The Meanings of Inspired, Inerrant, Infallible?

I’ve recently been wondering about what it actually means to say that the Bible is inspired, as well as what the meanings of “inerrant” and “infallible” are. It seems to me that, if “inerrant” carries with it a notion of perfect scientific accuracy, the Bible can’t be said to be inerrant in any real sense of the word.

One example of scientific inaccuracy in the Bible that I can see is the (in?)famous mustard seed parable, in which Jesus refers to the mustard seed as “the smallest of all the seeds” (Matt. 13:31-32). This is false because orchid seeds are up to 20 times smaller than mustard seeds. Likewise, the Bible says that insects have four legs (Lev. 11:20-23), and that ants are individualistic (Prov. 6:6-8). These are observably false statements.

Some of the most interesting examples of scientific error in the Bible seem to come from the cosmology of the Old Testament. Paul Seely has made the case that the “firmament” of Gen. 1:6-8 was considered by the original authors to be a solid dome surrounding the Earth that was covered by water, and in fact this is how it was interpreted until comparatively recent times (Seely 1991; Seely 1992). It seems to be a slam-dunk exegetical case, as both the historical and grammatical context make clear that the “firmament” was a solid dome of metal or crystal.

Likewise, Seely (1997) argues convincingly that the eretz of Genesis 1 was a circular continent floating on, and surrounded by, the primeval sea. If Seely is right, and it really seems like he is, then the Genesis account is contradicted by the indisputable scientific facts that the sky is not solid and the earth is not flat (or only one continent).

Some concordists might reinterpret passages like these in light of modern science, but that seems to be antithetic to what scripture says about itself. 2 Peter 1:20-21 says that scripture has only one legitimate meaning, and that is the meaning understood by the original authors who were inspired by the Holy Spirit.

So, is there any definition of “inerrancy” that allows for blatant scientific errors such as these? I can understand that God may have simply met these ancient people where they were with regard to their scientific knowledge, choosing instead to use their scientific naivete to communicate important theological points. But would this really be considered inerrancy, or just inspiration?

This whole issue is compounded by the fact that the Bible doesn’t even describe itself as inerrant, instead using terms like “useful for teaching” (2 Tim. 3:16) or “led by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:21), which are a far cry from truly “inerrant.” So, how should we view the Bible? @deuteroKJ and @AllenWitmerMiller, IIRC you were both involved in some capacity with the original Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. I know this is a complicated and highly debated question, but I’d love to hear some of your thoughts on the matter.


Another case in point is the Noachian Deluge. The more that I study this account, the more it seems that the Flood was neither local nor global; instead, it was cosmic in nature, reverting the entire creation to its chaotic watery origin (cf. Gen. 1:2).

By opening the sluices of the firmament [1] and the fountains of the deep/tehom (Gen. 7:11), thus covering the earth/eretz, God was setting the entire creation back to before the waters above and below were divided and the eretz was formed (Gen. 1:6-10). This not only affected the earth/eretz, but even the heavenly bodies, which needed to be set back in their place to mark the days, nights, and seasons (Gen. 8:22).

This, of course, never happened because the sun, moon, and stars aren’t really in a firmament and can’t be knocked out of place. Not to mention that the earth isn’t really sitting upon a giant body of water.

But is it okay from a inerrantist standpoint to say that, although the biblical account clearly portrays the Noachian Deluge as a cosmic catastrophe, the actual flood that this account is based on was local? Personally, I don’t see a problem with this, as it seems that ancient sources commonly portrayed local natural disasters in this way [2]. And even if the Flood account is hyperbolic, the main message – which is God’s sovereignty over and judgment of creation – still shines through. But would this view still be considered “inerrancy”?

[1] As an aside, I was somewhat amused to see that had written an entire article about how “The ‘windows of heaven’ are figurative.” Apparently literalism can be abandoned to accommodate scientific facts, like that the sky is not solid. Their argument is mostly that the biblical authors knew that rain came from clouds, but this completely misses the point that the Flood was not a normal rainstorm, but a reversion to a chaotic pre-creation state.

