What is the basis for believing that the Bible is not just another spiritual book that contains erroneous information that results from the shortcomings of its writers? This article will attempt to address two basic questions in this regard: Was the Bible inspired by God and is it really inerrant?
Was the Bible Inspired by God?
B. H. Carroll, D.D., LL.D., on page 81 of his book entitled Inspiration of the Bible, says, “Inspiration is that influence of the Spirit which enables its subject, or constrains its subject, to write what God wants to be written.”
Gordon R. Lewis, on pages 251-252 of Inerrancy, a book edited by Norman Geisler, Ph.D., declares,
To say that the Bible is God’s revelation is to say that what the Bible teaches and attests was breathed out by God (2 Tim. 3:16) and had no mere human origination (2 Peter 1: 20, 21; 1 Thess. 2:13). These passages rule out a view that the Bible is a book that originated with man and is simply used by the Spirit to achieve redemptive ends, in spite of its human weaknesses. The Bible’s teaching is from above as God guided the thinking of the authors by all the available providential means. . . .
With regard to the concept that the Bible is God-breathed (i.e., inspired by Him), James T. Draper, Jr., D.D., says on page 66 of his book entitled Foundations of Biblical Faith,
It means more than just that God prompted the men to express things a certain way.
Inspiration refers to verbal inspiration. There are people who tell us today, “The thoughts are inspired, but not the words.” How does one think without words? A thought is words that are unspoken. There is no way to accept that the Bible has certain great thoughts and principles that are inspired without also accepting that the words are inspired.
Subsequently, on page 68 of the same book, Draper provides the following additional explanation of inspiration:
The inspiration is varied. The writers all used their personalities and their unique style of writing. . . . There is a difference in styles and a variety of expressions, but the Bible is inspired by God. God had each one of these holy men say exactly what God wanted him to say, yet he used their own styles and personalities.
John W. Haley, M.A., has a similar perspective. On page 7 of his book entitled Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible, he states, “Inspiration does not destroy the individuality of the writers. It deals primarily with ideas, rather than with words. It suggests ideas to the mind of the writer, allowing him, generally, to clothe them in his own language.”
Is the Bible Really Inerrant?
The belief that the Bible is inerrant is based upon the premise that the Word of God states only what is true. Paul D. Feinberg, on page 294 of Inerrancy, provides the following definition of inerrancy:
Inerrancy means that when all facts are known, the Scriptures in their original autographs [the original biblical manuscripts] and properly interpreted will be shown to be wholly true in everything that they affirm, whether that has to do with doctrine or morality or with the social, physical, or life sciences.
Gleason L. Archer, on page 13 of his book entitled Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, says, “Inerrancy is a logical result of inspiration. For inerrancy means wholly true and without error. And what God breathes out (inspires) must be wholly true (inerrant). . . . By truth we signify that which corresponds to reality.” Archer’s comments indicate that it is important to understand that the inerrancy of the Bible is determined by the extent to which the writings that comprise the Bible have been inspired by God.
On page 26 of the same book, Archer addresses the question as to whether or not the Bible is only partially inerrant. According to Archer,
It is a matter of basic self-contradiction for a partial-inerrantist to hold that in matters of history and science, the Bible may err and yet for him to expound any text from the Scripture as having authority in its own right. While he may perhaps preserve a greater measure of integrity if the text he is preaching happens to be purely doctrinal or theological, nevertheless he is false to his own position when he fails to justify his treating the text as inherently authoritative. Nearly all the cardinal doctrines of Scripture come in a historical framework, and very frequently in a supernatural setting. It is less than candid for a Christian spokesman to assure his audience that any such doctrinal affirmation in the Bible is to be received as factual unless he at the same time furnishes them with some sort of critical verification to the effect that “in this instance the Scripture speaks the truth.”
And, on page 8 of his own book entitled Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, Archer states,
[T]he Bible is a book God inspired in order to give us religious truth but not precise facts of science and history. To waste time defending the Bible in these latter areas is to do it a disservice, they say. It diverts attention away from the real purpose of the Bible, which is rather to instruct us in spiritual and moral matters. A variant of this position is that the purpose of the Bible is to lead us to the personal truth of Christ. The Bible may be wrong on many points, but it points to the Savior; and to focus attention on points of geography, history, astronomy, and biology is only to divert it from its true goal – personal faith in Christ.
