The trouble with inerrancy: Why calling the Bible ‘God’s Word’ isn’t always helpful

The woman’s guide to reading the Bible and staying sane: Part Three

Catherine Cowell
12 min readMay 1, 2023
Photo by Fa Barboza on Unsplash

If we’re going to be honest about how the Bible views and portrays women, if we’re not going to ignore the difficult parts or treat them only as metaphors, where does that leave us?

The Bible presents us with mixed and contradictory pictures of women. Sometimes, it is radically affirming, subversively slipping in powerful female characters like Ruth and Abigail and Esther whose wisdom and faith and simple goodness shines through the patriarchal society in which their stories are set. However, there is no denying the fact that these are bright spots in a deeply male-centric set of ancient texts that tend to demonise, marginalise and ignore women. Texts that enshrine in law the position of women as property, with very few rights and no independent status in society apart from the men in their lives.

So do we conclude from reading the Bible that God shares the perspectives of the writers? That God also believes that the lives of women are not worth recording except where they intercept with the interests of men? That women should see themselves as divinely ordained to be second class citizens, destined to be abused, sidelined and ignored? That would be a pretty grim conclusion to reach. But it is exactly the conclusion that the church has reached over the centuries.

This brings us to a very thorny, but important question. To what extent do we believe that the Bible was authored by God? You will have heard, and possibly used, the phrase “God’s Word” as a way of describing the Bible. So what do we mean by that? Usually, if someone has written a book, that book will tell you quite a lot about the author. The topics they cover, the words they use, the things they choose to include and ignore, the attitudes they reveal all give you clues about the character and motivations of the writer. This makes it especially important for us to understand whose voice or voices we are hearing when we read the Bible.

The trouble with inerrancy

Of all the unhelpful ways of approaching the Bible, perhaps the most seductive and destructive is reading it through the lens of Biblical Inerrancy. In fact, it is this doctrine that underpins and perpetuates the unhelpful ways of reading the Bible that we’ve already looked at. You might not be familiar with the term ‘biblical inerrancy’ but you will be familiar with the idea. And quite possibly very alarmed that I am about to take issue with it. Panic not. You don’t have to agree with me. But I still think it’s important to talk about.

When I was part of an evangelical community, much store was set by the deliciously beautiful, but arguably somewhat ambiguous statement of Paul’s that ‘all scripture is God breathed’ (2 Timothy 3:16). The assumption was made that this means that God wrote the Bible, with a minor amount of assistance from the Biblical authors and that it is therefore infallible and without errors and unchanging and written to be a perfect guide for all aspects of life, for all people in all places for all time. This sounds great. Who doesn’t want an infallible holy book?

We are all on a continuum between on the one hand, seeing the Bible as written by people who happen to believe in God and on the other seeing the Bible as basically authored by God with help from the men who actually penned the words that God wanted written. My church was part of the tradition that emphasises the divinely inspired nature of the Bible in a way that minimises the fact that it was actually written by human beings a long time ago, in cultures very different to our own.

The doctrine of biblical inerrancy is outlined in a document called The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy put together by a number of prominent evangelical theologians in 1978. I realise that’s a while ago now, but the Chicago Statement sets out the core beliefs of this tradition very effectively and it’s worth taking a look at what it says. The Chicago Statement views the Bible as being the product of a single divine mind and says that:

Holy Scripture, being God’s own Word, written by men prepared and superintended by His Spirit, is of infallible divine authority in all matters upon which it touches: it is to be believed, as God’s instruction, in all that it affirms; obeyed, as God’s command, in all that it requires; embraced, as God’s pledge, in all that it promises.

and that:

…the whole of Scripture and all its parts, down to the very words of the original, were given by divine inspiration…

Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching…

Scripture, having been given by divine inspiration, is infallible, so that, far from misleading us, it is true and reliable in all the matters it addresses.

Although there is acknowledgement that human beings were involved in the writing process and that the different biblical authors had a range of personalities and styles, the belief is that the actual words written down, were very much God’s choice and not the choice of the human authors. So that:

…although the human writers’ personalities were expressed in what they wrote, the words were divinely constituted. Thus, what Scripture says, God says…

In summary, the doctrines of biblical inerrancy and infallibility assert that the Bible is written exactly the way that God wanted it to be written because everything within it, down to each and every word chosen by the authors, was decided by God. It can contain no mistakes or misunderstandings. The character of the Bible, effectively, is a mirror and expression of the character of God.

