The Bible is the most printed book in the history of the world. This will likely be the case for a long time. There are many claims about this much printed and much read Bible that are made ranging from “the Bible is perfect and without error” to “the Bible is creative writing project filled with made up stories with questionable literary value.”
I come to this conversation as a Christian, but not as an expert on ancient texts. So my claims are my own and do not rest on extensive research or scholarly reflection. They come from being a reader of the Bible, a believer, and a community of faith. I have taken college level courses studying scripture and even a course on how to read and interpret the Bible. But I come as a regular to this conversation.
I believe that the Bible has errors in it and that it is without error. And so, as you can clearly see, I have a problem on my hands as I am holding together two views of the Bible – each seemingly not allowing the other to exist.
I guess a metaphor is in order here. Any great work of art, whether the statue of David, the Mona Lisa, or any other revered work or art is in one sense perfect as it is. David is in one sense without error. And yet in another sense if you were to inspect the statue, it has errors. It has imperfections in it.
However, what we are talking about is error on two significantly different levels of observation. A nick in the statue is an error, but it does not compromise the authenticity of the statue. A scribal error or New Testament reference of the the Old Testament that is inexact does not destroy the authenticity of the Bible. The reality is that a document written by many different people over many different centuries in an array of different cultures translated into thousands of different languages is going to have some errors in it.
And here is the place where Christian fundamentalists set themselves up for serious problems. When errors in the Bible are pointed out by someone, their response has to be either denial of the error or loss of faith – or a softening of their fundamentalism. When fundamentalists hinge faith and even salvation on the Bible being errorless at every single point on every single level, skeptics listen and follow the fundamentalist rules. When a skeptic follows the fundamentalist rules of the Bible, there is no compelling reason for skeptics to part with their skepticism. There are what appear to be errors.
And when that is the focus of the conversation, it is easy to bring that conversation to a close. If we set up an error hunt, that is just too easy. If we were to judge the Statue of David by whether there was a single flaw anywhere in it, then we would miss the beauty of the statue itself. If we set up the rules of good art as being without a single error, then we can conclude that the Statue of David is not really a statue or not really art at all. No one does this with art.
The way I understand it is that scripture is errorless in its story, not its detail. The story of a creative God who created love and freedom and wrapped it in flesh that was a refection of God and set a physical context for love and freedom to play out over a thing labeled as time is at least compelling. Then, to engage that creative expression relationally when love and freedom waned and were at risk for being eliminated, is at least beautiful. Then for this God to engage even more closely, to actually become one of the created and to live a life of freedom and love is at least intriguing. Then for that God-human, out of love and freedom, to lovingly and freely surrender to hate and oppression for the sake of demonstrating that love and freedom are more powerful than hate and oppression, allow himself to be killed is at least shocking. Then for this God-human to overturn death to show love and freedom are what last beyond the worst hate and oppression have to offer is at least inspirational. Then for that God-human to start a movement of people intended to live love and freedom in community that is both now and on the other side of death is at least hopeful.
The story is errorless regardless of whatever errors may be in it. If faith hinges on inerrancy with every little grammatical mark, then the Bible is hopeless – as is everything else in all of life. If it hinges on the story, then the Bible has much to offer humanity. I would argue, it offers a story so beautiful that it is roomy enough for truth.