The Bible is not Magically Inerrant: Exposing Inerrancy Proof-Texts

Inerrancy is perhaps the most obvious example of what the Bible is NOT, and I have written about it many times. But today I approach it from a different angle by examining common inerrancy proof-texts.

I begin with the most popular one.

The Bible

All Scripture is God-Breathed

The #1 go-to inerrancy proof-text by far, considered by many as the defeater of any argument against inerrancy, is 2 Timothy 3:16:

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.

This sounds like the death knell for those arguing against inerrancy, but there are several reasons why this passage cannot prove inerrancy. First, this is part of the author’s coaching of a specific person in a specific situation; it is not a revealed truth from God and is not even addressed to us but to the recipient.

Secondly, we must ask what the author means by ‘Scripture’. The New Testament didn’t exist at that time so ‘scripture’ here cannot mean the New Testament—including this passage. Therefore, this passage cannot be an inerrant statement based on itself. It has no inerrant authority to prove inerrancy; and to think that it does is an excellent example of circular thinking.

We must also ask what the author means by ‘God-breathed’? He doesn’t mean ‘inerrant’, which is a later concept in history infused into this passage. What the author meant is likely known only to himself and the recipient, since both would be aware of the context of the correspondence–and we are not.

In my opinion, this is an extremely weak proof for inerrancy.

Everything that was Written in the Past was Written to Teach Us

This is a statement by Paul in Romans 15; the KJV says, ‘Written for our instruction’. To some it seems like a doctrinal revelation about the Old Testament that suggests inerrancy.

But consider the context of the statement:

We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up. For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.”

For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.

Paul was writing to Roman believers about tolerance and patience for the ‘weak’, and he appeals to several passages from the Old Testament (hereafter ‘OT’) to support his point. His saying that the OT was written to teach us is an incidental comment, and he is right. I often find OT passages encouraging and am inspired by stories of endurance.

But this does not mean they are inerrant instructions from God. In fact, in this very letter Paul rejects the ‘instructions’ of the OT regarding legalistic practices. This text does not prove inerrancy at all.

Not the Smallest Letter will Disappear from the Law

Jesus says this at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5. The full statement is:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.

At first this might seem to support inerrancy of OT laws, but then Jesus goes on to alter them with his ‘You have heard, but I say’ pronouncements that demonstrate the inadequacy of the Law, beginning with murder and adultery from the 10 Commandments. In this sermon, the entirety of chapters 5-7 establish the ethic of the kingdom of God as opposed to the Law.

I think Jesus is saying that the intent of the ethic of the Law remains, but he supersedes the Law; his ethic is all about justice and relationships. I cannot see how this supports the claim of OT inerrancy.

Scripture Cannot be Broken (KJV)

The frequent appeal to this passage in John 10 seems so thin that I wonder if those who quote it ever read the context. Pharisees were about to stone Jesus, saying he claimed to be God.

Jesus replied,

Is it not written in your Law, ‘I have said you are “gods”?’ If he called them ‘gods,’ to whom the word of God came—and Scripture cannot be set aside—what about the one whom the Father set apart as his very own and sent into the world?

He is quoting Psalm 82:

God presides in the great assembly; he renders judgment among the ‘gods’…I said, “You are ‘gods’; you are all sons of the Most High.” But you will die like mere mortals; you will fall like every other ruler.

This passage refers to rulers as ‘gods’. Do you think OT rulers were gods? Did Jesus think that? No, this is a trick question. Jesus rarely gave direct responses to Pharisees who challenged him. The idea that scripture cannot be set aside was not Jesus’ idea but that of the Pharisees, and he throws it up to them both to question their view of the OT and to deflect their accusation.

I think this is more anti-inerrancy than a defense of inerrancy.

Ending Observations

While inerrancy demands no errors in the Bible, of equal concern to me is disregarding important factors such as:

* The Bible was written by people–not God
* These people wrote from the limitations their own time and understanding
* The Bible contains many literary genres that cannot be read in a literal way

The assertion of biblical inerrancy is a mere assumption, unproved by any proof-texts; and we need not be intimidated by such claims. Next time we will begin to look at some stranger ideas about the Bible.

Other articles in this series: What the Bible is Not
What the Bible Is–And Is Not
The Bible is not Magically Inerrant: Exposing Inerrancy Proof-Texts
The Bible is not a Rule Book: Overcoming Legalism
The Bible is not a Promise Book: Exploring a Misguided Approach to the Bible
The Bible is not an Encyclopedia of Life: Demise of a Bible Answer Man
The Bible is not a Magic Talisman: Biblical Power, Incantations, and Bibliomancy
The Bible is not Open to Narcigesis: Thinking the Bible is Written to You

***

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34 Responses to The Bible is not Magically Inerrant: Exposing Inerrancy Proof-Texts

  1. Perry says:

    The point about the NT not even existing at the time of the “God-breathed” comment is a real eye opener. Great point.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      I agree, Perry. This is such a strong point against this passage as a proof-text for inerrancy that I don’t know why it is the most popular defense. It is also worth noticing that the other three proof-texts specifically refer to the OT only, while Jesus, Paul, and other NT writers obviously take liberties with the OT.

