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What is Inerrancy?

December 15, 2008     Time: 00:22:58
What is Inerrancy?


Conversation with William Lane Craig

Transcript What is Inerrancy?


Kevin Harris: Dr. Craig, let’s talk about a very important topic. This is something that skeptics of the Christian faith are interested in, and it is certainly something that people of the Christian faith are interested in. And that is inerrancy. The inerrancy of the Scripture, of the Bible. Let’s start with a good definition in the event that someone is not familiar with the doctrine.

Dr. Craig: I think definitions are absolutely crucial in how we understand this. The doctrine of inerrancy doesn’t mean that everything in the Bible is literally true. It doesn’t mean that everything the Bible says is true. What inerrancy properly understood means is that everything that the Bible teaches is true, or that everything that the Bible affirms to be true is true.

Kevin Harris: In other words, does this go into the area of the Bible’s use of metaphor. If the Lord covers us with his wings, that doesn’t mean that he is a bird.

Dr. Craig: Exactly.

Kevin Harris: That would be a wooden literalism.

Dr. Craig: That would be. Or interpreting apocalyptic literature like the book of Revelation with all of its monsters and bowls and candlesticks and so forth in a literal way would be to fundamentally misunderstand this kind of literature which is full of symbolism and imagery. So it would be related to that, yes.

Kevin Harris: Inerrancy is viewed as so important because if the Bible has mistakes in it then how can it be inspired by God?

Dr. Craig: That would be the claim. It depends again on what you mean by inspiration. I take that the doctrine of inspiration means that the Scripture as it was originally written was exactly what God wanted to be his Word to us. That what those human authors wrote under the guidance of God’s Holy Spirit was his Word to us and therefore is inspired in that sense. Now, whether or not inerrancy is an implication of that or not would be something that one might debate. But I think typically one would think that inerrancy would be a corollary of inspiration because it is God’s Word to us and God is truthful. Therefore whatever the Bible teaches or affirms is true. It is God’s Word to us.

Kevin Harris: This would also extend to the original manuscripts – the original writings, the autographa. But not necessarily the copies that have come down?

Dr. Craig: Of course. That’s right. Because the copies can get miscopied and errors can creep in, and therefore one isn’t claiming that any of these copies is inerrant. [1]

Kevin Harris: This is relevant in that best-selling books like the one from Bart Ehrman call into question the inerrancy of the Scripture and therefore say this brings down the whole house of cards.

Dr. Craig: Yes. Bart Ehrman’s own evangelical faith was undermined, initially at least he claims, by his abandonment of the belief in inerrancy. He had a strong view of inerrancy as a student at Moody Bible Institute and then Wheaton College. And when he went to Princeton to do his graduate work, apparently he was doing the exegesis of a certain passage that looked to have an error in it. He tried to think of all sorts of ways to interpret the passage so as to explain away this mistake. Apparently, his professor returned the paper to him and say on it, “Maybe Mark just made a mistake.” Ehrman says this was like the scales falling from his eyes. With that simple comment his belief in inerrancy just began to collapse and he thought yeah, maybe the author just made a mistake. The problem for Ehrman was that once inerrancy went it was like the finger in the dyke being released and the whole of his faith disintegrated.

I think there is a lesson in this, Kevin. And it is this. Inerrancy is a corollary of the doctrine of inspiration. As such, it is important to the Christian faith, but it doesn’t stand at the center of the Christian faith. It is not one of the cardinal doctrines of the Christian faith. If we think of our theological system of beliefs as like a spider’s web, at the core of the web where the center of the web is, there will be things like belief in the existence of God. That would be absolutely central to the web of beliefs. A little further out from that would be the deity of Christ and his resurrection from the dead. A little bit further out from that perhaps would be the penal theory of the atonement – his substitutionary death for our sins. Even further out from that, somewhere near the periphery of the web, will be the belief in the inerrancy of Scripture.

What that means is that if one of these central beliefs – like the belief in the existence of God or the resurrection of Jesus – goes, if that part of the web is plucked out, the whole web is going to collapse. Because if you take something out of the center then the rest of the web can’t exist. But if you pull one of the strands out that is near the periphery, that will cause some reverberation in your web of beliefs but it is not going to destroy the whole thing. The problem with a person like Bart Ehrman, and I think many people today, is that they have at the very center of their web of their theological beliefs, the belief in inerrancy. So if that belief goes, the rest collapses and they are really in danger of committing apostasy. They are teetering on the brink by having this belief be at the very center of their web of beliefs. That, I think, is just clearly mistaken. If inerrancy isn’t true, that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t exist obviously.

Kevin Harris: Or that Christianity is false.

Dr. Craig: No! If inerrancy is not true, does that mean Jesus of Nazareth wasn’t the second person of the Trinity? That he didn’t rise from the dead? That he didn’t die for our sins? Obviously not. So inerrancy is a doctrine that doesn’t belong at the center of your web of beliefs. It belongs somewhere out near the periphery. Therefore, what happened to a person like Bart Ehrman is the result of a misconstruction of his theological system.

