Biblical inerrancy and literal interpretation; why?

I’m sure we’ve done this before in many a religious thread, notably Merrin’s thread here Got kinda hijacked in that direction.

Anyway, I feel that the issue is big and interesting enough to warrant a thread of its very own.

The debate:
**Why is it necessary to consider the Bible to be an inerrant document worthy of uncritical acceptance and having a broad application (to science as well as to personal ethics)?

Why is it not acceptable to consider that (for example) The fallible, human writers were inspired by God, but introduced their own fallible, human slant (personal, cultural and possibly other factors too) to the writings?**

[sub]A few guidelines/ground rules for this thread, if I may:
[ul][li]Let’s keep it civil (as if we wouldn’t!)[/li][li]Please feel free to link to information sources that support your considered opinion, but please do not post responses consisting solely of ‘go here and read all of this’ - I want to hear your own views.[/li][li]I don’t particularly want this to turn into a catalogue of Biblical error, but if certain examples of what you feel to be unequivocable gross error in scripture are necessary to your argument, then by all means let’s see 'em.[/li][li]Can we try to refrain from non-sequitur?[/li][/ul][/sub]

It is necessary to those who believe this because, to them, if one part of the Bible is not literally true, then it may become a slippery slope. All parts must be literally true or else the important bits might not be. And since their belief system relies on the fact that the important bits must be…

But doesn’t that just amount to 'I want it to be true"?

I ought to add, for those that haven’t heard me say it before, that I once believed in Biblical inerrancy, but I don’t know why I did (or rather, I did because, having already come to believe in God somewhat independently, I simply accepted what I was told without really thinking about it).

Here is a helpful link on what Christ thought of the scriptures:

I know you want our own opinions. I don’t know that I can tell you exactly why I think it’s all God’s word. I just trust it and believe it is. If part of it’s false, then all of it’s false. How would you know which part to believe? Especially the plan of salvation. I believe the translators worked dilligently to translate it exaclty and that God saw that it was done. If you think parts of it are untrue then why bother with it at all, just toss it in the garbage? The Bible is under attack today more than ever, I believe, because satan knows his time is running out. He must do everything he can to keep people from believing the word of God. Of course, I can’t prove to anyone that it is God’s word, I just know and believe that it is, that He was able to see that we had his word.

What does non-sequiter mean? I’ve heard the term but can’t remember the definition. Thanks.

IMHO, because we humans overwhelmingly desire certitude in our chaotic, unpredicatable lives.

Knowing (as the inerrantists do) that the Bible is God’s Word - infallible and inerrant - gives them a firm foundation on which to base all of their decisions, opinions, beliefs, etc. And to follow on to what David B said, many inerrantists have defended their belief by pointing out that once you decide that certain passages (which as written appear to be literal accounts of people, places, events) are actually metaphors, well, who is to say which ones are metaphors and which ones are not?

non sequitur

n 1: a reply that has no relevance to what preceded it 2: (logic) a conclusion that does not follow from the premises

Because I believe that God provided me with a brain for reasons other than just to keep my ears from chafing together. I honestly believe that we are expected to think it’s part of the whole freewill thing, not to mention “'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.”

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not saying that someone shouldn’t wholly believe something that either:

Can be reliably demonstrated to be true, or…
(To a perhaps lesser extent)is consistent with their subjective personal experiences, where this does not conflict with what can be reliably demonstrated to be true.

But I don’t see Biblical inerrantism falling into either of these categories.

(hasty addition) in fact I don’t suppose it’s really any of my business trying to dictate what people choose to believe at all, insofar as they don’t try to inflict it on others.

The TV playwright Dennis Potter, in an interview shortly before his death, said something which has stuck with me: “To me, religion is not the bandage, but the wound.”

As a Christian, I know I’m a long way apart from God. If I’m to develop my faith and come closer to Him, I need questions, and doubts, and uncertainties. Certitude, for me, is a bad thing… I need to ask harder and harder questions, so that I can get better and better answers. Certainty will only come when I see God in the face; until then, religion is not there to comfort me and give me answers, but to challenge me and face me with questions. “Not the bandage, but the wound.” Quite.

How do I know which bits of the Bible to believe? I turn to God for guidance in prayer, and I try to use the brains He gave me… but, at the end of the day, does it matter whether I believe any of the Bible? What matters is faith in God. The best the Bible can do is point the way to that… and, at worst, it can even be an obstacle, if people put more trust in the words of a book than the word of God in their hearts.

So… that’s why I’m not a Biblical literalist. And why I consider it my duty, as a Christian, not to be one. I will not abdicate my moral responsibilities to the dictates of a book; I will not look for God in that book when I feel it’s my duty to look for him in the world. If I’m wrong about this, well, I pray that He will judge me with mercy… but, then, I do that anyway.

When I first stopped believing in God–that is, when I first admitted to myself that I didn’t believe in God–I felt the same way. If the God of the Bible isn’t real, why should I put any stock in any of this crap? And I went through a slightly amoral stage as a result. Pretty harmless, but still amoral. Maybe even immoral, by some standards.

Now I’ve reconsidered. There is a wealth of very good advice in the Bible. There is a good bit of crap too, in my view, or at least a lot of stuff that’s no longer meaningful, due to a radically changed context. But a lot of it is very good: Be kind, be merciful, don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t steal. Who wants to toss that in the garbage?

I say, read the Bible, but also read history. Think about the culture in which the Bible was written. Think about today’s culture. Read the Bible, but consider it in context. So my response: It isn’t necessary to consider the Bible inerrant in order to benefit from it. And if one believes that God exists, I see no reason not to consider the Bible inspired by God, but written by people, who are not infallible. Heck, I think Astral Weeks is an inpired album, but Van Morrison isn’t perfect.

