By Micheal C.H. Lim
At least up to the eighteenth century, it had been the conviction of the church that the Bible was inerrant and correspondingly, imbued with divine authority in all that it addresses. Such an assertion, however, does not resonate well in our post-modern and post-truth society. Indeed, any claim that a text – any text – is inerrant would invite at best, scepticism and at worst, ridicule even from those within the church: the teaching on inerrancy seems incongruous with the widely entrenched presuppositions of our age.
It is needful from the outset to understand what is meant by the term ‘inerrancy’. Paul Feinberg gives us a succinct definition: “By this word we mean that the Scriptures possess the quality of freedom from error. They are exempt from the liability to mistake, incapable of error. In all their teachings they are in perfect accord with the truth.” Or, Feinberg continues, “…we could drop the term inerrant from the list of preferred terminology and substitute always true and never false.”
Biblical inerrancy rests ultimately on the Bible’s self-authentication, which is in turn inextricably linked to the idea of Scriptural infallibility. Here, we have a plethora of texts which attests to its infallibility. The fundamental claim is that the Scriptures originate from God himself through a process of dual authorship. The Holy Spirit superintended the human authors that, through their individual personalities and different styles of writing, they composed and recorded God’s Word to man without error in whole or in part. Thus, 2 Timothy 3:16 asserts that “All Scripture is breathed out by God…”. The Apostle Peter in a number of places reiterates the sentiment. 1 Peter 1:12 records that Scripture was given “by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven…” and that prophecy as is contained therein did not come from the will of men, “but men spoke from God…” (2 Peter 1:21). And if we turn to the Old Testament, we find even more such affirmations. For instance, in the book of Leviticus, the phrase “the LORD spoke to Moses” occurs some thirty-three times, whilst in Psalm 119 alone the psalmist declares Scripture to be the word of God 175 times. Space would inhibit an enumeration of the hundreds of time the statements “God said”, “thus says the LORD” and “these are the words of the LORD” which spring up with reassuring regularity.
The doctrine of inerrancy follows naturally from this understanding of infallibility: because it is infallible, Scripture is also inerrant. While infallibility demands that Scripture cannot contain error, inerrancy says Scripture does not err. Since it is without error, “until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Matthew 5:18). This doctrine, then, ultimately rests on a simple syllogism:
- Whatever the Bible says, God says;
- Whatever God says is true;
- Therefore, whatever the Bible says is trustworthy and true.
As a consequence, both pre-Christian Jews and the early church assumed the inerrancy of Scriptures. According to Professor Bruce Vawter, “For both the Fathers and the rabbis generally, the ascription of any error to the Bible was unthinkable.” One example of the codification of this doctrine can be found in the Belgic Confession of 1561 which maintains that the church believes “without any doubt all things contained in them [i.e. the Scriptures], not so much because the Church receives and approves them as such, but more especially because the Holy Spirit witnesses in our hearts that they are from God, and also because they carry the evidence thereof in themselves.”
The philosophies which sprang from the Enlightenment eroded the hitherto unquestioned authority of the Bible. For convenience’s sake, we begin with Rene Descartes (1596-1650). With his oft-quoted “I think, therefore I am”, he had laid down two fundamental rules for inquiry for which we shall only address the first. In his Discourse on Method, he shifted the premises for knowledge:
The first of these was to accept nothing as true which I did not clearly recognise to be so; that is to say, carefully to avoid precipitation and prejudice in judgments, and to accept in them nothing more than what was presented to my mind so clearly and distinctly that I would have no occasion to doubt it.
Descartes’s epistemological foundation pivoted from Biblical authority to autonomous reason and proved hugely influential in the thinking of Benedict Spinoza, one of the most important figures in the history of Biblical interpretation. Following Descartes’s assumptions, Spinoza concluded that “(1) the Bible is a product of human history and evolution and is to be read in the light of its natural history, and (2) philosophy and theology must be understood as two distinct disciplines. The former discipline has to be with truth, and the latter with morality.” (Quoting Mark S. Gignilliat’s, A Brief History of Old Testament Criticism: From Benedict Spinoza to Brevard Childs)
We find another turning point in David Friedrich Strauss’s 1830 work, Das Leben Jesu (“The Life of Jesus”). In it, he accepted Jesus’s historical reality but denied his divinity. Strauss presupposed a scientific worldview which necessarily precluded the supernatural. As Strauss was not prepared to do away with the historical records, this required a fresh reading of the Biblical texts: he argued that Holy Scripture must be read as myth. For him, myth represented an idea, not rooted in reality but on a narrative. The narratives in the Bible, rather than being history, were in Strauss’s view merely the kerygma of the church, i.e. what the church proclaimed to be true, but which could not be proven to be true. In the person of Rudolf Bultmann, the denial of Biblical inerrancy reached its zenith. Bultmann was concerned to make the Christian message ‘relevant’ to the modern man. In outlook, Bultmann was the quintessential modern man in that he subscribed to a materialistic worldview and he sought to strip the Christian faith of all its supernatural moorings.
