If anyone knows me, I am a Christian and one who once held to a view of Biblical inerrancy much like Norman Geisler and would have been mortified at any Christian who failed to do so. A perfect God, after all, could do no less than generate a perfect word—or so I thought.
What I am quickly coming to realize, mostly through debate, is the Bible is a book with many possible interpretations. To a right wing Republican, it is uncanny how much the Bible makes God look like a right wing Republican. And wouldn’t you know it, God is also a democrat? To be more specific, it isn’t hard to find verses that support ones already existing views, even if they are only vestigial. If you want the Bible to say something, you will make it say something.
I am afraid appealing to the oft-cited “in all things unity” phrase will do us very little in this discussion, for s soon as we do this we begin by begging the question and are using the Bible as an objective frame of reference to define what is and is not essential.
The reader will have to forgive me if I seem to conflate “biblicism” with “inerrancy”. While these are two different terms, one does presuppose the other. The biblicist, who may insist the proper church greeting is a holy kiss (2 Corinthians 13:12) may require inerrancy to be true, but based on my understanding, the inerrantist is not committed to biblicism.
The problem of inerrancy reminds me of the argument against the existence of God based on His apparent hiddenness. If God’s word is true, and if belief in its truth is so urgent why is this not evident in the clarity of the Bible? Certainly, even the most staunch unbeliever would agree if God existed they would want to know about it, so why doesn’t God share this sense of urgency in communicating Himself more clearly?
Thomas Kuhn, while not a philosopher of religion, rightly noted that we do science traditionally through paradigms, that is there is a body of data begging to be interpreted and we all come to different conclusions about the same stuff. The Bible, or any text really, is no different. We cannot escape our paradigms to get to the thing itself.
If the Bible is a document for all people in all times and in all places, shouldn’t we come to roughly the same conclusions about it? From a secular standpoint, Evangelicals, Catholics and Jehovah’s Witnesses can’t even get their stories straight. Christian Smith, in “The Bible Made Impossible” notes how the Bible can affirm Calvinism just as much as it does Arminianism. Ask 10 different scholars, who affirm Biblical inerrancy, what inerrancy means and how they would reconcile difficult verses in the Bible and you will probably get more answers than you will scholars in the field. Smith is right when he says that affirming inerrancy is the beginning of the debate, not the end of one. If one wants to affirm it, it needs to be defended just as much.
What is Inerrancy?
First of all, Inerrancy is not the expectation that our translations, whether they be Latin, German, French of English, are error free. This would be asking too much of our linguistic abilities. Even the modern day Greek language is inadequate for fully capturing the original languages. Even if there were perfect golden plates of the Bible stored away in some Platonic sense, there is no way they could be adequately communicated to us, through our flawed mechanisms.
An inerrantist also does not affirm the manuscript evidence currently in our possession is error free. There are variant readings of the thousands of copies currently in play. That we cannot settle current theological debates, on these manuscripts alone, demonstrates this.
The inerrantist would affirm the originals are what are error free. However, we do not have the originals, not a single one. Carbon dating and the locations in which they are found does not place them in the times and places in which they took place.
How do we know, then, the originals are what would be error free? Inerrantists suggest that we can compare the variant readings and can come up with a facsimile of what the originals might be. A simple illustration goes like this: Suppose you get a message,
“You have w$n s@x m(&&ion doll?rs”
and another offering correction, because the previous was too garbled:
“Yo) h?$& won @ix million $o/&ars”
Well, one could put the two messages together and surmise that the printer at the lotto company was faulty, and go collect their six million, or they could assume there was no coherent message to be had between the two.
While an oversimplification, this is roughly how textual criticism works. Although, this knowledge probably won’t get one a job in a Greek classics department, sorry. But there are certain “charities” we extend to any text and expecting their transmission to be perfect is probably a false expectation.
Inerrancy, then, is that the Bible (in its original form) is error free, not our copies, and not our various creeds and catechisms.
The problem we face, as Christians, is that this claim is insulated from criticism, even if true, since we do not have the autographs in our possession.
Geisler, a strong contemporary advocate of inerrancy, states in his Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics:
If Inspired, Then Inerrant. Inerrancy is a logical result of inspiration. Inerrancy means “wholly true and without error.” And what God breathes out (inspires) must be wholly true (inerrant). However, it is helpful to specify more clearly what is meant by “truth” and what would constitute an “error”
Simply put, and Hugh Ross and his staff at Reasons to Believe also affirm this, that error in the Bible would be a signature of human rather than divine authorship. This is not far from the truth of the matter.
What would constitute an error?