      Like

    • Alan Christensen says:

      Coming to this conversation a bit late. I’m not convinced that Paul doesn’t mean “inspired by God” in something like the sense in which a movie might be “inspired by a true story.”

      Liked by 1 person

  2. David says:

    This is an excellent article, something that I feel very strongly about and you have put things in a very clear and well reasoned way. I may have to quote you in one of my future posts as I am intending to write on this subject. I am sure some will find this worrying, as I generally find that people who regard the bible as inerrant find any questioning of this concept a potential threat to their faith. In fact, it strengthens my ability to enjoy the encouragement of the bible as it removes so many contradictory and unhelpful doctrines that have become popular based on selective verse quoting and the ubiquitous use of the phrase ‘the word of God…’, which when referring to John chapter one, clearly does not refer to the ‘scriptures’ but to Jesus himself.

    Other references to the ‘Word’ often translate back to the greek word Rhema, which is clearly a description of words spoken rather than written. Anyway, great post, really appreciated.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      David, I am glad you like the article; feel free to quote anything you think useful.

      As you say, some find this very worrying and feel that inerrancy is beyond questioning. I felt this way myself, and when I realized Paul was not inerrant it drove me into more of a year of anguish and grief over the loss of God until I finally found my foundation in Jesus instead of an inerrant Bible.

      If you are interested, I speak about it here: https://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/about-tim-chastain/my-spiritual-crisis/.

      But, like you, I now find the Bible more enjoyable and beneficial that I did when I thought it was inerrant.

      Like

  3. Gary Goodlow says:

    I have always had an issue accepting 2 Tim 3:16-17 as proof of divine dictation of all of what we call scripture today. I don’t think Paul was telling Timothy “this is not a letter from me, it’s a letter from God Himself”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Gary, I really like how you said this: I don’t think Paul was telling Timothy “this is not a letter from me, it’s a letter from God Himself.” I think it is an excellent point.

      Like

  4. Good article. Fully agree.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. fiddlrts says:

    It is interesting how the concepts of inerrancy and literalism end up both confused and intertwined. If I had a buck for every argument I have heard that “the Bible is inerrant, therefore you must read this passage literally…” I would grant that literalism makes little sense *without* a belief in inerrancy, but it does seem theoretically possible to believe in inerrancy and yet not in literalism. It does seem, however, that the acrid debates right now (such as Richard Dawkins versus Fundamentalists) often assume the literalist approach to be the only option, then argue about inerrancy – with *both* sides seeming to assume that it’s either inerrant or worthless.

    Good series in general. I have, for some time now, considered the passage by St. Peter to be a more satisfying description. Although he applies it to the OT only, of course, I think it makes sense for both. Holy men of old spoke as the Spirit carried them along. That doesn’t mean either literalism or inerrancy, and it surely doesn’t mean literal dictation by any stretch. It also acknowledges the Divine influence. Humans, in their searching and longing for the Divine, found themselves carried along in a current. Like a river, they could not grasp its depth or see every detail, but they took what they knew, and wrote in a way they could understand how the current moved them.

    I suppose I might add that one reason inerrancy has been such a sticking point for many is that they don’t really worship God, they worship the Bible, which is not at all the same thing…

    Liked by 2 people

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Fiddlrts, with limited space I only dealt with what seemed to be the four most common proof-texts. There were three others that I had to omit (perhaps I will deal with them later), and 2 Peter 1 was among them. I agree with you that this does not prove inerrancy or literalism. But, as you say, the author does suggest something of inspiration for prophets–not the entire OT.

      I agree that inerrancy and literal reading are tightly connected but not the same thing. I can confirm your theory that it is possible to believe inerrancy without literalism. At one point I, myself, accepted that the Genesis creation stories were not literal but were written for other purposes, but it was not until I realized that Paul believed in a literal Adam, and was therefore not inerrant, that I was plunged into a deep, year-long spiritual crises.

      You mention another thing that I have also noticed. Many atheist consider the Bible only as a supposedly inerrant document–just as fundamentalists do. So it is an all or nothing proposition with atheist on one side and inerrantists on the other. We who are neither are ignored.

