>This past Sunday we finally brought to a close our conversation on inerrancy in Poiema (the Sunday school class I teach at ECC). I had initially planned on spending two weeks on the topic as part of our semester long series on the theology of the Word; however,the discussion was so good, it ended up taking five or six weeks (I lost track). This isn’t a full run down of the conversation, just some of the key points from this last week.
First, we continued discussing some of the ‘inconsistencies’ pointed out by Bart Ehrman in his Misquoting Jesus. Most of his ‘errors’ evaporate in light of a proper definition of ‘error’, ‘contradiction’, as well as ‘inerrancy’. There are, however, problem passages that aren’t cleared up so easily. For example, the Lucan account of Jesus’ birth and the census and the governorship of Quirinius. Honestly, I’m not entirely satisfied with ‘solutions’ offered by scholars; however, I advocated an attitude of humble faith. Scripture has proven itself reliable time and time again when scholars thought it was clearly in error (i.e. Sargon, Sanballat, etc). In addition, there isn’t evidence that contradicts the Lucan account – we don’t have record of who the governor was during the timeframe of Jesus birth, nor do we have clear historical attestation (outside of Scripture) as to what Quirinius was up to during that time. We know he was leading an army before that, and giving Caesar a tour of the eastern provinces after that. We also know he was governor during the early part of the first century AD, but that doesn’t rule out the possibility that he served an earlier term as governor during the time of the census. Anyway, the point is that we should be willing to give the Scripture the ‘benefit of the doubt’ in such cases. The Chicago Statement adopts a similar approach to questions like the one mentioned above:
Article 14 – We affirm the unity and internal consistency of Scripture. We deny that alleged errors and discrepancies that have not yet been resolved violate the truth claims of the Bible.
We also revisited the issue of ‘limited inerrancy’. Traditionally, evangelicals (and others) have held that Scripture is our only infallible guide to faith and practice. Alternatively, some posit that Scripture is only infallible when it speaks to faith or practice. The shift in wording is slight, but the implications are large. I gave three reasons why I reject the notion of limited inerrancy. First, it raises the very serious danger of a reduced canon and the problematic question of which passages speak to faith and practice (and are to be treated as authoritative) and which do not (and can be dismissed as non-authoritative). Second, as Christianity is a religion rooted in historical details like the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus, what happens when we remove the historical details from the category of inerrant? RC Sproul argues that we may very well loose the basis for our salvation. Less alarmist is the approach of V.Philips Long in this book Art of Biblical History, The, which again, I highly recommend. Third, the idea of limited inerrancy raises a big apologetic issue: “to those outside the fellowship of evangelicals, the notion of limited inerrancy appears artificial and contrived…we cannot believe the Bible concerning earthly things but we stake our lives on what it says concerning heavenly/eternal things.” (RC Sproul, Scripture Alone: The Evangelical Doctrine). How do we explain and defend the idea that Scripture has been divinely superintended and inerrant in parts, but not the whole. Again, the Chicago Statement is instructive:
Article VI – We affirm that the whole of Scripture and all its parts, down to the very words of the original, were given by divine inspiration.
We deny that the inspiration of Scripture can rightly be affirmed of the whole without the parts, or of some parts but not the whole.
Next we considered briefly (too briefly) the scriptural and theological arguments for inerrancy. First, we looked at several passages of the NT: 2 Peter 1:20, 2 Timothy 3:16, 2 Peter 3:16, and 1 Timothy 5:18. In 2 Peter 1 the apostle teaches that all prophecy (referring here to the Old Testament) was carried along by the Holy Spirit, not the creativity of the men who spoke/wrote. Paul states in 2 Timothy 3 that all Scripture is God breathed (inspired). In 2 Peter 3 the apostle refers to those who twist Paul’s letters (which he admits are tough). The key phrase is ‘as they do the other Scriptures.’ Peter understands Paul’s writing to be on par with the Old Testament Scripture. Finally, in 1 Timothy 5 Paul begins the sentence with the phrase ‘Scripture says’, then adds two quotes. The first is from the book of Deuteronomy. The second is from Luke 10. Apparently then, Paul sees Luke’s writing as on par with Scripture (though the dating of those two books is pretty tight). So, if all of Scripture is of God, and that includes OT and NT, then all of Scripture (in the originals – more on that later) must be true and accurate. Errors come from 1)a lack of knowledge, or 2) an intention to mislead/deceive. Neither can be true of God, so Scripture is deemed to be inerrant by virtue of it being of God. While this is a circular argument in that it assumes what it attempts to establish, it should be noted that every appeal to a final authority is circular.
