How to Read the Bible: Part IV

How to read the Bible Part IV: Inerrant?

By Jim Vitale

If you’ve spent more than a few minutes on Christian websites, reading comment sections on Christian YouTube videos (I highly discourage doing this), listening to Christian radio, or browsing a Christian bookstore, you’ve probably encountered the claim that the Bible is inerrant. Perhaps you’ve even heard it from the pulpit.

Many Christians of diverse backgrounds claim that the Bible is both inerrant, which is to say that the Bible contains no errors, and is completely perfect. But is it really? Why do people believe this? And what is at stake if we don’t?

The dilemma

To start, there are several different Bible passages Christians use to affirm the inerrancy of scripture, and 2 Timothy 3:16-17 is foremost: “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”

While this passage is a sweeping affirmation of the scriptures, it creates some issues. At the time Paul was writing to Timothy, there were no scriptures beyond what modern Christians would call the Old Testament. The Gospels were written around the same time as Paul’s letters and it would be another couple hundred years before they were affirmed as Scripture-with-a-capital-S. So if this passage is testifying to the inerrancy of scripture, it’s only speaking to the inerrancy of the Old Testament, not the New.

Another issue is that the word “inerrant” is not used in this passage. Paul says that scripture is “inspired,” or perhaps better written “spirit-breathed.” This means that the Holy Spirit is behind and before the words in scripture, guiding the message. But that does not necessarily mean inerrant. We all know that, even in our best moments, when we feel we are being guided by the Holy Spirit, nothing we do is perfect. In his Heidelberg Disputation Martin Luther argues that even the best of what God is able to do through us is still stained with human sin.

This leads us to another challenge. In our last How to Read the Bible post we explored how the library of the Bible was written by lots of different people in lots of different styles over a long period of time. This means that the Holy Spirit was working in and through a lot of people who were born in particular cultures and influenced by particular historical events. Humanity is fallen. That’s a central theme of the scriptures. We struggle to follow God. Even the most faithful heroes of the Bible: Abraham, Moses, David, Peter, Paul had their moments of moral failure and unfaithfulness. It would run contrary to the message of the Bible to say that every human who contributed to the Bible did so perfectly and without error, no matter how faithful they were, no matter how present the Holy Spirit was.

Indeed, no one is perfect but God. Jesus almost says as much when he tells someone, “Why do you call me good? Only God alone is good” (Mark 10:18; Luke 18:19). So to claim that anything in this world is perfect is to commit idolatry. The Bible cannot be perfect (inerrant) because the Bible is not God. Only God is fully good. Only God is perfect. When we call the Bible inerrant, we risk committing an act of idolatry. It comes out when people say things like “I believe in the Bible.” This betrays a commitment to a book over a God. It would be better if we said “I believe in God, and the Bible helps me do so.”

Many fear that if the Bible is not inerrant and perfect than everything falls apart: “If you say that one thing in the Bible is wrong, than the whole thing has to be wrong! Where does it end? What can we trust?” These are fair and valid concerns. If we are going to argue that a particular passage in scripture is “wrong” or “misguided” or better yet “complicated” then we must do so with the utmost fear and trembling.

But ultimately, as we talked about in the previous post, we are interested in faith, not facts. The claim that the Bible is inerrant is a new thing. It popped up around the same time as literal readings of the Bible. It is a concern born from the Enlightenment assertion that only what is observable is true. Just because people 300 years ago started saying we can only believe in what we see doesn’t mean that we have follow them. We can still have faith and trust that, even if there are some questionable sections in scripture, the general thrust of the whole thing is trustworthy.

A Lutheran understanding of the Bible

That is ultimately where we land as Lutherans. Is the Bible inerrant? Probably not. But is it trustworthy and true? Absolutely.

If you get online and scroll through the “What we believe” section on most non-Lutheran, protestant church websites, you will probably find a statement about the Bible at the top of the page (or close to it). However, if you scroll through the Augsburg Confession, our primary statement of faith in the Lutheran Church, you will find that there is not one statement on the scriptures. It talks about God, sin, Jesus, justification, the Holy Spirit, the church, etc. But not the scriptures. I think this is because Luther and his fellow reformers didn’t question that the scriptures were trustworthy. Scripture is quoted all over the Augsburg Confession. But they also did not affirm the perfection of scripture because they did not see it as perfect.

Martin Luther himself referred to the scriptures as the cradle that holds Christ. This means that the Bible is trustworthy and true for pointing us to Jesus. It’ll do the job. But that does not mean that it is perfect. It holds the Word of God; it is not the Word of God. It points to Jesus; it is not Jesus. Luther also talked about the scriptures as a finger which points to God, or as the moon which reflects the sun. The Bible is not God. It is not perfect because only God is perfect. But it does an exemplary job in pointing us to God, in revealing God to us, in introducing us to God.

As Lutherans we do not believe in the inerrancy of scripture. But we do believe that it is trustworthy and true. It is possible to imagine a person who spent his or her whole life reading the Bible but never really encountered God (there are plenty of secular Biblical scholars out there). That’s because the Bible and God are not the same thing. The Bible is meant to get us started, to preach to us the good news, to introduce us to and support our relationship with God—but ultimately it is no substitute for an encounter and relationship with God in Christ Jesus by the power of the Holy Spirit. That is our aim. That is our goal. That is what the Bible is for. This word of God (the Bible) is not the Word of God (Jesus) but it does a fine job in leading us to him.