Bart Ehrman, in his book “Forged” says the Bible has more errors in it than there are words in the New Testament. However, he fails to mention that in the variant copies of the New Testament if one copy contains a copyist error and it is transmitted to a hundred copies after that is counted as 100 errors and these errors are up to, and including, the equivalent of missing commas and apostrophes. So, we cannot exactly call this a legitimate, factual error. Ehrman is being somewhat dishonest where he knows better.
What about scientific errors? Is the Bible full of errors because of the miracle events it describes? After all, we live in a world where axeheads sink and not float (2 Kings 6) and one where snakes do not talk, unless one is talking to a used car salesman. So, do we discount the Bible on the basis its miracle claims are out to lunch? I would have to say, “No” because the miracle claims, and God’s direct involvement in the affairs of humanity are exactly what the biblical authors seek to demonstrate. The biblical message is often vindicated by an authentic miracle. Matthew 9:6, Mark 9:10, Luke 5:24 all describe the event where Jesus offers a miracle to authenticate a claim that He can forgive sins.
Job 38:22, and Vs 37 both describe a horrible view of meteorology, at least it would be horrible if it intended to convey truth about meteorology. Vs 22 describes snow as being “held in storehouses” while Vs 37 seems to be suggesting God is “tipping over water pots in heaven” to make it rain. If one believes this, one might easily believe thunder is caused by angels bowling. This is nonsense, of course. The Bible can still be forgiven for this scientific blunder because it was not a scientific blunder at all. Rather than attempting to write a treatise on scientific truths, often the Bible accommodates the understandings of the time and runs with them. This type of “error” can, again, be forgiven. As noted, there are certain charities which must be extended to any text, the Bible being no different.
So for I have written in favour of inerrancy. As it stands, the Bible could never be wrong. After all, if we encounter a difficulty, no problem, we’ll just chalk it up to it being a poetic device. If we take this too far, the Bible can become a wax nose, or an explanation that can be used to explain everything and it would therefore become meaningless.
Is Inerrancy Sustainable?
Inerrancy, as I have come to see it, is an unnecessary dogma which is difficult to hold onto if not damaging to Christianity, not in light of our superior scientific knowledge, but in light of internal difficulties in the Bible itself. Take, for instance, Matthew 2, where Matthew describes Jesus being hidden in Egypt until the death of Herod, in order that the words of Hosea 11 might be fulfilled, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” But if we read further in Hosea 11, the very next passage says, in reference to this very son,
The more they called them, The more they went from them; They kept sacrificing to the Baals And burning incense to idols.”
Clearly, the prophecy Matthew thinks was fulfilled in Jesus was intended for unfaithful Israel, but Matthew seems more committed to his misunderstanding of Old Testament prophecy and imposes this on his reconstruction of history. Some have suggested there is a double meaning in the Hosea passage and will use Biblical typology as a precedent to defend this. For instance, in the Bible there are types and shadows, the imperfect kings of Israel foreshadow a perfect king of Israel found in Jesus. While the precedent they cite may very well be true, and is a literary device employed by many non-biblical authors, to extend this principle is to strain the aforementioned principle of charity beyond its breaking point. This amounts to someone writing in a wrong answer on a test and when they get their grade back they say to the teacher, “Oops! I meant something entirely different by that!”
A reader simply does not owe any text that degree of charity. If we use this as our apologetic, we may very well accept the Qur’an or the book of Mormon based on their numerous blunders.
Too often we have the picture in our minds of the biblical authors being in a trancelike state, hovering over a crystal ball, as God communicated His word through them. This is not the case, at all. Even Moses was described as being very lucid when God communicated to Him through a burning bush, in contrast to Muhammad where he is described as having been confused after receiving his visions in a cave, and even contemplated suicide after, thinking he was possessed by a jinn.
Some apologists, such as William Lane Craig, have taken the view of inspiration to be that God appropriates a text already in play and makes it His own, such as through the gospel narratives. God, being omniscient, knows what writers would freely write in and He “affixes” His signature to it. An example of this would be how an author of a book or a paper includes quotes from other authors, especially in buttressing their points. Now, they did not write this themselves, but they took quotes from others and incorporated them into their work.
So, while we have gospel narratives, with no firsthand, eyewitness, account, we do have accounts of the events well in circulation and while they contain some error, such as Matthew’s misunderstanding of prophecy in Hosea, they are not entirely false insofar as they record history. While there are differences in the gospel accounts, we can appreciate that the reconstruction of the events was not directly inspired, but that they were reconstructions of the same event from two different angles. This does not preclude these narratives from having useful content. We do much the same with eyewitness testimony of, say, a murder. Police will interview the witnesses separately before they all get together and get their stories straight. Often, the police are more interested in the differences than they are the similarities. Detective J Warner Wallace is good at describing this in his works, such as God’s Crime Scene.
