The Errors of Inerrancy: #3 Inerrancy Censors the Bible’s Capacity for Error

The Errors of Inerrancy: #3 Inerrancy Censors the Bible's Capacity for Error[The Errors of Inerrancy: A ten-part series on why Biblical Inerrancy censors the Scriptures and divides Evangelicals.]

The Errors of Inerrancy: #3. Inerrancy Censors the Bible's Capacity for Error.


What harm is there in believing that the Bible might be Inerrant? In most cases, Biblical Inerrancy is a relatively harmless foreign praxis applied to the Holy Scriptures that forces theologians to defend absurd answers to "Bible Difficulties" (e.g. see the preposterous explanations for how the wrong priest was named in Mark 2:26 or how the wrong prophet was cited in Matt 27:9-10). In other cases, this praxis becomes harmful because, by not acknowledging any errors exist in the Scriptures, a theologian is forced to affirm an error (i.e. Bible Difficulty), and then must reorient their entire theology around that error to harmonize with it and avoid admitting the error exists. In the worst cases, Biblical Inerrancy forces theologians to defend detrimental errors in order to avoid admitting that there is an isolated and spurious error in the Scriptures.

For example, Wolfhart Pannenberg believes that the Word of God opposes patriarchy, but he said "that the Biblical tradition has legitimized a patriarchal order of the family" in not only the Old Testament, but also in the New Testament (cf. 1 Cor 14:34, Col 3:18, 1 Pet 3:1, Tit 2:5). According to Pannenberg, these patriarchal verses are in theological error, and patriarchy must be eliminated based by what the Bible teaches about the mutual love of early Christianity and the example of Jesus. To continue to affirm 'Biblical patriarchy' may result in the suppression of women's rights, in the Church and outside the Church. So according to Pannenberg, we must use the Word of God to defeat the errors of Biblical patriarchy!

The existence of errors in the Bible does not mean the Bible is ridden with errors—don't let Biblical Inerrantists deceive you! There are many explanations why these spurious and isolated verses exist in the Bible, but the Word of God opposes them and corrects these errors in these human words of the Holy Scriptures. Biblical Inerrancy forces theologians (and all Christians!) to defend these errors due to its unwillingness to admit that these isolated and spurious verses are in error. Thankfully, many Biblical Inerrantists do not defend these erroneous practices like Biblical Patriarchy, because most resort to the absurd answers to Bible Difficulties (that I previously mentioned) to evade the errors.

In this post, I will explore how the Bible may have a capacity for error that even extends to its theological and religious claims, and why it is an Error of Inerrancy to deny that the Bible has a capacity for error, and to explain how this Error of Biblical Inerrancy censors the Bible.

God Writes Straight, Even In Crooked Lines

Hans Küng summarizes the problem of Biblical Inerrancy concisely in his book, Theology of the Third Millennium, and in the following quotation he explains why the veracity of the Word of God does not depend on the inerrancy of the Scriptures, and in manifold ways, Biblical Inerrancy denies what the Bible says about itself.

As we know, the theory of verbal inspiration and verbal inerrancy was profoundly shaken by the Enlightenment. The historico-critical question, now directed at the books of [sic] the Bible, brought their genuine humanity and historicity to light. In the process, furthermore, the biblical authors' capacity for error became more than clear. . . . For deviation from the truth on historical and scientific questions in no way endangered the authority of Scripture. Rather God accepted the human author with all his weaknesses and mistakes—and reached his goal nevertheless: to teach men and women the "truth" of revelation. . . . The historical-anthropological relativity of Scripture must be taken seriously. Every doctrine of inspiration is limited by the fact that the biblical Scriptures are at the same time wholly human texts by human authors. They have to be measured and relativized by their human authors' gifts and shortcomings, their possibilities for knowledge and error, so that mistakes of the most varied sort cannot be excluded in advance. . . . Only when we recognize that God writes straight even in crooked lines and can reach his goals by way of our humanity and historicity without doing any violence to human beings. . . . We do not have to wash our hands before handling the Bible. The New Testament Scriptures nowhere claim to have fallen directly from heaven; rather they often quite unselfconsciously stress their human origin (along with the Apostolic Letters, Luke 1:2 is especially informative on the subject of how the Gospels came into being). . . . The operations of the Spirit excludes neither obscurity nor confusion, neither limitation nor error. The testimonies recorded in the New Testament have neither the same texture nor the same value. Some are brighter, some darker; some are more intelligible, some less; some are stronger, some weaker; some are more original, some derivative. There are testimonies that can diverge, contrast, and partially contradict one another. They are held together by the fundamental testimony that Jesus Christ has revealed the God who interacts with us. [1]

