When we claim the Bible is devoid of errors, we must clarify what an error actually is. On this episode of Simply Put, Barry Cooper deciphers the doctrine of biblical inerrancy.
Theologians call it inerrancy. The idea that the Bible is completely without error in everything it says. Whether it speaks of geographical, historical, or theological details, it is completely trustworthy.
Now, some folks have a problem with the idea of the Bible’s inerrancy. They think they’ve spotted errors in Scripture. And very often, it’s because they’ve not understood some important, commonsense clarifications of what an “error” actually is.
Firstly, it’s not an error if it’s not in the original documents. Especially where numbers are concerned, there are some errors in every Hebrew and Greek copy of the Bible. Unlike the original writers of Scripture, the copyists weren’t guided into “all truth” by the Holy Spirit. Copy out the forty chapters of Exodus, and chances are you’ll have introduced one or two errors into the text. (Hopefully it wouldn’t be a major blunder, like the 1631 edition of the King James Bible that commanded its readers, “Thou shalt commit adultery.”) Thankfully, comparing the truly vast number of surviving copies of Scripture enable textual critics to reconstruct with tremendous accuracy what the original documents said before they were copied. Inerrancy relates to what the biblical authors actually wrote, and we’re able to discern what that was even though all we have are copies of what they wrote.
Second, It’s not an error if we misunderstand the author’s intention. When you open up a newspaper, you’ll see many different kinds of writing. Appearing alongside factual reports of world events, there may be celebrity gossip, infographics, stock market gains and losses, football statistics, book reviews, cartoons, and weather forecasts. Instinctively, few of us read a cartoon in the same way we read a war correspondent. In the same way, biblical authors write in a number of different genres, and they expect us to read each one accordingly. If we read a war correspondent as if he were a cartoonist and wonder why his writing isn’t funny at all, the mistake will be ours rather than his.
Also, biblical authors sometimes use metaphors and similes that aren’t intended to be taken literally. When the newspaper’s sporting correspondent informs us that a particular player is currently “on fire,” we shouldn’t become alarmed and call the fire department. Similarly, we shouldn’t cry “error” when the Bible uses metaphors.
It’s also not an error that the gospel writers sometimes order their events differently. The authors make no claim to include all the events of Jesus’ life or to put those events in strict chronological order. In fact, each writer wrote with a slightly different purpose in mind and deliberately arranged the material to that end. Matthew, for example, wrote for a Jewish audience, so he emphasizes the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies. Mark, on the other hand, wrote for a non-Jewish audience and deliberately leaves out many of those details.
Third, it’s not an error if it’s a paraphrase. Sometimes a biblical writer will only report something partially, paraphrasing someone’s words or summarizing an event. If you asked a friend what they’d been up to last night and they proceeded to give you an exact account of every single detail, complete with every single word they’d said to anyone, you wouldn’t think they were being informative; you’d think they were being irritating. There’s a level of detail that actually gets in the way because you’d get so bored and confused you’d either walk off or glaze over. In the same way, when biblical writers summarize or paraphrase, they’re not making mistakes; they’re telling the truth in a digestible way.
Fourth, it’s not an error if it’s “phenomenological language.” When humans describe things from their own vantage point rather than supplying an objective, scientific ex- planation, that’s what is called phenomenological language. An example would be when a TV weatherperson or a biblical author speak of “the sun rising.” Nobody condemns a weatherman who says the sun will rise at 7 a.m. tomorrow morning. He’s not making any claims about the earth being the center of the universe. He’s just describing things as they appear to be from our perspective. To be strictly scientifically accurate, he’d have to say, “Tomorrow at 7 a.m., the earth will have rotated to such a degree that our particular region of the planet will be exposed to the sun’s rays.” And then, as well as being strictly scientifically accurate, he would also be unemployed.
Fifth, it’s not an error if someone else says it. The Bible often reports what people say. Not all of these people tell the truth, at least not all the time, and some of them make mistakes. In Psalm 14:1, we read, “There is no God.” An obvious error in the Bible? No, it’s the reported speech of someone who is in error: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’”
Sixth, it’s not an error if the Bible doesn’t speak definitively or exhaustively on every subject. The Bible doesn’t tell you how to put topspin on a tennis ball, win the Pulitzer Prize, or rustle up a jar of fresh plum chutney. Criticizing the Bible for what it doesn’t say is not the same as finding an error.
And seventh, it’s not an error if it ain’t written proper. The biblical authors came from a wide variety of social and educational backgrounds. In the original languages, there are some sentences in Scripture which are, according to current standards, ungrammatical. But these ungrammatical sentences are still without error because—however ungrammatical they may be by our standards—they are still (just like the rest of Scripture) completely truthful in what they report.