Doctrine of Revelation (part 6)January 31, 2010 Time: 00:39:35
b) Authority (1) Biblical Inerrancy Defined.
A Closer Look at the Chicago Statement
We are discussing authority and examining biblical inerrancy – what biblical inerrancy means. Let’s look more closely at the Chicago Statement. You remember I said last time that biblical inerrancy does not mean that the Bible is inerrant in all that it says. Rather we should understand inerrancy in terms of what the Bible affirms or what the Bible teaches or what the Bible asserts. That is where the Bible speaks with authority and inerrantly. Here are the five points of the Short Statement from the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy from 1978:
1. God, who is Himself Truth and speaks truth only, has inspired Holy Scripture in order thereby to reveal Himself to lost mankind through Jesus Christ as Creator and Lord, Redeemer and Judge. Holy Scripture is God’s witness to Himself.
2. Holy Scripture, being God’s own Word, written by men prepared and superintended by His Spirit, is of infallible divine authority in all matters upon which it touches: it is to be believed, as God’s instruction, in all that it affirms; obeyed, as God’s command, in all that it requires; embraced, as God’s pledge, in all that it promises.
3. The Holy Spirit, Scripture’s divine Author, both authenticates it to us by His inward witness and opens our minds to understand its meaning.
4. Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God’s acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God’s saving grace in individual lives.
5. The authority of Scripture is inescapably impaired if this total divine inerrancy is in any way limited or disregarded, or made relative to a view of truth contrary to the Bible’s own; and such lapses bring serious loss to both the individual and the Church.
And then here is its brief explanation of Infallibility, Inerrancy, and Interpretation:
Holy Scripture, as the inspired Word of God witnessing authoritatively to Jesus Christ, may properly be called infallible and inerrant. These negative terms have a special value, for they explicitly safeguard crucial positive truths.
Infallible signifies the quality of neither misleading nor being misled and so safeguards in categorical terms the truth that Holy Scripture is a sure, safe, and reliable rule and guide in all matters.
Similarly, inerrant signifies the quality of being free from all falsehood or mistake and so safeguards the truth that Holy Scripture is entirely true and trustworthy in all its assertions.
We affirm that canonical Scripture should always be interpreted on the basis that it is infallible and inerrant. However, in determining what the God-taught writer is asserting in each passage, we must pay the most careful attention to its claims and character as a human production. In inspiration, God utilized the culture and conventions of His penman’s milieu, a milieu that God controls in His sovereign providence; it is misinterpretation to imagine otherwise.
Remember we talked about a middle knowledge perspective on inspiration and how God would shape the whole cultural milieu and history of a writer like Paul so that he will freely compose the book of Romans.1 The statement continues:
So history must be treated as history, poetry as poetry, hyperbole and metaphor as hyperbole and metaphor, generalization and approximation as what they are, and so forth. Differences between literary conventions in Bible times and in ours must also be observed: since, for instance, non-chronological narration and imprecise citation were conventional and acceptable and violated no expectations in those days.
Remember we talked about the genre of ancient biography and how ancient biographers were free to rearrange chronologically the material in the biographies of the famous people that they described. Similarly, the Gospel writers are free to rearrange chronologically the material they narrate. The statement continues:
We must not regard these things as faults when we find them in Bible writers. When total precision of a particular kind was not expected nor aimed at, it is no error not to have achieved it. Scripture is inerrant, not in the sense of being absolutely precise by modern standards, but in the sense of making good its claims and achieving that measure of focused truth at which its authors aimed.
So you can see that the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, when you unfold it, is really a nuanced doctrine. It is not a wooden or inflexible doctrine that just says, “The Bible is true in whatever it says!” It is going to depend on literary conventions of the day in which the author wrote, the type of literature it is, what he is asserting or teaching.
