[This is a really long post. I’d normally post this about 1,000 to 1,500 words at a time, and it would take six or so posts spread over two or three weeks to do so. But, of course, that means there’d be a lot of conversation about inerrancy without the benefit of all the material I wish to bring to the readers’ attention. Therefore, I’m posting this in full, all 9,000 words at once.
I’ve disabled comments on this post. Instead, I’ll ask a series of questions, each in a separate daily post Monday through Friday.
It’s an experimental format, but it seemed like a good idea at the time.]
Over the years that I’ve posted at this blog I’ve often begun work on a post on the inerrancy question, but I’ve never found a way to express my thoughts properly in a single post and never had the will to write a series — because, until now, the only reason I’ve ever studied inerrancy is because of the false accusation so frequently made that my views are built on denying inerrancy.
So I’ve been studying up on the subject, just to understand what the hubbub is all about. But my knowledge of inerrancy teaching came in just the last few days — long after my views on all sorts of scriptural subjects were posted here.
Inevitably, readers will read this material to determine my position on inerrancy. Here’s my answer: I reveal my position on inerrancy through and only through my other writings. Judge how much truth and authority I grant to the Scriptures by how I teach from them. Measure my respect for the Scriptures by whether I argue from the text itself and whether I respect the text enough to do the necessary homework to learn its context before drawing conclusions. In fact, ignore the rhetoric that comes any writer, myself included, and judge his respect for the Scriptures from how he treats the Scriptures in his writing.
So why not announce a pro- or anti-inerrancy position? Well, because I prefer to speak of Bible things by Bible names. I gladly affirm every single biblical statement about the nature of the Scriptures. And I consider it sufficient to call Bible things by Bible names.
I’ll explain my attitude more as we proceed. But the fact is that “inerrancy” is, in the Churches of Christ, an undefined term, and so it’s impossible to agree or disagree with it. You can be for or against your own views on the subject (and who isn’t?), but you can’t affirm or deny a word that has no commonly agreed definition.
Inerrancy and division
The insistence of so many to make inerrancy a fellowship issue is, to me, an extremely unscriptural and dangerous thing. The Baptists and other denominations have divided over inerrancy, because inerrancy became a litmus test for orthodoxy in those circles. And then various interpretations of inerrancy became additional litmus tests, and division followed once again.
Let’s just imagine that we were to all to decide that only those who agree with inerrancy should be considered “sound” and in fellowship. At first, that proposal would sound entirely prudent to many. But what happens when the age of earth comes up?
Many advocates for young-earth creationism, such as Apologetics Press, insist that inerrancy demands that we believe the earth is only a few thousand years old. Indeed, Apologetics Press has published an article entitled “A Soul’s Salvation Could Hinge On the Earth’s Age.” The president of the Southern Baptist Convention also insists that inerrancy demands young-earth creationism.
Thus, someone who believes the earth to be billions of years old would be considered to reject inerrancy and thus be damned by someone who teaches that inerrancy (a) is a salvation issue and (b) requires belief in a young earth. This seems to be exactly the view of many.
But we are saved by faith in Jesus, not faith in the Bible — much less faith in someone’s opinion as to the interpretation of “day” in Genesis 1.
My so saying will sound scary and even seditious to some, but it’s plainly the Bible’s teaching. Over and over and over, we are told that we are saved by faith in Jesus. We are never told that we are saved by faith in the Scriptures. It’s not a complicated argument.
One might question how we might gain faith in Jesus without faith in the Scriptures (which I’ll address below), but we must begin on a solid biblical premise. And that premise is that the faith that saves is faith in Jesus.
By ignoring this one, obvious truth, inerrancy is sometimes used as a proxy to impose one’s interpretation of some very difficult texts as salvation issues — further dividing the church. It’s not that inerrancy necessarily produces division, just that it does. The reason it does is that those who most vigorously demand faith in inerrancy often have quite a long list of other doctrines they wish to impose as salvation issues, and making inerrancy essential to salvation is an easy way to argue that just about any other doctrine is also a salvation issue.
Inerrancy as a means of slander
There’s this other problem — there are many degrees of denial of inerrancy (“errancy”?). Some deny the inspiration of any scripture at all. Some deny the inspiration of just the Pastoral Epistles. Some deny all but a handful of New Testament books. Some pick and choose verses to treat as inspired very subjectively — as does the Jesus Seminar. Some think Jesus cleansed the temple but once even though John places a cleansing at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry and Matthew puts a cleansing at the end. Some think the earth is older than a few thousand years.
Thus, if someone admits that he considers John and the synoptic Gospels to record the same cleansing of the temple, but ordered thematically rather than chronologically, that someone might well be labeled as rejecting inerrancy — and then accused of denying inspiration altogether because he’s in the same category as the Jesus Seminar or whatever. He is thus a “liberal.” And we’ve all seen such “logic” used to slander good men.
You see, it’s a simplistic, false dichotomy to assert that you are either for total inerrancy or for total “errancy.” And this false dichotomy leads to the flawed argument that you either accept inerrancy exactly as taught by X or reject inspiration altogether — when in fact there are countless gradations in between. It’s awfully easy to argue against the opposite extreme. But no one in the Churches of Christ would contend for total “errancy,” and so it’d be waste of time to talk about that position here.
I can find no effort among the Churches of Christ to precisely define “inerrancy,” and yet it’s clear from my reading that different definitions are used by different authors, and sometimes by the same author depending on the question being dealt with. (Someone has probably taken this task on. I just can’t find it.)
