Throughout the Gospels, Jesus expressed an unqualified confidence that Scripture infallibly communicates the will of God. He consistently referred to it when deciding matters related to faith. This same attitude was also adopted by the earliest disciples.
This attitude of trust relates to what Christians are to believe and how they are to live. The inspirational authority of the Scriptures is exclusively about faith and practice. Neither Paul nor any other biblical author was concerned with resolving whether the Bible represents history or the cosmos in a way that would qualify as “inerrant” by modern standards. This was not their concern, and we misuse their expressions of trust in Scripture when we try to make them address these concerns.
In fact, 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 are a part of all human perspectives and all human thinking. The human element can be clearly seen in three areas of Scripture.
- Premodern View of the World. As with all people in the ancient Near East, the 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). This is just one of many examples that science has proven the Bible to be inaccurate. However, it is completely understandable that God would leave the primitive worldview of ancient authors intact as he used ancient authors to communicate his Word. 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 not have been communicated. At the same time, the view of the cosmos presupposed in the Bible is erroneous. The sky is not hard! The Bible’s theological message is unfailing though its view of the cosmos is wrong.
- Cosmic Forces as Monsters. At times the people of the ancient Near East depicted the mythological waters that surrounded the earth as hostile to the intention of various good gods who were in charge of preserving order in the world. According to these ancient views, humans needed the good gods to keep these hostile waters in check. Old Testament authors accepted this view but insisted that it was Yahweh, not any other deity, who kept the rebel waters in check. Old Testament authors also accepted the ancient Near Eastern view that the earth was surrounded by threatening cosmic monsters. This mythology communicated the reality of spiritual warfare to ancient people in vivid terms they could readily understand. At the same time, we must frankly admit that this view of the world is scientifically inaccurate. Though the ancient biblical authors believed otherwise, there are in fact no hostile monsters or cosmic sea dragons threatening the earth. These illustrations teach the infallible spiritual truth about spiritual warfare, even though their view of the cosmos is scientifically erroneous.
- Contradictions on Minor Matters. There are numerous inconsistencies regarding details of history. (See the differences of how Matthew, Mark, and Luke recount Jesus’ command to his seventy missionaries in Matt 10:9-10, Mark 6:8-9, Luke 9:3.) These differences point to the fact that the Bible is not inerrant in a literal sense. Sometimes these differences 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 become a concern only when someone embraces a theory of inspiration that stipulates that such contractions should not occur—namely, that the Bible is inerrant.
If we focus our attention on the infallible teaching of Scripture on matters of faith and practice, however, rather than on whether the Bible is meticulously accurate and consistent in matters of history or science, we are free to see that these inconsistencies and scientific or historical inaccuracies are irrelevant to our faith.
—Adapted from Across the Spectrum, pages 24-28