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inerrancy

January 16, 2008

Yesterday Andrew Sullivan saw fit to link to my article on Biblical Inerrancy. Sullivan writes The Daily Dish for The Atlantic and is one of the most widely-read bloggers out there with at least 150,000 daily readers. You will not be surprised to hear that he did not like my article and linked to it with just one word of description, and an inflammatory one at that. “One fundamentalist makes the case,” he said. There’s no name and no description. Just that: one fundamentalist.

It seems that Sullivan prefers an article Michael Spencer wrote in response to mine. Michael was afforded the dignity of a name rather than a mere one-word description. “To my mind, this is Biblical fetishism. And absurd on its face, since there are far too many direct factual internal contradictions in the Bible to uphold this standard. I agree with Michael Spencer.” Speaking candidly, I don’t see that Spencer said anything with enough clarity to know whether a person could agree with him. It seems to be something like “God got what he wanted without demanding perfection of Himself.”

But no matter. This little incident somehow seemed significant to me as I thought about it last night. In a sense, this is really where the rubber meets the road for me as a blogger. The majority of people who read this blog tend to agree with me on issues of theology. But then Andrew Sullivan links and brings in thousands of readers who know nothing about me except that I’m apparently a fundamentalist (and who no doubt suppose all kinds of things about me based on that term). Of course fundamentalist is such a lazy term to use. Most people just assume that if I believe something more strongly than you do or if I believe something deemed more conservative than you do, I must be a fundamentalist. Because I believe that God did not communicate anything contrary to fact when He gave the Bible to men, I must be a fundamentalist.

Here is what I had to ask myself last night. Do I believe what I do enough to be unashamed when people mock me? Am I afraid to be called a fool and to be looked down on for believing what the Bible says is true? Am I ashamed to have all these people show up who probably think I’m heading out today to picket the funeral of a homosexual or a solider killed overseas? Or can I be unashamed, undignified even, as I hear or read what people say about me? Here is a comment that showed up on one site: “Respectful of Mr. Challie’s passion, his reasoning is not of the level to pass a freshman philosophy class.” I suppose that may be true. I’ve never studied freshman philosophy nor, at this point in life, am I likely to. But it still digs just a little bit.

This morning I turned to Psalm 19 and drank in the words of the Lord:

The law of the Lord is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the testimony of the Lord is sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of the Lord are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the Lord is pure,
enlightening the eyes;
the fear of the Lord is clean,
enduring forever;
the rules of the Lord are true,
and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold,
even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey
and drippings of the honeycomb.
Moreover, by them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.

They were good words to hear and they refreshed my soul. It’s not philosophical arguments that make a man wise. Rather, it is the testimony of the Lord. It is not the praise of men that makes a man joyful, but the precepts of the Lord. It is the law of the Lord that revives the soul and the commandments of the Lord that enlighten the eyes. The rules of the Lord are true and righteous and are to be desired more than anything else, no matter how sweet, no matter how fulfilling they may seem. So laugh and mock if you must, I guess.

The link from Sullivan’s blog did not result in the veritable flood of traffic one might expect from the link from a superstar blogger. Then again, I suppose the majority of his readers would have no real interest in biblical inerrancy. But if you’ve come to this site through his, I welcome you, and hope you’ll look around a little bit. If you’ve come thinking I’m Jerry Falwell or Fred Phelps, well, maybe you’ll even find something that surprises you.

January 12, 2008

Yesterday I began a short series on the inerrancy of Scripture, looking at whether there are errors and contradictions in the Bible. You can read the first article and the response to it here: Are There Errors in the Bible?. When I first began to develop and understanding of this doctrine, I found that the doctrines of Scripture cannot be neatly separated, one from the other, for they are intertwined and interrelated. So in the first article I wrote about inspiration, canon, transmission and authority. Today I will turn to inerrancy, first explaining what it is not (often a good place to begin, I find) and then providing a working definition.

What Inerrancy Is Not

I find it is often useful to define what a term does not mean before I learn what it does mean, and I will do that with inerrancy. So let’s look at four statements dealing with what inerrancy does not entail. I should note that there is no authoritative body to which we can appeal to define what inerrancy means, for it is not a term that is neatly defined in Scripture. Thus I am presenting information consistent with the way it has been defined by scholars who have pursued the study of this doctrine over the past century and who have drawn what they believe from the Bible.

First, inerrancy does not preclude the use of ordinary language. A clear example of this in the Bible is where it speaks of the sun rising. We know that the sun does not rise at all but that the earth rotates to bring the sun into view. However, we can be consistent in our belief in the inerrancy of Scripture despite this type of ordinary, human, geocentric language (the kind of language we continue to use today).