Subsequently, on page 22 of the same book, Archer says,
[T]here has been a strenuous effort made by the revisionist movement within American Evangelicalism to defend the legitimacy of maintaining a kind of infallible authority or trustworthiness of Scripture that allows for the appearance of factual errors in matters of history and science – even in the original manuscripts of Scripture. It is urged that the Bible was never intended to be a textbook of science or history, only of theology and doctrine. There may have been occasional mistakes in the area of astronomy or biology, and misunderstandings reflecting the backward views of a prescientific age may be reflected in the Hebrew text; but surely these mistakes cannot be regarded as endangering or compromising the validity of the theological teachings that constitute the main thrust of those ancient books. And if perchance now and then there may be contradictions between one statement of historical fact and another in some other passage, these errors may be freely and frankly admitted without damage to the status of the Bible as an infallible textbook in matters of metaphysics and theology.
Then, Archer declares on pages 23-24 of his book,
There can be no infallibility without inerrancy – even in matters of history and science. . . .
If the statements [the Bible] contains concerning matters of history and science can be proven by extrabiblical records, by ancient documents recovered through archaeological digs, or by the established facts of modern science to be contrary to the truth, then there is grave doubt as to its trustworthiness in matters of religion. In other words, if the biblical record can be proved fallible in areas of fact that can be verified, then it is hardly to be trusted in areas where it cannot be tested. As a witness for God, the Bible would be discredited as untrustworthy. What solid truth it may contain would be left as a matter of mere conjecture, subject to the intuition or canons of likelihood of each individual. . . . All things are possible, but nothing is certain if indeed the Bible contains mistakes or errors of any kind.
Also, in regard to whether or not the Bible is inerrant in everything it says, Greg L. Bahnsen, on page 153 of Inerrancy, asks,
[I]f God sets forth false assertions in minor areas where our research can check His accuracy (such as historical or geographical details), how do we know that He does not also err in major concerns like theology? If we cannot believe the Lord’s Word when He speaks of earthly things, how can we believe Him when He tells us of heavenly things?
It should be noted that Bahnsen distinguishes between the original documents that contained the writings that are the basis for subsequent translations of the Bible and the current translations of those documents (i.e., the Bibles that we have today). On pages 155-156 of the aforementioned book entitled Inerrancy, Bahnsen says, “[T]he view that has persisted throughout the centuries and is common among evangelicals today is that the inerrancy (or infallibility, inspiration) of the Scriptures pertains only to the text of the original autographa.”
And, Carroll asserts on page 27 of his previously-referenced book, “God would not inspire a book and take no care of the book. His providence has preserved the Bible in a way that no other book has been preserved.”
In regard to the writings of the most prominent writers of the New Testament, Carroll argues on page 114 of his previously-mentioned book,
[I]f God inspired Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Paul to give us a record of the life and work and office of Jesus Christ, then Matthew, Mark, Luke, John and Paul must be in accord. There can be no contradictions between them. . . .
Archibald Alexander says on page 229 of his book entitled Evidences of the Authenticity, Inspiration and Canonical Authority of the Holy Scriptures,
[C]ould it be shown that the evangelists [the writers of the New Testament scriptures] had fallen into palpable mistakes in facts of minor importance, it would be impossible to demonstrate that they wrote anything by inspiration.
With regard to the New Testament in general, Bahnsen declares on page 152 of Inerrancy, the aforementioned book edited by Geisler,
In accord with the promise of Christ, [the Holy] Spirit sent from heaven to inspire the preaching of the gospel guided the apostles into all truth (John 16:13). As the Spirit of truth He would not generate error in the life-giving good news of Christ as publicized by the apostles; their message was made inerrant. Furthermore, the apostles spoke words taught by the Spirit of God (1 Cor. 2:12-13), and the Spirit speaking them directed both what was said and how it was said (cf. Matt. 10:19-20). Therefore, according to Scripture’s own witness, the verbal form and content of the apostolic publication of the gospel message should be deemed wholly true and without error.
Because of their divine origin the Scriptures are entirely trustworthy and sure. . . . The Scriptures are the standard of trustworthiness. . . . Their accuracy extends to every minute detail. . . . Every single word of the Bible is . . . infallibly true. God’s own declaration is: “I, the Lord, speak the truth; I declare what is right” (Isa. 45:19).
Subsequently, on page 154 of the same book, Bahnsen states concisely the importance of the inerrancy of the Bible, when he says, “If the Bible is not wholly true, then our assurance of salvation has no dependable and divine warrant; it rests rather on the minimal and fallible authority of men.”
