When the Bible has Errors
In the previous post, we dealt with the question of why we are able to trust Scripture. But we need to explore this further because if you read the Bible carefully, you will find parts that look erroneous. Some aspects of the Bible don’t line up with what we know from history and science. Let’s consider two points:
First, the biblical writers don’t provide us with a list of reasons as to why we should trust the Bible. That’s not the question the Bible it trying to answer. Instead the focus lies on what Christians are to believe and how Christians are to live. Paul expresses the general attitude well when he argues that because Scripture is “inspired” it is “useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” The ultimate goal of Scripture and the teaching that arises from it is to make “everyone who belongs to God … proficient, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim 3:16-17). The focus of inspiration is exclusively on faith and practice. Biblical authors are not concerned with resolving (say) whether or not the Bible represents history or the cosmos in a way that would qualify as “inerrant”—a theory that states that the Bible is perfect and without any error—by modern standards. Since this was not their concern, we are misusing their expressions of trust in Scripture if we try to make them address these concerns.
Second, it’s important to realize that the Bible does not offer us a theory about how God inspired Scripture. Scripture goes so far as to tell us that God moved on humans to communicate his Word (2 Pet 1:21). But it doesn’t resolve most of the questions we might want answered about how God did this. For example, nowhere does the Bible tell us how much control God exerted over the authors he used and how much of their limited, culturally-bound perspectives he left intact.
Many who advocate an inerrantist view cite how people in the Bible trusted all of the details of the Bible as evidence that that Bible is without error. This is too simplistic. To see how much of the limited and fallible humanity God left intact, we must take a comprehensive and honest look at the Bible itself. Such an honest examination of Scripture leads to the conclusion that the Bible is thoroughly inspired, but also thoroughly human. The human element in Scripture reflects the limitations and fallibility that attend to all human perspectives and all human thinking. This human element can be clearly seen in at least three areas of Scripture.
First, without exception, biblical authors presuppose a pre-modern view of the world. To cite one example, as with all people in the Ancient Near East, ancient Hebrews believed that the sky was “hard as a molten mirror” (Job 37:18). It had to be hard, in their view, for it was a “dome” that “separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome” (Gen 1:7). It is completely understandable that God would leave the primitive worldview of ancient authors intact. How else could he effectively communicate to the people of the time? Had God attempted to communicate a “scientifically accurate” view of the world, the theological truth he wanted to convey would never have been communicated. At the same time, we must admit that given what we know about the world today, this view is inaccurate. The earth doesn’t rest on pillars and the sky isn’t hard! Its theological message is unfailing though its view of the cosmos is scientifically wrong.
Secondly, the Bible teaches that the earth is engulfed by hostile waters and threatened by cosmic monsters. For example, the Psalmist celebrates that it is Yahweh’s “rebuke,” that causes the hostile waters to “flee.” And the OT frequently mentions the cosmic beasts named Leviathan and Rahab (Ps 74:14, Job 41:18ff, Is 51:9). Leviathan is depicted as a ferocious, twisting serpent of the sea encircling the earth (his name means “coiling one”). Rahab is a cosmic creature which inhabited the waters threatening the whole earth. This mythology communicates the reality of spiritual warfare to ancient people in vivid terms they could readily understand. At the same time, this view of the world is scientifically inaccurate. There are no hostile waters or cosmic sea dragons threatening the earth. These teachings are infallible truths about spiritual warfare, even though their view of the cosmos is scientifically erroneous.
A third way the fallible humanity of biblical authors is evidenced is found in the way they sometimes contradict each other on minor matters. Space allows just one example. Compare the following Synoptic accounts of Jesus’ command to his 70 missionaries.
- “Take . . . no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for laborers deserve their food” (Mt 10:9-10).
- “[Take]… nothing for [your] journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics” (Mk 6:8-9).
- “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money—not even an extra tunic” (Lk 9:3).
The three accounts obviously do not completely agree. Did Jesus say to take a staff, as Mark reports, or not to take a staff, as Matthew and Luke report? Did Jesus say to wear sandals, as Mark’s account says, or not to wear sandals, as Matthew’s account suggests? Such disagreements clearly do not affect the basic teaching all three accounts seek to relay: namely, that disciples were to trust God the Father, not their own provisions, as they carried out the work of expanding God’s Kingdom. But just as clearly, the three accounts do disagree and thus cannot in any literal sense be labeled “inerrant.”
Minor inconsistencies such as this occur throughout the Bible. Sometimes they can be explained away, other times they cannot. Even when they cannot be explained, however, they never affect anything important. Minor contradictions in the Bible only become a concern when someone embraces a theory of inspiration that stipulates that such contradictions should not occur, that is “inerrant.”
If we rather focus our attention on the infallible teaching of Scripture on matters of faith and practice—as was the intention of the authors—rather than on whether or not it is meticulously accurate and consistent in matters of history or science, we are free to see these inconsistencies and scientific or historical inaccuracies as completely irrelevant to our faith.