If you Don’t Believe in the Inerrancy of Scripture, on What Basis can you Interpret Scripture?

The doctrine of biblical inerrancy is very recent in Christian history

First, let’s put biblical inerrancy into perspective.

Two centuries or so ago, and for all of Christian history before that, not a single Christian church, denomination, or preacher held that the Bible is inerrant. The very idea of biblical inerrancy had never even occurred to anyone.

It was only after the Age of Enlightenment (from the 1650s to the 1780s) that any need was seen by Christians for any such doctrine. This need was perceived only when the rapid development of science in the wake of the Age of Enlightenment began to call into question in many people’s minds the scientific accuracy of many stories and statements in the Bible, such as the creation of the world in six days and the Flood of Noah.

So for roughly 1,800 years of its history, all of Christianity looked to the Bible as the Word of God without the need for any doctrine of biblical inerrancy.

Biblical inerrancy is not the same as biblical literalism

Further, biblical inerrancy is not the same thing as biblical literalism. Even the well-known 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy “allows for figurative, poetic and phenomenological language, so long as it was the author’s intent to present a passage as literal or symbolic” (quote from linked Wikipedia article; italics in the original).

In other words, biblical inerrancy does not require a wholly literal interpretation of the Bible.

Biblical inerrancy is not necessary for faith in the Bible

Given that all Christian churches functioned reasonably well through many centuries of Christian history without the relatively recent doctrine of biblical inerrancy, the idea that now, two thousand years into Christianity, faith in God and the Bible will suddenly crumble without an adherence to biblical inerrancy seems rather shaky and unfounded.

Even today, adherence to the doctrine of biblical inerrancy is by no means universal among Christian churches. In fact, it is a minority position.

Biblical inerrancy misses the spiritual point of the Bible

From a spiritual perspective, the doctrine of biblical inerrancy simply isn’t very useful.

In practice, it is used mostly to assert that the Bible is without scientific and historical error. At other times it is used to assert that particular doctrines are correct because they are claimed to be based on the statements of the Bible.

However, from a spiritual perspective, the Bible was never intended to be a textbook of science and history. Why would God be concerned to teach us about science and history? How would that accomplish God’s purpose in speaking to humans on earth?

God’s purpose is not to give us correct scientific and historical information. Rather, it is to save our souls and bring us to heaven. So what God wants to convey to humans in the Bible is not material world information, which does not affect our salvation, but spiritual understanding, which does affect our salvation.

The Bible is about spiritual change, not about correct doctrine

Further, the point of the Bible is not to instill correct doctrine. Yes, correct doctrine is important. But the purpose of doctrine in Christianity is to lead to faith in Jesus Christ, repentance, reformation, and new spiritual life.

In other words, God’s underlying purpose in the Bible is not to get us to think straight, but to get us to live a Christlike life. Faith and doctrine are merely the doorway to making us into “new creations in Christ” (see 2 Corinthians 5:17).

Biblical inerrancy is a useless doctrine for this purpose because it concerns only the head, not the heart. In the Bible, God is seeking to reach our heart, and to “replace our heart of stone with a heart of flesh” (see Ezekiel 11:19; 36:26).

The original writers of the Bible, whether or not they believed or realized they were writing under divine inspiration, all understood that the main point of their writing was to reach people with a message from God and get people to leave behind their evil and sinful lives and live good and loving lives instead. Jesus himself summed up the entirety of Scripture in these words:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets. (Matthew 22:37-40)

That is the whole purpose of Scripture according to Jesus himself: to prompt us to love the Lord our God above all else, and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

The doctrine of biblical inerrancy touches only the head. What God wants to reach is our heart. And all of Scripture is designed by God to touch our hearts and prompt us to turn to God and live from God’s love instead of from our own selfish and materialistic desires.

A more spiritual basis for Bible interpretation

The Bible is not a textbook of science and history, or even a textbook of theology. It is a message from God whose purpose is to turn us toward God, faith, goodness, love, and spiritual life.

This way of understanding the Bible does not require or rely on inerrancy. Instead, it focuses on the spiritual message contained in and delivered by the Bible.

(Note: This post is an edited version of an answer I wrote and posted on Christianity StackExchange. You can see the original question on StackExchange here, and the StackExchange version of my answer here.)

For further reading:

About

Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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Posted in The Bible Re-Viewed
7 comments on “If you Don’t Believe in the Inerrancy of Scripture, on What Basis can you Interpret Scripture?
  1. Paul Hierholzer says:

    That was awesome Lee, as usual. Clearly, the Bible is not inerrant. Anyone with half a brain can see that. I’ll take it one step further and suggest that inerrancy is irrelevant to God. The word “perfect” is not part of His vocabulary, at least not when He’s talking to us.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Paul,
      Agreed. Though I do have some sympathy for those who cling to inerrancy as a way to be faithful to the Bible as they conceive of it.

  2. David Gray says:

    Hi Lee,

    I really liked your statement below. This makes a ton of sense.

    In other words, God’s underlying purpose in the Bible is not to get us to think straight, but to get us to live a Christlike life. Faith and doctrine are merely the doorway to making us into “new creations in Christ” (see 2 Corinthians 5:17).

    Given all the disagreement about what the Bible says and means, I think God would have written a clearer book if He really wanted us to believe all the right things.

    David

    • Lee says:

      Hi David,

      Yes, this thought is very helpful to me. Sometimes I get annoyed at how complicated and hard to understand the Bible sometimes is. Why didn’t God say it more clearly? Then I have to remember that God’s purposes are greater and deeper than ours. God is not aiming for our heads. God is aiming for our hearts and our lives. Once God has reached our heart and our life, our head comes as part of the package.

  3. Derelict says:

    The verses people trot out in favour of Biblical inerrancy are stuff like Psalm 12:6/19:7, Proverbs 30:5, Romans 9:20, and Psalm 119:89. (these are just the ones I gleaned from here: http://www.gotquestions.org/Biblical-inerrancy.html) You usually respond to those in some capacity in your other articles; how would you respond to them here, to show that they aren’t actually referring to inerrancy?

    I myself have a hard time believing that the Word of God wouldn’t be inherently inerrant, although I can believe that the human interpretation of it will never be perfect, and that we shouldn’t trust any one organization’s interpretation of it just because they’re the ones we hear it from.

  4. Doug says:

    I don’t think North American Christians can think enough for themselves to understand the subtlety of what Lee is trying to convey.

    • Lee says:

      Hi Doug,

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment. I would say that some do, and some don’t. Clearly the vast majority of those in the more conservative wing of Christianity do not. Hence the problem.

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