      Liked by 1 person

      • lela says:

        As an atheist, I thought this might be a great place to chime in. While I believe that much of the Bible is like other mythologies, explanations of things that would be otherwise unexplainable, I feel that there is much wisdom within its pages as it relates to human psychology, sociology, and philosophy. Those writers, whose words bring comfort in sadness, joy in celebration, and an understanding of human fallibility, were not idiots writing in a vacuum. They had profound knowledge of our humanness and our need for comfort in an ever-changing, unknown future. I believe the Bible is neither literal nor inerrant, but for some it is a way to find comfort, peace, and a connection to their god and as long as I’m not forced to live by a literal translation, to those folks I say,
        Numbers 6:24-26
        “The Lord bless you and keep you;
        The Lord make His face shine upon you,
        And be gracious to you;
        The Lord lift up His countenance upon you,
        And give you peace.”

        Liked by 3 people

        • sheila0405 says:

          I’m an atheist, too, & I agree with your sentiments.

          Liked by 1 person

        • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

          lela, I think you have a very healthy and informed attitude toward the Bible and its readers. I agree with everything you said. In addition, though, I believe Jesus to be a very special person and I do follow his teaching and example.

          I have no problem with atheists; Sheila (who also responded to your comment) is an atheist and also one of my most treasured readers. So welcome to the comment section and feel free to share anytime you are inclined to do so!

          Liked by 1 person

  6. Larry Beshears says:

    I wrote an article a few months ago and have received some flack over the content, a few comments not very flattering at all. One lady wrote I was a liar and doing Satan’s work. One thing about receiving those remarks, I know I have touched a nerve that is deep and has been hidden forever. This is why I write, not for people to read and agree with what I write, but for people to read feeling the pressure that cracks their core beliefs of unsound doctrine. Now I feel I am doing what I have been called to do. This is my ministry.

    Luke 6: verse 26, “woe to you when all men speak well of you, for in the same way their fathers used to treat the false prophets.” Good! I am not scratching the itch of their tickling ears with things they want to hear (2 Timothy 4:3)! But I use the Scriptures to make my point and not what a Sunday school teacher pounded into me; or a preacher screaming from a pulpit, and definitely not a church doctrine. I used the Bible and the Scriptures to speak for me.

    The problem with the few that responded harshly is that they believe in what they were taught to believe probably since birth by people that were taught that same thing since birth; by men that strayed from the teachings of the Bible to scratch those itching ears to suit their needs of that time. The preacher is not Jesus. The church doctrine is not Jesus. The Scriptures are to be read by YOU and understood by YOU as to what is true and what is false.

    Now this is where the problem comes in with these few that harshly called me evil. They worship the parts of the Bible that they want to scratch that itch behind their ear! And this is where the non-believers start saying the Bible contradicts itself over and over. THEY ARE CORRECT! It is these people that live according to their teachings of the Old Testament that contradicts the teachings of Jesus that are causing the redemptive opportunities to be lost because THEY are confusing those that do not understand. These people, as well as so many Christians, do not understand that the Bible is two books; one of what was and the other as to what is.

    Listen! OLD is defined as what was; what no more is, and what has been replaced. NEW is defining to what is, what will be, and what has replaced the OLD. What is so difficult to understand why the Bible is two books? One being the OLD and one is the NEW! Even these very people I am speaking of call the two books of the Bible, the Old Testament and the New Testament. That is oxymoron to call the two books of the Bible those names but yet believe that the two are still equals in their teachings.

    Your arguments are not with me, but with Scriptures of the Bible in Hebrew 8:6-13 & 9:14-15. This is the Scripture that tells us that the Old Testament is outdated, obsolete and Jesus is superior to the Old Testament. This is verse 6 and it continues to say that the New Testament by Jesus is established on better promises from God. READ IT! This is not me, the evil one, but the Bible speaking.

    These people I speak of will constantly say that “Jesus is the only way”, “Jesus is the Savior”, and “no one will enter the gates of Heaven but through Jesus”. I say these people do not know Jesus if they deny that these Scriptures in Hebrew do not give Jesus the authority to be as they love to claim. Hebrews plainly says that the Laws of Abraham and Moses are not as good as the teachings of Jesus. That means the Old Testament is what it is, the old way. The teachings of Jesus are what they are, the new way.

