The idea that every word of the Bible is true is often called “inerrancy,” meaning that the Bible is free from error. This belief is very common in the United States. A 2007 Gallup poll showed that “About one-third of the American adult population believes the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally word for word.” On the other hand, about half of Americans believe that the Bible “is the inspired word of God but that not everything it in should be taken literally.”
Importantly, “Some denominations hold the belief in a literal Bible as a hallmark of their faith. The statement of ‘Faith and Mission’ of the Southern Baptist Convention, for example, states that: ‘The Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired and is God’s revelation of Himself to man. It is a perfect treasure of divine instruction. It has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter. Therefore, all Scripture is totally true and trustworthy.’”
Similarly, the influential minister Rick Warren writes in The Purpose-Driven Life that “What we need is a perfect standard that will never lead us in the wrong direction. Only God’s Word meets that need. Solomon reminds us, ‘Every word of God is flawless,’ and Paul explains, ‘Everything in the Scriptures is God’s word. All of it is useful for teaching and helping people and for correcting them and showing them how to live.’”
Warren continues, urging his readers to “Resolve that when God says to do something, you will trust God’s Word and do it whether or not it makes sense or you feel like doing it” (p. 187).
Biblical literalists are often stereotyped as uneducated and unintelligent. But with tens of millions of Americans believing that everything in Scripture is true, there are obviously a great many smart and well-informed individuals who accept inerrancy. Certainly Rick Warren himself has a fine mind.
Even so, I am going to suggest that there is essentially no chance at all that inerrancy is correct. How can this be, when so many competent people accept this doctrine?
Here’s an even harder question: How can I myself write off Biblical literalism when I have stated that “Whenever significant numbers of sincere and competent people persistently disagree, one suspects that the truth remains unknown”? (Do Think Twice: Provocative Reflections on Age-Old Questions, p. 51.) If that’s true, then literalism must at least be a valid option.
Not necessarily. In some cases lots of very bright people believe something that just isn’t so. So let’s consider why so many accept inerrancy. Are they all Biblical scholars? Have they read the whole Bible through, in the original languages? Obviously not, and it would be silly to expect that of the average churchgoer. So why do they think this book is not only God’s Word, but in a sense, Gods words?
I’m going to mention four reasons, and suggest that all of these suffer from one huge problem.
Many people believe that every word of the Bible is true because:
1. Reading the Bible inspires them and guides their lives in helpful ways.
2. They love their church, and their church endorses literalism.
3. People they greatly respect teach that the Bible is word-for-word correct – friends, family members, writers, ministers, and lay leaders.
4. To say that some of this book is inspired and some is not would be complicated and confusing. God wouldn’t make such a muddle.
I can absolutely understand the appeal of these ideas, but here’s the catch:
This way of thinking about the Bible would justify all sorts of other religions and religious books that disagree with Christian Scripture.
Consider Islam. Muslims view the Koran as the ultimate holy book. They also accept the divine inspiration of Jewish and Christian scriptures, but if there is a contradiction between the Bible or the Torah and the Koran, the Koran wins.
With just as much sincerity as Christians who love the Bible, Muslims could say that:
1. Reading the Koran inspires them and guides their lives in helpful ways.
2. They love their Muslim community, and their imam teaches that the Koran was dictated to Muhammad by an angel of God.
3. People they greatly respect teach that the Koran is word-for-word correct – friends, family members, writers, and spiritual leaders.
4. To say that some of the Koran is inspired and some is not would be complicated and confusing. Allah would not make such a muddle.
But since the Bible and the Koran sometimes contradict each other, it’s impossible for both of these books to be literally true.
Furthermore, in ancient times there were religions that contained beliefs that neither Christians nor Muslims would accept today. And yet these obsolete religions also inspired their followers and provided communities that were helpful and comforting. But that doesn’t show that their scriptures expressed the voice of their god(s).
Here’s a good test: If following a certain line of reasoning makes it possible to prove things you know aren’t so, watch out!
In short, accepting Biblical literalism because the Bible is inspiring, because attending church is helpful, because people we respect teach literalism, and because rejecting literalism would be confusing would also justify accepting other books that contradict the Bible. That can’t be right.
Let me emphasize: I realize it’s easier to just accept everything in the Bible (or at least to tell ourselves we do) rather than decide for ourselves which verses reflect deep wisdom and which do not. But I just don’t think it works.
My next entry will include an example of a Bible passage that was certainly not inspired by God.
Roger Christan Schriner