And, Archer contends on page 76 of Inerrancy,
If God Himself is not concerned with total truth – including the area of history – then the Bible must be submitted to the scrutiny and judgment of man in order to determine what portions of it are valid and what are invalid. No longer does God’s Word sit in judgment on man; man sits in judgment on God’s Word. We cannot rely on God to speak the truth, or at least always to have guided the human authors of Scripture into truth.
We will now seek to determine whether or not biblical inerrancy has existed from the original manuscripts to the current translations of the Bible.
Were the Original Manuscripts Inerrant?
On page 157 of his previously-cited book, Haley alleges,
[The writers of the original biblical manuscripts], while divinely guarded against any error in communicating religious truth, and against any material error in narrating matters of fact, were yet not preserved from trivial errors, defects of memory, and the like, which occasionally appear in their writings.
Unfortunately, there is no way to determine for certain whether or not the possible problems mentioned by Haley occurred, especially because there are no known original autographa (i.e., original manuscripts of the writings that comprise our Bible) that exist today.
Archer, on page 59 of Inerrancy, further explains the importance of the original biblical manuscripts not having any errors, as follows:
God’s written revelation came in inerrant form, free from discrepancies or contradictions, and this inerrancy contributes to its achieving its saving purpose. If there were genuine mistakes of any sort in the original manuscripts, it would mean, obviously, that the Bible contains error along with truth. As such it would become subject to human judgment, just like any other religious document. The validity of such judgment, of course, depends upon the judge’s own knowledge and wisdom. If he rejects the truth of the scriptural record simply because it seems to him to be unlikely or improbable, then he is in danger of eternal loss. The charge of scriptural self-contradiction or factual error is to be taken quite seriously; it cannot be brushed off as a matter of minor consequence. At stake is the credibility and reliability of the Bible as authentic revelation from God.
Subsequently, on pages 59-60 of Inerrancy, Archer declares,
If any part of the Bible can be proved to be in error, then any other part of it – including the doctrinal, theological parts – may also be in error. We are referring here, of course, to the original manuscripts.
Then, on page 81 of the same book, Archer adds,
A Bible containing mistakes in its original manuscripts is a combination of truth and error and is therefore in the same class as the religious scriptures composed by pagan authors as expressions of their own search after God. As such, it must be subjected to the judicial processes of human reason, and in the effort to sift out the valid from the false, any human judge – whoever he may be – is necessarily influenced by subjective factors. All he can be sure of is his own opinion – and even that may change from year to year. At best he comes up with conjectures and guesswork. . . . But he has no truly reliable, objective basis for knowledge of the one true God or His will for our salvation or way of living.
Bahnsen declares on page 189 of Inerrancy,
[T]here are those who would attempt to make much of the unprovable character of original inerrancy because the autographa are now gone. Since the original biblical manuscripts are not available for inspection, it is thought that taking them to have been without error is groundless speculation. After all, nobody today has actually seen these allegedly inerrant autographa. This criticism, however, misunderstands the nature and source of the doctrine of original inerrancy. It is not a doctrine derived from empirical investigation of certain written texts; it is a theological commitment rooted in the teaching of the Word of God itself. The nature of God . . . and the nature of the biblical books . . . require that we view the original manuscripts, produced under the superintendence of the Holy Spirit of truth, as wholly true and without error.
Even if the Original Manuscripts Were Inerrant, Were the Subsequent Copies Inerrant?
On page 179 of Inerrancy, Bahnsen states,
Only with an inerrant autograph can we avoid attributing error to the God of truth. An error in the original would be attributable to God Himself, because He, in the pages of Scripture, takes responsibility for the very words of the biblical authors. Errors in copies, however, are the sole responsibility of the scribes involved, in which case God’s veracity is not impugned.
Geisler and Thomas Howe, M.A., in their book entitled When Critics Ask, state on page 23,
When critics . . . come upon a genuine mistake in a manuscript copy, . . . they assume it was in the original inspired text of Scripture. They forget that God only uttered the original text of Scripture, not the copies. Therefore, only the original text is without error. Inspiration does not guarantee that every copy of the original is without error. Therefore, we are to expect that minor errors are to be found in manuscript copies.
