How Reliable is the Bible? Infallible, Inerrant, or Neither?
The Bible is the single most read book in all of human history. So it’s not a surprise that it might have a few critics.
Over the years, I’ve read thousands of essays attacking the Bible as being “unreliable.” Authors like Dan Brown (and his best-selling pseudo-history book The Davinci Code) love to perpetuate these myths. To make matters worse, most Christians don’t even know enough about the Bible to know if these allegations are true or false.
For example, there have been a lot of claims that the Bible isn’t historically reliable. Some say that it is filled with contradictions and translation problems that would fundamentally undermine its reliability. To ratchet up the pressure, these same critics claim that there are “lost books of the Bible” which were eliminated for political reasons. And that many medieval clerics have written their own theology into the texts over the centuries.
But are any of these allegations true?
A short while ago, I shared a message responding to these allegations. And if you missed it, feel free to check it out here.
Truth be told, there are many secular sources which confirm the historical veracity of the Scriptures. There were no “lost books” of the Bible – only books that were thrown away because they were obviously written centuries after the Apostles had died. And thankfully, we have over 24,000 ancient manuscripts of the New Testament alone – many of which potentially date all the way back to the Apostles themselves. And less than ½ of 1% of these manuscripts have any variations whatsoever. (And the vast majority of those variations are mere spelling errors).
So, even if we obsessed over the small number of debatable texts – none of them pertain to any of Christianity’s core doctrines. (And once again, I cover this in greater detail in my video message linked here)
And if you’re interested in going deeper, scholar Norman Geisler listed over 17 categories of “alleged contradictions” in his classic reference work along with rebuttals for each. And having read dozens of books similar to this, I have personally concluded that the vast majority of these criticisms are simply “molehills turned into mountains.”
But don’t take my word for it: Go research it for yourself!
However, I will say this: When you truly dive into the meat of these debates, you will quickly be overwhelmed by a few terms like, epistemology or plenary inerrancy. I.e., A lot of the books on this subject are aimed at academic folks – making these topics impossible for normal people like you and me to study.
So, the purpose behind this article is to expose you to a few of the big terms and debates. And hopefully, it will be significantly easier for you to form your own opinions on the subject!
INFALLIBILITY vs. INERRANCY: What’s the Difference?
Up until the 1960’s, the word infallible and inerrant generally meant the same thing: “to be without error.“ But as the debates over scripture heated up in the late 1900’s, the two words were used to redefine two different philosophical approaches to the Scriptures. Inerrant was generally used to denote that Scripture was completely accurate – both historically and spiritually.
There were many scholars arguing that, “all historical references in the Bible should be considered unreliable” – mainly because, “miracles cannot happen.” Yet, “the Bible records miracles.” Therefore, the Bible is unreliable.
This logic led many scholars to the conclusion that: “Any historical references in the Bible must be externally corroborated by external (non-Biblical) sources, or, they cannot be considered credible.” In other words, if there aren’t alternative historians claiming that a city existed (say, for example, Josephus), then we simply cannot trust the Bible.
Thus, people who adopted this perspective generally hesitated to say that the Bible was inerrant (a higher level of accuracy). Rather, they preferred to use the word, Infallible – which generally meant: “reliable for faith and practice; but, it is not reliable as it pertains to historical or scientific facts.” In short, anyone using the term infallible after the 1900’s generally intends it to mean, “the Bible has some serious problems with accuracy. And thus, we should be right to question the accuracy of all historical events – even some miracles in the Bible.”
Naturally, the position of infallibility led many scholars to question almost everything such as – “Did Jesus really say any of the things we’re told that he said?”
Some conservative scholars felt like this position essentially undermined all doctrines and confidence in Scripture. Thus, they came up with a more conservative position that preserved the “authority of scripture,” yet simultaneously gave room for a little skepticism. These positions introduced us to two new terms: Verbal inspiration and Plenary inspiration.
The Latin word, plenus means “full.” And thus, the Plenary view of Inerrancy came to mean that the Bible is accurate in every detail – not merely regarding instructions about life and conduct. In other words, it is fully accuratewhen it comes to historical references, geographical details, dates, names, and doctrines. Similarly, the Latin word Verbum means “word.” And thus, the Verbal view of inerrancy has generally come to mean that, God’s word is accurate all the way down to specific words – even letters.
So to break it down: If you believe in “Verbal” & “Plenary” inspiration, it means, you believe the Bible is without error (inerrant) on historical references, geographical details, dates, names, and doctrines (plenary) as well as accurate down to specific words and letters (verbal).
For example, some scholars push back on the plenary position saying things like: “The Bible has scientific inaccuracies. For example, the Book of Joshua seems to imply that the sun orbits around the earth: Joshua 10:13 “The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day.” Yet, we know that this is not accurate to modern science. Therefore, the Bible isn’t accurate.”