The assault on the Bible from the twin perspectives of positivism and scientific naturalism has proven to be very effective. It is difficult to find an area in which its veracity has not been questioned. The list is a long one and spans issues about history, science and ethics. For instance, in the area of history there is the debate over whether Adam was even a historical figure and whether the Exodus event and the conquest of the Holy Land ever happened at all. In science, there is the denial of the Creation account in favour of an evolutionary explanation. Ethically, doubts are raised as to whether the Bible’s teachings on sex within a marriage and same sex marriage are not really culturally constructed norms rather than commands from a Supreme Being.
Inevitably, denial of Biblical inerrancy erodes the very foundations of the Christian faith. If indeed, Holy Scripture is subject to the bar of human speculation and judgment, scientific ‘certainties’ and cultural mores, then where does one seek for truth? It is our contention that the modern attitude towards the Bible is not the result of an advancement in human thinking. It is surely pure hubris to suggest that the early Christians had not been aware of the inconsistencies or discrepancies now placed so prominently in the foreground of Biblical studies. Instead we would suggest that the problem lies in the worldviews which undergird the differences in outcomes.
A useful definition is provided by James Sire:
A worldview is a commitment, a fundamental orientation of the heart, that can be expressed as a story or in a set of presuppositions (assumptions which may be true, partially true or entirely false) which we hold (consciously or subconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about the basic constitution of reality, and that provides the foundation on which we live and move and have our being.
Worldviews, then, are not first theoretical but pretheoretical or intuitive. To wit, they form the building blocks for thinking. That is why the charge that belief in the Bible’s authority is a circular argument cannot stand. Certainly, few Christians will contend that “the Bible is true because it says so, and because it says so, it’s true.” Rather, the premises on which inerrancy is based has been adequately supported by evidence of the trustworthiness of historical research, its fulfilment of prophecies and its internal coherence. A cursory glance at the ‘Christian apologetics’ section of the local bookstore will attest to the fact that Christianity is a defensible worldview.
Nevertheless, when pressed for the ultimate criterion for our conclusions, the Christian points to the word of God. Is such an approach circular? If such a circularity is invalid, then every consistent system of would bear the same stigma. Each of them has to point to an ultimate authority on which their arguments are based. Consequently, the rationalist will insist that examination must be rational; the existentialist on subjective experience; the empiricist on the sensory contents of consciousness. John Frame’s summary is apt: “it is wrong to say that Christians are “biased” or “prejudiced” by their presuppositions and that non-Christians are “neutral” or “unbiased” and “objective”. Both groups are equally biased and equally prejudiced. Jesus said, “He who is not for me is against me (Matt 12:30). The non-Christian is as passionately concerned to reject God as the Christian is to love Him.”
In the issue of inerrancy, Christians should not be expected to answer all the unsolved problems placed before them, since incompleteness is expected in any field of knowledge. This is particularly so when the subject is God himself. All that is needful is to be assured of the soundness of the Christian presupposition, which is that the Bible is the infallible and inerrant word of God- uniquely and unequivocally so. In short, we begin with the same worldview as the venerated Augustine: we believe in order to understand.
It remains for us to briefly set out some attitudes of mind which is useful when encountering objections to inerrancy. First, we assume that a satisfactory explanation exists, even if we have not yet found one. No one knows how electricity works, but we know that it works. One famous example concerns the Assyrian king Sargon mentioned in Isaiah 20:1. Earlier critics claimed that the reference to Sargon was an error because there was no evidence that any Assyrian king named Sargon ever existed. Later archaeologists discovered in the region of Khorsabad the palace of one Sargon II. As a result, we now have more information about Sargon than about any other ancient Assyrian king.
Second, we must be consistent in our understanding of Scripture. Either it is the word of God (in which case, it is inerrant) or it is not. If it is the word of God, then it takes precedence in how we construct of our understanding of the world. Third, we must begin to take the Bible in the historical and overall context in which it is written. Don’t forget that a verse taken out of context is a pretext for a proof text! Fourthly, in cases of apparent inconsistencies, we are to take each of the passages as trustworthy reports and seek to harmonize the accounts. Fifth, by all means consult commentaries and books which give an explanation of the problems that you face. There a resources aplenty from those who believe in the inerrancy of Scripture. Sixth, a number of difficulties result from the subsequent inscripturation and copying of the original texts, which no longer exist. The doctrine of total inerrancy is founded on the original, and not on the copied texts. Having said that it does not mean that the texts as we have them are unreliable. Indeed, the results of research on the texts have shown how wonderfully the texts have been preserved.
We conclude with this statement from J.I. Packer which should form the basis of our belief in the inerrancy of the Bible:
The Christian message is essentially a declaration of God’s saving deeds in history. Acts of God are the acts of faith; and if the facts fall, faith falls with them… The fact that Scripture records events is sufficient proof that they happened; the veracity of God is our guarantee… we should assume truth of the record as the basis for enquiry into its meaning. This, as we have seen, is the authentic Christian approach. (Emphasis is mine)
Micheal is a lawyer and worships at Jalan Imbi Chapel, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Geisler, Norman ed. Inerrancy. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 1980
Young, E.J. Thy Word is Truth: Some Thoughts on the Biblical Doctrine of Inspiration. Carlisle, Penn: Banner of Truth, 1957.
Archer, Gleason L. Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties. Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 1982.