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Biblical inerrancy and infallibility

Is inerrancy important?
V
iewpoints for & against

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No, because there is no consensus on which Bible passages are to be interpreted literally:

One might argue that inerrancy is really not that important because very few if any Christians truly believe that the Bible is literally true from cover to cover! William Sloane Coffin wrote:

"In reality, there are no biblical literalists, only selective literalists. By abolishing slavery and ordaining women, millions of Protestants have gone far beyond biblical literalism." 1

Christian denominations view various biblical passages very differently. They interpret some verses as accurately written history; others as material to be understood symbolically; others as poetry; still others as religious propaganda unrelated to reality, as a metaphor, as a fictional parable, etc.

Two examples are:

  1. The creation stories: The first creation story is found in Genesis 1:1 to 2:3. Most conservative Christians believe was written by Moses; liberal Christians generally believe was written by "P," an anonymous 6th century BCE writer or group of writers of the priestly tradition:
    bulletThe first story is interpreted literally by many conservative Protestants who believe in New Earth creationism. They interpret the six days of creation as representing a single six day interval consisting of 144 hours. The Lutheran Church, Missouri Synod's doctrine of creation, adopted in 1932, states this clearly:

    "We teach that God has created heaven and earth, and that in the manner and in the space of time recorded in the Holy Scriptures, especially Gen. 1 and 2, namely, by His almighty creative word, and in six days. We reject every doctrine which denies or limits the work of creation as taught in Scripture....Since no man was present when it pleased God to create the world, we must look for a reliable account of creation to God's own record, found in God's own book, the Bible...."  2

    bulletThe first story is interpreted symbolically by the Roman Catholic Church and by most liberal Christians and secularists. They believe that the theory of evolution, and not Genesis 1 and 2, gives an accurate description of the origin of the species, including humanity. As Walter B. Murfin and David F. Beck have written:

    "The Bible is not a science text; the scientific method was unknown in biblical times. ...The purposes of religion and science are completely different. Science seeks to describe, explain, and predict. The Bible tries to tell the purpose of creation, and to point the way to morality, righteousness, and salvation. It should not be surprising that their methods are different and even incompatible." 3

    However, the Catholic Church teaches that souls are unique to humans and were created specially by God.
     

  2. The story of Jesus' Last Supper: Jesus' last meal with his disciples is described in Matthew 26:26-28 and in parallel passages at Mark 14:22-24, and Luke 22:19-20. The author of the Gospel of Matthew wrote:

    "... Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body. And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it; For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins. And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body. And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it; For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins."

    bulletThe Roman Catholic church has traditionally interpreted these passages literally. The church teaches that, at a defined point in the celebration of the mass, the wafer and wine both become the body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus. The form of the elements -- their color, viscosity, texture, taste, thermal properties, electrical properties, surface tension, alcohol content, etc. remain unchanged. But the wafer and wine fully become Jesus.
     
    bulletMost Protestant denominations interpret these passages symbolically. The wine (or grape juice) remains unchanged; the bread is also unchanged. However, they symbolize Jesus' blood and body.

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Yes. The inerrancy of the Bible is of paramount importance:

Whether the Bible is inerrant or not is of great importance, because it determines, at a very fundamental level, how Christians approach Scripture.

bulletTo most conservative theologians: Biblical inerrancy and God's inspiration of the authors of the Bible are two of the approximately ten cardinal doctrines of historical Christianity. Unless the entire Bible is considered to be the authoritative word of God, the whole foundation of their religious belief crumbles. If the Bible were to contain some errors, conservative Christians would have no firm basis on which to base their doctrines, beliefs, morality and practices. They believe that books of the Bible (in their original or autograph form) must be either inerrant, or be devoid of authority.

Believing that the Bible is inerrant and is the authoritative Word of God, means that there can never be any real conflict in the Bible, except in those relatively rare cases where a law in the Hebrew Scriptures (a.k.a. Old Testament) has been specifically superseded by a passage in the Christian Scriptures (a.k.a. New Testament). Most conservatives believe that one of the strong indicators that the Bible is inerrant is the fact that there it was written over an interval of about 15 centuries -- from the time of Moses to the writing of Revelation -- and yet is totally harmonious and internally consistent. If the Bible were just another book written by ordinary men, it would be filled with inconsistencies.
 
bulletTo most liberal theologians, the Bible is not inerrant. They believe that its books were written and edited by human authors:
bulletwith limited scientific knowledge,
bulletwho promoted their own specific spiritual belief systems,
bulletwho were heavily influenced by their own culture -- often a tribal culture,
bulletwho attributed many statements to God that are immoral by today's standards,
bulletwho freely incorporated material from neighboring Pagan cultures,
bulletwho freely disagreed with other Biblical authors,
bulletwho made errors in the reporting of events and statement,
bulletwho put words into the mouth of Jesus that he did not say,
bulletetc.

The Bible is a large document. It was written over about 10 centuries -- circa 900 BCE to 150 CE. Liberals see a gradual evolution in religious beliefs from the earliest to the most recent writing. A main task of the liberal Christian is then to separate the true ideas and statements by Jesus and Jehovah from the accretions added by Biblical authors.

Some religious liberals point out that the 1,500 or so Christian organizations in North America have many diverse interpretations of Biblical passages. If humans have extracted so many different meanings from the same Biblical verses, then the Bible is clearly ambiguous. If it is ambiguous, then it matters little if the text contains some errors.

Conservative and liberal Christians have very different concepts of the nature of Scripture. Thus, they tend to develop systems of Christian theology and morality which differ greatly, and are often mutually exclusive. When faced with one of the great moral questions (like abortion, the death penalty, homosexual and bisexual rights, the same-sex marriage, various aspects of sexual behavior, etc.) each interprets the Bible in their own way and frequently arrive at quite different conclusions.

References used:

  1. William Sloane Coffin, "Commentary: It's clear that homophobia was reason for ad's rejection," United Church News, 2004-DEC-15, at: http://news.ucc.org/
  2. Gary Locklair, "Doctrine of Creation," 2004-JAN, at: http://www.cs.cuw.edu/
  3. Walter Murfin & David Beck, "The Bible: A true and accurate account of creation? Summary," Coalition for Excellence in Science and Math Education, 1998-APR-13, at: http://www.cesame-nm.org/

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

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