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Inerrancy and the Danger of Forced Harmonization

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.

Literary Considerations

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.

Logical Considerations

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:

On Inerrancy and the Biblical Use of Secondary Sources

In writing their inspired messages, several biblical authors saw fit to mention or cite books that would lend support to their historical claims. In the book of Ezra, over one-third of its contents are actually quotes from official legal documents. The question is raised, “if uninspired material is quoted in a supposedly infallible book, how does this effect the biblical understanding of inerrancy?”

On the surface it would seem that quoting flawed, or at least fallible, sources would cast a shadow of doubt on the truth of the Bible. Let’s explore what these citations or references do not imply. First, in quoting these sources the biblical writers and/or editors did not imply that books like The Prophecy of Ahijah the Shilonite, and The Annotations on the Books of the Kings were separate vehicles of inspired revelation. When Jude makes reference to the Book of Enoch and The Bodily Assumption of Moses he is not telling us that we should find these books and include them into the canon of Scripture. Acknowledging that uninspired books that contain truth do in fact exist does not imply that we lack a complete canon and should therefore seek out these ‘revelations.’

Second, when we see a note directing our attention to a Book of Records of Nathan the Prophet it does not necessarily mean the inspired Writers agreed with everything in that uninspired source. The Book of Enoch contains several things that a biblically informed Christian would reject. But, as noted earlier, this does not stop an author from accepting a particular truth in a document. Paul, in Acts 17, made reference to the Greek philosopher Epimenides when he acknowledged that in God we “live and move, and have our being”, and that “we are His offspring”. Yet as we examine the actual work he cited, Epimenides was not referring to YHWH, the God of Israel, but of Zeus, the supreme deity of the Greek pantheon. Does this mean that Paul condoned pagan idol worship? No, of course not. Paul was simply confirming to the men of Athens that in our supreme Creator we owe all of our existence, though they substituted this Creator with Zeus.

Lastly, and typing together our first two points, when quoting outside sources the Prophets and Apostles claimed neither that those books where an authoritative rule of faith, nor were they infallible. Historical documents were cited simply to corroborate the truthfulness of what an inspired writer claimed. All these references were perfect, infallible uses of imperfect, fallible documents.

Yet, with these few notes having been made, we must now look to what actually was implied by the biblical Writers when they quoted from uninspired documents. First, if we are to define inerrancy by saying that the Bible is correct in all that it affirms, we must confess that these quotations taken from other sources are indeed correct, and reliable in conveying the reality which they dealt with. The entire concept of biblical inerrancy, when properly understood, is the natural, logical conclusion to the doctrine of biblical inspiration. The reasoning goes as follows:

  • God is truth, and cannot tell any falsehood. (John 3:33, 17:3, 1 Jn. 5:20)
  • All Scripture is inspired by God[1], and is the very source in which we find God speaking to us. (2 Tim. 3:16-17)
  • Therefore, all Scripture is without error in everything it affirms, and correct in all it documents. (Ps.19:7, Isa. 65:16)

It is with this presupposition that we come to the texts in question.

Another point we must realize is that the writers of these particular texts knew that the resources they cited would hold quite a bit of weight with their readers. For example, when Ezra quotes at length from the letters of King Darius and King Artaxerxes he knew that the authority lent to his writing by official royal decrees would confirm his writings. Therefore, anyone contesting the authenticity of his writing could confirm them within the annals of royal decrees.

And lastly, it is worthy of mention that we must always keep in mind that the concept of biblical inerrancy does not imply that the canon was written in a vacuum. When authors such as Ezra or the writers of such books as 1 & 2 Kings and Chronicles were addressing the pressing issues of their day, they were not exempt from gathering source data much like we today do.

The chief difference between their research and our own is that God superintended their writings of biblical authors in such a way, through inspiration, that their citations and references were completely free from error and misguidance.

[1] The literal rendering of the Greek text is “God-breathed”, theopneustos. For more see my What is Biblical Inerrancy? A Six-Part Series

Why Inerrancy Matters

Several notable theologians (not least N. T. Wright) claim that that biblical inerrancy is a peculiarly American doctrine. Some believe that a focus on inerrancy, as opposed to biblical infallibility (which I’ve addressed here), attracts skeptics and religious naysayers to search for ways to undermine the accuracy of the Bible. Perhaps there’s some truth to this last claim. It does make sense after all. The claim that one, and only one, collection of religious writings reflect the personal disclosure of a speaking God (and, moreover, that this collection of documents is error-free) is bound to tick off not a few champions of “tolerance.” But surely we shouldn’t shrug our shoulders at every doctrine non-Christians find unacceptable.

But why do American evangelicals spend so much time affirming inerrancy? Why would any Christian affirm inerrancy? And does biblical authority reduce to inerrancy? For some the answer is yes, but I think that’s reductionistic. Biblical authority flows the quality of Scripture as God-breathed. Since it is the Word of God written it therefore demands a response to its speech acts. This means Scripture demands a response to everything it says in all the ways it says it.  Biblical authority entails we answer Scripture’s questions, laugh at its jokes, tremble at its threats, rejoice in its promises, and do as it commands. Authority cannot be reduced to an affirmation of inerrancy. Inerrancy is related to one aspect of biblical activity, stating propositions and making assertions. A robust doctrine of biblical authority teaches us to believe the Bible’s claims just as it teaches us to trust God’s promises.

Now if this is correct, and biblical authority is a larger and more robust concept than simple inerrancy, why make such a big deal over it? Ask yourself that question. Why place such a heavy emphasis on the Bible’s propositions rather than the its promises, threats, songs, or commands? The answer is straightforward:

If the propositions affirmed as true in the Bible are in fact false, all other biblical speech acts have no extra-textual importance.  

