Characteristics of the Bible: “inerrancy” or “theological reliability”?

Having seen and read quite a lot of biblical inerrancy debates, I’d like to propose a few points to consider.

First of all, it is right and just to insist that the biblical inerrancy doctrine upheld by the well-known Chicago Statement is demonstrably wrong. I’ll briefly enumerate the main arguments supporting this conclusion, but won’t go into detail, as almost everyone here is well aware of these ideas.

  1. The analysis of literary forms and historical context reveals that the writers of the Old Testament creation narratives had no purpose to provide a precise, quasi-scientific description of natural phenomena.
  2. According to the Bible itself, the prophets have never participated in divine omniscience and will not participate in it till the end-time (1 Corinthians 13:9-12). Therefore, a prophet may well make a mistake while speaking about an issue which is not material to his or her God-inspired mission.
  3. Theoretically, a creator could have filled the created world with misleading evidence in order to deceive humanity. But God whom we encounter in the Bible will never do it: our God is not a deceiver. Therefore, one should assume a definite harmony between the Bible and nature, which is the other book of God, and avoid discarding the systematic and consistent knowledge about the age of the Universe that was obtained by physics, astronomy, geology, paleontology, and so on.

But to criticize the wrong doctrine is not enough. Criticism without affirmation (or without the equally strong and sound affirmation) is one of the reasons why the inerrancy doctrine remains widespread. Criticism without affirmation makes it easy to reinterpret the debate as a clash between the “high view of Scripture” and the “low view of Scripture”. Believers who don’t support the inerrancy doctrine but remain the full-hearted proponents of the creedal Christianity need to make visible and to uphold their own method of biblical interpretation. This method should be more sophisticated and coherent than the method of the inerrantists, but plain enough for a layperson to comprehend it, and conducive to a firm confidence in the doctrines of the Nicene Creed.

So, what should be the correct Christian way of reading and comprehending the Scriptures? First of all, it should be the Gospel-centered reading.

While reading the Gospels, one becomes assured that the birth, life, deeds, words, death, and resurrection of Jesus from Nazareth as described in the four canonical Gospels are the true representation of divine will and manner of action. This confidence should be partly spontaneous: one can’t become and remain a Christian without being captivated by the image of Jesus Christ. But this emotional engagement doesn’t need to be irrational. That’s why reading the Bible along with the book of nature and discerning divine action in nature is absolutely indispensable. To grasp the kenotic, self-humiliating manner of divine action in nature is to get ready for perceiving the crucified Christ as the embodiment of the Creator.

To comprehend that the Gospel narratives have correctly represented the true God is to get assurance that these narratives are theologically accurate. In other words, they are the true divine revelation. This statement doesn’t however meddle in the field of historical scholarship. The Church knows that the Gospels originated in the earliest Christian community fostered by the apostles. But it is up to historians to figure out (or, at least, to conjecture) the more detailed history of these texts.

Thus, the four Gospels are the key divine revelation and the centerpiece of the Bible (cf. Hebrews 1:1-2); the other biblical books’ authority may and should be proven by demonstrating their relatedness to the Gospels.

One can reasonably assume that the writings of the same Christian generations that have collected and written down the four Gospels are covered by the same divine warrant that ensures the theological accuracy of the Gospels themselves. These apostolic writings contain the important additional information about the Christian doctrine and discipline. Nevertheless, they should be read and interpreted in the light of the Gospel narratives about Jesus Christ – that is, about his birth, life, deeds, words, death, and resurrection. Nothing may be a universally applicable rule of Christian faith and life unless established by Jesus Christ.

As for the Old Testament books, the New Testament writers and Jesus himself have confirmed that the Old Testament “is inspired by God” and, therefore, “is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). Nonetheless, there is an apostolic claim that, although it may seem arrogant, is of principal significance to the Christian exegesis of the Old Testament: the pre-Christian Hebrews were not able to understand the proper meaning of the Scriptures they were given by God. Only the Christian, apostolic, New Testament interpretation of the Old Testament is sound and true (2 Corinthians 3:13-16).

To sum it up, here are the two different but mutually supplementing approaches to the Bible.

The historical way of reading understands the Bible as the diverse collection of texts that had been written at different times and places to be finally united by the perspective of Christian faith.

And the theological way of reading, which should be basic for the Churches and individual believers, sees the four Gospels as the kernel of the Bible and the cornerstone of faith. The other New Testament books are the authoritative apostolic writings that must be read in light of the Gospels; whereas the Old Testament writings are the authoritative prequels to the ultimate divine revelation in Christ. These prequels must be interpreted according to the New Testament explanations.

