discusses humanity being created last, and the very next chapter describes humanity being created first. It is blatant contradiction when the end of book of Joshua claims that the conquering of Canaan was swift and complete, and the beginning of the very next book, Judges, says that the very same action was slow and incomplete. It is blatant contradiction when one book says “beat your swords into plowshares,” and another book says “beat your plowshares into swords.” It is a contradiction when 1st Samuel says that David killed Goliath son of Gath, and 2nd Samuel claims that Elhanan son of Jair killed Goliath son of Gath. The fact is simple–the bible is full of contradictions and errors.

          When we look at the scriptures as monolithic, we miss out on the fact that they were written by dozens (if not hundreds) of different authors and editors who had multiple understandings of the nature of God, and yes, disagreed with one another. But somehow–mysteriously, beautifully, and divinely–the true narrative of God manages to shine its way through the scriptures, as frail as they can be.

          • I believe that some of what people call contradictions in the Bible, especially concerning its message, is no more than an oversimplification of the Bible’s meaning. The messages, ethics, morals of the Bible are more complex than we think. Should I make war or peace? Well, that depends because:

            There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens:
            a time to be born and a time to die,
            a time to plant and a time to uproot,
            a time to kill and a time to heal,
            a time to tear down and a time to build,
            a time to weep and a time to laugh,
            a time to mourn and a time to dance,
            a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
            a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
            a time to search and a time to give up,
            a time to keep and a time to throw away,
            a time to tear and a time to mend,
            a time to be silent and a time to speak,
            a time to love and a time to hate,
            a time for war and a time for peace

        • Well, I’m not exactly going to bat for inerrancy here, just consistency. I would accept the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy as accurate, I think, but not absolutely necessary. But I don’t understand how you would even need a commentary to harmonize the death of Judas. Seriously; one account says he hung, the other says he fell: How is it a contradiction when neither are mutually exclusive? Can not someone fall after hanging? I mean, he obviously had to fall from somewhere. Like I said, it may seem contradictory, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be: Apparent contradiction, not actual contradiction. Actual contradiction involves making two claims that are mutually exclusive. Doesn’t happen in scripture.

          • I would actually argue that those are quite some exegetical gymnastics, and that Occam’s Razor should be applied to the study of scripture.

            Explaining away the Genesis accounts as figurative–though I agree that they are indeed figurative–does not take away from the fact that the text disagrees with itself. And as far as the David also going by the name Elhanan thing–well, that’s just reading something into the text that isn’t there; it’s speculation about what the text does not tell us, as opposed to reading what it does say. And as for Joshua and Judges–it’s pretty clear that they do indeed follow a chronology: Joshua ends with the death of its main character, and Judges picks up following Joshua’s death when the Israelites are looking for a new leader. Moreover, even the gospels have their little eccentricities–for example, Jesus saying both “Whoever is not for us is against us,” 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 true, it is simpler and more likely to believe that perhaps someone may have copied it down incorrectly, or 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 easy enough to confuse.

            It all just seems like people try too hard to force the Bible to fit together perfectly, when in reality, it does not. And I would argue that’s the beauty of it. It includes letters, fiction, history, hagiography, poetry, songs, fables, melodramas, and allegories, and is the most expansive collection of writings that deal with the character of God that we have available to us.

          • You can call them exegetical gymnastics, but Occam’s Razor does not trump the established definition of a logical contradiction.  To insist on it’s use instead of thorough logical analysis is convenient intellectual laziness.  If two claims are not mutually exclusive, they are not a contradiction, no matter how closely you have to look in order to determine.

            Genesis:  Don’t forget about literary genre.  The first chapter is rendered in Hebrew as poetry.  Chronological sequence is irrelevant.  You wouldn’t take the level of scrutiny to Poe.  This is not the examination of a scientific textbook full of observable facts and propositional truths, but an amalgamation of various literary genres which must all be approached, read, and interpreted differently.

