Inerrant Bible?

Long though worthwhile read regarding Bible Inerrancy from C.S. Cowles:

Prominent evangelical scholar J. I. Packer defines `inerrant’ as “not misleading or being misled,” or “not deceiving or being deceived.” This was how it was used in the Church until the 19th century, and how Nazarene theologians understand its use in Article IV today: that is, the Bible can be trusted not to mislead us relative to “all things necessary to our salvation.” If this moral rather than technical understanding had prevailed, then the word would have incited little controversy.

Unfortunately, Protestant Fundamentalists loaded up an inherently benign word with claims about the Bible that it does not make about itself, and that do not accord with either its contents or purposes. Nearly three hundred evangelical theologians and biblical scholars—mostly from within the Calvinistic theological tradition—gathered in Chicago in 1978 to establish the Council on Biblical Inerrancy. Out of it came the famous Chicago Statement which built upon these fundamental propositions:

The Bible, being wholly and verbally God given, is without error or fault in all of its teaching in not only its witness to God’s saving grace in individual lives, but in all matters of that which it speaks, not only in the whole but in every part. . . . The Holy Spirit [is] Scripture’s divine author. . . . We affirm the unity and internal consistency of Scripture. . . . We affirm that what Scripture says, God says.”

Inerrancy’s logic is deceptively simple. God verbally dictated the Bible. God does not lie. Therefore every word in the Bible is true.

That “God verbally dictated the Bible,” however, is not derived from the Scriptures but from John Calvin’s (1509-1564) theology of Divine Determinism. Calvin built his theological edifice on the foundation of God’s absolute sovereignty to the total exclusion of human agency or free will. “God,” he wrote, who is “creator of all so regulates all things that nothing takes place without his deliberation.” All events “are governed by God's secret plan in such a way that nothing happens except what is knowingly and willingly decreed by him.” This applies not only to every human being whose every act was predetermined and eternal destiny was predestined long before they were born, but of course to everything in the Bible. Because God is righteous and perfect, then every word in the Bible must of necessity be righteous and perfect as well.

Inerrancy’s seductive—and dangerous—appeal lies in that it offers believers something physical and tangible, a secure `rock’ upon which to build their faith in a turbulent and scary sea of religious pluralism and secular relativism. The Catholics have their infallible Pope, Muslims their infallible Qur’an, and inerrantists their infallible Bible.

That works well until we begin to read the Bible itself. When we do, we quickly discover that the contents of the Bible do not fit into that simplistic, reductionistic, and rationalistic box. The American Heritage Dictionary defines inerrancy as “free from error or untruth.” And yet as early as the third chapter of Genesis we encounter an “untruth”—actually, a bald-faced lie—“You will not surely die.’” The lie, however, is not voiced by God but by the serpent. Thus the claim that “what Scripture says God says” is itself erroneous, unless one wants to believe that the serpent’s voice was really God’s voice in disguise.

The truth is that while the Scriptures do faithfully record the witness of “men [who] spoke from God” (2 Pet. 1:20), many voices other than that of God are heard in the Bible including those of Satan, demons, false prophets, pagans, idol worshippers, liars, thieves, murderers, adulterers, betrayers, deniers, and fools. It is hard to imagine that all these disparate voices are speaking inerrant and infallible words of God.

Furthermore, in the first three chapters of Genesis we have not one but two self-contained and widely divergent creation accounts (Gen. 1:1--2:3, and Gen. 2:4--3:24). While both bear witness to the fact that God created the heavens and earth, they tell that story quite differently. They employ different names for God (Elohim in the first, Yahweh in the second), embody conflicting chronologies of creation, and utilize vastly dissimilar literary styles. Both creation narratives stand side-by-side in sacred Scripture. Both claim to be "the account of the heavens and earth when they were created" (Gen. 2:4). And yet there are irreconcilable differences between the two.

This raises troubling questions for inerrantists: which one is historically factual? Which version is telling the truth? If the contents of the Bible are the product of a “single divine mind” (Chicago Statement), then why are there two such widely divergent versions of the same event? This problem of multiple voices, disparate accounts, varied literary styles, conflicting genealogies, differing ethical standards, and contradictory portraits of God’s character and activity are greatly multiplied as we move on into the rest of the Bible.

