So, is the Bible to be viewed as a book that is inspired by God but with possible errors? Or is it inerrant?
The simple answer is: inspired but not inerrant.
The number one reason is simply this: The Bible itself claims to be inspired, but lays no claim to inerrancy.
The terms “inerrant” and “inerrancy” are nowhere to be found in either the Old or New Testament. A related term often cited by inerrantists is “infallible,” used only once (and only in the King James) in the context of Jesus demonstrating his resurrection “by many infallible proofs” during the 40 days after his resurrection. These infallible truths were related to the evidence of his being alive, with no bearing on a much different question of scriptural authenticity.
Creedal statements regarding the role and place of scripture have changed over time. In early church creeds, scripture was given scant attention (in part because a written New Testament was still coming into being). By the time of the Westminster Confession, there is clear affirmation of the inspirational (or God-breathed) role of scripture but, as yet, no statement of inerrancy. By the time we get to a confession like the current 2000 statement of faith of the Southern Baptist Convention, we see a clear enunciation of the idea that the Bible provides no “mixture of error.”
Today, inerrancy generally reflects a viewpoint to the effect that the Bible is “without error or fault in all its teaching.” Or at a minimum, that “Scripture in its original manuscripts (whether those manuscripts are available or not) would not and could not affirm anything that is contrary to fact.
Infallibility has come to be defined with a somewhat lesser standard that what the scriptures say regarding matters of faith and Christian practice are wholly useful and true but that passages providing historical or scientific details, which may be irrelevant to matters of faith and Christian practice, may contain errors.
Nicene Creed (325 and as revised in 381): There is no direct mention of the role of scripture, authenticity, or authority except for 381 citation with Council of Constantinople that: “On the third day he (the Son) rose again in accordance with the Scriptures …”
Westminster Confession (1646): “Under the name of holy Scripture, or the Word of God written, are now contained all the Books of the Old and New Testament, which are these: … (names of books) … All which are given by inspiration of God, to be the rule of faith and life… The authority of the holy Scripture, for which it ought to be believed and obeyed, dependeth not upon the testimony of any man or Church, but wholly upon God (who is truth itself), the Author thereof; and therefore it is to be received, because it is the Word of God. …The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture, is the Scripture itself; and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it may be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.”
Southern Baptist Convention (2000): “The Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired and is God’s revelation of Himself to man. It is a perfect treasure of divine instruction. It has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter. Therefore, all Scripture is totally true and trustworthy.”
Although “inerrancy” is never attested to by the Bible, the concept of “inspiration” is vouched for by scripture, most directly by the Second Epistle to Timothy. As the reputed writer of this epistle, the apostle Paul declares that:
All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work. (NRSV)
There remains the question of: What is scripture? (More on this in a moment).
But remarkably, Paul’s authenticity is itself vouched for by none other than Peter – the disciple about which Paul once wrote (to a church in Galatia) that he (Paul) “opposed him (Peter) to his face.” In the last paragraph of the second letter attributed to this initial leader of the post-resurrection church, the writer generally identified as Peter writes that:
… our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters. There are some things in them hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other scriptures.
This is a remarkable passage because Peter: a) acknowledges Paul’s other multiple letters; b) puts these letters in the category of the “other scriptures” which at the time consisted of only the Hebrew Scriptures or Old Testament; and c) at the same time declares Paul’s writings as “hard to understand” and easily prone to misinterpretation.
Supporters of inerrancy also point to the statement of Jesus as recorded in Mark’s gospel (and Luke) that “till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled.”
A jot is the English translation of “iota,” the smallest letter of the Greek alphabet. A tittle is even smaller, much as the dot over the letter “i.” So, Jesus is in effect saying that the full law is to be fulfilled. This is not the same as saying that all of the Bible will be fulfilled or even that it is necessarily accurate.
In short, inspiration is scriptural, inerrancy is not.