The Bible has a Capacity for Error

What does it mean to say that the Bible has a "capacity for error"? In the simplest sense, it means that the Word of God is not the exact same thing as the Bible, and the Word of God may not be falsified by an error in the Bible, and when errors are encountered in the Bible, these errors may be corrected by the rest of the Bible—theologians refer to this as material criticism or Sachkritik. Barth said that there is an "indirect identity" between the divine Word of God and the human words of Holy Scripture, therefore this distinction means that the human words of the Bible have a "capacity for error". So there's no need to have a panic attack, if an error is discovered in the Scriptures (like proponents of Biblical Inerrancy) because we may rightly discern the Word of God despite the finitude of the human authors of the Holy Scriptures. And if we do not discern this distinction, we censor the Word of God by the limits of the human words of Scripture.

Karl Barth explains how the Bible has a capacity for error well in this quotation:

"First, there is the truism that we cannot expect or demand a compendium of Solomonic or even divine knowledge of all things in heaven and earth, natural, historical and human, to be mediated to the prophets and apostles in and with their encounter with divine revelation, possessing which they have to be differentiated not only from their own but from every age as the bearers and representatives of an ideal culture and therefore as the inerrant proclaimers of all and every truth. They did not in fact possess any such compendium. Each in his own way and degree, they shared the culture of their age and environment, whose form and content could be contested by other ages and environments, and at certain points can still appear debatable to us. “Man has said what he could”. This means that we cannot overlook or deny it or even alter it. In the biblical view of the world and man we are constantly coming up against presuppositions which are not ours, and statements and judgments which we cannot accept. Therefore at bottom we cannot avoid the tensions which arise at this point. We must reckon with the fact that this may be possible in points of detail, and we must always be ready for it. Instead of talking about the “errors” of the biblical authors in this sphere, if we want to go to the heart of things it is better to speak only about their “capacity for errors.” For in the last resort even in relation to the general view of the world and man the insight and knowledge of our age can be neither divine nor even Solomonic. But fundamentally we certainly have to face the objection and believe in spite of it!" [2]

The Bible's capacity for error also means, that if an insignificant error is found in the Bible, the Word of God continues to be true. When Science demonstrates that the rabbit does not chew the cud (contrary to Lev 11:6) or the Moon is not greater than Saturn (Gen 1:16), then these isolated and insignificant errors do not invalidate the truth of the Bible and they certainly do not falsify the resurrection of Jesus Christ! We may use the Bible to amend itself at times, so that we may discerned the Word of God in the human words of Scripture. The revelation of the Word of God in the witness of the Holy Scriptures is not invalidated by these isolated and insignificant errors. (For instance, John Calvin believed there was an error in a quotation of the Old Testament in Hebrew 11:21, and he believed that this error may be safely ignored because the "Apostles were not so scrupulous in this respect" and since the error may be safely corrected by cross checking the original quotation in 1 Kings 1:47.)

The Bible's Capacity For Error extends to its Religious and Theological content


It is tempting to say that the Bible has a capacity for error only in its scientific claims, but this is not true. The Bible may also contain errors in its theological and religious claims. The Bible does not need us to hide its blemishes, because anytime we suppress the Bible, we may be suppressing the truth. Limiting the Bible's capacity for error to its non-theological and non-religious claims, is like placing training-wheels on the Bible, and although there are times it is useful to simplify the Bible for children, and use tools like Flannelgraphs, however these accommodations should not be mandated by Biblical Inerrancy, and there must come a time when the training wheels of Biblical Inerrancy must be removed from the Bible.

