| |

Biblical Inerrancy and Evolution

It’s very easy to equate the creation-evolution debate amongst Christians with the inerrancy debate. Many assume that those who accept the theory of evolution will automatically reject inerrancy. But this is not the case. This confusion results from another incorrect equation–Biblical inerrancy with Biblical literalism.

Biblical literalism is itself a difficult concept to get ahold of. In popular usage, “taking it literally” is often equated with taking it seriously. But the most common form of Biblical literalism means taking the Biblical text as the most concrete form of literature possible. This is expressed, for example, by Tim LaHaye in chapter 11 of his book How to Study the Bible for Yourself as: “A good rule to follow is try to interpret each passage literally. If this is obviously not the case, then as a last resort try to find the spiritual or symbolical [sic] truth it is communicating.” What this means in practice is that a Biblical passage gets interpreted as a form of literature that can be taken literally.

Let’s take the book of Jonah, for example. To the literalist it appears to relate a series of events, and one can take it as a true story. Jonah did flee in a ship, get swallowed by a great fish, preach in Nineveh, and convert the entire population to the worship of Israel’s God. A non-literalist, on the other hand, can consider that the book might be a fictional story written to make a point. Thus it could express certain teachings, such as a willingness to show grace to foreigners, even if the actual events of the story did not happen.

To illustrate this from a modern perspective, consider the difference between a historical account of a battle, a historical novel based on the events of the same battle, and a romance set in the time period of the battle. The first intends to tell you what happened in the battle. It may be in error on various points, depending on the quality of the research and what information was available, but its point is to relate a series of events accurately. The historical novel, on the other hand, does not purport to report events strictly as they happened in the actual battle. It may invent actions for lead characters, or attribute historical actions to fictional characters in the novel. It might be intended to portray the feelings of soldiers involved, or even to give a picture of the events based on history, but with more of a personal feel than the available information permits. The romance, finally, may be authentic in terms of costumes, attitudes, places, and connections to historical events, but is much more loosely tied to actual history.

The Bible is a collection of literature of various types, and thus the interpreter is called upon to determine just what type of literature is involved with each reader. I cannot object strongly enough to LaHaye’s idea that you try to take it literally if at all possible. The first step is to ask what type of literature any particular passage is. If one interpreted a historical novel as though it was a work of history, then one might expect to find things like the home of the lead character in the place where the novel indicates the character lived. But one would be disappointed.

So how does this relate to inerrancy? Inerrancy itself means different things to different people. But the standard definition amongst theologians can be summarized as “the Bible is without error in what it intends to convey.” Now if you think about it a moment, “fiction” is not “error.” Rather, it is intentionally written as it is for a purpose. Thus if a Biblical writer chooses to express a message in the form of fiction, as is indubitably done in the parable of the trees (Judges 9:7-15), that is certainly not an error–it is the intent.

The assumption that a belief in inerrancy involves some sort of literalism thus results in some considerable confusion. In the area of origins, this involes assumptions regarding the interpretation of Genesis, especially chapters 1 & 2, assumptions that divide interpretations into two categories: 100% accurate narrative history vs an interesting ancient story that got it all wrong. In fact, most interpretations of Genesis fall somewhere between these extremes.

Amongst these options are some kind of symbolic meaning, usually associated with Old Earth creationism. In this case, Genesis generally presents creation in phases without getting picky about chronology or other details. Just how picky one can get will vary with the interpreter. Then there is my own interpretation which suggests that Genesis 1:1-2:4a is a form of liturgy, while Genesis 2:4b-25-4:26 is a form closely related to myth. These are designed to express the relationship of humanity to God in the context of an ancient near eastern culture, and their cosmology. A similar relationship can be expressed in a modern cosmology, something I think Dr. Richard Colling has accomplished in his book Random Designer; I blogged on the specific point here.

As I understand inerrancy, someone who accepts that doctrine could accept either of these two alternatives. In fact, I’ve discussed my position on evolution with a friend who does accept Biblical inerrancy, and he indicated that the difference between my view and his does not involve Biblical inerrancy. If he found me convincing on other grounds, his belief in inerrancy would not prevent him from accepting the conclusions I express about origins (in general, that is).

Why am I concerned about this, since I do not accept the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy? I would like debates to center on actual issues between those debating. The confusion between literalism, in the form of taking literature in as concrete a manner as possible, and inerrancy, as believing the text contains its intended message without error is unnecessary and unproductive.

Similar Posts


  1. Thanks, Henry. This is interesting and helpful. It ties up with the ongoing discussion between John Hobbins and Doug Chaplin on this theme.

    I hold to the kind of view that you outline, that the Bible is authoritative but significant parts of it including the early chapters of Genesis are not intended to be taken literally. But I can’t help thinking that this position is not best described by the term “inerrancy”. OK, it is technically compatible with the definition of inerrancy which you quote. But it is so very different from the fundamentalist position as exampled by LaHaye that it is simply confusing to use the same term for both.

    Personally I found helpful this quote from Chris Tilling. I too would prefer to “speak positively of the trustworthiness of scripture”.

  2. I loved this post! have you ever read “How To Read the Bible” by steven l. mckenzie? It’s a great book on all the different types of literature in the bible and the ancient understanding of those literatures. Thanks for sharing this post!