But let’s go on and briefly explore some specific issues with the theological (not scriptural) concept of inerrancy. This following listing is meant to be indicative, not exhaustive:
Literal or Metaphor?
The claims of inerrancy are reduced to the absurd when portions of the Bible best understood as metaphorical or allegorical are claimed as both literal and inerrant. This is best illustrated by the 7-day creation account of Genesis 1. While not intended as an explanation of the physics and bio-chemistry of the universe, the biblical account nonetheless does a good job of laying out the functions that the God of the universe had in mind for this great experiment – for a creation of reasoning beings capable of exercising independent will and free choice.
In what may or may not be sequential order, God distinguishes light from darkness, separates the waters above and on earth, creates dry land and vegetation, identifies sun and moon as dominant influences on the cycles of this globe, creates animals to populate the waters, land and sky, puts in place His ultimate experiment with humankind, then calls it good and rests.
The human species of Moses’ day had vastly less knowledge of the science (or how) of this creation than we of the 21st century. Humans of the next 100 years likely will know vastly more than we do today. So, for an account that offers timeless value, don’t expect science but rather the purpose that drives the science. And that’s what the Bible offers.
Some of the New Testament writers appear overeager to show Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. This is particularly the case with the gospel of Matthew, as in quoting the prophet Isaiah saying: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.”
- Matthew’s first citation best illustrates the far-reaching (if not heretical) consequences of this over-reach – and the resulting insult to those steeped in the traditions of Judaism. This is because the virgin described by Isaiah is not necessarily a virgin, but simply an unmarried young woman.
- Not surprisingly, there is some dispute as to who or what the “young woman” of Isaiah 7:14 is referring. Some commentators suggest that this refers to the mother of the second son of King Ahaz of Judah, some to a young woman to whom Isaiah was betrothed and who would become Isaiah’s second wife. Yet others suggest that the woman is intended to be a foreshadowing of the virgin Mary – even though the situation at hand with Isaiah has nothing to with a woman who has yet to experience intercourse. In any event, this prophecy comes in the context of the prophet Isaiah delivering a message to King Ahaz about his future in the midst of enemies from Israel and Aram.
- Matthew’s misquotation of Isaiah comes as the result of a mis-translation of the Old Testament from the original Hebrew to the Greek Septuagint (in about the third century BC). While Matthew cites correctly from what he reads of the Septuagint, in the process this author misrepresents the words and the meaning of the original Hebrew.
The Greek term used by Matthew and the Septuagint translation of Isaiah is parthenos, meaning a virgin. However, the word from the original Hebrew of Isaiah 7:14 is almah, more appropriately translated as maiden, young woman or unmarried woman.
Jesus may well have been born of a virgin. This would be a small matter for the creator of the universe to accomplish. However, the Bible’s lead-off gospel tries to make the assertion with a claim that, at best, reflects a misunderstanding of Hebrew or Greek terminology. Or worse, an intentional fabrication.
Here the trail gets a bit murky. We all know of disputes over where was Jesus and when was he there. Which event came first, then second, etc.?
The focus here is more on substantive differences between different gospel writers, where there may be evidence of tampering with the New Testament scriptures over time. A few notable examples:
- The earliest known conclusion to the last chapter of Mark’s gospel ends with the women at the tomb, hearing from an angel, who then promptly “went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.” The subsequently added conclusion to the gospel doesn’t leave the reader hanging, but softens the conclusion to coincide with other gospels – now including the Great Commission and Jesus’ ascension to heaven. But the added conclusion is not part of the earliest known manuscripts of this gospel.
- There is a similar potential issue with the last chapter of John’s gospel which appears to add a new epilogue.
- What is perhaps the signature story of John’s gospel is not included in the earliest known manuscripts. This is the story of the lynching of a woman adultress that Jesus averted by commanding “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” This story is a personal favorite because of what is so powerfully conveyed of divine acceptance coupled with a frank look at first century gender issues. While not in the earliest manuscripts, I’d be inclined to (perhaps hypocritically) give it a pass anyway.
