Abandoning Inerrancy: Authoritarianism and the Journey to Freedom

Like many in the south, I grew up in a church that placed high value on the Bible. As the the inspired Word of God, it was considered factually inerrant and demanded a strict literal reading. It was as if God had dictated the contents of the Bible to passive secretaries who wrote in a way that precluded errors of any kind, including scientific or historical inaccuracies. Devoid of all humanity, this book was God breathed and perfect.

Armed with this view, Christians could simply quote a specific chapter and verse and then claim with confidence, “God said it, I believe it, and that’s the end of it!” There was no need to wrestle with counter-arguments or to give reasons why your interpretation was better than another. There was no need to identify the type of literature you were reading or to learn anything about the life and times of the original audience. There was no need to prayerfully discern which parts of the Bible communicated God’s enduring message and which parts were reflective of evolving human culture. In fact, many would deny they were interpreting the Bible at all, but simply quoting God’s Word, the meaning of which should be obvious to anyone with real faith.

This way of understanding the nature of scripture created problems for me as I got older. For example, when my 9th grade biology teacher introduced the idea of evolution, I remember people saying things like, “Don’t believe that garbage. We didn’t come from monkeys. The Bible says that God created Adam on the sixth day of creation and any claims to the contrary are wrong. You have to accept God’s Word over man’s word.” The challenges only grew as I moved through high school and college.

I eventually started to feel like I had to choose between being a real Christian and accepting what I was learning in class. Being a real Christian meant reading the Bible as the factually inerrant Word of God, and this interpretation necessarily conflicted with modern science and history. Since faith required me to choose God’s Word over human words, I felt pressured to reject–out of hand–the Big Bang, the theory of evolution, carbon dating, and the historical method of inquiry. I was also expected to affiliate with a specific political party and ideologically submit to their talking points.

But these authoritarian claims did not ring true to my experience, and I got this scary feeling that the religion of my youth was wrong about many things. However, because I knew no other way to interpret the Bible, I tried to deny my internal conflicts for a long time, pretending that the teachings of the church worked fine in real life. This created what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance.” Instead of an integrated life characterized by peace, I was riddled with internal conflicts and anxiety.

Looking back, I was not living an authentic life. By denying important questions that sprang from rational reflection on my experience, I was denying my true self. But things began to change when I started taking religion and philosophy classes at Florida Southern College.

The transformation didn’t happen all at once. In fact, I entered FSC as a combative fundamentalist, ready to argue against the onslaught of heresy being propagated by my liberal professors. It took time to build trust and drop my defenses, something that happened as my theology professor, Dr. Waite Willis, counseled me through some painful personal problems. I experienced his genuine care as an expression of God’s love and acceptance, which left me thinking, “My professors are not trying to hurt me, they are encouraging me to build a more authentic faith that matches my reason and experience.” Finding a safe place to wrestle with difficult questions opened my mind to new ways of understanding the Bible. This was a humbling and freeing experience.

And once the damn broke, it gushed for years. I became passionate about biblical and theological studies, reading one book after another as if trying to make-up for lost time. I wrote more papers than I can remember, trying to articulate a faith that integrated what I was learning in religion, philosophy, science, history, psychology, and sociology. Although it was a long and sometimes scary process, I was progressively set free from the authoritarianism of the church (along with its fear of going to hell). I came to believe that God is the source of all truth—sacred and secular—and that I didn’t have to be afraid to learn new things that challenged old ideas.

Looking back, these experiences probably saved my faith. If I had not learned a new way of reading the Bible that helped me deal with my doubts and internal conflicts, I may have walked away from Christianity altogether.

After experiencing this transformation, I was flabbergasted when I realized how few of my colleagues were teaching these ideas in their churches. Candidates in ministry would get a world-class education, learn sophisticated ways of interpreting scripture, get ordained, take a church, and then preach and teach as if they had never been to seminary! Why were they assuming a pre-critical, literalistic reading of the Bible and propagating a 4th grade Sunday school class theology? Why weren’t they sharing with their churches the gifts that set them free and deepened their faith?

The answer was simple: fear.

These pastors knew from experience the difficulty of traveling the path of change. They understood that most people upon hearing new religious ideas—especially new ideas about the Bible—would initially have a defensive reaction. Why? Because when everything we have always believed is called into question, it’s disruptive and destabilizing. When new ideas emerge to challenge old ways of thinking, most people feel threatened, which triggers a fight or flight response. You either fight for the old ideas by ferociously rejecting the possibility of something new, or you run away from the new ideas and bury your head in the sand.

As pastors try to share new ideas that lead to deeper spiritual insights, they face many challenges. It takes time and energy (in an already busy schedule) to do your research, think through the issues, and make good arguments supported by evidence. It is difficult, and sometimes painful, to endure defensiveness and stay in conversation with people who lash out in fear and anger. It hurts when people reject you as a heretic and break fellowship. Change is hard, and even though it promises a more authentic existence, the process of getting there is messy, anxious, and painful.

It is this in-between time that pastors fear the most, the time between the presentation of new ideas and a potential spiritual awakening. As people experience the birth pangs of anxiety, pastors fear that people will leave their church.

(This fear is exacerbated by the capitulation of many pastors to the worldly standards of success. See my articles “How the Devil Directs a Pastor’s Prayer: Careerism and the Corruption of Our Calling” and “Compelled to Control: Is the Success Culture Destroying Christianity?“)

Pastors, you should not live-out your calling to ministry in fear, nor should you treat members of your congregation as children when it comes to the Bible and matters of faith. While we know that the path to transformation is scary, we have been privileged to make the journey ourselves, and God calls us back to the church to proclaim that the struggle is worth it.

It’s worth wrestling with the fear that you might be wrong. It’s worth the grief that comes from letting go of old ideas that don’t work anymore. It’s worth time spent in the spiritual desert when old religious ideas have vanished and no new beliefs have yet to take root.

People in the church need to know that being a Christian is not about blindly assenting to authoritarian preachers that require you to deny your experience, repress your questions, and check your brain at the door. They need to know that following Jesus is not about embracing an inerrant view of scripture, denying science, or excluding LGBTQ persons. (It is this view of Christianity that has led to a mass exodus of Millennials from our churches.)

Rather, we are called to teach them that true faith is about a life-long journey that includes work, study, conversation, and ongoing struggle, a challenging journey that leads (through the mystery of grace) to a deep spiritual transformation characterized by love, peace, joy, and inclusion.

My prayer is that pastors will find the courage, strength, and hope to share the gifts of their own experience in ways that open the path of transformation to the people who are looking to them for spiritual leadership.


Helpful Resources:

Fundamentalism and Mainline Christianity

I’ve recently been telling different groups of people that the United Methodist Church is a mainline, not fundamentalist, denomination (although some of our pastors prove to be unfortunate exceptions). I assumed that people knew what I meant, but they didn’t understand the terms I was using. I tried to remedy this problem in an email to a friend, and my wife suggested that others might be interested in my response. What is written below is the beginning of a sketch outlining some main ideas. I know it is limited, but I’m also hoping that it will be helpful.

Fundamentalism is grounded in a specific view of scripture. Adherents typically embrace (usually unwittingly) a theory of divine inspiration developed by a Presbyterian Princeton professor named Charles Hodge in the 1800s. The technical name of the theory is Plenary Verbal Inspiration, and it basically teaches that every word of the Bible is historically, scientifically, and factually infallible or inerrant. In the imaginations of some, it’s as if God dictated the Bible and human beings served merely as passive secretaries. This view erases the humanity of the biblical authors and focuses almost exclusively on God giving us a perfect and divine book. Furthermore, according to fundamentalists, a strict literal reading is the only correct way to interpret the Bible (and some would say that they are not even interpreting but simply reciting the Word of God). In this way, the Bible is pitted against modern science and historiography, and being a “real” Christian means rejecting what science teaches about cosmology, evolutionary biology, archaeology, etc.

The final step is to say, “Our way of understanding inspiration and how to interpret the Bible is the truth, and, therefore, the only legitimate way of thinking.” Do you see the subtle shift? They slip from biblical infallibility into assuming that their theory about infallibility is infallible! Furthermore, these truths are to be protected at all costs from any competing theories or interpretations, which are invariably seen as corruptions or heresies. People who hold different views (and there are many) are to be corrected, converted, or excluded. Fear of false teaching leads fundamentalists to study apologetics from other fundamentalists so they can mount what they believe to be incontrovertible arguments, and the only proper response to these arguments is, “I have seen the light and you are right!” Any push back leads to more forceful arguments, sometimes buttressed by the threat of eternal hell, in a last attempt at conversion. If the person with a different view does not convert, then they are excluded from the community of true Christians (if not physically then theologically and/or socially). So the key elements are:

1. We have the only true understanding of the inspiration of scripture and the only proper way of interpreting the Bible. All other views are necessarily wrong.

2. If you don’t agree then you must be corrected with arguments, converted with threats of hell, or excluded as a corruptor of the true faith.

In stark contrast, mainline Christians believe that God inspired human beings to record the words of scripture, but didn’t erase or bypass their humanity in the process. God worked in, through, and with their humanity to communicate what is necessary for our salvation. This means that the divine message of the Bible is communicated through the human words of the authors, and these words emerged from their own personal and corporate experiences of God. In short, God does not need a perfect, inerrant, infallible book to effectively communicate with us.