Barth explains how the Bible's capacity for error also extends to its religious and theological content as follows:

"But the vulnerability of the Bible, i.e., its capacity for error, also extends to its religious and theological content. The significance of a fact which was known to the early antiquity weighs on us more heavily to-day than formerly: that in their attestation of divine revelation (from the standpoint of the history of religion) the biblical authors shared the outlook and spoke the language of their own day--and, therefore, whether we like it or not, they did not speak, a special language of revelation radically different from that of their time. On the contrary, at point after point we find them echoing contemporaries in time and space who did not share their experiences and witness, often resembling them so closely that it is impossible to distinguish between them. Not only part but all that they say is historically related and conditioned. It seems to be weakened, and therefore robbed of its character as witness to revelation, by the fact that it has so many 'parallels'." [3]

Martin Luther on the Holy Scriptures and the Word of God


Martin Luther said, "There are two entities: God and the Scripture of God, which are no less than two entities, Creator and creature of God." The human witness of the Holy Scripture and the divine Word of God are two separate entities, and the unity and distinction of these two entities must be simultaneously upheld. In a marriage, it is essential to make to affirm the unity of two persons, but also affirm that there are two persons in unity! Or, it's also essential to affirm the two natures in the one person of Jesus (and that's why monophysitism was declared a heresy by the Ecumenical Councils). Therefore, conflating the Bible and the Word of God, diminishes and censors the Bible. My point is that affirming the unity of the Bible and the Word of God at the expense of the distinction of the Bible and the Word of God, is an Error of Inerrancy!

Biblical Inerrancy prima facie affirms the humanity of the Biblical authors, but denies that the Biblical authors have written in a way common to all other human authors. So the Biblical author's humanity is affirmed, only so far as that humanity is a subset of the divine Word of God. Due the finitude of human language, this calls into question whether God has been revealed at all! Chicago Statement Article IV, demonstrates that the Bible is not a distinct human entities as Luther said: "We deny that human language is so limited by our creatureliness that it is rendered inadequate as a vehicle for divine revelation. We further deny that the corruption of human culture and language through sin has thwarted God's work of inspiration."

In Martin Luther explains to read the Bible, in a way that maintains its distinction and unity with the Word of God, in his preface to James and Jude:

"The true touchstone for testing every book is to discover whether it emphasizes the prominence of Christ or not. All Scripture sets forth Christ (Rom 3:24f) and Paul will know nothing but Christ (1 Cor 2:2). What does not teach Christ is not apostolic, not even if taught by Peter or Paul. On the other hand, what does preach Christ is apostolic, even if Judas, Annas, Pilate, or Herod does it." [4]

I am not ashamed of the Bible's humanity

The Bible is not a divine document that descended from heaven on golden plates, but a collection of human writings born from the witness of the Church witnessing to the Word of God. Similar to Christology, the Bible is fully human and fully divine like the two natures of Jesus. If a preacher preaches the divinity of Jesus at the expense of Jesus' humanity, then he is perpetrator of Doceticism. Inerrancy is not a heresy, but like Doceticism, it diminishes the Bible by denying its humanity. Biblical Inerrancy censors the Bible by not allowing it to have a "capacity for error" and it rejects any theological conclusion that acknowledges errors in the Scriptures. Biblical Inerrancy appears harmless on the surface, but may result in affirming errors to avoid acknowledging errors exist in the Bible.

In conclusion, there's no need to protect the Bible by censoring it's blemishes like the Biblical Inerrantists—ripe fruit has the most blemishes but tastes the best! I'm not ashamed of the gospel, and that includes the humanity of Jesus, the humanity of the Bible, the humanity of the Church, and the humanity of every individual Christian and humanity of all people. In a final word of encouragement, Karl Barth reminds us that the Bible is the revealed Word of God, so the Bible does not need us to defend it and we do not need to protect it—as Paul said, we have this treasure in jars of clay (2 Corinthians 4:7-11).