We see similar cases to this with regards to the creation account in Genesis. A student of Ancient Near East writings will note how the creation account reads very similar to Babylonian and Egyptian creation accounts, however these accounts are modified as it puts the Abrahamic God, Yahweh, at the centre of creation and it describes the universe as having its origin in God and not being identifiable with other ANE gods, in a panentheistic sense. Many have even believed Moses used the Enuma Elis as his source for writing the biblical creation account.
What Christians may be guilty of, like Muslims, is holding to a heavyweight view of Biblical Platonism, where the Bible has eternally existed in some heavenly form and became a book. Where John 1:1 says that “the word which was eternally with God, was God, and became flesh” Christians have a tendency to at least say that it became a book, and we identify the book with its author.
I would propose, alongside William Webb, that we develop a redemptive hermeneutic, we need to ditch the cultural vehicle with which the Bible was written in and look for the essential truth in the text. There must be a necessary component to the Bible which would be conveyed no matter which culture it was written in. It just so happens that the word of God was written to those in an ancient near east culture, or in a Greco Roman setting. How would it unfold if it were written to us in our current culture?
Can we expect the Bible to convey accurate scientific ideas? Some believe the Bible accommodated what lacked in knowledge. Had God been in the business of constantly correcting lacking in scientific understanding, perhaps the Bible never would have gotten off the ground. Rather it speaks through contemporary misunderstandings. If the Bible did not write to people in variable circumstances, one might wonder how we could ever understand it ourselves today, without adopting an ancient near east, or Greco Roman culture.
Questions for those who insist on inerrancy:
1. Where in the Bible does it state inerrancy is an essential of Christian faith?
2. Did the early church have a Bible to believe was inerrant, or did they believe in the passion narrative and life of Jesus apart from sola scriptura?
3. Did God give us a book to have a relationship with Him? If the Bible is the sole foundation for Christian thought and worldview, why is it so ambiguous that it could take a team of lawyers to read it, and still disagree on its meaning?
4. Have you ever changed your views on a perfectly orthodox article of faith? If you were wrong about one view, and right, or more justified in the other view, how can scripture be inerrant when you held several legitimate views on the same set of biblical texts? I realize the claim is that it is the text that is inerrant, not the interpretation, but how is strict inerrancy maintained when so many theories about the same passages can be legitimately held?
5. Is certainty a necessary condition for believing something is true? Consider other good beliefs we have in other matters and your certainty in them.
6. Do you believe in Jesus because you have the Bible, or do you trust the Bible because you trust Jesus?
7. If the Bible is perfect, what role does the Holy Spirit play in the formation of our faith?
One passage that comes to mind is in John 6 where Jesus says that we must drink of His blood and eat of His body. This verse has caused much division between protestants and more liturgical churches for centuries about the nature of the eucharist.
These questions are merely meant to help one think through difficult concepts as a Christian. If we don’t handle these difficulties, I am sure atheists will help us in their own way when we encounter them.
I, myself, am incompetent to settle this debate, but would suggest an interested reader look into this for themselves. I only hope this particular article generate as much thought as it does discomfort for some.
To answer the question of the title: Can we still trust the Bible? I would give an emphatic “yes” so long as we don’t expect to find something that simply isn’t there. If we expected the Bible to tell us the future, like some cryptic Bible code, and if it failed to make good on our expectations, we would undoubtedly be disappointed. If we expect the Bible to be free of the human authorship, and the errors it entails, the we will come up with some very strange understandings of the Bible. However, denial of inerrancy does not give us license to be novel with scripture, rather it gives us an imperative to study it carefully in order to discern how God has spoken to us and how it applies to us today.
What I suggest is: Maintain belief in inerrancy, but keep in mind where human error may have possibly come into play. If the expectation has failed, that the Bible is error free, hopefully you will be aware of the interjection of human authorship in the text and where historical accuracy, or scientific, may have not been a key factor in communicating essential truths.
Vital Issues In the Inerrancy Debate: Geisler, Norman.
Can We Still Trust the Bible?: Blomberg, Craig.
The Bible Made Impossible: Smith, Christian.
Slaves, Women and Homosexuals: Webb, William.
Counterpoints: 5 Views on Biblical Inerrancy.
Paul Copan discusses Craig’s view on inspiration in “Did God Really Command Genocide?”
A fellow blogger, Cameron Bertuzzi” wrote this, “Does The Bible Contain Errors?”: http://capturingchristianity.com/bible-contain-errors/
Appendix: You be the judge. Alleged contradictions.
Below I have found some websites which show some common Bible problems which many apologists have attempted to respond to. Deal with them yourself. Do you feel the common responses to these “contradictions” are adequate or are you being creative with and going beyond the text? If the text is insufficient to handle the problem, is sola scriptura being adhered to?
Some minor challenges taken from http://www.errancy.com
Which plague killed Pharaoh’s horses?
