Doctrine of Revelation (part 7)February 10, 2010 Time: 00:19:48
b) Authority (2) Difficulties with Biblical Inerrancy (3) Defense of Biblical Inerrancy (4) Approach to Biblical Difficulties.
Difficulties with Biblical Inerrancy
Remember that we defined “inerrancy” as the claim that the Bible is truthful in all that it affirms or teaches. Let’s consider two types of difficulties with this doctrine of biblical inerrancy.
The first difficulty would be apparent inconsistencies in what the Bible teaches. It seems that in some cases one book of the Bible or one author will teach one thing, and another book or author will teach something inconsistent with the first. An example of this would be the death of Judas. In Matthew 27:5 we read Matthew’s account of the death of Judas: “And throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself.” He continues,
But the chief priests, taking the pieces of silver, said, “It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since they are blood money.” So they took counsel, and bought with them the potter’s field, to bury strangers in. Therefore that field has been called the Field of Blood to this day.
So according to Matthew 27, Judas went out and committed suicide by hanging himself. However, if you look at the book of Acts 1:18-19, we have a quite different account:
Now this man bought a field with the reward of his wickedness; and falling headlong he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. And it became known to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.
So you have some similarities here – Judas does die, and there is this “Field of Blood” that is mentioned; but the account is quite different. In Acts it doesn’t say that he hanged himself, but it says that he “fell headlong,” and in the Greek it says he “swelled up,” and he burst open, and he died. So there seems to be some inconsistency here about how Judas met his end. That would be one type of biblical difficulty that inerrancy encounters, that is, inconsistencies.
The second type of difficulty would be just factual mistakes, that is, errors in the Scripture. For example, in Luke 2:1-2 we read about a certain man who was said to be the governor at the time when Jesus was born: “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrollment when Quirinius was governor of Syria.” The problem is that the historical records that we have say that Quirinius was the governor of Syria around A.D. 6 – about twelve years later or so, not at the time that Mary and Joseph went up to Bethlehem to be enrolled. There seems to be a factual error here on Luke’s part concerning when Quirinius was the governor of Syria.
Those would be the two types of challenges that the doctrine of biblical inerrancy has to face: inconsistencies and factual mistakes. In light of these, how might we defend a doctrine of biblical inerrancy?
Defense of Biblical Inerrancy
Here is a two part argument for biblical inerrancy that I think gives a good basis for why we should believe in the doctrine of inerrancy in spite of these difficulties. If you are interested in reading more about this, I recommend to you John Wenham’s book, Christ and the Bible, which is an excellent book on Jesus’ attitude toward the Old Testament as the inerrant and infallible word of God. Wenham’s argument is that the reason that we should believe in biblical inerrancy is because this is what Jesus believed about the Hebrew Bible.1 Jesus believed that the Old Testament was the inerrant Word of God and taught it as such. We should do this as well. As has often been said, we believe in the Bible because we believe in Christ – we do not believe in Christ because we believe in the Bible. It is Christ and his authoritative teaching about the Bible that supplies the foundation for a doctrine of biblical inerrancy. How might the argument go?
The first part would go like this:
1. Whatever God teaches is true. (God is always truthful and cannot lie.)
2. Historical evidences, prophecies, and other evidences show that Jesus is God. (Here you would use your traditional apologetic arguments for the resurrection, fulfilled prophecy, and so forth to show that Jesus is who he claimed to be.)
3. Therefore, whatever Jesus teaches is true.
The second part of the argument takes the conclusion of the first argument and makes it the first premise of the second part.
1. Whatever Jesus teaches is true. (The conclusion from above, based on the divinity of Jesus.)
2. Jesus taught that the Scriptures are the inerrant Word of God (Here you would simply go through what Jesus taught about the Old Testament and show how he regarded the Hebrew Bible. Let’s look at one example, John 10:34-36. Here Jesus is disputing with the Jewish people who did not believe in him, and he answers them by quoting the Old Testament:
Jesus answered them, “Is it not written in your law, ‘I said, you are gods’? If he called them gods to whom the word of God came (and scripture cannot be broken), do you say of him whom the Father consecrated and sent into the world, ‘You are blaspheming,’ because I said, ‘I am the Son of God’?”
Here Jesus is defending his divinity by quoting a passage from Psalms 82:6, and he identifies this Psalm as the Word of God. And he says “Scripture cannot be broken” or “set aside.” So Jesus’ attitude toward the Scriptures is that it is the Word of God, and it is unbreakable. Notice that his whole appeal is based on one word that is found in that Psalm, and that word is “gods.” Right down to the very word that is used, Jesus regarded this as the unbreakable Word of God.)
3. Therefore, the Scriptures are the inerrant word of God.
So whatever Jesus teaches is true, Jesus taught that the Scriptures are the inerrant Word of God, and therefore the Scriptures are, in fact, the inerrant Word of God. On the basis of this argument, we have good grounds for thinking that, indeed, the Scripture is the inerrant Word of God, and we should trust it as such.
This is a deductive, rather than inductive, approach to the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. You don’t arrive at a doctrine of biblical inerrancy by combing through the Bible, looking for errors, and then, finding none, say, “Oh, it must be inerrant.” Nobody would arrive at a doctrine of biblical inerrancy inductively in that way. Rather it is arrived at deductively. It is an inference from Jesus’ own attitude and teaching about the Hebrew Scriptures that he used and taught.
Approach to Biblical Difficulties
What, then, should be our approach to these biblical difficulties? There are difficulties, and if we believe in inerrancy, how should we approach these difficulties?
