Christian Apologetics Free Course 04, Lesson 05
The Reliability Of The Canon
The Extent of Biblical Inerrancy
It is evident to anyone acquainted with the facts that the biblical text in our hands now is not without some problems. This is why, before going into the objections raised against the doctrine of inerrancy, we should specify what the doctrine implies and what it does not.
1-Inerrancy does NOT mean uniformity in all the details given in analogous accounts written by different authors: The books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles all belong in large measure to the same historical period, but both their points of view and their expressions vary sometimes. The four Gospels all recount the life of Christ, but with different details. In the Acts, each of the three treatments of the conversion of Saul of Tarsus (Acts chapters 8,22,26) is distinguished from the others in certain definite respects.
Such differences have often been greatly exaggerated by radicals: there are even those who promptly go on to call them contradictions and errors. In reality, although the doctrine of inspiration and inerrancy of the Scripture requires that each author write only the truth, it leaves each one free in the choice of actual incidents which illustrate what he purposes to each.
Verbal identity between multiple witnesses to the same event is not to be expected. If four independent witnesses in court parrot syllable by syllable the same story, made up of a series of complex facts, those men would at once be charged with collusion. Their very uniformity would make their testimony suspect. For it is a psychological fact that, due to inevitable differences in points of view, observation and individual emphasis, several individuals, each completely honest, will tell the very same events in quite different ways and words. This can also be said of the biblical authors. Inspired, they wrote nothing false. Everything they saw and reported was true, even though they did not always see and report the same details or in identical words. Rather, each writer had his own personality and was far from being a mere robot.
Let us take, for example, the accounts of the resurrection as recorded in the Gospels. The essential facts are identical: Christ arose; the tomb was empty; the Lord was seen alive by different groups of disciples in various places; His new body was not subject to the limitations of an ordinary human body; after a certain number of days, He went away from the earth again. This is the general framework on which all the Gospels agree. But each person’s report differs in certain details and in the presentation of some of the secondary facts. The accounts are nonetheless authentic for this, and the truth taught is well established.
2-Inerrancy does not exclude the use of symbols and figurative language: Although everything in the Bible is inspired, it does not follow that every statement in it must be taken literally. The plain meaning of many passages is clear from a historical, practical legal and moral point of view. But there are also many passages where the language is obviously symbolical: for example, many things in Psalms, the Song of Solomon and the Prophets, as well as the parables in the gospels and in Revelation are figurative. Besides, thousand of expressions in both the Old and New Testaments are closer to poetry then a prose. (This is why the style of the Bible always has vital and magnetic quality).
Therefore, belief in the inerrancy of Scripture in no wise requires a slavish adherence to an unnecessary and absolutely literal interpretation. Belief in inerrancy does not automatically impose a circumscribed and slavish adherence to hyper-literalism that shuts out those wider horizons where picture and symbolism have been used by the Holy Spirit to strike fire to the imagination of men.
The repeated accusation of an obligatory literalness looms up partly from the false idea which radical critics hold about the Biblical position. They think that the concept of verbal inspiration forces interpreters to consider every word by itself, irrespective of the context, as being the object of an independent interpretation. Nothing could be further from the truth. No language, no literature, could be subjected to such treatment. Words, vehicles of thought, are arranged and bound together to express one unified whole. The context will help to determine whether the interpretation is literal, spiritual or symbolical.
Further, many of the radical critics impose hyper-literalism upon Bible interpretation not because the Bible demands it, but because this is essential for them to attack the Bible conveniently. They realize that imposing such an unnatural restriction upon the Bible would give them plenty of additional opportunities to attack the Sacred book. However, their own writings betray this bias and nothing needs to be said further about it.
3-Inerrancy does not imply the use of an exact technical vocabulary, conforming to present scientific terminology: The Biblical authors were all men of antiquity. They employed the language of their times, not claiming to foresee modern science. But when they did set down facts in the realm of science, they expressed themselves without error in regard to fundamental principles. For example, the Biblical record of the creation touches on the following areas: geology, astronomy, biology, meteorology, zoology, physiology and several others. The expressions used in the Bible for these things do not claim to be technical ones. Still, every page remains not only more magnificent but also more logical than any other attempted explanation of the origin of the universe.
It is also clear that Scripture uses popular expressions in the fields of astronomy, geology and other scientific domains exactly the way our modern scholars do in current conversation. The preacher said, for example, that the sun rises and the sun goes down (Eccles. 1:5), precisely as we ourselves have kept on expressing the idea even AFTER discovering that it is not the sun which rises or sets.
4-Biblical message must be put back into its own historical setting: Certain declarations of Scripture were true when they were made, although the circumstances are different now. This is very obvious in historical matters, where what was in existence till yesterday might not be there today. When we read in the book of Joshua that the twelve stones set up in the midst of the Jordan “are there unto this day” (Joshua 4:9), this obviously means that they were there at the time those things were written.
One contentious subject is that of the chronology of the Old Testament, which the radical critics keep judging as erroneous. What is certain is that the ancients did not count the way we do and had no fixed, universal calendar. The exact length of the reign of Kings was often counted differently in different cultures, and that also on differing calendars. Thus any attempt to reconcile those dates without taking those methods of reckoning would yield only conflicting results. On the other hand, when we follow the ancient ways of calculating and dating, we see in Scripture an unusually greater precision than in other ancient authors. Much work has been done in this subject in the second half of the twentieth century, showing that the Biblical chronologies are accurate. The work is very technical, and thus most of this work has not come into the attention of the layman.
The question of grammar and style is also in harmony with the historical framework. We do not have any statement that Bible came down dictated from heaven. Rather, the Holy Spirit used writers belonging to different cultures and generations without obliterating their individualities. Thus the differences in grammars and styles of individual writers is definitely discernible.
5-Inerrancy has to do with the whole of the Biblical message: Contrary to what many compromisers claim, the doctrine of inerrancy applies to the whole Bible and not merely to the parts having to do with “faith and practice”. If this were not so, one would have to consider Scripture fallible in places where subjects other that “faith and practice” are discussed.
Let us take an example from history: God intervened our world events. He initiated His plan of redemption in the incarnation and consummated it in specific historical facts. If the Bible is wrong about these facts, what is there for our faith to rest upon? We must notice what Paul says about the resurrection of Christ, as well as about the history of Israel (I Cor. 15:14-19; 10:11; Rom. 15:4). There is no way for separating the “doctrinal” parts of the Bible from the “non doctrinal” parts.
The historical facts are so intimately tied in with spiritual realities that it is impossible to separate the two. We have seen that the same is true of the account of the creation and also areas where Bible deals with the natural sciences (geology, astronomy, biology etc.). The creation account, and also that of paradise, the fall, the deluge etc, we find fully confirmed by Christ and the apostles. If these events were mere myths, then the doctrines based upon them also have to be labeled as mere myths. It ought to be clear, however, that inerrancy extends only to the text itself, not to the often absurd interpretations given by humans to it.
In the realm of geography, likewise, the extraordinary exactitude of Scripture has been attested to by archaeology and by an improved understanding of antiquity. Clearly, the Bible does not claim to be a manual of science or of history; its supreme domain is that of faith and life. It is the book of salvation; its aim is to lead us to God and to enable us to live with Him, first down here and then forever in heaven. Yet it never errs when it makes a comment in the realm of science or history.
6-Inerrancy does not imply omniscience on the part of the Biblical authors: The Biblical writers were not acquainted with all facets of the subjects they treated. Thus their declarations are true but not always comprehensive or complete. One illustration is the case of the Four Gospels. Each one has played its part in filling in, adding to and putting the finishing touches on canvas portraying the life of Jesus. This principle explains why the Bible does not always provide a full account of a given event or the well-rounded, all-comprehensive enunciation of a truth, such as one might expect from omniscience. The Scriptures were written by men who were kept away from recording error, but who were not endowed with the perceptive faculties which belong to God alone.
It was, moreover, not necessarily the aim of the biblical records to tell absolutely everything or to provide total information on every subject. For example, the Gospels give us practically nothing about Jesus from the time He was twelve until the day He was baptized by John the Baptist. Such information would certainly have a popular appeal if we may judge by the Apocryphal “gospels”, but this information was not seen as necessary according to the purpose of either the Holy Spirit or the writers themselves. John in his gospel makes it clear that producing a comprehensive record of Jesus’ life and ministry was humanly not possible. Thus he chose only those events that would help the readers to accept Jesus as their personal Saviour.