In an effort to better understand the doctrine, I’m going to consider three sources that deal with inerrancy, only one of which attempts a formal definition —
- The Apologetics Press is a Church of Christ-affiliated organization that focuses on Christian evidences. Their website contains extensive arguments seeking to refute alleged Bible contradictions and other objections to inerrancy. I can find no formal definition on their site, but it’s easy to discern some of their working definition by reading their materials. The Apologetics Press is a conservative organization and well regarded by most within the “mainstream” conservative Churches of Christ.
- The explicit definition of “inerrancy” in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. This document reflects the views of many prominent evangelical thought leaders, including Francis Schaeffer (I’m a big fan!), James Boice, Norman L. Geisler, John Gerstner, Carl F. H. Henry, Kenneth Kantzer, Harold Lindsell, John Warwick Montgomery, Roger Nicole, J. I. Packer, Robert Preus, Earl Radmacher, R. C. Sproul, and John Wenham. The document presents a very detailed and thoughtful expression of what inerrancy does and doesn’t mean. Agree or disagree, it’s a good read to help understand the intricacies of the issue.
- The position expressed in God’s Holy Fire: The Nature and Function of Scripture, by Cukroski, Hamilton, and Thompson, published by ACU Press in 2002 (hereinafter, GHF). The book is part of their “Heart of the Restoration Series.” Many conservatives have taken this book as expressing a view typical of progressive Church of Christ thought and even as demonstrating that progressive thought is built on questioning inerrancy. It’s not.
The Apologetics Press approach may be well illustrated by their view on the cleansing of the temple by Jesus. John records a cleansing at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, whereas the Synoptic Gospels record a cleansing at the end of Jesus’ ministry. Is that a contradiction?
The Apologetics Press resolves the apparent contradiction by concluding that Jesus cleansed the temple twice —
A better explanation of this alleged contradiction exists, however: There were two temple cleansings.
Why not? Who is to say that Jesus could not have cleansed the temple of money-hungry, hypocritical Jews on two separate occasions—once earlier in His ministry, and again near the end of His life as He entered Jerusalem for the last time? Are we so naïve as to think that the temple could not have been corrupted at two different times during the three years of Jesus’ ministry?
However, Apologetics Press doesn’t always insist on strict literalness. For example, they note that Luke and Matthew place the temptations of Jesus in the wilderness in differing order, but they see no contradiction because —
Those who claim that the “disorder” of temptations is a contradiction, presuppose that history always is written (or spoken) chronologically. However, common sense tells us otherwise. Open almost any world history textbook, and you will notice that even though most events are recorded chronologically, some are arranged topically.
Another alleged contradiction dealt with by Apologetics Press is Paul’s reference to 23,000 people being killed even though Moses gives the figure at 24,000 —
Whereas Paul stated, “[I]n one day twenty-three thousand [Israelites—EL] fell” as a result of their sexual immorality (1 Corinthians 10:8), Moses recorded that “those who died in the plague were twenty-four thousand” (Numbers 25:9). …
So how can we explain Paul’s statement in light of the information given in Numbers 25:9 (the probable “sister” passage to 1 Corinthians 10:8)? The answer lies in the fact that Paul stated that 23,000 fell “in one day,” while in Numbers 25 Moses wrote that the total number of those who died in the plague was 24,000. Moses never indicated how long it took for the 24,000 to die, but only stated that this was the number “who died in the plague.” Thus, the record in 1 Corinthians simply supplies us with more knowledge about what occurred in Numbers 25—23,000 of the 24,000 who died in the plague died “in one day.”
in Num 25:9 the number said to be “twenty and four thousand”: and so say all the three Targums on the place (w), and both the Talmuds (x) and others (y); on the other hand, all the Greek copies of this epistle, and the Oriental versions, agree in the number of twenty and three thousand; so that it does not appear to be any mistake of copies, in either Testament.
The Apologetics Press reconciles the apparent discrepancy by suggesting that 23,000 died on one day and that 1,000 died on a different day — facts not revealed in the Old Testament or Jewish tradition, which God evidently chose to reveal to Paul while he was penning 1 Corinthians, even though that information adds nothing to Paul’s argument.
Other commentaries propose other possible solutions, but all explanations I can find presume that Paul had new knowledge about what happened at the time of Moses by direct inspiration from God (which is entirely possible, of course), which he chose to reveal to the Corinthians even though that information was not necessary to his Corinthian audience.
The Chicago Statement
The 1978 Chicago Statement seeks to carefully define “inerrancy.” A similar statement on hermeneutics was issued in 1982. A commentary by Norman Geisler is very helpful in understanding the 1982 Statement on hermeneutics. My quotations are from the 1978 Statement on Inerrancy.
The evangelical scholars who wrote this statement went to great trouble to lay out their views very carefully because they consider the issue to be of great importance. However, they deny that inerrancy is a salvation issue.
For those in the Churches of Christ who want to make it into a salvation issue, it’s all the more important that they offer an equally thoughtful definition.
You see, it’s much harder to define “inerrancy” than many of my brothers realize, and this statement shows why. And note carefully: the definition is 10-pages long! That’s right: it took these scholars 10 pages just to define “inerrancy.”
The definition includes a series of parallel affirmations and denials, which is a very helpful way to explain what they do and don’t believe. For example —
We further deny that inerrancy is negated by Biblical phenomena such as a lack of modern technical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, the reporting of falsehoods, the use of hyperbole and round numbers, the topical arrangement of material, variant selections of material in parallel accounts, or the use of free citations.