A “more excellent way” of thinking about the plethora of human and even anti-divine personalities that speak and act throughout the Bible is to recognize that—contrary to Calvin’s determinism—God not only created human beings with genuine freedom but allowed them to exercise their free will and express themselves accordingly. In doing so he was not the least bit threatened by what they might say or do. God did not prompt the serpent or Jacob or King David or anybody else to lie. Rather, he took these occasional twisted strands of falsehood and foolishness, and wove them with the truth about himself and life into a wondrous tapestry of “God-breathed” revelation that brings glory to his name, and contributes to the overarching purpose of Scripture which is the salvation of lost humankind.

Likewise the problem of two differing creation accounts along with many other passages that bear witness to God’s creative activity (i.e., Psalm 104, John 1:1-5; Col. 1:15-18; Heb. 1:1-3) melts away if we view them as distinctive portraits from the hands of differing literary artists, each painted from their unique and divinely inspired perspective. Each offers a testimony to the grandeur and glory of the creative event which was finally beyond all human powers of comprehension and expression. One creation account could no more say it all than one photograph can really convey what Yosemite National Park is like.

Truth is multidimensional and many faceted. It is not only the red hue that makes a rainbow but blue and green as well, each distinctively different from the others but working together to form a breathtaking celestial display. So it is with the Bible.

The doctrine of scriptural inerrancy, unfortunately, did not originate from a careful study of the Bible but as a consequence of a pitched battle waged by Reformed (Calvinistic) theologians against Enlightenment scholars—so-called Higher Critics—who critiqued the Scriptures on supposedly scientific grounds. The first principle of scientific investigation according to the 17th century Father of Modern Philosophy, Rene Descartes, is `radical doubt:’ that is, everything must be doubted before it can be proved. While that works well when studying the physical universe, it is devastating when applied to the Bible in which the first principle is not doubt but faith. These radical skeptics questioned the historicity of biblical events, ruled out all supernatural phenomena, and denied the deity of Jesus. In their hands the Bible was reduced to just another sacred book among many in the history of religions.

Rather than respond to each point of the critics’ rationalistic attack, it was easier for `defenders of the faith’ such as Francis Turretin, Charles Hodge, and Benjamin Warfield to simply declare that the whole Bible is the “inerrant and infallible word of God.” The problem with these early fundamentalists was not their intention: like Christians everywhere they desired to boldly declare their faith in the essential trustworthiness of the Bible in the story it tells and all that it affirms. Rather, it was the questionable word they embraced and the fallacious argument they used to advance it.

While the word `inerrant’ works well with propositional statements that can, according to the normal rules of logic and empirical investigation, be verified or falsified, it is grossly inadequate to deal with the diverse texture of human experience and vast realm of spiritual reality that comprises most of the contents of the Bible. Inerrant, for instance, is appropriate when describing the computer print-out of my bank statement (hopefully!), but it becomes nonsensical when applied to George Fredrick Handel’s Messiah, or Michelangelo’s breath-taking panorama of Creation splayed across St. Peter’s Sistine Chapel ceiling.

The overwhelming weight of biblical contents has much more affinity with art than with science or mathematics. To tell its story the Bible utilizes a diverse, rich, and wondrous collage of literary art: narrative, poetry, parable, drama, personification, metaphor, simile, allegory, analogy, history, genealogies, letters, fables, prophecy, apocalyptic, typology, symbols, and every sort of figurative speech. When Isaiah says that “the mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands” (55:12), it would be absurd to ask: is that a true or false statement? Likewise, how would one empirically verify Isaiah’s exalted vision of God in the temple? Or the truth embedded in Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son? Or prove the veracity of Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith? Or John’s audacious claim, unique among all the religions of the world, that God is love?

If the grand story of salvation told through the prism of a thousand infinitely diverse and often messy sub-plots could be reduced, flattened, and homogenized into provable and demonstrable propositional statements as inferred by the doctrine of scriptural inerrancy, then faith would be unnecessary. I don’t need faith to believe that two plus two equals four, but I do need it to believe that “As many as received [Christ], to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name” (John 1:12, KJV).

