Other than watching baseball, I suspect there is no activity I have done more over the past fifteen years than study the Bible. When I was a freshman in college, I read the New Testament in less than a week. Since then, I have read through the Bible multiple times, memorizing big sections of it. Studying the Bible, particularly the historical, political, social, and cultural contexts in which its texts were written, is a passion of mine that will not go away.
As I have learned more about the Bible, I have had to unlearn some of the things people told me about the Bible early on. When I first came to the Bible, I had the assumption that it was truthful in everything that it taught. This view usually goes by the label "inerrancy." Those who hold the Bible is inerrant claim that the Bible makes this claim about itself when it says that "all Scripture is inspired by God." As time went on, I started doubting that when Paul said the Scriptures were "inspired by God" (literally "God-breathed") that this meant they were perfect. I remembered reading in Genesis that God breathed life into human beings at creation, but that didn't make human beings perfect. Human beings are inspired by God, according to the Bible, but from that one cannot deduce we are incapable of error. I started to see that theologians of inerrancy had taken a very flexible and provocative metaphor and turned it into a rigid and restrictive theory.
I should be clear that I started doubting the inerrancy of the Bible, not because of secular philosophies or modern historical studies, but because of the Bible itself. The more I read it, the more I learned about it, the more I discovered that the documents that make up the Bible are far from giving us a perfect, or even perfectly coherent, theology. It offers multiple theologies from different groups of people at different times and in different places. Within the Bible there is conversation and debate about a number of important issues. There are many biblical views of most issues. When people talk about the biblical view of _____, the issue has become oversimplified. For example, take the issue of how to treat your enemies. Your going to get very different answers depending on where you turn to.
I understand the motivations behind those who struggle to argue for and uphold the doctrine of inerrancy, and they are usually very good ones. The Bible should be respected by Christians, and what better way to respect it than to claim perfection for it! However, in the way I see things now, the way you respect the Bible is not by making the most exalted claims that you can for it. The way you respect it is by reading it for what it actually is, not by what your theology says it should be.
My relationship with the Bible, going from an inerrantist view to a more nuanced view of its authoritative role in Christian thinking and living, has in someways mirrored my relationship with my wife. Most married couples know what it means to talk about a "honeymoon" phase where you don't really see the person as they are, but as you want them to be. You see them through the lenses of a whole host of expectations and assumptions. Eventually, however, you discover the reality of who they are, they discover the reality of who you are, and then begins the journey of learning of learning to love one another as you really are. The honeymoon phase ends when you stop the easy task of loving an idea about them, and you start the sometimes difficult, yet immensely rewarding, task of loving the reality of who they actually are.
It seems to me that "inerrancy" is for people who do not want to leave the honeymoon phase of their relationship with the Bible. It is a theory about the Bible that is much more rooted in prior expectations and assumptions about the Bible, than it is in the actual content of the Bible. In the way I see things now, our task isn't to start with a theory about the Bible and then make the Bible try to fit within it. In the case of inerrancy, this brings with it a whole host of dishonest and inconsistent attempts at making the Bible says things it doesn't really say in order to save the theory. It is much better to start with the Bible and then develop a theoretical view that can account for what the Bible actually is.
One last thought. There is an inerrant Word of God, I believe, and his name is Jesus. For this reason, inerrancy is not only mistaken, it is idolatrous. It takes attributes that belong only to the Living Christ and gives them to a book. The Bible is, of course, the best textual witness we have to the Living Christ, who has all authority on heaven and earth, but it holds this treasure in jars of clay. The authority of the Bible comes from its power to connect us to the Living Christ, not to give us final answers on all of life's major questions. It did the first for me, and I made a wrong turn when I expected it to do the second for me as well.
I have been struck by how many Christians would label the sort of position I now hold as "liberal." That is a slippery word, for sure, and people mean different things by it. But I don't think this position should be described in this way. Theological liberalism is known for taking a naturalistic approach to the Bible and faith. In that sense, this view is not theologically liberal at all. The view I hold now would emphasize that Jesus Christ is not just a textual presence locked in the past, but because he is risen and sits at the right hand of God, Christ is also a living presence who dwells in God's future and is always calling us forward.
I don't think God stopped talking at the end of the fourth century when the New Testament was finally codified. God continues to speak to us through the Bible, but God is not bound by the Bible. Throughout biblical history, God is a God of surprises, changes, and new beginnings. Why should we think things are different now?
I think sometimes people treat the Bible as if God is on life support and the Bible is the breathing machine. God used to be living and used to speak, but now God is lifeless without the Bible to breathe and speak for him.
I don't deny that God can speak through the Bible. I know and feel that to be true.
But I also think that God is alive and is still breathing.
One last thought, for real this time. Another motivation for holding the inerrancy view is that there is a fear that without an infallible source of truth, we are adrift in a sea of relativism and confusion. Without an inerrant Bible, we are simply left with competing human opinions. I understand this motivation, but I also think it is ultimately misguided. Even with an inerrant Bible, there is still the need for interpretation. Inerrantists disagree greatly about what the Bible inerrantly teaches.
An infallible source of truth does not provide the longed for certainty, because there remains the necessity of fallible human interpreters.
In the thirst for certainty, inerrancy offers only a mirage.