Mainline Christians often point out that the Bible is not the Word of God—Jesus is the Word of God (John 1), and the reason the Bible is important is because through its words (in the power of the Holy Spirit) we encounter the risen Christ. Given the ways that fundamentalists erase the humanity of the Bible, some mainline and liberal Christians accuse fundamentalists of “bibliolatry” (turning the Bible into an idol).

Once you acknowledge the humanity of the biblical authors and the Bible itself, you can also see that it is not a single author book. It is a library of books written by many people, living in different cultures, who spoke different languages, and wrote in different genres over the course of 100s of years. Instead of insisting that every letter of every word of the Bible is literal and factual (in terms of history and science), we can begin to discern different genres, and different genres warrant different interpretive methods. So we read the historical parts differently than the poetic parts (e.g. the Psalms), and we read the poetic parts differently than the gospels, and we read gospels differently than letters, and we read letters differently than apocalyptic, etc. In all of this, we realize that the Bible is a religious text, not a modern historiography or science book. A fortunate consequence is that Christianity does not have to be an enemy of the natural and social sciences, but can engage them as conversation partners from whom we have much to learn.

Finally, another significant difference between fundamentalists and mainline Christians is that mainline Christians uphold intellectual humility as a virtue. We insist that we are not saved by our interpretation of scripture or by having the right theory of inspiration. We are saved because God loves us and offers the gift of reconciliation through forgiveness. This means that we are not required to have all the answers, that we can hold our theories and interpretations loosely, acknowledging that we could be wrong. At the end of the day, God is greater than anyone can conceive and we are all rendered speechless before the divine mystery. Part of faith is learning to be comfortable with the fact that we don’t have all the answers, which allows us to trust God and relax into God’s mysterious and active presence.

Consequently, we don’t feel compelled to proselytize and convert people. Only God converts people, and this usually happens over a long period of time. All that Christians are called to do is live like Jesus and share their stories, allowing people to draw their own conclusions as the Spirit leads. All of this happens in the awareness that creation is floating in a sea of grace and that God is working with us on God’s own timeline.

For an accessible introduction to a United Methodist view of scripture, see Adam Hamilton’s book, Making Sense of the Bible. For a more academic read, see the articles on my website under the heading, “Course in Understanding the Bible.”

The Bible Is Not Infallible: Destabilizing Plenary Inspiration (Course in Understanding the Bible)

This is the first essay in a collection entitled, A Course in Understanding the Bible. The full collection is organized as follows:

  1. The Bible is Not Infallible: Destabilizing Plenary Inspiration
  2. Going Fishing with Grandpa and Learning to Tell the Truth
  3. God Did Not Write the Bible: The Formation of Scripture
  4. Why the Bible is Important to Christians: Rethinking Scripture and Inspiration
  5. All Reading Is Interpretation: The Application of Perspective in Biblical Meaning


Who Can Argue with God? 

Have you ever disagreed with someone about a complex moral issue only to have them dismiss your perspective with simplistic Bible quotations? I had this experience recently after an interview on a local Christian radio station. When my thirty minute spot was over, the host invited me to stay and meet the pastor scheduled for the following segment. A few minutes later, a man wearing a big smile and hipster clothes enter the studio and cracked a joke in reference to the group of people that would be the subject of his one hour talk—homosexuals. His joking demeanor quickly turned angry as he derided Christians who were not throwing down the gauntlet in vehement, public condemnation of the Supreme Court decision granting marriage equality to gay and lesbian people. He even singled out evangelical pastor, T.D. Jakes, saying that he was “more black than Christian” when he voted for Obama, and that his “soft” public response to the court’s ruling showed that he was more interested in “padding his wallet” than telling the truth about homosexuality.

I was sincerely ashamed by the divisive tone of this pastor, which was fortified by ideological politics and a naïve understanding of the inspiration of scripture. I did not want to be associated with this conversation and planned to leave during the first commercial break. But before I could exit, the guest pastor asked me what I thought about this issue. Experience has taught me that arguing with people who already think they have God’s definitive answer is an exercise in futility. So I simply replied that many Christians wrestle with this issue and arrive at different conclusions. He responded by asking how someone could claim to be a Christian and not believe what is clearly written in God’s word.