Kevin Harris: You seem to be saying he set himself up. That we can set ourselves up.

Dr. Craig: Yes. He set himself up for a fall by having a disoriented theology, if you will.

Kevin Harris: If the doctrine of inerrancy isn’t true, doesn’t that weaken the Christian faith? Isn’t it a good evidence?

Dr. Craig: Yes, I think it does weaken it because it would mean that you would have to be prepared to say that various scriptural authors have erred in things that they have said. Then the question will arise, where do those errors lie? One would begin to have to look for these mistakes and this would reduce your confidence and certainty in the teaching of Scripture. So, absolutely, this is an important doctrine and one that one would not give up lightly.

Kevin Harris: The debate often centers on inerrancy with skeptics of the Christian faith and those who are considering. I’ve seen it go around for years and years just on inerrancy. That often detracts from the person of Christ. [2]

Dr. Craig: Yeah, I think that is just a huge mistake, Kevin. Because now what you are trying to make the focus of your evangelism is inerrancy rather than Christ, as you say. It is Christ that is the center of the Gospel. He ought to be the stumbling stone, not the doctrine of inerrancy. Inerrancy is an in-house debate for someone who is already a Christian.

Kevin Harris: OK. All right.

Dr. Craig: It is an in-house argument about what corollaries are there to the concept of inspiration.

Kevin Harris: Now that is very important because, again, you can go off on a rabbit trail for years with a person on inerrancy. Again, it detracts you from the central truth of the Gospel.

Dr. Craig: It would actually – here’s the serious thing – it would keep people from salvation, which is just horrible. If people have to jump through the hoops of biblical inerrancy in order to become a Christian, you will actually prevent people from coming to know Christ by forcing the unbeliever to embrace this belief in order to be saved.

Kevin Harris: Let me give you an example, Bill. A young man preparing to enter college. As he is going into his freshman year, he holds strongly to inerrancy, and his certain brand of inerrancy holds that every single thing that his NIV Bible that he has right there is totally dead on center accurate, even down to the numbers that it reports in categorizing things and in counting things in the ancient world. He gets to college and he finds out that some of those numbers were rounded off and were not intended to be exact but were, according to ancient standards, a basic kind of a round off or estimation. And that topples his faith. In a sense because suddenly that view that he held gets kicked out from under him and he can’t tolerate that maybe the numbers were rounded off a little.

Dr. Craig: What that would be, I think, would be an example of someone who misunderstands the doctrine of inerrancy. To think that, for example, rounding off is an error. What one needs to tell that person is that is not an error. We use rounding off all the time. Similarly, paraphrase is not an error. If I paraphrase what we talked about today on the air I would not give a verbatim transcript but nevertheless my paraphrase would be accurate. So those are not examples of errors. That would be a misunderstanding of inerrancy.

But I am talking about something more radical, Kevin. I’m saying suppose somebody actually did demonstrate an error in Scripture that really is wrong – it is a mistake. Does that invalidate the Christian faith? And I am saying no. It would mean you would have to adjust your doctrine of inspiration; you would have to give up inerrancy of the Scripture. But it wouldn’t mean, as I say, that Christ didn’t rise from the dead. It wouldn’t even mean that you don’t have good grounds for believing that Christ rose from the dead.

So often Christian apologists give lip service to this idea that if you approach the New Testament documents as you would any ordinary historical document, that they are reliable enough to show, for example, that Jesus thought that he was the Son of God, that he did miracles and exorcisms, that he rose from the dead. But they don’t really believe that. Because the minute somebody points out an error, they go up in arms as though to admit this one error would completely undermine the historicity of the records of Christ. And that is just false. No historian approaches his documents like that. Indeed, the very task of the historian is to sift through the chaff and to find the historical nuggets of truth amidst the errors and mistakes that are typically found in historical writing.

So what I am suggesting is that if you approach the Scriptures as you would ordinary historical documents and you find in them mistakes, contradictions, and errors, that still wouldn’t undermine the general historical credibility of the Gospels, for example, including things like the miracles and exorcisms of Jesus, his radical self-understanding, his resurrection from the dead. Those things don’t hang on the affirmation of biblical inerrancy.

Kevin Harris: So you are saying even if someone were to show an irreconcilable error or contradiction, that should not undermine our faith.

Dr. Craig: Right.

Kevin Harris: You are not saying that anyone has ever done that.

Dr. Craig: No.

Kevin Harris: There have been attempts. I am kind of impressed, Bill, with how well the Bible stands up under scrutiny.

Dr. Craig: Yeah! [3]

Kevin Harris: I’ve looked at the best cases of alleged errors and there do seem to be plausible explanations. There are a lot of things we just don’t have a sufficiency of data about.

Dr. Craig: Yes, I think that is true. I am not arguing for biblical errancy. I do believe in inerrancy myself, properly understood.