  3. Also, one shouldn’t make a false dichotomy between literal and ‘non-literal’ readings. Both can co-exist. The important thing is to keep in mind what the purpose of the Bible is – its purpose is to guide us in our journey of coming closer to God. We might believe the story of Jonah really happened or we might not. I would argue the difference is unimportant so long as we realize that the reason this story is in the Bible is to teach us something about obedience, rebellion, and repentance.

  4. Absolutely correct. There are many types of literature that are intended to have meaning on multiple levels, and many others from which such meaning can be drawn.

  5. I haven’t read that one, but I will certainly be looking for it now. I truly adore reading introductory level books on Bible study, because much of my work in and around church involves teaching people the basics, and you can never get enough ideas on how to get the richness of Biblical literature across as a teacher.

  6. Peter, I’ve taken to referring to the “academic” or “theological” view of inerrancy vs the popular view. The popular view is hopelessly linked with some variety of literalism.

    The problem, then, is that people assume that a scholar who believes in inerrancy is also a literalist. But my friend (and author whose works I publish), Elgin Hushbeck believes in inerrancy, but takes only a small number of things literally (in the “more concrete” sense) than I would. The same goes for quite a large number of evangelical scholars, so far as I can tell. For example, while Gleason Archer does take more things literally than I would, I could hardly call him a literalist.

    I think we could do with cleaning up the terminology (even “literalist” is quite problematic), but I’m not sure how to do it, since multiple usages are common.

  7. I agree with your distinction between inerrancy and literalism. Whether Genesis 1 is literal or not, it is without error. What I find frustrating is that regardless of ones position on the scripture’s literal nature, everyone still has to explain why the problems with their own views are not problems. It seems the only truth we can all agree on is that God meant what He said… even if can’t agree on what that was.

    I know that for me, part of reconciling the diverse views on Creation is to realize that human nature is to take one spiritual insight, and treat it like it’s the only insight required on the matter. For example, YECs are stricture than Progressive Creationists on the ordering of the verses. Day Age Theorists are more like to see parallels between science and scripture. Gap Theorists are more likely to account for a time when Satan ruled the world before Adam.

    I look forward to going to Heaven, all partial knowledge made complete, and we all look at each other, and suddenly it all makes sense. What is it we’ll all realize? I can’t wait to find out.

  8. Henry, given that this is probably an area of expertise for you, can you comment on what Jewish scholarship has to say about the literal vs. inerrant discussion? For example is there a large body of Jewish scholars that believe Genesis is literal/figurative? Just curious.

  9. I you and Henry don’t mind me responding to this, but I happened to have my “Pentateuch and Haftorahs” on my desk as I read this question. It was given to me by my mother’s Orthodox Jewish uncle on my bar mitzvah many years ago. Here are some interesting excerpts from its Genesis commentary:

    verse 3: “And God said” — ‘By the word of the LORD were the heavens made,’ Psalm 33:6. One of the names for God in later Jewish literature is ‘He who spake and the world came into existence’ (Authorised Prayer Book, p. 16). ‘The phrase God said must be taken as a figurative equivalent of “God willed” ‘

    For let there be light — “The old question, Whence did the light issue before the sun was made, is answered by the nebular theory!”

    Verse 5, “one day” — “Not an ordinary day but a Day of God, an age. With Him a thousand years, nay a thousand thousand ages, are but as a day that is past; Psalm 40:4. ‘Earthly and human measurement of time, by a clock of human manufacture, cannot apply to the first three days, as the sun was not then in existence. The beginning of each period of creation is called morning; its close, evining’ (Delitzsch); in the same way, we speak of the morning and evning of life.

    v. 11 – “put forth” — In creating the earth, God implanted in it the forces that at His command prodcued the vegetation.

    v. 29 – “In the primitive ideal age (as also in the Messainic future, see Isaiah 11:7), the animals were not to prey on one another.

    There’s more of course, but there seems to be in an interesting dichotomy to the commentary here. It allows for evolution on one hand, but no killing on the other. It allows for figurative days for the first 3, but the commentary is silent on the others. It provides a scientific explanation for light on Day 1, but confirms that the sun did not yet exist.

    This confirms to me what I have observed in many of the more religious Jews I have known. This is my own characterization of what I see in them: Take the scriptures for what they say. Though you might not understand what it all means, that doesn’t change what it says. In the end, it is God’s eternal majesty that is the ultimate message, and acknowledgement of that is the ultimate mitzvah.

    Though I am a Christian, and consider my Jewish brethren blinded to Christ (for now), I still admire the wisdom that is nonetheless contained within my Jewish heritage.

  10. Thanks, Henry. My own position might well be similar to that of Hushbeck, Archer etc. But I am reluctant to label myself as inerrantist because of the misunderstandings which arise.

  11. I would affirm what Geocreationist has already said. My personal experience is more with the Conservative and Reform branches of Judaism, though I have discussed it with Orthodox. Inerrancy doesn’t seem to express their view at all well. They believe that everything in Torah is there to teach them something, and is where it is and what it is because God intended it. What they generally don’t do is measure that in terms of errors, contradictions, concordance with historical research, and so forth.

    I’m truly not an expert on Judaic studies, but my impression is that inerrancy simply seems to be asking/answering the wrong questions from their point of view.

Comments are closed.