Does the Bible Contain Mistakes?

by | Faith and Reason | 3 comments

Is the Bible true? I don’t mean, “Does it contain truth?” I mean, “Does every word in the Bible reveal and teach true facts about reality?” 

Did God really part the Red Sea? Did Jonah really spend three days and nights in the belly of a whale? And most importantly, did Jesus actually rise from the dead? 

What we’re really driving at is the question of biblical inerrancy. Is the Bible entirely free of error, or does it contain mistakes? 

The doctrine of biblical inerrancy 

For the first 1700 years of its existence, the church almost universally believed in the inerrancy of the Bible. Some Christians still do today. I’m one of them. 

Our reasoning is bound to the nature of the Bible itself as the inspired word of God, where “inspired” carries a double meaning. 

First, in that it’s God’s own words (2 Timothy 3:16) and second, that the human authors wrote under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:20-21). Therefore, it’s inspired in both its content and form. 

The doctrine of inerrancy, therefore, is an implication of logical necessity. Since every word is God’s, and God can’t lie, then every word must be true. There are no lies or mistakes. 

What do we mean by “inerrant?” 

Paul Fienberg gives an excellent definition of inerrancy that highlights some important qualifications: 

Inerrancy means that when all facts are known, the Scriptures in their original autographs and properly interpreted will be shown to be wholly true in everything they affirm, whether that has to do with doctrine or morality or with the social, physical or life sciences.1 

Let’s break down the terms he uses: 

  1. Original autographs” mean the original copies. What the authors wrote was free from error. This doesn’t exclude the possibility of copying mistakes made thereafter. 
  2. Properly interpreted” means taking into account things like literary form, methods of composition, cultural and historical context, and intended audience. 
  3. Wholly true in everything they affirm” means that any statement of fact made by the biblical author, rightly understood, is taken to be true. 

Is inerrancy reasonable? 

Many see the doctrine of inerrancy as wholly irrational. However, as we mentioned earlier, belief in inerrancy is a logically sound conclusion proceeding from two clearly taught biblical truths: 

There’s a

degree of circularity to

accepting God’s Word as

the ultimate standard for

its truthfulness…

…but circularity will

occur for anyone

attempting to establish

a base of ultimate

authority.

1) the Bible is God’s own word (2 Timothy 3:16); and

2) every word that comes from God is true (Psalm 119:142, 160; John 17:17; Romans 3:4) 

Admittedly, there’s a degree of circularity here. If God’s Word is our ultimate standard for truth, then our ultimate appeal in defense of its truthfulness must be itself. What alternative is there after all? As J. I. Packer puts it, “Scripture itself is alone competent to judge our doctrine of Scripture.”2 

But circularity will occur for anyone attempting to establish a base of ultimate authority. To quote John Frame, 

Circular argument of a kind is unavoidable when we argue for an ultimate standard of truth. One who believes that human reason is the ultimate standard can argue that view only by appealing to human reason. One who believes that the Bible is the ultimate standard can argue only by appealing to the Bible. Since all positions partake equally of circularity at this level, it cannot be a point of criticism against any of them.

Remember, all reasoning begins somewhere 

I recall a conversation I had with a university student studying for a master’s in molecular biology. He said he was open to the idea of God, but simply couldn’t believe something that he couldn’t prove scientifically. I assured him that he already did. 

I pointed out to him that like all reasoning, modern science depends on a number of prior beliefs, such as, 

  1. The existence of an objectively real world. 
  2. The orderly nature of the world. 
  3. That this objectively real world is knowable. 
  4. That our mind and senses can reliably gather true information about the world. 
  5. That the laws of nature are uniform. 

I said, “In order to think scientifically, you first have to assume that all of these things are true, right?” He nodded. “But none are proven by science. Rather, science needs them in order to get started, correct?” He nodded again. I replied, “Then why do you believe they’re true?” He paused for a moment and answered, “I don’t know.” I appreciated his honesty. 

We must remember that when reasoning, we all start from a pre-existing set of assumptions. I liken it to climbing a ladder. Using logic, we move from one step to the next until we reach a conclusion. 

ladder image illustrating presuppositions and conclusion
All reasoning rests on a set of assumptions from which we draw conclusions.

But reason, like a ladder, requires firm ground on which to stand. This “ground” is our pre-existing set of beliefs or assumptions, sometimes called presuppositions. 

Where do we stand to determine the Bible’s truthfulness? 

Most people today accept as a foregone conclusion that the Bible is full of errors. They haven’t necessarily determined this for themselves. They just assume that the scholars who say so have proven it. 

Proofs” put forward to discredit the Bible also proceed from presuppositions that skeptical scholars just take for granted.

What they fail to see however, and maybe we do too, is that “proofs” put forward to discredit the Bible also proceed from presuppositions that skeptical scholars just take for granted. As George Ladd observed, 

“They interpret the Bible from within the presuppositions of the contemporary scientific world view. Such a world view assumes that all historical events are capable of being explained by other known historical events.”4 

In case you missed his point, Ladd is saying that critical scholars assess the Bible using the already held belief that it’s just another historical text. Their presupposition, therefore, is that anything true in the Bible can only be true if it can be explained according to other known historical events. 

So, did God really part the Red Sea? Since there are no other sea-partings in history, the answer must be “no.” Did Jesus really rise from the dead? No one else ever has, so it can’t be true. In short, they submit the supernatural works of God to the explanatory assumptions of the natural world, thereby ensuring that supernatural explanations are excluded from the outset. 

The illusion of neutrality 

The blind spot for those who approach the Bible this way is their belief that they can approach it from a place of rational neutrality. But they can’t. Everyone’s “ladder” is standing on something. 

Far from being a neutral investigator, the skeptic brings the supernatural down to his own natural level, “and thus denies in advance, its reality.

The Bible skeptic’s “ladder” stands on the belief that all books are merely human in origin. He proceeds from this pre-commitment, thereby restricting what explanations he can or can’t entertain before even coming to the evidence. As J. Barton Payne puts it, far from being a neutral investigator, the skeptic brings the supernatural down to his own natural level, “and thus denies in advance, its reality.” 5 

Conclusion: So, how can we know that the Bible really is true? 

So, does this mean just accepting that the Bible is true, free of any mistakes, without question? “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” Is that the idea? 

Without minimizing the sincerity of faith behind such notions, this doesn’t seem to square with a God who 

  • invites us to reason with him (Isaiah 1:18), 
  • promises to give us enlightenment and understanding, (Colossians 1:9) 
  • calls us to discernment, (Romans 12:2) 
  • commands us to add knowledge to our faith, (2 Peter 1:5) and 
  • saves us to a knowledge of the truth (1 Timothy 2:4). 

Proving that God’s Word is true and contains no mistakes is exactly what God wants us to do. He doesn’t just want us to believe it’s true. He wants us to know it!

Proving that God’s Word is true and contains no mistakes is exactly what God wants us to do. He doesn’t just want us to believe it’s true. He wants us to know it! But how? How can we know that the Bible is true? 

Gerhard Maier is correct to suggest that proving the Bible true requires using a scientific method suitable to its nature as God’s revealed word. This he says is not critique, but obedience.6 Not a blind obedience, but an obedience of faith that applies all our intellect. The difference is that we’ve moved our “ladder” to different ground. We reason, no longer from the place of “if God’s Word is true, then I’ll believe it,” but “because God’s Word is true, I will follow it.” 

That’s the “renewed” mind Paul speaks of in Romans 12:2. In faith we proceed with confidence that because God’s Word is true, we may fully “test and approve” it, knowing that whatever questions we bring to it, it will not fail to reveal what’s “acceptable and perfect.” In other words, the truth. 



 Notes

1. Paul Fienberg, “The Meaning of Inerrancy,” in Inerrancy, Norman Geisler, ed. (Grand Rapids, MI, Zondervan, 1980), p. 294. 

2. J. I. Packer as quoted by Kevin DeYoung in Taking God at His Word, (Wheaton, Ill, Crossway, 2014), p. 23) 

3. John Frame, Presuppositional Apologetics, May 23, 2012, [accessed online at frame-poythress.org]. 

4. As cited by J. Barton Payne, “Higher Criticism and Biblical Inerrancy,” in Inerrancy, Norman Geisler, ed. (Grand Rapids, MI, Zondervan, 1980), p. 90. 

5. Ibid, p. 92. 

6. Gerhard Maier, The End of the Historical-critical Method, (St. Louis: Concordia, 1977), p. 35 

3 Comments

  1. Bob Mcdonald

    “Admittedly, there’s a degree of circularity here”

    So you admit that there is a problem with you argument and then you point out the assumptions that a rational person has to make about the world? lets list these assumptions again and then add yours:

    1.The existence of an objectively real world.
    2.The orderly nature of the world.
    3.That this objectively real world is knowable.
    4.That our mind and senses can reliably gather true information about the world.
    5.That the laws of nature are uniform.