Like many people who have been influenced by various strands of American fundamentalism, this pastor assumed that he was simply reciting the literal, infallible, inerrant Word of God. He was not expressing his view but God’s view, and there was no possibility that he could be wrong. Anyone offering an alternative interpretation was contradicting the very mind of God and corrupting the Christian faith with selfish motives. This Pastor did not understand himself to be an interpreter of scripture in service to the community of faith, but as a spokesman for God almighty. His claims were not only devoid of spiritual humility, but were also ironic insofar as they assumed a theory of inspiration that is not required by scripture. As this pastor claimed unmediated access to the infallible word of God, he was unaware of the interpretive glasses resting on his nose that were fashioned not by God but by nineteenth-century American theologians like Charles Hodge.

This article is not about homosexuality, it is about the inspiration of scripture. My goal is to destabilize plenary verbal inspiration and claims of biblical infallibility in order to make room for an alternative view (which will be articulated in subsequent articles). I will proceed by giving a brief history of this doctrine as articulated by one of its staunchest defenders, Charles Hodge, and then offer some general observations that raise serious questions about biblical inerrancy. Although both parts of the article make important points in support of the main argument, part two can be read independently by those not interested in the history of the doctrine at issue.

Part I: A Brief History of Plenary Inspiration in the Theology of Charles Hodge

During the seventeen and eighteenth centuries, groundbreaking discoveries in geology, evolutionary biology, and historical criticism challenged some of the church’s teachings about the Bible. At a more philosophical level, devastating critiques were leveled by intellectual powerhouses like Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud. In light of such challenges, the dominant trend of Protestant theology in the nineteenth-century was inherently subjective. According to this trend, human access to the divine comes in and through human experience. Examples of this can be found in the works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Friedrich Schleiermacher, and Horace Bushnell. The general orientation of these theologians in relationship to philosophy and science was one of engagement. Their goal was to generate fresh interpretations of Christianity that were intellectually honest in the context of an emerging critical consciousness.

However, there were a minority of theologians who were suspicious of this subjective turn. They argued that this approach inevitably led to the triumph of human reason over biblical and confessional authority, which could be seen in the development of theistic rationalism and the emotional religion of American revivalism. In light of these concerns, scholastic Protestant theologians focused on securing their religious dogma from threats issued by philosophy and science, especially historical-criticism. Instead of a posture of engagement, they sought to defend their traditions by (ironically) turning inward to provincial confessions of faith, which they assumed would ground their theology in objective truth. One of their main apologetic strategies in this endeavor was to develop a theory of inspiration that endowed the Bible with infallibility. This brief historical survey will focus on Princeton theologian, Charles Hodge, because his theory of plenary verbal inspiration became axiomatic in the development of American fundamentalism, and because the central ideas of his theory continue to shape the interpretation of scripture in fundamentalist and evangelical churches today.

I do not assume that Charles Hodge was the first person to claim biblical infallibility. This general idea was implicit in the early church fathers and developed more fully by Reformers like John Calvin. But a few important points should be considered before we jump to the false conclusion that the church universal has always embraced the theory articulated by Hodge. First, while the general idea of biblical infallibility might be implicit in what Edward Farley and Peter Hodgson describe as “the scripture principle,” the Bible itself does not require us to accept a theory of plenary inspiration (Hodgson and King, Christian Theology: An Introduction to Its Traditions and Tasks, 66).  In fact, the prophetic traditions in scripture can be appropriated to raise serious questions about any theory claiming perfect knowledge of the mind of God.  Second, although some of the early church fathers and Reformers assumed a general idea of scriptural infallibility, their literal truth claims were always held in tension with symbolic interpretations of the Bible. For example, Clement of Alexandria and Origen openly admitted that the literal sense of various biblical passages was demonstrably erroneous, repulsive, or unedifying, requiring a moral, mystical, or spiritual reading (69). This led to allegorical interpretations of the Bible, which were further developed by theologians like Augustine of Hippo. This same tension between a literal-infallible and spiritual-symbolic reading can be found in most of the Reformers, including Luther and Calvin in the sixteenth-century. Granting these historical facts, it is important to remember that these theologians assumed a pre-modern worldview and should not be uncritically parroted as if the Enlightenment didn’t happen. Sometimes the Christian tradition gets it wrong.

What is clear is that the theory verbal plenary inspiration articulated by Hodge didn’t fall from heaven, nor was this theory embraced by the universal Church in every age. It was developed by an eighteenth-century Protestant theologian at Princeton Seminary who was trying to fend off the external threats of Enlightenment infidelity and resolve internal conflicts within the American Presbyterian church (James C. Livingston, Modern Christian Thought: Volume 1: The Enlightenment and the Nineteenth Century, 300-302).