Study this assertion closely. The authors acknowledge that the Scriptures contain misspelled words and grammatical errors, and yet insist that the Scriptures are inerrant — because they define “inerrant” not to include such errors. (Would that my composition teacher had the same view of spelling! It was a letter grade per misspelling.)
They also allow for “topical arrangement of material” as the Apologetics Press does for the wilderness temptations but not for the cleansing of the temple. It appears likely that the authors of the Chicago Statement would allow that Jesus might have cleansed the temple but once.
We deny that alleged errors and discrepancies that have not yet been resolved vitiate the truth claims of the Bible.
Plainly, the authors indicate that some apparent errors and discrepancies remain unresolved, and yet they insist on inerrancy based on hope that one day someone will resolve the error.
I have especial sympathy for this position if they are speaking of archaeological findings, as the trend in archaeology is to find more and more support for Biblical chronology.
Differences between literary conventions in Bible times and in ours must also be observed: since, for instance, nonchronological narration and imprecise citation were conventional and acceptable and violated no expectations in those days, we must not regard these things as faults when we find them in Bible writers. When total precision of a particular kind was not expected nor aimed at, it is no error not to have achieved it. Scripture is inerrant, not in the sense of being absolutely precise by modern standards, but in the sense of making good its claims and achieving that measure of focused truth at which its authors aimed.
Notice how much room is allowed for imprecision and for rearranging the order of events to be thematic. I (and the Apologetics Press) think the Scriptures unquestionably take liberties with the time-order of events to be thematic (as did the Jewish rabbis of old), but some others would consider such a claim as denying inerrancy — whereas the Chicago Statement concedes that ancient approaches to narration are in fact different from ours.
Although Holy Scripture is nowhere culture-bound in the sense that its teaching lacks universal validity, it is sometimes culturally conditioned by the customs and conventional views of a particular period, so that the application of its principles today calls for a different sort of action.
Notice that the authors admit that some scriptural commands need no longer be obeyed because they are “culturally conditioned” so that the eternal, underlying principles might produce different results today. The classic examples are, of course, the Holy Kiss and the command for women to wear veils, and the same argument is frequently made regarding the role of women.
We deny that such confession is necessary for salvation.
Amen. But many advocates of inerrancy in the Churches of Christ would not agree.
The need for definition
Would it really be terribly damaging to the cause of Christ to argue, as the Chicago Statement does,
When total precision of a particular kind was not expected nor aimed at, it is no error not to have achieved it. Scripture is inerrant, not in the sense of being absolutely precise by modern standards, but in the sense of making good its claims and achieving that measure of focused truth at which its authors aimed.
The Apologetics Press seems to think so —
The fact is, if Paul, or any of these men, made mistakes in their writings, then they were not inspired by God (cf. 2 Timothy 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:20-21), because God does not make mistakes (cf. Titus 1:2; Psalm 139:1-6). And if the Scriptures were not “given by inspiration of God,” then the Bible is not from God. And if the Bible is not from God, then the skeptic is right.
— but when faced with inconsistencies between, for example, the order of the wilderness temptations, they take the same position as the Chicago Statement. Thus, their rhetoric seems much stricter than their beliefs.
Therefore, if someone asks whether you believe in inerrancy, you really have to ask, “By which definition?” By the standard of the Chicago Statement? By the announced standards of the Apologetics Press? By the personal standard of the person asking the question? Is the person asking the question even aware of the issues that make providing a definition so difficult?
Many good Christians, unfamiliar with the original languages, would be in despair to learn that the Hebrew and Greek sometimes has bad grammar and misspellings. How could God inspire error in spelling?
Does the questioner’s view of inerrancy demand a young earth? That women wear hats or veils? That Jesus cleansed the temple twice?
You see, the word “inerrancy” lacks definition — and yet it’s being used as a test of salvation. And even when not made into a salvation issue, it’s made into a test of soundness — a code word for a test of fellowship. This just won’t do! If we’re going to define soundness, fellowship, and salvation by such a term, a term not found in the Scriptures, we should take the trouble to offer a thorough definition — and to demonstrate how that definition accords with the Scriptures.
Amazingly, I can find nothing on the Internet where a Church of Christ writer considers the merits, pro or con, of the Chicago Statement. That leads me to suspect that our teaching about inerrancy has been on the naïve side, that is, that we’ve failed to look at the problem of inerrancy with an open mind, preferring slogans to serious study. I mean, if we don’t bother to find out what the scholars are saying on the subject, just how serious can we be?
But, of course, if it take 10 pages to define “inerrancy,” well, for those of us in the Churches of Christ, we who believe in “no creed but the Bible,” this 10-page position paper smacks suspiciously of a creed — mainly because it is a creed if it’s used to define fellowship and salvation. Even if you and I were to agree with every word, if you impose this statement as a test of fellowship, then you’re a creedalists and you’ve assuredly left the Restoration Movement.
If, on the other hand, we define inerrancy, not to test salvation or soundness, but to investigate the nature of God’s work through the Scriptures, as students of the Word, and not to condemn one another, there is no sin at all in the effort. The sinfulness arises when we damn and slander those who disagree with our understanding of inerrancy.
