Doctrine of Revelation (Part 8): The Difficulties of Biblical Inerrancy

January 21, 2015

Difficulties with Biblical Inerrancy

The last time we met, we talked about a theory of biblical inspiration that would give us a verbal, plenary, and truly confluent Word of God that would make sense of the doctrine of inspiration found in the Bible. This raises the question of biblical authority and inerrancy. We saw that inerrancy is properly defined in terms, not simply of what the Bible says, but in terms of what the Bible teaches, and that the Bible therefore (in virtue of being God’s Word) ought to be inerrant in all that it teaches.

This doctrine confronts difficulties of various sorts. These are principally three – there are two listed on the outline but I am going to add a third category that has recently come to more significance in my mind.

1. Simple inconsistencies within Scripture where the Scriptures seem to contradict themselves. A good example of this in the New Testament would be with respect to the accounts of the death of Judas Iscariot. In Matthew 27:5 we read what happens to Judas after he had betrayed Jesus: “And throwing down the pieces of silver in the temple, he departed; and he went and hanged himself.” So Judas committed suicide by hanging according to Matthew. But now when you turn over to the account that Luke gives in Acts 1 you find a different story. In Acts 1:18-19 Luke adds this parenthetical comment:

(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.)

Here we have a different account of the death of Judas where Judas uses the money to buy a field and then falls and has this fatal injury that ends his life. This would be simply one example of apparent inconsistencies in the Bible that would challenge the doctrine that the Bible is inerrant.

2. Factual mistakes. These would not be inconsistencies within Scripture, but rather mistakes that other external sources would be inconsistent with. For example, in Luke 2:2 he talks about a man like Quirinius who he identifies as the governor of Syria during the time of the census that took Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. He says in Luke 2:2, “This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria.” This contradicts what we know about Syrian leaders in extra-biblical material. Quirinius was, in fact, a governor of Syria, but it wasn’t until some years later that Quirinius governed Syria. Luke seems to have gotten the date wrong. This would be an example of what we might call a factual mistake in Scripture.

3. Recently, I’ve been impressed with the number of non-Christians who reject Scripture because of what we might call ethical errors. That is to say, they reject the moral teachings of Scripture as being mistaken. Sometimes, non-theists will incorrectly use these objections as an argument against the truth of Christianity or even against the truth of theism.[1] But clearly if there are mistakes in the Bible of an ethical nature, that doesn’t mean that atheism is true. I don’t know of any atheist philosopher who would use as his argument that God does not exist because there is some mistake of ethical teaching in the Bible. Similarly, it doesn’t show that Jesus Christ wasn’t the Son of God who died for your sins and was raised from the dead. Rather, what these would challenge – and this is why we are considering them here – is the biblical doctrine of inerrancy. The claim would be that this shows that these passages in Scripture are not, in fact, inspired by God or that the Bible isn’t inerrant, if it is inspired by God, because it contains these ethical errors.

What am I thinking of here? Perhaps the most famous example is the slaughter of the Canaanites in the Old Testament where God is represented as commanding the Israeli armies to go into Canaan and to kill everybody, not only the men but also the women and even the little children. Very many people will say such a command could not possibly have been given by the good and loving God. This is inconsistent with the nature of God, and so these stories of the conquest of Canaan are either legends about the founding of Israel that never really happened or, if the events actually happened, the Israelites, carried away by their nationalistic fervor, thought that God had commanded them to do this when in fact he had not. In either case, I think you can see that what this objection properly challenges would be the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. It would say that these stories are not true.

Similarly, in the Old Testament, the institution of slavery or the subjugation of women is troubling to many people. If it is pointed out that, in fact, slavery in the Old Testament is not at all like slavery that we are familiar with that was in the American antebellum South, that in fact in ancient Israel slavery was really a kind of anti-poverty program. Since they didn’t have government welfare programs, a man could keep his family together and preserve his dignity by selling himself into slavery until he worked off his debts and then could be freed so slavery was actually a kind of anti-poverty program that had the advantages of self-respect, hard work, and keeping the family together. But, as I say, if you point that out, they will say nevertheless the way slaves are treated, like the way women are treated in the Old Testament, indicates that they are not thought to be equal in moral value to men. The penalties for crimes that injured slaves are less than the penalties of those same crimes when they are done against a freed man. Or a woman will have to offer certain sacrifices or make certain observances that are greater than if a man needed to do so. So these indicate a lower view of the personhood of slaves and women that we would find very troubling because we believe in the equal intrinsic value of all human beings.

It is not just the Old Testament. One of the major objections to people in our contemporary culture is the Bible’s prohibition of homosexual activity. For many people, this is just deeply wrong; to say that persons who have a homosexual disposition that they did not choose and cannot get rid of cannot live happy and fulfilling lives but must be celibate for the rest of their existence through no fault of their own. Among non-believers, the Bible’s prohibitions of homosexual activity are often regarded as teachings that could not genuinely be from God. These must represent ethical mistakes in the Bible.

