Continually Sharpening

A theological blog by Janelle Zeeb

Did God Really Say? Why Biblical Inerrancy Matters

As you may have seen on the About Me page, I agree with the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy.

Basically, the idea of inerrancy as defined in the Chicago Statement is that the Bible is entirely without error in the original manuscripts (and thus, our translated copies are inerrant insofar as they follow the originals as closely as possible).

This includes when Scripture discusses history and nature. Things like variations in spelling, or rounded numbers, hyperbole, and poetry or metaphor, are not 'errors'.

Thus, this corresponds with a high view of the inspiration of Scripture - that it really is God's word to us, and not just human words about God.

Some Biblical scholars like to nitpick over little things that they think prove the Chicago Statement is misguided or outright wrong. These details are not what I want to focus on now, because there are many books out there that deal with supposed Biblical errors and show how they really are not errors after all.

Instead, in this post I want to talk about why I affirm Biblical inerrancy, which I feel is accurately described by the Chicago Statement, even if I haven't read a convincing solution to every possible Bible difficulty.

For me, the doctrine of inerrancy is more about the philosophical question of epistemology (how do we know what we think we know), and what it means to have faith in God.

Why People Doubt Inerrancy

I think there's ultimately two main reasons why someone might reject the Bible as being inerrant:

  1. They want to look 'educated' and 'intelligent' to secular historians, archaeologists, and scientists. Or maybe they want to look theologically 'sophisticated' or 'informed' to their professors, pastors, or other established theologians who have already rejected Biblical inerrancy.
  2. They want to justify their own questionable theological position on some topic.

Reason 1

When it comes to the first reason, it's helpful to ask: are these secular skeptical 'experts' the sorts of people whose opinion of us really matters?

It might, if we want to get hired or gain credibility in a field dominated by such skeptics. But this would be a case of choosing the worldly race over the heavenly race, and I wouldn't recommend it.

It's important to note that giving up on Biblical inerrancy never impresses skeptics anyways, and doesn't win them over to Christianity. Instead, they just see the Christian who gives up on inerrancy as being an inconsistent compromiser who is desperate to try to cling to whatever parts of the Bible haven't yet been supposedly 'disproven' by archaeology, history, or science.

For example, Richard Dawkins, on the topic of making the Bible compatible with evolution says: "Oh but of course the story of Adam and Eve was only ever symbolic, wasn’t it? Symbolic?! So Jesus had himself tortured and executed for a symbolic sin by a non-existent individual? Nobody not brought up in the faith could reach any verdict other than [it's] barking mad!"1

So the idea of preserving some parts of the Bible such as the life and death of Jesus as true, but labelling other parts as 'symbolic' (and thus, not actually true), especially the story of the Fall, is called 'barking mad' by Dawkins. Clearly, this attempt to harmonize scripture and evolution is not convincing or persuasive to him and won't earn his respect.

Reason 2

When it comes to the second reason, this is really quite obvious.

If there's a verse someone doesn't like because it convicts them of sin, or they can't understand it, or they think it's offensive, then they dismiss that verse as 'uninspired' or 'errant'. They might say it's just Paul's mistaken opinion, or it was God generously 'accommodating' primitive, barbaric people who just didn't know better, like we do now.

This is why I question the work of theologians who are trying to find ways to say that certain things that God has clearly said are sins are actually not (or no longer are) sins, especially when the theologian in question openly participates in that particular sin.

I also question, for example, the arguments of committed pacifist Christians who want to solve the 'problem' of divine violence in Scripture by saying it didn't happen or that the ancient authors mistakenly thought God commanded violence when He actually didn't.

In both cases, I just don't think they can be objective enough on the issue for me to trust that their scholarship is not skewed by their personal stake in their position.

Although it's true that theologians usually have some personal interest in the thing they're researching and the views they promote, ideally we should try to be open-minded and be willing to follow the best evidence and arguments, which those who are already pre-committed to a position because of other factors besides reason and evidence cannot honestly do.

(Of course, they would say the same problem happens when women theologians argue that women should be included as pastors and ministers. But I think there's a definite difference in the Biblical strength of the arguments for allowing women to be ministers than the arguments calling for accommodation of sin. For details on this, see Dr. William Webb's book Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals.)

Inerrancy and The Trial of Adam and Eve

I see the debate over inerrancy as going right back to the garden of Eden.