            David:  Certainly the text isn’t explicit about whether he has a name.  But it certainly does not rule it out either.  This means both that we can neither claim that it must be a contradiction or that David must have two names, but merely that both are possible.  You have not established mutual exclusivity.  You have at best a potential contradiction, not an established one.

            Joshua: Cite specific examples. You’ve essential said “there is too a contradiction!” without showing one.

            Gospels: Eccentricities? Yes, but not contradictions. Context counts for something, which you’ve ignored. It is completely ridiculous to take isolated statements and pit them against each other as proof positive of a contradiction. By that standard, the weather man contradicts himself every day. One instance refers to doing good works while the other is about religious affiliation. Not remotely contradictory. Its like saying its a contradiction to say both “Islam is a religion of peace,” and “most terrorists are Islamic.” Both could be potentially true.

            Could there be scribal errors? Certainly not logically impossible, but neither conclusive. But inerrancy only applies to original documents, see point 3 in the post. There is a whole science dedicated to studying textual variations in the different manuscript traditions. The entire New Testament has a total of >0.5% know variations, absolutely none of which are relevant to doctrinal claims.

            Also keep in mind that when dealing with the character of God, one should naturally expect to encounter paradox frequently. Logic does not allow equating paradox with contradiction. You must distinguish them to remain consistent.

            Occam’s razor… please. Examine the facts. You would never take that approach to examining any other book of historical or literary value.

          • I think we’re talking about two sides of the same coin here. I agree with you on the Genesis issue–Two different authors, two different genres, two different contexts. But taking the Bible at face value (not something I am usually wont to do), it simply does state two conflicting accounts. However, where do you come off declaring that the chronological order of creation is irrelevant? Who gets to ultimately make that decision with regards to the importance of scripture? That’s dangerous ground, my friend.

            I am not intellectually lazy–just not as hell-bent as some people on proving that nothing in scriptures contradicts itself. That’s certainly not a tenet of MY faith–such obsession borders on bibliolatry.

            Splitting hairs between what is and isn’t a true “contradiction” is simply fancy talk and an avoidance of the issue: that the Bible is constantly saying one thing, and then turning around and saying something else that doesn’t fit with the first. I’m not sure what you meant by “Certainly the text isn’t explicit about whether he has a name,” but no matter how you dress it up or insert your own interpretations into it, saying that David killed Goliath, and then saying that a different person–Elhanan–killed Goliath is a contradiction. Also, David is referred to as “David” in the exact same passage in 2 Samuel; if David went by both David and Elhanan, wouldn’t that be confusing? Also, it just doesn’t make sense to say that “Elhanan son of Jaare-oregim” is the same as “David son of Jesse.” To say so truly IS to ignore logic. Two different sons, two different fathers.

            As far as the Joshua account goes, all you have to do is read the two books to see their inconsistencies; it becomes apparent in their narratives/plotlines. Under the command of Joshua, all of the Israelites’ enemies are taken down, and the promised land subdued. However, Judges chronicles the conquering of the exact same territories AFTER Joshua’s death, tediously spanning over decades and decades (with lots of “and there was peace in the land for 40 years” parts in between). Heck, the book of Joshua even disagrees with itself–the complete extermination of the Jebusites found in chapter 11 conflicts with the assertion that Joshua was unable to drive the Jebusites out in 15:63. The book of Joshua is constantly saying that Joshua wiped out entire peoples, leaving no survivors (10:37, 10:40, 11:12, 11:14, etc.), but those same tribes/nations are constantly seen again and again throughout Judges.

            And as far as Occam’s razor goes–of course we use it for works of historical value. Look at the Warren Report in the face of historical conspiracies. But I agree it should not be (nor can it be) used for everything. But I digress…

            Making the claim that the Bible contains no errors–or if you don’t want me to use the technical term, “contradictions,” then perhaps, “inconsistencies”–is simply denial. However, I am a fan of what you said about paradox. Paradox is the core of the mystery of our faith, and I can appreciate that.

