Doctrine of Revelation (part 5)

January 24, 2010     Time: 00:24:00


b) Authority (1) Biblical Inerrancy Defined.


We have been talking about the doctrine of inspiration, and last time I defended a supervision view of inspiration based upon a doctrine of God’s middle knowledge. There may be some questions remaining in your mind as a result of that lesson. I want to address them right away.

One question is, “If we say that the Bible is verbally inspired, then does that mean that English translations of the Bible aren’t really the Word of God because their words aren’t verbally inspired? Is it only the Greek and Hebrew words that are inspired?” I think this is right! It may make us uncomfortable at first. But it does seem that the logical consequence of verbal inspiration is that it is the Greek and Hebrew words that are inspired by God and that English versions of the Bible are just a translation of God’s Word but aren’t God’s Word itself. In that sense, sometimes Christians will point out that Muslims are mistaken when they say, holding up an English translation of the Qur’an, that that is not a Qur’an but instead is only a translation of the Qur’an or it is the meaning of the Qur’an, but it isn’t the Qur’an itself because the true Qur’an is written in Arabic. But it seems that as Christians we are committed to saying something very similar – the inspired Word of God is the Greek and Hebrew text, and English translations are just that, namely, translations.

What this means is none of the English translations is inspired; they can be bad translations, in fact. Therefore, it is good for Christians to own a number of translations because different nuances will sometimes be expressed in different translations. Sometimes it is impossible in a single English phrase to capture the nuances in a Greek or Hebrew expression.

Someone asked me what would be the closest to the Greek, and I suppose it would be the New American Standard, in the sense that it is the most literal, word-for-word translation. But that is not to say that it is the best translation. As anyone that has learned a foreign language knows, the best translation captures the sense of the passage and is not a wooden, word-for-word translation. If you want to get a literal translation, New American Standard will get you close to what the Greek is saying. But that is not to say that that is the best translation because it may not have the literary qualities or the correct sense of the passage. Therefore, it is good to have a number of modern translations that you can use to compare with one another.

When we talk about verbal revelation and propositional revelation, what we mean is that God has revealed these Greek and Hebrew sentences to humanity. These contain his teaching to us, what he wants us to know, about how to come to know him, about the world we live in, about his Son, about his plan of salvation, and so forth.


Question: Which translation do you think has the best or closest sense to the original languages?

Answers: I do not have a recommendation. I myself use the Revised Standard Version. I think that has the literary beauty of the King James Bible but with better manuscripts and more modern translation. But there are others as well. The ESV and NIV are two others. I think it is good to have a number of modern translations. Basically all of these will be responsible translations. They are done by modern committees of linguists who are experts.1

Followup: I have heard that the NIV is really too much of a paraphrase and in fact it changes the truth just by leaving out certain pronouns or words that we’d think are unimportant but in the Greek could change the meaning.

Answer: That is true about the TNIV – those who are interested in inclusivist language have changed much of that to eliminate male references and pronouns. I think there you do have some definite distortion. But as for the NIV, I don’t think it will seriously mislead.

Question: What is your opinion on the translations that completely eliminate verses rather than just note the differences in footnotes?

Answer: What he is talking about is that the best manuscripts indicate that certain portions that are included in the King James Bible weren’t really in the original manuscripts. They were later additions, and therefore they are left out. It does seem to be the case that these verses are spurious and therefore we ought not, as Christians, to take them seriously. But I suppose you could have them indicated as footnotes on the bottom of the page. That’s the way my RSV does it. It will have the longer ending of Mark at the bottom and have the shorter ending down at the bottom, but the text itself on the page will end with verse 8. Then it will say, “Other ancient manuscripts read. . . ,” and it will give you some of these alternative readings. But for the most part, these sorts of verses are not of tremendous importance doctrinally. It would be better for a serious Bible student to be aware of them and have them footnoted, but for devotional purposes, I don’t think it is of any significance.

Question: More of a comment, in support of the NIV. In the beginning of Amos 8, it looks a little odd in the NASV because it talks about things that don’t seem to connect. But in the Hebrew the words for “fruit” and “end” are similar, and it’s a pun. The NIV tries to get this pun across when it uses the word “ripe.”

Answer: That is a nice example of why you should have a variety of translations to compare the verses to see how they would read.

Special Revelation – Scripture - Inerrancy

Let’s turn now to the subject of biblical inerrancy. We’ve defended the view that Scripture is verbally and plenarily inspired. But that doesn’t say anything about its truth. After all, you could have false sentences, each of which is composed of words that are inspired by God. Verbal inspiration doesn’t mean the sentence is true. Words aren’t true or false; sentences are. We haven’t talked yet about the authority of the Bible or the inerrancy of it.

Biblical Inerrancy Defined

Inerrancy is basically a function of the authority of Scripture. God speaks to us through Scripture. It is his Word to us. So what the Scripture teaches will be from God, it will be his Word to us, and it therefore reflects his integrity and truthfulness. Biblical inerrancy is a deduction from the fact that this is God’s Word to us and that God himself is truthful and faithful and can be trusted.2

Having said that, I must admit that biblical inerrancy is very difficult to define. We have the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy that was produced in 1978 that attempts to define it. It says a couple of things about the Scripture that are not easy to understand as to how they fit together. For example, #2 in the short statement says:

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.

There it speaks of matters upon which Scripture touches, that it affirms, that it commands, that it requires, and what it promises. Inerrancy is defined in the section titled “Infallibility, Inerrancy, Interpretation” under “Exposition.” Notice the second and third paragraphs:

‘lnfallible’ 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.

The difficulty in understanding this is to understand what it means by “all its assertions” (or all that it teaches). Clearly the Scripture is not inerrant in just everything that it says. Not everything that it says in the Bible is inerrant. For example, look at Mark 4:31. This is a nice example because I think it is so uncontroversial. Jesus is giving a parable about the Kingdom of God, and he says, “The Kingdom of God is like a grain of mustard seed which, when sown upon the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on Earth. Yet when it is grown, it grows up to be the greatest of all shrubs.” Well, the mustard seed is not, in fact, the smallest of all seeds that is sown, and everybody recognizes this. But is this an error in the Bible? It would be wooden and pedantic to say that this is a mistake in the Bible. Why? Because Jesus is not teaching botany here; he is teaching a lesson about the Kingdom of God. Just as the mustard seed grows from a tiny, little seed up into a big bush, so the Kingdom of God will grow from insignificant beginnings into a great Kingdom. It would be quite wrong to say that this represents an error in Scripture.

So it is not everything that Scripture says that is inerrant, rather it is what Scripture means to affirm or assert or teach which is inerrant. What that means is that we need to discern what the point is that the Bible is teaching or affirming because it may not always be obvious. This will be affected, for example, by the genre of the piece of literature of the Bible that we are reading.3 The literary genre means the type of literature that it is – is it history or poetry? What sort of literature is it that we are reading? When you read, for example, the book of Revelation with all its symbolism and imagery, it would be quite mistaken to read this as a sort of literal description of nine-headed monsters coming out of the ocean and so forth. In Jewish literature, these figures represent different national realities.

Similarly, when you look at the genre of literature that the Gospels are closest to, New Testament critics have come to the conclusion that the genre that the Gospels most closely represent is ancient biography, similar to things like the “Lives of the Caesars” or the “Lives of Famous Greeks and Romans.” In ancient biography, in contrast to modern biography, typically you don’t give a chronological narrative from the cradle to the grave of the hero. Rather, an ancient biographer will tell anecdotes to illustrate the hero’s personality and qualities and heroic traits and so forth. These may be quite chronologically disordered. If that is the case, how are we to understand, for example, the story of Jesus’ cleansing of the temple? In Matthew, Mark, and Luke, the cleansing of the temple takes place during the last week of Jesus’ life – passion week. It is after the triumphal entry that he cleanses the temple. But in the Gospel of John, the cleansing of the temple is placed very early in the ministry of Jesus, not in the last week of his life. Is this an error in the Bible? Or are we forced to harmonize here and say, “Well, he cleansed the temple twice,” which none of the Gospel writers say? None of them says he cleansed it twice; but is that what we are forced to say – he cleansed it once early on in his ministry and then he did exactly the same thing during the last week of his life? When you understand the genre of ancient biography, you realize that the authors are free to tell the events in different order and move them about. That is not an error because the point isn’t to present a chronologically ordered narrative.

Similarly, the Bible will often use paraphrase. They didn’t even have the device of quotation marks in the ancient world! So it will often slide from direct speech into indirect speech, and it is hard to tell where the transition is taking place. The words of Jesus may be given in paraphrase, and so they might differ from Gospel to Gospel. But that doesn’t mean that is an error. They would be accurate paraphrases, but none would need be intended to be a tape recording of what actually happened.

What I am suggesting is that the doctrine of biblical inerrancy is something that, once you understand it accurately, should not be taken to be a kind of wooden way of treating the Gospels unsympathetically. You need to treat them as the kind of literature that they originally were. What might look like a mistake, if you were to treat them as police reports, might not be a mistake at all.

Kenneth Kantzer, who was one of my professors and a great champion of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, once said to us that laypeople would be shocked if they knew some of the things that he believed with regard to the Gospel writers’ freedom to move events about, to paraphrase, and so forth. Even though he was an inerrantist, he did not have this sort of wooden view of the Gospels as being like tape recordings of the life and teachings of Jesus.

We do want to affirm the biblical doctrine of inerrancy, but it is important that we understand it accurately or we may be pushed into the position of defending things and claiming things that the Scripture doesn’t claim or doesn’t force us to.4


Question: On the subject of quotations, could you address the words of Jesus from the cross? “You shall be with me today in paradise” and where the comma should be.

Answer: That really isn’t a question of inerrancy. It is a question of translation. Is Jesus saying, “Today I say to you, you will be with me in paradise.” or is he saying, “I am saying to you, today you will be with me in paradise.”? I think there is no doubt that what Jesus is saying to the thief is, “Today you will be with me in paradise” because that is what Jewish belief was about the afterlife. When you died, the righteous dead went to Abraham’s bosom (to paradise). Jesus gave parables like that. The dead would be there until the Judgment Day at the end of the world. It is entirely baseless to say that what Jesus is saying is, “Today I am saying to you, you will be with me in paradise.” That is just outside of the Jewish context.

Followup: And the same about the word “all” - “all the people came out?” We know that not all the people in the town came out. But then people ask, when do you interpret the word “all” as literally meaning “all?”

Answer: That will depend upon the context and, frankly, common sense. As you quite rightly said, when it says, “All the town went out to greet him,” obviously that doesn’t mean every single man, woman, and child came out. It just means there was this great multitude. It is really just common sense. The proper interpretation will be based upon the context that determines how it should be read, and the meaning will be plain in most of these cases.

Question: On the issue of figuring out what someone actually said in the Greek, isn’t the word oti used a lot to mean the following is a verbatim statement?

Answer: There is a Greek word oti that means “that.” If it says, “He said that. . . ,” you have the word oti. Sometimes people have suggested that oti functions as quotation marks. But it doesn’t always do so. It is very fluid. It is like the English word “that,” as in “John said that. . . ,” where it could be followed by direct quotation or by indirect speech. “John said that he is going to town,” for example. I don’t think you can press the use of that little conjunction very hard to say that it indicates direct speech. There are too many examples to the contrary.

Next time we will continue to look at biblical inerrancy and look at some of the difficulties and challenges to this doctrine and then I will give a defense of biblical inerrancy and why we should hold to it.5




1 5:00

2 10:17

3 15:00

4 19:55

5 Total Running Time: 24:00