The dark side of “errancy”
I should urgently add, however, that there are attitudes toward the Scriptures that can lead to damnation. One cannot have faith in an unrevealed Savior. One cannot have biblical, saving faith in Jesus and deny the resurrection. It’s not that claiming error cannot damn. Rather, the point is that the line between salvation and damnation is not found in a 10-page definition of inerrancy cobbled together by scholars. Nor is it found in the unspoken assumptions of Christian apologists. Rather, the tests of salvation are those taught in the Scriptures themselves — being primarily faith in Jesus of Nazareth. (We’ll return to this point.)
God’s Holy Fire
The authors write,
In recent years, the “Battle for the Bible” has been fought over the use of one such definition: inerrancy, a term that was not used in the Bible and was not in common use to define the nature of inspiration for many centuries after the writing of the New Testament. … Human definitions simply create more problems, for what constitutes an error remains unclear.
Thus, the GHF authors challenge the purpose of fighting over “inerrancy.”
When Jesus says that the mustard seed is the “smallest of the seeds of the earth,” one may ask if that is a scientifically precise statement.
Apologetics Press explains,
So what about Jesus’ comment regarding the mustard seed being “the least of all the seeds” (Matthew 13:32)? Was Jesus scientifically inaccurate? Only in the same sense that people are today when they refer to it “raining cats and dogs” during heavy precipitation, or “burning up” during a heat wave. The fact is, Jesus was speaking proverbially in this parable. In Palestine, mustard seeds were used comparatively when talking of very small things.
So both the authors of God’s Holy Fire and Apologetics Press note the imprecision of Jesus’ statement, and neither are greatly concerned that Jesus isn’t exactly right: it’s a figure of speech, not a scientific claim, and not to be taken literally.
The GHF authors also point out that there are inconsistencies in some of the parallel accounts in the Gospels. For example, the ordering of Jesus’ cursing the fig tree differs between Matthew and Mark. Apologetics Press explains,
Some also question whether Jesus cursed the tree before or after He cleansed the temple. Since Matthew records this event before the cursing of the fig tree (21:12-19), and since Mark places the cleansing of the temple after Jesus cursed the tree (11:15-19), it is supposed that one of the two writers was mistaken. The truth is, however, Matthew’s account is more of a summary, whereas Mark’s narrative is more detailed and orderly. … Obviously, the gospel accounts were not arranged to be a strict chronology of Jesus’ life.
Plainly, Apologetics Press is not concerned that Matthew’s chronology is imprecise. But Matthew reads —
(Mat 21:17-19 ESV) 17 And leaving them, he went out of the city to Bethany and lodged there. 18 In the morning, as he was returning to the city, he became hungry. 19 And seeing a fig tree by the wayside, he went to it and found nothing on it but only leaves. And he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once.
Matthew plainly says that Jesus cursed the fig tree after leaving Jerusalem. Mark says it was before. Apologetics Press agrees with Mark and not Matthew, and yet sees no challenge to inerrancy.
Do you see why it’s so important that “inerrancy” be carefully defined? Many people would read the two accounts and find proof of error! Apologetics Press solves the problem by declaring Matthew “more of a summary” and implicitly redefines “inerrancy” to not include such chronological inconsistencies. In this they agree with the Chicago Statement.
The GHF authors point out that Matthew 27:9 refers to a prophecy by Jeremiah that the Messiah would be betrayed for 30 pieces of silver. But the prophecy of 30 pieces of silver appears to actually be from Zechariah 11:13.
First, notice carefully that Matthew did not say that Jeremiah wrote this particular prophecy; rather, he indicated that this prophecy was spoken by Jeremiah. … Truly, one should not automatically expect to find a written account of a prophecy when the New Testament writer mentions it as having been spoken. Also, it should not be surprising to us if the Holy Spirit saw fit to inspire Jeremiah to speak these words, and then a few years later to inspire Zechariah to put a similar sentiment in written form.
Second, in Jesus’ day, rabbinical practice entailed identifying quotations by the name of the first book in a group of books that had been clustered by literary genre. … Thus, it is logical to conclude that Matthew merely referred to this whole division of the Old Testament by naming its first book (Jeremiah), just as Jesus referred to the “writings” section of the Old Testament by the name of its first book, Psalms (Luke 24:44).
Other commentaries offer other possible ways to reconcile the texts.
The Apologetics Press takes supposed contradictions such as these as not contradictions at all, and so insist on inerrancy. The GHF authors conclude,
These problems are not insoluble. More information might actually resolve many of these difficulties or future research might clarify specific discrepancies between the biblical narrative and our knowledge of secular history. Often the answer involves the very simple matter of the genre of the writing. The ancient writers worked with standards that are not our own (41).
You know, the GHF authors sound exactly like the Apologetics Press authors, and yet the GHF authors are excoriated as liberals and the Apologetics Press authors are declared defenders of the faith!
The difference is that the Apologetics Press authors accept the term “inerrancy” even though they admit that some biblical accounts are plainly not in the correct order. They simply define such problems out of “inerrancy,” whereas the GHF authors reject the term “inerrancy” and urge us to adopt what they consider a better, older test —
Anyone who returns to the Bible’s claim for itself will observe Paul’s words that the “holy Scriptures are able to make you wise to salvation” (2 Tim. 3:15) and believe his claim that the inspired Scripture is “useful for doctrine, for reproof, for correction in righteousness.” That is, the Bible is not a book of history or science, but is more than sufficient for what it claims to do. (44)
They then quote I. Howard Marshall, who urges us to consider the Bible as —
“infallible,” that is, “’a true and sufficient guide, which may be trusted implicitly.’ […] We may therefore suggest that ‘infallible’ means that the Bible is entirely trustworthy for the purposes for which God inspired it. (44-45).
