What do we mean when we say the Bible is without error (i.e. inerrant)?
No doubt you’ve heard critics of the Bible claiming the Bible is full of errors and can’t be trusted. Maybe as a new Christian you had doubts about the trustworthiness of the Bible. Such doubts are not only natural, but they're also good in a way. We should always test what people tell us about the way of salvation. Given all the false religions in the world, knowing that we can trust our Bible is no small matter.
To understand the trustworthiness of scripture, we first need to define inerrancy. To say the Bible is inerrant, we mean it is free from error; it is completely truthful. Paul Feinberg has a good working definition:
“Inerrancy is the view that when all the facts become known, they will demonstrate that the Bible in its original autographs and correctly interpreted is entirely true and never false in all it affirms, whether that relates to doctrine or ethics or to the social, physical, or life sciences.”
Christians often will add that the Bible is “infallible," and they may use the term interchangeably with the term inerrant. The Bible is both infallible and inerrant, but it’s helpful to understand the differences between the two terms. The difference between infallible and inerrant is that one is hypothetical while one is actual. As R.C. Sproul points out, infallible is a broader term than inerrant in that it speaks to ability or potential. If something is infallible, it is unable to make a mistake or to err. If something is inerrant, it does not contain error.
The distinction is that something can be fallible (able to err) but still be inerrant. For example, we know that humans err, but we are also capable of being inerrant. We can write a book that is completely factual and true, or we can make true statements even if we do not do so all the time. If something is infallible, however, it is never able to err. Thus, humans are not infallible, but they can be inerrant (at times).
So, if something is infallible it must be, by definition, inerrant. If something is inerrant, it may or may not be infallible. Since all scripture is God-breathed, and since God is infallible, perfect and true, then by necessity the scriptures are both infallible and inerrant. We hold this position because scripture is “God-breathed." Paul says in 2Timothy 3:16:
All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.
The Greek word translated “inspired” is theopneustos, which means God-breathed, as in coming directly out of God. If one believes that God is perfect and infallible (and He must be or He is not God), then by logical extension all scripture must also be infallible and thus inerrant.
At this point, it’s important to note that when we say the Bible is infallible and inerrant, this always refers only to the original Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek writings created by the original authors (e.g., Moses, David, Paul, Peter, etc.). While we don’t possess the original works today, we do possess thousands of carefully made copies (called manuscripts).
These ancient copies may contain minor errors resulting from a copyist's mistake, but because we possess a comprehensive collection of ancient manuscripts (tens of thousands of ancient manuscripts have been preserved), we can compare them with one another to identify copyist errors. These ancient manuscripts are remarkably consistent with each other, demonstrating the trustworthiness of the copy process. For example, when the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in the 1940s, these first-century copies were compared to other manuscripts and found to be 99.9% accurate.
Since most people can't read ancient Hebrew and Greek, the original manuscripts must be translated into modern languages like English. By definition, a translation of scripture is not considered inerrant, since the translation process itself must alter the original words. There are many English translations of the Bible (e.g., NIV, NASB, KJV, NKJV, etc.), and each of these translations renders the text of scripture slightly differently.
Due to the differences in vocabulary and syntax between human language, translations fail to convey the original meaning perfectly. While some translations are deemed more faithful than others, in general, all scholarly translations communicate the meaning of scripture honestly and accurately. It's important to note that no copyist errors nor translation errors (among the scholarly translations) have ever altered essential doctrines of our faith.
We may ask why God did not preserve the original manuscripts? After all, if He had the power to inspire them in the first place, then certainly He has the power to preserve them. For example, God went so far as to preserve the clothing of the Jews wandering in the desert for forty years (Deuteronomy 8:4), so why did God permit the originals copies of His word to disappear?
James Montgomery Boice offers a possible answer:
Knowing human nature, it is reasonable to suppose that if we had supernaturally preserved copies of the biblical manuscripts (or perhaps even the originals themselves), men and women would tend to worship them rather than the God who gave them. We remember the bronze serpent that God gave in Moses' time. Later it was worshiped (2 Kings 18:4). How much likelier is it that people would end up worshiping the manuscripts of the Bible rather than the Lord?
With this as a background, let’s consider some of the practical aspects of inerrancy.
Inerrancy Means Historical Accuracy
All historical accounts in scripture are accurate, including dates and locations. The names of kings, when they ruled, the age of the earth and places that existed in the past, etc. are all recorded accurately in scripture. Recalling the definition of inerrancy above, we often say that “when all the facts become known” we will see the Bible was correct. This statement is especially true when speaking about our understanding of historical people and events.
For example, the Bible describes certain people and places for which we have no independent record, leading some to criticize the Bible as untrustworthy. Nevertheless, later an archeological exploration or historical discovery will yield evidence that these people or places did, in fact, exist just as the Bible reported (e.g., the Behistun Rock inscription). These finds demonstrate that the Bible is historically accurate.
Inerrancy Exists Even When Old Testament Texts Are Not Recited Verbatim In the New Testament
New Testament scripture often quotes from Old Testament passages differently than how those passages read in the Old Testament. These differences reflect the differences between the ancient translation of scripture. The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew and Aramaic, while the New Testament was written in Greek.
When a New Testament author quotes the Old Testament, the writer translates the Hebrew Old Testament text into Greek, which does not have a perfect word-for-word meaning. Then our English Bible must translate the Greek text into English. Therefore, the New Testament quote has moved from Hebrew to Greek and then to English, while the original Old Testament text moved directly from Hebrew to English.