In a final word of encouragement, we do not need to solve all of the "Bible Difficulties" and we may be comfortable with the humanity of the Bible. If we allow the Bible to have a capacity for error when we interpret it, then the truth will shine more brilliantly in it. This last word is expressed best by Karl Barth when he said,

We are absolved from differentiating the Word of God in the Bible from other contents, infallible portions and expressions from the erroneous ones, the infallible from the fallible, and from imagining that by means of such discoveries we can create for ourselves encounters with the genuine Word of God in the Bible. If God was not ashamed of the fallibility of all the human words of the Bible, of their historical and scientific inaccuracies, their theological contradictions, the uncertainty of their tradition, and, above all, their Judaism, but adopted and made use of these expressions in all their fallibility, we do not need to be ashamed when He wills to renew it to us in all its fallibility as witness, and it is mere self-will and disobedience to try to find some infallible elements in the Bible. But finally we are absolved from having to know and name such the event or events, in which Scripture proves and confirms itself to us as the Word of God. [5]
[^1] Küng, Hans. Theology for the Third Millennium: An Ecumenical View. New York: Doubleday, 1988. 52-58. Print.
[^2] Barth, Karl. Church Dogmatics: The Word of God I/2. Vol. 5. London: T & T Clark, 2010. 52. Print. Study Edition. [508]
[^3] Ibid. 54. [510]
[^4] Martin Luther's preface to James and Jude.
[^5] Ibid. 78-9. [532-3]

The Errors of Inerrancy: A ten-part series on why Biblical Inerrancy censors the Scriptures and divides Evangelicals:

#1 The Church has never possessed an inerrant Bible
#2 Inerrant Original Autographs are a Tautology of Biblical Inerrancy
#3 Inerrancy Censors the Bible’s Capacity for Error 
#4 Inerrancy denies that the Bible contains scientific errors
#5 Inerrancy reduced the Biblical Authors into Ventriloquist Dummies
#6 Inerrancy obscures Jesus with the Bible
#7 Biblical Inerrancy’s Myth-Making Machine, Unveiled 
#8 The Protestant Reformers Would Not Affirm Biblical Inerrancy (Martin Luther, John Calvin, et al.)
#9: Inerrancy turns the Bible into a Paper Pope. 
#10: Biblical Inerrancy Divides Evangelicals

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  1. I am not hyper conservative nor am I an Inerrantist. Critical scholarship works both ways. I agree that the bible has to be understood within its milieu taking into account genere and our own interpretative biases. But I have found that the people that want to pontificate the most about misunderstanding texts have little or no awareness of what other people outside of the academy are really saying about particular subjects. For instance, Hans Kung claims : ‘The operations of the Spirit excludes neither obscurity nor confusion, neither limitation nor error.’ I would bet money that he can’t site single article of St. John’s view of the Holy Spirit (see John 14:25-26 and 15:26-27) that completely contradicts what he said.( Yes, I know that he is an expert. Ha!) I know what the other side is saying and can back up my opinions with facts. So you tell me, who is being scholarly.

    • Hans Kung might not be as charismatic as you desire :). Thanks for reading John!

      • “The Possibility of the knowledge of God springs from God,. in that He is Himself the truth and He gives Himself to Man in His Word by the Holy Spirit to be known as the truth.

        It springs form man, in that in the Son of God by the Holy Spirit, He becomes an object of the divine good-pleasure and therefore participates in the truth of God. ”

        Karl Barth, the Knowability of God , sect. 26

        (I got the quote form Stephen Morrison)

  2. Great posts so far. I recognize my own journey in both this and your previous posts. Painful as it may be – and I know the angst that this sort of stuff can create having come from a tradition with an inerrancy/infallibility foundation – an alternate paradigm is needed to do justice to the Bible as it actually is. For me at least, the deconstruction was characterized at first by reluctance, then by big time cognitive dissonance, then by fear and despair at my inability to force myself to “just believe”, then by a relentless and merciless drive to NOT explain things away, then (after much was in tatters) by a hunger to move forward with a different paradigm. Somehow my faith survived.…I think….but I still find myself in each of these phases at various times.

    There’s so much to say on this topic and it matters immensely at so many different levels. I look forward to the rest of your posts.

