Category Archives: Inerrancy
A doctrine I’ve repeatedly defended is that of biblical inerrancy. This doctrine affirms 2 things: First, that when all the facts are taken into consideration, and when the Bible is correctly interpreted, it neither 2) contradicts other known facts, or contradicts itself. Here I’d like t briefly discuss the second part of that definition- The Bible never contradicts itself. I’d like us to think through how we apply this conviction to tough cases.
For some time now the outspoken atheist, and Christian apostate, Dan Baker has issued his Easter Challenge. As he plainly state it, the challenges is as follows,
The conditions of the challenge are simple and reasonable. In each of the four Gospels, begin at Easter morning and read to the end of the book: Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, and John 20-21. Also read Acts 1:3-12 and Paul’s tiny version of the story in I Corinthians 15:3-8. These 165 verses can be read in a few moments. Then, without omitting a single detail from these separate accounts, write a simple, chronological narrative of the events between the resurrection and the ascension: what happened first, second, and so on; who said what, when; and where these things happened.
A number of introductory remarks are needed in responding to Mr. Barker’s Easter Challenge. Several of these thoughts are regarding what logically constitutes a contradiction between the multiple resurrection accounts, while others touch on historical and literary concerns. My goal here is not to provide a detailed harmonization (others have provided that), but address the larger idea of forced harmonizations. Parameters must be acknowledged for any responsible Christian response to challenges like Barker’s.
As a single example of what Barker wants resolved, he asks:
What time did the women visit the tomb?
- Matthew: “as it began to dawn” (28:1)
- Mark: “very early in the morning . . . at the rising of the sun” (16:2, KJV); “when the sun had risen” (NRSV); “just after sunrise” (NIV)
- Luke: “very early in the morning” (24:1, KJV) “at early dawn” (NRSV)
- John: “when it was yet dark” (20:1)
It is clear that Mr. Barker’s challenge is intended to demonstrate that the multiple resurrection accounts are convoluted and irreconcilable. Such convolution, though not directly stated but certainly implied, is a strong argument against the historicity of the event itself. If the primary eyewitnesses cannot get their facts straight and do not produce a cohesive narrative the skeptic has ample reason to reject the central claim they are making.
Difficulties arise when certain assumptions (made by those untrained in biblical interpretation, historical reconstruction, and logic) are imposed upon the texts of the Bible.
Harmonization may not be possible. First, it may very well be the case that textual reconstruction is impossible. But this is not necessarily because of any failure of the biblical authors to presents the facts “as they really were,” but rather because we fail as interpreters to do just to the unique emphases of each Gospel as a literary whole. Each Gospel approaches the story of Jesus from a distinct angle, and we therefore should not automatically expect them to line up neatly like so many Lego blocks. Matthew constructs his Gospel with the aim of demonstrating Jesus as the long-promised messianic king, while John seeks to identify Jesus as the God of Israel come in the flesh. Each Gospel has its own goal and orders, including and excluding material based on the overall point they are seeking to make. We should not muffle these voices in the violent literary attempt to cram them into our preconceived procrustean bed. This is an inherent danger that potentially awaits anyone who seeks to harmonize the resurrection accounts (including those who affirm biblical inerrancy).
Beware the monster. Second, The Gospels were not written with the intent that they would be carved up, abstracted from their original focus, and spliced together like a literary Frankenstein’s Monster. So we ask, what exactly does Mr. Barker have in mind when he writes, “The important condition to the challenge, however, is that not one single biblical detail be omitted” (emphasis his). If two Gospels says there was one angel at the empty tomb, and another says there was one, how should both these details be represented in the text, “There was/were one/two angels”? Does this kind of bare representation (without harmonization) encourage the uninitiated to claim, “See, there is a clear contradiction!” It would seem so.
Gaps and blanks. Last, following the lead of biblical scholar Bruce Waltke, we must make the distinction between literary gaps and blanks. “A gap is an intentional omission whereas a blank is an inconsequential omission” (see his An Old Testament Theology) Much of the information we would need to produce a successful harmonization is “blanked” because it was not reckoned to be essential to the narrative presented by the Gospel authors. In no way does this rule out the historicity of the accounts. It merely reminds us not to impose the foreign criteria of modern historiography on these ancient texts.