First, we should try our best to resolve the difficulty. For example, we should ask about the genre of the piece of writing we are looking at. Remember that the Gospels are closest to the genre of ancient biography and that these ancient biographies didn’t mean to give a chronological narrative from cradle to grave of the hero. Rather these authors could group material non-chronologically and rearrange it to illustrate the character qualities of the hero.2 So if someone claims that there is an error in the Gospels because John narrates the cleansing of the temple early in Jesus’ ministry whereas the three Synoptics have it in the last week of his ministry, that is not an error. That is permissible within that genre of writing.
We should also ask, “Is this what the Bible is really teaching?” Is the difficulty concerning something that is the teaching of the Bible? Remember, I gave some examples like the three-decker cosmology of heaven “up there,” hell “down there,” and we are “in between.” Even if you think the Bible writers presupposed that, they don’t teach that, and so that would not count as an error. We need to ask, “Is this really something the Bible is teaching?”
Finally, with regard to the inconsistencies, we may be able to harmonize them. Perhaps there is a way of harmonizing the inconsistencies so that they are not really inconsistent. This has come under a lot of derision by biblical scholars because sometimes these harmonizations look very artificial and very unconvincing. But we do need to be cautious because often truth is stranger than fiction, and things may be harmonized in ways we don’t suspect. Let me give you an illustration. The Dean of the seminary at which I studied (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) Kenneth Kantzer once told us a true story about his mother’s death. He said he received a call from his brother telling him that his mother had been struck by a bus while she was crossing the street in downtown Chicago and that she was being rushed by ambulance to the hospital and that he would get back to Ken on her progress. Sometime later he received a call from the hospital, and they said, “We are sad to inform you that your mother was instantly killed in an automobile accident.” Ken thought, How can this be the case? My brother said that she was struck by a bus and was being rushed to the hospital; and yet the hospital said she was instantly killed in an automobile wreck! The brother was an eyewitness, but the hospital report was official. How can these both be true? Here is what happened. It turned out that his mother was struck by a bus while she was trying to cross the street and was picked up by an ambulance to be rushed to the hospital. On the way to the hospital, the ambulance was involved in an automobile collision, and she was instantly killed in the collision. So both reports were true! As Kantzer said to us, “If I were to propose this sort of fantastic harmonization for a biblical story, I would be laughed out of the room. And yet it really happened!”
So with regard to these inconsistencies, there may well be ways to harmonize them that make it turn out they are not really inconsistent. For example, it could be that Judas did hang himself and that, after rotting on the tree limb, his body swelled up and then fell splat on the ground and his bowels gushed out. It is not impossible that both of those things happened. We don’t know. But it could be a plausible harmonization.3
Secondly, when we can’t resolve the difficulty, then we simply hold the truth in tension. We just hold two beliefs without knowing how they are to be reconciled, but with the confidence that if we did have the full amount of information, we could reconcile them. We just don’t have the information, and so we hold the truth in tension. This isn’t blind faith. There is a historical pattern of these kinds of difficulties’ being resolved over time. One of my favorite illustrations concerns the Assyrian King Sargon II. In the Old Testament, Sargon II is mentioned as one of the kings of Assyria that was oppressing Israel. Old Testament historians said that this was an error because there was no record anywhere in Assyrian history that a king named Sargon II ever even existed! – until, that is to say, archaeologists digging in the region of Khorsabad unearthed the palace of none other than Sargon II! Now we have more information about Sargon II than any of the other ancient Assyrian kings. This is just one example of a sort of on-going pattern.
With regard to Quirinius, many suggestions have been made that perhaps, although he wasn’t officially the governor at that time, nevertheless he was acting in charge of the census that was taken. He was in charge of Assyrian affairs, even if he wasn’t the governor. Here is a very interesting note on this from Dr. John McRay who was an archaeological professor at Wheaton College. In a taped interview for Lee Strobel’s book The Case for Christ, this is what McRay said:
An eminent archaeologist named Jerry Vardaman has done a great deal of work in this regard. He has found a coin with the name of Quirinius on it in very small writing or what we call micrographic letters. This places him as proconsul of Syria and Cilicia from 11 BC until after the death of Herod.
That would be exactly the time that Luke says Quirinius was the governor of Syria. This is published in John McRay’s 1991 book Archaeology and the Old Testament on page 154. This again illustrates the point that our knowledge of the ancient world is very sketchy, and it would not be at all surprising to see these sorts of factual discrepancies dissolve upon acquiring further information.
Suppose that our backs are finally to the wall and that, like Bart Ehrman, you think that there is a demonstrated error in the Bible and that, despite your best attempts to resolve it, you find you can’t hold the truth in tension and you think that the Bible has erred. What should you give up, then? Should you believe that God no longer exists? That Jesus didn’t rise from the dead? That he is not the second person of the Trinity? Well, I don’t think so. As I look at the argument above – this two-part argument – , I think probably what you would give up would be the second part’s premise 2 – that Jesus taught that the Scriptures are the inerrant word of God. That would probably be the premise that would go. You would say that the passages, such as the one I quoted regarding the Scripture as being the Word of God and being unbreakable, do not quite mean inerrant, that, for example, “unbreakable” isn’t synonymous with “inerrant” or something of that sort. That would be the weakest premise of the premises that are in that argument.
I am not suggesting we do give it up; on the contrary, I believe in biblical inerrancy on the basis of this argument. But if my back were to the wall and someone were able to demonstrate an error in the Scripture, I think it would be premise 2 of the second part of the argument that I would give up, rather than any of the other premises, such as “Whatever God teaches is true” or “The historical evidences show that Jesus is God,” and so forth.4
4 Total Running Time: 19:47