Biblical Inerrancy/Part 3

By: Dr. John G. Weldon; ©1999
Does even the central-salvation truth of Scripture seem probable or reasonable?” This information is considered in this article.

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The last article ended with the question: “After all, does even the central-salvation truth of Scripture seem probable or reasonable?” Consider this information in answering that question.

God became a Man to die on a cross to freely forgive the sin of the world two millennia ago.

On the surface, the idea seems difficult, if not foolish (1 Cor. 1:23). Indeed, is this something our reasonable minds would normally accept? And what about the rational or theological problems inherent in biblical revelation on the Trinity, the hypostatic union, the Virgin Birth (an absolutely key doctrine for Christology and soteriology), the method of inspiration, the imputation of sin, the means of atonement, eternal punishment, etc. If we are competent to judge the truth or error of biblical history on rational grounds, are we not, then, at least competent to question the legitimacy of biblical theology on rational grounds?

The issue is not the practical “closeness” of the two evangelical camps, it is the theo­logical implications and demonstrable negative results that flow from a position of errancy. For example, consider the historic Arian controversy of the fourth century where one letter in a word (one “iota,” the Greek “i”) made a crucial difference for subsequent historical theology and accurate Christology. Dr. Harold O.J. Brown illustrates the importance and implications of the matter:

Is this [inerrancy controversy] not another example of the sort of issue that separated the orthodox, homoousian party from the moderate Arian homoiousians in the fourth century; nothing more than an iota? Indeed, the inerrancy controversy is similar to the Arian controversy in that the difference between the positions appears to be small but in reality is of tremendous significance. To have abandoned the Nicene definition of the Son as homoousios to patri, of one substance with the Father, for homoiousios to patri, of similar substance with the Father, would have undermined the basic structure of trinitarian faith with its fundamental confession that the Son is God, identical in nature to the Father although distinct in His personhood from Him. In addition, to abandon the term homoousios would have been to confess that the whole church, for decades, had been fundamentally mistaken as to the true nature of Jesus the Messiah. The parallel with the inerrancy controversy is this: to abandon the definition “inerrant autographs, virtually inerrant copies” would also be a step of tremendous magnitude; it would undermine the basic structure of Biblical authority with its principle that the Scripture is the Word of God. In addition, to abandon the definition would be to confess that the whole church has been mistaken about inerrancy for seventeen and more centuries. It is important to see precisely where the conflict lies in order to understand the crucial significance of the inerrancy debate and of its ultimate outcome for conservative Protestantism, indeed, for Christianity as a whole….
We must frankly acknowledge the apparent practical similarity between our views and those of the opposing party. To see the similarity and not to realize that it is only apparent would be very dangerous, for this reason we must point it out, even though initially it might appear to make our position excessively pedantic and a trifle ridiculous to those whose attention it has not yet caught. No one would mistake the poisonous rattlesnake for a harmless variety, because the rattle proclaims his deadly difference. Unfortunately the even more poisonous coral snake closely resembles harmless snakes and is frequently mistaken for them with grave consequences.[1]

Dr. Brown’s point is well taken. The beautiful mountain king snake is harmless: the equally beautiful coral snake is deadly. Both have great surface similarities but the beauty of one is a terrible deception for the unwary. Many things in life that seem innocent or inconsequential are actually anything but.

Inerrancy and Historic Watersheds

The history of Christianity reveals that in every age the Church has dealt with one or more key theological issues that are integrally related to its own health and vitality. Such issues typically developed as a result of the attacks by critics, heretics or enemies of Chris­tianity and led to greater precision of doctrinal formulation. In the early era of the Church (first through the fourth century) key issues that were decided involved the extent of the N.T. canon (the 27 books of the N.T. vs. false claimants), the tri-personal nature of the Godhead (three persons versus one person, as in the heresy of modalistic monarchianism) and the divine nature of the Trinity (the deity of Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, versus Arianism which rejected their deity). In the Middle Ages (fifth through fourteenth century) the atonement became a watershed issue. In the Reformation era (sixteenth through sev­enteenth century) the nature of justification (by faith alone, not faith and works) and the proper place of church tradition were vitally reaffirmed. In the modern era (eighteenth through twentieth century) the question of biblical authority (which had not seriously and widely been questioned until then) became the prominent issue. In summary fashion, some of the key issues decided historically were:

1–4th Century—bibliological (the canon); christological-pneumato-logical (The nature of God and the Trinity)

5–17th Century—anthropological-soterio-logical (The nature of man and salvation and place of church tradition)

18–20th Century—biblical authority (The nature of the Bible as inspired and inerrant)

Although biblical authority had seen the beginnings of challenge in the Renaissance period, skepticism fully blossomed in the era of the Enlightenment, a period which left in its wake a cancerous theological liberalism that wasted the church from within. As a result, for over a century, liberals and conservatives have opposed one another over the issue of biblical inspiration and authority. However, not until the 1960s did the issue of inerrancy come to the forefront, largely as a result of the increasingly perceived influence of the liberal methodology upon evangelicalism itself. That is, the impact of liberal higher criticism and its hermeneutical presuppositions were increasingly being felt within the ranks of evangelicalism and negatively affecting its view of Scripture.

The debate over inerrancy represents a stand for the absolute authority and trustwor­thiness of Scripture. Again, perhaps no single issue is more important to the Christian Church today. How the individual and the Church views the Bible influences how the indi­vidual and the Church views almost everything else. And if “everything else” is not viewed biblically, through God’s eyes, it can only be viewed humanistically, to one degree or an­other, through man’s eyes. Of all the major issues the Church has decided, this is clearly the watershed issue for our age.

With our rather lengthy preface complete, we are now ready to begin our analysis of this critical topic. We will begin by noting the boundaries involved in the proper definition of inerrancy.