As we survey the brief history of this doctrine, it is important to note that Hodge did not start with the Bible per se. He started with an unwavering commitment to a conservative Calvinist confessionalism, which he assumed was important for a faithful theological interpretation of the Bible. According to Hodge, this confessionalism was given authoritative expression by the late seventeenth-century Genevan theologian, Francis Turretin (1623-1687), whose primary goal was to defend Calvinist orthodoxy as articulated in three foundational documents: John Calvin’s Catechism (1545), the Second Helvetic Confession (1566), and the Canons of the Synod of Dort (1619). In addition to the doctrines of election and reprobation, plenary inspiration and the inerrancy of scripture were essential teachings in this confessionalism. So instead of defending his theology with unmediated access to divine truth, Hodge’s understanding of the authority, inspiration, and use of scripture was strongly influenced by the Calvinist confessionalism of Turretin. Hodge’s unwavering commitment to the inerrancy of scripture did not emerge from a close reading of the Bible but from his desire to defend a particular theological tradition. Hodge began with the conclusion that the Bible was infallible and then set out to prove why this was the case.

Ironically, Hodge developed his views in opposition to Enlightenment infidelity by appealing to Enlightenment philosophy and science! Specifically, he drew from Scottish Common Sense Realism and the scientific method espoused by Francis Bacon in an attempt to ground his ideas in objective truth. As would become evident in the twentieth-century, this was a failed attempt to “beat them at their own game.” In his very effort to establish theology as an independent discipline grounded in objective truth, he rendered theology dependent upon Baconian empiricism, which would later prove to be devastating to the very ideas he so vigorously tried to defend.

In an effort to secure the infallibility of the Bible according to the inductive principles of scientific realism, Hodge was forced to construe scripture as a collection of facts that could be assessed, organized, and theorized. He argues, “the Bible is to the theologian what nature is to the man of science. It is his store house of facts; and his method of ascertaining what the Bible teaches, is the same as that which the natural philosopher adopts to ascertain what nature teaches” (Hodge, Systematic Theology I.1, 10).

In an attempt to defend his assumed conclusion of the inerrancy of scripture, Hodge married theology to a philosophy of science that forced him to reduce the Bible to a compendium of facts dictated by God to infallible communicators. This was necessary to make his theological apologetic work. It was not that the Bible itself required a doctrine of divine ventriloquism. Rather, it was Hodge’s own ideological commitments to a certain brand of Calvinism and a fear of “liberalism” that compelled him to secure his project by two-timing lady Enlightenment in defense of a perfect book.

Hodge is clear about what plenary verbal inspiration requires of all Christians. He argues that belief in Christ requires faith in the Bible as the word of God, “and faith in the Scriptures as the word of God, is faith in their plenary inspiration. That is, the persuasion that they are not the product of the fallible intellect of man, but the infallible intellect of God . . . in saying that the Bible is the word of God, we mean that he is its author; that he says whatever the Bible says; that everything which the Bible affirms to be true is true     . . . the Bible is the product of one mind [i.e., God]” (Charles Hodge, “Inspiration,” Biblical Repository and Princeton Review, XXIX (October 1857), 661-663).

The spirit of God verbally dictates divine facts and propositions to passive secretaries who are given the miraculous power of infallibility, precluding the possibility of any conceivable error in communication. This guarantees that the Bible is inerrant not only in content but in the very words used to communicate that content. This means that every part of the Bible is fully inspired; there can be no difference or degrees of truth or authority between one part of the text and another (what theologians call “leveling”). Every single letter in every single word in every single sentence in both testaments is equally inspired and infallible, not only in matters of religion and morality but also of history and science.


Part II: The Bible Is Not Infallible

In what follows, I do not offer rigorous arguments supported by multiple examples proving that plenary inspiration is a bad theory. Countless other scholars have already done this with overwhelming evidence. Those interested in a more detailed analysis can choose from a plethora of scholarly introductions to the Bible, and those not interested because of an ideological commitment to biblical inerrancy will find such arguments unconvincing anyway. Rather, I will offer some general observations that have become common sense in contemporary biblical scholarship. Furthermore, giving multiple examples to support these general observations is unnecessary because the primary goal of this article is simply to destabilize plenary inspiration. Based on the very logic of the theory itself, this can be done by merely demonstrating a single error. If it can be shown that the Bible is mistaken regarding any of its factual claims then plenary inspiration as articulated by theologians like Charles Hodge goes out the window. And if supporters of inerrancy respond by claiming that only parts of the Bible are fully inspired, then they surrender the warrants and backings of plenary inspiration that give their claims rational coherence. The only way forward would be to develop a new theory showing what parts of the Bible are infallible and which ones are not, along with enough evidence to overturn the scholarly consensus that biblical infallibility is laughable. Regardless of the reader’s assessment of the historical survey above, the general insights below should be sufficient to raise serious questions about the theory at issue.   

