Rowan Williams on Inerrancy

If the Bible is first and foremost a single book between covers — a modern book, essentially — and a book that is there for individuals to read, it is possible to get very agitated about whether it is completely reliable. Its inspiration has to be proved and defended in terms of its obvious correctness about every detail of history or science. If it is shown not to be accurate about this sort of thing, its whole credibility is affected. But if, on the other hand, it is a collection of texts consistently used by the Holy Spirit to renew and convert the Church, something to which the Church constantly refers to test its own integrity as it meets and thinks together, the issue of whether it is all totally accurate by modern standards of history or science become less important. Genesis may not tell us how the world began in the way a modern cosmologist would; but it tells us what God wants us to know, that we are made by his love and freedom alone. The book of Daniel may be at odds with what we know about Babylonian history; but it tells us what God wants us to know about the imperative of faithfulness in a tyrannical and ungodly empire. And while we are on a different kind of ground with — say — the Gospel stories, which were written down so close to the time of the events narrated, it is still true that contradictions of detail between different Gospels are not the end of the world; they tell us what God wants us to know. Did Jesus’ driving of the moneychangers out of the Temple happen at the beginning or the end of his public career? John’s Gospel says one thing, the other Gospels say something different. But the force of the story is the same; de te loquitur, it’s about you. 

~ Rowan Williams. Tokens of Trust, (Louisville, KY: WJK, 2007), 124-126.


6 thoughts on “Rowan Williams on Inerrancy

  1. When my grandmother was in the hospital and I was visiting her, my cousin asked me, “if the bible is written by man, why do Christians worship it?”

    I said, “though some people do seemingly worship the bible, Christians worship the God who has destined or ordained that he would work through the bible to bring people to Jesus, the one through whom he is fixing everything.”

    Anyway, I don’t have a problem is inerrancy or those who are convinced of it per se, I just do not think that it is as central to the gospel as some make it out to be. That is why everybody should read Richard Baxter because he made this point centuries ago.

  2. One thing I like about what Williams says – [The Bible] tells us what God wants us to know. I see innerants and their opponents missing a key point. God doesn’t want us to know everything. The Bible may not jibe with modern history or science, perhaps because modern history and science are incomplete or misleading or perhaps God wants us to wrestle with certain mysteries. I much prefer the term “infallible”. The Bible never fails in providing us what we need to know, when we need to know it.

  3. I like Rowan’s approach. Of course we can still get so many different things out of a text, accurate or inaccurate by modern standards, that careful listening to the Spirit and to human experience is called for in interpreting “What God wants us to know” from a text.

  4. Jake,

    Me too!


    My problem is more with a fundamentalist doctrine of ‘strict’ inerrancy than anything else. When it’s an all or nothing dichotomy I see it as harmful because if people do admit errors in the text then their faith crumbles with it. But generally speaking I don’t have a inerrantists.


    I like the term ‘trustworthy’ — that’s the one I generally use.


    I like his approach as well, and I agree, we have to read prayerfully and seek what God wants us to learn from the text.

  5. Yeah, I can live with trustworthy. Actually, one of the confessions in my faith traditions puts it best – “The Scriptures are utterly reliable for all matters in life and in faith.” Trustworthy. Reliable. Very similar.

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