Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Biblical Inerrancy - That Old Chestnut

It seems like hardly a week goes by without someone trying to defend the doctrine of Biblical Inerrancy. This time it is Tim Challies, who is regarded as the world's most prolific Christian blogger. I felt that it was worthwhile responding to each of Challies' points in his post entitled "Errors and Contradictions in the Bible", although you may also wish to look at "What Does Inerrant Mean?" and "Are There Errors in the Bible?" You may also wish to read my previous post on the subject, entitled "Bible Contradictions".

Okay, so let's get rolling - I'll look at the first four arguments together, and then look at them more closely:

First argument - If we deny inerrancy, we make God a liar

Second argument - Second, if we deny inerrancy we lose trust in God

Third argument - if we deny the clear testimony of Scripture that it is inerrant, we make our minds a higher standard of truth than the Bible

Fourth argument - if we deny inerrancy, and indicate that small details are incorrect, we cannot consistently argue that all the doctrine the Bible contains is correct


Even if we were to accept the suppressed assumptions behind these propositions as true, then it would seem that Challies' arguments in this respect are no more than what we might regard as wish fulfilment. That is, God is not truthful or trustworthy simply because we want Him to possess these characteristics. If the doctrine of inerrancy is refuted and Challies' propositions hold, then it may well be that God is a liar, that He is not trustworthy, that our minds are legitimately made a higher standard of truth than the Bible and that there is no certainty about the doctrine in the Bible. While these conclusions may be unpleasant and/or undesirable for some believers, the degree of unpleasantness that flows from a particular conclusion has no bearing whatsoever on whether or not that conclusion is correct.

First argument - If we deny inerrancy, we make God a liar

Second argument - Second, if we deny inerrancy we lose trust in God


The suppressed assumption in these propositions is this - that God has indicated to humankind that Scripture is inerrant. There are a few verses that apologists use to try to establish this premise, but perhaps the most common reference is 2 Timothy 3:16:

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.


Of course, the first problem that comes to mind is the question: "How do we know that God is the author of that verse?", but since Challies' deals with circularity later on, so will I. Leaving aside that issue, there are several things that are problematic about this argument:

Firstly, it is well acknowledged that the Greek grammar in verse 16 allows two equally plausible renderings - either "All Scripture is God-breathed (inspired) is useful ..." or "All God-breathed Scripture is useful ...". Clearly, there latter rendering does not suggest that all Scripture is inspired, but merely that all inspired Scripture is useful, implying that some Scripture is not inspired. Having read arguments for and against each rendering, I hardly think that it is clear which version is intended and thus it is strange to see such emphasis placed on a verse which is clearly ambiguous.

Secondly, the term "Scripture" is ambiguous. It could refer to anything from canonical to generic writing.

Thirdly, even if Scripture is taken to mean the canonical writings, how do we know which books of the Bible Paul (assuming him to be the author) is referring to? The most natural reading would be the Old Testament (i.e. the Jewish Scriptures), but even if we assumed that Paul regarded some of the New Testament books as Scripture, this does not mean that it follows that all of the books in the Christian canon are regarded as Scriptural by Paul. The reason, quite obviously for this is that we know that Paul died before all of the book that compose the New Testament canon were written. How is it that Paul was referring to the book of Jude as Scripture when 2 Timothy 3:16 was written before the composition of Jude and Paul died before this time anyway?

Fourthly, the term "inspired" is again ambiguous. The idea of inspiration and breath by God has at least seven different connotations. One of the other connatations that must be given consideration for this verse is the idea of Scripture being something that is "living" in the same way that God breathed life into the nostrils of Adam. This being the case, Scripture may well be understood as a living entity, or a text with life-giving qualities, but this doesn't necessitate inerrancy.

Third argument - if we deny the clear testimony of Scripture that it is inerrant, we make our minds a higher standard of truth than the Bible

Firstly, as the neo-orthodoxy of Barth showed, this need not be the case. One need not subscribe to the doctrine of inerrancy to appreciate the worth and value of the Bible, especially if one considers it to be "living" and to submit to its jurisdiction. To provide an analogy, I may still be able to learn from and emulate a role model, notwithstanding the fact that I know they are not perfect. Indeed, it is this very imperfection that helps me to relate to them, since I am not perfect myself.