A larger problem has to do with the way inerrancy is argued. It uses, as does Calvin’s deterministic theological system, what philosophers call deductive reasoning: that is, it begins by affirming `general principles’ (God verbally dictated the Bible), and then deducing from them `particulars’ (therefore the Bible is perfect in every regard). The problem, as we have already seen, is that the `particulars’ of the Bible are at frequent and often irreconcilable odds with the `general principles’ from which the claims of inerrancy are derived.

Biblical scholars committed to scriptural inerrancy are not only acutely aware of huge discrepancies throughout the Bible but have devoted a great deal of energy toward resolving them. Gleason A. Archer, an early Fuller Theological Seminary professor, devoted much of his adult life in the attempt to resolve these scriptural anomalies. His massive Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties is testimony to the `difficulty’ inerrantists have in harmonizing the particulars of the Bible with the general principles of inerrancy, principles derived not from the claims that the Bible makes about itself but from what their rationalistic philosophical premises dictate.

The textbook assigned for us to read in my first Bible Interpretation class at Pacific Bible College (now Azusa Pacific University) was John W. Haley’s Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible Explained. In it he devotes 495 pages to explaining what he calls the `apparent’ contradictions in the Bible. I recall how distressed I was to learn that there were any discrepancies in the Bible at all, given my youthful magical view of the Scriptures. My anguish was compounded when I saw how unconvincing and far-fetched most of his resolutions were. Ironically, the very textbook that was suppose to prove the inerrancy of Scripture had the opposite effect for me.

Thankfully I also learned that there was “a more excellent way” of looking at the Bible. Rather than superimposing modern technical notions about inerrancy upon ancient Scriptural texts—concepts utterly alien to the pre-scientific world of the Bible—I was encouraged to read them inductively as devotees have done throughout history: that is, accept them as they are in all their vast, varied, and rich diversity.

In my quest to rightly read, understand, and communicate Scriptural truth, I was taught to begin not with philosophical `general principles’ but with the actual `particulars’ of why, how, to whom, and by whom the Scriptures came to be written. I sought to learn what its original witnesses were trying to say, what literary devices were used to communicate the truth, how its message was understood by its first readers, how it has been interpreted by the church across the centuries, and what biblical scholars have to say about it today.

Having been utterly captivated by the Christ to whom the Scriptures give faithful and true witness, I continued to immerse myself in them as deeply as possible, and learn all I could about the cultures, world-views, and faith communities from which they came. I discovered, for instance, that the Bible was actually written not by God but by men—lots of men—across nearly 1,500 years spanning eight major cultural eras. I also saw that their diverse voices and sometimes differing accounts were not artificially homogenized with all the wrinkles ironed out, but were allowed to express themselves in their distinctive cultural setting and in all of their unique multifaceted color.

And yet from the first verse of Genesis to the last verse of Revelation I could clearly see God’s fingerprints on every page, and powerfully feel the strong wind of his Holy Spirit breathing through every part. As I have read, studied, preached, and taught these sacred Scriptures across a long lifetime, my mind has been awakened, my soul transformed, my spirit set on fire, and my heart lifted to “heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:7).

When I set out on this fascinating adventure, I was captivated by the often fallible, sometimes troubling, frequently surprising, but endlessly intriguing human-divine dance that leaps and soars and sings throughout the Bible. I came to realize early on that the Bible is not one book but many, and that they are not all the same. One does not have to be a specialist in biblical studies to notice the striking difference between the book of Leviticus and the Gospel of John, or between Ecclesiastes and Paul’s mighty letter to the Romans. That all these disparate books are “the product of a single divine mind” strains credulity. On the other hand, that they convey not only divinely revealed truth essential to salvation and holy living but blend in the full coloration of the vast range of human experience in all its grossness and grandeur is beyond question.

