Doctrine of Revelation (Part 9): Responding to the Difficulties of Biblical InerrancyJanuary 28, 2015
How to Respond to Biblical Difficulties
Having offered a defense of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, we began to look last time at how we should respond to biblical difficulties that would call this doctrine into question.
We specified three different types of difficulties that one might confront. One would be inconsistencies among the biblical documents themselves. A second would be factual mistakes where the Scriptures affirm one thing but we know from secular history or other documents that this is not the case or we think it is not the case. Finally, what we might call ethical mistakes where the Scriptures teach things about our moral duties that just seem wrong – it seems ethically in error and therefore couldn’t have been inspired by God.
Last time I suggested with respect to dealing with difficulties that are in the category of inconsistencies, these are very largely reconcilable by understanding the genre of ancient biography and the sort of latitude that historians had to use techniques like telescoping, paraphrase, displacement, transferal of dialogue, and so forth. When we understand these literary techniques that were common to ancient writing then we are not forced to brittle and artificial harmonizations of biblical accounts that seem to be at face value inconsistent with each other. Such techniques lay within the parameters of a truthful narrative.
I also suggested that harmonization can be used on occasion when it is not overly artificial or incredible.
Finally, in some cases, we may simply have to say that we don’t know how two accounts are to be reconciled, but we simply hold the truth in tension and hope that perhaps with further information we would know how these accounts are to be reconciled with each other.
That brings us to factual mistakes. Again, I think our response here is somewhat similar. We should do the best that we can (insofar as we are able) to reconcile what the biblical text says with what we learn from secular history with regard to some fact and try to show that, in fact, the biblical narrative is not mistaken.
Let’s take this example of Quirinius being the governor of Syria according to Luke during the census that took Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem. With regard to Quirinius, many suggestions have been made. Although Quirinius may not have been governor of Syria at that time – that occurred later – nevertheless he could have been in charge of Syria’s foreign affairs and therefore in charge of the census that was taken. Therefore, even if he wasn’t technically the governor, he was acting in a governing capacity with respect to Syria’s foreign relations.
We know from Luke’s accuracy in the book of Acts that he is incredibly careful with respect to the various officials that Paul meets on his missionary trips. This is precisely an area where Luke’s accuracy has been demonstrated over and over again. So we should be, I think, rightly reluctant to think that he has erred when it comes to the person of Quirinius.
There was a very interesting note on this subject shared with me by Lee Strobel who was interviewing Dr. John McRay, a professor of New Testament and Archaeology at Wheaton College for his book on The Case For Christ. In a taped interview for Lee’s book, McRay said the following:
An eminent archaeologist named Jerry Vardaman has done a great deal of work in this regard. He 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 Solicia from 11 BC until after the death of Herod.
So this would be exactly the time that Luke says that Quirinius had supervised this census and would be, in fact, the proconsul of Syria. This was apparently published in McRay’s 1991 book Archaeology & the New Testament on page 154. Is Vardaman correct about this? I don’t know. Maybe, maybe not. But I think what it illustrates is that it is at least possible that this is not an error on Luke’s part but that this could very well be the case.
I think what the illustration underlines is the fact that our knowledge of the ancient world is extremely sketchy. Therefore it is not at all impossible that certain things just haven’t come to light, either in secular literary sources or archaeologically. Therefore, when we see these sorts of factual discrepancies, we can hope that further archaeological exploration and discovery might help to reconcile these.
This isn’t at all an irrational sort of faith commitment. This has been an ongoing pattern, in fact, with the biblical documents.
One of my favorite examples concerns a man who was identified in the Old Testament as an Assyrian king named Sargon II. This was widely regarded as an error in these Old Testament narratives because there was absolutely no trace in ancient history of any king of Assyria named Sargon II. No archaeological discoveries, no literary reference to such a man. The Bible seemed to have clearly gotten it wrong about Sargon II. Until archaeologists excavating in the region of Khorsabad unearthed the palace of one Sargon II! Now we know more about Sargon II than we do about any other ancient king of Assyria.
So when we run into these factual discrepancies, like the role of Quirinius, I think it is not at all unreasonable to hope that with future discovery and exploration these tensions could be resolved.
Finally, what about the ethical errors in the Bible? With respect to the so-called Slaughter of the Canaanites, which so many are understandably offended at, I’ve written fairly extensively on this subject on our Reasonable Faith website in the questions of the week in which I attempt to provide an ethical theory that would make sense and make it consistent that God would be all-loving and all-powerful and yet would issue this command to exterminate the Canaanite tribes that were inhabiting the land when he brought Israel out of Egypt and gave them the land of Canaan. I would refer you to those articles.
