A limit of inerrancy

The Bible is inerrant, but we are not: This is a fundamental proposition held by both Protestant literalists and by the Catholic Church. Both groups agree that the Bible is inspired by God such that all that Holy Scripture affirms is true and without error. This does not mean that there are not hard questions that still must be answered, and I for one am willing (where I once was not) to concede that perhaps I do not have all the answers to those questions.

Some of them are better than others. The claim that the Bible supposedly proposes a value of 3 for Pi is flatly absurd, for example. But there are others that are more difficult. For example, did Edom allow Israel to pass through its territory peaceably (Deuteronomy 2:29) or not (Numbers 20:18)? We can’t have it both ways in terms of the way the actual event took place; either Edom let them pass or they didn’t. So which is it?

Although I am willing to consider proposed resolutions of this difficulty that allow us to retain the idea that both Numbers and Deuteronomy are intended to be literal historical accounts both of which must be interpreted literally, I do not see how that notion can be retained in the face of this seeming contradiction. But the Bible is inerrant. This is an article of faith. There are two implications to this fact which we do well to keep in mind when struggling with difficulties like what Edom did (or didn’t) allow. One is that an article of faith requires the exercise of the virtue of faith, and that faith is addressed to things that we cannot or do not know by means of reason. It may well be the case, for example, that the Bible is inerrant just as we believe, but that we do not have a resolution for a difficulty like this. Faith does not pretend to answer literally all our questions; when it comes to an infinite God, there will always be things about Him that we will never understand just because we are not infinite. But there is a second implication I think is more helpful in addressing a seeming difficulty like what Edom did.

That implication is that we may be wrong though the Bible is not. It is often said that both Deuteronomy and Numbers present literal history to us, but let us be frank. In the absence of some unusually good harmonization of the seeming (?) contradiction between Deuteronomy 2 and Numbers 20, the only rational thing we can do is to acknowledge either that Deuteronomy or Numbers does not present literal history or that neither of them do. This choice by itself does not in any way imply that either of these books of Scripture contain error. It simply means that at least one of them is not intended to be understood in a flatly wooden and literalistic manner. Rather, at least one of them must be of a literary type that does not require literal truth in every detail. This is not a unique case, but it does emphasize once again the dangers of careless handling of God’s holy and inspired Word.

So what is the “limit” to inerrancy I reference in this post’s title? The limit is something in us, and it is that inerrancy does not mean there are no difficulties in biblical interpretation. Taking things literally does not solve all problems. Sometimes it actually creates difficulties. We are limited and fallible, and we need to keep this fact in mind when we come to biblical interpretation. This is yet another reason why we must seek to interpret the Scripture in keeping with the living tradition of the Church. The Lord promises to ensure that the Church is preserved from error when it comes to matters of faith and morals; He does not make that promise to you and me personally.

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Posted in Apologetics, Catechism, Scripture
4 comments on “A limit of inerrancy
  1. tjustincomer says:

    I’ve never looked into this particular “contradiction”, but I would assume that it could be much like the contradictions within the Gospels. Much of the chronology issues can be resolved simply by the realization that these men had no intention to record perfect chronology and history. Sometimes Jesus says one thing at a particular time, other times the wording is different. It depends upon the author’s intentions. What is the overall sweep of Numbers versus Deuteronomy? Is it possible that the answer could be found in that?
    Personally, I don’t think that inerrancy means literal history. Obviously there is a certain degree of historical accuracy that we expect, but under severe scrutiny we find inaccuracy with even textbooks of modern times. Could the Bible be wrong? I don’t think so, but I would also be more worried about understanding the text in context rather than reconciling the details that seem to contradict one another.

  2. aquinasetc says:

    Hello Justin,

    Thank you for commenting. You said (among other things):

    Personally, I don’t think that inerrancy means literal history.

    I agree with you. But there are many, many evangelicals and conservative Christians who hold the notion that the Pentateuch and other parts of the Bible are of a literary type that requires literal interpretation in order to arrive at the truth the author/Author intended to convey. This, for example, is why there are so many folks who believe that Genesis 1 requires us to hold that creation occurred in the space of six literal twenty-four hour days. I think that there are good reasons to be quite a bit less than dogmatic about that particular thesis, not least of which is that the Church has never declared it to be dogma.

    You also said:

    Could the Bible be wrong? I don’t think so, but I would also be more worried about understanding the text in context rather than reconciling the details that seem to contradict one another.

    Two observations: first, part of the context is understanding the literary type of the text. If that type requires us to understand the text as literal truth, then we must do so, right? If on the other hand the text type is not a literal one, then to read it literally is to create opportunities for error in our understanding of the Bible. Secondly, nitpicky details like the one I discuss in this post are not so important for the Christian life, but in the context of an apologetic their importance grows, since there are unbelievers who look at such seeming incongruities and take them as an excuse to toss Christianity in the ashbin of history.

    Peace to you,


  3. C.J. Cameron says:

    It seems to me that the question of Biblical inerrancy is superseded by that of what actually constitutes “the Bible”. Regarding the “Old Testament”, different Christian faith traditions answer the latter question in different ways, each with major doctrinal implications. This question was touched upon in my post “Versions and Views” @ whichbiblewhatfaith.wordpress.com
    C.J. Cameron

  4. aquinasetc says:

    Hello C.J.,

    I agree that the Bible’s inerrancy and its exact contents are related and at least in some ways interdependent.

    In the post you refer to on your own blog you ask:

    Is it not irresponsible (not to mention lazy) for a competent and sincere seeker of the truth to rely on someone other than themselves to decide what constitutes God – inspired Scripture?

    It is no more irresponsible to appeal to authority in this case than it is to do so concerning tomorrow’s weather. Given that truth is one and the same for all men everywhere, then Aquinas (for an at-hand example) may very well have insights into the truth which I am less capable of discovering on my own. Furthermore, to suggest that the question of the canon must be decided by each man on his own begs the question that its canonicity is equally discoverable to each man making use of his own powers. In fact, the canon is something supernatural and therefore by definition its determination exceeds any man’s powers entirely.

    It is of course possible that God might have chosen to make known the canon’s contents to individuals directly, but this thesis is belied by the fact that individuals differ with respect to the canon. The “who is right?” question will not go away by leaving the decision up to individuals.



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