Jesus himself isn’t exempted from these objections.[2] For example, Jesus’ teachings on divorce and remarriage go down very hard today. Look at what Jesus says in Mark 10:11: “And he said to them, ‘Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.’” Here Jesus prohibits divorce and also remarriage. This command is widely ignored in the Christian church today. It is not just non-Christians that find this hard to swallow. Very widely in the church there are Christian believers who once were married who have suffered a divorce but now have found someone else whom they believe God has for them, and they remarry. Sometimes, at least, those marriages are much happier and work out better. So it might be claimed this is an ethical mistake on Jesus’ part. This teaching cannot be right, that it is wrong to divorce and then to remarry another.

I think you can see that these ethical errors, as well as factual mistakes and inconsistencies, would all be reasons, not for denying the existence of God or the person and work of Christ, but they would be reasons for calling into question biblical inerrancy. These would be seen as human mistakes that have worked their way into Scripture. So while Scripture is inspired by God, it is God’s Word, nevertheless it does contain these sorts of mistakes.

I think we have to admit that anyone reading the Bible would not arrive at a doctrine of inerrancy inductively. He wouldn’t read the Scriptures and finding no mistakes conclude that therefore the Bible is inerrant. He would, on the basis of difficulties like these and others, say it probably has these mistakes or errors in it. But I think the doctrine of biblical inerrancy is not based on inductive reasoning. Rather, it is a deductive argument based upon the attitude of Jesus to the Hebrew Scriptures – what we today call the Old Testament. When you look at Jesus’ attitude toward the Hebrew Scriptures, he called them the Word of God, and he treated them as completely reliable and trustworthy and true. On the basis of Jesus’ attitude toward the Scriptures we, as his disciples, also embrace that teaching. This argument might be summarized in the following way. There are two parts to this.

The first part is:

1. Whatever God teaches is true. (This is because God is morally perfect being; he is the greatest conceivable being and therefore no deceiver. God is not a deceiver, and so if he teaches you to believe something, that which he teaches you is true.)

2. Historical, prophetic, and other evidences show that Jesus is God. (This is where you would introduce your typical apologetic arguments and Christian evidences for the person of Christ.)

3. Therefore, whatever Jesus teaches is true. (If Jesus is God, and whatever God teaches is true, then what Jesus teaches us to believe is true.)

The second part of the argument then picks up as its first premise the conclusion of the first argument:

1. Whatever Jesus teaches is true.

Then the crucial premise:

2. Jesus taught that the Scriptures are the inerrant Word of God. (Here one would simply look at how Jesus regarded the Old Testament. If you are interested in exploring this in greater detail, let me recommend the book by John Wenham called Christ and the Bible where he does an extensive study of Jesus’ attitude toward the Hebrew Scriptures.)[3]

3. Therefore, the Scriptures are the inerrant word of God.

So the belief in biblical inerrancy is not something arrived at inductively. It is a deductive inference based upon the person and the teachings of Jesus Christ. Jesus regarded the Hebrew Scriptures as the inerrant Word of God, and he is our teacher, therefore we should follow him in his teaching.

John 10:34-36 gives a nice summary of Jesus’ attitude toward the Hebrew Scriptures. Here Jesus is disputing with his Jewish opponents.

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 quotes from Psalms 82:6. He refers to it as the Word of God. His argument is based upon a single word – the word “gods” – which is found in that passage. And he says Scripture cannot be broken. The sense seems to be here that it is reliable and can’t be just annulled or set aside.

What that means is that we believe in a doctrine of biblical inerrancy on the basis of Christ’s attitude toward the Old Testament. It has been said, I think quite rightly, that we don’t believe in Christ because we believe in the Bible. Rather, we believe in the Bible because we believe in Christ. It’s because we believe in Jesus and his divinity and Lordship that we believe what he taught about the Old Testament.


Student: My question was about the Acts 2 verse. I’m pretty sure that they (the priests) conferred together and they bought the field, and then he died in it. Or, in that realm of events, they bought the field with his money when he threw it back at them.

Dr. Craig: What about the hanging himself, and the falling down, and the bowels gushing out?

Student: I just wanted to ask you about that. What did you say? That he bought the field. So he bought the field indirectly. That is what my question was.

Dr. Craig: That would be, as I understand it, an attempt to harmonize the passage. Acts 1:18 says, “This man [Judas, that is to say] bought a field with the reward of his wickedness.” Whereas the Matthew account says he took the money and threw it into the temple; he gave it back. He didn’t want it. You could say that what happened, as you said, was it was done indirectly. They bought the field and so Luke is just using here a device of compression to say it was his money or something. I think that is a very legitimate approach to handling biblical difficulties.