It is important to understand that what is commanded here is not genocide. That is a loaded, emotionally tendentious term that unbelievers have used to describe this command. There was, in fact, no command given by God to chase down and pursue these people until they had all been killed off. Rather, the primary command that God gave was to drive them out of the land. These Canaanite tribes or clans that inhabited Canaan were being divested of their land. God had waited 400 years while Israel was held in slavery until the Canaanite culture had become so debased, so incredibly evil (and we know this from secular sources) that they were ripe for God’s judgment. God used the armies of Israel to bring judgment upon these clans in exactly the same way that he would later use the pagan armies of Babylon to come in and judge Israel and remove them from the land. So what God does here is he divests these Canaanite clans of the land and delivers the land over to Israel.
He says drive them out of the land. If they had all just left as they saw the advancing Israeli armies, nobody needed to be killed. This was not a command to commit genocide. Only those who chose to stay behind were to be utterly exterminated. As I’ve argued in the articles, I think that God in making so extraordinary command wronged no one, certainly not the adults who were incredibly evil and ripe for judgments – the Israeli armies were the instruments of God’s wrath and judgment upon them. With respect to the really, really difficult question of the children that may have been killed, I think there, if you believe in the salvation of infants, their execution was actually their salvation. It saved them from growing up in an incredibly evil culture which would certainly have resulted in their eternal destruction, whereas this resulted in their eternal salvation. So God did not wrong them in issuing this extraordinary command.
I think that it is quite possible to offer an ethical theory that would enable us to say that there is nothing inconsistent in this narrative between God’s being all-loving and all-powerful and his issuing this command to drive the people out of the land and to exterminate anyone who chose to resist and stay behind.
What about the Old Testament laws which certainly, I think, strike us as, in many cases, bizarre and treat people unequally? Particularly, we talked about the treatment of slaves and women which seem to be regarded as second-class persons. We might think that this expresses their moral inferiority – that somehow they don’t have the same moral worth as men do.
I think it is very important first of all to keep in mind that these Old Testament laws were provisional. They were case laws for the way Israel was to act at that time. Therefore, they may not have represented God’s perfect will or ethical standards.
Take, for example, the Old Testament laws concerning divorce. Jesus was actually confronted with this question in Matthew 19:3ff:
And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He [Jesus] answered, “Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man put asunder.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce, and to put her away?” [If this is God’s will for the marriage relationship, the Pharisees naturally ask, then why do we have this law from Moses about giving a certificate of divorce to put your wife away?] He said to them, “For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so.
So what Jesus is saying here (and this is, by the way, one of the best verses for showing Jesus’ incredible sense of divine authority), he revises the God-given Old Testament law of Moses on divorce and says this doesn’t represent the perfect will of God. These laws that Moses gave about divorce were because of your hardness of heart. But they don’t really represent God’s perfect will about these matters.
I wonder, what would Jesus have said – and I so wish this had happened – what if somebody had come to Jesus and said, “Is it permissible to own slaves?” What would Jesus have said if they had done that. Maybe he would have said something like this. Have you not read that he who made them from the beginning created man in his own image. In the image of God he created him man and female. He created them and said when God created man he made him in the likeness of God. So they are equal. What therefore God has made equal, let not men make unequal. We can imagine them saying to him, Why then did Moses command how one ought to treat slaves? And Jesus said to them, ‘For your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to hold slaves. But from the beginning it was not so.’ I don’t have any difficulty at all imagining that this is something like what Jesus of Nazareth might have responded to that question. You have in the creation narratives in Hebrew Scriptures the foundation, the basis, for the equality of all persons, including men and women, slave and free. Everyone is equal before God. Therefore these Old Testament laws allowing slavery or treating women in certain ways would not be perfect representations of God’s will – the way God would really like it. These were concessions on God’s part because of their hardness of heart.
So in view of the creation account, these Old Testament laws that imply a sort of second-rate status for women or for men may have been concessions to culture. Or they might have served some other purpose, say, in regulating society. This was a patriarchal culture and these regulations would be useful for regulating and ordering society. But they do not imply in any way less than full human value for slaves and women because that is grounded in the Hebrew creation narratives right in the very beginning.
I don’t have any trouble in thinking of these Old Testament laws as, just as Jesus said about the laws of divorce, provisional concessionary laws on God’s part and not necessarily representing his perfect will.