    Perhaps you’ll cover these Q’s in future posts:

    Can you elaborate on what you mean by the Bible being both “fully human and fully divine, similar to Christology”? In what ways? And in what ways does that analogy fail? After all, isn’t it an axiom of your argument that the “Word of God” and the Bible are two distinct things?

    More generally, as it relates to your assertions about religious and theological content – and the question that every inerrantist will ask – how are you supposed to determine what is the true “Word of God” within the pages of the Bible and what isn’t? Many verses cannot be said to directly “preach Christ”.

    • Mike,

      Thank you for sharing your experience, it is very similar to my own. Theology can be liberating and also very discouraging. Faith is essential when reading the Bible, and its essential to read the bible in Faith seeking understanding (Anselm), and to be comfortable with rough edges. It’s important to avoid the either/or of Inerrancy, where the Bible is either precise or all lies. Human communication is never precise in that way. So it’s okay to be fearful, or despair at times, or feel necessary to belief despite what you know, and other paradoxes. So Faith seeking understanding has been my guide. Again, thank you for appreciating the series. It’s taken way longer to write than i’d like to admit.

      To Question1: The Bible and the Word of God are two entities, but they are not distinct or united. These two entities have an indirect identity, such that all the human words of the Bible are a witness to the Word of God, such that even specific words matter. All the words of scripture matter, so we don’t start cutting pieces of the Bible out that contradict the Word of God. We keep all the words, and we live with the uncomfortable parts, because they are inseparable. However, there are dimer places in scripture, when set against the brighter places of scripture, must be acknowledged to be in error, contradiction, or incomplete. I highly recommend Karl Barth’s Doctrine of Scripture. It’s in the Church Dogmatics I/2 19-21: This is a christological analogy, because Jesus has two nature: human and divine, and these two nature are in the one person of Jesus. So Jesus is not half man, half god, or fully god, or man becomes god, or any of those comparisons.

      To Question 2: Inerrancy doesn’t evade that same problem either. For instance, the Chicago Statement says “We deny that alleged errors and discrepancies that have not yet been resolved vitiate the truth claims of the Bible.” Inerrancy has Bible Difficulties that presently have no solution. So the truth of the Bible doesn’t depend on any one personally understands how it all fits together. So we work through those problems according to different traditions. The Bible is part of the Tradition of the Church, and the Church is a living witness to the Bible and how it is to be interpreted. So there may be various ways that the Bible is interpreted by the Church’s theologians to interpret what it means. In general, I’m in the reformed church, so reformed theologians have been my guide in understanding how to read the Bible. But I recognize that there are other traditions, such as catholic, orthodox, coptic, etc. that might ultimately be more correct in their interpretations. And sometimes, some churches may interpret a bible in an unexplanable way to me, that only God understands. We are all unified in the person of Jesus, of whom the Bible and the Church witnesses to. So it’s a message of loving others in the Church, even when don’t understand the Bible in teh same way (opposed to the divisiveness of inerrancy). In the end, I generally use Karl Barth and John Calvin and others to guide my understanding of how the Bible witnesses to Jesus.

      Great questions, and thanks for contributing

      • A few follow up thoughts Wyatt. Apologies for the length.

        Re: “belief” – the thing is, I don’t think that “belief” is a matter of the will. You can’t choose to “just believe”. You can say you believe something, or try to act as though you believe something, or try endlessly to convince your brain to believe something, but it just doesn’t work that way. Yes, there is “faith seeking understanding”, although that very “faith” that seeks understanding (depending on what is meant by “faith” of course) is itself based on some sort of “understanding”. But believing “despite what you know” is futile and unsustainable and makes faith a precarious thing.

        Re Question 1:

        I understand the Christological analogy, but I’m wondering how you’re applying this to the Bible. The Christological human/divine analogy doesn’t seem to be how you’re describing the Bible. And I don’t want to just shift the terminology. How does one determine the “dimmer places of scripture” vs. the “the brighter places of scripture”? Does “dimmer” = errant and “brighter” = not errant? That sounds like typical “inerrancy” language to me.