The Bible Is Not Infallible Regarding Scientific Claims. It is common knowledge in biblical studies that people living in ancient Israel assumed that the world existed in three parts. As can be seen in the illustration below, the earth was thought to be a flat disc sitting atop a cosmic ocean supported by great pillars below mountains. In addition to these cosmic waters below, they also imagined that there were “waters above” held at bay by a solid dome in the sky. Rain fell to the earth when the windows in the firmament were opened by God. One example that illustrates this is the story of the flood as recorded in Genesis 7:11-12: “In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life . . . all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened. The rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights” (NRSV). The dwelling place of God (heaven) existed beyond the waters in the sky, and the realm of the dead (Sheol) was directly below the surface of the earth.

Biblical Worldview

A close reading of the creation accounts in Genesis 1-2 shows that the authors assumed this ancient worldview. Consider, for example, the way God created by separating the waters from dry land. First, God separated the waters on the earth from the waters in the sky by creating the solid firmament: “And God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.’ So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky” (Genesis 1:6-8a). Then God separated the waters on earth from dry land: “And God said, ‘Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.’ And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas” (Genesis 1:9-10a). The biblical authors also assumed that the sun and moon revolved around the earth, as can be seen in Joshua’s answered prayer while waging battle against the Amorites: “And the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, until the nation took vengeance on their enemies. Is this not written in the Book of Jashar? The sun stopped in midheaven, and did not hurry to set for about a whole day” (Joshua 10:13).

Based on what we know from modern science, this ancient cosmology is patently false. The creation accounts in Genesis are not infallible in their factual claims for a three-storied world, a flat earth, a solid firmament, and an underworld below and heaven above. Of course, the biblical authors didn’t lie about these things, but simply drew on the best resources available in the ancient world to express their conviction that God created the world with purpose, meaning, and value. One of these resources was a collection of Babylonian creation myths called The Enûma Eliš. This is just one example of how some biblical claims contradict external sources in modern science.

The infallibility of the Bible is also called into question by internal contradictions related to such matters. The most obvious is the fact that there are two different creation accounts in Genesis (cf. 1:1-2:4a and 2:4b-24). People who have an ideological commitment to infallibility and insist on reading Genesis literally employ all kinds of hermeneutical gymnastics in an attempt to harmonize these two accounts into one grand narrative. But the fact that we have two different creation accounts that resist harmonization raises serious questions about the theory of plenary inspiration and the infallibility of scripture.

This brings us to an important point: the Bible is not a modern science book. The creation accounts in Genesis are etiological stories, and to read them literally as scientific accounts is to misidentify their genre and perpetuate anachronism. Furthermore, when our interpretive goal is to harmonize two different creation stories and make them conform to a modern worldview, we unwittingly eclipse the main theological ideas that the authors were trying to communicate through the narratives. We engage in the exercise of missing the point.

The Bible Is Not Infallible Regarding Historical Claims. This general idea is also supported by internal and external evidence. Internally, there are countless contradictions in the Bible when read as a compendium of historical facts. In addition to the two creation accounts mentioned above, compare the number of soldiers in the army recorded in 1 Chron. 21:5 and 2 Sam. 24:9, the length of the king’s reign in 2 Chron. 36:9 and 2 Kings 24:8, or the details of Paul’s itinerary in Acts and Galatians. A close reading of the four gospels also discloses multiple inconsistencies when read on a factual level. Consider that the genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and Luke not only list different names in his family tree but also disagree on the number of generations leading up to his birth. John says that Jesus cleansed the temple at the beginning of his ministry, while Matthew, Mark, and Luke say that he did it shortly before being arrested. Scholars argue that if this violation of the Pax Romana actually happened then it was probably the precipitating event that led to Jesus’ arrest, and that there is no way he could have gotten away with this twice. None of the gospels agree about whether there were angles or “men in shining apparel” at the empty tomb, or how many of these were present when the women arrived to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. Perhaps most striking, John describes Jesus’ crucifixion as happening on a different day compared to the accounts in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Again, these are just a few examples among many contradictions when the Bible is read as a history book.

In addition, biblical accounts sometimes contradict external sources in historical studies. Take, for example, the conquest of the Holy Land as described in Joshua. There is no textual source, aside from the Bible, that mentions this invasion. This alone raises questions if the conquest happened on the grand scale narrated in Joshua. Nevertheless, when scholars compare the massive destruction of the Canaanite cities in the Bible with evidence gathered through numerous archeological excavations, the empirical evidence in support of the biblical version is simply not forthcoming. Archaeologists have confirmed a dramatic resettling of the land in the first part of the Iron Age, but most scholars believe this happened by some kind of gradual migration, assimilation, or cultural evolution. Joshua’s fantastic account stems from the theological impulse to show how Israel enjoyed an utterly unique, intimate relationship with God prior to its postexilic apostasy. It is also interesting to note that we have no textual sources outside of the Bible that mention King David, King Solomon, or their magnificent constructions in Jerusalem (see Douglas Knight and Amy-Jill Levine, The Meaning of the Bible). It is true that the “facts” change as new evidence is gathered, therefore historians cannot claim absolutely that such events did not happen as recorded in scripture. However, if religious texts are not given a historical pass, then the present archaeological record is enough to raise serious questions about the facticity of some of the biblical narratives.