In response to this, advocates of plenary inspiration retort, “Joshua was merely describing the sun in ways that his culture was accustomed to. And God actually needed him to use this scientifically inaccurate figure of speech in order for the ultimate purpose of the account to be conveyed to his audience.” Indeed, if God inspired a different phrase, it not only would have confused his audience but would have distracted them from the moral of the story. In other words, we need to stop and think about the impossible situation we’re forcing God into by nitpicking such passages.
For example, when God communicated the creation account (in Genesis 1), does he communicate it in such a way that pre-scientific humanity can understand? Does he describe it in ways that science understood it in the 1800’s? Does he explain creation down to an atomic level – as we understood it in the 1950’s? Is he required to mention atoms? How about quarks and hadrons? How about quantum physics? What degree of science and what era of science must God address in order for his passage to be considered “accurate?”
Even more, are we saying that God is not allowed to use figurative language? If someone asked me: “What time is sunset today?” I wouldn’t respond:
“You honestly think the earth is the center of the universe?” And why? Because “sunset” is just a figure of speech. And by using the phrase, it doesn’t necessitate that we are in denial of science.
Thus, the plenary approach says, it’s unreasonable for God to be “forced to inspire” Bible authors to use our politically correct phrases (according to our current and limited scientific definitions). It is equally unfair to require God to avoid figures of speech that might confuse interpreters with bad assumptions. In other words, the Scriptures can be fully accurate even if our interpretations and assumptions are not.
Besides, plenary advocates would say, “New Testament authors clearly took a plenary approach to Old Testament texts themselves (i.e., they repeatedly attested to the historic accuracy of the texts in their books). Bible authors would never agree with the statement that non-plenary advocates would say, “The scriptures are only accurate for ‘faith and practice’ but are not accurate on topics outside of this.” Therefore, Christians should take a similar approach to Bible writers.”
But What about Verbal Inerrancy?
Some scholars believe in plenary inerrancy but push back on verbal inerrancy. For example, some scholars say: “Our Greek and Hebrew manuscripts aren’t even accurate down to every letter. Some Old Testament Hebrew concepts get morphed or lost in translation as the Greek New Testament came to be. Even more, there are many manuscripts which are known to have spelling errors. Therefore, how can we say that our Scriptures are accurate down to the very words and letters?”
To be fair, some of these accusations are true. Yet, these accusations can also create false hysteria and fear. There are literally tens of thousands of ancient manuscripts. Scholars have arranged many of these into “transcription trees” (a.k.a., we know which manuscripts were transcribed from certain older ones). And after tracing every alteration and spelling error, scholars note that less than 1% of all Bible transcriptions have any variation. And the vast majority of the 1% are mere spelling errors – not variations that create any confusion about doctrine. Indeed, all of Christianity’s major doctrines are based on multiple proof texts from multiple books. And even if a person obsesses over the debated texts, they still don’t leave us with confusion about the author’s intent.
But it still begs the question: How can we say that the Scriptures are accurate down to the word when we have so many transcription texts with tiny errors?
As a response, the verbal inspiration group (a.k.a., Total inerrancy advocates) argue: “Only the ‘original autographs’ (a.k.a., the very first manuscripts ever created) are 100% accurate to the letter. I.e., it’s o.k. to believe there have been transcription errors over the years. But, these errors do not mean that God himself misspoke – or that God would allow his human conduit to erroneously add incorrect words. Indeed, humans will always make interpretation mistakes due to our biases or lack of context. But the problem is not with the text itself. And all of these “alleged contradictions” resolve themselves over time.
Secondarily, the verbal inspiration group claims that New Testament authors themselves clearly took a verbal inerrancy approach to Old Testament texts. (See Jesus’s argument about Psm 82:6 in John 10:34; or Paul’s argument about Abraham’s seed (not ‘seeds’) Galatians 3:16) I.e., they repeatedly make arguments that require God’s Word to be accurate down to the letter. And because of this, they implicitly attested to the accuracy of single words, even letters – not merely to the “faith and practice.” And therefore, modern Christians should take a similar approach.
For Further Study
Now, keep in mind, I am only giving you the tip of the iceberg on these debates. But, there are entire books written on every little statement I’ve given above.
Also note that many of the top scholars on this subject are already abandoning the terms “infallible” and “plenary” for new terms like, “total inerrancy” vs. “limited inerrancy” – which, in my opinion, just adds to the confusion of this topic.
