July 02, 2007

What Price Biblical Errancy?

After re-evaluating my Christian faith and pruning it for two years, I can't shake what seem like two disparate conclusions. One is that the evidence for Jesus resurrection is impecable. But the other is that there seem to be some very awkward realities about the composition of scripture (like errors or authors claiming to write by another name). Yet, the authors of the New Testament, including Jesus, seem to use Scripture in a way that assumes it is word for word from God.

While inductive logic is used to arrive at a strong historical case for the resurrection of Jesus, inductive logic can also be used to arrive at a strong case for many of the peculiaraties about Scripture previously mentioned.

It seems that the approach which many apologists take at this point is that, having established the authority of Jesus by the resurrection, if the argument being raised against scripture contradicts an opinion expressed by Jesus in the Gospels, then the argument for a contradiction must have no possible harmonizations for it to really stick. But I don't see how this is fair to say, since (1) it seems unfair to use inductive logic to evidence Jesus' resurrection but then not use it for criticisms against the Bible and (2) an inductive argument can be strong despite what Jesus as recorded in the Gospels says, especially since we cannot assume the precision with which many of the saying were recorded. And (3), anybody can cook up a harmonization of some verse that is possible but not plausible, which I am sure you have seen first hand many times.

Yet, holding these two positions in tension tends to be corrosive to my faith and ultimately leads to a certain bitterness against God for allowing the biblical writers to play fast-and-loose with his words and for not providing a clarity that brings more certainty about what is from him and what isn't. Any help you can give to relieve this tension would be greatly appreciated.



Your question is one that every Bible-believing Christian familiar with modern biblical criticism has had to wrestle with.  There’s much to be said here, so let me hit a few main points.

To begin with, the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, as I learned it and, I think, as most of its adherents today would defend it, is not arrived at inductively, but deductively.  Inerrantists freely admit that no one reading through the Bible and keeping list of difficulties encountered along the way,  whether inconsistencies or mistakes, would come to the conclusion at the end of his reading that the Bible is inerrant.  He would likely conclude that the Bible, like almost every other book, has some errors in it.  But inerrantists have maintained that belief in biblical inerrancy is justified as a deduction from other well-justified truths.  For example, the late Kenneth Kantzer, Dean of the seminary I attended, argued for inerrancy by means of the following two syllogisms:

1.  Whatever God teaches is true.
2.  Historical, prophetic, and other evidences show that Jesus is God.
3.  Therefore, whatever Jesus teaches is true.

4.  Whatever Jesus teaches is true.
5.  Jesus taught that the Scriptures are the inspired, inerrant Word of God.
6.  Therefore, the Scriptures are the inspired, inerrant Word of God.

The claim here is that we have good reasons to think that the Bible, despite its difficulties, is the inerrant Word of God and therefore we should accept it as such.  As Friedrich Schleiermacher once put it, “We do not believe in Christ because we believe in the Bible; we believe in the Bible because we believe in Christ.”  One of the best examples of this approach to the doctrine of biblical inerrancy is John Wenham’s Christ and the Bible (InterVarsity, 1972).

When confronted with biblical difficulties, the inerrantist will attempt to show that alleged mistakes are not really mistakes after all and to provide plausible harmonizations of apparent inconsistencies.  Where this cannot be done, he will honestly admit that he doesn’t know the solution to the difficulty but nonetheless insist that he has overriding reasons to think that the text is accurate and that were all the facts to be known the alleged difficulty would disappear.  Such an approach has served the inerrantist well:  example after example could be given of supposed biblical errors identified by previous generations which have now been resolved in light of more recent discoveries.  One of my favorite examples is Sargon II, an Assyrian king mentioned in Isaiah 20.1.  Earlier critics claimed that the reference to Sargon was an error because there was absolutely no evidence that an Assyrian king named Sargon II ever even existed—until, that is, archaeologists digging in the region of Khorsabad unearthed the palace of one Sargon II!  We now have more information about Sargon than about any other ancient Assyrian king.