“Thus says the Lord, the God of the Hebrews: Let my people go, so that they may worship me. For if you refuse to let them go and still hold them, the hand of the Lord will strike with a deadly pestilence your livestock in the field: the horses, the donkeys, the camels, the herds, and the flocks. But the Lord will make a distinction between the livestock of Israel and the livestock of Egypt, so that nothing shall die of all that belongs to the Israelites.”‘ The Lord set a time, saying, “Tomorrow the Lord will do this thing in the land.” And on the next day the Lord did so; all the livestock of the Egyptians died, but of the livestock of the Israelites not one died. [Exodus 9:1-6, NRSV]
Moving forward, somehow Pharaoh manages to pursue the Hebrews on his chariots pulled by horses:
When the king of Egypt was told that the people had fled, the minds of Pharaoh and his officials were changed toward the people, and they said, ‘What have we done, letting Israel leave our service?’ So he had his chariot made ready, and took his army with him; he took six hundred picked chariots and all the other chariots of Egypt with officers over all of them. The Lord hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt and he pursued the Israelites, who were going out boldly. The Egyptians pursued them, all Pharaoh’s horses and chariots, his chariot drivers and his army; they overtook them camped by the sea, by Pihahiroth, in front of Baal-zephon. [Exodus 14:5-9, NRSV]
Inerrantists may respond to this by saying it was only the horses in the field that died, not the ones in the shelter which were protected from the plague of hail.
Did the women who found Jesus’ tomb empty go and tell the disciples?
The synoptic gospels all have some of the women who followed Jesus visiting his tomb and finding it empty. But did these first witnesses to the resurrection take the news to the disciples or not?
In Matthew, an angel speaks to the women at the tomb and gives them a message to take to Jesus’ disciples:
Then go quickly and tell his disciples, ‘He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’ [Matthew 28:7a, NRSV]
The women leave to do so, and meet the risen Jesus who repeats the instruction:
So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell the disciples. Suddenly Jesus met them and said, ‘Greetings!’ And they came to him, took hold of his feet, and worshiped him. Then Jesus said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’ [Matthew 28:8-10, NRSV]
It isn’t explicitly stated in Matthew that the women pass the message on, but the next we hear of the disciples they have returned to Galilee, even to the mountain that Jesus had told them to go to, which strongly suggests that they did:
Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. [Matthew 28:16, NRSV]
Luke’s account also has the women spreading the word that the tomb is empty and Jesus is alive:
… and returning from the tomb, they told all this to the eleven and to all the rest. [Luke 24:9, NRSV]
Mark, however, clearly states that the women, despite having been told to go and tell the disciples, kept the news of Jesus’ resurrection to themselves:
‘But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he [Jesus] is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.’ So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid. [Mark 16:7-8, NRSV]
So did the women take news of the Resurrection to the disciples, or did they say nothing to anyone out of fear?
The commonly held view that Judas went out and “hanged himself” comes from Matthew (27:3–10).
After Judas sees that his betrayal has led to Jesus’ conviction, he feels remorse and tries to return his pay of thirty pieces of silver to the Jewish chief priests, telling them that he has “sinned by betraying innocent blood.”
They refuse to accept the money, however, so he throws it down in the Temple and goes out and hangs himself. The chief priests then
collect the money, but decide that they cannot put it back into the Temple treasure because it is “blood money”— money that has been
tainted with innocent blood. So they decide to put it to good use and purchase a “potter’s ﬁeld,” presumably a ﬁeld from which potters
took clay, as a place to bury foreigners who died in Jerusalem. It is because it was purchased with Judas’s blood money, we are told, that the place “has been called the Field of Blood to this day.”
Luke’s account in the book of Acts has some similarities: the death of Judas is connected with the purchase of a ﬁeld that is called “the
Field of Blood.” But the details are in stark contrast to—even contradict—the story as told by Matthew. In Acts (1:18–19) we are told that Judas himself, not the Jewish priests, purchased the ﬁeld with “the reward of his wickedness,” the money he earned for his betrayal. And it is not said that he hanged himself. Instead we learn that he
fell “headlong” and “burst open in the middle” so that “his bowels gushed out.” For Luke the reason the ﬁeld was called the Field of
Blood was because Judas bled all over it.
Over the years readers have tried to reconcile these two accounts of the death of Judas. How could he both hang himself and “fall
eadlong” so that his stomach split open and his intestines spilled all over the ground? Ingenious interpreters, wanting to splice the
two accounts together into one true account, have had a ﬁeld day here. Maybe Judas hanged himself, the rope broke, and he fell to
he ground, head ﬁrst, bursting in the middle. Or maybe he hanged himself, and that didn’t work, so he climbed onto a high rock and
did a swan dive onto the ﬁeld below. Or maybe . . . well, maybe something else.