My only reservation I have about this statement is in point 2 of the Short Statement, when it says that the Holy Scripture is infallible in “all matters upon which it touches.” That is different than what it says in point 4 when it says that Scripture is without error in “all its teaching.” It depends on what you mean by “touches.” That sounds broader than “teaches.” To my mind, to say “all that it touches” would mean all that it mentions. The statement seems to imply that Scripture would be infallible in “all that it touches or mentions.” But that seems to be going to far. Let me give a couple of illustrations.
In my debate with Roy Hoover on the resurrection of Jesus, Hoover made a great deal of the fact that the cosmology of the biblical writers is no longer viable today and that this represented an enormous sea change that really disqualified the biblical worldview. What did he have in mind? He said in those days people thought that heaven was literally “up there,” that God was “up there” in the clouds, and that hell or Sheol or the underworld was “down there,” it was under your feet under the Earth, and we lived in between. Today we know that that is not true – if you go off into outer space, you are not going to get to heaven by a spaceship. And if you bore down into the Earth, you are not going to find the people in hell. So Hoover claims that the Bible has this antiquated, “three-decker universe,” as it is called, – hell below, us in the middle, and heaven up above the clouds.
Certainly you can find passages in Scripture that sound like that, but the Bible doesn’t teach that – the Bible doesn’t teach a three-decker universe. It doesn’t teach this kind of cosmology, even if that was the cosmological outlook that the biblical authors may have had. They may have thought that heaven was “up there” and hell was “down there,” but that is not part of the teaching of Scripture. Therefore, I would feel uncomfortable in saying that the Bible is inerrant in all that it touches because, in this case, it seems that the writers might well have an antiquated scientific worldview.
Another example is the following: maybe the biblical authors thought that the Sun goes around the Earth. It would not be surprising if they thought the Sun goes around the Earth, rather than the Earth around the Sun. But the Bible doesn’t teach a geo-centric cosmology. So you can see the difference between mentioning or touching something versus teaching it.
The only way in which I can understand this expression to be acceptable would be as follows. Notice in point 2 that the Scripture is “infallible” in all matters that it touches. It does not say it is “inerrant” in all matters upon which it touches. What is the difference between infallibility and inerrancy? Look at the paragraphs that explain that. The second paragraph after the subheading says, “Infallible signifies the quality of neither misleading nor misled . . . .”2 I think we can agree that, yes, the Scripture is not misleading in what it says about the three-decker universe or cosmology because it doesn’t teach it, even if that is the outlook that its authors had. It could be infallible in that sense, as not misleading us into some sort of error. But it would be inerrant in all of its assertions.
Let me give one other example that illustrates the point. If you look at the book of Jude, it is striking that it has quotations of stories or verses from non-canonical works. For example, in Jude verse 9 it tells the story about the archangel Michael contending with the devil about the body of Moses. This is not anywhere in the Old Testament. This is from a pseudepigraphal Jewish work called The Assumption of Moses. And similarly, in verse 14 it says that Enoch, in the seventh generation from Adam, prophesied, and then it quotes a passage from The Apocalypse of Enoch, which, again, is not part of the Old Testament; it is a pseudepigraphal work. Now if you say that the Scripture is inerrant in all that it mentions, it would seem that you are committed to the historicity of these stories and maybe even to the canonicity of Enoch and The Assumption of Moses. But if you take the view that the Scripture is inerrant in what it teaches, rather than just in what it touches or mentions, then the fact that the author here quotes from this book of Enoch or that he quotes a story from The Assumption of Moses doesn’t commit us or teach us that these are genuinely historical incidents or that these works ought to be part of God’s Word.
Let me give an illustration. Suppose I said something like, “He made about as good an impression upon her as Mr. Darcy made upon Elizabeth Bennet!” Those of you who are Pride and Prejudice fans will recognize that as a reference to Jane Austen’s novel – how the arrogant Mr. Darcy really made a bad impression on Elizabeth Bennet when they first met. Or suppose I said to someone, “She was his girl Friday and was essential to his work.” That’s clearly a reference to the story of Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe and to his man Friday, who served him on the island. But in saying those things, am I committing myself to the historicity of Robinson Crusoe and Friday? Or am I committed to the truth of Pride and Prejudice as a piece of English history? Obviously not! So I think you can see that it is possible for Scripture to mention things, or to touch upon things, without teaching those things.