Secondly, while this does not formally answer Challies' charge, there can be no guarantee that Challies' is not making his mind a higher standard of truth than the Bible when he comes to this very doctrine. One brings a series of assumptions, a worldview and a systematic theology to the table when reading the Bible and these things inevitably influence our reading of the text. How can Challies' know that it is the Bible pure and undiluted, and not Calvin, that dictates his understanding of doctrine?

Fourth argument - if we deny inerrancy, and indicate that small details are incorrect, we cannot consistently argue that all the doctrine the Bible contains is correct.

Indeed, I would agree to this point insofar as refuting inerrancy may make a Calvinist systemic theology unviable. This said, if the Bible is not inerrant (and is not meant to be), then this former reading of the Bible has been misleading at best and profoundly destructive at worst and needs to be rectified. This discovery may lead us to the realisation that the Bible was never meant to be read like a statute book and if this is true, then that's a positive thing.

Let us move onto the responses Challies makes to the objections of opponents of Biblical Inerrancy. Challies responds to the charge that inerrancy is meaningless because we do not have the original manuscripts by stating:

We can be certain that we have accurate copies of over 99% of the inerrant words as they were first transcribed. When we focus on the less than 1% of the text that contains errors, we must realize that these are human errors and that God is in no way responsible for them.


Indeed the manuscript evidence for the Bible is impressive and I largely agree with Challies' assessment. However, if he cannot tell me which 99 percent is original and which 1 percent is not, then his claim becomes meaningless, for I cannot know for sure that the text I am reading is original or not.

Perhaps the bigger objection I have to the argument that only the originals are inerrant is that it tends to be somewhat of a cop-out position. That is, someone may see a contradictory text and then brush of suggests of an error that suggesting that "in the original text, I'm sure there wasn't an error". The problem with this exercise is that it is an appeal to a text that one has not actually seen. How do they know that the unseen text is inerrant?

To the first objection, I point again to the definition of inerrancy, and that it refers to truthfulness and not precision. The Bible claims to be perfectly true, but nowhere does it claim to contain perfect precision.


Apart from the fact that I don't believe that the Bible ever claims to be inerrant, I agree with Challies' premise that inerrancy does not necessarily call for mathematical or scientific precision. However, this doesn't represent the strongest objections of those who reject inerrancy.

Where this model of linear reasoning may break down, is that some of what we accept about the Bible we accept by faith. Faith does not render reason invalid, but the Holy Spirit helps us believe in what our sinful, human minds will not accept.


The problem with this argument is that Challies' does not explain the basis of his belief that the Holy Spirit has convicted him of the inerrancy of Scripture. If he says that this is because of the witness of Scripture, then he can't get around the problem of circularity, since he needs to believe in the inerrancy of Scripture before he believes the Spirit convicts people of the inerrancy of Scripture. Indeed, as a side point, I have seen the Spirit's ministry defined in many ways, but outside of Calvin's Institutes, I have never seen the argument from Scripture that the Holy Spirit tells Calvinists that their doctrine of inerrancy is correct. However, if Scripture does actually say this, then how does Challies' know that he has received this message from the Holy Spirit any more than a Mormon can attest to the truth of the Book of Mormon by the "burning in his bosom" as attested to by the Book of Mormon itself.

But what the unbeliever cannot do is accept that Jesus is the Son of God and that He is thus an inerrant authority.


As a Christian, I DO believe that Jesus is an inerrant authority. However, this doesn't mean that I believe that Jesus communicated that the 66 books of the Christian canon are inerrant. Indeed, considering several of Jesus' teachings I find this view by Jesus to be quite unlikely. I think it is quite clear that Jesus was quite happy to set himself above Scripture, for example with his teaching on divorce.

As often as not, this objection is made by people who really have no clear idea of where these errors can be found, as they are merely passing along what they have heard from others.


I find this to be quite a frustrating strawperson attack with no substance. While it is true that allegations of error are made by those who have not looked properly into the issue, it is also true that these allegations are made by people who have looked at this issue quite closely. I'd like to think that I am one of these people.

At my own risk, I'll suggest one error. However, I find conversations with inerrantists on such errors to be quite fruitness and extremely annoying. If I suggest an error or a contradiction, they may suggest a harmonisation that takes Scripture completely out of context. In doing so, they compromise Scripture all for the sake of their precious doctrine. They will resolutely hold to an interpretation that can only come about as a result of the most tortuous intellectual gymnastics.