Extra-textual importance, a fancy phrase for a crucial concept. Elsewhere I’ve defined the doctrine of inerrancy like this: When all the relevant facts are known, and when properly interpreted, Scripture never contradicts itself, not does it misrepresent the facts. Now theoretically, the Bible could be internally consistent (no book or statement contradicts another book or statement) and yet not be inerrant. Why? Because the narrative of the Bible (while internally harmonious, and literarily masterful) may not in fact make true statements of the extra-textual world, the world outside the text. Consider the amazing precision and harmony of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. The Bible would make for great literature, but a poor foundation for Spirit-empowered obedience and development.

If the propositions of Scripture aren’t true there’s no comfort found in it’s promises. If the propositions of Scripture aren’t true there’s no reason to fear the Bible’s threats. If the propositions of Scripture aren’t true there’s no urgency to answers its demands.

Without affirming the truth of Scripture, all is lost, and their is little difference between our love and admiration for the Bible and that of Rowling’s Harry Potter series. Biblical authority incorporates more than inerrancy, but not less.

Here’s a fuller discussion on the topic from D. A. Carson:

Other resources:

Inerrancy and Problem Passages

John Frame, in Doctrine of the Word of God, explains how one should maintain a belief in the inerrancy of Scripture in light of the difficulty of ‘problem passages’:

Now, when many readers look at Scripture, it appears to them to contain errors. So many writers have urged that we should not derive our doctrine of Scripture merely from its teachings about itself, but that we should take into account the phenomena. And if we take the phenomena seriously, they tell us, we will not be able to conclude that Scripture is inerrant. This approach is sometimes called and inductive approach…

I believe the inductive method, so describe, is a faulty method for determining this character of Scripture. Of course, Scripture contains “difficulties,” problems, apparent errors. But what role should these play in our formulation of the doctrine of Scripture? It is important to remember that all doctrines of the Christian faith are beset by problems. The doctrine of God’s sovereignty seems in the view of many readers to conflict with the responsibility of human beings, and the apparent contradiction has led to many theological battles. The doctrine of the Trinity says that God is both three and one, and the relation between his threeness and his oneness is not easy to put into words. When speaking of Christ, we face the problem that he is both God and man, both eternal and temporal, both of omniscient and limited in his knowledge. Would anyone argue that because of these problems we should not confess that God is sovereign, that man is responsible, that God is three and one, that Jesus is divine and human?

Read the rest of this entry

Inerrancy and Humility

In his article, “One reason I believe the Scriptures are inerrant” author Kevin D. Kennedy shares a story that helped him in his commitment to the truthfulness of Scripture. The article is short and I would encourage you to read it.  Here are what I thought were the best 2 paragraphs of the piece:

…In order for me to claim that the Scriptures contain errors, I must first claim inerrancy for my own interpretation. The other alternative is to conclude that I might be mistaken in my interpretation of the text and it is therefore impossible for me to conclude that this text has an error until I have inerrant knowledge of the biblical languages, the historical background, other events not recorded by this particular narrator, any unique idioms that might have been employed by this biblical writer, as well as inerrant knowledge of the political, social, legal, cultural, familial, geographical, topological, and ethnic setting of the text — just to name a few.

Given these two alternatives, it is clear that the decision of the interpreter is ultimately a spiritual decision. Either I claim omniscience for my own interpretation or I humbly admit that my own knowledge is limited and trust that God will never mislead me in His Word.

What is Biblical Inerrancy? (part 4)

Now let’s define 2 crucial terms for this discussion: error and contradiction. Clarifying these terms is absolutely essential for understanding inerrancy. Those who deny inerrancy believe either the Bible claims things that aren’t true, or that some passages of the Bible contradict other passages of the Bible. If it turns out that  1)”problem passages” do not affirm things that aren’t untrue, and 2) many who deny inerrancy are working with an inaccurate definition of ‘contradiction’, anti-inerrancy arguments lose much of their bite.

An error is a failure to relate accurate information due either to confusion, ignorance, or deceit. A contradiction occurs whenever we affirm two logically inreconciliable concepts at the same time and in the same sense (A and not-A). Many of the objections to inspiration (by unbelievers) and inerrancy (by both unbelievers and limited inerrantist Christians) based on supposed errors misunderstand what an error is. Remember this important principle:

Differences of perspective do not necessarily imply contradiction.

Theological Foundations for Inerrancy. So there are several possible causes for errors: confusion, deceit, or ignorance. That is to say, writers of the Bible may have gotten their facts mixed up, they could have intentionally desired to manipulate their readers, or perhaps they lacked vital information regarding an important point they wanted to make. But once we recognize that God is the ultimate author of the Bible (2 Peter 1:21), we realize that these causes of error do not plague God. God is neither confused (He not only knows but determines all facts), deceitful (Titus, 1:2, 1 John 2:21), nor ignorant (knowing all things). God is a God of truth (1 Jn. 1:5). The human authors claimed not to be deceiving their readers (Gal. 1:20, 2 Pet. 1:16), and to have checked all their facts carefully (Lk. 1:1-4).

The inerrancy syllogism. A syllogism is a form of deductive reasoning consisting of a major premise, a minor premise, and a conclusion. In deductive logic, if the major and minor premises are true the conclusion cannot fail to be true, it is logically certain.

  • Major premise: The Bible is God’s word (2 Tim. 3:16-17)
  • Minor premise: God cannot lie, deceive, or make errors (Titus 1:2)
  • Conclusion: Therefore the Bible cannot lie, deceieve or make errors (2 Sam. 7:28, Prov. 30:5; cf. Ps. 12:6; 119:42; John 17:17).

Here is the syllogism, taken from explicit passages of Scripture, which if correct assures that inerrancy is a valid inference of biblical teaching.

What is Biblical Inerrancy? (part 3)

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.