The variances introduced by this extra step of translation can lead to slightly different wording in the New Testament when compared to the original Old Testament quote. Nevertheless, the principle of inerrancy means that even this difference in wording is inspired by the Spirit and thus inerrant. The two renditions of the Old Testament quote will stand together equally to compliment (not contradict) each other in conveying God's intended meaning.
Inerrancy Includes the Use of Figures of Speech and Different Literary Genres
Just as we use figurative language in our writing to convey meaning, God does the same in scripture. The Lord uses many literary forms in scripture, including generalities, hyperbole, metaphors, and symbolism. The Bible describes God as possessing "wings," a "heart," and "arms," but scripture also says God is all Spirit and not a man. Therefore, we understand such descriptions to be a type of euphemism called an anthropomorphism.
Figurative language like anthropomorphisms is often better at conveying a thought than literal language, so the scripture's reliance on figurative language isn't just cause to reject inerrancy. When we interpret the meaning of scripture's figures and symbols accurately, the result will always be inerrant.
The Bible Is Inerrant Even When It Does Not Use the Modern Language Of Science
Clearly, many words and concepts we have today did not exist when scripture was originally written, especially words used in modern science. Therefore, we must allow literary license to the authors of scripture when they use inexact language to describe a process we understand more precisely today.
For example, scripture often speaks of the "rising" and "setting" of the sun, though we know the sun does not truly rise or set. Scientifically-speaking, the earth turns on its axis producing the appearance of a rising or setting sun. Discrepancies of this type are not examples of error, no more than when we use similar figurative language today.
The Lord understands how His creation works, since He is the Author of science, yet He communicates spiritual truth from a perspectives men can understand, which may require using scientifically inexact language from time to time. Despite the use of such inexact language, the underlying message remains inerrant.
Inerrancy Does Not Guarantee the Exhaustive Comprehensiveness Of Any Single Account Or Combined Accounts
Bible critics will point to differences in the details of the gospel accounts as proof the Bible isn't trustworthy. For example, Matthew says one angel met the women who came to Jesus’ grave after He had risen, while Luke reports there were two angels. Is one account wrong? No. Each writer highlighted different details in their account, so though Matthew only mentions one angel, this doesn't mean Matthew was contradicting Luke's account (or vice versa).
Instead, each gospel account compliments the others by recording the same event from a different perspective. In this case, Matthew chose to mention only one angel, while Luke explained there were two angels present. By combining these two accounts (along with the gospels of Mark and John) we gain a full understanding of the event. In this case, we understand that there were two angels at the tomb, though Matthew chose to mention only one.
Once again, such differences are inspired by the Spirit to authenticate the author's testimony. Ironically, if all four Gospel accounts were identical in every detail, such unnatural consistency would only serve to argue against the trustworthiness of the accounts.
Inerrancy Does Not Demand the Infallibility Of Non-Inspired Sources Used By Biblical Writers
At time, the Bible incorporates non-Biblical material (e.g., Acts 17, Jude). When non-inspired works are quoted in scripture, the quote itself becomes inerrant, however the work from which it originated is not considered inerrant in total. Every human written work may contain truth to some degree, but only scripture is entirely without error. So when authors of scripture quote from nonbiblical sources, they do so under inspiration, therefore the quoted material is without error.
Finally, some may say, "I don’t believe that all the Bible is inerrant, but I believe most of it is inerrant." Is such a view consistent with salvation? That is, can a believer hold to the view that the Bible isn't inerrant?
Certainly, holding to the inerrancy of the Bible is not necessary to being a Christian. Christians are those who believe in the resurrected Christ as their Savior. Nothing more than faith in Jesus Christ is required to be saved, but Christians will be drawn by the Spirit to a greater understanding, appreciation and trust in scripture. Therefore, a confidence in the inerrancy of scripture should be the testimony of every believer.
Furthermore, scripture itself testifies that it is God-breathed, which means it is logically impossible for a Christian to hold to a "partially-inerrant" position concerning scripture. Scripture is either inspired or not, and if it is inspired, then it testifies to itself that it is all from God. Paul's letters or Moses' writings were not merely their personal opinions; they were God's thoughts or else they were nothing.
Over the course of the history of the church, every generation has struggled against those who would lower the bar on the trustworthiness of scripture. Whenever the Church has departed from a view of scripture as literal and inerrant, the Church has slid into apostasy or worse. Today, we believe the church once again becoming apostate as a result of abandoning a high view of scripture. In place of scripture, men always substitute their thoughts and desires, which lead to destruction.
Denying inerrancy is rejecting that God authored scripture, which in turn questions God's character, purpose, and sovereign power. How can we trust a God for salvation Who cannot even preserve the integrity of His word, or worse, Who deceives us into thinking scripture is inerrant when it isn't? In short, if scripture isn't 100% inerrant, then it must be 100% meaningless.
As a footnote, it's worth noting that the church throughout history has held to the principle of inerrancy. Challenging the inerrancy of scripture is a relatively new tactic of the enemy, but Peter warned this day would come with mockers challenging what is written. Therefore, 1 Peter 3:15 says we must be ready to make a defense to everyone who asks us to give an account for the hope that is in us.
Our defense of the truth can never be simply we had a “burning in the bosom" or some strong other feeling or experience that convinced us Jesus is Lord. Our faith is based on a certain knowledge of God as revealed by Him in His scriptures, and therefore our defense of the truth must be based in a confidence in the scriptures. In short, the Bible declares it is the revealed word of God given to mankind so we may know of the salvation that is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.
How can we give this defense if we hold that scripture is trustworthy only in part or not at all? Thanks be to God He has provided for us His word which is as infallible and inerrant as its Author.