Anyway, let me throw Mark 1:2 into the mix. Mark attributes a quote to Isaiah, when in truth the quote is an amalgam of a text from Isaiah and a text from Malachi. Indeed, using Mark as source material, Matthew sees the error and edit accordingly, dropping the part of the quote that is from Malachi.

It is a fact that “the results of sound scholarship have not tended to uncover more and more problems … Rather they have tended to resolve problems and to show that what were once thought to be errors are not errors at all.


The final suggestion is fundamentally that simply because we can't resolve some contradictions now, doesn't mean we won't solve them later. The problem with this view is much like the problem with the fact that inerrantists appeal to the original manuscripts as being inerrant. This argument appeals to a hypothetical discovery in the future that will resolve these problems. It is a mere assumption that these problems will be resolved and their is no basis for this assumption but blind hope. However, even were this assumption to prove to true, what does it matter - a discovery that may or may not happen in the future is hardly going to assist us in coming to a proper understanding of the verse/s in question now, it is? Indeed, since we don't have the tools to interpret the Bible inerrantly (because we lack this discovery), inerrancy is simply not going to mean anything worthwhile anything.

Well, there you go, that's my effort. I welcome feedback, both positive and negative. Let me know what you think of what I've written.

3 comments:

CraigS said...

I only have time for a brief response, hope you find it helpful. Also, I haven't read Challies original arguments, so take that into account.

*Challies' arguments in this respect are no more than what we might regard as wish fulfilment.*

I don't think that is fair. Challies is pointing out the implications of denying innerancy, that we are left with an untrustworthy God and an untrustworthy Bible. I cannot see how we can have a meaningful relationship with God under those circumstances. If his arguments are true, then those who wish to deny inerrancy but maintain that they have a relationship with God are kidding themselves. This is pretty important to know.

*The suppressed assumption in these propositions is this - that God has indicated to humankind that Scripture is inerrant. There are a few verses that apologists use to try to establish this premise, but perhaps the most common reference is 2 Timothy 3:16*

This is the key point - has God actually taught the innerrancy of Scripture? I fully agree that 2 Timothy 3:16 on it's own is not enough to establish the full doctrine of inerrancy. So evangelicals who use it that way are guilty of reductionistic proof-texting, and aren't really doing the cause much good.

However, there have been many better defences of the doctrine. Warfield wrote extensively on the matter (more on the inspiration and authority of Scripture, than inerrancy per se). There are also good short treatments of the topic in Milne, Sproul and Packer.

It's interesting to note that Calvin takes a rather different approach to establishing the authority of scripture - read Book 1, Chapter 7 of the Institutes.

*Third argument - if we deny the clear testimony of Scripture that it is inerrant, we make our minds a higher standard of truth than the Bible

Firstly, as the neo-orthodoxy of Barth showed, this need not be the case. One need not subscribe to the doctrine of inerrancy to appreciate the worth and value of the Bible, especially if one considers it to be "living" and to submit to its jurisdiction. To provide an analogy, I may still be able to learn from and emulate a role model, notwithstanding the fact that I know they are not perfect.*

Your response proves the very point Challies was trying to make! To use your analogy, the reason you know that your role model is imperfect, is because you are judging him by a higher standard. If you find imperfections in the Scriptural teaching, then you are also, clearly, judging it by another, "higher", standard.

*Fourth argument*

I couldn't really respond here, as you seemed to agree with what he was saying.

*However, if he cannot tell me which 99 percent is original and which 1 percent is not*

He *can* tell you. We know which parts of the text are uncertain - any study bible you read will have footnotes telling you where there is a verse with variant readings.

*The problem with this argument is that Challies' does not explain the basis of his belief that the Holy Spirit has convicted him of the inerrancy of Scripture.*

As you note, this is Calvin's argument. And it *is* repeated in other books, eg. Milne.

*I DO believe that Jesus is an inerrant authority*

This is an interesting comment. I would be tempted ask *why* you believe Jesus to be inerrant? And I suspect that some of the objections you have for Challies could be turned back on yourself at that point.

*However, I find conversations with inerrantists on such errors to be quite fruitness and extremely annoying.*

They probably find discussions with you just as fruitless.

*The final suggestion is fundamentally that simply because we can't resolve some contradictions now, doesn't mean we won't solve them later.*

Strictly speaking, that is true. It might be frustrating and unsatisfying, but that doesn't make the statement untrue.