(brackets and ellipsis in the original). Now, it’s obviously acceptable to consider the Bible to be “entirely trustworthy for the purposes for which God inspired it.” The challenge is that believers often disagree as to what those purposes are.
Indeed, the real dispute between the Apologetics Press and GHF, I think, is with regard to the scientific implications of Genesis 1. Apologetics Press builds up inerrancy as an argument to support a young-earth view of creation, whereas the GHF authors don’t think Moses was intending to talk about science at all. (Could it be that they’re really disagreeing about the meaning of Genesis 1 and not inerrancy?)
The GHF authors refuse to insist that faith in Jesus depends on the historical and scientific accuracy of the Scriptures. The Apologetics Press authors insist that there is no error at all in the Scriptures, and insist that the Scriptures must be error free (of course, with the limitations noted above) or else have no value at all.
If Christians abandon the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, then having a standard of truth by which all humans are to live their lives would be impossible. Like the son who obeys his father insofar as he agrees with the father’s rules, a Christian would have his own standard of authority because the Bible would be authoritative only when he judged it to be a reliable guide. Simply put, Scripture cannot be demonstrated to be divinely authoritative if the Bible (again, in its original autographs) contained factual errors. …
If the Bible is not reliable and trustworthy in its allusion to “peripheral” matters, how can it be relied upon to be truthful and accurate in more central matters? Is an omnipotent God incapable of preserving human writers from making false statements in their recording of His words? It will not do to point out that the Bible was not intended to be a textbook of science or history. If, in the process of pressing His spiritual agenda, God alluded to geography, cosmology, or medicine, God did not lie. Nor would He allow an inspired person to speak falsely.
The question must be asked: If God cannot handle correctly “trivial” matters (such as geographical directions, or the name of an individual), why would anyone think that they could trust Him with something as critically important as the safety of their eternal soul, and expect Him to handle it in a more appropriate fashion?
It’s powerful rhetoric, but it’s rhetoric that ignores the fact that Apologetics Press and GHF agree! They don’t agree on how to say it, but both are willing to admit that there are contradictions in the Scriptures that are reconciled by looking at the nature of ancient literature as interested in questions other than chronology. One calls that “inerrant” and the other questions the use of the word.
Neither is asserting a low view of Scriptures that challenges the reliability of the text.
Ultimately, Apologetics Press is engaging in a false dichotomy, treating the presence of incidental error, unrelated to the author’s purposes, as equivalent to disbelief in all that the Scriptures teach. It’s the old “camel’s nose under the tent” argument — if we concede any error at all (except misspellings, chronology, …), then we must concede the Bible to be totally erroneous — which is not a logical argument.
Apologetics Press draws the line at the wrong place. (We’ll return to this question.)
The age of the earth
Apologetics Press and Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, argue passionately that a commitment in inerrancy requires that we accept a young earth — only a few thousand years old. And yet many very conservative writers disagree — only to find themselves accused of denying inerrancy — which, as a debating tactic, draws attention to a position and a label rather than the text of the Scriptures themselves.
Notice that Apologetics Press has no problem dealing with the order of the wilderness temptations by pointing out that it’s the nature of First Century literature to take liberties with the order of events. (Good. The Chicago Statement agrees. I agree.) However, when it comes to Genesis 1, both the Apologetics Press and, it appears, the 1982 Chicago Statement on Hermeneutics demand literal 24-days — without taking the time to ask about the nature of Middle Eastern literature around 1500 BC.
It seems that the position we are required to take is a 21st Century, modern reading of the text unless that leads to a hopeless contradiction, in which case we should change our hermeneutical lens to the nature of ancient literature.
That hardly makes sense. And that’s all the more reason to take the trouble to define our terms before damning one another over a word not found in the Scriptures. (Some want to argue that “Trinity” is not found in the Scriptures and we use it without objection, but “Trinity” has been a well-defined term for a very long time.)
GHF and Apologetics Press
Were the authors of GHF and the Apologetics Press articles to actually sit down and discuss their views (what a blessing to the Kingdom that would be!), I’m confident they’d agree on many of the solutions to the alleged contradictions. GHF would not be persuaded, however, on all, but they would not consider the explanations they find unsatisfying to threaten their high regard for the Scriptures as the Word of God.
Both would hold a very high view of the inspiration, truth, and authority of the Scriptures. All would have spent their lives dedicated to studying God’s Word because of their great respect for it.
I suspect that the biggest dispute that would arise regards the age of the earth. The Apologetics Press would consider the GHF authors in grave danger for their souls for their disagreement. They might even label them as “liberals.” And yet a stranger to the dispute would be astonished at how closely they agree.
An objection to God’s Holy Fire
Vic Vadney has taken the trouble to catalogue each example used in GHF to question inerrancy and provide his own reconciliation of the alleged contradictions. (It’s a worthy read.) He concludes,
The goal of this chapter in God’s Holy Fire is to remove from the reader the sense that the New Testament is authoritative for our lives and our worship today. These are details that the authors don’t think we need. We just need to know that the Bible is inspired to save us, but not to instruct us about our 21st century morality or worship.
This is the face of Liberal Protestantism.
