Lately I've been in discussions with a number of people about the inerrancy of Scripture. It's by no means a new discussion, and emotions typically run deep when the subject comes up. Through these conversations I've been working out a succinct (and necessarily simplistic) way to express my understanding of Biblical truth. The question "Is the Bible True?" seems to me to mainly depend on what kind of truth one is looking for.
As an example, let's take the parable of the Prodigal Son. Is it true? Or does it contain truth? Is it true because it is in the Bible? Or is it in the Bible because it is true? It seems to me that one can find at least three different types of potential truth in this parable:
1. Is it true that Jesus actually taught this parable? Are the words recorded in Scripture truly Jesus' words, and are they truly verbatim?
2. Is the parable a true story? Were the characters in the story real people, and did the events truly happen as described?
3. Does the parable accurately describe God's relationship with humanity? Is what the parable teaches about God's grace and mercy true?
Please notice that none of these potential truths need be related. As is the case with all parables, they do not have to be true stories in order to teach truth. It does not matter if the Prodigal Son is a fictional character. Further, it is not even necessary that the recounting and attribution of the story be true. If it were in fact the Apostle John who taught this parable, and even if it were not a completely accurate transcription, that would not cause the "moral of the story" to become untrue.
In other words, as we nearly all agree, if number two is false, it does not follow that number three must also be false. In fact, if number three is true, it matters not if the others are. Either way, number three remains true. And if true, it is not its cannonization that makes it so. It is true of its own merit.
So when confronted with possible errors and contradictions in Scripture, we need not flee from them. We need not systematize them. We need not disguise them with adjectives like "apparent" or rebrand them as paradoxes. The Gospels do not need us to harmonize them. James and Paul do not need us to arbitrate their disputes. Job does not demand we believe in fire-breathing dragons. Genesis does not require creation science as an explanation. The truth of the Bible is not dependent on inerrancy or infallibility. The Bible can be inaccurate on a variety of levels and still be true where it matters most.
So what kind of truth matters most? Of the three potential truths listed, which is the most important? Put another way: If only one could be true, which one is mission critical?
I ask this on behalf of those who believe that the Bible is false because they have found it to be inaccurate... for the biologists who struggle with the creation story... the linguists who question the tower of Babel... the logicians who identify the contradictions... the historians who question the timelines... the multitude of college students who eventually disavow their faith after receiving a "higher" education... Must we force them to forego the opportunity of discovering the truth of the Bible by demanding that they accept it as true in every way? In doing so, are we not sabotaging truth itself?
My choice is number three. The truth in the Bible that matters most to me is what it teaches me about God. That is the truth I am looking for. And I believe it is there to be found by anyone who seeks it. The existence of inaccuracies, errors, and contradictions in the texts and translations do not sway me from this belief. Nor does my acceptance of them lower my regard for the Bible. It heightens it. If some passages of Scripture are not literally true, it may still be that many others are. In either case, the figurative truths remain unchanged. And the fact that these truths have remained available to us in Scripture despite its factual shortcomings makes the Bible that much more amazing to me. It is a testament of God's desire for us to know Him. It is His revelation of Himself to us. And it is in this light that I esteem Scripture so highly, and for this reason that I have dedicated my life to understanding it and living it out... in order to know Him, even as I am fully known.
I don't care if the Bible makes a poor science textbook or historical record. That's not what I find important.