    6. because of the above assumptions I can make circular arguments about my religious text???

    Of course scholars approach the study of ancient texts with the assumption that it is not inspired by an all powerful creator being! imagine if they used the opposite assumption!!??

    You say that we all need to place our ladder on some foundation and I agree. What your doing is taking that solid foundation and then piling volumes of rickety old manuscripts and translations and copies of copies and then putting your ladder on top of a falling over pile of papyrus paper…

    Reply
    • Scott Stein

      I wasn’t admitting a problem. I was admitting a degree of circularity when it comes to assumptions about our ultimate foundation for truth. This can hardly be called a problem when it is the case for everyone when making an appeal to an ultimate foundation…including the rationalist.

      The assumptions I listed were not the assumptions of a rational person (per se), but for a scientific thinker, whether Christian or not. I share the same assumptions when doing science. The difference is that I have a reason for holding those assumptions, namely because the world is the created result of a rational, all good, all powerful and all-knowing creator. Because it is, it is perfectly rational for me to hold to these assumptions when doing science. The problem for my friend who was not a theist (at least wasn’t at the time) was that he also held to these assumptions about science, but he did not have a reason for doing so.

      At least we can agree that we all place our ladder of reasoning on something. I’ve made it clear that my foundation is belief in a rational, all good, all powerful, all knowing Creator. What you have not made clear is what your foundational belief is.

      I’d be interested to know.

      Reply
      • Bob Mcdonald

        You say its not a problem but it obviously is. The assumptions a philosopher, scientist, rationalist, materialist, reductionist etc. make is simply not comparable to you making circular arguments about the collection of writings from antiquity that is the bible. How could you ever hope to demonstrate that the bible is “the ultimate foundation of truth”? Whats to stop me from making the same argument from my religious text? or any text? Let me try: “TRUMP The Art of The Deal” is the ultimate foundation of truth (maybe that’s why many christians love him so much)

        “Scriptures in their original autographs and properly interpreted” Where are these original documents? Who exactly has the proper interpretation? Do you? If so, How would you demonstrate that?

        Your friend has perfectly good reasons for holding the assumptions you listed. Simply admmiting that we are a conscious observer of the universe will lead to these assumptions, this has absolutely nothing to do with any religious beliefs. I will say that this line of questioning can lead to some interesting thought experiments: Am I a boltzmann brain? A Brain in a vat? Am I living in a simulation? Are others conscious or are they zombies,”Non player characters” of my personal simulation? None of those assumptions beg the question “Am I living in a universe in which the creator being sent himself to our planet to sacrifice himself to himself because a talking snake convinced a woman to eat a piece of fruit” (this is my condensed version of christian beliefs). I suppose any of these thought experiments COULD be true, is it likely? I think we could use occam’s razor to dismiss them.

        Science is the most important tool humanity has ever devised in part because it is skeptical even of itself. It starts by recognizing these assumptions and is constantly asking questions of itself to zero closer and closer to the true nature of reality. Do religions do that? No. They claim to be the definitive authority and to question that authority is a sin. They start with the “answers” and opportunistically cherry pick “evidence” to suit.

        The word “belief” is the key to your question about my worldview. I have no foundational “belief” in anything. I am an agnostic atheist. I will follow the evidence where it leads. It is my view that we do not choose what we believe. We are either convinced that something is true or we are not. I am not convinced that any of the worlds religions are true. I’m certainly not convinced that a Galilean who lived 2000 years ago was the creator of the cosmos. I am convinced that Einstein’s general and special relativity are that best descriptions the universe at a cosmic scale. I am convinced that Quantum field theory is the best description of the particles/waves that make up our universe at the smallest scales. I am convinced that Evolution by natural selection is the unifying theory of biology. I am convinced by most of established science and I will be until there is sufficient evidence to prove otherwise.

        Furthermore, I am convinced that secular liberal democracy and the rule of law should be the foundation of modern society. I am convinced that balancing the rights of individual with the rights of society is key to building a prosperous community for all of us. I am convinced that we should have freedom of religion, freedom from religion and freedom to express criticism of competing ideas. Freedom to do exactly what we are doing right now. While I disagree with your religious ideas, I would fight for your right to hold them. And I would fight for your right to party. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eBShN8qT4lk I’m also convinced I shouldn’t take myself too seriously, after all, I COULD BE WRONG. Would you admit the same?

        Reply

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Stay updated on key issues!

  • In-depth analysis and insights

  • Resource recommendations

  • Practical training opportunities