Definition of Inerrancy

A. What inerrancy does claim:

1. To constitute an absolutely errorless original text. Inerrancy means that what the Bible teaches is true without a single error in the original manuscripts. Dr. Paul Feinberg de­fines inerrancy as follows:
Inerrancy means that when all facts are known, the Scriptures in their original autographs and properly interpreted will be shown to be wholly true in everything that they affirm, whether that has to do with doctrine or morality or with the social, physical, or life sciences.[2]
A more concise definition would be, “What Scripture says, God says—through human agents and without error.”[3]
2. To apply equally to all parts of Scripture, inerrancy must apply equally to all parts of Scripture as it was originally written. Again, a belief in limited inerrancy demands the impossible—that a fallible exegete becomes an infallible discerner and interpreter of the “Word of God” within the Scriptures. This only opens the door for confusion and uncer­tainty undergirded by either subjectivism or personal bias. We will illustrate this as we proceed.
3. To be limited to the proper application of hermeneutics, higher critical interpretive methods first assume errors in the Bible and then have little trouble finding them (e.g., form, source and redaction criticism). However, the proper way to interpret the Bible involves a respect for the text as given until proven otherwise. In other words, due atten­tion is given to claims for biblical authority. Also, interpretation must involve an objective and impartial methodology.[4] The need for such an approach is obvious. If one does not first determine the authority of Scripture and second the correct meaning of a text, one is incapable of saying whether or not it is true or false. Here, we must also understand that inerrancy is related to the intent of Scripture. For example, when the intent of the writer is to record a lie or error by someone (e.g., a false prophet or the Devil), the fact of a lie or error can hardly deny inerrancy, for inerrancy only affirms that what is recorded is re­corded accurately. What the Bible records must be distinguished from what the Bible approves.

B. What inerrancy does not claim:

  1. Inerrancy does not claim to be absolutely proven. The doctrine of inerrancy cannot guarantee the final solution to every alleged problem passage. Given the present limited state of human knowledge, no one can logically expect proof when the means of proof are absent. Proof of inerrancy is thus limited by our present state of knowledge. Never­theless, such realities in no way deny or disprove inerrancy, especially when the weight of the evidence so strongly supports inerrancy. The fact that so many opportunities exist within the biblical record to disprove inerrancy and yet it remains capable of rational defense after all these years is certainly impressive. The fact that historically, alleged errors are routinely proven later to be truths when more knowledge becomes available is equally impressive.
  2. Inerrancy does not refer to manuscript copies or translations. Copies and translations may be considered inerrant only to the degree they reproduce the originals. For obvious reasons, none of them do this 100 percent. Nevertheless, an accurate translation, based as it is upon a 99+ percent original text, virtually reproduces the originals and the remain­ing 1% is present in the variant readings. Thus we may say without being proven wrong that we have “inerrant originals and virtually inerrant copies.”
  3. Inerrancy does not claim absolute precision. Approximations are not errors. To illus­trate, no one would argue it was an error to say the following:
  • I earned $20,000 last year (it was really $20,200).
  • In 1978 I received my B.A. degree (it was June of 1978).
  • In Montgomery’s book, it states…. (Montgomery is the dominant author and edi­tor).
  • What a lovely sunset (the earth’s rotation appears as the sun setting).
  • Look! There just ain’t no free lunch! (breaking the rules of grammar to emphasize a point).
  • Steve went to the store (he also stopped by the pool on the way back).

In the interest of improved communication we often use approximations, or are techni­cally incorrect in grammar, number, science, history, etc. This is also true of the biblical writers: their purpose was to communicate, not to write in technicalities.

Thus, inerrancy does not demand the Bible be written in the technical language or knowledge of modern twentieth century science, which would certainly keep it a book closed to all but the specialist. Regardless, such scientific precision would still, technically, not make the Bible correct to the nth degree. For which centuries’ scientific precision do we speak of—first, twentieth, or thirtieth? Also, precision may become so precise as to be awkward or useless. To speak of a setting sun is not error in spite of its scientific impreci­sion. Jesus called the mustard seed the smallest of all seeds (Mt. 13:32) and this was perfectly true for His hearers: it was the smallest of all the seeds they planted. I (John Weldon) can still remember a Bible professor I spoke with years ago terribly concerned because Jesus was “in error on this point.” But science has still probably not discovered the smallest of all created seeds. What if Jesus a) named this still undiscovered seed, or b) named the smallest seed currently known to twentieth century botany? In either case, it would leave him doubted and misunderstood by His hearers. If Jesus were to name the still undiscovered seed (by what name would He call it?) He would be technically inerrant but considered errant based on current knowledge. If in the first century He named the smallest seed currently known to twentieth century American botany (again, what would He call it back then?); it would still ruin his illustration and require extended explanation as to why He should feel it necessary to identify a seed only discovered 20 centuries in the future. And how could He prove the truth of His words for another 19 centuries?

In the next article we will complete the discussion of what inerrancy does not require, and take a look at Inerrancy and Inspiration.

Notes:

  1. Harold O.J. Brown, “The Arian Connection: Presuppositions of Errancy” in Gordon Lewis and Bruce Demarest, Challenges to Inerrancy: A Theological Response (Chicago: Moody, 1984) pp. 386-387.
  2. Paul Feinberg, “The Meaning of Inerrancy” in Geisler (ed.), Inerrancy, p. 294.
  3. James M. Boice, Does Inerrancy Matter? (Wheaton, IL; Tyndale House Publishers, 1980), p. 15.
  4. W. C. Kaiser Jr., “Legitimate Hermeneutics” in Norman Geisler (ed.)Inerrancy, pp. 116–141.

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