How Can We Trust an Imperfect Bible?

My post from yesterday on the inerrancy of scripture prompted a lot of conversation, and some of it I think deserves a follow-up response. I’ve already got a post on the Bible and the Word of God planned for next Wednesday, so I wanted to include this follow-up post today so I can keep my weekly posts on schedule.

Whenever we talk about the inerrancy of scripture, the question or counterpoint that I hear brought up the most is, “So if the Bible has errors, how can we trust it? What role can the Bible have if we can’t even trust what it has to say?”

And I think that’s a valid concern. It can be somewhat of a scary leap to admit that the Bible isn’t perfect. But I don’t think that the imperfections in the Bible are enough to cause us to mistrust it entirely.

Firstly, we trust all kinds of imperfect things and people, even recognizing their imperfections. I trust my preacher, even though he has occasionally said some erroneous things while preaching. I trust my parents, even though they made a few parenting mistakes when I was growing up. I trust the professors I had in college, even though they would often disagree with each other about things. The presence of mistakes, errors, and misunderstandings does not make something useless. In all of the examples I listed, there’s a context of reliability and relationship. The same is true of the Bible. I can trust it, even among its mistakes, because much of what I have experienced in my own life affirms the God I read about in the Bible.

Secondly, there’s faith. Faith that God can reveal himself to us, even through an imperfect medium.  Faith that the God who has consistently revealed himself to me is who he says he is. Faith that God can be perfect, even if the book about him isn’t. And frankly, if we need the Bible to be perfect in order to have faith in God, then we’ve only ever had faith in a book to begin with.

Finally, and most importantly, the Bible has been affirmed by generations of Christians who recognize that the God attested to in the pages of scripture is the same God that they see working in their own lives.

For the last 2,000 years, the Church has affirmed the Bible over and over and over again as a book that is, to borrow again from Paul’s letter to Timothy, “useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the person dedicated to God may be capable and equipped for every good work.”

The authority of the Bible doesn’t come from its perfection as a theological document. It doesn’t gain its trustworthiness from its immaculate historical record (To the contrary, it often plays fast and loose with history in order to make a more important theological statement). The power of the text doesn’t come because God dictated each word to the chosen vessels who only served to write it down.

The authority of the Bible comes from the fact that the Church has overwhelmingly affirmed and supported that the God represented in the Bible is the God that still exists and moves in the world today. The greatest evidence for the authority and usefulness of the Bible comes from the Church. 2,000 years later, I can crack open my Bible (or tap open my Bible app), read an account of something the Hebrew people recognized God doing in their time and culture, and recognize that same God doing similar things in my life.

And that’s why I feel like I can trust the Bible, even though there are some factual contradictions in its pages. That’s why I can use the Bible to draw closer to God, even if the prophet Daniel wasn’t a historical figure. Even if God didn’t create the world in seven 24-hour periods. Even if the Hebrew people didn’t have a perfect grasp of who God was and what he wanted from them. Because even amid the textual difficulties, I see a God I recognize. Even among the historical inaccuracies, I recognize the works of God. Even with the factual inconsistencies, I am molded further into God’s image.

That’s the value of the text. That’s where the Bible maintains its credibility. It’s not a perfect book, but it reveals a perfect God, whose work continues to be attested to by Christians all over the world today.

6 thoughts on “How Can We Trust an Imperfect Bible?

  1. If the Bible has historical errors, then how can we attest to the actual event of Jesus’ resurrection? Paul said that without the resurrection, then our faith is in vain. But, the thing with the resurrection is that most of the documents attesting to the resurrection are found in the Gospel accounts, which are believed to be inerrant by those that believe the Bible is inerrant. If we say that the Bible now has historical errors, then how can we be so sure of the resurrection, since the historical facts that the Gospel provides may, in fact, be inaccurate? If the resurrection didn’t happen then, then what is the point in believing in Christianity?

    Believing that the Bible contains errors makes the resurrection account gray, since we don’t know how accurate it is anymore. Isn’t that dangerous to the whole crux of Christianity?

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    1. I know it seems like a copout of an answer, but honestly… Faith.

      How can we know that Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled to the island of Elba? The only way we know is that people told us he was. People who are long since dead. We have to trust the word of historians, all of whom are imperfect at their jobs. We don’t tend to question it, though, when our history teachers tell us it happened, even though they don’t have a perfect knowledge of history. Because we trust the sources we have, that even if they aren’t totally accurate in every way, that they are largely reliable.

      We have 4 accounts of Jesus life, death and resurrection in our Bible, all written by fallible people. But they all included the story, and I’m inclined to believe it. The Church has affirmed it, even though nobody is alive today who witnessed it. But that’s good enough for me. Is there a possibility the resurrection didn’t happen? Objectively, yes. But that’s true about any historical event you weren’t alive to witness personally. At some point, we just have to have faith that Jesus actually rose from the dead to reunite us with the Father.

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    2. Short answer is that there’s a big difference between the historical certainty that Jesus rose from the dead, and whether or not Esther was a historical person. Just because the factual historicity of some elements of Scripture is difficult to determine, doesn’t mean that everything is equally questionable.

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  2. I’d suggest that Creation is another way that we see God through imperfection. Many Christians quite happily cite Romans 1 and point to God in Creation. There’s some validity to that. But they seem to mostly overlook that we could equally look at Creation and see evil. Earthquakes, tsunamis, tornadoes, sever cold, famines, severe heat, suffering, death. Without revelation we may or may not see the God Scripture describes. But with faith we see God in the beauty and recognise that the imperfections are temporary.

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  3. All-or-nothing troubles Westerners. I struggle to accept that 100% accuracy = reliability and 99.9% accuracy means we can’t trust the Bible. Yet, if one concedes 99.9% accuracy may still be acceptable, suddenly fear of the slippery slope pops up! Surely 10% accuracy can NOT be reliable? How far down can we safely go? And then, what if we decide (as imperfect people following imperfect hypotheses and methods of analysis) that the Bible is only 86.4% accurate in its historical reporting? Then what if using the same method we determine the Koran is 89.9% historically accurate? Does that make the Koran superior?

    And the whole emotionally charged exploration turns out to have begun on the wrong foot. We would do well to have a seat under Jonah’s vine and ask if we trust God.

    My wife, the math teacher, hesitates to go to my extremes. I would say there never has been a perfect textbook. She will admit she could not confidently assert there ever has been a perfect textbook, and that when she finds errors in one, she uses them to promote critical thinking. I proposed that one would assume a textbook to be more accurate than a student’s class notes. She agreed. Then I postulated that studying an entire class’s collection of notes could actually be an effective replacement (even if messier) to the text book because the disagreement between notes would show us problem areas. Error, even intentional inaccuracy, can offer powerful learning opportunities. But trusting the textbook more than the wise teacher will impoverish the learning experience.

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