Now the question raised by your letter is what our reaction should be if we become convinced that there really is an error in the Bible.  Won’t such a conclusion have a kind of reverse effect along our chain of deductive reasoning, leading us to deny Jesus’ resurrection and deity?  This was apparently the conclusion of Bart Ehrman, who says he lost his faith in Christ because he discovered one minor error in the Gospels.

Such a conclusion is unnecessary for two reasons.  First, we may need instead to revise our understanding of what constitutes an error.  Nobody thinks that when Jesus says that the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds (Mark 4.31) this is an error, even though there are smaller seeds than mustard seeds.  Why?  Because Jesus is not teaching botany; he is trying to teach a lesson about the Kingdom of God, and the illustration is incidental to this lesson.   Defenders of inerrancy claim that the Bible is authoritative and inerrant in all that it teaches or all that it means to affirm.  This raises the huge question as to what the authors of Scripture intend to affirm or teach.  Questions of genre will have a significant bearing on our answer to that question.  Poetry obviously is not intended to be taken literally, for example.  But then what about the Gospels?  What is their genre?  Scholars have come to see that the genre to which the Gospels most closely conform is ancient biography.  This is important for our question because ancient biography does not have the intention of providing a chronological account of the hero’s life from the cradle to the grave.  Rather ancient biography relates anecdotes that serve to illustrate the hero’s character qualities.  What one might consider an error in a modern biography need not at all count as an error in an ancient biography.  To illustrate, at one time in my Christian life I believed that Jesus actually cleansed the Temple in Jerusalem twice, once near the beginning of his ministry as John relates, and once near the end of his life, as we read in the Synoptic Gospels.  But an understanding of the Gospels as ancient biographies relieves us of such a supposition, for an ancient biographer can relate incidents in a non-chronological way.  Only an unsympathetic (and uncomprehending) reader would take John’s moving the Temple cleansing to earlier in Jesus’ life as  an error on John’s part.

We can extend the point by considering the proposal that the Gospels should be understood as different performances, as it were, of orally transmitted tradition.  The prominent New Testament scholar Jimmy Dunn, prompted by the work of Ken Bailey on the transmission of oral tradition in Middle Eastern cultures, has sharply criticized what he calls the “stratigraphic model” of the Gospels, which views them as composed of different layers laid one upon another on top of a primitive tradition.  (See James D. G. Dunn, Jesus Remembered [Grand Rapids, Mich.:  William B. Eerdmans, 2003].) On the stratigraphic model each tiny deviation from the previous layer occasions speculations about the reasons for the change, sometimes leading to quite fanciful hypotheses about the theology of some redactor.  But Dunn insists that oral tradition works quite differently.  What matters is that the central idea is conveyed, often in some key words and climaxing in some saying which is repeated verbatim; but the surrounding details are fluid and incidental to the story. 

Probably the closest example to this in our non-oral, Western culture is the telling of a joke.  It’s important that you get the structure and punch line right, but the rest is incidental.  For example, many years ago I heard the following joke: 

“What did the Calvinist say when he fell down the elevator shaft?” 
“I don’t know.” 
“He got up, dusted himself off, and said, ‘Whew! I’m glad that’s over!’”

Now just recently someone else told me what was clearly the same joke.  Only she told it as follows:

“Do you know what the Calvinist said when he fell down the stairs?” 
“‘Whew! I’m glad that’s over!’”

Notice the differences in the telling of this joke;  but observe how the central idea and especially the punch line are the same.  Well, when you compare many of the stories told about Jesus in the Gospels and identify the words they have in common, you find a pattern like this.  There is variation in the secondary details, but very often the central saying is almost verbatim the same.  And remember, this is in a culture where they didn’t even have the device of quotation marks!  (Those are added in translation to indicate direct speech; to get an idea of how difficult it can be to determine exactly where direct speech ends, just read Paul’s account of his argument with Peter in Galatians 2 or of Jesus’ interview with Nicodemus in John 3.)  So the stories in the Gospels should not be understood as evolutions of some prior primitive tradition but as different performances of the same oral story.

