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Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Biblical Inerrancy

More than a few who cherish the Bible as the Word of God cling to the notion of biblical inerrancy. It is important to be clear about that position. The claim to biblical inerrancy has always been that the Bible is without error in the original texts. Thus, insofar as the modern translations reflect the original texts, they are inerrant. "Wait!" you might hear cried, "So you're admitting that only the original texts are inerrant? Well, since the original texts no longer exist, you can't say you have an inerrant Bible!" Well, it is true that the original texts no longer exist. Still, there are more than 5,000 Greek manuscripts and 10,000 Latin manuscripts as well as other languages. By comparing these manuscripts, it is possible to get a matrix of what agrees and what doesn't agree. If, for instance, you have 1,000 copies of "The Gospel of Matthew" and 980 of them are in 100% agreement, it would be reasonable to guess that it is possible that the other 20 might have copy errors. On the other hand, it would be equally reasonable to assume that the 980 that agreed were an accurate reflection of the originals. As it turns out, this is about where we stand today. Some 98% of what we have today is in full agreement. So it is safe to say that 98% of what we have today is translated from, for all intents and purposes, the original texts. And we're back to inerrancy in the original texts.

It's important to note here that there are errors in our modern Bibles. Genuine contradictions exist1, as in a comparison of 2 Sam 24:24 to 1 Chronicles 21:24. One says that David paid 50 shekels of silver and the other says he paid 600. Of course, you can say, "Well, he paid 50 for the floor and horses and 600 for the entire property", or you can say, "Well, we might have a transcription error here." These types of errors 1) occur in less than 2% of the Bible, 2) would fall under the heading of errors in the extant manuscripts, not the originals, and 3) have no bearing on any significant doctrine or theological point in Scripture. Move on.

Of course, biblical inerrancy is not the popular position. Today it is more of a minority position. Some shifted to "biblical infallibility". Biblical inerrancy would require infallibility, but infallibility would not require inerrancy. That's because modern biblical infallibility2 simply says that in matters of faith and practice the Bible is reliable. It is not reliable in matters of, say, science, history, geography and the like. This allows the opportunity to mythologize miracles, for instance, because "They were not intended to be genuine history, but simply provide instruction on matters of faith and practice." We can do away with any sort of "creation" or even "Adam". These don't deal with matters of the faith or practice. See? All fixed. Of course, with this subtle shift we move very quickly away from anything reliable. If, for instance, no "Adam", then Paul's call to Adam as a real character would be faulty and Jesus's references to Genesis as genuine would be erroneous and even God's reference to the six days of creation in the Ten Commandments would be wrong. In one tiny, seemingly innocent step we've swept away some key reliability both for the Bible and for God Himself.

But, look, here's the claim. The claim is that the doctrine of biblical inerrancy is not historical, defensible, or necessary. I've already addressed the question of "necessary", but what about the other two?

The doctrine of biblical inerrancy is not a historical doctrine. Well, now, let's be reasonable. It's not a documented historical doctrine. That is, prior to the 19th century no one ever said that the Bible was inerrant. It would be a mistake, however, to assume that this means that it was not believed to be inerrant. The Council of Trent declared that the whole Bible was the "Word of God". Even early church fathers assumed that the Bible was God's Word and was their sole source of defending against heresies. So why wasn't inerrancy mentioned before the 19th century? That's because it was never questioned. In the 1800's came "higher criticism", scholars who suddenly determined that the Bible was not reliable. When the declaration came that the Bible was unreliable and full of errors, the response was "The Bible is inerrant and infallible." That didn't make it a new doctrine. It simply meant that it hadn't been documented before. It was like the doctrine of the Trinity. This doctrine was assumed in the earliest writings of the early church fathers (because it is found in the pages of Scripture), but it wasn't actually voiced until the Arians argued that Jesus was not God. Or take the content of Scripture itself. The Bible was already in use before the process of canonization made it official. It was only when competing texts were being offered that there was a need to determine what was or was not "Scripture". Such has been the case throughout Christendom. Doctrine has been assumed until it has been contradicted, and then it is declared. And so it is with biblical inerrancy. Historically, the Bible has always been considered "the Word of God". Now, perhaps we'd like to suggest that God could be in error, but that won't fly for long. So the decision has to be made. Either it is the Word of God and, as such, superintended and protected by God, or it is not and, as such, of no real use at all in the final analysis.