[2] For example, the 22nd year-name of Ibbi-Suen describes “a flood, ordered by the gods, which obliterated the boundary of heaven and earth.” Clearly this flood didn’t actually obliterate the boundary of heaven and earth; but neither was the scribe who wrote this lying. It seems that that is just how natural disasters were described back then.


After doing a little more research I realized that the position I articulated above is the same as “accommodationism.” So I guess my question could be more specifically stated as, is accommodationism consistent with biblical inerrancy? It certainly seems consistent with what scripture says about itself (cf. Mk. 10:5), but is it consistent with “biblical inerrancy” as defined by the CSBI.

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Yes. The bible must be inerrant in all its claims of fact. But we can argue about what are actual claims of fact. Clearly, it’s not intended that we believe there was an actual good Samaritan. Whether the statements in Genesis are all claims of fact is open to argument. And one might say that the various departures from modern knowledge are not intended as claims of fact. Mind you, I don’t think that makes a good case. But it’s at least one that could be argued.


A comment from a similar discussion some years ago, which I thought was good enough to file away. Unfortunately the link identifying the author is dead and I cannot give proper attribution, but I recall he had some credibility as a Biblical scholar.

How did you arrive at the conclusion that “the Bible must be considered INERRANT word of God in order to be true at all?” If it is only 90% (or even 70%) true, it would still have an awful lot to say, no? And what, precisely, is “inerrant” and how do you apply it to the variety of Biblical texts? If, for the sake of argument, I read that Deuteronomy says, “stone the adulterer” and assume it to be inerrant, does this mean that I trust it is true that Moses wrote it? Or that people really believed this was the correct action? Or that this was governmental mandate in Yahweh-worshiping Canaan around 700 BC? Or that this was mandated for all time, everywhere (being ‘inerrant’ and all)? Or something else? And how does one apply the doctrine of inerrancy to Ps 9:1 (“I will give thanks to Yahweh with all my heart”) or to Rev 22:1 (“he showed me a river of the water of life”)? Inerrancy, as popularly applied, seems to only address declarative, historical or observational statements: most of the Bible consists of neither of these. Most Christians (and skeptics) throw around the term “inerrant” without much thought as to what it’s supposed to mean; it’s just a shibboleth.


Excellent thread topic, @misterme987 . And some of my favorite types of questions.

Unfortunately, I’m side-tracked by some medical hassles at present so my responses will probably be sporadic and limited.

But I can at least refer you to some previous PS discussions on these topics, which includes discussion of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. (Incidentally, my very low-level role was more fly-on-the wall than participant per se, though I was present in the tiny draft committee room a few weeks before Christmas,1986, as J.I. Packer moderated some of the edits on the Chicago Statement on Biblical Application. When the first summit of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy trilogy met in 1978, I was still in grad school and somehow missed being invited. :wink: )

The “four legs on a grasshopper” example ranks among my personal favorites and I discuss it at this point in one of our PS “inerrancy” threads:

I’m forever fascinated at how much “flack” I usually get in some circles for explaining some very basic semantic domain and lexicography concepts which most linguistics majors understand by their second or third year (if they haven’t already grasped them when on their own when they learn their first or second foreign language.)

By the way, I thought of this ancient “four legs on a grasshopper” example just the other day when a student [I’m retired but I still teach some online seminars which sometimes drift into these topics] described listening to a couple of Texans argue the number of fingers on a human hand. He said that one guy claimed that there are “five fingers” but his associate said, “No, there are four fingers and one thumb.” It reminds me of the kinds of confusion some ESL students experience when they learn their English vocabulary from very concise definitions on vocabulary flash cards.

My apologies for not responding in greater depth but at least the thread of my aforementioned post should give you something to chew on. I hope to join in here as I get opportunity in the coming days.

I don’t know if @deuteroKJ still frequents PS but he always has interesting and insightful things to say on these kinds of topics.


I’ve noticed the exact same thing. Many evangelicals seem to consider inerrancy a litmus test for evangelicalism, but I’ve never seen inerrancy defined in a clear way. Does it include scientific inerrancy? And if so, why doesn’t the Bible itself claim to have perfect scientific accuracy? Does it mean that biblical inerrancy is self-defeating if the Bible itself doesn’t claim to be? I haven’t seen a straight answer to either of these questions anywhere.