No, it’s not. It’s entirely good for Vadney to propose possible ways to reconcile the alleged contradictions noted in GHF. His proposals may well be be right. But it’s not fair to impute motives to the authors that contradict their actual words. GHF states,
To read the Bible, to treat it with reverence, to know the story of God’s endless search for a relationship with humanity is far more important than our explanations. Because knowing the old story is indispensable to the life of faith, the following chapters address our efforts to reclaim the entire Bible for the church and especially to see the richness of the Bible’s story. (45)
They are simply not arguing that the Bible does not “instruct us about our 21st century morality or worship.” Nor do they meet any conventional definition of “Liberal Protestantism.”
It’s a shame that Vadney, despite his diligent research into the alleged contradictions, doesn’t apply equal diligence in characterizing the authors of GHF. He makes the mistake of assuming that all who disagree with his views on inerrancy are liberals. It’s a common allegation. It’s plainly untrue. The authors GHF do not deny miracles, the virgin birth, the resurrection, or any other typical claim of Liberal Protestantism.
The GHF authors declare,
[W]hen God reveals himself, he calls for faith rather than certainty. When Abraham answered God’s call to go to the promised land, he went in faith, trusting God’s promise even when he saw no proof of the existence of the promised land. When Jesus revealed himself to the crowds, some believed — some others saw the same deeds and did not believe. Similarly, Christians trust that the Bible is God’s Word — when others do not believe. Believers turn to God’s Word, trusting that here alone one hears the voice of God. …
The ultimate challenge is not then our definition of inspiration, but our willingness to hear the Word of God as it addresses God’s people. (45)
These are not the words of Liberal Protestantism.
Inerrancy, apologetics, faith
There’s a real danger in building our apologetics (Christian evidences) on the claim that the Bible is free from contradiction. If we teach our children that any contradiction at all destroys all of Christianity and its claims, well, it’s awfully hard to make the case when the text has misspelled words. Their school teachers are telling them how terrible it is to misspell!
A sophisticated student of ancient literature may well not be disturbed by the order in which the wilderness temptations and the cursing of the fig tree are recorded, but the people we wish to convert and young Christians are, of course, immature in the faith. They often find the arguments made to reconcile these apparent inconsistencies to be forced rationalizations. As a result, our teaching actually harms their faith!
We lawyers like to say, “You can’t prove a negative.” To prove the absence of a contradiction, you have take on every single alleged discrepancy and convincingly demonstrate that there is no contradiction — not merely that you hope that one day the apparent contradictions will be resolved. And there are hundreds of alleged discrepancies, easily available to anyone with an Internet connection.
Many, many people have lost their faith because they find arguments such as those made by Apologetics Press forced and unpersuasive. “Unpersuasive” doesn’t necessarily mean wrong. It just means that it’s not a smart way to persuade skeptical people to believe in Jesus. After all, the goal is not faith in the Bible, but faith in Jesus.
Our faith is in Jesus. And it’s faith in Jesus that saves. Therefore, we really have to reject the notion that inerrancy is essential to faith in Jesus. Many people have come to saving faith in Jesus without first coming to believe that the Bible is inerrant and free from all contradiction.
One way this happens is for a potential convert to see Jesus in the life of his Christian friends. Often the testimony about Jesus lived by a believer is far more convicting than testimony found in the Bible. To a believer steeped in a creedal view of Christianity, this can make no sense, but the Bible predicts exactly this result —
(John 13:34-35 ESV) 34 “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. 35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
(1Pe 2:12 ESV) 12 Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.
And I think most missionaries would agree. People are saved by seeing Jesus lived.
The early church had no New Testament at all and so obviously needed no inerrant New Testament to bring converts to faith. Converts accepted the testimony of people they considered reliable. And while many humans who preached Jesus were inspired, not all were.
(Act 11:19-21 ESV) 19 Now those who were scattered because of the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia and Cyprus and Antioch, speaking the word to no one except Jews. 20 But there were some of them, men of Cyprus and Cyrene, who on coming to Antioch spoke to the Hellenists also, preaching the Lord Jesus. 21 And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number who believed turned to the Lord.
Even today, there are missionaries working — effectively — in communities where there are no Scriptures translated into the language of their converts.
And since no translation is perfect, no one unfamiliar with the original languages is able to read an inerrant text. And yet the errors that creep into our translations — all our translations — haven’t kept the Kingdom from growing and many converts finding Jesus.
So, yes, there are some who so insist on scriptural error that there is nothing left to bring them to saving faith. But it’s not true that admitting any error in the text at all necessarily denies faith in Jesus. There are lots of people who have come to saving faith with no faith in the Bible at all — having learned from the teaching of an uninspired human in whom they have confidence.
I can navigate all over the country using my GPS — and even though my GPS is not inerrant, I always get where I’m supposed to go. The Scriptures can and do get us where we need to go even if someone believes in an ancient earth or a single temple cleansing.
My point is not that the Bible is flawed as is my GPS — only that logic does not require an inerrant Bible in order for people to come to faith in Jesus. Logic does require a very reliable Bible.
Thus, there is indeed a line between a confidence in the Scriptures that is deadly to Christianity and a confidence that is not: reliability. If a scholar considers the Scriptures unreliable, then the Scriptures can no longer serve as a guide to life and salvation, and this would be a dreadful outcome. But if the Scriptures are considered reliable, even if containing occasional error regarding incidental facts, the reader can still come to a saving faith in Jesus and still conduct his life in accord with Christian principles.
Am I saying I believe the Scriptures contain such occasional errors? No, only that such beliefs need not destroy faith in Jesus.
