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Are there Errors in the Bible?
January 11, 2008
A few days ago I received an email from a reader of this site who was concerned about how to answer those who claim that the Bible is a book filled with error and contradiction. Such claims are common and, sadly, are more and more being put forth even from within evangelical circles. This reader affirmed his belief in the inerrancy and authority of Scripture but was looking for some guidance on how to answer the multitudes of claims against the Bible.
I’d like to take that on. At first I was going to do that in a single, short article. But as I thought about it and as I began writing, I determined it would be best to first lay some groundwork. I’ve written about this subject in the past and find it a deep and fascinating one. I think I would do well to revisit some of the doctrine of Scripture and from there to examine the question this person has asked me. So we’ll likely make this a three-part series.
The doctrines regarding the Bible have been discussed and debated at length throughout the history of the church. At the time of the Reformation, the main thrust of the debate had to do with the Bible’s authority, and whether the Bible would be the sole ultimate authority over the lives of Christians over against popes, creeds, councils and the Catholic Church. In more recent days, the doctrine of the Bible’s inerrancy came under intense discussion and scrutiny. In response, several evangelical leaders, including Francis Schaeffer, J.I. Packer, R.C. Sproul, Roger Nicole and James Boice, created an organization called The International Council on Biblical Inerrancy. This organization had as its purpose “elucidating, vindicating and applying the doctrine of biblical inerrancy as an essential element for the authority of Scripture and a necessity for the health of the church of God” (James Boice, Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace, page 68”). Three gatherings were held which produced three scholarly documents, the first of which was “The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.” The second dealt with principles of biblical interpretation (hermeneutics) and the third with the application of Scripture. These documents still stand as pillars on the subject. Though the majority of Christians agree with them, it is becoming increasingly common today to doubt or question such fundamental doctrines.
In his book Scripture Alone, James White has a chapter entitled “Definitions: More Than Half The Battle.” He is absolutely right that properly defining terms is often more than half the battle. Whenever I discuss this subject of inerrancy, I find that very few terms receive any clear definitions. While a term like “inerrancy” has a consistent theological meaning, this does not indicate that every person who uses the word means the same thing by it, and that the person truly understands it. I will suggest an appropriate definition of inerrancy shortly.
I found also that the issues at stake go far deeper than merely the inerrancy of Scripture. They extended to areas such as the canon of Scripture, the authority of Scripture and the inspiration of Scripture. Perhaps this is because, although inerrancy stands on its own biblical merits, it is also a doctrine constructed from other doctrines. While the Bible contains many passages that prove it true, it is also true that it follows logically from other doctrines of Scripture. So before we can approach inerrancy, I believe we need to step back and examine aspects of these other doctrines. We will do that briefly in this article. Certainly there is much more that could be said about any of these subjects, so understand this as a mere introduction.
When we examine the Bible’s authority, we must begin by answering the question of, “What does the Bible say about itself?”. We find throughout Scripture that the Bible claims for itself a position of unique and supreme authority. In doing so it appeals only to its own authority for proof because there is no greater authority to which it can appeal. After all, if something is the ultimate authority, to what else can it appeal? Were the Bible to appeal to our reason to substantiate its authority, it would implicitly show that human reason is a higher authority. In an article written a couple of years ago by a popular blogger I found cause for concern when he expressed one of his main disagreements with inerrancy is that it did not “feel right.” “My problems with inerrancy have been going on for a very long time, and I’ve heard it presented and taught by the best. It’s never sat well with me, probably because I have a lot of literary interest in the text of scripture, plus I don’t like to be bullied. I get a rash.” But as I indicated, the Bible does not appeal to our feelings or our reason for its authority. Nor could it while remaining Scripture.
We can define the doctrine of Scripture’s authority as follows: “The authority of Scripture means that all the words in Scripture are God’s words in such a way that to disbelieve or disobey any word of Scripture is to disbelieve or disobey God” (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, page 73). I do not know of any Christians who claim that they have the right to disbelieve or disobey what God has taught in Scripture. They may do this in their lives (and we all do, at times) but I do not know of any who believe Scripture gives us such license. This doctrine forms the basis of apologetics, for we can only appeal to the Scripture when we trust its authority.
Closely related to the authority of Scripture is the inspiration of Scripture. Inspiration tells us how the Bible was transmitted from God to men. We find that the Bible draws its authority and inerrancy from the indisputable fact that it is inspired by God. The Bible teaches that “All Scripture is breathed out by God” (2 Timothy 3:16). The words the ESV translated as “breathed out by God” are also translated “inspired” and this is the basis of inspiration. This is explained further by the apostle Peter who writes, “no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:20,21). The Holy Spirit was actively involved in bringing God’s words to humans.
