Biblical inerrancy and the word of God


Biblical inerrancy and the word of God


Wednesday, January 08, 2020

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I guess for many Christians it does no violence to their peace of mind at the beginning of a new year to reflect on a subject as mundane and non-sexy as that of the inerrancy of the Bible. There are those who are obsessed with the subject, and perhaps it is not a bad thing to do some rumination on it at this time.

Let us admit at the outset that the Bible is a very human book written by flawed human beings. Like every bit of human writing, it is a product of finite, human minds given to fallibility and prone to errors, biases, judgements, and inaccuracies.

The Bible as an ancient text would not escape textual and linguistic stylisations which would show up errors in its texts. If we were to insist on the purity, saintliness, or divine properties of those who wrote the Bible, we would have got largely flawed and inauthentic texts as the critics insist.

But the Bible reveals men and women wrestling with the concept of the divine and within the limitations of their finite minds purporting to write as they felt inspired to do.

To argue that the biblical text is not to be believed because it is tainted by the flawed nature of men and women is tantamount to what Jesus accused the Pharisees of doing — straining at gnats and swallowing a camel. If one goes with this logic then the entire Bible would have to be discarded. For example, the Pentateuch (first five books of the Old Testament), whose author is believed to be Moses, would have to be discarded since Moses was a murderer who killed an Egyptian and fled for his life, and was shown consistently to disobey God.

The Wisdom writings (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Songs of Songs, and so on) attributed to Solomon would suffer a similar fate. Not to mention almost two-thirds of the New Testament books that were written by St Paul, who was known to be a murderer of Christians. He was converted on the Damascus Road as he went on one of his self-righteous journeys to harass the followers of “the Nazarene”.

None of the writers claimed any special divine authority. The fact that they were inspired by the Holy Spirit does not mean that God dictated to them what they should write. Inspiration simply means “God-breathed”, which means that they were moved in the depths of their beings by what they had come to know about God and his activity in human affairs, and felt stimulated to write what they had come to know. Some of the writers, like Isaiah and St Paul, were brilliantly creative in their apprehension of the message they had received and wrote with a beauty and passion not easily equalled in other contemporary writings. I still believe that the King James Version of the Bible captures the best of such presentation of the writings of the prophet Isaiah and of St Paul, especially in his epistle to the Romans.

They never claimed to be saints or persons above human fault. In fact, Paul declared himself in one of his epistles as the chief of all sinners. So, God-breathed is different from God-directed. As God's spirit moves over a person there is tremendous freedom to write or speak as inspired. God did not and still does not take a person's finger as you do a toddler and help that person to write. The writer is not an automaton in the hands of God. Neither does he direct what is written. I would like to think that whenever I am in my study or under my mango tree — a place of true inspiration for me — preparing a sermon or writing a body of literature that God is breathing on me, stimulating and filling me as I get wrapped up in what is being opened up to me.

This is where inerrancy of scripture falls short. For to believe that there is no error in the Bible is to give the impression that God dictated what was written. When discrepancies of the sort pointed out by biblical critics are seen, naturally it is not only the writer who is despised, but God. I would urge people not to get too bogged down, distracted, or dissuaded by obvious discrepancies in ancient texts. The fact that one gospel writer may have some discrepancy with another certainly does not do any violence to the intrinsic authority of the gospel message. It is the message that is of premier importance in the mind of the writer, not whether a statement was made in a particular way or whether it passed a linguistic smell test.

When one really understands the Bible one cannot help but being impressed by the remarkable unity of its message from Genesis to Revelation. What this message bears witness to is God's activity with respect to the creation, redemption, and sanctification of humankind. This is the theme that runs throughout the Bible with unerring accuracy. This is what its unity is based on; not on a few textual insertions, variations, forms, or linguistic aberrations detected in a text or passage. We should not get distracted by these for they do no injury to the divine, salvific intention of God.

In saying all this I am in agreement with those who criticise a literalist interpretation of the Bible and use proof texts to beat people over the head. This is just as dangerous as throwing the Bible through the window because of obvious discrepancies in various passages. We must all get to the point at which we see the all-encompassing love of God in the creation of his people, their redemption, and growth towards holiness as they seek to serve him. It is living out the implications of the revolutionary message of love that should be at the centre of our thoughts. I hope this will be so in 2020.

Dr Raulston Nembhard is a priest and social commentator. Send comments to the Observer or

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