The Bible’s own standards
A handful of passages speak of the Scriptures’ own understanding of the nature of the Scriptures. There are other verses, but in my experience, these are the ones most commonly cited —
(2Ti 3:14-15 ESV) 14 But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it 15 and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.
One purpose of the Scriptures is to make us “wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” They point to Jesus and they show us the way to him. Amen.
(2Ti 3:16-17 ESV) 16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.
The ultimate goal of inspiration is to equip us for “every good work.” The grammar tells us that the inspiration, teaching, reproof, correction, and training are all provided so that we’ll be equipped for good works.
(Psa 119:142-144 ESV) 142 Your righteousness is righteous forever, and your law is true. 143 Trouble and anguish have found me out, but your commandments are my delight. 144 Your testimonies are righteous forever; give me understanding that I may live.
David celebrates God’s laws and commandments (the Law of Moses) as “true” because they give him “understanding that I may live.” “May live” may refer to eternal life, may refer to God’s protection of David in life, or may refer to knowing how to live. All are possible, and I’m inclined to think that all three possibilities are on David’s mind.
(Heb 2:2-3a ESV) 2 For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution, 3 how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?
Now, so long as we accept Scripture as reliable, then all these statements about the Scriptures by the Scriptures will be true.
Of course, one might insist that inspiration by its nature forbids error of any kind, even incidental error (other than spelling, grammar, chronology …), and maybe that’s right. But one cannot insist that views such as those of GHF contradict the purposes of inspiration we read about in the Scriptures.
(Psa 119:103-105 ESV) 103 How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth! 104 Through your precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every false way. 105 Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.
I do not buy the argument that inerrancy is a salvation issue.
I do not buy the argument that inerrancy draws the line between “liberal” and “sound” brothers.
The conservative/progressive divide in the Churches of Christ is not about inerrancy. The doctrinal disagreements over CENI, the Regulative Principle, instrumental music, and baptism have nothing at all to do with inerrancy. Neither side is arguing by questioning inspiration or the Scriptures. Both sides argue from the Scriptures.
It is unfair and unloving to accuse someone of questioning the inspiration of the Scriptures just because he disagrees with you over how to interpret the Scriptures.
I do not oppose the teaching of inerrancy, but I disagree with teaching that faith in Jesus depends on inerrancy. It doesn’t.
I question the wisdom of building our apologetics on inerrancy. There are better ways to demonstrate the evidence for the Bible’s claims.
I’m not persuaded that inerrancy requires that we hold to a young-earth creationist position.
Inerrancy is a meaningless label until someone puts a definition with the word, and for the definition to be meaningful, it must be at a level of detail comparable to the Chicago Statement.
As the Scriptures make no claim of inerrancy, we should not require anyone to state a position on the controversy as a condition to being considered “sound.” To be true to the spirit of the Restoration Movement, we should merely ask whether someone agrees with what the Bible says on the subject.
We should never allow inerrancy to overshadow faith in Jesus as the central doctrine of Christianity.
You seem to be a fan of the Chicago Statement. Do you agree with it or not?
I haven’t decided. The language is pretty vague in places, and the 1982 Statement on Hermeneutics seems to insist on young-earth creationism, which I don’t believe to be a correct interpretation of the Scriptures. But I see a lot of wisdom in the Statement on Inerrancy. I’m just not ready to declare the views stated there as doctrine. They do make for a very worthwhile study.
What is your position on inerrancy?
My teaching is my position. Read my writings. Do I treat the Scriptures with respect? Do I argue from the Scriptures? Do I teach the whole counsel of God or do I skip inconvenient passages that don’t suit my preconceptions?
And I urge you to judge the views of others by the same standard. Saying you believe in inerrancy and treating the text with the respect it deserves are two very different things.
Carefully distinguish the rhetoric of inerrancy from the actual treatment of the text with the respect it deserves as the Word of God.
Are you saying that we shouldn’t respect the Scriptures as inspired?
Certainly not. I fervently believe the Scriptures to be inspired.
Are you denying the truth of the Scriptures?
Certainly not. I fervently believe that the Scriptures are true.
If you’re willing to say the Scriptures are “inspired” and “true,” why are you so reluctant to say they’re “inerrant”?
“Inspired” and “true” are statements made in the Scriptures. The words have meaning because they are the words chosen by God himself. If we were to debate the meaning of the words, we’d be talking about the Bible — which I love doing.
“Inerrant” is not a well-defined term, and it can’t be defined from the Scriptures. And if proponents of the concept haven’t precisely defined the concept — using a definition they are willing to consistently apply — how can we have an intelligent discussion on the subject?
I can’t find a single place in the Internet where a Church of Christ author discusses the Chicago Statement — pro or con. And that suggests to me that we’ve not seriously thought about inerrancy — because we aren’t in conversation with some of the great evangelical scholars of the 20th Century who have.
Rather, we often naively assume that “inerrant” is a self-defining term, and it’s just not. Whether you agree with the Chicago Statement or not, you have to admit that the authors have thought long and hard about the doctrine and just what it means — and what it doesn’t. Very few in the Churches of Christ — so far as I can tell — have done the same.
Rather, inerrancy is fast becoming a device to label and marginalize an opponent — just one more in a long line of straw-man arguments. For decades, progressive brothers have been accused of Postmodernism, Situation Ethics, moral relativism, the New Hermeneutic, and on and on. The accusation that the theologies of such men as Edward Fudge, Al Maxey, and myself are built on rejecting inerrancy carries just as much weight as those other accusations.