          • Miguel, I am not sure you are taking your logical analysis far enough. In formal logic an “actual contradiction” is in the form of “Q and not-Q”. However, in language analysis we rarely see this kind of contradiction (most speakers and writers are at least clever enough to avoid blatant self-contradiction).

            In the case of Judas it is not merely that the accounts of his death don’t match, but that the reasons for naming the place of his death do not match. The contradiction is not in the formal style of “Q and not Q”, but is (only slightly) more subtle. Matthew 27 says “P is Q”. Acts 2 says “P is R”. This is not the same as saying “P is not Q” until one compares and contrasts Q and R. When we do, we quickly realize that Q is not R. So if we take Matthew and Acts together as comprising a propositional set, there is a real and actual contradiction – it just takes an extra step to formally get there.

            Now I will just add here that I think there is a major flaw in the previous analysis – and it is the presupposition that Matthew and Acts comprise a unified propositional set. I don’t think language even works this way. However, in my experience the claims of many inerrantists are based upon the same (imho, flawed) presuppositions.

            Hope this helps.

            P.S. – Joshua, I think you’re going to have to define “blatant contradiction” before using language that strong.

          • Genesis: Sorry for being unclear. I didn’t mean chronology is completely irrelevant, but that you can’t hold poetry to the same linear standard of chronology as you would the second chapter. Text gives way to form, after all.

            Biblioatry: A real and present danger. I’m not terribly invested in one side of this debate as I am definitely open to a more liberal interpretation of scripture. However, it just happens that most of what people point to as contradiction in scripture is surface level and does not take into consideration context, genre, culture, figures of speech, or any interpretative structure whatsoever. I suppose at this point it would be fair for me to concede, I should not hold that there can not possibly be an error or contradiction in all of scripture (since obviously we have different manuscript traditions with no firm consensus on which is “correct”), but that of all the many alleged contradictions I have seen, none of them have stood up to rigorous inspection. Yet.

            Three men observe the same event: First man: “An attractive, red headed woman came into the room and left shortly thereafter.” The second man: “An rushed woman ran in here, took care of some business, and hurried back out.” Third: “A very angry woman just popped in and chewed out the guy in that chair.” All three described the exact same event, but focusing on different details.

            Most alleged contradictions are on this level. Because accounts are not identical, people needing contradiction in scripture jump to conclusions. Yes, it is difficult to prove contradiction conclusive when dealing with ancient language. It is not necessarily “splitting hairs” or “fancy language” to insist that not everything that may look like a contradiction must be. Occam’s raze is not used decisively on Voltaire, Emily Dickinson, or Josephus. Their writings are very complex, and naturally have to be closely scrutinized for a clear understanding of what their authors intended to convey. The Warren report is a completely different ball park. OR is used here to establish consensus, not determine contradiction.

            Your argument from Samuel boils dow to: “No, David and Jesse couldn’t possibly have gone by two names.” But you haven’t given a reason, besides that it would be confusing. But it still happens all the time today… Two different names certainly could mean two different people, but it does not have to. To insist that this line of reasoning is based on a desperation to prove consistency is an accusation of ulterior motives that goes both ways. And a red herring. Just saying.

            Josha 11 vs. 15: One describes the conquest of Northern Cannan, the other the conquest of Judah (in the south). Come on, that is near carless to call that a blatant contradiction. Your digging for one. Leaving no survivors is in reference to the individual cities/regions the narrative is focusing on, not complete and utter genocide of any possible relatives in any land.

            John, I agree with your distinction about the subtleties of language. Its worth pointing out, though, if most authors are clever enough to avoid blatant contradiction, how dumb would we have to believe them to be to think some of the apparent contradictions are not a misunderstanding on our end? But in the death of Judas, while Q is not R, see “redhead” illustration above. To show absolute contradiction, Q and R must be mutually exclusive. R must equal precisely “not Q.” I admit this is hard to find in writing, as in, “what would the Bible have to have in order to satisfy my understanding of containing an actual contradiction?” Something like this might do: Jesus says love your enemies, in one passage, kill your enemies in another. Exodus says the Israelites wandered for 40 years in the desert, Deuteronomy says 20. Paul says Jesus was uncreated and eternal, Peter says Jesus had a beginning and was a finite being. Now that’s contradiction! The Bible doesn’t contain counter-statements of that nature. I suppose the little seeming discrepancies might bother some who approach the book as a literal, linear, scientific textbook, but “blatant contradiction” looks like those examples.