This view of the Bible is grounded in very laudable motivations. It comes from a desire to humbly trust God, to exercise faith, to be obedient to what God says in the Bible and to make sure that theology doesn’t change with every move of the cultural tide but rather to keep Christianity faithfully rooted within the timeless truth of God’s word. But the trouble is, the Bible doesn’t actually work like that, which leaves Biblical purists with some pretty sticky problems to resolve. Or ignore.

One of the more minor of these sticky problems is the fact that there are contradictions within the Bible. The original authors and compilers don’t make any attempt to remove those contradictions. You’d think, wouldn’t you, that if God really wanted a sacred text free of discrepancies and contradictions, he would have employed better editors. The same stories are often presented multiple times and contain significant differences. Sometimes the same story is viewed from different perspectives in the same book. Yes, there is great unity within the biblical narrative, but there are also differing perspectives, a sense of progression and development and a subtly changing world view. Different biblical texts quite frequently disagree with one another.

Take, for example, the story about how David first met King Saul. In 1 Samuel 16, Saul is being tormented by an evil spirit and his attendants suggest that it would be good if Saul had a musician in his service who could play him soothing lyre music when he was feeling tormented. He asks his servants to seek out a good lyre player and one of them says that he knows the perfect person. There’s this guy called Jesse, in Bethlehem, who has a son called David, who is a good looking, well spoken, brave warrior who also happens to be very good at playing the lyre. So Saul sends a message to Jesse, asking him to send David. David and Saul get on well and he not only plays the lyre when Saul needs soothing but also becomes one of his armour bearers.

One chapter later, we get the story of David and Goliath. David is sent by his father Jesse with pack lunches for his brothers, who are soldiers. He arrives at the battle field, where the Israelites and Philistines are facing one another and Goliath is making his famous challenge, to settle the dispute by one to one combat between himself and one of the Israelites rather than a battle. David annoys his brothers by asking what’s happening and then goes to find Saul, to offer to take on Goliath. He’s not a warrior, he’s a shepherd. He has no armour of his own, the only credentials that he offers are his experiences of protecting his sheep. And Saul has absolutely no idea who he is.

There are quite a lot of contradictions of this kind in the Bible, particularly in New Testament where we have four different accounts of Jesus’ ministry. The obvious answer to this particular contradiction is simply that when 1 Samuel was being compiled, there was more than one story in circulation about how and why Saul’s first meeting with David took place, so the authors chose to include both. But for the adherent of biblical inerrancy, this cannot possibly be the case, as illustrated by this very telling paragraph from the Chicago Statement:

The truthfulness of Scripture is not negated by the appearance in it of …seeming dis- crepancies between one passage and another… Apparent inconsistencies should not be ignored. Solution of them, where this can be convincingly achieved, will encourage our faith, and where for the present no convincing solution is at hand we shall significantly honour God by trusting His assurance that His Word is true, despite these appearances, and by maintaining our confidence that one day they will be seen to have been illusions.

So people who believe in biblical inerrancy view the Bible as sacred, acknowledge that it contains different perspectives but firmly believe that the right thing to do is to view these differences and inconsistencies as mere illusions. For this reason, a quick raid of the land of Google will, if you’re interested, yield multiple tortuous explanations of how these two accounts of the way Saul and David met can be resolved into a single narrative. None, I have to say, are as convincing as simply taking the stories at face value as two different accounts.

You will have noticed the glaring logical flaw here. Namely, a complete refusal to accept the Bible as it is. Effectively, the biblical inerrantists are saying that the Holy Spirit has authored the texts of the scriptures, exercising control over the very words that they writers used, but where those very words, sovereignly authored by God, contain inconsistencies and discrepancies, the job of the faithful Christian is to insist that these sovereignly ordained inconsistencies and discrepancies don’t really exist because God wouldn’t write a sacred text that had inconsistencies and discrepancies so they must be a figment of our imagination. Is your brain hurting yet?

There are sacred books that dispense with all the inconvenience of having human authors who sometimes contradict one another. The Book of Mormon was inscribed on golden plates which were dug up and translated (with divine help) by Joseph Smith. The Koran was dictated directly to Mohammed by the angel Gabriel in a cave near Mecca. If God had wanted us to have inerrant scriptures, then God could have organised it. But that isn’t what we’ve got. Which suggests that a divinely dictated book is not what God intended. Instead, we have a set of scriptures that were written and compiled by real people, living at different times, who don’t always agree with one another.

