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#709 Is Biblical Inerrancy Defensible?

November 22, 2020

Is inerrancy defensible, or even worth trying to defend, given the following problems?

* inerrancy only applies to original documents, which we don't have and couldn't identify even if we did

* though mostly trivial, there are very many small variations in available manuscripts

* our knowledge of cultural contexts thousands of years ago is incomplete

* note "the meaning of this word is uncertain" and alternate translation footnotes in the NIV, which show translation difficulties; our knowledge of languages thousands of years ago is also incomplete

* translations into modern languages are diverse; for example look up an individual verse at Bible Gateway and click the "in all English translations" link to see how much variation there is in 50+ translations

*And here's the real kicker: interpretation. There are no inspired interpretations that accompany the original texts. Hence denominations have significantly differing theologies, most supposedly based on essentially the same scriptures.

God uses fallible human beings to preach the gospel, translate scriptures, write commentaries and develop theologies. They don't always do it perfectly. So why is it a problem to admit the possibility that some human errors might have crept into even the original texts? In light of the above, what difference would it make?

I believe I have a higher view of scripture. For me, the content is so powerful that it overwhelms any human errors from the transmission of the original divine message all the way down the line. And despite the translation and other problems, it works for people who speak many different languages, at different times in history, with differing social status, etc. Ultimately it works for "whoever has ears to hear." I could add another question: what do I lose by giving up on inerrancy?


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Dr. craig’s response


I picked your question this week, Ralph, because I just completed the initial chapter De Scriptura sacra (On Sacred Scripture) of my projected systematic philosophical theology. Since writing on the doctrine of Scripture gave me the opportunity to address the question of biblical inerrancy, I’m glad to share my thoughts here.

Your question blends two distinct questions: (1) Should Christians affirm a doctrine of biblical inerrancy? And (2) Is a doctrine of biblical inerrancy defensible? Let’s talk about each in turn.

First, should we affirm a doctrine of biblical inerrancy? The doctrine of biblical inerrancy is a correlate of the doctrine of biblical inspiration. II Timothy 3.16 assures us, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” Obviously, Paul (or the author) is talking about the Jewish Scriptures, our Old Testament. But insofar as you believe that the New Testament writings belong to sacred Scripture (II Peter 3.16), they, too, will have this property. The most notable feature of the affirmation of II Timothy 3.16 is that, in marked contrast to Hellenistic Judaism, here it is not prophets or even the authors of Scripture who are said to be inspired but rather the Scriptures themselves. The Scriptures are said to be “God-breathed” (theopneustos), to proceed, as it were, “from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4.4). Commentator I. H. Marshall says, “The point of the adjective here is surely to emphasize the authority of the Scriptures as coming from God and to indicate that they have a divinely-intended purpose related to his plan of salvation.”[1]

Because the Scriptures are inspired, they are said to be profitable for various purposes, both pedagogical (teaching and reproof) and pastoral (correction and training in righteousness).[2] First of all they are valuable for instruction in Christian doctrine (didaskalia). In the pastoral epistles, didaskalia is the technical term for the doctrinal content of Scripture.[3] “Rather than describing the basic message of the gospel, didaskalia describes the doctrinal formulations of the gospel (cf.1 Tim 4:6).”[4] Similarly in this context of dealing with false teachers “reproof” (elegmos) indicates the refutation of false doctrine. Scripture thus serves not only the end of preaching but also of sound teaching (II Timothy 4.2-3).

Implicit in what we have said is that scriptural inspiration is understood to be both plenary and verbal in nature. “Plenary” and “verbal” indicate respectively the breadth and depth, as it were, of scriptural inspiration. With respect to plenary inspiration, since every or all Scripture is inspired by God (II Timothy 3.16), it follows that not merely prophecy or direct divine discourse are God’s words but all of Scripture. Any book esteemed to be part of sacred Scripture is ipso facto inspired from start to finish.