Having been set free from the narrow parameters of a woodenly literal view of the Scriptures, I was now ready to spend my life happily reveling in the mystery, the wonder, the genius of the many ways God has chosen to reveal himself in and through the many diverse actors and unique events that comprise the biblical story, sometimes overtly but more often subtly. It set me on the path of discovering a much richer, deeper, and more satisfying way of understanding what we mean when we say that the Bible is the living, dynamic, breathing, convicting, converting, cleansing, comforting, teaching, nourishing, enriching, illuminating, and exhilarating word of God.

In inerrantists’ praiseworthy desire to take the “God-breathed” dimension of the Scriptures with absolute seriousness, what is sacrificed is the Bible’s obvious and overwhelming humanness: that is, the active role that scores of diverse people played in its narratives, witness, writing, editing, and transmission. In this there are similarities between today’s inerrantists and ancient Christian Gnostics who believed that because Jesus was `truly God,’ he could not have really “become flesh” (John 1:14). He only `seemed’ to be human. This heresy was soundly rejected not only by John (1 John 4:2-3) but by succeeding generations of orthodox Christians. The problem with the Gnostics was that they accented Jesus’ divinity at the expense of his true humanity.

Likewise, if the Bible were, as inerrantists claim, “wholly and verbally God-given,” then that can only mean that the human actors and mediators of that revelation were, like the Stepford wives or New Age Channelers, mere robotic automatons. They only `seemed’ to be fully human. And indeed this was what Calvin believed. Humans are nothing more than puppets dancing on the ends of divinely pulled strings.

Again, all one has to do is read the Scriptures to see how false that is. The human authors’ unique personalities and distinctive theological voices, shaped by the dynamics of their spiritual communities as well as their constant interaction with the larger pagan world, are too obvious and way too numerous to be dismissed. While God could have made himself known through angels untouched by sin and undiminished by culturally limited and time-bound human experience, he did not.

The Bible itself is testimony to the fact that God has mediated his message of love, grace, and salvation through imperfect and flawed creatures formed “out of the dust of the ground”—fallen and cursed ground at that (Gen. 2:7; 3:17). Think of it: Abraham, hardly a praiseworthy exemplar of contemporary `family values,’ became the father of three great world religions as well as all who place their faith in Christ. Jacob the deceiver became progenitor of the twelve tribes of Israel. Into the hands of a killer was committed the Ten Commandments that included “You shall not kill.” And what more shall we say of David the adulterer and murderer who wrote some of the world’s most loved and treasured poetry? Or of Solomon with his 700 wives and 300 concubines who authored three biblical books? Or of Peter who thrice denied the Lord and yet played such a vital role in the earliest church? Or of Saul of Tarsus who laid waste the Church of God and yet penned nearly half of the New Testament books?

It is abundantly evident from the first verse of the Bible to the last that God was pleased to accommodate the "treasure" of his self-disclosure to the sin-darkened minds and oft-fickle hearts of human “jars of clay.” Why would he do this? Paul’s insightful answer is “to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us" (2 Cor. 4:7). If there were such a thing as divine revelation totally free of the human element with all the risks that it entails, the temptation to `bibliolatry’—that is, worshipping the Bible—would be overpowering. We can paraphrase Paul’s word to the Corinthians in this way, “My message and my preaching were not with wise and [inerrant] words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power” (1 Cor. 2:4-5).

It is a wonder beyond description that the great God of the universe should condescend to reveal himself to, in, and through frail, fallible and fallen human beings. And yet it is this very accommodation of the divine mind to the narrow parameters of the human mind—not to mention such slippery and changeable instruments of communication as human words—that makes the Bible endlessly fascinating. If one biblical author got it wrong as the author of 2 Samuel did when he wrote: “The anger of the Lord burned against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying `Go and take a census of Israel and Judah,’” which brought a terrible plague upon Israel (24:1ff.), no problem. The writer of 1 Chronicles later corrected the record to say that it was not the Lord but “Satan [who] rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel” (21:1ff.). Otherwise both accounts are virtually identical.

This is just one of many examples demonstrating what biblical scholars call `progressive revelation:’ that is, there is an uneven but observable process of a clearer understanding of God’s character, actions, and purposes in the Old Testament, a process that comes to its final, fullest, and most complete expression in Jesus of Nazareth “who is the exact representation of God’s nature” (Heb. 1:3).