        • Joshua, what you list seems contradictory only on the surface level. Obviously we can’t expect ancient documents to phrase things the way we might expect them to be expressed most clearly in modern english. If what you list counts as legitimate contradiction, then the U.S. Constitution wouldn’t pass the test. Remember, an actual contradiction must involve two mutually exclusive claims.

          Genesis: Any form of theistic evolution renders the two accounts figurative anyways.
          Samuel: David>Elhanan: Is there any reason to believe that the same person could not have gone by two different names? It happens today.
          Prophets and Plowshares: Where does it claim both prophets are referring to the same future event?
          Joshua and Judges: A long list of supposed contradictions lie here. Which verses would you claim are mutually exclusive? Remember, Joshua and Judges do not necessarily follow a strict chronology.

          These are not extreme linguistic and exegetical gymnastics. It is simply the direct application of logic to determine what is and is not a contradiction. If you really want to find one, there a plenty of opportunities to see them on the surface level. But reason with yourself: Do the statements in question absolutely demand mutual exclusivity, with no other possible understanding of their meaning?

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Didn’t all the convolutions of Dispensationalism begin as an attempt to reconcile all the contradictions and discrepancies by splitting them off into separate isolated Dispensations?

  8. The inerrancy question reminds me of a video by N T Wright on Jesus cleansing the Temple. He says that the Temple served as a signpost to God, but that some people insisted on looking only at the signpost and missed the point. As example, he says when we try to teach a dog something and point to an object, the dog looks at the finger wagging and not at the object.

    I think the previous iMonk classic, the Bible as “A Conversation in God’s Kitchen” also tells it well.

    Here’s the Wright video:

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      As example, he says when we try to teach a dog something and point to an object, the dog looks at the finger wagging and not at the object.

      Wright took that example from fellow Anglican C.S.Lewis. Lewis concluded the example by saying “A finger is a finger and that is that” and how modern man cultivates that doglike state of mind.

    • Actually, I believe that dogs are one of the few, perhaps the only, animals who can learn to understand that we want them to pay attention to what we are pointing at, who can follow our finger to focus on the object. My dog is adept at it. It is an indicator of how hard they work to understand us.

  9. #3, To the point. What use is “inerrancy” if it only applies to the original documents? I just don’t get it. Its pretty much as if we are saying, we believe that at one time, there was an inerrant book that existed somewhere. We don’t have it, but it did at one point exist somewhere. Wow.

    I think the issue behind the issue is about Biblical authority and not Biblical accuracy. Regardless of your manuscript variation, the message is exactly the same. Those who don’t think a particular teaching of the Bible is correct are not disputing the accuracy of its transmission: In truth, they simply want to be the judge of what is right and wrong, and the Bible, if it contradicts me, well then it must be wrong!

    The issue is authority. And interpretation…

    • Yes, it is about authority. And in the modernist mind, authority is directly dependent upon accuracy. I’m not sure most evangelicals question their epistemological presuppositions.

      • Insightful observation. Perhaps the coming evangelical collapse will “rouse us from our dogmatic slumber.”

  10. I believe the Bible is an anthology of writers who had relationships with God first individually, then as part of a nation (Israel), and then individually again. The Bible is important because within its pages is all the information we need to become sons of God and to overcome and defeat the kingdom of evil. Also, within its pages, we can see the progression of the human understanding of God (in fact, we should understand more about God now that the early church did).

