Monday, March 20, 2006

Inerrancy? Pt.2

Does the bible assert its own inerrancy?
  1. Rather than go through individual verses – something that would take too much time, I will say a few points about how we use verses in the bible to build up a doctrine of scripture.

  2. Some of the verses used in support of inerrancy are pushed too far even without further comment. For example, 2 Tim 3:16 and the description of Scripture as ‘useful’ among other things, hardly lends support to inerrancy (cf. Inspiration, by David Law, 84 ff. for a discussion of this and many of the usually quoted verses)

  3. It needs to be stated that the bible says nothing about itself! The bible is a collection of materials of greater or lesser accuracy to the original, and weren’t officially collected together as one till hundreds of years after they were written. Thus, when it states in Rev 22:18 ‘I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this book’, it is, of course, a reference only to Revelation, as there was no bible for it to correspond to. This is obvious, but a point amazingly overlooked by many defenders of inerrancy.

  4. Only by taking verses here and there and by putting them through a deductively logical wringer can one conclude a doctrine of inerrancy (see the chapter on Scripture in Packer’s, Fundamentalism and the Word of God as an example). It can be asserted that parts of the bible as we now have it, more or less, would have been seen as the words of God, as inspired by God etc., by the early Christians and by Jesus himself. However, a) the ‘more or less’ isn’t insignificant, b) more importantly, it is a step of deductive reason to take the premises to mean ‘without error’, however reasonable it may sound. c) This step of deductive logic is not a scriptural leap, but rather an inductive reading of the many clear contradictions and mistakes in the bible mean we must avoid such a logical wringer. One ceases to be biblical if one states that inspiration means inerrancy. As a Fundie, it was the realisation that my doctrine of scripture was itself no scriptural that started the process of my escape! I thank Goldingay’s Models for Scripture for this life-moving insight.

  5. However, after all of this, there is a far stronger reason for rejecting the doctrine of inerrancy, far stronger: The witness of the bible itself, read inductively. I suggest that it can be conclusively proved that scripture is not inerrant, and the bible’s own witness to this is decisive!


At 3/21/2006 12:26 PM, Blogger Exiled Preacher said...

Hi Chris,

Could I recommend a couple of books?

The Gagging of God by DA Carson (Zondervan / Apollos 1996), especially Chapter 4 "Has God spoken? The Authority of Revelation". DAC interacts with critics of inerrancy and deals with the "Scottish Common Sense" and "inerrancy is a new-fangled doctrine" arguments on the way. DAC's footnotes (note: FOOTNOTES!!!) suggest further reading on the whole subject.

The Revelation of God by Peter Jensen (IVP 2001). Is is one volume of the excellent "Contours of Christian Theology" series. Jensen is mindful of the impact of Enlightenment thinking on Biblical studies. He also discusses the ideas of Barth and Brunner is a very helpful way. Jensen's whole approach to the revelation of God is refreshing, well argued and to my mind, convincing.


At 3/21/2006 2:05 PM, Blogger Claire Joy said...

Thanks so much for this post. I keep getting into hot water every time I suggest there are contradictions, that the writers had their own personal agendas, that the compilers had agendas as well... not with my own community, but with the fundamentalists I must converse with.

At 3/21/2006 4:06 PM, Blogger Jason Goroncy said...