Adam and Eve were in a conundrum. God had told them not to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, because they would die if they did. But the serpent questions God's words, and claims that the fruit won't kill them - in fact, it's actually beneficial for them!

So, what do they do? Whose words do they believe? Which one is lying? Is God really trying to keep them limited and contained, by lying to them to not eat from the tree? Or is the serpent untrustworthy? Hmm...

I think each of us is presented with the same conundrum that Adam and Eve were in. We ultimately face only one choice: Do we believe God's word, or not?

Accepting the gospel message is simply choosing to take God as his word! We either believe that God gives us eternal life when we have faith in Christ as our savior, or we don't.

(Of course, even those who doubt Biblical inerrancy can believe this is true and will be saved, but I don't think they can consistently explain why they believe it is true, as we will see).

This challenge of believing God's words or not appears over and over in Scripture. Believing God's words is fundamentally called faith! Heb. 11:1 says "Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen." We are told about these unseen things to hope for through God's word.

Abraham believed God's promise that he would be the ancestor of countless people and a blessing to the whole world, even though it seemed impossible (Rom. 4:3, 4:20-22, Gal. 3:7-8). In Hebrews 11 we see many others who are credited with believing God's words to them.

Some skeptics say "Well, if God could just appear right now and tell me the Bible is true, then I'd believe it".

Or they say "Why did God use people to write and preserve Scripture, since it makes it look like there's a possibility of error and room to doubt its divine origin? Why not just create the Bible ex-nihilo (from nothing) just like he did for the whole universe? Then, I'd believe it!"

But I wonder: would they really believe this is God's word? Adam and Eve heard God speak to them personally in the Garden of Eden, and apparently they were still able to doubt God's word.

So I think even if we heard a heavenly voice telling us the Bible is true, or had a book miraculously appear on our desk out of nowhere, labelled as "God's Absolute 100% True Word", there would still be room for doubt. We could write it off as a hallucination, a dream, low blood sugar, or even a demonic deception. And even then, like Adam and Eve, we could still ask "How do we know God isn't lying to us?"

Thus, it's a simple yes/no question - do we trust God's word, or not?

Therefore, our choice to have faith in Scripture is no different than the choice that faced Adam and Eve and all the other people like Noah, Abraham, Moses, Samuel, Isaiah, and Jonah who heard God speak directly to them. It's the same question, only with different content.

Infallibility and Inerrancy

I believe there are really only two options when it comes to Scripture. Either we take it all, and trust it is entirely true and without error, or to be consistent, we would have to label it all as untrustworthy and be skeptical of all of it.

Unfortunately, many Christians today seem to want to have it halfway in-between. This is a position that sometimes says the Bible is infallible, but not inerrant.

Usually, those who say the Bible is infallible but not inerrant say that it means that the Bible is totally accurate in all the 'spiritual' things it teaches about God and the things that are necessary to be saved and grow in spiritual maturity. But, they say the Bible can have errors in things that are deemed to not be directly relevant to whatever 'spiritual' truths it teaches.

I think they may take this approach as a way to think that they are safe from scholarly criticisms of Scripture. If there's something that skeptics or critics think is a problem in Scripture, instead of having to work hard to solve the issue, the believer in 'infallibility' just throws up their hands, and says "Well, that doesn't really matter — only the 'spiritual' things really matter!".

Unfortunately, the sorts of things that the skeptics or critical Bible scholars like to find problems with in Scripture are not just variations in spelling, hyperbole, or rounded numbers, or some difficult verses that appear to contradict.

Instead, they criticize and doubt some very important things, such as:

  • that miracles actually occurred as described in Scripture, sometimes including the physical, bodily resurrection of Christ.
  • that Genesis chapters 1 to 11 accurately record real historical events, including creation of the world in seven 24-hour days, and a worldwide flood that only 8 people and some animals survived in an ark.
  • that the Exodus and the Israelites' wilderness sojourn actually happened.
  • that Moses wrote the majority of the Torah as described by Jesus (John 5:46-47), and thus, they say that Jesus was either misinformed or intentionally 'accommodating' the people's mistaken beliefs about its origins.
  • that prophecy was really written before the prophetic events predicted actually happened.
  • that Jesus actually said what He is recorded as saying (e.g. the hyper-critical Jesus Seminar.

Can you hear the echoes of the serpent saying "Did God really say...?"