Another approach associated with John Warwick Montgomery is less circular (though not entirely so). If one grants that the Bible is a generally reliable guide to the historical Jesus, then one can establish that Jesus has indeed risen from the dead, validating his claims to be the unique Son of God. If Jesus is the Son of God, he should be trusted, and, it is admitted by all, Jesus had a high view of Scripture. He quoted it often, treated it as the authoritative word from his heavenly Father. So, based on the above, it can be concluded that if Jesus thought highly of Scripture and regarded it as ‘of God’, we ought to also.
Historically, those who uphold inerrancy are on pretty solid ground also. Some have argued that inerrancy is actually a modern invention. One blogger writes, “The doctrine of inerrancy, however, is a particular view of inspiration, modern in origin, that goes far, far beyond the Reformers (and the Fathers, and the historical church, for that matter). I reject it wholesale, while still maintaining the high view of Scripture’s infallibility.” The problem with that is twofold. First, the word infallible is a stronger word than inerrant. To accept Scripture as infallible but not inerrant is to say that Scripture cannot err, but has errors. The second problem is that it’s just plain wrong. It is not a modern invention, nor is it particularly Protestant. Here’s a sampling of quotes:
Augustine (354-430 BC): “None of these (scriptural) authors has erred in any respect of writing.” Also,in a letter to St. Jerome, “On my own part I confess to your charity that it is only to those books of Scripture which are now called canonical that I have learned to pay such honor and reverence as to believe most firmly that none of their writers has fallen into any error. And if in these books I meet anything which seems contrary to truth, I shall not hesitate to conclude either that the text is faulty, or that the translator has not expressed the meaning of the passage, or that I myself do not understand. …”
Pope Leo XIII (1893) encyclical letter Providentissimus Deus said in part: “so far is it from being possible that any error can coexist with inspiration, that inspiration not only is essentially incompatible with error, but excludes and rejects it as absolutely and necessarily as it is impossible that God Himself, the supreme Truth, can utter that which is not true.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church (Imprimi Potest) 1994, states in section 107: “The inspired books teach the truth. Since therefore all that the inspired authors or sacred writers affirm should be regarded as affirmed by the Holy Spirit, we must acknowledge that the books of Scripture firmly, faithfully, and without error teach that truth which God, for the sake of our salvation, wished to see confined to the Sacred Scriptures.”
Luther: “Everyone knows that at times they [the fathers] have erred as men will; therefore, I am ready to trust them only when they prove their opinions from Scripture, which has never erred.” Also, ”St. Augustine, in a letter to St. Jerome, has put down a fine axiom – that only Holy Scripture is to be considered inerrant”
In addition, we discussed the question, “how important is inerrancy?” We should, I think, understand inerrancy as important, but not a test of orthodoxy. Also, it’s important to understand that while it’s important, it is not enough to guarantee orthodoxy. I would argue that simply affirming inerrancy is probably less important than showing respect to Scripture in how we use it.
Lastly, I showed my cards. What do I think about inerrancy (probably pretty clear by now, but maybe not). I uphold inerrancy, but don’t love the word. I would much prefer just to stick with Bible words; however, since the early days of the church we as a body have seen the necessity of using extrabiblical words to explain and defend biblical teaching (ie. ‘Trinity’, ‘persons’, etc.). However, after I’ve gone through the process of defining inerrancy properly I fear the term ‘inerrancy’ dies the death of a thousand qualifications. Finally, While acknowledging the term ‘inerrant’ has a long history in the church, I feel the word has been loaded down with baggage that it didn’t’ originally carry (due to Enlightenment understandings of certainty, etc.). Yet, despite this uneasiness, I will continue to use the word and uphold the truth behind it. Quite simply, I can’t think of a better way to affirm the complete trustworthiness of Scripture.