Another way this happens in the Bible is with the use of numbers. Some time ago a friend was given some tickets to see the Toronto Rock, our local professional lacrosse team, and asked me to go along with him. Never having attended such a game before, I had no idea what to expect. I found that I thoroughly enjoyed the sport and was amazed at how many people were there to cheer on the team. At some point there was an official announcement of that evening’s attendance and I made a rough mental note of it. Later, after I got home, my wife asked how many people were at the game and I told her “10,000.” Now the actual number may have been closer to 10,243 or 9,678, but yet I had not told her a lie. My wife was clearly not interested in an exact number, but rather a useful gauge to know how many people attend such games. So when the Bible says that Jesus feed 5,000 people with just a few loaves and fish, He may have actually fed 4,998. Yet the Bible would still be inerrant when it says 5,000.

In the same vein, consider measurements. As many of you know, I live in Toronto, Ontario and my family lives near Atlanta, Georgia. When I make the long drive to visit them, people sometimes ask me how long the journey takes and I tell them it takes me 14 hours. Or they may ask me what the distance is, and I’ll tell them 900 miles. In reality the drive time varies every time we do it based on traffic, weather, the behavior of children, the anger of the border guards, the health of my car, and any other number of factors. In reality the distance, according to Mapquest, is 931.96 miles. And while we are clarifying, both my parents and I live in suburbs of our respective cities and I have offered Toronto and Atlanta simply because people generally know the locations of big cities but not smaller towns and suburbs. And I don’t drive a car, but a van. But have I lied in any of this? Is any of this truly contrary to fact or have I been inerrant in what I have said? Here is the crux of the matter and this is particularly important to our discussion: Inerrancy speaks of truthfulness, not the degree of precision with which events are reported. When I say that I drive 14 hours and 900 miles to get from Toronto to Atlanta, I have not lied. I have been truthful, but not perfectly precise. This is consistent with inerrancy.

Second, inerrancy does not preclude the use of loose and free quotations. Wayne Grudem makes a critical distinction between our culture and the New Testament Greek culture when it came to reporting the words of another person. In our culture we consider it a terrible sin to misquote another person; we believe that precision in quoting a person’s exact words is of tantamount importance. The Greek language, at the time the New Testament was written, had no quotation marks and really no similar construct. What was considered of utmost importance was to accurately represent the content of what a person said. There was no expectation that a writer needed to transcribe the speaker’s exact words when quoting him. Thus the Bible is inerrant if it accurately and truthfully describes the content of what a speaker said. Whether the actual words Jesus spoke are “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life,” or “I am The Truth, the Way and the Life,” the Bible is still inerrant in how it transcribed these words, for the content remains intact.

Third, the Bible can be inerrant even if it contains unusual grammatical constructions. It is commonly known that there are various writing skills represented in the Scripture. Some authors were stylistically excellent while others were much more rough and common in their style. Sometimes this means the writers did not follow the accepted rules of grammar or used stylistic irregularities. Once more, the issue of inerrancy is not precision but truthfulness.

Fourth, Scripture is inerrant only in its original autographs. It is critical to note that, strictly speaking, inerrancy does not apply to the transmission of Scripture through the ages and its translation into other languages. We affirm that only the original autographs, or original manuscripts, are inerrant. What we enjoy today is very good translations of very accurate reconstructions of the biblical text. We do not have any of the original documents—none of Paul’s original letters and none of the actual gospels written by the hands of the Apostles have survived. Yet through the science of textual criticism we have very accurate reconstructions of those texts and through translators we have excellent translations of them. So while we do not affirm inerrancy for any particular English translation of Scripture, we do have great confidence in the best translations available to us.

The impetus for this short series was a series of questions regarding so-called errors and contradictions in the Bible. Keep these four points in mind as you’ll see in our next article just how many of these errors are demolished simply by a proper understanding of inerrancy.

A Working Definition

Now that we know what we should not expect in inerrancy, let’s attempt to define it. I was surprised to find, as I consulted many books on this issue, that very few clearly and concisely defined inerrancy. Most use the term without defining it (or without thoroughly or accurately defining it). For example, James Boice, in Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace writes several pages on the topic, but provides no definition. In Scripture Alone, James White refers to the Council on Biblical Inerrancy and the desire of the participants to create a “concise statement on the meaning and importance of inerrancy” (page 68). He turns to and provides commentary on the council’s definition, which may be precise by theological standards, but still extends to 24 articles. Nowhere does he provide a concise definition. Of the few definitions or attempts at definition that I found, Wayne Grudem’s definition in his Systematic Theology seemed most clear. Here is a solid working definition of inerrancy: “The inerrancy of Scripture means that Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact.” It is that simple. So what we affirm in this definition, is that a perfect God moved human authors, by His Spirit, to perfectly transcribe what He wanted to communicate. This definition is based on the clear teaching of Scripture, several passages of which I presented in the previous article, as well as the character of God. If God is unable to lie and if he inspired Scripture, it must have been completely consistent with fact at the moment of transcription.

Conclusion

At this point we have defined our terms and indicated what we mean and what we do not mean by inerrancy. In the third (and final, I believe) installment in this series, we will turn to common objections and to the problems that may arise if this doctrine is denied. And then I’ll provide some thoughts on how to respond to those who are so eager to pull out the lists of supposed errors and contradictions.

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.

Authority

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.

Inspiration

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?

Canon

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.

Transmission

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).

And Now…

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.