The Problem of Biblical Inerrancy

By: Dr. Gregory S. Neal

I am often struck at the attitude that some people take toward the Holy Scriptures. So many people have so much invested in the Bible being "The Inerrant Word of God" that they fail to see the true Word, Jesus Christ our Lord, standing before them. Sadly, many of these well-meaning and otherwise faithful Christians, fall into a strange form of idolatry which is nominally called "Bibliolatry." The truth is that the Scriptures, while inspired and truly Holy, are nevertheless not to be worshiped. They are not God. As anyone who has taken the time to examine the issue, and is honest, will admit, the Bible is the product of much human thought and interaction; the Bible is filled with human opinion, human points of view, human ideas, human interpretations. Often it can be clearly seen that God was speaking through these human elements, however there are other times when it is equally clear that the authors were speaking their own minds, offering up their own opinions, and otherwise own speaking "for God."

An excellent example of this situation can be found where Paul offers up his own opinion relative to marriage. In the Apostle's first letter to the Corinthians, he writes:

To the married I give this command—not I but the Lord—that the wife should not separate from her husband (but if she does separate, let her remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband), and that the husband should not divorce his wife. To the rest I say—I and not the Lord—that if any believer has a wife who is an unbeliever, and she consents to live with him, he should not divorce her. (1 Corinthians 7:10-12 NRSV)

This statement is really a problem for most people's conception of Inerrancy. If one believes that every single word was verbally dictated by God to the Biblical authors, then what we have in the above example is the Holy Spirit telling Paul to lie ... to claim that his statement "to the rest" is his own opinion and not the Lord's command. Why would Paul differentiate between a "word of the Lord," in one sentence, and then go out of his way in the very next sentence to state that what followed was going to be his own opinion? I believe it was because Paul knew that he was, in the first sentece, referencing the authority of a "word of the Lord," while in the second sentence he was simply stating his reasoned opinion. Should we weight the two statements equally? While most Inerrantists will say yes, in my opinion we really should be carefully about equating Paul's opinion with a command of the Lord. Paul thought it was important to differentiate between the two statements, and in that I agree with Paul: one statement is a command of the Lord, the other was not.

To ignore these kinds of problems, pretending they don’t exist when they jump off the page and bite us in the nose is, in my opinion, tantamount to treating the Holy Scriptures unfaithfully. The books and letters which comprise the Holy Bible were written by human beings, in human situations, and therefore they, quite often, reflect the attitudes, prejudices, conceptions and misconceptions of the authors. The fact that the authors were inspired by God does not change the fact that they also had their own agenda and opinions which colored their writing.

Three superior examples of the kind of human-memory-generated "continuity errors" to be found in the New Testament are the accounts of St. Paul’s "Damascus Road Experience," where the Apostle was confronted by Christ Jesus and called to cease his persecution of the Church. The three accounts of this event are found in Acts 9:1-9; 22:4-16; and 26:9-18. The first account is the narrative story of the event, while the second and third accounts are Paul’s retelling of the event before two different audiences. The narrative story read's thusly:

Meanwhile Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any who belonged to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?" He asked, "Who are you, Lord?" The reply came, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do." The men who were traveling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one. Saul got up from the ground, and though his eyes were open, he could see nothing; so they led him by the hand and brought him into Damascus. For three days he was without sight, and neither ate nor drank. (Acts 9:1-9, NRSV)

This, the narrative account, differs from its subsequent retellings in various significant ways, the most important of which dealing with what Paul’s companions on the road heard and/or saw. In the account found in chapter 9, "the men who were traveling with him [Paul] were speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one."

The chapter 22 account relates the following details about the very same event:

"Now those who were with me saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who was speaking to me."

The two accounts don't appear to agree on the companions ... do they? In fact, while many have tried to reconcile these difference, in my opinion they simply haven't managed to deal with the fundamental difference here. To put this simply, the companions either saw something (chapter 22), or they didn't (chapter 9); they either didn’t hear the voice (chapter 22), or they did (chapter 9). Both cannot be true, though it might be said that the differences stem from different perspectives among the author's sources.

The third account, found in chapter 26, also lacks agreement with the other two accounts at several points. In chapter 26, both Paul and his companions fall to the ground when the light flashes, while in chapter 9 it directly states that the companions remained standing because they didn’t see anything. The third account also adds more words to what Jesus says to Paul: "Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me? It hurts you to kick against the goads." Neither of the previous accounts have this extra sentence in them. While that's not an "error," it certainly is curious ... why would the narrative telling of the account lack such an important detail, which is only added to an oral recounting of the event at a later date?

Some might say, "so what? Perhaps Paul just didn't know if his companions heard or saw what he had seen?" If this is your answer, you've just proven my point. The Bible still retains the human aspect of the author's lack of knowledge. This in no way calls into question the truth of the event: Paul was encountered by Jesus on the road to Damascus, transformed in heart and soul, and became the greatest preacher and teacher of the Gospel in the gentile world. In terms of the principles of historiography, however, it actually strengthens the case for the historicity of the event for there to be three different stories which, even despite their minor differences, actually agree on the crucial essence of the event. Had they all been identical, an historian would be prone to doubt that they were valid; but, by containing differences and disagreements, they are actually of superior quality as far as eyewitness accounts go.

"So, you don't believe that the Bible in the inerrant word of God?"

No, I don't. I do believe in the inerrancy of the Incarnate Word of God: Jesus Christ. To say that Jesus is the Inerrant Word of God is to affirm our Lord's Divine perfection as God's Incarnate Word; in my opinion, it is a glory which only Christ merits. I, however, believe that the scriptures are infallible on matters of faith and Christian practice — they do not teach error on anything that has to do with matters of salvation. What we need to believe in order to be saved can be found within Scripture, and nothing that cannot be found in scripture can be required as an article of faith. And, if you ask me, that's a very firm affirmation of scriptural centrality and authority.

© 1995, Dr. Gregory S. Neal
All Rights Reserved

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The Reverend Dr. Gregory S. Neal is the Senior Pastor of the First United Methodist Church in Commerce, Texas, and an ordained Elder in the North Texas Conference of The United Methodist Church. A graduate of Southern Methodist University, Duke University, and Trinity College, Dr. Neal is a scholar of Systematic Theology, New Testament origins, and Biblical Languages. His areas of specialization include the Theology of the Sacraments, in which he did his doctoral dissertation, and the formation and early transmission of the New Testament. Trained as a Christian educator, he has taught classes in these and related fields while also serving for more than 25 years as the pastor of United Methodist churches in North Texas.

As a popular teacher, preacher, and retreat leader, Dr. Neal is known for his ability to translate complex theological concepts into common, everyday terms. HIs preaching and teaching ministry is in demand around the world, and much of his work can be found on this website. He is the author of several books, including
Grace Upon Grace: Sacramental Theology and the Christian Life, which is in its second edition, and Seeking the Shepherd's Arms: Reflections from the Pastoral Side of Life, a work of devotional literature. Both of these books are currently available from