What we need to do is discern or determine, as the Chicago Statement quite rightly says, what the Gospel writer is teaching or asserting in each passage because it will be with respect to its affirmations or assertions or teachings that the Scripture is inerrant.
What all this means to say is that the doctrine of inerrancy is not this inflexible, wooden doctrine that you can just sort of superimpose over Scripture. Rather it is a doctrine that is pliable, that is nuanced, that is subtle and sensitive to the type of literature you are reading and to what the author means to affirm. In that sense we ought to be committed to a doctrine of biblical inerrancy, namely, that the Scripture is inerrant and truthful in all that it affirms or teaches.
Answer: I am saying that Jude doesn’t commit himself to the historicity of these things. We should not think that because he quotes from Enoch that we are thereby committed to thinking that this is really an authentic writing from Enoch, rather than some pseudepigraphal work. Similarly I don’t think we are committed to the truth about the story of the archangel Michael. It may be historical; an apocryphal work can include true incidents, but we are not committed to that in virtue of this text. I would use my illustrations of quoting from Pride and Prejudice or Robinson Crusoe as an illustration of that.
Question: In talking about the differences of the heavens and hell, and what the writers of the time actually thought about it, has that actually been disproved by science? They haven’t reached the outer edges of space and have there ever been expeditions to the core of the Earth?3
Answer: Theoretically you can say space goes on and on to a certain point, and then there is heaven out there. But that would be enormously unlikely. I don’t think when we say that Jesus ascended into heaven that it means he traveled off into outer space for light years and light years until he finally got there! It is more like a higher dimension. Similarly, the souls of the departed dead aren’t embodied, so how can they be in the center of the Earth, down in the molten core? It would seem that disembodied souls would be in some sort of other dimension of reality. But this word picture that God looks down from heaven is a way of speaking that comes naturally to us. We still talk that way, even those of us that don’t think that Heaven is sort of “up there!” We still say that God looks down from heaven and hears our prayer. It is just an anthropomorphic way of speaking.
Question: Bart Ehrman wondered why God can’t preserve and do exactly what he wants to do. It assumes some kind of possession of the writers. Why can’t God take care of these manuscripts?
Answer: We’re talking about Bart Ehrman, who is the head of the Religious Studies Department at the University of North Carolina and the best selling religious author with Oxford University Press. He is an apostate. He is an evangelical graduate of Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College. He is now an atheist or agnostic, and he really is on a vendetta against evangelical believers. Ehrman says what made him lose his faith was that he found what he thought was an error in the Gospel of Mark. The minute he saw that there was an error in the Gospel of Mark, it was as though the floodgates opened and his whole faith just unraveled.
The problem here – and why we want to speak to this – is that not only was this a kind of wooden, inflexible view of inerrancy, but I think he had a flawed theological structure. We can think of our theological beliefs as rather like a web of beliefs. Some of the beliefs in the web are very near to the center, other beliefs are further out, and finally there are beliefs in the web that are out on the perimeter of the web. What could be some examples of these? Your view of whether Christ’s coming is pre-tribulation or post-tribulation can be considered way out near the perimeter of the web. If you changed that, it is not going to cause a lot of reverberation through your web. But if you change one of your central beliefs and rip that out, that is going to affect the whole structure of the web, and it might well collapse. A belief like the deity of Christ would be one of those.
The error that too many evangelicals and fundamentalist Christians make is that right at the center of their web of beliefs is biblical inerrancy. As a result, if that doctrine is challenged or goes, the whole system collapses. I think that is utterly perverse. What ought to be at the center of our web of beliefs is Christian essentials – like the existence of God. Truly, if the existence of God goes, your whole web of beliefs is going to collapse! The deity of Christ is pretty near the center, as is the resurrection of Christ. A little further out could be the doctrine of the atonement – how Christ’s death atones for our sins. Further out still could be your doctrine of the sacraments – at least, that is my view as a Protestant. Further out still would be your belief in the doctrine of inspiration and its corollary, which is biblical inerrancy. If that is challenged and given up, that is going to cause some reverberations in the web, that’s right – but it is not going to cause the whole thing to collapse. You would be quite unjustified to think that just because the Bible is errant that therefore God doesn’t exist or that Christ didn’t rise from the dead or that the doctrine of the Trinity is false. That would be crazy!
What I am suggesting is that we need to have a sound web of beliefs with the central doctrines at the center and the more secondary beliefs near to the periphery. Inspiration and inerrancy will be one of those beliefs that, however important, is nearer to the periphery than to the center. I think Ehrman’s mistake – and the mistake of so many Christians who lose their faith – is that they have inerrancy at the center, and often it is a very wooden and inflexible understanding. So when this belief of theirs is challenged, their whole Christian faith collapses, which is tragic.4
Question: I really think you give the atheists and agnostics like Ehrman too much credit. I think the real problem is that they fall into sin, immorality, or whatever it is, and then to save face they pick one small thing which they say ultimately opened the floodgates. I think it is their unwillingness to bend the knee and declare Jesus as Lord.
Answer: This is a good point, and some of these folks who have lost their faith will admit this very openly. One of my students in seminary, who is now a very virulent anti-Christian, admits it was his adultery and pornography use that really caused his faith to collapse. But that is not a socially acceptable reason for no longer being a Christian. You look much better if you have intellectual reasons for rejecting the faith. Then you look smart for becoming a non-Christian. So there is a certain motivation to cast your “reverse testimony” in very intellectual terms because then it looks as if you have sort of grown out of Christianity, when in fact it may well have been moral and spiritual factors that were at the root of your apostasy.
Question: This reminds me about Gary Habermas’ point about how it is very often emotional doubt that causes people to lose their faith.
Answer: I think Gary Habermas is very perceptive on this. Doubt is primarily an emotionally driven issue, rather than an intellectually driven issue. It reminds us that we need to keep our emotions in check and to guard our spiritual formation as well.
Question: I am troubled by something. If there are points in the Bible that we can’t be sure about, couldn’t it be said that God is deceiving us? If we aren’t sure we are reading about the God of the universe, how do we defend the Scripture? And I’m not a skeptic – I am a believer trying to understand how do we trust what we read?5
Answer: I share your discomfort and your unease. But let me be very clear – you said, “in defense of the Scripture.” I hope nobody perceives that what I am saying here is an attack on the Scripture! Rather what I am trying to enunciate is a biblical doctrine of inerrancy and what it really means. The doctrine of inerrancy, as the Chicago Statement says, is very nuanced, and it does leave us in the uncomfortable position that you have got to do some hermeneutics. What is hermeneutics? It is the task of interpreting literature. It means that it is going to be harder than just flipping the pages of Scripture, finding a verse and just reading it and claiming it. That is not adequate hermeneutics! You are going to have to read it in the context of the history of the day in which it was written, and you will need to know and understand the type of literature it is in order to discern what it teaches. It seems that it is just inescapable that we have to do that. That is one reason God has gifted the church with teachers. James talks about those who are gifted to be teachers of the church so as to help give proper instruction in things of this sort. It does make me uncomfortable, it does mean that it is going to be harder than otherwise, but it just seems to be inescapable that this is the situation that we find ourselves in. Notice that this isn’t a question of apologetics. There are vast amounts of historical and archaeological data that show that the Scriptures are reliable historical documents. Rather this is a hermeneutical question that asks, “If the Bible is inerrant in all that it teaches or asserts, what does a particular passage mean to teach and assert?” That is not always obvious.
Question: I don’t understand how the doctrine of inspiration and inerrancy can be so far outside on the web when we base everything we believe, the doctrines of Christianity, on Scripture. After all, the Protestant movement broke away from the Catholics because Protestants wanted to focus on Scripture
Answer: There are two issues here. One is the issue of truth, and the other is the issue of evidence or knowing. Clearly, the doctrines of the Trinity, the incarnation, and the resurrection of Christ, all of those can be true even if Scripture weren’t inerrant. I think everyone would agree with that. There wouldn’t even need to be a Scripture, and those doctrines could still be true! The point you are making – and it is a good one – is: how do we know that those doctrines are true? Well, we know them on the basis of what the Scripture teaches. So although these truths are independent of the truth of Scripture (and that’s what I am illustrating by my web analogy), if the inspiration of Scripture were to be abandoned, then the question would arise, “How do I know that these other things are true?” You would be cast upon the resources of apologetics to know those things, which wouldn’t be a good thing, but they would be available.6
Notice that I am not backing away from the doctrine that whatever Scripture teaches is true. I am affirming that; and I am saying that if the Scriptures teach the resurrection of Christ, then, knowing that Scripture is inerrant, we do believe in that. I am affirming that the Scripture is a reliable guide to truth in what it teaches. The only point I’m trying to make is that it is not always obvious what the passages are teaching or asserting, because it may touch on certain things without really teaching those things.
Question: Do we need to distinguish between infallibility, inerrancy, and understandability? Peter even says Paul’s writings are difficult to understand! If an apostle regards some of these things as hard to understand, where do we stand? You have to study the word to understand it – you can’t just take the simple reading and assume it is true. It is easy to misunderstand it.
Answer: I appreciate what you just said. The verse you refer to is 2 Peter 3:15-16 where Peter says:
Our dear brother Paul also wrote you with the wisdom that God gave him. He writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction.
This emphasis is quite right. To say the Scripture is inerrant doesn’t mean it will be easy to understand. It may be that we are deficient in our understanding. Just this morning I was speaking in another class, and one of the men in the group, when we were talking about the need for apologetics, made the point, “When I read the Bible, if there is something in it I don’t understand, I just pray, ‘God show it to me,’ and then the light comes on!” And I thought, Boy, it is not that easy! That leads to subjectivism and each person’s reading into the text what it means to him. The text of Scripture has an objective meaning, and to get it out is going to require some study. We can’t forgo the hard work that it takes to understand the text.
Question: Is your view of Scripture that it is the ultimate test and final authority of doctrine?
Question: Most of us have had the experience of believing a Scripture meant a certain thing but to later understand it better and realize our original interpretation and understanding was wrong. Do you know Bart Ehrman’s problem in Mark?7
Answer: I don’t remember what it was, so I can’t speak to that. But you are quite right, sometimes deeper understanding might lead you to believe an interpretation of the Bible that before you would have thought was wrong. The example that came to my mind was the cleansing of the temple – thinking that maybe Jesus did it twice because in John it is early in his career and in the Synoptics it is later. But if you think that John had the freedom to place the event earlier, then you are not committed to saying that this event happened twice. That would be an example of what you are talking about.
Question: I think Bart Ehrman focused on the discrepancy of the name of the high priest that Mark gives during David’s reign and what the name is in the Old Testament. But I just want to second what you are saying. I think it is tempting to believe that we should have a dictated Scripture that contains no errors, but we should not give our kids the impression that there are no difficulties and apparent discrepancies in the Scripture. Hermeneutics is always a difficult task.
Answer: It is a difficult task, yes.
What we want to affirm with regard to the doctrine of biblical inerrancy is what the Chicago Statement says, which is that the Scripture is authoritative and infallible and inerrant in all that it means to assert and to affirm and to teach. It is up to us to determine exactly what those affirmations and assertions are.8
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