Why Biblical Inerrancy Doesn’t Matter; or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bible

July 10, 2013

Can God use a talking ass to communicate to us?

Sure He can.  Those asses have names, like Martin Luther or John Calvin.  Ha!

I believe I’m on record having called John Calvin a “wang,” and I stand by that.

Of course, those aren’t the asses I wasn’t actually referring to.  In one of the most fantastical, unusual, perhaps unbelievable stories of the Old Testament, Balaam’s donkey opens his donkey mouth and speaks to him.

One of the perennial debates that goes around evangelical circles is the topic of biblical “inerrancy” and “historicity.”  Did the events in the Bible actually occur?  Can the Bible be trusted as a factual document?  My buddy, Zack at The American Jesus wrote a really challenging blog a few weeks ago about the topic.  You’ll have to make up your own mind about his assertions.

But every time this debate surfaces on my blog reader, I’ve had the sneaking suspicion that we’re missing something.  My “missing the point” radar goes haywire. Given two choices – to either believe all of the Bible, or be a heretic, there must be a third choice.

I finally found the third choice.  And it has everything to do with Balaam’s donkey.

Just the Facts, Ma’am

Raise your hand if you love C.S. Lewis.  That’s what I thought.

Raise your hand again if you believe stories like The Screwtape Letters or The Chronicles of Narnia provide apt analogies for truth about God and humans.  Yep, me too.

Now, raise your hand if you believe C.S. Lewis’ stories are factually true.  Uh-huh.  Just as I suspected.

See, there is a very real difference between a story that is merely factually true in its reporting of the facts, and a story which illustrates and leads the reader to a greater truth.  Lewis was a master of allegories which, while not true the way we expect a newspaper article to be, provide illustrations of rich truths of the human spirit.

When we discuss the Bible merely in terms of facts, arguing which facts are to be believed, we are really kidding ourselves.  We are pretending to think critically about scripture, when really we are only scratching the surface.  We are missing the intent of scripture.

Let’s say some future civilization digs us all up and finds the tools in your garage.  The future people have no idea what they are.  They can study and hypothesize about the facts of the tools – their material makeup, their shape and form.  But their understanding will be fundamentally shallow until they discover the tools’ intended purpose.  The facts won’t produce understanding until intent is included.

Flatly Factual Fundamentalists

Bart Ehrman has written another book, which inevitably tries to make our entire faith look foolishly unfactual.

Do you know what kind of religious background produces a Bart Ehrman?


The teaching that you either must believe every word of the Bible is factually, literally true, or don’t believe it at all.

That’s a false dichotomy.  It’s a dichotomy that is driving away droves of young people who think they have to choose between their brain and their faith.  It’s a dichotomy that the Bible doesn’t even present for readers.  It’s a dichotomy that glosses over the literary beauty and the intended purpose of the text and forces people to base their faith on only a surface understanding of the Bible.

The point of the Bible is not a bunch of cute little stories, all existing independently, and whether or not they happened. It’s about something so much bigger than a boat or a donkey.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying

Is the point of Genesis 1 that God created the world in six days, or that God is our amazing creator?

Is the point of the Bible that Isaiah supposedly wrote the book of Isaiah or that Paul wrote the book of Hebrews? (He didn’t.) Or is the point that scripture is “God-breathed?”

Is the point of scripture to be a purely factual account – a history textbook?  Or is the Bible a piece of literature whose function is to point to a truth that is bigger than even its pages can hold? (Didn’t John say the gospel accounts, nay the whole world could not hold the whole truth about Jesus?)

And the big question of the day:

Can God use a talking ass to communicate to us?

I think He can.

And if God can do that, then God can use an ancient text, written over centuries, whose authors were fallible humans, as a vehicle for the Holy Spirit to penetrate our hearts and show us the truth about who He is.  If I start with the belief that scripture is God-breathed, then it no longer matters if Balaam’s donkey actually talked.  The question is what does this story say about God?  How does it fit into the whole story?

God can use stories, fantastical, even legendary to show us Truth.  And learning and embracing this was how I learned to stop worrying about “inerrancy” and love the Bible.  I don’t love the Bible because of its facts (lowercase.)  I love it because of its Truth (capital.)  I believe the Bible is inerrant, meaning the Bible is exactly how God intended it, not merely that Jonah survived in a fish for three days…

…But who knows.  Maybe I’m just another talking ass.

What do you think?  Does the inerrancy debate even matter?

22 responses to Why Biblical Inerrancy Doesn’t Matter; or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bible

  1. I enjoyed your article and the one linked to on American Jesus. My question, which I think is one of your points, is if we prove that one position is true and the other wrong, have we accomplished anything? We only have so much time and energy and resources in our lives. Instead of spending them on proving something, why not spend it on loving someone?