This brings us to another important point: The Bible is not a modern historiography. The biblical writers had no concept of modern history and no access to the historical-critical methods used by biblical scholars today, including those employed by archaeologists and supporting experts in in biology, chemistry, paleobotony, archaeozooloy, and geology, to name a few. It is not only anachronistic but also unfair to project our worldview onto ancient people and hold their religious storytelling accountable to standards and criteria to which they did not have access. Another danger in reading the Bible as a history book is that it functions to eclipse all of the different genres in the Bible that give us important clues as to how we should interpret various texts. Scholars remind us that even the more history-like parts of scripture are always theologically interpreted narratives, not excluding the author of Luke who claims to give a historical account of Jesus but starts with the post-resurrection assumption that Jesus is the Messiah and then sets out to convince others to receive him as lord and savior. In no way would this be considered a modern history today (something akin to the Jesus Seminar).

The Bible Is Not Infallible Regarding Moral Claims. Just as in matters of history and science, the Bible is internally conflicted in some of its moral claims. The most obvious example is related to sexual ethics. I continue to be flabbergasted by conservative appeals to the biblical view of sex as celibacy in singleness and monogamy in marriage, or the biblical view of marriage as a life-long commitment between one man and one woman. The Bible does not offer a singular, uniform, context-invariant sexual ethic that can be uncritically parroted in memorable clichés as “God’s design for sex.” Rather, it presents multiple sexual norms that are reflective of differing cultural ideas in the societies in which the texts developed over the course of hundreds of years. A close reading of scripture yields a variety of acceptable sexual practices that include not only monogamy, but also polygamy, the sexual use of concubines (some of whom were the spoils of war), levirate marriage, arranged marriages to establish political alliances, and the arranged marriages of young girls (some prepubescent) to much older men for a bride price. If these practices have anything in common it is not an unambiguous sexual ethic but the endorsement of a divinely sanctioned patriarchy in which men were superior to women and (in some sense) owned them as sexual property. In addition, we often see a condemnation of “fornication” in the Bible, wrongly assume that the word literally translates “sex before marriage,” and then use it to condemn all forms of premarital sex. But this is simply wrong. The word translated as fornication refers to “sexual immorality,” and what constitutes sexual immorality changes depending on what relative cultural norms are governing a given society. This is why the author of the Song of Solomon can use the passionate sexual relationship of two unmarried young people as an allegory for God’s love.

The Bible does not unequivocally teach celibacy in singleness and monogamy in marriage (at least not as we typically define these terms). Nor does it clearly teach that God’s view of marriage is a lifelong commitment between one man and one woman. This does not mean that such sexual norms cannot be derived from various interpretations of scripture. Clearly, many people have done this. In fact, this is the way that the dominant Christian tradition has typically articulated its official position on sexual ethics (although the official teaching rarely lines-up with the actual practices of most people in the church). However, honest readers of scripture should acknowledge that their sexual ethic is a theological construction that requires interpretive decisions based on hermeneutical principles (and moral biases) that are not explicitly delineated in the Bible. These interpretive decisions to endorse certain principles discovered in scripture require us to simultaneously reject other (divergent) views that are also contained in scripture. Certainly, none of these constructions should be endowed with infallibility. While there is much more that could be said about this topic, the simple fact that there are differing sexual ethics contained in the Christian cannon raises serious questions about the infallibility of the Bible regarding its moral claims.

In addition to these kinds of internal contradictions, there are also external contradictions between some of the Bible’s moral claims and what we judge to be ethical behavior in the modern world. Consider that the Bible largely assumes the moral permissibility of slavery from Genesis to Revelation, and in some cases even endorses it as divinely instituted. According to the Old Testament, God summoned Moses and directly spoke the divine Law to him, commanding him to communicate and strictly enforce this Law with the Israelites. All of the details of this Law supposedly came straight from the mouth of God, and they included rules for buying slaves: “Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can will them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly” (Lev. 25:44-46). This passage clearly gives divine endorsement for slavery. The Law also gives rules for beating slaves: “If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies as a direct result, he must be punished, but he is not to be punished if the slave gets up after a day or two, since the slave is his property” (Exodus 21:20-21). This passage undeniably teaches that beating a slave (as long as they don’t die) is at least morally neutral in a divine order where human beings can be bought and sold as property. In the New Testament, the author of Colossians writes, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord” (3:22). This submission of slaves to earthly masters is also commanded in Ephesians 6:5, and according to 1 Peter 2:18 slave resistance is prohibited even when the master is particularly brutal. Many more examples could be given to show how the Bible directly or indirectly endorses practices as morally permissible that we find ethically abhorrent today, including rules for Holy War and the treatment of women, but this example of slavery should be enough to raise questions about the moral infallibility of scripture.