What about New Testament ethical teachings such as Jesus’ teachings about divorce and prohibiting remarriage, which many have objected to and many Christians have ignored as I said last week? What about the New Testament teachings proscribing homosexual activities? Many people in our culture are deeply offended at that. Well, I think that when you come to these sorts of factors, it may be that we simply need to revise our moral intuitions about these things in light of God’s commands to us. If God decrees that marriage is so sacred a union that you should not be remarried after experiencing a divorce, it seems to me that is entirely his prerogative. The marriage relationship as we know from Paul’s teaching is a living symbol of the union of Christ and his church. If God wants to prohibit remarriage, that may be hard but I don’t see why we would say that he doesn’t have the moral right to regulate this institution as he wants. Or with regard to proscribing homosexual activity. The male-female union in marriage is a symbol of Christ’s union with his church. So for two men to be engaged in anal intercourse is blasphemous in God’s sight with respect to the union of Christ and his church. There is a deeper significance here. It seems to me, again, that God has the right to do this, however it may offend our modern sensibilities.
What God is asking persons who have homosexual tendencies to do, if they do not marry heterosexuals, is to simply do the same thing that he calls single men and women to do; namely, live a chaste life that honors God and abstains. Single people are called to do exactly the same thing that God would be calling a homosexual person to do.
In this case, I think that we don’t need to compromise New Testament ethical teaching, but we need to school our own moral intuitions in light of the person that God is and his authority to be able to issue commands of this sort.
Suppose at the end of the day, however, in dealing with these biblical difficulties, we are convinced that the Bible does have an error in what it teaches. We just can’t somehow make sense of it. We are convinced, in fact, that the doctrine of biblical inerrancy is false. What would we have to give up in what we’ve said so far? Well, it seems to me that what we would give up would be premise (2) of part (B) of our defense of biblical inerrancy. That was the premise that said, “Jesus taught that the Scriptures are the inerrant Word of God.” Therefore the conclusion was that they are therefore that. The evidence for this premise is not overwhelming or undeniable. Jesus says the Scripture cannot be broken. Perhaps he means there that the central spiritual truths of Scripture are infallible or must be preserved or something of that sort. But I think this is what we would reject. We would say we have not properly interpreted Jesus’ attitude toward the Old Testament. We’ve taken it too strongly to say that there cannot be errors. But I would not give up the other premises. I would first sacrifice this premise.
That would enable you still to hold to the doctrine of inspiration (that the Bible is God’s Word and inspired by God) as well as all the rest of Christian teaching that would be in place. What you would sacrifice would be the view that inspiration entails inerrancy. You would give up this premise of the argument for inerrancy. Obviously, I don’t think we are at that point at all. I don’t think we are pushed to that point. But I do want to say that clearly because some people, as we described the other day, convinced that there is a single error in the Bible, walk away from Christ and apostatize and go to these incredible extremes. Michael Licona was just telling me of a Facebook posting that he recently saw where a kid had become convinced on the basis of the writings of certain New Testament critics that the Bible or the Gospels do contain errors and therefore he had decided to cease to be a Christian and become a deist. This is just so heartbreaking: that a person would walk away from Christ because of something like this when it is so unnecessary. This is not a good argument for denying the deity of Christ or the resurrection of Jesus or his sacrificial atoning death for our sins. What this would mean is you would give up the doctrine of inerrancy. But you don’t have to give up anything more than that. That was why the other day, you remember, I described our system of Christian beliefs as like a web. Near the center of the web are these cardinal beliefs like the existence of God, the deity of Christ, the deity of the Holy Spirit, the atoning death of Christ, the resurrection of Christ, our sinfulness before God. Then as you work your way out you get to these more peripheral doctrines related to, say, the sacraments or the Second Coming of Christ or church government. I think it will be out there on the periphery that the doctrine of biblical inerrancy lies. So it could be given up without causing tremendous reverberations in the rest of the web.
I say that simply by way of precaution and concession lest there be anybody hearing my teaching on this subject who is tempted to give up Christianity because he or she thinks that there is an error somewhere in the Bible. That would be an overreaction.
But I don’t think we are at that point yet. I think, as I said, we can deal with the difficulties whether inconsistencies, factual discrepancies, or supposed ethical mistakes along the lines that I’ve described and therefore can hold to a strong doctrine of biblical inerrancy that the Bible is truthful in all that it teaches.