Part of the reason for all of these changes in technical terms is because, the debates that are framing these doctrines are still happening. As the attacks on Scripture have heated up, so have the defensive positions. The doctrine of inerrancy was largely undisturbed for the first 1800 years of New Testament church history. And there are a lot of influential Christian scholars who are still contributing to this discussion – changing the terms.
So, for those of you who want to take this study a bit deeper, it’s critical you learn the most “up to date” lingo: The International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI) uses the terms Unlimited Inerrancy to describe those who hold to a verbal-plenary view (a.k.a., “total inerrancy”). Part of the reason for the change is because the conversation has become significantly more sophisticated. There are now a bunch of additional concepts that have been added to Plenary and Verbal. And on the other end of the spectrum, instead of confusing people with the word Infallible (which meant something different before 1960), many people now use the term Limited Inerrancy – which still generally means that, “the Bible is without errors; but only insofar as it pertains to faith and practice.” But, it’s come to be a slightly more mediating position for Christians who have a high view of scripture but want a little more wiggle room than the ICBI wants to allow. And “limited inerrancy” is certainly more conservative than many of the liberal protestant theologians who, functionally don’t even believe in the Bible at all.
So Don’t Miss the Whole Point
All of these debates are meaningless if we’re not reading our Bibles in the first place! (And if you’re wanting help with getting into your Bible, then check this out). Even more, let’s assume for a second that Christ really was God (a fact that I believe); and, let’s also assume that there are errors in the Bible (which I don’t personally believe). Then, even if there were errors and/or inconsistencies, the Apostles literally lived w/Christ for several years! Their accounts would still probably be the closest thing we could possibly have towards uncovering the truth. And we would be smart to hang on every letter as though they were totally inerrant. I.e., Who are we to say with confidence: “We know better than the Apostles” – now two-thousand years removed from the culture and language of the Bible?
At the end of the day, we have a choice to make: Faith in God’s Word or Faith in Man’s reasoning. And this leads us to our last discussion point.
The Circular Reasoning Debate
Critics of the inerrancy position often argue that, “It is a silly stance to take as it resorts to circular reasoning.” For example, “God’s word is true because, God’s word says so.” I.e., Just because Jesus and Paul used a verbal and/or plenary interpretation of an Old Testament text doesn’t mean we should (or must) do the same with other texts.
Non-Christian critics will often level the same accusation against Christians saying: “Just because God’s Word says it’s “God breathed” doesn’t mean it IS God breathed! After all, couldn’t the Koran and the Book of Mormon make the same claim?” And, in fairness to these critics, it’s true: Christian do utilize circular reasoning – as do Athiests and everyone else who makes an “absolute truth claim.”
For example, one time I was having a conversation with an Atheist friend who was picking on Christians for using circular reasoning. So I asked him:
“Ok., so lets say that the Bible is not the standard for truth. Then, what is the standard of all truth? In other words, finish this sentence: “The most reliable way to uncover truth is [fill-in-the-blank.] And he thought about it for a second, and said,
“Science is the most reliable way to uncover truth.”
“O.k.” I said, “then, explain to me WHY it’s the most reliable way.” And he started ranting about the scientific method for a bit.
Keep in mind, although I’m a Christian, I am also a man of science. Yet, I think it’s important to also see the limitations of science too. So, I started pushing back a bit regarding his over-confidence in science. I started telling him about the scientific studies regarding confirmation bias and inattentional blindness – how many scientific discoveries were sufficiently delayed because some famous scientist couldn’t handle seeing their theory dismantled.
In other words, I started quoting scientific studies proving that humans (including scientists) are ironically terrible at applying the scientific method. I.e., Denying reality is not just a Christian problem but a human problem. Science can answer questions like: “How?” & “When?” but it can NEVER really answer “Who?” & “Why?” – which is why I believe that science and faith are philosophically bound together.
So, after pressing him a bit, I asked him again:
“So WHY do you believe science is the most reliable source of truth?” And he responded,
“Because… I think it is. And that’s that!”
“So, let me get this straight…” I said. “You think science is the best, because, you say it is! Isn’t that circular reasoning too?” You see, at the end of the day, all claims for “absolute truth” require a form of circular reasoning. It isn’t limited to Christianity’s claim of inerrancy.
So, here’s a different way to look at the Bible’s claim.
If we were to set the Koran next to the Book of Mormon next to the Bible, what are the differences?
A Christian might say, “Well, our founder claimed to be God and then proved it by rising from the dead in front of 500 people. Whereas the other founders merely claimed to be prophets.” A Christian might also add, “Our founder fulfilled an almost impossible number of Old Testament prophecies, like: being born through a virgin, through the lineage of Shem, Abraham, Judah, Jesse, in the town of Bethlehem while the temple was still standing (before 70 A.D.) Thus, as Josh McDowell wrote, “Using the science of probability, we find the chances of just 48 of these prophecies being fulfilled in one person to be right at one in 10157 (i.e, a one in 10 followed by 157 zeros).