The Bible Is Not Infallible Regarding Its Portrayal of the Character of God. This claim will probably be the most offensive to those who need the Bible to be infallible in some sense, including those who are not fundamentalist in their theology. More moderate theologians sometimes try to appease our more conservative brothers and sisters in their debunking the infallibility of the Bible’s scientific and historical claims by saying that it’s infallible in terms of its teachings on God’s character. But even this idea seems untenable. There seem to be real tensions (even contradictions) between the way God is portrayed in the Old Testament and the way that God is portrayed in the New Testament, and simply acknowledging this fact does not automatically make one guilty of Marcionism. We can believe that the biblical authors attempted to describe the same God, and that both testaments reveal important truths about the character of God, while still acknowledging some important differences that cannot be easily harmonized. The same is true of the tensions that exist between the portrayals of Jesus in the Gospels and the book Revelation.

If these internal tensions do not rise to the level of contradictions, then we still have to contend with some very problematic claims about God when judged according to accepted ethical standards today. For example, God commands the wandering Hebrews to invade and conquer a foreign nation by violent military force and to utterly destroy every living thing in the process: “[regarding the people in the land] that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them . . .” (Deut. 20:16-17). This divine command includes the murder of noncombatant, innocent women and children. A close reading of the Bible seems to suggest that God actively commands violent invasion and conquest, genocide, the seizure of private property, slave labor, and the utter destruction of foreign religious sanctuaries and artifacts. In regards to civil law, God is portrayed as commanding the public execution of rebellious children (Deut. 21:18-21), women—not men—who have sex before marriage (22:20-21), anyone caught in adultery (22:22), and men—not women—caught engaging in homosexual sex (Leviticus 20:13). (For more on this topic, see my article, “It’s Dangerous to Read the Bible Too Literally: The Seeds of Religious Extremism.”) Contemporary Jewish theologian, David Blumenthal, has even gone so far as to argue that the way God is described as treating Israel in certain parts of the Jewish Bible is analogous to child abuse (Facing the Abusing God). Whether or not one agrees with Blumenthal’s conclusions, it is true that Israel has always had to reconcile divine love and cruelty in some of its own sacred texts and traditions. Since Christians share some of these sacred texts, we also have to figure what to do with some of these stories. Again, the reason why all of this material is so disturbing to modern ethical sensibilities is because it is associated with direct divine commands, which raises serious questions for the contemporary reader about biblical infallibility, even when we limit the conversation to the character of God.

It might be helpful to note that many of the internal contradictions noted in the various categories above can be explained by the fact that the Bible is not a single author book but a library of books. The content constitutive of the Christian cannon was shaped by many different people, who lived in different periods of history, spoke different languages, endorsed different social-political worldviews, wrote in different genres, and addressed different problems and needs in the worshiping community. (See my article, “God Did Not Write the Bible: The Formation of Sacred Scripture”) In addition, many of the external contradictions can be explained by the fact that the authors of scripture inhabited a prescientific world and shared most of the pre-modern social, political, moral, and religious ideas common to all people in their period of history. Once we allow room for the humanity of the authors and stop insisting that the Bible is infallible, most of these interpretive problems yield reasonable solutions.


Although it might not occur to those who have been indoctrinated with biblical inerrancy, there are other ways of construing the inspiration and authority of scripture. Some people are fearful to even consider this possibility because defenders of fundamentalism present Christians with a false dichotomy: they try to force us to choose between biblical infallibility and abandoning the idea of divine inspiration altogether. But many faithful contemporary theologians have developed viable alternatives.

As stated at the beginning, the purpose of this article is to destabilize the theory of plenary verbal inspiration that is used by many fundamentalists and evangelical Christians to dismiss complex problems with naive Bible quotations. It is difficult to consider other possibilities when you think that you have it all figured out. But when serious questions are raised about our most deeply held convictions, one healthy response is to ask, “What are the alternatives?” As the arguments in remaining articles in this series unfold, I will offer a different interpretation of the inspiration and authority of scripture that avoids many of the problems of the theory criticized above.