    Verse 7 tells you that if nothing was wrong with the first covenant, there would have not been a need for Jesus. This is Hebrews 8, not me speaking. Hebrews 9:14-15 makes no bones about telling you who Jesus is. Read it! This is not my words but the words of Hebrews of the New Testament in the Holy Bible. Ask yourself why this Scriptures is there and why did it say what it said!
    JesusIsDemocrat.blogspot.com

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    • Chas says:

      Larry, I am unclear as to what you are saying here. Are you saying that we should accept the NT, but reject the OT? When we are being guided by God (the Holy Spirit, if you wish to recognize Him by that title), He can show us things that He wants us to know from the OT equally as well as from the NT. As I have written on Tim’s blog several times before, if the NT, or OT, contains contradictions, then they cannot be the words of God, since He is perfect. Significant contradictions can be found in both the NT and OT, so we ought to be reading them, as Tim has suggested, to see the things in them that God is showing to us, to increase our enlightenment/knowledge/understanding, but not to use the words as a means to intimidate, or coerce, or bully people.

      Like

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Larry, my posts appear on several venues. And while I don’t get much ‘you are a liar and doing Satan’s work’ here I do get it elsewhere. I find that the best way to respond is to take them seriously (because they really believe what they believe) and attempt a dialog instead of an argument where each person tries to win. For me it is not a competition.

      You say that you write: “for people to read feeling the pressure that cracks their core beliefs of unsound doctrine” My purpose is different. I do NOT write to stir up or upset those who believe differently but rather to assist and support those who are struggling with the beliefs they have been taught. So it appears that we have different goals.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Chas says:

        Tim, as you have stated, your purpose is to support those who have particular problems associated with fundamentalism, but your opinions will also affect other people who are not able to extract themselves from fundamentalism. They will be offended and hostile, since what you are writing potentially undermines the only thing they can stand on. This will make them feel insecure and threatened, so they are likely to react by threats, trying to intimidate you. (This is written as an explanation to others, as you are well aware of it already).

        Liked by 1 person

  7. sheila0405 says:

    This is terrific, Tim! I love the context you provided! Reblogging this one.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. sheila0405 says:

    Reblogged this on …..temporary…. and commented:
    An excellent treatment of inerrancy.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Tim P says:

    Thought provoking again Tim, thank you. I often think about the fact that protestants have a different bible to Eastern Orthodox & Catholics (think Apocrypha). I also think how many of the early manuscripts don’t exactly tally up with each other word for word. I also think about the translation work from Hebrew/Greek into Latin into English. There is the work of many human hands there.
    I also think about Jesus leaving the disciples and promising them the comforter (the Holy Spirit), I don’t remember Him saying I’m going to leave you a book and it will be indisputably my words from start to end.
    That’s not to say the bible isn’t packed with truths and pointers to God and that it shouldn’t be a major part of our life and worship. For me, it has just been given too much prominence. Especially the Epistles.
    The Timothy passage is us listening in to Paul’s advice to a new pastor, telling him that the scriptures are going to be so useful in his ministry.
    The ideas on this blog are going to be very difficult for many of my fellow believers to swallow. I need to tread carefully in how I put these concepts across gently.
    Tim

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Tim P, I agree that we need to tread carefully when discussing inerrancy (and other concepts on this blog) with our personal circle of believers. Only a few of my personal acquaintances read my blog, while most ignore or don’t even know about it. And I don’t usually bring up these issues with them unless they seem to already have questions about the things they have been taught.

      You mention books that are not in the protestant Bible. In my experience, those who are committed to inerrancy have a very low regard to these books. They don’t read them and, to the extent they are aware of them, often consider them heretical.

      There are a couple of your sentences in your comment that I like VERY much! “I don’t remember Him saying I’m going to leave you a book and it will be indisputably my words from start to end.” and “The Timothy passage is us listening in to Paul’s advice to a new pastor, telling him that the scriptures are going to be so useful in his ministry.”

      They make great points in a simple, concise way. I really enjoyed your comment; it makes a strong contribution. Please feel free to comment in the future anytime you like.

      Like

  10. Pingback: The Bible is not a Rule Book: Overcoming Legalism | Jesus Without Baggage

  11. michaeleeast says:

    Yesterday we had a winter study which sought to inform us of the nature of the Bible.
    One description was a library. The many different genres were listed; cosmology, myth, history, poetry, wisdom writings,prophesy, narrative etc..
    The long time span and the various authors were addressed.
    This reflected what I read in Jack Spong’s “Rescuing the Bible From Fundamentalism”. in the 1990s. I can see similarities with your approach to the Bible.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Michael, I think the idea of the Bible as a library with writings of various genres is excellent. I think this is exactly what the Bible is.

      Like

  12. Pingback: The Bible is not a Promise Book: Exploring a Misguided Approach to the Bible | Jesus Without Baggage

  13. Pingback: What the Bible Is–And Is Not | Jesus Without Baggage

  14. Pingback: The Bible is not an Encyclopedia of Life: Demise of a Bible Answer Man | Jesus Without Baggage

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  16. Pingback: The Bible is not Open to Narcigesis: Thinking the Bible is Written to You | Jesus Without Baggage

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