    Thanks, Matt.
    Jeremy Statton recently posted..3 Ways to Tell Truer Stories

    • Exactly. We can debate endlessly about this story or that story and it’s “factual” status, or lack thereof. At this point, I don’t care whether Balaam’s donkey really talked or not. I start with the supposition that scripture is God-breathed, and suddenly it doesn’t seem to matter whether a donkey talked.

      Another point that I didn’t make in the post. I have a much easier time trusting Jesus than I have with much of the Old Testament. So I look at how Jesus treated his “Bible.” Does Jesus claim it’s all “factual?” He calls the story of Jonah a “sign,” but not an event. He never makes a point about scriptural events being factual. But he is reverent toward the text, showing how it all leads to him. That helps me greatly.

  2. Thanks a lot for this. I certainly agree with you that the Bible is literary (as Leland Ryken says, it’s far closer to “imaginative writing” than to “history book”) and needs to be read in that light. I also agree with you that its purpose is to point us to God.

    I’d be slow to throw out the entire biblical inerrancy debate though, simply because of the concluding sentence of your second-to-last paragraph: the Bible is what God intended it to be. This means that we need to reevaluate our use and definition of “inerrant.” I’m hard-pressed to believe in a literal six-day creation, and I really don’t think God requires me to wear a scarf to cover my head when I’m praying. But if we take the word “inerrant” to mean that the Bible must be interpreted, contextualized, and understood in a literary (rather than historical or scientific) light, then I will fight for inerrancy to my dying day.

    And I will fight for inerrancy. Back in college, I was studying some of the postmoderns of philosophy and I started to question everything I really thought I knew. Does God exist? Is He really “personal”? Was the “historical Jesus” the Jesus of the Bible? My professor (who is one of the greatest men I’ll ever know), said that we can turn the world on its head with our ideas, say that “brick walls are soft and downy,” but ultimately we will run into those brick walls and it will hurt. So I decided doubt and uncertainty will always have their little corner in my life, but I had to figure out what my “brick walls” were and commit to those. Biblical inerrancy (that the Bible is the Word of God and exists as He intended it) was the brick wall that I crashed into. If there is a God, I believe that He has revealed Himself and done so through scripture, therefore scripture is (part of) our route to knowing Him.

    So perhaps don’t be so quick to pitch the inerrancy argument, but man, you definitely have great things to contribute to it, starting with redefining the term “inerrant.”

  3. Hmm…an interesting post that really struck me. It’s easy to see The Bible as one gigantic text never to be criticized, but we forget that some books are historical accounts (Luke or Joshua) some are poetry (psalms or Song of Solomon) and that deeper meaning comes to those who will look beyond the surface.


    • Thanks Lisa! It’s funny how, as you say, the Bible is one enormous text never to be criticized. But I think the opposite can also be true, where we get stuck in the weeds of picking individual stories. This is how we teach kids in Sunday School, rather than showing them how that patch fits into the whole fabric of scripture.

  4. Amen! Jesus is the Truth, not the Bible, not doctrines. Those doctrines and biblical interpretations may or may not also be true in the literal historical sense and I have my own views about what I would be inclined to think of in each way. But it really doesn’t matter as long as it brings me back to the real Word of God, the living Word of God, Jesus. Sadly the reality is that by drawing a line around certain interpretations as absolutely essential to be a real Christian, fundamentalism has created a stumbling block that takes far more people away from Jesus than it does bring people toward Jesus.

    • Great to hear from you, Ryan, and you are absolutely right. Fundamentalism is driving us all apart because we all have our own definition of what are the “fundamentals.” I’ve written about this, but the history of fundamentalism is interesting because the original fundamentalist beliefs were truly fundamental! Just bare bones belief structure without all the extra nonsense that modern fundamentalism has tied around peoples’ necks.

  5. Great post Matt. Really enjoyed it. I think you hit the nail on the head with the false dichotomy issue. To me, it’s that obsession with dichotomies that causes so many of the problems we face in the church today. Everything, we think, has to be A or B. The idea that an answer could be A and B and C is treated like heresy, even though the Bible offers multiple answers all the time.

    And I think you’re spot on about the intent of Scripture. Are there historical facts in the Bible? Sure. But that’s not the point and if we miss that point, like you said, we miss what God is trying to say to us and do through us.

    Anyway, great stuff. And thanks for the shout out!

    • Thanks Zack. Certainly murky waters, but I think with this issue, as with many, we boil it down to two impossible choices in the interest of simplicity, usually leaving no good options. I just feel so relieved to start with “God-breathed” instead of “historical fact.”

  6. “I don’t love the Bible because of its facts (lowercase.)  I love it because of its Truth (capital.)”
    Well said! Let’s use the words that scripture uses to describe itself — “God breathed” — and not try to enforce language and concepts like “inerrancy” that aren’t in the Bible.