Student: I found that somewhat remarkable that someone would pick one or two things that they find where there is controversy and discard Christianity when 99.9% is found to be accurate, historical. What is even more amazing is that even the earliest transcripts discovered throughout many areas geographically somehow miraculously are the same. To me, one of the reasons that points to the reality of Christianity is the inerrancy of the Scripture. So to try to find one or two places as I know certain presenters and theists do to say here, you can’t trust this document, look, what is wrong? is so not being open and honest. Because if they really did it would just do the opposite.
Dr. Craig: Let me say two things in response to that. I do think you are right in saying that there is a certain loss of perspective that often comes for folks who are struggling with doubts or difficulties. This is not just about errors in the Bible. It can be some other thing that maybe causes you to doubt. It becomes so dominant in their minds that they forget about all of the positive evidence. All they are focused on is the difficulty. It is kind of like a person who holds his thumb up in front of his face and it looks bigger than the Empire State Building in the distance. There is a loss of perspective. When we have one of these difficulties – and certainly they are there – we need to step back as you say and look at, for example, the incredible accuracy of Luke-Acts with respect to ancient history. That will help us to be much more confident that this reference about Quirinius is not really a mistake after all if we had the full facts.
The other thing I would want to say is that a lot of Christians have been raised in churches that have a very wooden and central view of biblical inerrancy, and the pastor will often give the impression that if there is one niggling mistake in the Bible then Christianity is false, and you have to give it all up; you’ve got to abandon it completely. I think that we’ve actually fostered this in our churches often by a mistaken weighing of theological priorities and emphasis.
Student: I tend to question whether the inerrancy of Scripture is one of the more peripheral rather than a core doctrine because all of our doctrines we get by way of the written word, even the living Word is presented to us in the written word. I think by making it less than one of the core doctrines it could be a slippery slope.
Dr. Craig: That is the fear, of course, isn’t it? That it would be a slippery slope. But it would seem to me that thinking that the sort of errors that we’ve described here exist wouldn’t do anything to undermine the central teachings of the New Testament about God, about Jesus, his resurrection from the dead. We have good reasons to believe all of those.
Student: I agree with you on those. I think there are reconcilable issues, as you’ve explained. I just think by labeling inerrancy of the original manuscripts and making that more peripheral than one of our core beliefs because the Scriptures are the source of every doctrine that we study. So I think it should be included.
Dr. Craig: OK, well, I guess I would disagree obviously from what I’ve said. What I would need to do is to try to prevent that slippery slope because we certainly don’t want to be on that.
Student: That is my main concern.
Dr. Craig: I would think that the Scriptures can be true in their central message and core that God wants to communicate to us even if there would be what we might call “don’t cares” where there are mistakes – like the number of horses in Solomon’s stables or something like that. The “don’t cares” it seems to me shouldn’t be allowed to overrule these central, cardinal truths. But nevertheless you are raising a good point about the slippery slope. Let me say this in response to your concern. That is one of the reasons that I don’t want to back away from this doctrine or give it up. I think that it is safer to have a strong doctrine of biblical inerrancy as a theological safeguard. Therefore, I do want to affirm it and stay with it because it is going to prevent these sorts of aberrations and errors much more readily by having such a teaching.
Student: I guess this gets to the point about the slippery slope. I appreciate you bringing up Matthew 19. I think you make a good point about the law in the Old Testament possibly being provisional in some cases. What I would wonder is how can we respond to someone today who might claim that the New Testament is provisional? To say, oh well, it is because of our hardness of heart that the New Testament proscribes homosexuality, for example. If you asked Jesus today he would say it is OK.
Dr. Craig: Wouldn’t a difference be in Jesus being the Son of God and his teaching being absolutely normative and authoritative for Christians? These Old Testament laws were given, as I say, to just Israel at a certain time and place. We have Jesus teaching that this was provisional with respect to divorce that gives us grounds for that. I don’t say this arbitrarily. It is because we have an explicit teaching by Jesus on this. But it seems inconceivable to me that Jesus’ teachings about “from the beginning they were created man and woman and for this reason a man leaves his father and mother” that that could have been just provisional. That seems to me to be grounded in his authority and, therefore that is not something we would give up on our own sort of initiative. That would be to arrogate your own judgment above Jesus’ which I just don’t think we should do as disciples of Jesus. We follow what he teaches.
Student: I wanted to ask a question related to your original question about where do we place the doctrine of biblical inerrancy in the web. I wonder if it would be a fair statement to say that it is a central doctrine, but a strict interpretation is not necessary for that. The concept of the information is accurate over all is centrally important.