        Is it a matter of quantity of verses? Or based on which verses are “more clear”? A narrative sort of approach that places more emphasis on what is most recent (so the new trumps the old but where something in the OT isn’t explicitly overturned by the NT, the OT still stands as “authoritative”)? The “ceremonial law” fades while the “moral law” stands eternally? Red letters? Etc.

        I happen to think that none of these are sufficient to defend “inerrancy” as it’s defined. They are themselves a hermeneutic. That’s not bad. It just is.

        Re Question 2:

        Yes, I get that an inerrancy hermeneutic masks the same issues, but there are a particular set of issues that result from arguing that there is theological error in the Bible (but that we just aren’t exactly sure what it is) that does invite a lot of questions. Inerrancy certainly hasn’t eliminated pervasive interpretive pluralism and there was no magical moment in history where it did. So it becomes a weapon used for identity marking, boundary keeping, or protecting a particular set of doctrines/moral issues.

        The key word in that Chicago Statement is “alleged”. The implication of qualifying those things as “alleged” is that the “Bible Difficulties” aren’t real – they’re just things that haven’t been resolved YET. Under this assumption, if one were omniscient, all COULD be resolved and harmonized into one monolithic voice of inerrant propositional truth. Per the very nature and purpose of the texts (in this view), there really is no multi-vocality, there is no contradiction, no change, no REAL humanity – the appearance of such things (again within an inerrancy framework) are dismissed as a result of anything from human finitude, to lack of faith or cultural understanding, to flat out moral rebellion, etc.

        But at the end of the day one cannot just stand at 10,000 feet and just talk about the Bible. After all, virtually EVERY Christian will SAY that they have a “Jesus centered hermeneutic”. While those who hold to an inerrant/infallible Bible and those who don’t may have some overlap in what they consider to be “Bible Difficulties”, the way forward is very different between the two.

        I hope that you’ll talk more about what you mean by “Tradition” (with a big T?) in your upcoming posts.

        Thanks again for doing this series. Digging it, and looking forward to future posts.

  3. Interesting article.
    I come from a liberal UMC background but was converted to Christianity at the age of 22. I have since enjoyed (among other things) 9 years of full time minstry as a UMC pastor with a M.Div from a very conservative (and inerrancy supporting) institution.

    I think it boils down to the question of authority. For instance, Luther said that the true test of a text is whether or not it emphasizes Christ. Sure, that sounds nice, but who is he that we should ascribe to his idea? Luther is just a dead guy who had an idea that may or may not be valid.
    In turn, the inerrancy crowd turns to inerrancy in all is different forms to make Scripture the authority. To claim that the Bible has errors inevitably leads to distrust, however small. If Luke can’t be trusted in the details, how can we trust him with the “biggies”? But on what basis can we say that the Scripture is inerrant? What is our argument for such a big claim?

    I have come to appreciate the term “Incarnational inerrancy”, which I take to mean that the Bible is without error in the obvious and open message it is trying to convey. In other words, God wasn’t teaching astronomy to the ancient Israelites when he told them about creation. He was teaching them his supremacy and being the Creator. Thus, the inerrancy is in the text -in what it tries to convey-. This doesn’t mean that all difficulties fall away. Sometimes I believe science has to take a back seat to revelation. For instance, it is scientifically impossible for the sun to go back “seven steps” or to stand still. It is impossible for an axe-head to float. But here and elsewhere the message is clearly not one of parable or metaphor…so we are left with a miracle we can’t explain.

    Which is fine, if we use the second term I have come to use. The Bible is -trustworthy- because Christ did rise from the grave and Christ spoke of the Bible as true and perfect. Otherwise he surely would have corrected it in all these tricky OT verses, right? It is illogical to imagine a perfect and good God in Jesus leaving us with large and important texts that are false.

    And…we can know that Christ rose from the dead not only from the Biblical texts but from reason, historical studies, etc.. So, inerrancy is alive and well with me but only as far as the message of the text and how the authors were led to convey God’s message to us.

  4. This has been well worth the time in reading.Thanks very much for the topic.

  5. What a crock of shite. Inerrancy all the way!

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