One question that comes up a lot has to do with the reliablity of the Bible as far as whether or not it is truly the inspired Word of God. This is a question about the "inerrancy" of scripture. Whenever hearing, or reading, discussions on this, there seem to be some critical distinctions missing among the conversations in order to better understand whichever view opposes your own.
As Greg Koukl often points out, whenever engaging in discussion with someone (especially with respect to topics that can become emotional) one must first ensure that you're speaking the same language. In other words, you have to make sure that you are both using certain words in the same way in order to both communicate as well as understand with clarity.
When it comes to the idea of the Bible being "inspired" or "inerrant," it is important to know what "inerrant" actually means. When it comes to this kind of thing, any reference to "inerrancy" or "infallibility" should be referring to the the original writings of scripture (e.g. the original letters of Paul or writings of John, etc.). The claim, at least by careful thinkers, is not that the English translation of the Bible we have today is actually inerrant.
Allow me to explain...
Few who accept biblical inerrancy will dispute the divine inspiration of the original writings penned by the apostles 2,000 years ago. These are referred to as the "autographs." All the other writings we have are copies which have been derived from those autographs.
The copyists were human, however, and therefore could be prone to making mistakes. So, perhaps a word as misspelled or the word order changed on a certain passage. This is a common error that has crept into the text over the centuries. Some scribes had even gotten caught up in the moment and added a marginal note with regards to their exultation.
In addition to that, we know that the original writings of the New Testament were mainly in Greek, with some Aramaic. Over time, the NT was translated into other languages such as Latin. While I am sure that the scribes doing the translation were very prayerful and careful servants of the Lord, it is nothing new that things can be lost in translation no matter how careful one is. Further, some of these Latin translations were then translated into German or French or English. Additional translation inevitably results in further loss of information as each translation "loses something in the translation" as the saying goes.
Next, we have the idea of the canon itself. That is, the books which are included in the Bible. Again, though the church fathers were certainly careful and prayerful to make sure that the writings included in the canon were complete and accurate so that we could have all and only the inspired writings in our Bibles, these men were not themselves infallible. There is nothing specifically in the Bible that states which books are actually inspired and which were not.
Now that we have fallible copies of fallible translations of a fallible collection of books, we come to how these writings are interpreted at any given time/culture in history. How should they be understood? What do they mean? We have to prayerfully study the scriptures and derive meaning of various passages. How do we do that?
Again, while the original writers may have been inspired to write the infallible Words of God, we are not infallible with regards to our interpretation of the Words. One need not look very hard to find passages which have been interpreted differently by different people, all of whom are looking at the same texts and trying to figure out what they are saying about a given topic or teaching.
These people will do their best to make sure that their conclusions are supported by all of the scripture in order to determine if they are accurate or not. But, with 66 books written over the course of 4,000 years ago, by so many different authors at different times and in different places (and in different languages) it can be quite easy to miss a thing or two.
In the end, what we have is a fallible interpretation of fallible translations of fallible copies of a fallible canon of infallible writings.
Does that concern you? While at first blush, one might think that it should, further examination will hopefully set your mind at ease on the matter.
I won't get into the concept of textual criticism much here, but suffice it to say that there are some very brilliant scholars across the globe who catalog, study, examine and correlate the thousands and thousands of copies, manuscripts and other writings by using a technique called "textual criticism" to work out, with surprising accuracy, what the original, inspired texts actually said.
In the end, due to the fine scholarship of these individuals, experts estimate that what we have in our hands today represents the original writings to an accuracy of about 99.5% or better. And, for the most part, the remaining .5% are in areas that are not particularly important with respect to any overall doctrine of Christianity.
We can be confident that we have today is so close to what was originally written that we needn't worry about living our lives according to what our Bibles today teach. Modern interpretation is still an issue that we have to deal with, as far as understanding what is meant by the text, but we can at least be confident that the text itself is sufficiently accurate.
For further reading on this topic, see the following resources: