Does the Bible need to be inerrant to be authoritative?

(RiderOnTheClouds) #1

Is biblical authority worthless without inerrancy? This is a problem which I am having problems with. Firstly, the issues which I have with inerrancy are:

  • The lack of evidence for a mass exodus, which (if it happened at all) was likely a small event, carried out by the Levite tribe (as Friedman suggests).

  • The presence of other deities in the Bible (see 2 Kings 3:27), which is contradicted by other verses such as Psalm 96:5.

  • The fact that many of the writers of both testaments (even Jesus) expected an imminent Day of Judgement. (See Daniel 12:1, Matthew 16:28, etc)

  • The presence of immorality in the Bible which contradicts the nature of God which we find elsewhere in the text. (Contrast 1 Samuel 15:3 with Jonah 4:11). I have yet to read a coherent defence for the slaughter of animals for the sins of the humans. Note also the sacrificial nature of the Cherem, as supported by a parallel in the Mesha Stela.

I guess I’m currently in the Pete Enns, Greg Boyd, Thom Stark, etc camp of Christians, in that I believe that scripture can still be worked with, despite it’s flaws, and I believe that traditional church doctrine can, and should remain, unlike the John Shelby Spong camp.

However, my view is not without it’s problems. I do wonder, for example how much of scripture can be considered as authoritative, if we know that some of it isn’t. Whilst I do see evidence that some of it may be divinely inspired, how do I know that certain parts of scripture are, when there are so many issues?

I will also ask, 1) As someone who takes church tradition seriously, what was the position of pre-modern theologians (including the early church fathers) on the doctrine of inerrancy? 2) Can scripture still be considered inerrant despite it’s flaws (in that these exist in scripture to give a message)? 3) Might there be a biblical or theological case against inerrancy?

(Randy) #2

I believe you and Enns and I would agree that there is a case for this that even elevates the Bible in a way as incarnational. Have you read Inspiration and Incarnation or Enns’ portion on Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy yet? I think with your talents you could help this discourse with a good critique/assessment of them.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #3

I’m with you in reacting negatively toward Spong, and yet having said that, I realize that many of those for whom inerrancy (their own version of that, inevitably) is ‘a’ or even ‘the’ shibboleth of doctrinal faithfulness, would summarily dismiss my own views as being “dismissive of too much” in just the same way that I tend to see Spong.

I actually think you (we) are doing well to question this (which Spong does very strongly – not ‘questioning’ it even, but rejecting it outright). But someone I’ve been reading lately who I think is much more faithful to the overall biblical witness than Spong is, and so critically appraises the church tradition of sacrificial atonement by (unlike Spong) getting back to the actual scriptural teachings themselves is George MacDonald from more than a century ago. I know I’ve linked this sermon in this forum already elsewhere, but I will again here: Macdonald’s unspoken sermon on justice [that server is having trouble delivering up that long text at the moment I write this - here is a youtube series delivering the same sermon.] makes for a long read. But it may speak some highly needed truth to what has become church tradition (advocated by many church fathers no less) but not necessarily with the scriptural support that so many faithful have been led to believe. While I am usually an advocate for attending favorably to church tradition, I think MacDonald may have scriptures on his side in this particular case.

I almost hesitate to commend this to you, Reggie, since you already seem to be so violently blown back and forth by so many winds, and this particular sermon will not be accepted as above controversy by so many among the faithful. And yet the restless soul set in pursuit of truth may be tossed about by God Himself until it is brought truly home; perhaps this will speak to you. For myself, I highly doubt that the (Anglican?) MacDonald has any Anabaptist heritage, and yet it could have been an Anabaptist that wrote (as MacDonald essentially writes) that no man will truly come to know Christ apart from living in obedience to him. All our theorizing, exegesis, purported allegiance to this or that notion of “inerrancy” or infallibility – all of that is fodder for the wind in the mind that has not come or been brought to know Christ through obedience. Those are my own words of conviction (and as painfully pointed back on myself as on anybody else.) But all the church tradition in the world (reformed or otherwise) cannot stand if it stands in opposition to this.