Chris. Thanks for your postings on this important issue. May I offer a theological thought on this? PT Forsyth once said, 'I do not believe in verbal inspiration. I am with the critics, in principle. But the true minister ought to find the words and phrases of the Bible so full of spiritual food and felicity that he has some difficulty in not believing in verbal inspiration. The Bible is the one enchiridion of the preacher still, the one manual of eternal life, the one page that glows as all life grows dark, and the one book whose wealth rebukes us more the older we grow because we knew and loved it so late.' It seems to me the debate concerning infallibility is at core one about the nature and object of authority and where that authority for faith and life is to be found. Notwithstanding the debates about terminology used, to my mind it is of great concern that people of faith should consider the ground of their faith a book, rather than in what that book testifies to. In some schools, this amounts to no less than bibliolatry. The Bible is not the Koran! An infallible book implies that our primary need is revelation, and that contained and conveyed in words. Whereas our greatest need is not intellectual but moral, not Truth but Grace, not revelation but redemption. I, for one, do not see a necessity for belief in the infallibility of the Scriptures but, with Forsyth, I believe it should be difficult for us to not believe in verbal inspiration. I believe in that which creates the Bible, i.e. the gospel to which the Scriptures perfectly bear witness. And I believe that we must believe in the Bible's finality, authority and inspiration. Donald Bloesch’s definition of inspiration is helpful here: '. . . inspiration is the divine election and superintendence of particular writers and writings in order to ensure a trustworthy and potent witness to the truth'. The authority of the Scriptures lies in the same place that the authority for life and the Church exists: in the gospel itself. What, then, is the authority in the church? The church itself? The ex cathedra statements? The magisterium? Existential experience? The authority is where it always has been, in the apostolic testimony to Christ. The authority is carried by the apostolic word, but that word itself is not the authority. What we have is the apostolic message as it has been committed to writing by the apostles, in what we know as the New Testament. So the question remains, do we believe what the apostles taught or not? The fact that we learn shape of the gospel from the Bible does not make the Bible an infallible witness, but a completely faithful one. The Scriptures are the authority, for no other reason than they are the definitive testimony to Christ. That would not imply that there is no further communication from God to us, simply that in what is written we have the certain word. All else is to be tested against that (1 Thess. 5:20-22; 1 John 4:1). So, ‘nothing beyond what is written’ (1 Cor. 4:6); ‘To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them’ (Isa. 8:20). As Forsyth put it in another place: 'The inspiration is not infallible in the sense that every event is certain or every statement final. You may agree with what I say without agreeing with all I say. The Bible’s inspiration, and its infallibility, are such as pertain to redemption and not theology, to salvation and not mere history. It is as infallible as a Gospel requires, not as a system. Remember that Christ did not come to bring a Bible but to bring a Gospel. The Bible arose afterwards from the Gospel to serve the Gospel. We do not treat the Bible aright, we do not treat it with the respect it asks for itself, when we treat it as a theologian, but only when we treat it as an apostle, as a preacher, as the preacher in the perpetual pulpit of the Church. It is saturated with dogma, but its writers were not dogmatists; and it concerns a Church, but they were not ecclesiastics. The Bible, the preacher, and the Church are all made by the same thing-the Gospel. The Gospel was there before the Bible, and it created the Bible, as it creates the true preacher and the true sermon everywhere. And it is for the sake and service of the Gospel that both Bible and preacher exist. We are bound to use both, at any cost to tradition, in the way that gives freest course to the Gospel in which they arose. The Bible, therefore, is there as the medium of the Gospel. It was created by faith in the Gospel. And in turn it creates faith among men. It is at once the expression of faith and its source. It is a nation’s sermon to the race. It is the wonder-working relic of a saint-nation which was the living organ of living revelation. What made the inspiration of the book? It was the prior inspiration of the people and of the men by the revelation. Revelation does not consist of communications about God. It never did. If it had it might have come by an inspired book dictated to one in a dream. But revelation is the self-bestowal of the living God, His self-limitation in the interest of grace. It is the living God in the act of imparting Himself to living souls. It is God Himself drawing ever more near and arrived at last. And a living God can only come to men by living men. Inspiration is the state of a soul, not of a book-of a book only in so far as the book is a transcript of a soul inspired. It was by men that God gave Himself to men, till, in the fullness of time, He came, for good and all, in the God-man Christ, the living Word; in whom God was present, reconciling the world unto Himself, not merely acting through Him but present in Him, reconciling and not speaking of reconciliation, or merely offering it to us.' I remember once attending a packed wee (that means 'little' for all you non-Scots) church to hear a preacher. I was at the back and could not see him, so I created a stack of Bible's to stand on, that I might better see the preacher and hear the Word. I remember being told off for engaging in such 'disrespectful' activity. I complied, more out of embarrassment than anything else, but over the years I have reflected on what was happening here and the message that was given to me as a young Christian. They are many of course. But what was my reproofer saying about the Bible? Was it simply that I should respect it, and the church's property? Or was it more? I've often wondered if the reaction would have been the same had I stood on a stack of hymnbooks. I'm afraid that in some places this may be even considered the 'greater sin'. I know that standing on the word enabled me to hear the Word more clearly. And for that I thank the Lord for the Scriptures. For a fuller version of this answer go to

At 3/21/2006 6:40 PM, Blogger Josh S said...

Wait, what's the difference between talking about redemption and theology? I'm not sure that I see it.

At 3/21/2006 7:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thought some might find this excerpt of interest;

Interview with Dan Wallace

What I tell my students every year is that it is imperative that they pursue truth rather than protect their presuppositions. And they need to have a doctrinal taxonomy that distinguishes core beliefs from peripheral beliefs. When they place more peripheral doctrines such as inerrancy and verbal inspiration at the core, then when belief in these doctrines start to erode, it creates a domino effect: One falls down, they all fall down. It strikes me that something like this may be what happened to Bart Ehrman. His testimony in Misquoting Jesus discussed inerrancy as the prime mover in his studies. But when a glib comment from one of his conservative professors at Princeton was scribbled on a term paper, to the effect that perhaps the Bible is not inerrant, Ehrman’s faith began to crumble. One domino crashed into another until eventually he became ‘a fairly happy agnostic.’ I may be wrong about Ehrman’s own spiritual journey, but I have known too many students who have gone in that direction. The irony is that those who frontload their critical investigation of the text of the Bible with bibliological presuppositions often speak of a ‘slippery slope’ on which all theological convictions are tied to inerrancy. Their view is that if inerrancy goes, everything else begins to erode. I would say that if inerrancy is elevated to the status of a prime doctrine, that’s when one gets on a slippery slope. But if a student views doctrines as concentric circles, with the cardinal doctrines occupying the center, then if the more peripheral doctrines are challenged, this does not have an effect on the core


At 3/21/2006 9:10 PM, Blogger Kevin D. Johnson said...

Would love to hear your thoughts (and looking forward to more of your posts on this subject):

At 3/22/2006 5:22 AM, Anonymous Christopher said...

Chris, i hear some Kierkegaard in you. In his Postscript, he says basically that with regard to any "historical" truth (including the Bible), the best we've got is an approximation and that's not good enough on which one should base one's eternal happiness (i.e. "salvation").
Secondly, i also hear a bit of Brevard Childs as well when he says that too much theology today remains "confessional" and not "Biblical." That is, too many theologians try to maintain their presupposed beliefs rather than drawing out the truth in the Bible.

At 3/22/2006 1:33 PM, Blogger Chris Tilling said...

Hi Guy, Yes, I have had a copy of Carson’s The Gagging of God for years – picked it up for just 10 pounds! Anything Carson writes is worth reading, I think, but I must disagree with his reasoning regards inerrancy in this chapter. Better is Goldingay’s Models for Scripture, on this subject. I once heard him suggest that inerrancy is a doctrine that we need to be vigilant defending and reaffirming, or its easy to let it slip. You know, he’s right in one sense, it’s easy to let it slip, in my opinion, because so much speaks against it. Those aspects of our ‘symbolic universe’ that need special treatment and attention to stop them crumbling may be so delicate because they do not correspond to reality.

As for they Jensen book, thanks for the tip, I’ll have a look!

Hi Claire, thanks for your kind words. Having been a Fundie, I always found those who would challenge inerrancy a real threat. So discovering that inerrancy was not what a I needed to believe to be biblical came as a real relief!

Hi Jason, thanks for these thoughts – and I’m with you on that. You drew in a number of terms: ‘authority’, ‘infallibility’, ‘inspiration’, and a fuller discussion will of course do that – something you theologians are good at! But being a NT man, and knowing that a focus on inerrancy would be enough for a small series of posts, I decided to keep things much more restricted. Deliberately. Lovely prose, btw.

Welcome to Chrisendom Josh S

Hi John,

Your point is one of the reasons I think a Chicago style inerrancy is actually damaging for the health of the church. If it is insisted that people have to believe something that clearly doesn’t match reality, either faith will close it’s eyes, talk in pseudo-intellectual language, die, or look for another formulation. I’m in the last category!
Thanks for your thoughts.

Hi Kevin, I’ll probably address some of your thoughts in my podcast or written post later. Thanks for your thoughtful engagement with my musings.

Hi Chris. Nice name. You would be spot on with your comments. Childs work on the OT was one of my favourites during my undergrad studies.

Once again, cheers all for comments thus far.

At 3/22/2006 6:01 PM, Blogger Exiled Preacher said...


Could you give us an example of what you consider to be an error in the Bible?



At 12/01/2006 2:05 AM, Blogger byron said...

Once again, I arrive months later after Chris has directed us back here with a digging-up-the-archives post. Just wanted to say that I really appreciated Jason's (lengthy) contribution here. Keep quoting Forsyth - when you're on a good thing, stick with it!


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