Moreover, as God-breathed, Scripture must be verbally inspired, that is to say, the very words of Scripture are God-breathed. Although it is tempting to think that it is the propositional content of Scripture that is inspired, regardless of the language in which that content is expressed, a moment’s reflection reveals that as a linguistic deposit, as graphē (II Timothy 3.16), it must be the words of Scripture that are inspired. That need not imply that different words might not have been chosen by the human author that might have as effectively served the same end, but simply that those words that have been chosen are divinely inspired.

Oddly enough, then, it is the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts of the Scriptures which are inspired, not their various translations. Hence, the extreme interest in the work of textual critics in establishing the original text, to which later translations are compared and by means of which they are constantly reassessed. The original text is the standard by which every translation is measured. The fact that New Testament writers most frequently cite the Greek Old Testament rather than the Hebrew text no more compromises the doctrine of verbal inspiration than does English speakers’ citing the English translations they and their audience understand.

Some have taken verbal inspiration to imply that it is only the scriptural autographs, now lost, which were inspired. Now it does seem apparent that copyists’ mistakes are not inspired, since they were not part of the God-breathed text but corruptions of it. For the same reason translations of the text are not inspired but are constantly revised. But the loss of the autographs does not imply the loss of God’s Word. By distinguishing between types and tokens of literary works, we may affirm that any token of the same type is as inspired as the original. Two physical copies of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, for example, are non-identical objects, and yet they can be said to embody the same novel, which is not to be identified with any one physical instance. So two tokens of the New Testament are equally inspired if their type is. After all, they are identical in their wording.

Also implicit in what we have said are a number of important conclusions regarding the doctrine of Scripture. First, Scripture is a verbal communication from God to man and thus in that sense a propositional revelation from God. Second, as a divine revelation or communication from God, Scripture carries the authority of God. Third, Scripture authoritatively communicates to us various truths about God. Fourth, as God’s authoritative Word to us, Scripture is truthful in all that it teaches.

The fourth implication is known among evangelical theologians as the doctrine of inerrancy.[5] This controversial doctrine is widely but needlessly despised. As James Orr observes, the author of II Timothy 3.16 does not say that divine inspiration of Scripture “secured verbal inerrancy in ordinary historical, geographical, chronological, or scientific matters. But it seems at least clearly implied that there was no error which could interfere with or nullify the utility of Scripture for the ends specified.”[6] Not only does it seem philosophically inconceivable that God could teach us doctrinal falsehoods, but Scripture in any case explicitly affirms that what He teaches us is doctrinal truths. The controversial question, then, ought not to be “Is Scripture truthful in all that it teaches?” but rather “What does Scripture teach?”

Evangelicals are, in fact, well aware of what is typically referred to as “the phenomena of Scripture” which often seem at odds with the literal truth of what a scriptural passage says. Inerrantists are typically quite ready to deny in cases of historical, geographical, or scientific falsehood that Scripture teaches or affirms the relevant falsehoods. An example that is almost embarrassing for its obviousness but useful precisely for that reason is Jesus’ comparison of the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed: “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his field;  it is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree” (Matthew 13.31-32). It is indisputable that the content of Jesus’ teaching is not botany but the inauspicious nature of the inbreaking Kingdom of God in his person. Hence, while it is false that the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds, no one in his right mind regards Jesus’ words as teaching a falsehood.

Many inerrantists emphasize that it is impossible to separate history from Christian doctrine, so that what Scripture teaches about history must be as true as what it teaches about theology.[7]  In particular, the death and resurrection of Jesus must be affirmed as historical events by any biblically faithful Christian. We must agree that Christian doctrine is often inextricably bound up with the historicity of certain events, and whether this is so for any given event must be examined on a case by case basis. Certainly it is so in the case of Jesus’ death and resurrection, central as they are to the Christian doctrine of salvation (I Corinthians 15.17). But while the historicity of these events belongs to the teaching of Scripture, it is far less clear that many of the details surrounding these same events belong to the teaching of Scripture. The Evangelists evidently felt a good deal of freedom in relating their stories, such that detailed accuracy was not always important.