(Randy) #4

Amen! George Macdonald is a breath of reason to me.

(RiderOnTheClouds) #5

I feel as though Spong means well, I believe he genuinely wants to help Christianity by reforming it. I just believe he’s too pessimistic, Christianity is not dying out, throughout the world it is ‘growing’. There’s no need to remake God in our own image. Furthermore traditional Christianity is not consistently negative in my opinion, it helped to create the western world which we know now.

I consider myself to be theologically liberal-leaning, but I align myself more with the Boyd, Enns, Stark, Bell, McClaren group, who continue to uphold Christian Orthodoxy (though I am somewhat concerned with the Emerging Church’s flirtation with universalism and syncretism).


Friedman himself claims that it wasn’t until 400 years later that the Priestly source added the number 603,550 of men to the exodus band. Hebrew scholars have long held that the total number (in the millions) should not be understood as historical. If they were marching eight across in a row it is said that half would still be in Egypt by the time the first ones arrived in Sinai. Nevertheless, if you read his works (especially The Exodus: How It Happened and Why it Matters), he should actually bolster your confidence in the essential historicity of the exodus as an event. In his own words:

I’m not arguing that everything in the Bible is factual. I may not believe, for example, that the world was created in seven days, or that humanity began with two naked people and a magic tree and a talking snake. But real evidence exists that the Exodus is historical, with text and archaeology mutually supporting one another. What lies next for us is to give due consideration to this evidence and refine it further in our work.

The two verses you mention are easily reconciled recognizing that the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is the one true God. The so-called “gods of the peoples” are on par with the idols manufactured in our hearts as “false gods” unworthy of our worship.

Even if you don’t believe that some of this prophecy was fulfilled in 70 A.D, this shouldn’t be problematic for those of us who believe in deep time. What’s another couple thousand years? Since the first coming we have been in the last days. Besides Jesus said no one knew the time or the hour not even the Son of Man.

God is the very definition of righteous–all that he does is committed to upholding the worth of his glory. His actions and commands in scripture are often perceived as offensive to an anthropocentric worldview that places us at the center of reality and imposes our intuitive sense of morality on God. The applies to the slaughter of animals as much as to the slaughter of the Amorites. These passages reveal that our God is holy, sin must be atoned for and evil will be punished. At the cross, we see the perfectly innocent, infinitely worthy Son of God was the only fit sacrifice to vindicate God’s glory while simultaneously rescuing sinners who have belittled his glory.

Does the Bible need to be inerrant to be authoritative?

I think the concept of inerrancy is basically a construct of modernity. The recent series on BioLogos on inerrancy and biblical authority is worth checking out. Even some of the historically most conservative theologians (such as Calvin) wouldn’t have held to the definition of biblical inerrancy as widely held today. Nevertheless they viewed the words of scripture as authoritative. We moderns need to develop a new category in our thinking: scripture that contains some scientific inaccuracies and some mythologized history can be at the same time trustworthy and true.

(Dominik Kowalski) #7

I don´t know the guy myself, but your describtion has lead me to google him, since I feel like I know exactly where he´s coming from. He seems to be heavy into the Bultmann school, but has developed an even more radical approach. As someone who lives in the country heaviliy influenced by this doctrine I can say: Already the standard version of it has led to empty banks in churches, which eventually die out. The attempt to drive a wedge between the historical Jesus and the Jesus of the scripture has made the arguments for the church look weak, because how could you trust the promises of the kingdom of God, if you can´t trust the history it stands on. But at the same time I can´t really say that Germany has become that secular as most people from outside think it is. I can´t count how many are wearing a cross around their neck, it´s just you don´t see anyone of them in the church on Sunday. And after visiting several times, one can easily understand why. The irony is, and this is where I draw the line to Shelby:

The only church nearby which is really flourishing with young enthusiastic christians and has continued to grow is the Hillsong Church, and it´s message is pretty conservative in the sense that it´s evangelical and heavily relying on the Bible.
Of course it is no place for the old couple who´s going to church every Sunday, but it shows that the message of God as it was teached in the past is still as attractive to people as it once was.
Continued radical liberation with even throwing over board the few non-negotiables that Christianity has (God the loving holy spirit, who has revealed himself to humanity, Jesus´resurrection) won´t make you adaptable to whatever course of society, but it rather leaves a hollow of it´s former self, devoid of any meaning or moral authority and left with a philosphical unrecognizable grey mush of interpretations, free to be changed and newly written whenever necessary. So whatever Shelby thinks would help to keep Christianity (no statistic supports his apocalyptic view of its state, so I don´t know where he´s coming from), he´ll rather help to hammer another nail in its coffin in certain areas for the foreseeable future.

So this was my little rant, I have been frustrated with the radical liberal theology (or rather certain aspects of it) because I love my church and I don´t want to see it be in a coma, like it is here in many places. Jesus and his words can be read and lived by without the physical being of the church and it is by many here, but if one works against the other we get problems.

Of course not everything of Shelbys points are bad. In fact I can support support most aspects of his twelve points, as I see several similarities to the red-letter-christians and Christianity isn´t lived by through words but through actions, so his humanitarian, open-armed to everyone mentality has to be supported.
But at the same time the materialistic view on the miracles and especially on the resurrectionare places, where I won´t follow and actively reject it.

Just a quick point to him, I like Pete Enns very much, but I stumbled about an article in his blog, which gave me much to think about how to embrace more people to Christianity. His main point was that the main point was having faith as it was the main point religion can rely on. No argument fro me about that one, like any metaphysical claim, faith is the main factor, with rationality supporting it. I just felt like the second aspect is getting dismissed by Enns too much. I felt reminded of a quote of one german theologian, I can´t remember the name, who said “To keep an unproblematic stance on faith, one has to keep this area of thinking free from doubts.” I´m pretty sure it´s pulled out of context, but it´s the favourite quote of the Humanistic Newspaper now. If I can´t rationally defend my faith I´m intellectually dishonest to myself. How could Jesus´word be spreaded if it´s fundament is built on sand. But I realize that there are many other viewpoints, as I saw in the comments of his blog, so I have to learn about them also, and this are just my two cents that noone is forced to care about.

Well finally I come to answer your questions from my perspective, but it will be way shorter, so don´t be disappointed. I don´t by the inerrancy-doctrine in the scientific or historic way, since in the OT many legends from other cultures influenced the story which have been spreaded orally and, despite having some archaeological evidence for his existence we can assume that at least parts of the details in the bible about David are massively exaggerated (very common then, so not problematic for the inerrancy) or straight out lies and propaganda (ehhh…), which Enns pointed out. Notice, that I don´t reject Davids experiences with God, but he´s a way bigger deal in the bible, than he really was at the time. Maybe some findings could surprise us in the future, but all pointers point to a lot smaller area, than Davids kingdom has been described as originally. Of course, the case is completely different when solely looked at the NT where I would largely support the doctrine of historical inerrancy.
What I like to add is that I apply the theological inerrancy to the NT, since every book has a theological meaning in the sense that every one of them teaches us about Jesus´ teachings and how it´s spreaded. It´s pretty much always the question “What does the author want to tell us”?.
To your second point, I don´t know the name of the thread anymore, but hasn´t anyone stated here, that the early chruch fathers didn´t take the passages of divine violence in the Old Testament literally? Maybe that´s something to research.

(Dominik Kowalski) #8

To answer your 3rd question I thought about adding something I read from I believe Israel Finkelstein who stated that the stories which involve commanded divine violence are probably just propaganda as a whole, because the timelines don´t seem to add up, but sadly I can´t remember the source, nor do I have any deep knowledge about the archeology about the Old Testament, so I don´t want to state nonsense. But since it is a very interesting question maybe one should ask George and/or Jonathan about such things.

