The Bible is inerrant, but we are not: This is a fundamental proposition held by both Protestant literalists and by the Catholic Church. Both groups agree that the Bible is inspired by God such that all that Holy Scripture affirms is true and without error. This does not mean that there are not hard questions that still must be answered, and I for one am willing (where I once was not) to concede that perhaps I do not have all the answers to those questions.
Some of them are better than others. The claim that the Bible supposedly proposes a value of 3 for Pi is flatly absurd, for example. But there are others that are more difficult. For example, did Edom allow Israel to pass through its territory peaceably (Deuteronomy 2:29) or not (Numbers 20:18)? We can’t have it both ways in terms of the way the actual event took place; either Edom let them pass or they didn’t. So which is it?
Although I am willing to consider proposed resolutions of this difficulty that allow us to retain the idea that both Numbers and Deuteronomy are intended to be literal historical accounts both of which must be interpreted literally, I do not see how that notion can be retained in the face of this seeming contradiction. But the Bible is inerrant. This is an article of faith. There are two implications to this fact which we do well to keep in mind when struggling with difficulties like what Edom did (or didn’t) allow. One is that an article of faith requires the exercise of the virtue of faith, and that faith is addressed to things that we cannot or do not know by means of reason. It may well be the case, for example, that the Bible is inerrant just as we believe, but that we do not have a resolution for a difficulty like this. Faith does not pretend to answer literally all our questions; when it comes to an infinite God, there will always be things about Him that we will never understand just because we are not infinite. But there is a second implication I think is more helpful in addressing a seeming difficulty like what Edom did.
That implication is that we may be wrong though the Bible is not. It is often said that both Deuteronomy and Numbers present literal history to us, but let us be frank. In the absence of some unusually good harmonization of the seeming (?) contradiction between Deuteronomy 2 and Numbers 20, the only rational thing we can do is to acknowledge either that Deuteronomy or Numbers does not present literal history or that neither of them do. This choice by itself does not in any way imply that either of these books of Scripture contain error. It simply means that at least one of them is not intended to be understood in a flatly wooden and literalistic manner. Rather, at least one of them must be of a literary type that does not require literal truth in every detail. This is not a unique case, but it does emphasize once again the dangers of careless handling of God’s holy and inspired Word.
So what is the “limit” to inerrancy I reference in this post’s title? The limit is something in us, and it is that inerrancy does not mean there are no difficulties in biblical interpretation. Taking things literally does not solve all problems. Sometimes it actually creates difficulties. We are limited and fallible, and we need to keep this fact in mind when we come to biblical interpretation. This is yet another reason why we must seek to interpret the Scripture in keeping with the living tradition of the Church. The Lord promises to ensure that the Church is preserved from error when it comes to matters of faith and morals; He does not make that promise to you and me personally.