December 27, 2015
Scriptural Inerrancy and the Apologetic Task
I always enjoy hearing you speak, and I especially love the cross-examination and Q&A parts of your debates. It was a pleasure to meet you in person at the conference in Atlanta.
My question has to do with the nature of inspiration of Scripture. Believers debate the difference between inspiration and inerrancy, and often argue over the definition of what it means to be inerrant (which I believe leads to some bad exegesis and hermeneutics at times as they are forced to shoehorn an interpretation that isn't really likely because of a view of inerrancy that God may not have intended).
As an atheist, I came to faith primarily by reading the Bible for a year. Since the second section of the book I am writing is regarding the inspiration of Scripture, I have spent a lot of time thinking about how to convince unbelievers. In my study, a strange thought occurred to me. It does not matter if the New Testament is inerrant or even inspired - it only matters if it is true!
If the gospel writers accurately recorded what Jesus said and did, and if Luke preserved the history from about AD 30-62, and if the writers of the epistles wrote about what they learned from Jesus and the apostles, then we have all we need to become Christians and have a relationship with God. People became disciples of Jesus for more than 2 decades before the NT began to be written!
Don't get me wrong - I think the NT is inspired by God, as 2 Timothy 3 and 1 Peter 1 imply (although they are both referring to the Old Testament. 2 Peter 3:16 refers to Paul's letters as scripture, and Paul quotes or paraphrases Luke's gospel on more than one occasion).
However, I have noticed that many skilled apologists (yourself included) do NOT argue for the inspiration of scripture in debates, but rather their historical accuracy.
My question is - do we really need to argue over inspiration or inerrancy? Wouldn't we be better served to make the argument that the scriptures are reliable? In doing so, we silence those (like Bart Ehrman or Shabir Ally) who quibble over minor discrepancies between accounts (most of which are easy to explain anyway).
Thanks for taking my question and helping so many people.
In dealing with your question, Joe, it’s important that we distinguish between the different tasks of apologetics and theology.
The task of apologetics is to lay out a rational justification for the truth of the Christian worldview. By “the Christian worldview” I do not mean the entire body of Christian doctrine. I mean the broad outlines of a view that would merit appending the label “Christian” to that view. More simply, it is what is necessary and sufficient to believe for becoming a Christian. This sort of minimalist understanding of the Christian worldview is what C. S. Lewis called “mere Christianity.”
The central pillars of the Christian worldview, it seems to me, are the existence of God and His decisive self-revelation in Jesus, as shown by His raising him from the dead. If one comes to believe those two things, then one ought to become a Christian, and the rest is working out details.
Now, as you point out, in order to provide justification for those two beliefs, one needn’t affirm biblical inspiration, much less inerrancy. The arguments of natural theology for God’s existence don’t depend upon biblical inerrancy, nor does demonstrating the crucial facts about the life of Jesus of Nazareth, including his radical personal claims, whereby he put himself in God’s place, and the key events undergirding the inference to his resurrection from the dead.
Popular Christian apologists have long given lip service to this point but did not really take it seriously, as revealed by their resorting to implausible harmonizations in order to defend the Gospel accounts against any allegation of error. Such measures are unnecessary. The fact is that the central facts undergirding the inference to Jesus’ resurrection are granted by the wide majority of New Testament scholars today, even those who think that the Gospels are rife with errors and inconsistencies. For example, my Doktorvater Wolfhart Pannenberg argued for the historicity of Jesus’ resurrection and empty tomb, even though he thought that the empty tomb stories in the Gospels are so legendary that they have “scarcely a historical kernel” in them. I think that Pannenberg seriously underestimated the historical credibility of the empty tomb accounts, principally due to the work of the German critic Hans Grass; but never mind: the point is that he well illustrates how someone can have a historically justified belief in Jesus’ bodily resurrection without a commitment to the inerrancy of the texts.
So I almost never argue with an unbeliever about biblical inerrancy. I’ll concede for the sake of argument virtually all the errors and inconsistencies in the Old and New Testaments that he wants to bring up, while insisting that the documents collected into what was later called the New Testament are fundamentally reliable when it comes to the central facts undergirding the claims and fate of Jesus of Nazareth. For the apologetic task it doesn’t really matter whether Jesus was born in Bethlehem, which day of the week he was crucified, how many angels were at the tomb, and so on. So long as the central facts are secure, the unbeliever ought to become a Christian.
When it comes to the task of theology, however, things are different. The task of theology is to lay out systematically the truths taught in Scripture. Thus, one will try to develop a coherent system of doctrine which is faithful to Scripture. Based on what one thinks makes the best sense of Scripture, one will develop a more detailed body of Christian doctrine. This will include doctrines about what Scripture has to say about itself.
Lewis recognized that no one ought to simply remain with mere Christianity. Mere Christianity, he said, is like the entrance hall that leads into the various rooms. No one is content to remain in the entrance hall; it’s in the rooms where the fireplaces and the couches and the conversations are to be found. So after entering the hallway one will make his way into the rooms where Coptic or Catholic or Orthodox or Protestant Christians will be found. Eventually one will find a room where one feels most comfortable with the doctrines affirmed there.
So in my Defenders class surveying Christian doctrine the very first topic we treat is Doctrine of Revelation, that is to say, how God has revealed Himself to us, including doctrines about the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture. Belief that Scripture is not merely human teaching but God’s very Word to us will be important in living the Christian life. It will also provide an authoritative guide for developing the remainder of Christian doctrine.
So in answer to your questions, we don’t need to “argue over inspiration or inerrancy” with unbelievers, but we do need to discuss these questions with fellow Christians. With unbelievers we should simply make the case that the documents collected into the New Testament are reliable enough to warrant the beliefs that Jesus understood himself to be the Messiah, the unique Son of God, and the Danielic Son of Man, and that his crucifixion, burial, empty tomb, post-mortem appearances, and the origin of his disciples’ belief in his resurrection are historically well-founded. With fellow believers we need to discuss the nature of biblical inspiration and what follows from that for the truthfulness of Scripture.