We will talk about that next. How do we then deal with these sorts of difficulties. What I am wanting to first explore is why should we believe in inerrancy at all? Why not believe that the Bible is God’s Word, it is inspired by God, but then not go the next step and say therefore I believe it is inerrant? I would say on the basis of what I just explained – Jesus’ attitude toward the Scriptures that he himself had.[4]

Student: I think there are some situations that are reported where there are facets of it in one account and left out in others, other elements added. So there is harmonizations. I think we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater; we should allow broadly for harmonization. In the case of Judas and his hanging, some have suggested he hung himself and because after a while the ropes deteriorated, he was bloated, and when this happened, he fell from the tree. We talked about other situations like the anointing at Bethany. In reading that, it seems like there is a harmonization that the argument assumes the banquet took place immediately when he came to Bethany rather than maybe some days hence.

Dr. Craig: You are getting into the solution again to the difficulties. I am going to say something about that next. Notice this is why I called them difficulties. They are difficulties that we confront in the text, but then there may be ways, as you just explained, at dealing with these difficulties in a way that is consistent with Jesus’ teaching. So the question will be: if we can’t handle these difficulties – if they prove so recalcitrant that we think the Bible has an error in it – which premise in this argument then do we give up? I’ll say something about that later because I don’t think we are at that point. I think that this gives good deductive grounds for believing in biblical inerrancy. We’ll have to deal with these difficulties in various ways, as both of you have already suggested.

Student: Along those lines, in 2 Peter 3 Peter actually calls Paul’s writings “scripture.” His letters are Scripture.

Dr. Craig: Let’s have that verse. 2 Peter 3:15. I am going to talk about this passage when we get to the question of the canon of Scripture. But this is a remarkable verse. He says,

. . . our beloved brother Paul wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, speaking of this as he does in all his letters.

Here this author knows the Pauline epistles, right? He refers to the letters of Paul that he has written. Then he makes this interesting comment about Paul’s letters:

There are some things in them hard to understand [Already in that day they were having a challenge!] which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, [and then this stunning phrase] as they do the other scriptures.

He is placing the epistles of Paul on the same level as the Old Testament Scriptures that Jesus said are the Word of God, and therefore absolutely trustworthy. Here we have at least an inner-biblical witness to very, very early acceptance of the letters of Paul as canonical – as Scripture inspired and therefore trustworthy.

Student: I saw an interview with Richard Swinburne on Closer to Truth about this. His comments were very interesting. He was asked about biblical inerrancy, and he said when it comes to the Muslim religion, Islam, he said the revelation is the book. The book is the revelation of God – the Qur’an. But he said with the Christian faith, the revelation is not the Bible, it is really Jesus Christ as taught by the church.[5] Then he said something I found interesting – he said that the early church fathers and some other later theologians agreed that there could be some things that early writers wrote down that factually we know are wrong because they were an ignorant people about some things. So they got some things wrong. But that wouldn’t make the Bible not authoritative. The real revelation is Jesus – he is really what is infallible. Is he saying the Bible is still the Word of God? Would he still agree with that? I didn’t know what you thoughts were on that .

Dr. Craig: This is a common move among contemporary theologians, and it is one that I disagree with. I want to refer you back to an earlier lesson where we dealt with this topic where God’s special revelation in his living Word is Jesus Christ who is called the Word of God in John 1:1. But then it seems to me there is also this propositional revelation in Scripture. So you have in 2 Timothy 3:16 where he says that the Scriptures are God-breathed, they are inspired of God, and that this is a property of the text. So we shouldn’t escape the problem by saying that the Bible is not special revelation. It seems to me that that is the way Jesus regarded the Hebrew Scriptures. I think that is what the Scriptures teach about themselves. The fact that Jesus is the living Word of God doesn’t mean there isn’t also a written Word of God that is the Bible.

Student: Now I want to try and reconcile that when good Christians study the Word and they study areas which, in my opinion, the genre is historical, and they disagree with it, they call it myth and poetry and not truth. I just say Genesis 1.

Dr. Craig: Ah. Well, oh boy. [laughter] I don’t want to open up that can of worms because we dealt with it in Defenders Series 2 in the doctrine of creation where you remember we spent months looking at Genesis 1 and asking ourselves what kind of literature is this, how is it to be interpreted, and so forth. I’ll just refer you to those lectures, rather than, as I say, rehearse them again here. The question would be: are these people being dishonest in saying this is a genre of literature that isn’t meant to be taken as history? I certainly think that is an open question with regard to Genesis 1.