J. D. G. Dunn has emphasized that the transmission of oral tradition is characterized by “both elements of stability and elements of variability--stability of subject and theme, of key details or core exchanges, variability in the supporting details and the particular emphases to be drawn out.”[8] The performer of oral tradition is at liberty to vary the incidental details of his story so long as the core themes and key phrases are maintained.  In the Gospels the oral Jesus tradition has been frozen for us in time. On the basis of his study of the Gospels Dunn draws two conclusions: first, “the variations between the different versions of the same story in the tradition do not indicate a cavalier attitude to or lack of historical interest in the events narrated. . . . Rather, the variations exemplify the character of oral retelling.”[9] Second, “the differences introduced by the Evangelists, whether as oral diversity or as a literary editing, are consistently in the character of abbreviation and omission, clarification and explanation, elaboration and extension of motif. . . they do not appear to constitute any radical change in the substance or character or thrust of the story told.”[10] These results encourage “neither those who are content with nothing short of the historicity of every detail and word of the text nor those who can see and hear nothing other than the faith of the early churches.”[11]

Take, for example, the story of Peter’s denial of Jesus following his arrest.[12] The Evangelists all relate the story of how Peter followed the arresting party to the house of the high priest, where in the courtyard he was confronted successively by various people, particularly a maid, about his connection with Jesus, which he denies each time. After the third accusation, immediately the cock crows, just as Jesus had predicted. John appears to be working with an independent source (John 19.15-16), but in the Synoptics alone details about Peter’s warming himself at the fire and his self-imprecation might or might not be included in the story. Moreover, the identity of his three accusers conflicts, as does the number of cock crows, leading some inerrantists to propose harmonizing the accounts by maintaining that Peter actually denied Jesus six times. Such a harmonization not only fails to reckon with the character of oral tradition but reconciles the details only at the expense of denying the unanimous affirmation of the Evangelists that Peter denied Jesus three times. In this case, it is more plausible to maintain that the Evangelists are content to allow the story of Peter’s three-fold denial to be told in different ways, so long as the main point is maintained. An account exhibiting such flexibility would not have been thought to teach error as truth.

Thus, the phenomena of Scripture require us, quite reasonably, to construe scriptural inerrancy in terms of Scripture’s truthfulness in all that it teaches, and we learn inductively what Scripture teaches by an examination of Scripture itself. Such an examination reveals that various facts of science, history, and so forth may not belong to the teaching of Scripture, as do doctrinal truths.

Finally, as for the importance and utility of scriptural inerrancy, in the absence of an inerrant Scripture the basis for Christian doctrine would be seriously undermined. While it is true that some Christian doctrines—for example, the existence of God or the resurrection of Jesus—could be known apart from the authoritative teaching of Scripture and so would not be undermined by the demonstration that Scripture teaches doctrinal falsehoods, still Christian faith would surely be seriously compromised with respect to many doctrines—for example, justification by grace through faith—without an inerrant teaching authority. Since an important part of Christian doctrine cannot be established independent of Scripture, the fallibility of Scripture in doctrinal matters would seriously undermine Christian faith.

The doctrine of biblical inerrancy establishes a sort of default assumption of the truth of Scripture’s assertions that can protect theology from doctrinal harm, just as the presumption of innocence until proven guilty serves to protect citizens in Western democracies from injustice. Some sort of persuasive argument will be required for convicting Scripture of falsehood in any given case, and the inerrantist may present defenses of Scripture’s truth in that regard. Failing that, the inerrantist may deny that the falsehood belongs to the teaching of Scripture and marshal exegetical arguments in support. The problem of the truth of the doctrine of inerrancy would arise only in case some statement of Scripture belongs incontrovertibly to the teaching of Scripture but is demonstrably false.