This last example raises another difficulty for Mr. Barker’s Challenge. If his goal in having people wrestle with this experiment in literary harmonization is to palpably demonstrate that the multiple resurrection accounts are convoluted and contradictory, an important question must be raised: What exactly is a contradiction?
A contradiction occurs whenever we affirm two logically irreconcilable concepts at the same time and in the same sense (A and not-A). Many objections to harmonization (and the Christian doctrine of biblical inerrancy behind it) are working off of a faulty and imprecise definition of contradiction.
Important for our purposes are the following interpretive points:
- Differences of perspective do not necessarily imply contradiction.
- Difficulties in the textual harmonization of multiple similar accounts (especially due to literary, linguistic, historical, or archeological ignorance) does not necessarily imply a contradiction
- Difficulties in harmonization do not logically mean or imply that the event to which they refer took place
To return to our earlier example of the angelic appearances at the empty tomb, we follow the lead of Norman Geisler:
Matthew does not say there was only one angel. John says there were two, and wherever there are two there is always one; it never fails! The critic has to add the word “only” to Matthew’s account in order to make it contradictory. But in this case, the problem is not with what the Bible actually says, but with what the critic adds to it. (Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe, When Critics Ask: A Popular Handbook on Bible Difficulties. Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1992)
Matthew probably focuses on the one who spoke and “said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid’ “ (Matt. 28:5). John referred to how many angels they saw; “and she saw two angels” (John 20:12).3
As Geisler notes, the needed element to produce genuine contradiction must be provided by a hostile interpreted and does not come from the texts themselves.
This has been a brief crash course in thinking through some of the issue at handle when working through harmonization. The challenges to inspiration and inerrancy present us with the temptation to force harmonization to vindicate the Bible. We must work toward possible harmonization when possible, and admit ignorance and the need for further study when necessary. The best resources I can recommend for further study in this subject are Poythress’ Inerrancy and Worldview, and Inerrancy and the Gospels.
For more, see:
Tomorrow I should have the next entry in our memeology series. But for now I wanted to notify you all that I’ve collected the biblical inerrancy series I wrote a few years back into a short 6 page document. You can find it here and on the ‘resources’ page. Below are a few videos on biblical inerrancy. The first is by Ligon Duncan, Al Mohler and Kevin DeYoung on why we defend biblical inerrancy.
The second is G. K. Beale addressing the question of whether there are contradictions in the Bible.
Michael Horton asks and answers the question, “Is Inerrancy Defensible?”
Scott Oliphint on inerrancy and apologetics.
Here’s the newest round of links:
- How Jazz Can Shape Apologetics– Douglas Groothius
- Antitheism Presupposes Theism (And So Does Every Other ‘Ism’)– James Anderson
- Can We Prove the Existence of God?– James Anderson
- Why I Am a Cessationist– Thomas Schreiner
- Why I Am a Continuationist: Sam Storms
- Six Factors that Do Not Affect Inerrancy– C. Michael Patton
- Free Kindle download: 52 Words Every Christian Should Know
The following post is from the blog of Kevin DeYoung:
Fifteen years ago, in Truth and Power: The Place of Scripture in the Christian Life J.I. Packer recognized that some Christians who will speak of Scripture’s authority or inspiration, are nevertheless scared by the word inerrancy. The word conjures up images of flat-earth enthusiasts and other embarrassments. Packer explains:
They are frightened of certain mental attitudes and stances with which they feel the word inerrancy is now inseparably linked and which in their view tend to obscure the Bible’s main message and bar the way to the best in biblical scholarship. Specifically, they hear the inerrancy-claim as challenging all comers to find mistakes in Scripture if they can–which, so they think, is an improper diverting of interest from the great issues of the gospel to the minutiae of Bible harmony, and from believing proclamation to rationalistic apologetics. (50)
Packer sympathizes with this mindset, but only to a point.