    As far as Creation is concerned, we might look at two analogies to think reasonably about what is written. First, seeing God as an potter creating a collection–sure He used the same material for everything and sure He included some of the same elements (like handles and spouts/backbones and eyes) within many of His created pieces. Second (and think about this), seeing Creation as the manufacturing of a vehicle. Since time at its most basic meaning in nothing but the motion of the earth rotating on its axis and of the earth revolving around the sun, we can use the manufacture of car as a relevant analogy. When do we put cars into motion–when they come off the assembly line. What if God waited until He completed the creation process to put everything in motion? That would explain a whole lot of scientific observations. We could say God created our world in eternity and then started time.

    One thing I don’t agree with you on. There is a spiritual warfare going on against the human race–there are “pushes” against people to do wicked things and/or to destroy them or those around them. When Christ was on the earth, he knew how to deal with those “pushes,” and we have the same ability as he did. We just need to seek God for knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. For example, back when I first got married (1973), I had a strong self-centeredness, and when God showed me that, I took authority over Satan using that “push” against me. God gave me understanding and wisdom on how to overcome that force in my life. I determined I would not allow self-centeredness keep me from loving God with everything I have and from loving my neighbor as myself.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      There is a spiritual warfare going on against the human race–

      Spiritual Warfare (TM) has been used as the justification for what can only be described as “Christian Witchcraft”. And Witch Hunts seeing DEMONS under every bed.

  11. P.S. I’m an English teacher, too!

  12. The finite contains the infinite.

    If you don’t think God is up to that task, then your god is fairly small.


    I have always found it odd that God can use fallible men and women to get His infallible Word out there…but yet He must have a perfect book to accomplish the same thing.

    The Word is perfect and infallible…the Bible doesn’t need to be.

    • If it were only fallible men talking, you could never be sure whether what they were saying was trustworthy. The reason we know an infallible God is speaking through fallible men is that the words those fallible men say actually are perfectly true (which would be impossible if the words originated ONLY within those men). God said He would let none of the words of his prophets fall to the ground and offered a test of false prophets—if what they say is untrue, don’t believe them. Yes, men are fallible, but when God speaks through men, what the men say is infallible and that’s how we KNOW it’s God speaking (even if it’s a man’s voice or a man’s pen at work).

  13. Just today in our New Testament reading, the mustard seed was said to be “the smallest seed in the world.”

    That’s not accurate.

    But so what? Does that invalidate the message that Christ Jesus died for our sins?


    People then say, “Well…if that is wrong then what else is wrong and what in the Bible can you trust and what can’t you trust?”

    Here’s the answer: ‘It can ALL be trusted’. Even if there are some discrepancies. So what? The message is true. The Word is TRUE and INFALLIBLE.

    • Hey, Steve and I disagree on lots… But on this absolute agreement.

      • Thanks, Mike.

        I think if you carry the same principle over into some of the areas that we disagree on, then you might see how we Lutheran types at where we are on say…the sacraments. The finite (bread, wine, water) contains the infinite (Christ Jesus and His promises).

        I know, I know…I shouldn’t push it. But I couldn’t resist. 🙂

    • Gotta disagree, my friend.

      Once you open the lid to that box (a Bible with errors) you will eventually see every central doctrine denied on that basis. Of course it doesn’t start that way, but it will sure as hell end that way. Look at the troubles in your own Synod. From whence do these come and what is their root? A errant Bible.

      • Patrick,

        The troubles in the ELCA are NOT because of the view that the finite contains the infinite. The troubles in the ELCA stem from a complete ABANDONING of God’s Word.

        No one has ever been able to explain to me how my faith in Christ has been adversely affected by having the higher view of God inasmuch as He is able to use the ordinary to accomplish the extraordinary.

        Why Lutherans would want to hitch their wagons to a Southern Baptist doctrine of the Word is beyond me.

        The proper view is not a Bible that has NO errors…but a Bible that is infallible and that can be trusted in ALL matters of faith and life. Not because every jot and tittle in the book is perfect but because the Word is perfect.

