It is important to distinguish between the related, but separate concepts of biblical literalism, biblical inerrancy, and biblical infallibility. Some are used interchangeably depending on who you ask. But going by strict definitions for reasons of precision, however, they are different — many doctrinal bases or confessions for churches and organised sects require adherents to view the Bible as “inerrant” but do not support literalistic interpretations like creationism.
- Self-interpretation: The most extreme form, this argues that there is a singular true meaning which will be made evident to any “real” believer by simply reading the text. This typically forms an excessively text-literal reading which treats the text as though it were scientific data; all apparent contradictions will be held to be factual and “harmonised” with this in mind. This attitude may regard a specific translation as the only correct one (for example, some regard only the King James Bible as truthful). It is often criticised by less extreme literalists as worshipping the Bible instead of God.
- Biblical literalism: A literalist approach means that one reads the Bible in a plain and straightforward manner, attempting to discern the author, or authors’ original intent. Biblical literalists believe that the original authors of the Bible were inspired by the Holy Spirit and drafted scripture in various literary genres and styles of the period. Thus, biblical literalists accept that, for example, poetry and allegory in the Bible are literally true but may not necessarily be written as a historical document. They examine the circumstances of scripture to determine how it should be understood.
- Biblical inerrancy: This is the basis that the Bible simply doesn’t contain any errors. There is a subtle but important difference between this and historical accuracy, as stories can be interpreted as allegorical, but their meanings remain true.
- Biblical infallibility: The least radical position. It holds that the Bible is an infallible source regarding questions of faith and redemption, but not on questions of science and history. These people may be willing to accept scientific facts like evolution as true.
The actual interpretation of these questions further depends on the various denominations and theological schools of thought.
Many Christian groups, such as the Catholic Church, hold that the Bible is inerrant in its spiritual and moral teachings, but can be inaccurate as far as history goes. In contrast to that position, Biblical literalists hold that the Bible reports true history from Genesis onward.
Some Christians would argue that it is a necessary fact of life that doubting one’s own religion and all the things one learned from one’s family is the most important step one can take to living the life of a model Christian.
Many educated Christians who do not believe in biblical literalism would maintain that interpreting the Bible literally, and therefore giving the genocidal tendencies of the Old Testament precedence over the love and compassion of Jesus Christ in the New Testament, is fundamentally wrong. Some would go even further to say that the center of one’s faith should be Jesus Christ, as illuminated by the Bible. Making the Bible the center of one’s faith, rather than Jesus and his commands to love and care for humanity, is therefore a form of idolatry, and deeply sinful.