Once I too avoided the word inerrancy as much as I could, partly because I had no wish myself to endorse the tendencies mentioned, and partly because the word has a negative form and I like to sound positive. But I find that nowadays I need the word. Verbal currency, as we known, can be devalued. Any word may have some of its meaning rubbed off, and this has happened to all my preferred terms for stating my belief about the Bible. I hear folk declare Scripture inspired and in the next breath say that it misleads from time to time. I hear them call in infallible and authoritative, and find they mean only that its impact on us and the commitment to which it leads us will keep us in God’s grace, not that it is all true.
That is not enough for me. I want to safeguard the historic evangelical meaning of these three words and to make clear my intention, as a disciple of Jesus Christ, to receive as from the Father and the Son all that the Scripture, when properly interpreted–that is, understood from within, in terms of its own frame of reference–proves to be affirming. (50-51)
The doctrine of inerrancy, Packer goes on to say, should not bear directly on the task of exegesis. That is, we must not determine ahead of time what the text must or must not say based on our doctrine of Scripture. But on the other hand, inerrancy should bear on our theological method.
What it says is that in formulating my theology I shall not consciously deny, disregard, or arbitrarily relativize anything that I find Bible writers teaching, nor cut the knot of any problem of Bible harmony, factual or theological, by assuming that the writers were not consistent with themselves or with each other. Instead, I shall labor to harmonize and integrate all that is taught (without remainder), to take is as from God (however little I may like it), and to seek actively to live by it (whatever change of my present beliefs and behavior-patterns it may require). This is what acceptance of the Bible as wholly God-given and totally true requires of us. (52)
Inerrancy safeguards the Christian freedom that comes only by surrendering our independence and submitting to God unreservedly. There is no true freedom accept as a servant to Christ. And we are not faithful servants of God unless we accept all that he says to us in his word. Packer’s summary is spot on:
Any degree of skepticism about the portrait of Christ, the promises of God, the principles of godliness, and the power of the Holy Spirit, as biblically presented, has the effect of enslaving us to our own alternative ideas about these things, and thus we miss something of the freedom, joy, and vitality that the real Christ bestows. God is very patient and merciful, and I do not suggest that those who fall short here thereby forfeit all knowledge of Christ, though I recognize that when one sits loose to Scripture this may indeed happen. But I do maintain most emphatically that one cannot doubt the Bible without far-reaching loss, both of fullness of truth and of fullness of life. If therefor we have at heart spiritual renewal for society, for churches and for our own lives, we shall make much of the entire trustworthiness–that is, the inerrancy–of Holy Scripture as the inspired and liberating Word of God. (55)
The inerrancy debate is about more than just about getting our doctrine of Scripture right. It’s about the honor of God, the vitality of his people, and the fullness of truth and life we must offer to a dying and unsure world.
Why should we maintain the doctrine of inerrancy even in the light of problems? Let’s be clear, biblical difficulties remain, even for the Christian who affirms inerrancy . There are still passages in the Bible which we don’t quite know how to perfectly reconcile with other passages. This much must be admitted, and admitted up front.
I find that some who are put off by inerrancy usually either
a) don’t have a proper understanding of the doctrine,
b) have come across too many who affirm inerrancy but have a rather mechanical and oversimplified understanding of it.
Not caring enough to understand what inerrantists believe is an error (no pun intended). But pretending like Scripture has no rough patches or difficulties is equally an error. Ignoring or denying biblical difficulties doesn’t honor God, even when done with the otherwise godly motivation to uphold the authority of Scripture.
Christians who believe in the biblical inerrancy don’t adhere to the doctrine because they’ve solved all difficulties. We should affirm inerrancy because it is a natural implication of the Bible’s inspiration and truthfulness (see previous posts). That is to say, we affirm inerrancy because we’re convinced that it’s taught in Scripture, not because it’s been independently verified. It’s a theological doctrine, not an empirical doctrine. We believe in the deity of Jesus the Christ, not because we’ve solved the mystery of the hypostatic union, but rather because it’s affirmed by John, Paul, Isaiah, and others.