  7. Great article. There is an interesting study you can do in the Greek re “god breathed”. The original Greek didn’t have the chapter and verse divisions and the divisions create a misreading of that verse. A careful reading of the verse absent the division and looking at the Greek shows Scripture is only God breathed when “in Christ”. It isn’t the text that is alive with the breath of God but the meaning as revealed when it comes alive in me when I am in Christ. Everyone has experienced scripture becoming “God breathed”. That verse you have read many times suddenly jumps from the page and you practically gasp when God reveals the true import of what it is saying. That is when dead words become scripture and creates truth in the heart as it is made alive like Adams dead flesh was made alive by the breath of God. When I realized this I no longer worried about any of the arguments about inerency. After all there were plenty of lies through history taken from the Bibles words, so what comfort could there be in the words being inerrant if the “truths” gleaned from those words through history were so often the basis for hate and injustice? But when I saw that the Scripture was totally trustworthy when made alive in me I knew I had a bible I could trust.

  8. Matt, thanks for the thoughtful post. I totally agree that bare facts (which actually don’t exist!) without intent are meaningless. The bible is telling a story, utilizing facts, which actually gives meaning to all facts.

    I do have some comments, however.

    First, you say, “If I start with the belief that scripture is God-breathed, then it no longer matters if Balaam’s donkey actually talked.” You go on to say that what really matters is the deeper truth God is trying to communicate about himself through the story.

    But would you say this about the resurrection of Jesus? Or the coming judgment? Or the hope of heaven? Or the declaration that my sins have been forgiven in Christ? These too are all examples of things the bible “seems” to say actually did or will happen in history. Are you saying that a belief in the divine nature of scripture really means that it doesn’t matter if Jesus rose again? Or if my sins have really been forgiven? That all that matters is the deeper truth God is trying to reveal about himself through this interesting story?

    Let’s assume you say, however, that these sorts of facts are in a different class from Balaam’s donkey i.e. it does matter that Jesus actually rose from the dead. But on what grounds would you hold such a belief? In other words, why is the balaam story unimportant historically but the resurrection is non-negotiable?

    You might say genre. The genre of the Balaam or Jonah stories would indicate that these stories are not meant to be literal historical events. But the genre of the gospel accounts (e.g. Luke’s well researched gospel) would indicate that the claim of Jesus resurrection was based on eye-witness testimony.

    But in this case, your issue is genre, not inerrancy. The issue is learning to read the bible with literary skill. Now you and I may disagree on issues of genre that would lead us to different conclusions about, say, Jonah and the fish. But let’s be clear. This is truly an issue of genre, not inerrancy.

    So yes, I would say the inerrancy debate is still quite important. The incarnation of Jesus is the chief example that God cares about actual history and not just spiritual truth. And Jesus’ death and resurrection in history charge the rest of scripture with deep historical importance.

  9. Brilliant article. Whether or not one believes in the inerrancy of the Bible, or studies the exegesis and genres of the Bible as literature and history, its origin is of the Spirit, and it is a live document, God’s living, breathing word, just as Don describes it. The joy for me in learning to interpret Scripture is learning more about God – His love, grace, mercy, forgiveness and humor (re: Balaam’s donkey!) – and my relationship with Him, not just about those singular words on the page.
    Susan Irene Fox recently posted..Class of We Made It

  10. want to have some fun while you make your point and help others to lighten up?
    tell the truth pushers you haven’t read the bible, cant tell how to tell if its allegory, literal or poetry, but that you rely on your daily walk with God to lead u into all truth.
    you will of course need to confess this lie before they leave.
    there was a time when I told this to folks and it was true.
    the politics was so convoluted and ensnaring that i didn’t care what the bible said, and i definitely didn’t care what the experts thought.
    40 yrs later, i still dont care what they think or what they think about what i think.
    on the other hand, i care immensely what my wife, kids & close chrisrtian friends think about what i think. and vica versa.
    among us, we all agree that biblical inner-ency is probably not possible, but it is possible to be inerrant about Jesus in our and each others lives.
    we mess up on scriptural understanding, and worse, we actually SIN once in a while!!!!!
    its us who is errant, and are given to idolatry, lies and evil of every kind, and its not scripture that keeps us from succumbing, but each other in our lives daily.
    I trust Jesus in you more than I trust Him in myself, because Im given to self deception.
    so staying close to you and others is my safety net, knowing if I step outside scriptural and spiritual boundaries, somebody, somewhere, sometime is going to shoot me with the scripture gun.
    Thank God!!!

  11. “It’s a dichotomy that is driving away droves of young people who think they have to choose between their brain and their faith.” That is powerful, and sad. Take the creationist argument that the world was created in 6 literal days, or that the earth is only 6,000 years old. The scientific community, and large majority of free thinkers, know that the earth is much older, based on facts like carbon dating and studies in geology.