  • Are you a trained and skilled “cat herder”?

Well, yes - sometimes I just have to herd cats, whether they are human or not :slight_smile:

  • Technically, you started out by proposing “a few points to consider”.
  • IMO, that’s a “meet, right, and proper” place to start; and I’ll add that I don’t agree with the inerrancy doctrine. It elevates the Tanakh and the New Testament to too high a status, almost as high as Islam elevates the Qur’an.
  • Regarding #1, I learned this distinction from Conservative Jewish Bible Scholar and Professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Benjamin D. Sommer. who describes “a stenographic theory of revelation” and “a participatory theory of revelation”.
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In fact, the three points contra inerrantists are just the first series of the “points to consider” in this post. They are mentioned almost in passing, while the further points on biblical interpretation are, for me, of greater importance.

Yes, I do agree! The Christian Scriptures are not intended to play the same role as the Qur’an in Islam.

A helpful distinction indeed. The most part of the Old Testament really looks like the written fixation of the “participatory revelation” or, in other words, of the dialogue between the God of Israel and his people. But it goes almost without saying that Christians, unlike the Jewish scholars, are to read and understand this dialogue from a different standpoint, established by the advent of Jesus.

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Amplifying this point is the heavy-handed use by Old Testament writers of material from the nations around them. They lift from Egyptian, Akkadian, Sumerian, and more, stealing pagan theo-cosmology and repurposing it, sometimes with little alteration.

A good starting point is to tackle just what “word” meant in both Hebrew and Greek. A good illustration is the so-called ‘Ten Commandments’, which are never called that in the scriptures, they’re the “Ten Words”. Since each one is composed of many of what we normally think of as words, obviously the concept of “word” is different; it indicates not one item of vocabulary but rather a concept. Given that, when the Apostle tells us that the scriptures are “God-breathed”, it isn’t the vocabulary that is inspired, it’s the concepts.

This fits nicely with the reality of the opening Creation story in one of its literary types: the details are not intended as statements of truth, they are meant as elements for building a concept (or three). This means that when expounding the concept(s) of the account the details can be treated as literal, but must not be taken as literal apart from such exposition. So the days and other details can’t be taken literally on their own, only within the story as pieces that build the picture which conveys the message.

One important aspect I’ll add is to read everything in the context of the Bible-long story of God wanting a human family to dwell with, and thus of striving to get us “back to the Garden” via stages of warfare that both establish and preserve a special people of God as well as build up a picture of the One who will ultimately achieve the victory.

Oh – and don’t try to explain away things that seem weird!


I wouldn’t call it a “high” status at all – it’s a cheap and shallow status that portrays a deity who lacks respect for its creatures. It’s also a doctrine that arises out of an idea about truth that didn’t show up in human history until the early twentieth century: scientific materialism, which is the source of the notion that in order to be true a writing has to be 100% scientifically and historically accurate.

That’s an excellent way to put it!

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A small note:
The formulation of the Chicago Statement is a compromise. It was formulated so that partly differing interpretations could be fit into the text. That means the Chicago Statement is a text that needs to be interpreted and the interpretations of all who have signed it are not identical.

One of my theology teachers once signed the Chicago Statement - it was a necessity to be allowed to study for some time in a workplace in USA. He interpreted the text in a way he could accept and sign. At the same time, he analyzed the Chicago Statement critically and pointed to us potential pitfalls and weaknesses in and behind the text. Depending on how you interpret the various parts of the statement, the text could be seen as acceptable or misleadingly wrong.

For example, article XII:

If the first chapters of Genesis are interpreted as YEC do, then this part of the Chicago Statement is misleadingly wrong. However, if we interpret the first chapters of Genesis as John Walton et al. propose, this part of the statement becomes more acceptable. ‘Scientific hypotheses about earth history’ do not undermine or overturn the teaching of Scripture if the starting chapters of Genesis are ANE-style narrative that does not try to tell textbook-style information about the initial creation of matter ex nihilo.


I agree with almost everything that you write. But I’d like to remain a bit more conciliatory in my approach to the inerrantists. It seems to me that, although the solution they propose is abjectly wrong, their concern is quite genuine.

They reject the very idea of turning the Bible into the object of “higher criticism”; they are wrong, because the Bible is the collection of ancient books written by people - so, these books can be studied just like any other human texts.