Inerrantists agree and “affirm” the obvious: namely, that “God’s revelation in the Holy Scriptures was progressive.” But then they make this incredulous and grossly erroneous assertion: “We deny that later revelation, which may fulfill earlier revelation, ever corrects or contradicts it” (Chicago Statement, Explanation).

The truth, as we have just seen in the two versions of David’s abortive census, is exactly the opposite. Later revelation not only corrects earlier revelation but frequently contradicts it. While Jesus accepted the Hebrew Scriptures as bearers of God’s revelation (and so should we), he did not endorse every word in them as God’s. He rejected some Torah-texts as representing the original intention and will of God such as Moses' divorce laws (Mark 10:4-9). No fewer that six times in one chapter of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus not only “corrects” but “contradicts” the laws of Moses in his series of statements, “You have heard it said . . . but I say unto you . . ." (Mt. 5:21, 27, 31, 33, 38, 43). The pronouncement “I say unto you” appears thirty-two times in Matthew, and most often is set in contrast to what was said in the Old Testament.

We see this most clearly when Jesus takes issue with the Mosaic laws governing vengeance: “You have heard that it was said, `Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. . . . You have heard that it was said, `Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven” (Matt 5:38-45).

Jesus’ radical command to “love enemies” represents a total repudiation of Moses’ genocidal commands to annihilate enemies, and stands in judgment upon Joshua’s slaughter of the Canaanites as well as Samuel’s command that King Saul “totally destroy” the Amelekites including “men and women, children and infants, cattle and sheep, camels and donkeys” (1 Sam. 15:3). In his word of absolution to the woman taken in adultery, Jesus contravened the clear injunctions of the Mosaic law calling for adulterers to be put to death (John 8:1-11; see Lev. 20:10; Deut. 22:22). It is clear that Jesus exercised an audacious prophetic authority over the Torah that when necessary not only corrects but displaces it with his word.

Another of many such examples in the New Testament is the contrast the apostle Paul draws between the Old and New Covenants. He points out that although “the ministry . . . which was engraved in letters on stone came with glory,” it turned out to be a “ministry that brought death,” a “ministry that condemns.” On the other hand, “the ministry of the Spirit” which is far more “glorious” is one “that brings righteousness! . . . For God, who said, `Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Cor. 3:6—4:6).

Paul makes it clear not only in this passage but many others that while there is continuity between the Old Covenant and the New, there is radical discontinuity as well. Nowhere is this more evident than in his Doctrine of Salvation. Contrary to the clear and explicit teaching of many Old Testament passages that righteousness is obtained by obedience to the law (see Deut. 6:25), Paul declares that “a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ.” In case they didn’t get it, he repeats it in different words: “So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified” (Gal. 2:16). No wonder the Jews sought to kill him!

In progressive revelation what we see is not God’s gradual self-disclosure in bits and pieces according some grand dispensational scheme, but rather is reflective of the human mediators growing understanding of his character, will, and gracious saving purposes in Scripture. Isaiah, for instance, saw into the mind and heart of God more clearly than Moses when he virtually dismisses the whole sacrificial system that Moses believed to have been instituted by God, instructions that are given in great detail in Exodus and Leviticus. In contradistinction to Israel’s entire temple-cult and priestly system, Isaiah asserts that God does not require “burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals,” and that he took “no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.” What the prophet sees anticipates the dramatically clearer revelation of God fleshed out in Jesus: namely, that God is not impressed by outward ritual but rather inward holiness of heart and life (see Isa. 1:11-18). We are closer to the truth if we see progressive revelation as a progressive understanding of revelation, a process that is still going on today as Scripture is read and studied in the company of God’s people.

It is this very uncertainty about absolute truth that delivers us from the insufferable `arrogance of infallibility,’ that helps us to be humble in the claims we make about the Bible, and that keeps us dependent upon the Holy Spirit to “lead and guide us into all truth” (John 15:26), always looking to Jesus who alone is “the author and finisher of our faith” (Heb. 12:2).


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