Roger R. Nicole and J. Ramsey Michaels express the belief that, although copies of the original manuscripts of the Bible differ somewhat from the original manuscripts, they do not differ significantly. Therefore, they regard the copies as being trustworthy. On page 77 of their book entitled Inerrancy and Common Sense, they declare,
The Bible has been inspired to provide for us a message relating to spiritual matters and on that account the measure of uncertainty which has been introduced by the presence of variants (e.g., deterioration in minute details; change in word order) does not really impair the authority of the Scripture. It can be said that copies of the Bible are inerrant to the extent that they agree with the original, and by all reasonable constructions, this extent is very considerable.
References by Jesus Christ, his Apostles, and other writers of the New Testament documents to what was recorded in Old Testament manuscripts substantiate the credibility of the copies of those manuscripts. With regard to these manuscripts, Bahnsen states on page 161 of Inerrancy that these men had “confidence in God’s providential preservation of the copies and translations as substantially identical with the inspired originals.”
Similar scriptural substantiation of the credibility of the copies of the New Testament documents is not available. However, since God inspired all scripture (2 Timothy 3:16), it is reasonable to conclude that He did what was necessary to assure the integrity of the New Testament writings, as well as the Old Testament writings.
Are the Bibles that We Have Today Inerrant?
Bahnsen declares on page 172 of Geisler’s book entitled Inerrancy,
[T]here are only two options: either the Bible on our pulpits is the inspired Word of God, or it is the uninspired word of man. Because inspiration and inerrancy are restricted to the autographa (which are lost, and therefore not found on our pulpits), then our Bibles, it is argued, must be the uninspired words of man and not the vitally needed word of God. Others have misconstrued an epistemological argument for biblical inerrancy as holding that, if the Bible contains even one mistake, it cannot be believed true at any point; we cannot then rely on any part of it, and God cannot use it to communicate authoritatively to us. From this mistaken starting point the critics go on to say that the evangelical restriction of inerrancy to the autographa means that, because of errors in all present versions, our Bibles today cannot be trusted at all, cannot communicate God’s word to us, and cannot be the inspired Word of God. If our present Bibles, with their errors, are not inspired, then we are left with nothing (since the autographa are lost).
Then, on pages 188-189 of Inerrancy, Bahnsen expresses his belief that the copies of the Bible which we have today satisfactorily represent the original documents. He states,
The doctrine of original inerrancy, then, does not deprive believers today of the Word of God in an adequate form for all the purposes of God’s revelation to His people. Presupposing the providence of God in the preservation of the biblical text, and noting the outstanding results of the textual criticism of the Scriptures, we can have full assurance that we possess the Word of God necessary for our salvation and Christian walk. As a criticism of this evangelical doctrine, suggestions that the autographic text has been forever lost are groundless and futile. The Bibles in our hands are trustworthy renditions of God’s original message, adequate for all intents and purposes as copies and conveyors of God’s authoritative Word.
Many other Christian writers support this viewpoint of Bahnsen. The following are some examples.
Frederic Kenyon, on page 23 of Our Bible and the Ancient Manuscripts, asserts, “The Christian can take the whole Bible in his hand and say without fear or hesitation that he holds in it the true Word of God, handed down without essential loss from generation to generation, throughout the centuries.”
Johannes G. Vos, on page 659 in Volume 1 of The Encyclopedia of Christianity, says, “[W]e possess the text of the Bible today in a form which is substantially identical with the autographs.”
Similarly, Gordon R. Lewis declares on page 192 of Inerrancy,
We can be assured that we possess the Word of God in our present Bible because of God’s providence; He does not allow His aims in revealing Himself to be frustrated. Indeed, the results of textual criticism confirm that we possess a biblical text that is substantially identical with the autographa.”
And, on page 69 of his aforementioned book, Draper says,
The miraculous thing is that the more we discover of ancient manuscripts, the more we discover that what we have is right. As far as the great eternal truths of the Bible are concerned, we have not discovered conflicts that alter the basic beliefs that we have. The Bible is the preserved Word. The same God who inspired it and revealed it has protected its transcription down to us.
With specific regard to the copies of the New Testament that we have today, B.B. Warfield, on pages 12-13 and 14-15 of Introduction to Textual Criticism, avers,
[I]f we compare the present state of the New Testament text with that of any other ancient writing, we must . . . declare it to be marvelously correct. Such has been the care with which the New Testament has been copied – a care which has doubtless grown out of true reverence for its holy words – such has been the providence of God in preserving for His Church in each and every age a competently exact text of the Scriptures. . . .