        The ELCA is a mess (beyond repair), true enough. But the sort of Biblicism that quite often results from a wooden, the Bible dropped out of Heaven with a bow tied around it view, can be just as bad if not worse.

        Lutherans view (ought to) the Bible the same way they view the Sacraments. The same way they view their pastors and preachers, the same way they view their Lord…fully of man…and fully of God.
        That’s the truth of the matter, Patrick, and that is why the center is the place to be. Not on the left with the ELCA. Not on the right with the LCMS…but the center where some ELCA and LCMS pastors and congregations are.

      • “Once you open the lid to that box (a Bible with errors) you will eventually see every central doctrine denied on that basis. Of course it doesn’t start that way, but it will sure as hell end that way.”

        Slippery slope fallacy.

        • That is not true, Tim.

          We have never believed that the Bible is error free and we have always held that it is the infallible Word of God and that it can all be trusted.

          I would argue that the early church, including Luther and almost all the others Reformers believed the same thing. How could Luther call many of the books of the Bible, “epistles of straw”, etc. and say things like “if you use the Scriptures against Christ we will use Christ against the Scriptures”, etc. if they held to textual inerrancy?

          The proper Christian doctrine of the Word is that God brings the infinite to bear in the finite.

          “In the beginning was the Bible, and the Bible was with God, and the Bible was God.”

          Doesn’t that sound ridiculous? Because it is ridiculous.

          • I must have misunderstood something, Steve. I was under the impression that Patrick was arguing that if we do not hold to the inerrancy of the Bible that one could not believe its message, and that therefore the Gospel is false.

            If I misunderstood something either of you have said, my apologies.

            For the record I agree with your statements about the Bible. Although to be technical Luther calling James “an epistle of straw” isn’t necessarily a bad comment. Straw back then was used as the foundation for many things and was used for bedding, etc. Thus Luther was saying that it was an important epistle. However, compared to the gold of the Gospel, straw is of lesser value. Although I don’t think this is the place to debate Luther’s ranking of Scripture 😉

  14. Bill Ferrell says

    Absolutely brilliant!! This is the reason I started reading this site.

  15. Michael Spencer wrote, “Truth comes in all kinds of literary forms, and insisting that Genesis must produce a scientifically correct view of the universe is being brutally shallow in your appreciation of the literary nature of the material that makes up scripture.”

    I love this.

  16. Richard Hershberger says

    I have long pondered the word “inerrant”. Were a pollster to ask me if I believe the Bible to be inerrant, I don’t know how I would respond. I believe it in some sense of “inerrant”. I think this sense is probably the most common, in non-Biblical contexts. But in the context of discussing the Bible, “inerrant” is a code word for a whole bundle of beliefs, many of which I do not share. So what would the honest answer be to that hypothetical pollster’s question? I don’t know.

    I am pleasantly surprised to find that paragraph from the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy. I is eminently sensible, and clearly formulated by people who understood the issues raised by the word. But I also get the sense that it doesn’t really reflect how the word is actually used in the trenches. Or that any use which is based on an understanding of those issues is acceptable to those in the trenches.

    • Well expressed, Richard, and you’ve hit on the main problem in that people on both sides use the word to mean something other than what it really is. They assume it’s tied up with a “whole bundle of beliefs” (many of which I don’t share either!) but it really has nothing to do with those beliefs.

      I recognize that there are many who reject “inerrancy” (as they understand it) or are uncomfortable using the term but who for all practical purposes as far as my own understanding hold to the important principles behind the term. It’s too bad we end up separated by our own use of language sometimes…


  17. Jesus Christ testified to the truth of the Old Testament, including many of the parts people don’t want to accept. In Matt 12:39-42, he authenticated the story of Jonah; He stated that Moses wrote the books of Moses in Mark 7:10 (See also John 5:45-47, 7:19); and in Matt 19:4-5 he authenticated the creation account, that the human race started from one pair of fully developed humans specially created by God.

