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Is the Bible free of error?

Inerrancy: A brief overview

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Diverse quotations:

bullet"All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works." 2 Timothy 3:16-17
bullet"If it is accepted that God Inspired the writing of the Books of the Bible, then to claim otherwise would imply that either He made or permitted mistakes in the Bible or that He is nowhere near as all-knowing as we believe He is." Quote taken from the "Believe" website. 1

bullet "The Bible is the inerrant ... word of the living God. It is absolutely infallible,without error in all matters pertaining to faith and practice, as well as in areas such as geography, science, history, etc." Jerry Falwell, from his book Finding Inner Peace and Strength

bullet"The Bible has been used for centuries by Christians as a weapon of control. To read it literally is to believe in a three-tiered universe, to condone slavery, to treat women as inferior creatures, to believe that sickness is caused by God's punishment, and that mental disease and epilepsy are caused by demonic possession. When someone tells me that they believe the Bible is the 'literal and inerrant word of God,' I always ask, 'Have you ever read it'?" Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong. 2


An inerrant book or text is one that is accurate, truthful, and totally free of error. Since all of the holy books of various world religions teach different messages, no more than one can be inerrant. Perhaps none are.

Most religious conservatives hold a cardinal belief that their own faith's holy books are inerrant, and that all the holy books of other religious are errant; i.e. they contain errors.

There are diverse beliefs concerning inerrancy within Christianity:

bulletBeliefs of religious conservatives: Many believe in four inter-related principles, that:

bulletThe Bible is inerrant -- free of error;

bulletThe meaning of biblical passages is clear and unambiguous;

bulletIts authors were inspired by God; and

bulletThe Bible is the word of God and thus reflects accurately the will of God.

Further, many religious conservatives believe that the Bible is to be interpreted literally, unless otherwise indicated. Some passages are obviously intended to be interpreted figuratively, symbolically or metaphorically rather than literally. For example, in Chapter 1 of the Gospel of John, Jesus is described as feeding 5,000 people with bread and fish. Later in that Gospel, Jesus is recorded as saying "I am the bread of life" (John 6:35). He obviously does not imply that he is a loaf of bread. He appears to mean that he is "the source and sustainer of eternal life." 3 Similarly, when Jesus is recorded as saying "I am the vine, ye are the branches" (John 15:5) he does not mean that he is a literal vine.

bullet Many mainline Christians believe that the Bible contains the will of God, but that portions of the Bible do not reflect God's will. Every injunction, instruction, prohibition, etc. in the Bible has to be analyzed carefully to determine whether it was directed to a specific culture at a specific time and place, or should be applied to all cultures and all eras.

bulletMany liberal/progressive Christians believe that the Bible was written by individuals to promote their own evolving spiritual beliefs. However, many of the authors were severely limited by their tribal culture and by their lack of scientific knowledge.  Many progressive Christians believe that it is important to recognize that many biblical passages contain factual errors and that many do not reflect the will of God. Many reject what the Bible's authors have to say on topics such as:
bullet Genocide,
bullet The origins of species and of the universe,
bullet Human slavery,
bulletThe suppression and oppression of women,
bulletTreatment of persons with a homosexual or bisexual orientation or a transgender or transsexual identity,
bullet Religious intolerance,
bulletTorturing prisoners,
bulletThe death penalty,
bullet Treatment of religious minorities,
bullet Spanking children,
bulletExecuting non-virgin brides,
bulletExecution of children who are disrespectful of their parents, and
bulletOther laws and actions considered immoral by today's secular and religious standards.

Some progressive Christians would select the concept of transferring sin and punishment from the guilty to the innocent as the most immoral practice advocated by the Bible, is. This theme is found in passages throughout the Bible from Genesis to Revelation.

Historical impacts of beliefs in inerrancy & literal interpretation:

Much of a individual's or a faith group's theology follows naturally from their beliefs about inerrancy, and whether specific passages in their holy book should be interpreted literally as applying to today's culture. Many historical and current intra-religious and inter-religious conflicts can be traced directly back to beliefs on inerrancy and a literal interpretation of specific passages. 

Five examples are:

bulletIn the King James Version and a few other translations of the Bible, Exodus 22:18 is rendered "Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live." This verse was used to justify many of the abuses of the "burning times" by the Catholic and Protestant Inquisition against religious heretics.
bullet In Genesis 9:25-27, Noah cursed his grandson Canaan because of an undefined transgression by Noah's son Ham. Ham was not himself cursed or punished. This was referred to as the "Curse of Ham." Prior to the 19th century, most Christian clergy and theologians used the curse to justify human slavery of Canaan's descendents who were believed to be blacks. It is one biblical example of transmitting guilt and punishment from the guilty (Ham) to the innocent (Canaan and his descendents).
bulletThere are six or seven "clobber passages" in the Bible which, when literally interpreted, are often used to condemn homosexual behavior.

Jehovah's Witnesses cite literal interpretations of Bible verses from Genesis, Leviticus, Acts 15 and Acts 21 in order to urge its members to refuse to accept blood transfusions for themselves or their children, even when the refusal endangers their life. The result is a high death rate within the denomination, particularly among women during childbirth. Other Christian denominations interpret the same passages as food regulations that no longer apply to Christians.


Much of Christian anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism over the past two millennia is based on Matthew 27:25: "Then answered all the people, and said, 'His blood be on us, and on our children'." The verse has been literally interpreted to imply that the responsibility for Jesus' torture death on the cross did not lie with the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate and the occupying Roman army. Most denominations taught as late as the mid 20th century that full blame for Jesus' death was accepted by a group of Jews in Pilate's courtyard on behalf of all Jews living at the time in Jerusalem, in the rest of Judea, and in the Diaspora. Further, Matthew 27:25 has been interpreted to equally blame all future generations of Jews even to the present day and beyond into the future. This is another example of transferring guilt and punishment from the guilty to the innocent.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. "Inerrancy and Infallibility of the Bible," Believe website, at:
  2. Bishop John Shelby Spong, "Q&A on the Bible as a weapon of control," weekly mailing for 2007-OCT-31. You can subscribe to these mailings at:
  3. "Literal and figurative," Worldwide Church of God, at:

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Copyright © 1997 to 2011 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Author: B.A. Robinson
Latest update: 2011-JAN-25

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