(RiderOnTheClouds) #9

Read Matthew 16:28, it is very clear that Jesus thought he was going to return in the lifetime of his listeners, even if he did not know the exact hour.


Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.

Well Reggie, there are different interpretations but I hold the view that Jesus is referring to his transfiguration which occurred 6 days later as a preview and validation of his second coming. Peter, one of the disciples with Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration, may have been referring to that event as a preview of the power of the coming of the Lord:

For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son with whom I am well pleased. 2 Peter 1:16-17

(RiderOnTheClouds) #11

The problem with such a view is that the transfiguration happens not long after the speech, not much of a prediction. Furthermore, it is said that Jesus will come with angels, and judge the earth, in the verse before.

(RiderOnTheClouds) #12

It’s not just that, it’s that it contradicts God’s nature as we find elsewhere in scripture. Note the racism of Leviticus 25:46, which contradicts Galatians 3:28. Or note that Micah 6:6-8 implies that child sacrifice is not only acceptable (if it is done with righteous intent), but preferable to animal sacrifice, this of course contradicts not only the passages such as Ezekiel 20, which condemn child sacrifice, but also Jesus’ statement in Matthew 7:12, that the whole of the Bible is about treating others as you would have them do to you.

(Mervin Bitikofer) #13

How does Micah 6:6-8 imply (in any way whatsoever!) that child sacrifice is preferable to God? Read it below. It is a gem of a passage and declares quite the opposite. It (1st born sacrifice) is being put in parallel with all the other old sacrifices and is being denigrated as worthless next to what the passage concludes: that doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God is what God is really after from us. Re-read the passage below again to see this.

“With what shall I come before the Lord,
and bow myself before God on high?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousands of rivers of oil?
Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?”
He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

-Micah 6:6-8 NRSV

(RiderOnTheClouds) #14

It’s not saying sacrifice is inherently wrong, it’s saying that sacrifice is worthless without righteous intent.

I highly suggest you read this article:

(Mervin Bitikofer) #15

I’m not going to take the time to wade through that whole thing, but I did find the selection in it where he discusses the Micah passage. It seems that Mr. Stark was at pains to show that the mere progression of the passage gives an implied endorsement of all the regular sacrificial practices (in order from least to greatest) culminating finally with sacrificing one’s own children even. But I think this fails at a couple levels. […and in disputing this, I do not dispute that human sacrifice was certainly a present reality to the mind of the Hebrews, whether from among their neighbors or even occasionally sunk into themselves. - if that’s all Mr. Stark wanted to establish, then fine.] But I don’t buy for a moment that this passage can be taken as an endorsement of the practice - even in any implied sense. For one thing, prophets of old as well as authors in the New Testament were free in their use of hyperbole to drive points home. When the prophets wished to drive home some singular point, they naturally climbed a progression of things that would be precious to their audience, even culminating in such things as “ourselves” or our own “firstborn”. So I don’t see in this any necessary connection to ritualistic sacrifice any more than I would read Paul (I Cor. 13) when he writes that “giving all our possessions to the poor, and then even surrendering our own bodies to death” would then have been implying that suicide had been the regular (indeed highest!) expected behavior as long as one can make sure some love gets thrown in with all that. No No. Most emphatically No! Neither Paul nor Micah are making commentary (much less endorsement!) on those old concepts … existing as they were obviously (in people’s mental landscapes at least). No - I argue that there was a singular focus in both cases on the thing aimed for (justice, mercy, walking humbly with God in Micah’s case, and Love in Paul’s case) and both were simply saying that this precious goal above all goals exceeds any and everything you could most imagine was important to you, including even your own body or your children. To try to take this backward into an implied elevation of that former (now revealed as comparatively worthless) practice is, I strongly suggest, to do grievous violence to authorial intent.

edited for clarity


I concede that it sounds like a pretty intense way for Jesus to speak to those of his disciples who would witness his transfiguration. But I’m mainly arguing for what’s referred to as the typological interpretation of the transfiguration. I think it was a type and a foretaste of the second coming as evidenced by his glorification in the presence of Elijah and Moses. I realize this view doesn’t address all your questions.