Surely the way to treat the Bible with respect is to start by approaching the Bible with the intention of seeing what it is actually like. Not starting with a preconceived idea about what we think the Bible should be like and then twisting ourselves in knots to find ways of making it read that way even if it doesn’t. If we find discrepancies, perhaps the right thing to do might be to ask questions about how they come to be there and what that might tell us. Or even, and here’s a novel idea, what God might want to say to us through them. Maybe if the Holy Spirit didn’t step in and tidy up all the loose ends and awkward bits, we don’t need to either. Perhaps God doesn’t need an army of Biblical harmonisers running around making everything nice and neat after all. Maybe it’s meant to be a bit messy. Maybe it was God’s plan for it to be human.

It’s not only contradictions and discrepancies that create difficulties if you read the Bible in this way. Far more troubling is the impact that it has on the way we view God. If the character of God is unchanging and the Bible is God’s word, then everything we read reflects God’s character. And as we’ve seen, the Old Testament in particular, contains some pretty unpalatable stuff that we then feel obliged to try and justify. If the narrator says that God told the Israelites to wipe the population of a town from the face of the earth, then God told them to do it. We might not understand why God might command or cause something so terrible to happen, but that’s not our concern. God cannot be wrong. If that’s what God did, then God’s actions were right and just. If there is law telling Israelite soldiers that the women they capture in battle are God’s gift, to do with what they want, then that is a law that was written because that is what God, in God’s wisdom and sovereignty, decided. There is no room for doubt.

Interestingly, even the Bible doesn’t insist upon the “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” approach. In 2 Kings 9–10, there is the gruesome story of Jehu, who is anointed as king of Israel by a prophet and instructed by him to go to Jezreel and slaughter King Ahab and his whole family. Following this bloody coup, God tells Jezreel that he has done well in obeying his command to kill Ahab and his family and that as a reward, four generations of his family will be kings of Israel. But then in the first chapter of Hosea, we are told that God plans to punish the house of Jehu for the massacre that took place in Jezreel. So did God order the massacre of Ahab and his family? Or was God deeply dis-chuffed about the massacre? Is the house of Jehu to be richly rewarded or severely punished? We don’t know, but the very fact that the Bible itself doesn’t know either gives us permission to think about it. It means that it’s not unreasonable to question whether or not the things that happen in the Biblical stories necessarily happen for the reasons given by the narrators.

We know that genocide and misogyny and cheerfully stoning your disobedient children (another Old Testament law) are inherently bad things. This is why, most of the time, we don’t actually try and justify the more gruesome bits of the Bible. Instead, we ignore them or treat them as metaphor. We find ways of glossing over them.

But then there are other parts of the Old Testament, such as certain laws, that we are perfectly happy to keep. We are selective about which Old Testament laws to import into our New Testament times. Laws about homosexuality and giving ten percent of your income to the church? We’ll keep those. Laws banning prawns and bacon sandwiches and mandating the stoning of adulterers? Definitely not for our time.

All in all, the theology that says God chose every word of the Bible, as attractive as it first seems, creates more problems that it solves. In short, you can have a Bible that is inerrant, infallible and written by the Holy Spirit if you want. But if you do that, you also get a sexist, oppressive, violent, tribal God who changes his mind. You find yourself either ignoring or justifying sexism, violence and genocide.

I don’t know about you, but the reason I continue to follow Jesus so passionately is that I am convinced that Jesus gives us our best insight into God’s character. And I am constantly humbled and inspired by Jesus’ goodness. I cannot on the one hand believe that Jesus is God incarnate and at the same time, believe that God actually views women in the way that the Bible, if taken at face value, suggests. If Jesus looks like God, then God looks like Jesus. If you’re reading the Bible and seeing a God who is not like Jesus, then there is something else going on.

A couple of other series that might pique your interest. First, one about facing the sexism in the Bible honestly:

And secondly, a series looking at the ways in which the Bible shows us the Divine Feminine:

If you enjoyed this, you might like my Loved Called Gifted podcast, available on most podcast platforms, or you can find it here.

I offer spiritual direction and coaching. The Loved Called Gifted course, available online and in person, will help you to discover your life calling. Discover these things and other bits and pieces on my website.

--

--

Catherine Cowell

Adoptive parent, follower of Jesus, spiritual director, coach, writer. Lover of coffee shops, conversations and scenery. Host of the Loved Called Gifted podcast