Some conservatives point to a couple of books that came out of ACU that challenge inerrancy, including GHF. The result has been for some conservatives to claim that the entire progressive agenda is built on a rejection of inspiration — which is not true.
Yes, some progressives reject inerrancy (as defined by, for example, the Apologetics Press but not necessarily as defined by others). But the doctrinal positions urged by progressives are not built on such rejection, and those men who argue for more grace and less legalism do not do so because they reject inerrancy.
So why don’t you want your readers to discuss inerrancy?
Actually, I only object to comments that argue against the reliability of the Scriptures. There are several reasons.
- Most of the comments I’ve received here on inerrancy are vitriolic attacks on Paul or on God as presented in the Old Testament by obsessed people. Debating with the obsessed is not productive and not interesting.
- Other readers have a list of about 100 supposed contradictions in the Bible. These readers enjoy posting these “contradictions” at Christian websites to upset people. When the first supposed contradiction is explained, rather than thanking the host for his explanation and hard work, they toss in the next challenge — argue with great antagonism, and on it goes. Their goal isn’t to find faith but to destroy faith — and why would I give a platform to Jesus’ enemies?
- I don’t do apologetics here. I’m well read on Christian evidences, and I love to teach on the topic at church. But it’s just never seemed helpful to the purposes of this site to cover Christian evidences here. I might change my mind one day, but that’s where I am now.
- If I open the site up to discussing the merits of inerrancy, some conservatives will take my willingness to even discuss the topic as opposing inerrancy. A few will go so far as to accuse me of building my theology on a rejection of inerrancy. (But I guess it’s too late to avoid that false accusation, isn’t it?)
- I find the whole exercise of seeking to argue for and against biblical contradictions tedious and unhelpful. It’s just not interesting to me. My faith is built far more —
- on what I see God doing today through his Spirit in my life and the lives of others than on whether the Scriptures are inerrant, and
- on Jesus as revealed in the Gospels.
That’s not to condemn those to come to faith by other means, but for me, faith is about the Living God who transforms lives. And it’s about being amazed at the person and teachings and life of Jesus. And this approach has the huge advantage of making Christianity about first and foremost Christ.
I’ve taught many courses on apologetics, and I know from experience that inerrancy is not an essential element of the case for Christ. Indeed, insisting on inerrancy makes it harder to persuade people who are skeptical and have access to the Internet. I’m all about being persuasive when it comes to Jesus.
I must add, however, that there are many fine Christians who are greatly disturbed by alleged contradictions in the text. They are not obsessed enemies of Jesus but faithful disciples seeking to reconcile apparent contradictions with their faith.
How do we respond when one of these alleged contradictions is brought forward? What do we say to a young Christian who is disturbed by Paul’s assertion that 23,000 died in a day, when Moses says 24,000 died?
Well, we could respond, as the Apologetics Press does, that it’s entirely possible that 23,000 died in one day but 24,000 died in total, 1,000 dying the day before or after. Or we could argue, as the Chicago Statement does, that Paul’s point wasn’t about the number of men killed.
Either way, we are better off, when those sorts of questions arise, not to have previously taught that the gospel is defeated and our faith is futility if we can’t convincingly explain away those supposed contradictions.
You see, in my experience, the people who lose their faith over these supposed contradictions are the ones raised in churches that insist that the validity of faith depends on there being no contradictions at all. I’ve seen many a college student suffer a crisis of faith over such teachings. And that makes me very leery of centering my theology on a teaching that sometimes destroys faith.
It’s not an insult to the Apologetics Press to say that pointing those in a faith crisis to the Apologetics Press website does not usually suffice. I think the Apologetics Press deals with the contradictions as well as contemporary scholarship permits. It’s just that their solutions force a very complex definition of “inerrancy.” And many conclude that if they must agree with such a complex, confusing, and apparently shifting definition of “inerrancy” to believe in Jesus, their faith is vain. I’ve seen it too many times.
We would be far, far wiser to build the faith of our converts and children on Jesus rather than on our scholarship. That’s not to dismiss the value of scholarship but to urge us to build faith on the object of that faith, Jesus of Nazareth.
QUESTIONS FOR READERS
Is it necessary that “inerrancy” be defined in detail to hold someone else accountable for not believing in inerrancy?
Are you aware of any efforts to provide a detailed definition from within the Churches of Christ?
Is inerrancy properly considered a test of salvation, fellowship, or soundness?
What other passages are relevant to the meaning and use of the Scriptures other than the passages cited in the main text?
Do you believe the Scriptures are reliable?
Do you believe the scriptures are inerrant? If so, state how you define “inerrant” for this purpose.
Do you agree with Apologetics Press that a soul’s salvation could depend on the age of the earth?
Do you agree with the tests of inerrancy found in the 1978 Chicago Statement?
Do you agree with the hermeneutical principles found in the 1982 Chicago Statement?
How do you react to the efforts of Apologetics Press and Vic Vadney to reconcile the alleged contradictions referred to in God’s Holy Fire?
Do you find yourself more in agreement with Apologetics Press, GHF, the Chicago Statement, or none of the above? Why?
Comment as you wish — except you may not speak disrespectfully of the Word of God. You may certainly point out alleged contradictions so long as such comments are made with respect for God’s Word.
Alabama plays North Texas. And I’ll post on something else.