If we abandoned every tenet of the Christian faith that raises ‘problems’, we’d have very little left to defend, proclaim, and believe .
So far, we’ve review 2 problems with the claim that the Bible is infallible but not without errors. Now we’ll discuss a little bit further what biblical inerrancy is and what it is not.
What Biblical inerrancy is not. Recall our earlier definition of inerrancy:
When all the relevant facts are known, and when properly interpreted, scripture never contradicts itself, not does it misrepresent the facts.
For many who reject inerrancy, their understanding of the doctrine is that the Bible is to be interpreted literally, at face value. Such an oversimplified understanding is a strawman, which presents the doctrine in such a light so as to make it easy to challenge. I should say something here I think is important to this discussion, and one which I don’t think I’ve made clear in the last few emails. While they are intimately linked, inerrancy should be distinguished from interpretation. The former is a statement about the truthfulness of the text, while the latter is about how we as readers of the Bible “get to” the content of that text. So by my claim that Scripture is inerrant, I don’t thereby mean my interpretations of Scripture are inerrant. Inerrancy is about the text and not the interpreter. John Frame, in an online article, makes a similar point:
Shall we speak today of biblical “inerrancy?” The term does, to be sure, produce confusion in some circles. Some theologians have gone far astray from the dictionary meaning of “inerrant.” James Orr, for example, defined “inerrant” as “hard and fast literality in minute matters of historical, geographical, and scientific detail.” Well, if “inerrancy” requires literalism, then we should renounce inerrancy; for the Bible is not always to be interpreted literally. Certainly there are important questions of Bible interpretation that one bypasses if he accepts biblical inerrancy in this sense.
Inerrancy doesn’t necessarily dictate a method of interpretation (literal, or otherwise).
Second, those who affirm inerrancy don’t ignore the clear fact that Scripture uses figures of speech or round numbers. Nor do they believe Scripture always uses precise language. Inerrantists acknowledge the use of round numbers, imprecise description, and phenomenological language (describing things the way they appear, rather than the way we would describe them scientifically, ex: “the Sun rose in the morning”)
What inerrancy is. Inerrancy is a statement about the original form of the text (aka the autographa). As the first line of the doctrinal statement for the Evangelical Theological Society states, “The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs.” That is to say the original manuscripts are error-less in all they affirm, but copies aren’t guaranteed freedom from scribal error. This is where textual criticism plays a valuable role in the discussion (at least for clarifying misunderstandings). There have been some scribal errors over the years, but they have been detected due to the numerous amount of manuscripts we have. So, we can essentially figure out exactly what the originals said, with the exception of one and a half to three percent of the time, and in these cases no essential doctrine or teaching is affected. All that to say an affirmation of the inerrancy of the original form is indeed relevant for oday.
Next we’ll look at 2 crucial terms in any discussion of inerrancy: error and contradiction.
Last time I brought up the distinction between the infallibility of the BIble and it’s inerrancy, and how some theologians and biblical commentators grew increasingly uncomfortable with the latter, and stuck to the former. I said that there were some problems with this position, and here I’ll mention two.
Problem 1: Classically, infallibility is actually a stronger term than inerrancy. Infallibility speaks of ability, while inerrancy speaks of performance. So to reject the inerrancy of Scripture while affirming it’s infallibility is akin to straining out a knat and swallowing a camel. Of course, as noted last time, the definition of infallibility by those who deny inerrancy has changed.
Matthew 5:18 and John 10:35 are both texts that reflect Jesus’ belief in the unity of Scripture. Of course, many more Scripture could be brought into the discussion. I raised these in particular because the John passage attests to Jesus’ view on the coherence of Scripture. But after reading this passage, one may still rightly ask what portions, sections, units, or aspects of Scripture cannot be broken. Cannot is a term of ability, Scripture does not have the ability to be broken. To this we have the Matthew passage, every “iota and dot” must stand. Likewise, Jesus and Paul present arguments that hinge on the interpretation of a single word (Jn. 10:34 and Gal. 3:16).