But inasmuch as the Bible makes theological, creedal affirmations, a historian who looks for the true meaning of this or that biblical text is dangerously close to superseding the church theologians or even the Church itself.

Much more is at stake than the authority of a particular hierarchy - the historical science, despite all its rigorous procedures and standards, is still not able to produce 100% certainties. It may downplay the pre-modern doctrinal systems, but would not replace them with anything of comparable value.

Sometimes I admire the masterful attempts of N.T. Wright (and some other authors of similar convictions) who are doing their best to historically prove the articles of faith (like in the “The Resurrection of the Son of God”). Still I can’t ignore the reality: the great part of these proofs are just conjectures built upon the other conjectures. That’s normal for the ancient history; but it falls short of what is required of religious confession.

And the only other approach at hand is the bultmannian delimitation: faith is not about natural or historical realities; it is just an expression of our experience, whether it be the experience of the white male twentieth-century intellectuals as in the existential theologies of Bultmann himself, Tillich, and their likes, or the experience of the diverse social and political activists representing the minorities, the Global South, and so forth - as in the numerous liberation theologies.

The fundamentalists are right when they feel that faith must be something more than an expression of some human experience; and they are also right when they perceive that historiography must not supersede theology.

But, of course, they are totally wrong in their reaction: they try to prohibit or ignore any critical approach, any honest scholarship - and remain only with the platitudes of their own, relatively recent tradition, which they are unable even to defend.


Thank you for the clarification! I used to understand the Chicago Statement as the “fundamentalist manifesto” because I’ve seen it being deployed to this end. But I agree that you must be right - after all, the Chicago Statement doesn’t explicitly proclaim that the Universe is six-thousand-year-old or that the days of creation were the 24-hour periods of time. So, even this Statement remains open to divergent interpretations.


We reach a point where must decide how human the authors were and how much influence God had on their writing. As long as there is a human element there is room for error or at least interpretation and/or cultural or religious understanding.


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How Zwinglian! Although to be honest Melanchthon, Bucer, and others also suffered from a willingness to use deliberately broad language.

(emphasis mine)

That’s my biggest objection: by rejecting actual honest scholarship they in effect deny that the scriptures are communication to humans through humans – which really makes the scriptures superfluous.

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I saw it the same way, and felt sad when friends who became pastors decided to endorse it. It’s sad because taking it in the typical fundamentalist way implicitly denies the validity of the worldviews held by ancient people and insists that only a modern (scientific, materialistic) worldview is valid.

It also misunderstands what the scriptures mean by “word” as exemplified by the scripture’s name for the Decalog: the Ten Words. It is the “words” in that sense which are inspired and cannot err, not the details that show the human side of scripture.
It strikes me regularly that we have lost an ancient understanding of the scriptures as incarnational, as God surrendering Himself to work through humans and then work with/through the outcome. It may not even be going too far to regard the scriptures as similar to the people of Israel who wandered yet accomplished God’s plan despite themselves.

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Anything less than “they were fully human” is disrespectful to the Holy Spirit since any degree less than human is a degree to which our God acts like a demon, possessing the person. We tend to think that the worldview of the writers and audiences get in the way of God’s message, but if He is indeed intending to communicate through specific writers to specific audiences then we must expect that He will use the means through which a message will make sense to the audience. Thus the “errors” of ancient cosmology and other parts of their worldview are part of the message; they are included not contrary to what God wants to say but as a means to say what He desires.
The strict literalist-inerrantist view is as though tourists from the U.S. go to France and expect the French people to set aside their culture and worldview and speak in American English! And it ignores the fact that the church is made of people other than one’s own culture and worldview, insisting that only one’s own way of writing things is valid. If/since the church is universal, rather than try to force everyone into our mold it is our responsibility to work to understand others – thus when others have spoken from their own worldview using their own literary genres it is our responsibility to seek to understand them on their terms . . . which is the only way there can be understanding since those writers are in no position to communicate to us in ours.


The Chicago Statement was a reaction to the spread of liberal theologies at that time. Those who know how the interpretations of biblical scriptures have changed during the last century can tell what kind of hermeneutics had spread at that time (I have forgotten it). To defend the conservative interpretations, a large group of conservative Christian leaders gathered and made a statement they all could sign. If I understood correctly, there was a time limit and some parts of the draft needed to be modified to get as many signatories as possible within the limited time.

There is something similar in the gathering of those conservatives and church councils. Spread of ‘heretical’ teachings has been a key reason why church councils have gathered and prepared statements against those heresies, ‘to defend the catholic/orthodox/xxxx faith’. The Chicago gathering was an informal group coming from various small denominations and therefore had less impact than the resolutions of church councils.
There is also the similarity that your attitude towards the statements depends on what side of the set line you stand - if you agree, then the statements are welcomed and accepting the statements becomes a criterion of belonging to the ‘correct’ group. If you disagree, then the statements become a sad sign of false beliefs.

Unfortunately, the Chicago Statement has become a ‘litmus test’ of correct faith in some circles. Those signing it do not necessarily think thoroughly what they sign, and those opposing it do not necessarily know the contents of the statement. It is either ‘good’ or ‘bad’, depending on what side of the line you stand.


It occurs to me that the two options given in the thread title are neither one that would have occurred to anyone at the time any of the scriptures were written, though in the New Testament period the second one would have been agreed with. The ancient mind thought in terms of trusted authority – not of inspiration, or of inerrancy, or of reliability; their criterion was one of who the source was and was the source trustworthy.

This is something that is lost in much of modern evangelicalism: our culture regards things as being true based on characteristics of the writing, but in the ancient world the only interest in the characteristics of a piece of writing were how those worked to convey the message. As a result we have in a serious way jettisoned a large aspect of the faith, that we trust the scriptures because we first have trusted Christ and they speak of Him.

Bart Ehrman always comes to my mind in this context because a major part of his journey away from faith was characteristics of the text; since his definition of authority was that of the YEC movement, that there cannot be any errors else the whole cannot be trusted, though in has case the ‘errors’ were variant readings. But faith must not, ever, be in the text; Christian faith looks to Christ and knows that because the scriptures speak of Him it doesn’t matter what human foibles and frailties may have put into the text – God the Holy Spirit knew of those and chose the writers anyway . . . or rather, He chose them with those foibles and frailties because those could be used to shape the message for the intended original audience. And thus when I stopped and thought about all those thousands of variants indicated by the ‘footnotes’ at the bottoms of every page of my Greek New Testament they didn’t bother me (as they clearly did the authors of the Chicago Statement), they made me ask, “What was God’s purpose in having all these come down to us?”

We should apply this to other elements that to us appear as errors, such as the solid dome – the “firmament” – mentioned in Genesis 1, that God put over the flat earth-disk: what lesson can we draw from the imagery of a solid dome above us? (I have some ideas, but I’ll leave this as something for the reader to ponder.) Thus when we come to something in the text that is plainly wrong in terms of our worldview, we shouldn’t be troubled about there being an error, we should ask “Why this error? What does it say to us?”
Certainly we may not always find an answer, but that should just impel us to move in closer and ask, “What did this say to the original audience?” And indeed we should ask that not merely because the Holy Spirit chose people to write to ancient audiences in their ancient terms, but because they are as much a part of God’s people as we are and we should be as eager to seek to get to know them as we should be to get to know the new family in church!


Yes, that’s very important! When the biblical writers mention the divine “words”, they mean “divine messages” or, at least, the distinct aspects of divine guidance - not a grammarian’s notion of the concept “word”.

Well, I would never dream of any greater theological achievement than to think in line with the New Testament :slight_smile: . Indeed I’m sure that the New Testament authors were consciously trying to convince their audience - the new Christian converts - that their message was theologically reliable. One of the most explicit declarations of this purpose is, of course, Luke 1:3-4 (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:3-8, Galatians 1:11-12, 1 John 1:1-3, etc.).

I would say that “being a human work” and “being the God-inspired text” are not the mutually exclusive options. The four canonical Gospels are fully human - they were written by human beings with their own agendas and limitations; these writers had no apriori guarantees that their writings would become what they became.

Nonetheless, we accept these texts as theologically accurate (and thus conclude aposteriori that their writers received divine assistance while writing) because we recognize the main figure of the Gospels as God Incarnate.

Certainly, one could retort that such “recognition” is just a subjective whim - Christians accept Jesus as God only because they like him. That’s why I suppose it’s crucial to restore a robust natural theology -that is to say, to restore an ability to simultaneously read the Bible and the book of nature and to notice that the Christ of the Gospels does really look like the incarnation of the one who has been creating and sustaining the world.

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On the road to Ceaseria Peter made a statement that Jesus confirmed must have come directly from. God. The in his next statement he goes the opposite way . If nothing else it proves that one correct theological point does not guarantee the next one.

Perhaps this could be true of others?


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