So much for your first question! How about the second: Is such a doctrine defensible? I think that it is. As Richard Swinburne correctly discerns, the main challenge to such a doctrine today will be ethical.[13] Many will claim that scriptural teaching on sexual ethics, for example, is outmoded and immoral. A robust apologetic will be required to rebut such challenges.

But the objections you raise in your opening paragraph have been largely subverted by a proper formulation of the doctrine of inerrancy.

* the truthfulness of the original text is unaffected by our access to it; in any case we do have the text of the autographs, even if we don’t have the autographs themselves.

* the truthfulness of the original text is unaffected by copyists’ errors; in any case the manuscript variants are trivial, so that no Christian doctrine hangs on them.

* the truthfulness of the original text is unaffected by our uncertainty about ancient culture; in any case we know much, more of first century culture than almost any previous succeeding generation, and no Christian doctrine hangs on any uncertainty.

* the truthfulness of the original text is unaffected by our uncertainty about the meaning of various words; in any case those words that remain uncertain in their meanings are more than counterbalanced by the clear teaching of Scripture.  

* the truthfulness of the original text is unaffected by translations into modern languages; indeed, a plurality of translations is a great benefit in understanding the nuances of the original text.  

* the truthfulness of the original text is unaffected by the absence of inspired interpretations; fortunately, the major Christian confessions agree on most of the doctrinal essentials.

I think you can see that these misgivings are not really objections to biblical inerrancy at all but mainly pose hermeneutical (or interpretive) questions.


[1] I. Howard Marshall, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Pastoral Epistles, International Critical Commentary (London T. & T. Clark International, 1999), pp. 794-5.

[2] Scripture thus fulfills Michael Rea’s desiderata for an authority by specifying both its domain of authority (doctrine and morals) and kind of authority (theoretical and practical) (Michael C. Rea, “Authority and Truth,” in The Enduring Authority of the Christian Scriptures, ed. Donald A. Carson [Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2016]).

[3] William D. Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, Word Biblical Commentary 46 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), p. 570. Of the 15 uses in the pastorals didaskalia is used nine times to denote the content, rather than the activity, of teaching (I Timothy 1.10; 4.1, 6; 6.1, 3; II Timothy 4.3; Titus 1.9; 2.1, 10).

[4] Mounce, Pastoral Epistles, p. 42.

[5] So, for example, the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, which is representative of the view of many evangelical theologians, states: “Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God's acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God's saving grace in individual lives” (“The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy,” https://library.dts.edu/Pages/TL/Special/ICBI_1.pdf [my emphasis]).

[6] James Orr, Revelation and Inspiration (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1910), p. 162.

[7] For example, Carl Henry affirms: “Verbal inerrancy implies that truth attaches not only to the theological and ethical teaching of the Bible, but also to historical and scientific matters insofar as they are part of the express message of the inspired writings. The Genesis creation account has implications for God’s causal relationship to the cosmos; the Exodus narrative teaches the historical flight of the Hebrews from Egypt; the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth and resurrection describe factual events in the external world” (Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation and Authority, Vol. 4: God Who Speaks and Shows [Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway], Kindle location 455-6 [my emphasis]).

[8] James D. G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2003), p. 249. For a somewhat different approach, see Michael R. Licona, Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?: What We Can Learn from Ancient Biography, with a Forward by Craig A. Evans (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017). On either approach, the salient point remains that the Evangelists, despite their fundamental reliability, are not concerned with exacting historical accuracy with respect to secondary details.

[9] Dunn, Jesus Remembered, p. 223.

[10] Dunn, Jesus Remembered, p. 224.

[11] Dunn, Jesus Remembered, p. 249; cf. 254.

[12] Although Dunn does not examine this tradition, he does say with respect to it, “The differing tellings as to detail and setting within the larger story. . . are typical of performance variation” (Dunn, Jesus Remembered, p. 774).

[13] Richard Swinburne, Revelation: From Metaphor to Analogy, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), chap. 11.

- William Lane Craig