I still don’t believe in God, but I still read the Bible. Lots of good stuff there. How do I know which parts to believe? I wouldn’t say that I believe it at all; I trust my conscience, my instincts, my intelligence and my compassion to tell me which parts of it are worthy and which parts aren’t. When part of it says, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” and I consider all the potential consequences of adultery, I have to agree, that’s good advice. When it says, “Wives, be in subjection to your own husbands,” and by extention we take it to say that women are inferior to men and should obey them without question, and I consider the potential consequences of that position, I say it’s crap.

Well, Revelation is certainly not meant Literally.
It is meant to be understood when the Times of the End comes.
PArts of it are understandable now, 50 years ago, no one could conceive of not being allowed to buy or sell without a number on you.
Now we have Smart Cards and microchip implants.

I think the Gospels are pretty easily understood to mean exactly what they say.

Certainly the Gospels present themselves as first-hand factual accounts, but we’re reasonably certain that they were written down quite some years after the events that they claim to describe; is there any reason that we should reject the notion that there may be some embellishment, missing detail or inaccuracy?

In deference to the inerrantists (and I hope that DDG posts here with a needed clarification on what “inerrancy” meant to the early fundamentalists, as opposed to the entrenched literalists of today), it’s important to note that their view is that the Bible is inerrant in the original autographs and when read properly.

The former is quite clear: a given translation, or the extant Hebrew and Greek texts, may not be clear and may lead one into error through misapprehension of what it really means, but the original text did not have these problems. Hence any supposed internal contradiction would be rendered moot if we just had what Moses or Isaiah or Luke or Paul originally wrote.

Regarding the latter, no inerrantist suggests that the Bible does not contain examples of various literary genres, and that some of these are not to be taken as literal statements. For example, Revelation is written in apocalyptic style, where the meaning is concealed from the casual reader but clear to the faithful. Hence one need not believe that there will appear a seven-headed, ten-horned flying purple people eater to qualify as the Beast; this is considered as symbolic of something (the original or a resurgent Roman Empire is the commonly suggested referent) and not a literal description of something predicted.

With regard to His4Ever’s stance, however, it’s been my own stance that the intent of God comes through in the texts despite the frailties of the human writers, who can and did err in a variety of ways. There are, in fact, numerous instances of preserved controversies where both sides are represented. To avoid going into great depths, consider the fact that the Book of Ruth, giving the account of a young widow, her faith journey and remarriage, can be shown by internal linguistic evidence to have been written in its present form at about the time of the Return from Exile. Now, the extant account of that period is found in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, and one key point they make is the necessity of Jewish men to put away foreign wives (or not take foreign brides if unmarried) in order to preserve the authentic Jewish tradition. Against this stance, the author of Ruth tells the story of a young woman from Moab who marries a son of a Jewish settler in Moab, is widowed along with her sister-in-law and mother-in-law, goes to Judah when her mother-in-law returns there after out of loyalty to her and trust in her God, and ends up marrying a rich landowner and in consequence giving birth to the grandfather of none other than King David, who is conceived of as perhaps the ideal Jewish leader. The refutation of the Ezrahic stance on “marryin’ them furrin wimmen” is quite clear.

Much of the disputes among Christians about what the Bible really says can be resolved by simply reading it in context – what Paul called “rightly dividing Scripture.” Assertions based on an isolated verse, for example, may not be valid when you see what the text surrounding that verse suggests that it means, which may not be precisely what it appears to mean taken in isolation.


I think that the Gospels are pretty easily interpreted to mean whatever one wants them to say.

(emphasis mine)

There are many many books I have read that offer good advice. I think what makes the Bible the Bible is its supposed “correctness.” I find it hard to reconcile the fact that someone might not believe everything, perhaps blaming untruths on human error, but depending on their own human reasoning when deciding what’s true and what’s not.

So, IMO, the Bible can be full of truths, but I personally can’t believe it has “divine truth” (whatever that means). The Bible is open to questioning as is any other source of knowledge, and just because it says it’s all the true word of God doesn’t mean that it actually is. There’s no reason to trust a person who says he or she never lies. You still have no way of knowing if the truth is being told.

Yes; that would be kind of like the liar paradox in reverse.

Further to what Poly said; I’d be grateful if anyone would be kind enough to give us some background regarding how the bible has been viewed through history.

Sure it can. Today, there are over 35,000 different Protestant sects alone of Christianity, not allowing for any of the individual interpretations, and this list is getting larger as time goes on. This division among the pious folk wasn’t caused by reading an isolated verse, but yet, they obviously are not resolved on many of the verses or else there wouldn’t be so many interpretations.


But if it were to be shown, by whatever means, that the book of Ruth is more parable than historical event (ie. if the point behind it is exactly to show that “marryin’ them furrin wimmen” is good/bad/whatever, and that it is not ‘literal truth’ as we would understand it with genuine ‘real’ participants) would it not have serious implications for the entire New Testament project…?

If Ruth didn’t actually exist - some critics have suggested that the book’s style is more that of a fictional novella (although it’s dangerous to use modern literary motifs for ancient works, I know) - then Matthew’s inclusion of her name in a proof of Jesus’ davidian lineage is potentially in error.

And if Jesus is not from David’s line, it would put a dent in his claim to be the messiah and would kinda put a spanner in the rest of the NT.

Part of the problem is that the bible is v self-referential - Jesus’ claims are constantly backed up through reference to ancient scripture, and so to break one section of that chain (ie. the story of Ruth) causes major problems. As Paul wrote (somewhere!), if the historical claims about Jesus are not really and truly real in a definite “non-allegorical sense” then the whole redemption project is without any foundation…

– Quirm