Thus, Jesus didn’t merely claim to be a prophet. He claimed to be God. And if he was God, then his Apostles got the lucky opportunity to have a front row seat to his teachings for over three or more years.
Assume with me for a moment that all of the above is true. You would think that the Apostles would be in a far more accurate position to record truth than say, the followers of Joseph Smith or Mohammed, right? After all, Jesus wasn’t a fallible prophet, he was literally God. And he made an exclusive promise to his Apostles that, he would guarantee they would remember his teachings (see John 14:26-27 and John 16: 13 below). And, not only did they record their messages, but, they were all martyred because they refused to recant their claims. Thus, the writers of the Bible are said to have a “reluctant testimony” meaning: They did not benefit from their claims whatsoever. Indeed, they suffered horrible deaths because of their claims – which adds additional credibility.
Now, in fairness to the other positions, one might argue: “But, many zealots have happily died for their causes – such as Japanese Kamikaze’s and Islamic suicide bombers – but, this does not make them true.” Which is true.
However, I point all of this out simply because, not all holy books make the same claims.
Christianity is unmistakably unique regarding its claims to authority.
Now, I am not saying that you need to agree with the bold claims mentioned above; however, when you put them side-by-side, it’s hard to say that “all holy books” make equal truth claims – not to mention, back up their truth claims with equal weight.
Once again, I’m not saying that “Christianity is so special and the Bible is so unique that, there’s no need for faith!” Indeed, all of these worldviews require faith – especially Atheism. Rather, I am simply arguing that many of the attacks on the Bible’s reliability don’t carry as much weight when you truly analyze them – and turn them on the alternatives. Indeed, other worldviews have an equally complicated claim towards veracity – perhaps even a more complicated burden of proof in my opinion.
So, when it comes to exploring this topic of “Biblical Reliability” don’t allow the critics or the big words to scare you. Even in the age of science, the Bible is still the number one selling book on planet earth. And, perhaps there’s a reason for this? In the end, I don’t think the Bible is going to lose its #1 position any time soon.
Additional Books to Check Out:
“Defending Inerrancy” – Affirming the Accuracy of Scripture for a New Generation – Norman L. Geisler and William C. Roach.
“Biblical Errancy: An Analysis of Its Philosophical Roots.” Geisler, Norman, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1981.
“Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties” by Archer, Gleason. 1982
“Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible” by Haley, John W. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1977
“Scripture Principle” Clark Pinnock – second edition 2006 – Some would argue that he is still an inerrantist. However, the book is still an argument against “the strict views of inerrancy.”
“The Authority and Interpretation of the Bible: An Historical Approach.” Rogers, Jack B. and Donald K.McKim, San Francisco
 “Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics” by Norman L. Geisler – pg. 74-96.
 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: Chapter 5 – The Inerrancy of Scripture. See footnote #2, p. 93
 Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: Chapter 5 – The Inerrancy of Scripture. p. 93
 Brian H. Edwards “Why Should We Believe in the Inerrancy of Scripture?” February 16, 2017 – https://answersingenesis.org/is-the-bible-true/why-should-we-believe-in-the-inerrancy-of-scripture/
 Even if God described events in a way that was perfectly accurate to our concept of science, it’s still quite arrogant to assume that “our current definition of science” is the correct one. For example, of all the knowledge in the universe, how much does mankind currently know? Probably less than 1%. Of all of mankind’s scientific knowledge, how much do you know? Probably less than 1% of that 1%. Therefore, in light of our extremely limited knowledge, it’s almost absurd to assume that “our view of reality” is, most certainly, the correct one. We are essentially saying that We are the standard of all truth that Gods word must conform to in order to be accurate – as if somehow we have a monopoly on understanding the universe!
 See Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: Chapter 5 – The Inerrancy of Scripture. pp. 93-94
 Brian H. Edwards “Why Should We Believe in the Inerrancy of Scripture?” February 16, 2017 – https://answersingenesis.org/is-the-bible-true/why-should-we-believe-in-the-inerrancy-of-scripture/
 In his book “Evidence that Demands a Verdict” Josh McDowell unpacks the impossible number of Old Testament prophecies that would need to be fulfilled in order for someone to legitimately claim to be the Messiah – many of which were completely beyond the control of the individual (meaning, they couldn’t be self-fulfilled).
 Jesus reassured his disciples at the last supper by saying, John 14:26 “But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. 27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” And again in Jn. 16:13, Jesus broadens this promise: “But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth.”
 The only Apostle who didn’t die a martyr was John; yet, history claims that he had two attempts on his life anyway.