I would encourage you to spend some time in the gospels and listen to the words of Jesus. He has the words of life and can win your trust, assuaging your legitimate concerns about difficult texts such as this.

edited for a subtle change in tone

(Mitchell W McKain) #17

Of course not. The same goes for a science text. It may have errors, but still be authoritative because such errors have little significance and are a small portion of the text.

Are your examples any different? Not that I can see…

Lack of evidence has very little bearing on the the truth of an historical account. The fact is that evidence for past events is rather rare – decreasing rapidly as we go back in time.

Huh? I see nothing in the Bible which contradicts the fact of diversity of human religious beliefs? As for whether these gods are real… sometimes they are very real because real people and things have been worshiped as gods. I guess I don’t really understand what point you are trying to make with this.

But we face days of judgement all the time, and the way of the world is radically altered forever. For the Jews the destruction of the temple and the end of Israel as a nation were days of judgment indeed. The mighty Roman empire faced its day of judgement and so has every other empire before and since.

1st Samuel 15:3 “Now go and smite Am′alek, and utterly destroy all that they have; do not spare them, but kill both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep, camel and ass.”
I am a great believer in a pluralistic society. But that doesn’t mean I cannot understand that there were times in the past when this would not work. It is an extension of a more universal dilemma. For example, we prohibit murder, but then pay soldiers to go out and kill. It is part of the reality of the world we live in, where both survival and freedom must be defended by force of arms. It just goes to show that the difference between good and evil is more than a mindless set of absolute rules.

Jonah 4:11 "And should not I pity Nin′eveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also much cattle?”
This was in opposition to Jonah’s self involved concern with embarrassment for when his prophecies would not be fulfilled. It just goes to show that being in the service of God is not about personal profit.

Oh brother! Good reasons for the slaughter of animals are legion and it usually boils down to some expedient of some sort and certainly not for the sins of humans. Example… disease. Another… a horse may be killed simply because it is lame. We wouldn’t treat people this way. Would we? Why? It all about expedience. In this case? It was all about keeping out anything from the culture of the Amalites which might result in the people of Israel imitating their ways. Could this happen? Yes. It did happen.

Well I certainly agree that the Bible is not inerrant even if your examples are not the ones I would agree with. I consider the authority of the Bible to be definitive of the Christian religion. As for “traditional church doctrine” that is a wide spectrum and I see no reason why those of one branch of Christianity should be given any precedent over another branch. So I do not consider the church tradition or doctrine to be authoritative beyond the very first minimal agreement of Nicea in 325 AD.

I see evidence of divine inspiration in all the works of art and media. In the Bible I see something a little more than that… divine authority given into our hands for the Christian church.

None. This was a very recent anti-rational invention by Gnostic Christians with a gospel of salvation by the mental work of sacrificing your intellectual integrity to believe what you are told regardless of whether it made any sense whatsoever.

No. It is more about the limitation of the tools with which the Bible was written. You might as well be pointing out the irregularity of lines written on paper by an ink pen.

John 5:39 and Matthew 13:10, as well as reason and common sense suggest we really need to be cautious about going too far in either the emphasis on scripture or in treating it too literally.

(Mitchell W McKain) #18

No! I don’t think it does any such thing. I think this is like Isaiha chapter 1 which rejects the value of sacrifices and says that what God really wants is “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” or in Isaiha chapter 1 “cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow.”

(RiderOnTheClouds) #19

It is not rejecting the value of sacrifices, it is just saying that God is not listening to them, because Judah has become like Sodom and Gomorrah

(RiderOnTheClouds) #20

Psalm 50 uses similar language, but it verse 14 explicitly says that they are not worthless.