Does the Bible teach inerrancy?

One of the more common arguments for biblical inerrancy is that the Bible itself claims to be inerrant. The argument goes like this: The Bible teaches biblical inerrancy, and we should believe what the Bible says, therefore we should believe in biblical inerrancy.

The key verse for this argument is 2 Timothy 3:16, “All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness”. This verse describes scripture as “inspired”, or, taking the underlying Greek literally, as “God-breathed”. Many inerrantists take this claim about the nature of scripture to entail that everything in the Bible is true.

This argument suffers from three serious problems.

First, 2 Timothy 3:16 isn’t clearly about inerrancy. There is a difference between saying that the Bible is inspired and saying that the Bible is inerrant. It is possible to agree with 2 Timothy 3:16 but disagree with the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, saying that God inspired the authors of the Bible, influencing what they wrote, but that he didn’t do so in such a way as to prevent them from making minor errors.

Second, 2 Timothy 3:16 isn’t clearly about the Bible. 2 Timothy was written before the formation of the canon (obviously, or it wouldn’t be in the canon). This suggests that the words “all scripture” in 2 Timothy 3:16 mean something other than “the Bible”. It may be that 2 Timothy 3:16 is about the Old Testament, or the Pentateuch, or some other collection of writings, but it isn’t likely that it’s about the Bible because the Bible didn’t exist at the time that it was written.

Even glossing over these problems, however, and accepting that 2 Timothy 3:16 claims that the Bible is inerrant, there is a third problem: the biblical argument for inerrancy is circular; it commits the begging the question fallacy. Only those who already believe that everything that the Bible says is true will think that the Bible claiming inerrancy entails inerrancy. Anyone else who reads 2 Timothy 3:16 as teaching inerrancy needn’t conclude that the Bible is inerrant; they could instead conclude that 2 Timothy 3:16 is false.

The biblical argument for inerrancy therefore shouldn’t convince anyone.

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