SIDE OF SCRIPTURE
In three ways, then, the Bible’s truthfulness is not a simple subject. First, ideas of truth and error vary from culture to culture. Second, some minor errors have come into the text of Scripture since it was first written. And third, other minor errors existed in the original text.
The first of these points does not really involve error in the Bible per se, but the second and third do.
Since God is perfect and completely unerring, how do reconcile the presence of these errors with the divinity of the Bible?
I am not sure exactly how to understand this. But I think the answer probably lies in the human quality of Scripture. As well as being divine, the Bible is a thoroughly human set of writings.
For example, the different authors had their own writing styles and abilities. Some were very polished and fluent writers, while others wrote in awkward and disjointed language. When inspiring the Bible, God allowed these writers to be themselves. He allowed the text to remain very human.
It seems that the presence of minor errors in the Bible should be understood in the same sort of way. They are not important enough to stop the Bible accomplishing its purpose. The voice of God still comes through loud and clear. But these errors do help to show Scripture’s thoroughly human side.
IN WHAT WAY IS THE BIBLE
FREE FROM ERROR?
Although the Bible is not completely without error in all its details, there has to be a meaningful level on which it is free from error. Otherwise, it would be unreliable as a guide for life. And that would be unthinkable.
So exactly what is this level?
I am not sure precisely how to describe it. But basically, anything that the Bible teaches that is important for life and faith has to be correct. Everything it teaches about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, sin, salvation, heaven, hell, evangelism, the church, the family, morals, etc., etc. is always true. So on this level we can say that the Bible is free from error. And this is the level that counts.
Essentially, the errors that exist in Scripture are not significant enough to cause it to mislead us in anything we need to know. The Bible gets the job done that God designed it for.
DANGERS OF ACCEPTING THAT THERE ARE MINOR ERRORS
If we accept, then, that there are minor errors in the Bible, isn’t this a dangerous thing to believe? Might we not end up sliding down a slippery slope and accepting serious errors in doctrine or practice?
There are a few points to make here.
This challenge affects all Christians
It is important to recognize that even ultraconservative Christians need to respond to this challenge.
Although ultraconservative scholars claim that the original text of Scripture contained no errors at all, even they almost always agree that minor errors have come into the text since it was written. So potentially this could lead down a slippery slope towards believing that major errors have come into the text since it was first composed.
Therefore, this challenge regarding a slippery slope is one that really affects all Christians. Everyone, or almost everyone, who has studied the matter in any depth agrees that the Bible as we have it today contains some minor errors. So everyone needs to address this challenge.
No danger of more significant errors existing
Secondly, we need to understand clearly that the existence of minor errors in the Bible in no way means that there is a danger that it might actually contain more significant errors.
Scripture exists because God decided to form a book of writings that would guide His people down through the ages. And we can be certain that His Bible project was and is a success. It is therefore unthinkable that He has allowed it to mislead us in anything of importance. So we can be sure that He has not permitted errors in Scripture that are more than minor, insignificant ones.
A temptation to resist
It is true that Christians who accept that Scripture contains minor errors will at times be tempted to believe that it is in error in more significant ways too. In this sense there is admittedly a real danger of sliding down a slippery slope.
However, this temptation is one that can and should be resisted. There is a world of difference between a minor error that has no effect on our lives and a major error that would influence how we live or what we believe about God. If we keep this difference firmly in mind, we will not end up sliding anywhere.
DANGERS OF EXPLAINING
Something that ultraconservative Christians often fail to recognize is that their view of errors in the Bible often causes big problems.
It is true, as I have said, that ultraconservatives almost always agree that some minor errors have come into the text of Scripture since it was written. It is right and helpful that they admit this.
However, ultraconservatives always deny that the original text contained any errors at all.
In order to hold this view, they are forced to come up with extremely unnatural interpretations of passages and find other solutions to things that are on the face of it very improbable. To put it bluntly, in order to hold their views ultraconservatives have no choice but to keep explaining things away.
Above, I gave a few examples of this, but there are many more that could be added. To suppose that ultraconservative views on biblical errors can be held without resorting to techniques of this kind is simply not realistic.
However, this whole business of coming up with forced interpretations and explanations is problematic in several ways.
First, there is the matter of honesty. When we approach any part of the Bible, we should always be as honest as we possibly can be with each passage that we read. If a text seems most naturally to be saying something, we should admit that.
Time and time again, I see ultraconservative Christians giving interpretations of biblical passages that are at best dubious, at worst impossible, without any admission that they are taking an unnatural interpretation of the text. They obviously think that the text they are reading shouldn’t be saying what it strongly seems to say, so they force their interpretation of it to make it say something else. And then they pretend that this forced interpretation is actually a natural one or only slightly unnatural.
Being dishonest in any way, however, is a sin, and that includes dishonesty when dealing with the Bible. It greatly displeases God.
But dishonesty is not just wrong in itself. It also serves to put non-Christians off the gospel. Non-Christians are often very sensitive to noticing when Christians are being dishonest. And when they think they see this, they frequently want nothing to do with the Christian faith.
If ultraconservatives were to admit what they are doing when they take extremely unnatural interpretations of the Bible, the problems caused by dishonesty would be avoided. But they rarely, if ever, seem to do this.
Putting people off the faith
I have just noted that being dishonest in biblical interpretation often puts people off the Christian faith.
However, there is another, more significant way in which ultraconservative views on errors in Scripture put people off the faith.
Something along the following lines often happens:
An ultraconservative teacher says that if the original text of the Bible contained even one minor error, then the Christian faith would have to be a lie. A non-Christian accepts this as correct. The non-Christian then examines the Bible and concludes that its original text did indeed contain some minor errors. So they decide that the Christian faith must be false.
The same sort of thing often happens to those who are already Christians. They become convinced that there were minor errors in the original text of Scripture. They accept that this is incompatible with the truth of the Christian faith. And so they walk away from the faith.
I find this so sad. These people have tripped over a rock that should never have been there in the first place. I wonder how many people might have become Christians or might still be in the faith if they had understood that the existence of minor errors in the original text of Scripture in no way means that the Christian faith is false.
I think ultraconservatives have a lot to answer for in this area.
We do have to be careful here, of course, because there can be no compromise on accepting that the Bible is fully error-free in what it teaches about anything that is of importance. Those who are contemplating becoming Christians need to be told this in no uncertain terms. But putting people off the faith over a matter of trivial errors in Scripture is completely unnecessary. It is nothing short of tragic.
A dangerous precedent
There is yet another big problem with ultraconservative views on errors in the Bible.
As I have said, ultraconservatives can only hold their views by taking some extremely unnatural interpretations of biblical passages. However, doing this sets a terribly dangerous precedent. It gives a green light to those who want to take extremely unnatural interpretations of the Bible in other places too.
So when ultraconservatives come up with forced explanations of passages and claim that they are defending truth, in reality they are unintentionally encouraging people to misinterpret the Bible in all sorts of ways.
Ultraconservative views on errors in the Bible, then, actually cause big problems. These views lead to dishonesty, put people off the Christian faith, and encourage misinterpretation of Scripture.
In this article I have made a number of different points. The following are the most important:
First, when we get into the details, the truthfulness of the Bible is not a simple matter. Ideas of truth and error in the culture of the biblical authors were not exactly the same as in modern Western culture. Some minor errors have come into the text of Scripture since it was first written. And other minor errors existed in the original text.
Second, failing to acknowledge these things causes a variety of problems.
Third, and most importantly, the Bible consistently teaches what is true in anything that is important. In eternity past, God devised His Scripture project as a means of teaching His people down through the ages things that they need to know. And we can be confident that this project was and is a success.