Hopefully our resident Bible scholars can help. [Edit: I wrote this before Allen Witmer Miller’s helpful answer above was published. Unfortunately the approval method on this forum sometimes messes up the order of posts.]


In fairness there are a lot of evangelicals (maybe even a majority?) who do not require inerrancy, or at least not a literal reading of Genesis. Most of these are not the argumentative type often encountered online.


The article linked in this thread seems relevant: Evolutionary Theory and the Interpretation of Scripture

My own example of scientific inaccuracy in the Bible would be Jacob’s livestock breeding in Genesis 30:37-42. I think we can all agree that the appearance of the offspring is not affected by what the parents see when mating.

To understand “inerrant” one of the most important starting points are the Chicago Statements on Inerrancy and Hermeneutics.

They specifically state that:

We deny that it is proper to evaluate Scripture according to standards of truth and error that are alien to its usage or purpose. We further deny that inerrancy is negated by Biblical phenomena such as a lack of modern technical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, the reporting of falsehoods, the use of hyperbole and round numbers, the topical arrangement of material, variant selections of material in parallel accounts, or the use of free citations.


Biblical Statements and Natural Science

What the Bible says about the facts of nature is as true and trustworthy as anything else it says. However, it speaks of natural phenomena as they are spoken of in ordinary language, not in the
explanatory technical terms of modern science; It accounts for natural events in terms of the action of God, not in terms of causal links-within the created order; and it often describes natural processes figuratively and poetically, not analytically and prosaically as modern science seeks to do. This being so, differences of opinion as to the correct scientific account to give of natural facts and events which Scripture celebrates can hardly be avoided.

It should be-remembered, however, that Scripture was given to reveal God, not to address scientific issues in scientific terms, and that, as it does not use the language of modern science, so it does not require scientific knowledge about the internal processes of God’s creation for the understanding of its essential message about God and ourselves. Scripture interprets scientific knowledge by relating it to the revealed purpose and work of God, thus establishing an ultimate context for the study and reform of scientific ideas. It is not for scientific theories to dictate what Scripture may and may not say, although extra-biblical information will sometimes helpfully expose a misinterpretation of Scripture.

In fact, interrogating biblical statements concerning nature in the light of scientific knowledge about their subject matter may help toward attaining a more precise exegesis of them. For though exegesis must be controlled by the text itself, not shaped by extraneous considerations, the exegetical process is constantly stimulated by questioning the text as to whether it means this or that.


Yes, Jacob’s view of livestock breeding was scientifically inaccurate. However, his erroneous belief was simply that of his culture in that era. The Genesis text merely reports that belief, so I’ve never thought that particular pericope is all that interesting as an inerrancy discussion.

The Genesis text makes clear that it had ALREADY been God’s plan to bless Jacob with wealth—indeed, a promise going back ultimately to Abraham—but it is part of the “comedy” of the life story of Jacob that he never leaves well enough alone and always goes to extra and even bumbling efforts to get ahead. In other words, while Jacob thought that using striped-sticks would manipulate the breeding results and “get even” with his father-in-law for outfoxing him, the divinely-ordained outcome was already in the works. God had planned to bless him with bigger flocks and it didn’t matter what he did with the sticks.

This is not any sort of peculiarly “Christian” hermeneutic. My favorite Hebrew professor was a senior editor at the Journal of the Society of Biblical Literature and an ancient Jewish rabbi [or at least he seemed ancient to me] and he liked to make jokes about Jacob and what the rabbinical commentaries had to say about Jacob’s self-serving antics.

Of course, I’m not saying that centuries of readers of the Genesis text did not assume that the striped-sticks manipulated the breeding results. Many of them surely did—if their own cultural views supported the same “folk wisdom” of livestock breeding. I’m just noting what countless commentators have long observed: the Biblical text reports what happened without bothering to comment on whether those procedures were efficacious in and of themselves.

This fits quite well into what @swamidass just posted.


The caveat around observations and the lack of addressing later and much more numerous audiences with more precision is hard to deal with at times.