The actual form this inspiration took is much disputed. We know from reading the Scripture and observing the different styles of writing and differing levels of expertise in writing, that God did not merely use men as automatons. If He had done this, we would expect to find a consistent writing style throughout. Somehow God used the specific skills, backgrounds and situations of the authors to transmit His words. Zechariah 7:12 sheds light on this. “…lest they should hear the law and the words that the Lord of hosts had sent by his Spirit through the former prophets.” We see that the ministry of the Holy Spirit extended to the whole and to the individual parts (…the words that the Lord of hosts…).
The Testimony of Scripture
If it was God who inspired men to write the Bible, what does that teach us about Scripture? Is it possible that Scripture, as it was given from God to men, can be anything less than perfect? Would God lie? Would He write in only half-truths? The Bible tells us otherwise:
2 Samuel 7:28 - “And now, O Lord God, you are God, and your words are true, and you have promised this good thing to your servant.”
Numbers 23:9 - “God is not man, that he should lie,
or a son of man, that he should change his mind.
Has he said, and will he not do it?
Or has he spoken, and will he not fulfill it?”
Psalm 12:6 - The words of the Lord are pure words,
like silver refined in a furnace on the ground,
purified seven times.
Proverbs 30:5 - Every word of God proves true;
he is a shield to those who take refuge in him.
We find a consistent Scriptural witness that God does not lie, for He is incapable of telling falsehood. The men who wrote God’s words, had supreme confidence in the rest of His words. If God is incapable of telling a lie, it follows that the words He spoke to those who wrote the words of Scripture must also be perfectly true. At this point, I trust we have sufficient Scriptural basis to conclude that Scripture is authoritative and that the words given by God to men were without error. But how can we know that the words we have today accurately represent those words?
Many people do not understand the concept of canon and this is especially true in the fallout of The Da Vinci Code and hundreds of similar books. There seems to be a misconception that when the Bible was compiled as one book made of many different books and letters, people were engaged in gathering together some writings attributed to God and publishing them in one volume, much as one might do with the writings of a favorite poem or play-write. But this is not how the canon came together. The Bible is more than a “best of” compilation of God’s writings.
The term “canon” originally referred to a stick which was used for measurement. It later came to describe a standard or rule. By extension, it came to describe an authoritative list of something. In the case of Scripture, it speaks of the authoritative list of God’s writings, yet it is more than a mere table of contents. It refers to all the writings that were breathed out by God (2 Timothy 3:16). Thus without the act of inspiration, there could be no canon.
As we have seen, canon refers to the entire body of an author’s work. Allow me to provide an example. If we look at the canon of a man like John Piper, we would say that it includes Desiring God, The Passion of Jesus Christ, Don’t Waste Your Life and so on, from the first book he wrote to the last. The canon of John Piper would only be complete when it included every word he had ever written. But who can infallibly know a person’s canon? In truth, only the author really knows what he or she has written. John Piper may have many books available to us, but who is to say that every word of his has been made available to us? Who is to say that he has not released other books under a pseudonym? Only he infallibly knows his canon. Similarly, it is only God who infallibly knows all He has written. The Scriptural evidence compels us to believe, then, that if we have the complete canon, God helped people find out what it includes. When the Bible was compiled into the book we know and love today, it represented every word God had ever written. So there is a sense in which the primary task of the men who compiled the Bible was to find the complete canon of God. The primary measure they used was whether a book was inspired by God.
This is a topic that could (and perhaps should) be covered at length, but I am not writing today to defend the canonicity of Scripture. As far as I can tell, most people who struggle with inerrancy, do not deny that the canon of Scripture represents God’s words to us.
The final topic I will write about in this opening article is transmission which describes how the words of God were transmitted from the original documents to what we have today. This is a topic that can only be done justice in a much longer treatment, so allow me to merely point to some of the facts. We possess a wealth of biblical manuscripts in the original languages of Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic. John MacArthur aptly summarizes as follows: “With this wealth of biblical manuscripts in the original languages and with the disciplined activity of textual critics to establish with almost perfect accuracy the content of the autographs, any errors which have been introduced and/or perpetuated by the thousands of translations over the centuries can be identified and corrected by comparing the translation or copy with the reassembled original. By this providential means, God has made good His promise to preserve the Scriptures. We can rest assured that there are translations available today which indeed are worthy of the title, The Word of God” (John MacArthur, The MacArthur Bible Handbook, page xxii).
Having begun to define terms and provide background to the study of inerrancy, I will turn at last to the doctrine in the next article.
What Does "Inerrant" Mean?
What Does "Inerrant" Mean?