Of course, instead of being consistent and giving up on Scripture altogether, most Christian proponents of infallibility want to keep the 'spiritual' meaning of these historically 'false' events. This is utterly ridiculous, for there can be no 'spiritual' meaning in an event that did not happen!.

For example, the Exodus story. I've heard some Christians question whether it really happened as an actual historical event. They say the Exodus is simply an Israelite myth devised to give the people who lived in the hills of Canaan a shared cultural and religious identity, when they actually were never in Egypt at all.

Instead they say that the myth of the Exodus was invented and celebrated in the Passover festival simply as a way of portraying the spiritual truth that these ancient Israelites had somehow learned, that Yahweh was a God who loves to deliver his people out of bondage to sin.

But how could the Israelites have possibly gotten the spiritual idea that Yahweh loves to deliver people out of bondage to sin when they never experienced God saving them from real historical bondage to slavery in Egypt? If it was some other situation that taught them the same lesson, then why not just record that actual, real event, whatever it was?

So if the Exodus never happened, then there is nothing that we can learn about God from it. We cannot learn any 'spiritual' truths about God if God never acted in the ways that the Bible records He did. God reveals himself not just in words, but in actions, as the history of Israel demonstrates. If God's words are not supported by real actions in history, there is simply no basis for trusting his words. He would be all talk, no action.

Also, if some of the Bible is not true, such as the story of the Exodus, then how can we trust God's promise that he never lies (Titus 1:2)?

The Holy Spirit is called the "Spirit of truth" (John 16:13-15), and we are told the Holy Spirit inspired all Scripture (2 Pet. 1:21, John 14:26, 2 Tim. 3:16-17). So therefore we must say that the Holy Spirit oversaw the writing of scripture such that only what God wanted to be written was written, no more, and no less, with no errors. Otherwise, God Himself would be lying to us.

I've heard the relationship between divine inspiration and human authorship of Scripture compared to a musician playing an instrument. The sound produced is influenced by the resonance of the instrument, and so a flute sounds different from a violin, but they can play the same notes accurately. So for example, Paul sounds like Paul, and Luke sounds like Luke, and Moses sounds like Moses, but it doesn't mean what they write isn't equally true and accurate and inspired.

Of course, some might say that the Holy Spirit didn't get it wrong — the authors of Scripture did!

But if the Holy Spirit's inspiration was somehow faulty and the authors of scripture made mistakes in their reporting of non-spiritual things which we actually can investigate or verify through the (supposedly objective) methods of history, archaeology, or science, then what guarantee do we have they didn't also get it wrong on spiritual things, which we cannot verify or investigate?

Let's remember that Jesus specifically said that if we don't believe him on earthly things, then there's no basis to trust him on heavenly things either (John 3:12). If the ancient authors' mistaken ideas about world history or science could override the Holy Spirit's guidance when they wrote about earthly matters, then how do we know this didn't happen for the 'spiritual' things too?

Thus, this is why I think the Bible must either stand or fall altogether. One real mistake or lie would make the entire thing questionable.

Practical Problems When Inerrancy is Rejected

We can also see that doubting the inerrancy of Scripture not only leads to questions of epistemology (how do we know which parts of Scripture are true or not), but it also leads to other negative problems in both the Christian's life and also in the Church's biblical interpretation.

Arbitrary Biblical Interpretation

The unfortunate result if someone wants to claim they accept the Bible as 'spiritually' accurate but not inerrant is that their Biblical interpretation becomes extremely inconsistent and arbitrary.

For example, it is arbitrary to say that you accept the descriptions of Jesus' life in the four Gospels as accurate, except for the miracles. There is no basis for this claim except for "I don't think those really happened, because I've never seen something like that happen, and I can't imagine it ever could." BUT THIS IS PRECISELY WHY THEY ARE CALLED MIRACLES!!

I knew a Christian professor who doubted Matthew's description about some people coming out of their graves at the crucifixion (Matt. 27:52-53).

Yet presumably, he had no problem accepting that Jesus came out of His grave! After all, Paul specifically said that if Christ is not resurrected literally, physically, then we're all still in our sins (1 Cor. 15:17-19). I can't understand why the professor accepted one miracle of resurrection but rejected another.

So if a Christian is skeptical about miracles, they seem to forget that Christianity is founded on a miracle! If they accept the miracle of the resurrection, there is no logical reason to not accept all the rest of the miracles too.

