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The Bible:
Ambiguity vs. inerrancy

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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.

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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:

bullet 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."
bullet 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."
bullet 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."
bullet 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 in life.

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Another viewpoint: The Bible is ambiguous; thus inerrancy is a meaningless concept:

There are in excess of 1,000 Christian faith groups in North America, and tens of thousands worldwide.  They teach diverse beliefs about the nature of Jesus, God, the second coming, Heaven, Hell, the rapture, criteria for salvation, speaking in tongues, the 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 key teachings.

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.

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  1. Robert M Grant, with David Tracy, "A short history of the interpretation of the Bible," Macmillan, (2nd edition, 1984), Page 5. Out of print.
  2. John G. Stackhouse, Jr., "Humble Apologetics: Defending the faith today," Oxford University Press, (2002), Page 232. Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store

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Site navigation:

 Home page > ChristianityInerrancy > here

or Home page > Christianity  > Bible TopicsInerrancy > here

or Home page > Religious information > Inerrancy > here

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Copyright 2005 to 2018 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
First posted online: 2005-JAN-11
Latest update: 2018-AUG-22
Author: B.A. Robinson

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