Well, hope you found that helpful. You've told me that what scripture *isn't*. I'd be very interested in finding out what you think it *is*.

Paul said...

Andrew Errington has written a splendid essay on the topic,
"The New Testament and the Word of God" found at Essays

What do you think of the notion of inerrancy expressed within, David?
i.e. truthful, trustworthy, God inspired or sanctified, fit for purpose (governance and salvation), but not without potential errors attributable to human authorship

David Castor said...

Thanks for your comments Craig and Paul. I'll try to at least Craig tonight, and will give thought to your question tomorrow, if that's okay Paul.

I don't think that is fair. Challies is pointing out the implications of denying innerancy, that we are left with an untrustworthy God and an untrustworthy Bible. I cannot see how we can have a meaningful relationship with God under those circumstances. If his arguments are true, then those who wish to deny inerrancy but maintain that they have a relationship with God are kidding themselves. This is pretty important to know.

Having read Challies' post again, I think you're right, so I withdraw the charge of wish fulfillment again him. This said, as I pointed out and dealt with below, the implications he wishes to draw are only correct if God has indicated to us that He would give us an inerrant set of Scriptures. After all, if God made no such promise, then how could He be a liar or untrustworthy?

This is the key point - has God actually taught the innerrancy of Scripture? I fully agree that 2 Timothy 3:16 on it's own is not enough to establish the full doctrine of inerrancy. So evangelicals who use it that way are guilty of reductionistic proof-texting, and aren't really doing the cause much good.

I'd agree that this isn't the only proof text, or even the only methodology used, but it seems to take pride of place in any of these debates. It is, of course a natural starting point to see what the Bible actually says about itself and I was simply pointing out that a verse like 2 Timothy 3:16 is much more ambiguous than one might like.

Your response proves the very point Challies was trying to make! To use your analogy, the reason you know that your role model is imperfect, is because you are judging him by a higher standard. If you find imperfections in the Scriptural teaching, then you are also, clearly, judging it by another, "higher", standard.

One of the other points I made in this regard is that all people set their minds as a higher authority as Scripture, so there's nothing unusual about my position. I can't see how Challies or yourself can maintain otherwise. That said, respect to my analogy, one might still call my role model a mentor because even knowing that he is imperfect, I still make the decision to submit to him.

He *can* tell you. We know which parts of the text are uncertain - any study bible you read will have footnotes telling you where there is a verse with variant readings.

That's true to an extent, but before earlier manuscripts were discovered, we would have been none the wiser to the fact that the existing manuscripts were not in fact the originals. That said, I agree that the manuscript evidence for the Bible is excellent - I just buy the appeal to a non-existent original when a contradiction is raised and there are no textual variants for either passage in question.

As you note, this is Calvin's argument. And it *is* repeated in other books, eg. Milne.

But not in the Bible, as far as I can tell. And even if it were, there is no meaningful manner to distinguish your alleged experience with that of the Mormon's conviction over the inerrant nature of the Book of Mormon.

This is an interesting comment. I would be tempted ask *why* you believe Jesus to be inerrant? And I suspect that some of the objections you have for Challies could be turned back on yourself at that point.

You forget that I am a Fideist. I have no problem with yourself or others having faith the Bible is inerrant, but this is something entirely different from *knowing* or *proving* that the Bible is inerrant.

They probably find discussions with you [about contradictions]just as fruitless.

Oh, undoubtably. But why is their interpretation correct, and not mine. The only thing that separates me from them is that they have their whole faith invested in twisting and contorting Scripture to maintain inerrancy lest the entire edifice of their faith crumble away. Whether two passages contradict or not (and I'm just as likely to say that they don't) is of no significance to me. Quite simply, because I favour Biblical theology over systematic theology I am free to let the passages say what they say without feeling the need to harmonise and fit everything together.

Strictly speaking, that is true. It might be frustrating and unsatisfying, but that doesn't make the statement untrue.

But the point is that this is an article of faith - how can one *know* about a non-existent discovery? If biblical inerrancy is an item of faith, then fine, I respect that. Just don't call it something you know.

Well, hope you found that helpful. You've told me that what scripture *isn't*. I'd be very interested in finding out what you think it *is*.

Fair enough question. I've suggested that a possible understanding is that the Bible is "living" or "life-giving", notwithstanding the fact that it is not inerrant. I believe Jesus had great respect for Scripture, but I don't see an inerrantist approach in his teachings and his approach to Scripture itself.