Is the doctrine defensible? Well, I've already offered the logical approach. If the Bible is the Word of God, then it must be inerrant or God is errant and no god. The Bible itself claims that all Scripture is God-breathed and often refers to itself as "the word of God". The real question, I think, is whether or not God is capable or intending to provide us with a reliable, authoritative Word. If what we have today is not inerrant (please keep in mind what "inerrant" means in this context), then either God is not able to provide such a text or He is not intending to do so. In one case, He is not reliable. In the other, He is ... not reliable. On the other hand, if we contend that there is a God who is willing and able to see to the writing and retaining of a document for all of His people for all time, then the problem goes away.

Is inerrancy necessary? Remembering that the doctrine of inerrancy is aimed at the original texts, the doctrine is essential. If the original texts were in error, then "God-breathed" has no substance. God inspired truth and error. He lacked the ability to actually get down in the first place what He intended. Too bad, God. Nice try. Since He lacked that ability and inspired error, it is not reasonable to assume any authority in the Bible. What is or isn't true is up for grabs. You like this and not that and I like that and not this and no one can say what is or isn't so. Instead of a monolithic Christianity we have a subjective Christianity in which I believe, for instance, that Jesus died and rose again and you believe that it was a metaphor for self-sacrifice and we're both right and let's all just get along because no one can be declared correct even though we thoroughly contradict each other. We cannot use the Bible to demonstrate God's truth, genuine doctrine, true Christianity, or even valid morality. We are, in essence, on our own, as demonstrated by the many mainline churches who started by side-slipping biblical inerrancy and have ended up in something only vaguely related to anything "Christian". Is inerrancy necessary? It is fundamental. Without it we have no authoritative source for faith or practice. We're on our own. Feel free to talk among yourselves; our preachers have nothing to say.

There are many obstacles to the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. There is the problem of communication. "What do we mean by that?" There is the problem of authority. "Is the Bible authoritative?" There is the problem of getting along. "You know, if you stick to that doctrine, no one will take you seriously." And, of course, there is the simple fact that the existence of an authoritative, accurate, reliable, Word of God will cause all sorts of problems for those who are opposed to doing what God says. And that last is likely the biggest obstacle.
1 Please be aware that many so-called "contradictions" are not at all. Many are what could be termed apparent contradictions which have reasonable resolutions. Not all accusations of contradictions or errors are valid.

2 Note that "infallibility" has always been the claim for Scripture among Christians. However, prior to the 19th century, it was assumed that "infallibility" and "inerrancy" were the same things. It was only in the last 200 years that we moved from an equivalence between the two to a distance. Kind of like the move from "The Bible is the Word of God" to "The Bible contains the Word of God." Sounds the same, right?


Anonymous said...

I usually simplify this all as, "The original writings of the Bible turned out exactly as God wanted them to." I also don't try to prove inerrancy before getting to the Gospel. Even if the accounts weren't inerrant, we could still point to them as evidence.

Marie said...

Great post! That pretty much sums up what I've come to think about innerancy in the original manuscripts, vs. copyist errors, because they are there. I have had to do some digging over the years to uncover the truth about supposed contradictions, but there always seems to be an answer. The differences in Matthew and Luke's genealogies, for instance, was one that used to drive me nuts, until I found the explanation in a Lee Stroble book and the intro of my study Bible.

I'm sure you've heard of Bart Ehrman's story, how he completely fell away from faith over Jesus supposedly mixing up who the high priest was when a certain prophet was slain. When you step back and look at the big picyure, it's not that hard to see plausible explanations, while still upholding the inerrancy of Scripture.

Stan said...

Neil, To me the whole "inerrancy of Scripture" question is an in-house discussion. It is clearly after the Gospel. On the other hand, it isn't trivial.

Stan said...

Marie, There does always seem to be an answer, doesn't there? It seems to me that to oppose it one must have determined in advance "This will not be allowed." If someone was asking, without prejudice, "Is there an answer to this dilemma?" they would surely find one. The constant rejection of the answers points more toward a prior rejection rather than clear, rational thinking.