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Biblical inerrancy (freedom from error)

According to mainline, liberal
and progressive Protestants

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Beliefs of mainline Christians:

Mainline denominations, like the Presbyterian Church (USA), and their membership, often take an intermediate position on inerrancy; in fact, many try to avoid the term where possible.

Conflicts over inerrancy has caused internal rifts within the Presbyterian movement. In 1973, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) split off from the Presbyterian Church (USA), partly over the matter of inerrancy. The PCA left because the PCUSA "...had shifted from its historic beliefs to a theological liberalism that denied core biblical doctrines, such as the inerrancy and authority of Scripture."

During 2001-JUN, the inerrancy of the Bible was at the core of a dispute at the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA). The representatives were debating whether to remove a church rule that banned gays and lesbians from ordination. According to ReligionToday:

"In debating the issue, officials from the PC (USA) stated: 'We acknowledge the role of scriptural authority in the Presbyterian Church, but Presbyterians generally do not believe in biblical inerrancy. Presbyterians do not insist that every detail of chronology or sequence or pre-scientific description in scripture be true in literal form. Our confessions do teach biblical infallibility. Infallibility affirms the entire truthfulness of scripture without depending on every exact detail.' " 1

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Beliefs of liberal/progressive Christians:

Many liberal Christian theologians believe that the writers of the Bible naturally exhibited a "high degree of religious insight, something akin to artistic ability...The net effect of this position is to make the scriptural authors as qualitatively no different than Plato, Buddha, Mohammed etc. The Bible thus becomes the spiritual experiences of the Jewish people." 1 But they do not believe that it is inerrant. In fact, most believe that no book is inerrant.

Many liberals believe that the Hebrew and Christian scriptures:

bullet Sometimes incorporated text from earlier writings that had been created by unknown authors.

bullet Sometimes incorporated text from other Middle Eastern cultures. The two creation stories in Genesis, the story of the Noachian flood, the Ten Commandments, the passage in Exodus 21 which devalues the life of a fetus, etc. were adapted and copied from nearby Pagan societies such as the Assyrians and Babylonians.

bullet Sometimes expressed the ideas and promoted the beliefs of the religious group that the author(s) were part of.

bullet Sometimes described an event as an allegory. That is, a story that was intended to have a hidden or symbolic meaning. They did not intend that the passage relate to an event that really happened or to a person who actually existed.

bullet Sometimes involve the combined writings of many authors and editors. Richard Simon, a 17th century theologian, wrote a book called Critical History of the Old Testament. He analyzed the Pentateuch, the 5 books which had been attributed to Moses. He found different writing styles, different names used for God, and groups of laws that seem to have patched together from various original sources. Jean Astruc during the 18th century and Julius Wellhausen during the 19th century further developed these thoughts. A consensus of liberal theologians now accept the "JEDP" theory, that most of the Pentateuch was written by four authors or groups of authors: "J" (who used Jehovah as the name for God). "E" (who used Elohim); "D", the author of the book of Deuteronomy and "P" who wrote the "priestly" sections which deal with ritual, liturgy and the dates and genealogical passages. To this was added additional material obtained from other Mid-Eastern sources. The Pentateuch was assembled circa 950 BCE by "J", 750 BCE for "E" and 539 BCE for the "P" source. However, these were the dates that "editing" occurred; the authors sometimes used much older material, from Hebrew and Pagan sources.

bullet Sometimes were not written by the persons that are traditionally considered the authors. e.g. the four gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were not written by apostles with those names. The names of the gospel authors are unknown. Some theologians believe that the Gospel of John was written by a group of authors. Most theologians believe that none of the gospels were written by authors who actually heard Jesus preach and were eyewitnesses to his ministry. Many books of the Christian Scriptures that identify St. Paul as the author were in fact written many decades after the apostle's death by anonymous writers. This also holds for the general epistles.

bullet Record a gradual evolution of religious thought over many centuries. The writings contain errors and passages that exhibit highly immoral practices by today's standards. For example, the Bible promotes religious intolerance, the death penalty for behavioral transgressions, extensive genocide of neighboring tribes, etc.

bullet Contain hundreds of internal contradictions.

bullet Discuss many individuals who never existed, and events that never took place.

In summary, mostreligious liberals believe that the scriptures were written by very human and capable individuals, but that their works were not inspired by God. Their writing is not inerrant.

Retired bishop John Shelby Spong answered an inquiry about biblical inerrancy from a Sunday school teacher who had just been fired from a Presbyterian Church in Tennessee because he would not present the Bible as perfect and infallible to his class. Bishop Spong responded:

"The idea that any educated person would today try to defend the idea that the Bible is either perfect or infallible is difficult for me to imagine."

"When I confront people quoting biblical texts literally and thus in defense of some theological agenda or prejudiced attitude, I tell them they are asking the wrong question of the Bible. The appropriate question is not, 'Is this literally true?' for the world of biblical scholarship settled that question years ago with a resounding 'no'. The proper question is rather, 'What does this story mean?'

Then I might inquire about 'What need in the life of the person making the literal claim does the presumed literal authority of scripture meet?' Religion has always been more about the search for security than it is the search for truth - people crave certainty. When there is no certainty or insufficient certainty, people will go to great lengths to create it. The more irrational the claim, the more the insecurity is apparent. There is nothing rational about claims for the inerrancy of the Bible, or for the infallibility of the Pope. There is nothing rational about religious anger, religious persecution, religious wars, religious inquisitions or religious hatred of other faith traditions. However, the way to confront this irrationality is not with rational arguments no matter how tempting it is to try that approach."

"If you were dismissed in order for the myth of biblical perfection to continue to live, proving them wrong by rational argument will not touch the issue. What you have done is to threaten the security system of your congregation's leadership. You have two choices for an appropriate response:

  1. Remain in the congregation and bear your witness lovingly - hoping to bring about change.

  2. Find a new church whose leadership is not so threatened and help to make an alternative available for people like you...."

"My first advice is always to stay where you are and to work for change. If change is impossible, my second choice is to go to a place where you can be fed." 2

Related essays on this site:

Biblical inerrancy as understood by

bullet Roman Catholics

bullet Conservative Protestants

References used:

  1. "Homosexual ordination vote widens gap between Presbyterian factions," ReligionToday, 2001-JUN-20, at:
  2. "Bishop Spong Q & A on Biblical Inerrancy," 2006-MAY-31 weekly newsletter. You can subscribe at:

Copyright 1997 to 2014 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Author: B.A. Robinson
Latest update: 2014-FEB-01
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