Dinosaurs and the Bible

On one day every semester I allow my Introduction to New Testament and Introduction to Old Testament students to write down their most pressing questions about the Bible. I collect them and answer them to the best of my ability. Without fail, scribbled on at least a tenth of the torn, wadded-up papers I receive is the same question:

What does the Bible say about dinosaurs?

As adolescent as it sounds, it really is a good question. Behind the concern about where dinosaurs fit in the biblical thought-world are some deeper, more important questions. How do the Bible and the principles of science fit together? What is the nature of the Bible? And, perhaps the key question of all, How reliable is the Bible?”

For the last several centuries, the Protestant answer to these questions has involved the articulation of a very complicated doctrine…the doctrine of biblical inerrancy.

Wikipedia provides a lowest-common-denominator definition of Biblical Inerrancy when it describes the doctrine in this way:

The Bible, in its original manuscripts, is accurate and totally free from error of any kind; that “Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact.”

The practical and applied meaning of biblical inerrancy actually involves a wide spectrum of definitions, depending on who is using it and for what purpose. Here is a general representation of the range of meanings for “inerrant.”

1)   On the extreme end, there are Christians who, when they say the Bible is inerrant, mean that there are no errors at all in its teaching about every area of life—from science and psychology to history and geography, and everything in between. The obvious problem with this claim is that there are proven errors in the historical and scientific details of the Bible, inconsistencies and contradictions that refute the claim that there are not biblical errors. However, to get around this problem, most strict inerrantists will qualify their definition with the claim that any apparent errors in the text must have been come by way of translation or scribal error. In the original manuscripts, or the autographs (which we do not have), they are correct.

2)   In the middle, we have limited inerrancy, which allows for factual errors in the biblical text because of the fallibility of the human authors. Many proponents of this position will maintain that Scripture is without error in what it intends to teach, which would not include matters such as science or geography

3)   Another position closely related to limited inerrancy involves another flexibly-defined term—infallibility. Although this word has as many different meanings as inerrancy, if not more, the main idea behind this claim is that the Bible’s teachings do not fail; they are infallible with regard to matters of faith, salvation, and Christian practice. According to the Presbyterian Church, “Infallibility affirms the entire truthfulness of scripture without depending on every exact detail.” (As affirmed by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in June of 2001)

Even this cursory look at the doctrine of inerrancy reveals that there has been much disagreement about this term and thus, much debate about the nature of Scripture.

So, what does the Bible say about dinosaurs?

If you believe the Bible is inerrant in all it teaches, you must either go the way of creation museum people who explain that dinosaurs lived during the time of the patriarchs (perhaps the leviathan in Job was one?) and shun the archaeological discoveries of the last century. Or, you could claim that the days of creation in Genesis were not strict, 24-hour days but rather representations of longer periods.

But if you hold to limited inerrancy or infallibility, you could say that Genesis was not meant to be a scientific textbook or a literal history of the world; instead, it teaches us about having faith in the God of creation, who has made all that we see in the world.

So, what do you say? What do you think the Bible says about dinosaurs?