    Jesus Christ pre-authenticated the New Testament, by explaining to the apostles beforehand how they would be able to remember perfectly all He had said and done, as well as receive new teachings:

    John 14:26 But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. (NIV)

    John 16:12-13 I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. (NIV)

    Finally, the apostles themselves made numerous declarations as to the truth of the New Testament, and how it came to be. Peter wrote:

    2 Peter 1:15-19 And I will make every effort to see that after my departure you will always be able to remember these things. We did not follow cleverly invented stories when we told you about the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For he received honor and glory from God the Father when the voice came to him from the Majestic Glory, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain. And we have the word of the prophets made more certain, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. (NIV)

    Paul testified about the revelations he had received:

    Galatians 1:11-12 I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ. (NIV)

    The aged apostle John’s stenographer wrote:

    John 21:24-25 This is the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down. We know that his testimony is true. Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written. (NIV)

  18. black cat says

    I tried to access the following site from your website:
    It was called Conrad Hyers: The Man Who Ruined Me on Creationism
    And I’m getting the msg “page not found.” Any chance of reading it otherwise?

  19. Yesterday’s article was good–very challenging. i agreed with much, and even the parts i disagreed with were strengthening and challenging in a healthy way and provoked thought.

    This article here seems a marked step down. Inerrancy is never clearly defined, so i’m not really sure what it even means for the author to say he’s not one. At the end of the article, it seems a lot of issues are simply conflated together in unhelpful ways. Much of the article seems to characterize people negatively rather than a specific position. And frankly, some of the arguments are just bad.

    “3.” wouldn’t falsify inerrancy; the position may be true whether we had the autographs or not.

    “4.” has little to do with the position. Interpreters will be fallible regardless of whether inerrancy is true.

    “5.” is just plain genetic fallacy. Some die-hard right-winger could make an analogous complaint against global warming–that it’s associated with all manner of things that also annoy him, thus he rejects that global warming is true.

    And despite all the “love and respect” claims made, the overall candor of this article seems very bitter compared to yesterday’s more enlightening and welcoming piece, which is generally unhelpful.


  20. I find it fascinating that several of the responses consist of efforts to “prove” the Bible to be accurate from an “inerrant” and “literal” Western perspective. 🙂

  21. I’ve said before that #5 in this essay is what I think is the most critical thing for the author—because inerrancy gets improperly mixed up with particular views on Genesis (or Revelation), inerrancy is thrown out when really it has nothing to do with the particular interpretations which are troublesome. All the other arguments are simply “straw man” arguments or irrelevant.

    #1: It’s not a “major document”. It’s relatively short. No Christian has any problem believing in the Trinity but there are enough volumes defining and debating the characteristics of the Trinity to fill a library. The size of the document is irrelevant. It would be a one line statement except for the fact that the authors tried to anticipate ridiculous objections that people would raise like “Hey, there’s a typo in my Bible, therefore inerrancy isn’t true.”

    #2: I don’t understand how this is an objection. Inerrancy doesn’t have some crazy standard of truth that’s different from how we interpret everyday writing or speech. If the author thinks inerrancy DOES mean that every statement in the Bible has to be accurate to a trillion decimal places, then he’s right to reject inerrancy—but no-one believes that.

    #3: Given the enormous number of New Testament manuscripts available, for all practical purposes we DO have the original texts. Having more data samples actually increases the confidence one has in the correctness of the final average result—that’s basic statistics. This objection is stronger for the Old Testament, but the point is simply that if the text originated with God, it MUST be true. Whatever happens after the fact as far as transmission of the text is a different question, but this statement is doing nothing more than establishing that at least at the start, there was absolute correctness.

    #7: Christian history is filled with new words introduced at times when a particular new challenge to doctrine came along. Words are invented with specific definitions to help clarify the official teaching. Yes, inerrancy is a word that’s fairly recent but that’s because no-one in Christian circles questioned the truth of Scripture before. Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin—pick your historic theologian—all stated in no vague or uncertain terms that Scripture is completely true and free from error, even though they did not use the word “inerrancy.” So the fact that it’s a new term is meaningless—all the historic theologians of the Church taught inerrancy.