How should we approach these biblical difficulties when we do encounter them? Obviously, we should first of all try to resolve the difficulty. We ought to try to see if there isn’t some solution. Here crucial to the question will be the one just raised, namely, the literary genre of the literature we are dealing with as well as the techniques that were employed by ancient writers in, for example, the writing of history.

This is where Michael Licona has done such good work in comparing the Gospels to the Lives of Greek and Romans composed by Plutarch, an ancient historian. Mike has been able to show that many of the same techniques that ancient historians like Plutarch used in writing ancient Lives are also employed by the evangelists. Yet, they weren’t errors or mistakes on Plutarch’s part. These were accepted as part of that sort of writing. He mentions such things as compression where a narrative would be compacted. Sometimes this is called telescoping. You think of a telescope when it is extended, but then you can collapse that telescope and it all folds up into just one segment. I think you see something like that, for example, in the Easter narratives in the Gospel of Luke.[6] If you read the Easter story in Luke, it looks as though it all happens on the same day. Luke doesn’t even have evening and the next day come before he gets to the end of the account. Yet, when you turn the page and you read the first chapter of the book of Acts, you find that Jesus appeared to his disciples over forty days before the ascension. So Luke himself knows that this didn’t all happen on Easter Sunday – it spread out over a period of forty days. But he compacts it. He telescopes it down. The person who is reading this in an unsympathetic way without understanding these literary devices might think Luke has erred here when Luke himself knows it happened over a long period of time.

Or displacement – I mentioned here the story of the cleansing of the temple in the Synoptics being during the passion week but in John early on. Transferal of sayings from one person to another. Simplification of a narrative. Spotlighting certain persons. All of these are legitimate techniques that ancient historians used.

On top of these techniques, you have the flexibility of oral traditional, editorial redaction by an author for clarity’s sake, paraphrasing. You will remember that in that day they didn’t even have such things as quotation marks, so these red letter editions of the Gospels are utterly misleading in thinking that these are the very words uttered by Jesus. What we are reading, even in the Greek, is a translation of Aramaic that Jesus spoke. So these aren’t the very words of Jesus, especially, as I say, they don’t have direct speech and indirect speech. Very often they will blur into each other.

So in dealing with these sorts of inconsistencies, I think first of all we need to understand the type of literature we are dealing with and then the techniques that ancient authors used in writing. A lot of these difficulties will simply vanish when we do that. They turn out not to be errors at all.

Or, on top of that, we might try harmonization. This shouldn’t be despised. I think sometimes harmonizations are proposed to deal with these other elements such as compression, displacement, simplification. There you do get brittle and artificial and implausible harmonizations. But that doesn’t mean that harmonization is utterly out of account – that it can never work. Sometimes life is complicated and, in fact, harmonization may hold.

One very striking example of this was given by the former Dean of the seminary at which I taught – Dr. Kenneth Kantzer. He told the story of how he received a phone call one day from his brother that their mother had been hit by a bus in downtown Chicago and was being rushed to the hospital. Sometime later Dr. Kantzer received a call from the hospital reporting that his mother had been killed immediately in an automobile crash. He thought, “What is this?” The brother was there. He knew what happened. Yet this was an official report from the hospital. But how could you reconcile these? They later found out that his mother had, in fact, been hit by a bus when she was crossing the street in downtown Chicago. She was picked up by the ambulance and was being rushed to the hospital when the ambulance was involved in an automobile collision, and she was immediately killed. So both stories turned out to be true! Yet, as Dr. Kantzer said, “If I were to propose this as a harmonization for dealing with some biblical inconsistency, I would be laughed out of the room.” It shows that sometimes life can be complicated. In fact, there may be a harmonization such as in the case of the death of Judas that was mentioned.

Finally, for dealing with these inconsistencies, we have to take into account remember that inerrancy is what the Bible teaches, and that doesn’t mean there can’t be elements in Scripture that are not accurate but they are not part of the teaching of Scripture.[7]

So those would be ways of dealing with inconsistencies. Whether or not that will be fully successful remains to be seen. I am suggesting that this is simply a technique for how you would then approach these sorts of difficulties.

What I will do next time is share how one might approach so-called factual mistakes and ethical errors in Scripture for the person who believes on the basis of Jesus’ teaching in biblical inerrancy.

To close the class today, I would like to read a benediction from the book of Romans and invite us all to bow our heads as I do so.

Now to him who is able to strengthen you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which was kept secret for long ages but is now disclosed and through the prophetic writings is made known to all nations, according to the command of the eternal God, to bring about the obedience of faith— to the only wise God be glory for evermore through Jesus Christ! Amen (Romans 16:25-27).[8]



[1] 5:15

[2] 10:13

[3] 15:17

[4] 20:00

[5] 25:05

[6] 30:01

[7] 35:14

[8] Total Running Time: 36:50 (Copyright © 2015 William Lane Craig)