And, no, you can't say Christ was 'spiritually' resurrected in the disciples' hearts, for there is no textual basis for this at all, and the Bible goes into very specific detail that proves Jesus had to be physically resurrected as described (Luke 24:39-43, John 20:26-28).

The only alternative is that the disciples are a bunch of liars and lunatics, who for no reason at all, after having seen their leader be beaten, whipped, and crucified, and all their hopes utterly crushed, invented a story that their leader had come back to life. Then, on top of all that, they were willing to give up their comfort, risk their health and safety, and face torture and martyrdom in order to take this story out to the Roman Empire!

Oh, yeah, like that's believable...

Giving Up On Scripture

Instead of wrestling with things that raise difficult questions in Scripture, and doing the study and prayer necessary to come to an understanding, giving up on inerrancy makes it far too easy for people to just dismiss what they don't like in Scripture.

This is the easy way out, and they miss out on the greater understanding of God and Scripture which they could have gained if they had spent some effort studying or investigating the issue.

They might even stop reading Scripture altogether if they see it as a minefield of true versus not-quite-totally-true statements.

Relying on Human Experts

Alternatively, the confused Christian may look to some other authority figure to tell them which parts of the Bible are true and how to interpret it. Instead of following God's word, they end up following a human's word. Thus, the Christian who doubts the inerrancy of Scripture can be more easily led to rely on other sources of authority besides Scripture.

After all, if Scripture is questionable, then why not turn to some expert who 'knows better' to get the real truth? Why not replace Scripture with Dr. So-and-So's Bible Commentary? Or why not try some other new-age occult books, or maybe some other religious texts?

I've seen some people become so attached to their favourite theologian, pastor, or other Bible commentator that they seem to treat that authority figure's ideas as inerrant! And so really, why not just transfer that absolute trust to the Bible itself?

I worry that giving up on inerrancy means Christians will trust fallen, sinful people (which we all are to some extent) over God's perfect, inerrant, holy word. This increases the risk of being led astray into cults, or into immorality, or other harmful situations.

After all, God's word is meant to be a 'light' to our path (Psalm 119:105, 130). Do you want to give someone else control over your flashlight when you're walking in a dark forest and your safety depends on seeing where you're walking?

God's word is also called the "sword of the Spirit" (Eph. 6:17). If you're in a battle, would you really want to pass your sword to someone else and trust them to defend you? Why not do the necessary practice to become capable of using the sword yourself?

Turning To Other Sources of Moral Authority

I also worry that the Christian who doubts the inerrancy of the Bible will care less about supporting their ideas with Scripture, and will come to their moral and theological positions by other means.

Maybe they'll look to their own feelings, or to what society says is good, or to their favourite celebrity, instead of seeing what God says in Scripture. Again, there is no basis to say that these alternate sources of authority are accurate or trustworthy.

Shortcutting Theological Debate

By giving up on inerrancy, the Church as a whole will also miss out. There are still many theological questions that can be debated even when the doctrine of scripture's inerrancy is affirmed. But these debates will be about what the Bible verses in question mean, and what the original authors meant, how it fits with the rest of Scripture, and what insights can be gained from the original languages and culture and history, etc.

This sort of debate won't happen when we just decide to ignore or reject some verses because we've decided they are only mythological, allegorical, or at worst, downright false.

Through this process of debate and study, ideas are refined, and the Church as a whole comes to a more consistent and correct understanding of Scripture. Let's not cut this process short by dismissing some parts of scripture as erroneous.

Problems of Allegorical Interpretation

Another approach to arbitrarily interpreting the Bible is to take the so-called allegorical approach to interpretation. In this approach, the plain factual meaning of the text is minimized or ignored, while the interpreter supposedly finds deeper 'spiritual' truths in it.

While there are interesting things like typology, prefiguration, and prophecy in Scripture, the allegorical approach I am concerned about often manages to find a meaning that is thoroughly disconnected from the actual historical events described in Scripture, and thus, has no textual basis to support it.

It's not allegory to say that Jesus is the typological fulfillment of the Old Testament passover lambs, because there is Scriptural warrant for this identification (e.g. John 1:29), and it is based on the real historical facts of the Old Testament sacrificial system and Jesus' crucifixion. And it's not allegory to say that Jesus is a priest like Melchizedek (Hebrews 7), because Melchizedek was a real person who was a priest for God (Gen. 14:18-20).

