Ambiguity vs. inerrancy
Studying the concept of biblical inerrancy:
Many skeptics have tried to prove that the Bible contains errors. Most
have attempted to disprove biblical inerrancy by
demonstrating internal discrepancies between pairs of biblical passages.
These attempts have not been notably successful.
Elsewhere on this web site, we have attempted an alternative approach.
Instead of contrasting pairs of biblical passages, we have analyzed
biblical themes. We have found four
indicators of biblical errancy, five additional
indicators of errancy, and two indicators that
are currently inconclusive. Although nine of the eleven themes do
indicate errancy, they do not definitely prove it beyond a reasonable doubt.
The twelfth and final approach, described below, attempts to show that
the concept of biblical inerrancy may not be a meaningful one because the Bible
itself is ambiguous. If the Bible is capable of being interpreted in
many mutually exclusive ways, then one cannot be confident of the meaning of various biblical
passages. If we cannot be certain about what the Bible is
saying, then the concept of inerrancy is meaningless.
One viewpoint: We can be certain of the inerrant Bible's meaning:
The Christian Scriptures (a.k.a. New Testament) states in a number of
places that its readers can be certain of its meaning. Consider the
following passages from the King James Version of the Bible:
|Luke 1:3-4: "It seemed good to me also, having had perfect
understanding of all things from the very first, to write unto thee in
order, most excellent Theophilus, that thou mightest know the certainty
of those things, wherein thou hast been instructed."|
|John 17:6-8 (quoting Jesus' prayer): "I have
manifested thy name unto the men which thou gavest me out of the world:
thine they were, and thou gavest them me; and they have kept thy word.
Now they have known that all things whatsoever thou hast given me are of
thee. For I have given unto them the words which thou gavest me; and
they have received them, and have known surely that I came out from
thee, and they have believed that thou didst send me."|
|1 Corinthians 2:12: "Now we have received, not the spirit of
the world, but the spirit which is of God; that we might know the things
that are freely given to us of God. Which things also we speak, not in the
words which man's wisdom teacheth, but which the Holy Ghost teacheth;
comparing spiritual things with spiritual. But the natural man receiveth not
the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither
can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned."|
|Hebrews 11:1-6: "Now faith is the substance of things
hoped for, the evidence of things not seen....But without faith it is
impossible to please him: for he that cometh to God must believe that he
is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him."
The translation of the first verse by the New International Version
may be clearer: "Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and
certain of what we do not see."
Most conservative Protestants believe that the Bible is the word of God.
That is, God inspired the authors of the Bible to
write material that was free of error. God does
not create junk.
As Paul implies in 1 Corinthians 2:12, (cited above), the "natural man"
-- an unsaved person -- cannot decipher the Bible. "To Paul...the
interpretation of scriptures was possible only through a charismatic gift of the
Holy Spirit." 1 Once
saved, the person will be led by the Holy Spirit to understand the true meaning
of the Scriptures.
Since God's purpose in creating the Bible is to guide human
beings towards a knowledge of God, and to help them lead moral lives,
Christians must be certain of the meaning of the Bible. Otherwise, the
concept of inerrancy is meaningless, and Christians are without a reliable guide
Another viewpoint: The Bible is ambiguous; thus inerrancy is a meaningless
There are in excess of 1,000 Christian faith groups in North America. They teach
diverse beliefs about the nature of Jesus,
God, the second coming,
Heaven, Hell, the rapture,
criteria for salvation, speaking in
atonement, what happens
to persons after death, and dozens of other topics. On social
controversies, faith groups teach a variety of conflicting beliefs about
abortion access, equal rights for
homosexuals and bisexuals, who should be
eligible for marriage, the
death penalty, physician assisted suicide,
human sexuality topics, origins of the
universe, and dozens of other topics.
The groups all base their theological teachings on the Bible. Generally
speaking, the theologians in each of these faith groups are sincere,
intelligent, devout, thoughtful and careful in their interpretation of the
Bible. But, they come to mutually exclusive conclusions about what it
teaches. Further, most are absolutely certain that their particular
interpretations are correct, and that the many hundreds of faith
groups which teach opposing beliefs are in error.
So, from practical observation, it would appear that the Bible is
ambiguous. It is not possible to be certain of at least some of its
John G. Stackhouse, Jr., professor of theology and culture at Regent
College in Vancouver, Canada, reflects this
conclusion. At the end of his book "Humble Apologetics" he states:
"We Christians do believe that God has given us the privilege of
hearing and embracing the good news, of receiving adoption into his
family, and of joining the Church. We do believe that we know some
things that other people don't, and those things are good for them to
hear. Above all, we believe that we have met Jesus Christ.... For all we
know, we might be wrong about any or all of this. And we will honestly
own up to that possibility. Thus whatever we do or say, we must do or
say it humbly." 2
If it is not possible to be certain of the Bible's meaning, then it is
meaningless to assert that the text of the Bible is itself inerrant. Biblical passages
appear to have multiple meanings. It doesn't really matter if one of
them is true, if we cannot determine which is the valid one.
- Robert M Grant, with David Tracy, "A short history of the interpretation
of the Bible," Macmillan, (2nd edition, 1984), Page 5. Out of print.
- John G. Stackhouse, Jr., "Humble Apologetics: Defending the faith today," Oxford University Press, (2002), Page 232.
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Copyright © 2005 by Ontario Consultants on
First posted online: 2005-JAN-11
Latest update: 2005-JAN-11
Author: B.A. Robinson