Does the Bible contain errors? Maybe a biblical error is something like the narrating of an event that didn’t actually happen. However, that can’t be the definition since the Bible contains parables which are narrations of events that didn’t happen in history. Parables were used by Jesus to convey theological truths in a way his audience could understand. So that definition can’t be right. Perhaps an error would be the recording of a false statement. However this won’t work either, since the bible records false statements uttered by Job’s counselors (Job 4:7-9); Pontius Pilate even mocks the truth in John 18:38.
The idea that biblical inerrancy simply means everything the bible says is “true” turns out to be too simplistic.
So how ought we think of biblical inerrancy? Before we can answer that question, we first must get clear on biblical authority. God, the ultimate authority, has communicated to us through human authors, in written language. There’s a lot going on here. First, God has communicated through human authors. God accommodated His message in way that was familiar to the ancient author and audience. He bridged the gap between His own understanding and the current understanding of the culture in which the text was written. This was highly effective communication. Thus, we should not impose our own culture on the text. The genre of “history” would not mean the same thing in ancient culture as it does in modern culture.
Secondly, God has communicated in written language. Here it will help to draw out distinctions made in speech-act theory. This part is important so don’t skip it. The first level of speech occurs at the locutionary level. This is the level of the mechanics of language (grammar, syntax, genre, and so on). To use a common example, when a bride and groom utter “I do” as part of their wedding vows, the locution of the statement refers to the actual speech, the underlying mechanics of the language.
Illocution, the second level, refers to what is actually being done with the utterance. In uttering such a simple phrase, the bride and groom are doing something highly significant; namely, vowing life-long commitment to each other. That is the illocutionary act performed in this scenario.
The third level of speech, perlocution, is what happens in response to an utterance. The perlocutionary act of uttering “I do” is what happens afterwards. This will be performed throughout the marriage in the form of devotion, love, and commitment.
If you’ve made it this far, you might be wondering how this all ties back to biblical authority. Glad you asked! God’s authority exists on the level of what is being done with the text, what God is doing with the chosen words. God’s authority therefore lies in the illocution, not in the locution. We now have the resources to answer what it means for the bible to be without error. The Bible is without error in the case that God’s illocution, what God is doing with the text (teaching, affirming, etc.), is without error.
So how do we get to God’s illocution? That question turns out to be a lot more difficult than at first glance. The illocution of the human author is our link to divine authority (God’s illocution). However, it’s not always clear what the human author is doing with the text, nor what God is doing through the human authors. Nor is it always clear what sort of accommodation is taking place. All of these questions must be answered prior to asserting the Bible contains “errors.”
So, for instance, even if the ancient authors believed in a body of water in the sky that was held back by some sort of invisible barrier, any affirmation of this in the text would fall on the level of locution (since accommodation happens at that level). It would be part of the ancient Israelite understanding that God accommodated Himself to in order to effectively communicate His message. It therefore does not fall on the level of illocution and poses no threat to biblical authority or inerrancy.
Further application of these principles can be left as an exercise for the reader. More on this subject can be found in The Lost World of Scripture: Ancient Literary Culture and Biblical Authority.