Of course, Jesus and Paul weren’t the only Second-Temple interpreters that made arguments that depended on the interpretation of a single word (you find this practiced even in the Dead Sea Scrolls). The underlining assumption of people who interpret this way is that every word of Scripture is reliable (even when the resulting interpretations weren’t!). Jesus, Paul, and others held this conviction. This is where Jn. 10:35 comes in. As I understand it, when Jesus notes in passing, “Scripture cannot be broken,” he is implicitly charging them with inconsistently interpreting Psalm 82:6, i.e. in a fashion which 1) “breaks” Scripture and 2) is inconsistent with their common confession of the trustworthiness of sacred Scripture.
Problem 2: Scripture itself doesn’t limit the topics to which it speaks with divine authority. Heaven and Earth will pass away, but Jesus words will not (Matt. 24:35, Mk. 13:31, Lk. 21:33). Three gospels felt this was an important saying of Jesus to pass on). Likewise, Christ speaks in Paul (and the other Apostles, 2 Cor. 13:3). Jesus and Paul speak of Adam as a real historical figure (Mk 10:5-9, Rom. 5:14, 1 Cor. 15:22, 45, 1 Tim. 2:13). Notice how the subject of Adam touches on both history and science, subjects in which the limited inerrancy position usually allow for biblical error. But since it is the case that all Scripture is the word of God, no part of Scripture carries less authority that any other part of Scripture. Thus in the Bible we find authoritative songs, hymns, poems, commands, historical records, etc.
If the inerrancy of any parts of the Bible are denied we lose the inerrancy of the whole Bible, because “Scripture cannot be broken.” Biblical authority and inerrancy are closely linked. But I take authority as the primary attribute over inerrancy. Inerrancy is an expression of authority (or, you can say, one of the reasons why it carries authority). As a parallel, I don’t think that wrath is an attribute of God, holiness and goodness are. God’s just hatred of all that is anti-shalom is an expression of his holiness and goodness. How could we say that God was righteous if he make it clear, for example, that he never intended to right the wrongs the Fall has caused (whether through the cross or in judgment)? We couldn’t.
The attribute of authority is primary and inerrancy is a sub-division (or expression) of that primary attribute.
In an earlier post, I noted it appears the historicity of Adam may become a point of debate among conservative evangelical Bible scholars. I briefly summarized the view of Dr. Peter Enns on his book Inspiration and Incarnation and the difficulty it raises for the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. What I’d like to do in this series is briefly lay out a positive case for inerrancy and provide a few responses to some common questions about the doctrine. So the goal isn’t to attack anyone, but to set forth some reasons for why we can trust every word of the Bible. For resources on contemporary writers who question the doctrine, see the last post in the series.
Knowing what we’re talking about. Before we get any further, let’s define our terms. Here’s my definition of inerrancy:
When all the relevant facts are known, and when properly interpreted, Scripture never contradicts itself, nor does it misrepresent the facts.
This is the standard evangelical definition of inerrancy as reflected in the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy. So, this is the definition we’ll need to examine and explore.
A ridiculously brief history of the controversy. Theological liberals and proponents of higher critical scholarship denied the Bible was of ultimate divine origin and worth little as far as history was concerned. On the other hand, those who came to be known as fundamentalists argued that each passage of Scripture was literally true and precise. Looking to avoid this impasse, a number of Christian theologians grew tired of the liberal/fundamentalist debate, and affirmed biblical infallibility while not affirming its inerrancy. So, “inerrancy” was taken as loaded with fundamentalist baggage. So the term inerrancy (and the concept) was denied in favor of infallibility (as they define it). At this point I should note that these theologians were often 1) true and sincere Christians, and 2) defining infallibility in a different way than what I’ve provided above. Their definition would be something close to saying that the Bible generally will not deceive us or lead us into spiritual darkness. Let’s think through this further. These theologians would say the inspiration and infallibility of Scripture means that Scripture is our supreme authority for faith and practice. But more often than not, by faith they meant theology, and by practice they meant ethics. Scripture wasn’t intended to speak with authority in matters of history and science. It’s here where we run into problems.
Next, we’ll take a look at some of the problems with affirm biblical infallibility, while denying biblical inerrancy.