Thus, the rule for Biblical interpretation is that if the plain meaning of a verse makes sense, then there's no need to go looking for a deeper meaning. If it doesn't make sense on the surface, or if we can tell based on context that it is metaphorical (e.g. parables), then it's ok to look for additional meanings provided there is some textual basis or context to support that deeper meaning.

But "The problem with the allegorical method of interpretation is that it seeks to find an allegorical interpretation for every passage of Scripture, regardless of whether or not it is intended to be understood in that way. Interpreters who allegorize can be very creative, with no control based in the text itself. It becomes easy to read one’s own beliefs into the allegory and then think that they have scriptural support."2

For example, here's a summary of the early church theologian Origen's allegorical interpretation of the parable of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10:

"In the allegorical view, the man who is robbed is Adam, Jerusalem is paradise, and Jericho is the world. The priest is the Law, and the Levites are the Prophets. The Samaritan is Christ. The donkey is Christ’s physical body, which bears the burden of the wounded man (the wounds are his sins), and the inn is the Church. The Samaritan’s promise to return is a promise of the second coming of Christ."3

See what I mean? What possible clues are there in the text itself to support such an interpretation? This interpretation does nothing to answer the question "Who is my neighbor" which prompted this parable (Luke 10:29), and so this allegorical meaning is not credible.

So the 'allegorical' method which detaches the meaning of scripture from the real literal words and substitutes other meanings, and the labelling of scripture as 'infallible' but not 'inerrant' which means some parts can be rejected as literal but reinterpreted 'spiritually', both end up with the problem that an interpreter can make the Bible say pretty much whatever the interpreter wants it to say.

The Only Solution: Take It Or Leave It

The only way that we can avoid this subjectivity and come to any stable and reliable meaning of any passage of Scripture is to take all of it as true in the plain grammatical sense of the words.

Of course, as the Chicago Statement mentions, this means treating each genre of literature in Scripture appropriately, and recognizes the differences between poetry, historical narrative, hyperbole, symbolic visions, and so forth. Yet even within genres, whatever the text is saying must be taken seriously - we can't dismiss the truths written within apocalyptic literature, or poetry, or the parables just because they are different genres than historical narrative.

The only other option besides accepting Scripture as inerrant leads to abandoning all Biblical authority, and the Bible becomes a subjective buffet from which people can pick and choose which parts they believe and which parts they don't.

Now, I'm not saying that anyone has to believe in Biblical inerrancy in order to be saved - again, all that matters is for a person to believe that Jesus died for their sins, so they can have eternal life. But as shown in this article, I think there are many possible negative consequences for individuals and for the Church if we don't retain belief in Scripture's inerrancy.

Conclusion

I think Paul's words in Galatians 1:10 are relevant: "For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ."

Are we going to trust God and please Him, or are we going to capitulate to the human skeptical critics to try to please them?

I am not going to arrogantly presume I am smart enough to determine what is true and what is not in Scripture. The only choice then is to take it all as true in the plain grammatical sense, and treat it as God's authoritative word, or leave it all.

So I take it all.

That means I hold to positions like young-earth creationism, a real worldwide flood, a historical Exodus and conquest of Canaan, and belief in all the miracles in Scripture including the 'weird' ones; like floating axe heads, sun-stopping, and dead people coming back to life. I also take a pre-millennial view of the end-times, which includes the rapture, Tribulation, and literal return of Jesus to the world and a millennial kingdom on earth.

Yes, the 'higher critics' might call me a deluded fundamentalist kook. But I'd rather have God's praise than the praise of the 'higher critics'. One day, I hope to be vindicated and rewarded for trusting all of God's word, and hope that the 'higher critics' who thought they were so smart will be criticized by God himself.

After all, even if the 'higher critics' were right, there is simply no objective standard they agree on as to which portions of scripture are true and which parts are not. It leads to a total free-for-all where people can reject or reinterpret any and every verse of scripture according to their personal whims or desires, which entirely undermines Scripture's authority.

So what do we gain from this approach except for confusion which leads to despair? Instead of turning to God's word for all our spiritual or theological needs, we turn to other sinful and finite people or even myths and at worst, 'doctrines of demons' (1 Tim 4:1). That's a recipe for disaster.

Let's not give in to the subtle question "Did God really say...?". Let's answer "Yes! God did say!".

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