Now if Dunn is right, this has enormous implications for one’s doctrine of biblical inerrancy, for it means that the Evangelists had no intention that their stories should be taken like police reports, accurate in every detail.  What we in a non-oral culture might regard as an error would not be taken by them to be erroneous at all. 

I was struck by your comment that you feel “a certain bitterness against God for allowing the biblical writers to play fast-and-loose with his words and for not providing a clarity that brings more certainty about what is from him and what isn't.”   Joshua, you are imposing upon God what you think ought to be the standards of inerrancy rather than coming to the Scriptures and learning from them what inerrancy means.  The biblical writers aren’t playing fast and loose with His words if God never intended His words to be taken in the way you suggest.  A Bible that employs a rich variety of genres should not be treated like a flat, monotone book.  We need to come to God’s Word with humility and learn from it what it intends to teach and affirm. 

Take a look at my article “‘Men Moved by the Holy Spirit Spoke from God’ (2 Peter 1.21): A Middle Knowledge Perspective on Biblical Inspiration,” under Scholarly Articles: Omniscience for a proposal on how to conceive of verbal, plenary, congruent inspiration of Scripture.

So if we are confronted with what appears to be an error in Scripture, we should first ask whether we’re not imposing on Scripture a standard of inerrancy which is foreign to the genre of the writing and the intent of its author.  I remember Dr. Kantzer once remarking that many of his constituents would be shocked if they knew what he was willing to allow in Scripture and not call it an error.  He understood that we must put ourselves within the horizon of the original authors before we ask if they have erred.

But secondly, suppose you’ve done all that and are still convinced that Scripture is not inerrant.  Does that mean that the deity and resurrection of Christ go down the drain?  No, not all.  For the far weaker premiss in the above two syllogisms will be premiss (5), rather than premiss (2).  As you recognize, we have a very strong case for the resurrection of Jesus.  That case in no way depends on the Bible’s being inerrant.  This became very clear to me during my doctoral studies in Munich with Wolfhart Pannenberg.  Pannenberg had rocked German theology by maintaining that a sound historical case can be made for the resurrection of Jesus.  Yet he also believed that the Gospel resurrection appearances stories are so legendary that they have scarcely a historical kernel in them!  He did not even trust the Markan account of the discovery of the empty tomb.  Rather his argument was founded on the early pre-Pauline tradition about the appearances in I Corinthians 15.3-5 and on the consideration that a movement based on the resurrection of dead man would have been impossible in Jerusalem in the face of a tomb containing his corpse. 

Evangelicals sometimes give lip service to the claim that the Gospels are historically reliable, even when examined by the canons of ordinary historical research; but I wonder if they really believe this.  It really is true that a solid, persuasive case for Jesus’ resurrection can be made without any assumption of the Gospels’ inerrancy.

By contrast, the case for Jesus’ belief that the Old Testament Scriptures are inerrant is much weaker.  I think there’s no doubt that (5) is the premiss that would have to go if biblical inerrancy were to be abandoned.  We should have to re-think our doctrine of inspiration in that case, but we needn’t give up belief in God or in Jesus, as Bart Ehrman did.  Ehrman had, it seems to me, a flawed theological system of beliefs as a Christian.  It seems that at the center of his web of theological beliefs was biblical inerrancy, and everything else, like the beliefs in the deity of Christ and in his resurrection, depended on that. Once the center was gone, the whole web soon collapsed.  But when you think about it, such a structure is deeply flawed.  At the center of our web of beliefs ought to be some core belief like the belief that God exists, with the deity and resurrection of Christ somewhere near the center.  The doctrine of inspiration of Scripture will be somewhere further out and inerrancy even farther toward the periphery as a corollary of inspiration.  If inerrancy goes, the web will feel the reverberations of that loss, as we adjust our doctrine of inspiration accordingly, but the web will not collapse because belief in God and Christ and his resurrection and so on don’t depend upon the doctrine of biblical inerrancy.

So rather than be corrosive to your faith, I hope that biblical studies can become for you, as they have for me, a source of novelty, excitement, and encouragement.