I think you are straining a bit here. The story itself gives no reason to assume that the method chosen was not efficacious and God could have chosen other means. The natural reading is that it did work and it seems to me that it is only the knowledge that it doesn’t work that causes you to reject that reading,

I see no reason to think that the author would have agreed with your reading.

A FB friend refers to what he calls “The Doctrine of Personal Inerrancy”, which goes something like this:

  1. “I believe the Bible is inerrant.”
  2. “I have a particular interpretation of the Bible.”
  3. “Therefore, my interpretation of the Bible is inerrant.”

That is NOT what Biblical inerrancy means, but you can find people who try to apply it in this manner.


There is a fourth point to that definition of Personal Inerrancy:

  1. "And if you disagree with my interpretation of the Bible, that just goes to show that you are a liberal Christian who denies the Bible and has adopted a naturalistic worldview which explains why you believe in molecules to man evolution. " [aka The Ken Ham Doctrine.]

Some versions add, “. . . and why you support socialism (and therefore Marxism) and love CRT.” [This is known as the Frank Turek and Al Mohler addendum.]

There’s also:

“Dinosaurs and bananas are really neato.” — Ray Comfort


Back in my teen years (I was then a Christian), I simply concluded that the Bible was never intended to be a science book. So I shouldn’t criticize it for getting the science wrong.

I took “inspired” to imply that people were given ideas, but that they then wrote out those ideas. Of course, what they wrote would have been influenced by the cultural traditions of their era. So it was not troubling that they got some things wrong.

I took Noah’s flood to be an ancient fable. It was just too fantastical to be an actual description of events.

I guess that made me a liberal Christian. I took the expression “the word of God” to be a metaphor, so not intended to be interpreted literally.

I eventually left Christianity for unrelated reasons.


Sometimes, even if their interpretation - if we can call it that - contradicts the Bible.

YEC hyperliteralism is always hyperselective.


Thanks for sharing that. Maybe the “four legs on a grasshopper” wasn’t the best example of scientific inaccuracy, since it could very well be a result of cultural differences in understanding what a “leg” is.

However, the other examples I shared seem more conclusive to me. The mustard seed is not “the smallest of all seeds” in any culture. Seely makes an (in my opinion) airtight case that the original authors of the Bible believed in a solid sky dome with a flat, circular continent floating atop a primeval sea, yet this is obviously not correct. In addition, it seems clear to me (when I read the text on its own terms) that the Noachian Flood was cosmic in extent, affecting not only the entire eretz but also the heavenly bodies.

In your opinion as a scholar of the Bible, are these interpretations correct? Or is Seely gravely in error here, and where did he go wrong? The only rebuttal of his interpretation that I have seen is from J.P. Holding in the ‘Creation Ex Nihilo’ YEC journal, which I think falls short of actually rebutting Seely’s exegesis.

No problem that you can’t respond in more depth. I hope your medical issues are resolved quickly and painlessly. The beauty of forums like these is that we can take as much time as we need to respond to one another :slight_smile:

Thanks, everyone, for your helpful answers. I think it might be best if I explain a little more my current thoughts on biblical inerrancy. Here are some things that I’m currently considering:

  1. The Bible is only inerrant, and only claims to be inerrant, in matters of doctrine, morality, and prophecy (Matt. 5:17-18; 2 Tim. 3:16; 2 Pet. 1:20-21).

  2. Insofar as the Bible touches upon scientific and historical matters, it can be considered trustworthy but not inerrant, as its historical accounts often draw upon fallible human sources (e.g., Josh. 10:13; 2 Sam. 1:18; 1 Kgs. 14:19, 29).

  3. God accommodates human fallibility even in the realm of morality (Matt. 19:8; Mk. 10:5), so it seems inconceivable that He would not do so with regard to science as well.

  4. This is not to say that theological truths cannot be conveyed by incorrect or contradictory scientific/historical accounts in scripture. As an example, Jesus states that the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds, which (although incorrect) makes the important theological point that the kingdom of God grows from the most humble beginnings (Matt. 13:31-32).

I’m not sure if any of these points are correct, but this is a view that I have been considering. It’s largely influenced by Dunn (1982) and Seely (2007a; 2007b).