- A final example is provided by a phrase inserted the first epistle of John apparently by the Catholic theologian Erasmus in his 1552 edition of the Greek New Testament identifying the Father, Son and Holy Ghost as “three in one.” Other than this passage also found in the King James but which most more recent biblical translations have now removed and there is no other clear, succinct biblical statement in support of this Trinitarian concept.
In some cases, there is no evidence of manuscript tampering yet different gospel writers reach radically different theological conclusions. In the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew’s rendition begins with the beatitude: “Blessed are the poor in spirit”. Luke’s so-called Sermon on the Plain begins with: “Blessed are the poor” (with no mention of spirit).
The meaning of the two sayings is entirely different. As is the case throughout Luke’s gospel, social justice takes front seat. For Matthew, it’s all about individual responsibility. Did Jesus say different things to different audiences – much like a political stump candidate flavoring his message a bit differently in one town than another? Or should one ideology trump the other? Depending on your choice of gospel, the answer can be quite different.
… that Lead to Conflicting Theology. A remarkable factual conflict with added theological implications appears in the recounting of Jesus’ appearance(s) before Roman governor Pontius Pilate. In the Gospels of Matthew and Mark (here recounted by Mark):
“Pilate asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” He (Jesus) answered him (Pilate), “You say so.” Then the chief priests accused him of many things. Pilate asked him again, “Have you no answer? See how many charges they bring against you.” 5 But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was amazed.”
The accounts of Matthew and Luke are similar. John’s rendition is different. He starts by asking the same question as is recorded by Mark and Luke:
“Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Pilate replied, “I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?” Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Pilate asked him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
In Matthew, Mark and Luke, Jesus answers the question posed by the Roman procurator in just three words. He then goes silent through the rest of the trial. In answering Pilate, John’s Jesus does just the opposite. He gives a detailed response, even putting Pilate in his place as being a lesser ruler of only an earthly rather than heavenly kingdom.
The difference is that the Jesus of these three synoptics goes humbly to the cross, evidencing no remaining affinity to this earth. In sharp contrast, John’s Jesus is anything but humble. Rather, he puts Pilate in his place, causing great angst with the governor in his final sentence of death by crucifixion.
The practical question: when faced with grave consequences is the mission of whether the today’s follower of Jesus is to go down humbly or fighting to the end?
What is Scripture?
Behind all of these conflicts, there is an underlying question. What comprises legitimate scripture? And, on whose authority. For most (but not all) Christians, this question was settled by an Easter (or Festal) letter from Athanasius bishop of Alexandria – in 367 AD when he listed all 27 books of the current New Testament as canonical.
Even Athanasius (also known as the chief defender of the Nicene Creed), included a large caveat with his listing. There are other books that he felt deserved to be read in churches for edification, though not of the same standing as the canonized 27.
A few have challenged this fait accompli – among them Martin Luther. Luther questioned the canonicity of several so-called Catholic epistles – among them Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation. In particular, he objected to the message of James (Jesus’ brother) that “faith without works is dead.” His derogatory term for James’ letter was that of a “right strawy epistle.”
Inductive vs. Deductive?
This blog has essentially aimed to refute the case against inerrancy on the basis of inductive reasoning – arguing from the available biblical evidence to reach an empirically supportable conclusion.
An alternative approach is to use deductive reasoning, with the argument for inerrancy often premised on two pivotal assumptions: a) the Bible is the Word of God; and b) God can not lie. Therefore: c) Scripture must be wholly true.
We have not directly addressed the deductive logic in this blog, but will summarily dismiss it in our next post. A hint: if the premises of the argument are incomplete or otherwise in error, then the conclusion may be similarly negated.
… Or phrased only slightly more elegantly: Why Does God Prefer Inspiration over Inerrancy? This is a second (and probably the most important) topic that we also will take up in our next blog. Until then, …
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