Kevin Harris: Hector Avalos would get after you on that and he did. He said, “Bill Craig doesn’t know if the saints who resurrected in Matthew 27, if that is historical or if that is Matthew using apocalyptic language. So therefore that undermines the credibility of the Bible.” That passage in Matthew 27 is that at the time of the crucifixion that there was some – not resurrections – but revivifications of some saints who actually came out of the grave and appeared to people, much like other resurrections or revivifications in other Gospel accounts. Whether that is historical or whether that is language to illustrate the profundity of it, we don’t know. What was he accusing you of there?

Dr. Craig: I am not sure. I think it was just an attempt to try to embarrass me by pointing out something that would look like a biblical error which was really quite irrelevant to either the historicity of the crucifixion or the historicity of the resurrection.

Kevin Harris: So it was kind of a red herring, in other words?

Dr. Craig: Right, it is. It is just a red herring to try to distract people. I am happy to say with respect to this passage in Matthew that I am not sure what it means. That is perfectly consistent with believing in biblical inerrancy. Belief in biblical inerrancy doesn’t mean you understand everything. I don’t understand the book of Revelation. When I read the book of Revelation with all these various symbolic figures and images, I am not sure what it is saying. But that doesn’t mean that I don’t think it is inspired by God or inerrant in what it teaches. I’m not sure what it teaches, that’s all. That is perfectly consistent.

Kevin Harris: Scholars have given good explanations as well because I hear people jumping up and down right now over this passage. We are not saying that it is not authentic. We are trying to examine exactly what is going on and what the writer meant. Very, very good scholars have offered explanations as to what happened here and what it represented, and that it was a representation of the first fruits of the dead of Christ, and that we would expect phenomena like this to go on at such a profound event as the crucifixion and resurrection. So it is not just a knockdown error. It is just maybe we don’t have enough data as to what is going on.

Dr. Craig: Well no, obviously not. And for me it is just a triviality. It doesn’t prove anything. This is an addendum to the crucifixion story of Christ. It is not part of the resurrection account. This is a part of the account of the crucifixion. And yet no historian denies the truth that Jesus of Nazareth was crucified. So even if you regard this as a piece of apocalyptic imagery on Matthew’s part and not something that literally, historically happened, nobody thinks it does anything to undermine the fact that Jesus of Nazareth died by Roman execution by crucifixion. So it is just a triviality. It is, as you said, a red herring.

Kevin Harris: Bill, the best man, the most conservative man, on inerrancy and the most able defender of it has got to be Norman Geisler. He is even very encouraging to people who are so disturbed at the longer ending of Mark not being authentic and not being in the oldest manuscripts and things like that. And he just says, “So what? So we have some extra material that we don’t quite know what to do with.” Well, textual criticism helps us sort these things out.

Dr. Craig: Yes, that is quite a different question than inerrancy. As we said before, inerrancy is the view that whatever the original Scriptures – the original documents – teach or affirm is true. But the question of textual criticism is what were the original documents?

Kevin Harris: An inerrantist is going to hold his Bible right there and if you point to something in that Bible he is holding – the King James or whatever – and say this wasn’t in the earliest manuscripts, that is very disconcerting.

Dr. Craig: Not to an informed inerrantist, Kevin. An informed inerrantist won’t be upset by that. On the contrary, he’ll be involved in textual criticism because he will be anxious to understand what the original text really did say lest he be misled by accretions and copyist errors. [4] So somebody like a Danial Wallace, for example, who is a fine New Testament textual critic at Dallas Theological Seminary, is an inerrantist but he is also very much involved in establishing the original text of the New Testament. And he, like other textual critics, would say the longer ending of Mark as well as the shorter ending is spurious. It is a later accretion by some later author. The original Gospel of Mark either ended with verse 8 of chapter 16 or else the original ending has been lost and not recovered.

Kevin Harris: Let me just offer encouragement. Because I am an inerrantist as well, and it doesn’t bother me in the least that we have a longer ending of Mark that got in later. It is interesting to me. It seems to reflect maybe some historical things that went on, it kind of got in the margin and got inserted into the text. No big deal.

Dr. Craig: Yes, it is not really relevant to inerrancy at all I don’t think.

Kevin Harris: OK, what is the bottom line? Let’s sum it up then. Anybody who is a potential Bart Ehrman. We love Bart. It is just that he did get his legs kicked out from under him because of a certain view that he held that got toppled – rightly so – but then he threw the baby out with the bath water if there ever was a case of it.

Dr. Craig: What we need to understand is that the doctrine of biblical inerrancy is a corollary of the doctrine of inspiration. As such it is an important doctrine, but it is not a central doctrine to the Christian faith. You can be a Christian and not affirm it. If one does give it up it will have some reverberations in your theological web of beliefs but it won’t be destructive to that fundamental web of Christian beliefs because it stands somewhere near the periphery. [5]