The great mass of the New Testament . . . has been transmitted to us with no, or next to no, variation; and even in the most corrupt form in which it has ever appeared, to use the oft-quoted words of Richard Bentley, “the real text of the sacred writers is competently exact; . . . nor is one article of faith or moral precept either perverted or lost. . . .”
What about apparent discrepancies between specific scriptures? Given the foregoing information regarding God’s inspiration of the Bible, it would be appropriate to assume that, if we had further insight, it would facilitate interpretation and reveal that the apparent discrepancies are reconcilable. Haley states emphatically on page 3 of his book, “[W]e must guard against the conclusion that, since we cannot solve certain difficulties, they are therefore insoluble.”
On page 15 of their book entitled When Critics Ask, Geisler and Howe assert,
[T]he Christian scholar approaches the Bible with the . . . presumption that what is thus far unexplained is not therefore unexplainable. He or she does not assume that discrepancies are contradictions. And, when he encounters something for which he has no explanation, he simply continues to do research, believing that one will eventually be found.
Allen Bowman, Ph.D., on page 145 of his book entitled Is the Bible True?, cautions,
Patient, impartial examination of supposed contradictions is essential. Jumping to conclusions about them is never profitable. It is especially important to suspend judgment when full evidence is not available. It is a mistake to conclude that because we cannot solve a given problem, the problem is insoluble – At best our information is spotty. The available evidence points strongly to the conclusion that if our knowledge were complete, the consistency of the Word of God would be apparent throughout.
[Note: To learn more about apparent discrepancies between specific scriptures, see our articles that pertain to biblical discrepancies, which are listed under the heading of “Confidence in the Bible.”]
Nevertheless, there are a number of variations in the Bibles that exist today, as reflected by translations that differ from each other to varying extents with regard to the wording of the scriptures that comprise the Bible. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that some translations provide somewhat better transcriptions of the original biblical manuscripts than other translations do.
The following statements by John Skilton on page 143 of The Infallible Word provide a good overview regarding the inerrancy of the Bible:
We will grant that God’s care and providence. . . have not preserved for us any of the original manuscripts either of the Old Testament or of the New Testament. We will furthermore grant that God did not keep from error those who copied the Scriptures. . . . But we must maintain that the God who gave the Scripture . . . has exercised a remarkable care over his Word, has preserved it in all ages in a state of essential purity, and has enabled it to accomplish the purpose for which he gave it. It is inconceivable that the sovereign God who was pleased to give his Word as a vital and necessary instrument in the salvation of his people would permit his Word to become completely marred in its transmission and unable to accomplish its ordained end. Rather, as surely as that he is God, we would expect to find him exercising a singular care in the preservation of his written revelation.
We conclude that, in light of the information provided throughout this article, it is reasonable to believe that God has done what is necessary to assure that the basic integrity of His Word. Therefore, most, if not all, the generally-accepted Christian translations of the Bible that exist today satisfactorily represent what was stated in the original manuscripts, despite differences in the wording of these translations.
For those people who want to have greater confidence that the translation of a particular scripture is consistent with the wording in the original manuscripts, they can compare the wording of several of the most widely-used current Bible translations and consult a credible Bible concordance.
[Note: The Appendix that follows briefly addresses oral tradition, which is regarded by some Christians as equivalent to biblical teachings. And, if you would like additional commentary regarding biblical inerrancy, click on “Is the Bible Reliable?”]
How Should Oral Tradition Be Regarded?
Although a number of Christians believe that oral tradition pertaining to Christian doctrines is equivalent to what is stated in written form in the Bible, there is sound reason to believe otherwise.
Bernard Ramm, Ph.D., on pages 134-135 of his book entitled Special Revelation and the Word of God, states,
The great attribute of the written word is objectivity. The oral word too has its measure of objectivity, but it cannot match either the flexibility or the durability of the written word. Memory is imperfect. The desire to change or pervert is ever present.
In reference to the same matter, Greg L. Bahnsen says on page 155 of Inerrancy, a book edited by Norman L. Geisler, Ph.D.:
The drawback to having revelation in oral form (or tradition) is that it is much more subject to various kinds of corrupting influences that stem from man’s imperfect abilities and sinful nature (e.g., lapses of memory and intentional distortion). To curb these forces . . ., God cast His word into written form. . . .