    Those of us who believe in inerrancy have no trouble understanding the difference between literary genres and we also are aware of discrepancies between archaeology or secular history and the Bible. I can certainly understand the difficulty inerrancy poses, however, for those who believe it requires belief in particular Genesis interpretations. I’m sympathetic but I just think it’s a mistake to throw out a historic teaching of the church for a completely unncessary reason. I’m sympathetic too in that many on the OTHER side (pro-inerrantists) make the same mistake of proclaiming that inerrancy is equivalent to 7 literal day creation or other interpretive schemes.

  22. If you don’t feel contradictions are really contradictions, then try combining the gospels. If you want to produce a paraphrase of, say, the crucifixion as related in all 4 gospels, you are going to have to decide what you say about the rooster crowing or who went to the tomb first.

    You have a choice: You can tell your audience Mary went or you can tell your audience that Mary was accompanied by other women. Those may be the same truth to you, but your audience will hear them as two different things. What do you say?

    If I told my wife that I went over to my friend’s house and he was there, and then she later learns that yes, he was there, but so were a bunch of our friends I didn’t mention, she would wonder what else I was hiding. My perfect logic about how I was indeed telling the truth and there were no logical contradictions would not only be useless in my defense, they would be evidence to her that I was indeed trying to hide something or I would have told the entire truth at first.

    • Ah, but let’s say you sent 4 different text messages to 4 different people. Depending on who these 4 people were you might give them 4 different versions of what happened, all of which would nonetheless be true.

      Yes, it would probably be a good thing to tell your wife that others were there as well, although names may not be required. A friend who is part of that circle, though, may want names. Another friend, not part of that circle, will be satisfied if told that there were about 6 people there, while the more casual friend may not need to know anything more than the fact that you were at a friend’s house.

      That’s the situation we have in the Gospels – 4 different letters written to 4 different audiences. No effort at concealment, only at giving the diverse audiences in question what is necessary to point them towards Jesus.

    • Good thinking, but as James said, your own illustration works against your position. None of the accounts are obligated to be complete in every detail. Sure your wife might be upset, and you might be “dishonest”, but you would not be guilty of contradictory accounts, merely incomplete ones. One is telling a part of a true story, the other is telling two diametrically opposed stories. The gospels do not need to be harmonized, but if they are, there are a variety of opinions about exactly how their events would relate sequentially to one another. This isn’t even in the same ballpark as contradiction.

    • Target audience inerrancy. I love it. Truly a case of the medium is the message.

  23. I’m glad there are discrepancies in the Bible.

    I’m glad that Christians do not need to view the Bible in the same way that the Muslims view their book.

    I’m glad that we trust God’s Word and do not need a perfect book …for a perfect book requires zero faith.

    And faith is how God makes His Word known in us.

  24. One more Mike says

    Michaels been gone going on 16 months and he can still stir up a hornets nest. Thanks for continuing to repost the archives.

  25. First let me say, I do believe the Bible is inspired but I can’t believe in inerrancy or infallibility of the Bible.

    I also see a lot of “apparent” contradictions, although most of them can be reasoned away.

    Some of the issues come down to what “Inspired” means. To me it conjures up thoughts of God dictating the scriptures to those writing them down. I don’t see how that could always happen. I see, however, that there are portions of scripture that state “God says…” which could have been dictation.

    Much of the time, we talk about how we know the truth of the Bible because, in the narrative, we leave in the mistakes (such as Tamar & Judah or Lot & his daughters) rather than try to whitewash the story.

    What if the reason we have the contradictions and errors is so that we don’t start worshiping the book (or library) but concentrate on worshiping the God that the book is about.

  26. To deny inerrancy is simply to be honest and informed. Those who affirm it are either dishonest or uninformed (probably not both). The apologetic sophistry required to show that, e.g., the fig tree withered twice or Joseph’s father had 2 names, when applied to almost any fictional work, will reveal that it too is inerrant I’m sure.

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