    Does it really matter if the earth is 100,000 years old, or even 200,000 years old? does it disprove God? No. Maybe our interpretation of Genesis needs to be updated. What really matters is that God created the world and everything in it.

    Another example is Revelation. No one really believes that a literal monster with 7 heads and 10 horns is going to rise up out of the Pacific ocean(although I have met some fundamentalists who believe it will because it’s ‘in the Bible’). So we must be open to the fact that 1)not all things can be taken literally, and 2) if all things cannot be taken literally, than we must be open to look at the Bible as a divinely inspired ‘library’.

  12. This (and Zack’s post) were both lovely, and bring up stuff that I’ve been thinking about for years.

    It seems to be all to easy to fall into the trap of trying to “prove” the Bible. It proved to be problematic in college as a biology major–my parents had hopped on the “literal interpretation of Genesis” train, and it made things tricky for me. I was fortunate to have a really patient prof who didn’t mock me outright about the Ken Hamm books I was bringing from home. Long story short, I learned that you can’t approach the Bible with the scientific method, and you can’t approach scientific analysis the same way you do your religious beliefs. To do otherwise really perverts the two.

    I think I learned to appreciate the Bible much more when I figured out that I didn’t have to “prove” it the way you do a scientific hypothesis.

  13. One of my pet peeves is equating “God breathed” with “literally true”. It is obvious in the Bible this isn’t the case (someone above mentioned the beast in Revelation and that’s a great example). I’m currently taking an interpretation class and it emphasized the point you make- the “inerrancy” is in the intent. Our challenge is to dig into the particular passage- consider its genre, historical context, and intended audience- and work out what the intent is.
    (and I’m surprised no one has mentioned this yet- but love the Dr Strangelove reference!)
    Frank recently posted..I’m Full of It

  14. Wow, Matt, I’ve never thought of it this way before. Thank you for enlightening me. It really helps when dealing with some of my difficult questions and doubts. I tend to shove them under the carpet, so they don’t threaten me, but looking at things in this light makes those questions and doubts not such a big deal. Thank you!
    Kate Hall recently posted..Caption That! (Round 41)

  15. Inerrancy is important so the debate will not go away anytime soon. I shy away from the idea of inerrancy “in the idea” or “in the intent” or “in the purpose”, because those areas can be so subjective. Rather I view inerrancy like the yellow lane stripe on the highway. It is there, it is true, it is not in doubt. However the yellow stripe cannot keep us in the lane if we choose to drive over it. The stripe is not my problem, its your driving that is in question.

  16. “I believe I’m on record having called John Calvin a “wang,” and I stand by that.” Pretty sure this is where I shot coffee out my nose.

    Amen. While there is a place for the intellectual discussion about epistemology, theology, apologetics, etc it seems we too often forget the “resounding gong and clanging cymbal” message in 1 Corinthians 13. The Bible is full of black and white truth, but life is a multicolored mess. And Jesus jumped straight into the fray w/ love.
    ThatGuyKC recently posted..A mind divided against itself

  17. Hey, Matt. I think that there are definitely places where the Bible may not be “factually” true in the strictest sense. The mustard seed isn’t the smallest seed, but Jesus used that as the example because it was the smallest his audience knew.

    I also think the choice between brain and faith is indeed a false dichotomy, but differently than the reasons you mention. As mentioned in C.S. Lewis’s Miracles (possibly indirectly, it’s been a while), once we claim faith in the God of the Bible, we claim faith in a being who is not not restricted by our natural limitations and can reach inside of our limited reality and affect it in ways that we may not be able to scientifically explain.

    I mean, my brain says that the storm didn’t really obey Jesus when He told it to calm down. The resurrection is impossible, and Mary’s a liar at best and cheated on her betrothed at worst. Yet, my faith in God points to miracles that make all those claims untrue. If God can somehow cause a virgin birth, raise men from the dead, and tell a storm it can’t be a storm anymore, then He can certainly give a donkey the ability to speak to a human. Or perhaps He gave the Balaam the ability to understand the donkey, I don’t know.

    And that, my friend, says infinitely more about God’s sovereignty and love for His people than relegating it to a story pointing to a truth instead of being both factually true AND pointing to a greater truth.

    Grace and peace.
    Don Sartain recently posted..Being Human is Being in Community

  18. To me the important thing about inerrancy is that the Bible claims to be the true word of God. If the Bible contains untrue claims, even if they’re only about, say, the authorship of Ecclesisastes, how can we trust other things it says to be true? Now, I certainly believe it isn’t entirely literal, lacking love doesn’t literally transform us into clanging cymbals. But where the Bible makes a claim to literal truth, it cannot be wrong if we are to trust it as scripture. If it is factually incorrect in a claim it makes, how are we to trust a figurative claim not to be equally incorrect? How do we know that the resurrection actually occurred, or that there will truly be a heaven or a hell?