Dr. Craig: That is a very good point. That goes back to how we define the biblical doctrine of inerrancy. Some detractors of inerrancy say that this is just a peculiarity of the evangelical fundamentalist subculture, and that this is not the historic position of the Christian church. But I think that that is a misrepresentation based precisely upon what you say. If we think of inerrancy as being the doctrine that the Bible is true in everything that it teaches then that gives you a very flexible doctrine. So if the Bible, say, has, as I indicated, stories in it that suggest a three-decker cosmology where hell is down there, we are here in the middle, and heaven is up there, the Bible isn’t teaching cosmology even if the authors of the Scripture believed in such a thing. It is not teaching science with respect to these kinds of things. That would be a very flexible doctrine of inerrancy that would allow you to say – and this, I think, is the historic position of the Christian church – that the Bible is God’s Word and is therefore truthful in all that it teaches and would have us believe. But, as I say, it wouldn’t include things like what is the smallest seed or do we live in a three-decker universe, or things of that sort.
Student: A lot of good stuff, but I wanted to recommend a book on the Canaanite campaigns and so on. Paul Copan wrote a book about these various campaigns – Is God a Moral Monster? There is a lot of good stuff in that.
Dr. Craig: Let me just comment on that before you go on. Paul’s book is excellent. It is especially good on the so-called institution of “slavery” in the Old Testament. I put that in quotation marks because we think in America of slavery in terms of the experience of the American South before the Civil War. As Paul shows, slavery in the Old Testament wasn’t at all like that. What it was was an anti-poverty program because there weren’t any sort of welfare states or societal safety nets. It was a way for a man to keep his family together, to sell himself as a slave to someone else, work off his debts, and maintain his self-respect. In many ways it was a superior anti-poverty program to the sort of dependency culture that the welfare state fosters. So that is in Paul’s book. I found it to be very illuminating.
Paul, though, does take a different view of the Canaanite slaughter than I do. He says that these commands are examples of religious hyperbole that aren’t literal. It is like when a high school basketball player says, “We slaughtered them last night” or “We killed them.” It is hyperbole. Paul tries to show that in the ancient world military commanders would use this kind of religious hyperbole but it wasn’t meant literally. I am not convinced of that. So I take the worst case scenario. Let’s suppose that they are literal commands. Can we deal with them? You can see my defense as a kind of second line of defense. You can see Paul’s as the first line if you want. It is not literal; it is hyperbole. Mine would be, well, but if it is, I still think there is an answer.
Student: In relation to the other point on the Levitical law, you have servants like in the case of Abraham where he didn’t have the child coming and he’s getting older and he says I am going to let my servant be my heir. So in many cases these were people that were members of the household and they would inherit and share in the household. Then behavior, for example, if the master of a household rapes his servant girl he was commanded to marry her and not divorce her for any reason. These were unheard of standards.
Dr. Craig: That is a very good point. We judge these laws through the rearview mirror of 2,000 years of Christian history in which our moral institutions and laws have been reshaped by the leavening effect of Christianity on our culture. But when you compare them to the ancient world and the sort of systems that existed then, as you said, these were elevated moral laws that are given in the Old Testament. They are so far above the crass systems that existed in the ancient world. That is entirely right. As I suggested, when you look at the creation story of man and woman being created equal in God’s image, that just removes any basis for seeing these laws or interpreting these laws as teaching less than the full human worth and dignity of women and slaves and servants and so forth. They would be at best provisional regulations, as I said.
Student: I once read where, of the major religions, that Judeo-Christianity was the only one that had archaeological support throughout its history. Others could not lean upon archaeology to buttress what they claim in their canons. My question to you is: has there ever been a case where an archaeological find has debunked or refuted what is in our canon as opposed to supporting what was in them.
Dr. Craig: I wouldn’t say refuted but there are certainly difficulties. One of the major questions that remains is the absence of archaeological evidence for a 400-year sojourn of Israel in Egypt. The whole story of the exodus. There is some trace of a tribal group called the Hyksos which could have been identified with the Hebrews. But for the most part, this evidence has either disappeared or not been excavated or whatever. So that would be a challenge that still remains.
Student: Right, but understand what I’m asking. I am not asking about the absence of information because, like you said, for years nothing about Sargon II was ever found. But then it was found. What I am asking is, has there been something in our Bible – in our canon – that has been postulated as a fact but then archaeological . . .
Dr. Craig: One example, again, might be the walls of Jericho. Again, this is a matter of big debate as to whether the archaeology of Jericho is consistent with the way the walls were supposed to have fallen down. There is some that claim that it is not. So that is one that is debated. It is not like archaeology just gives a completely clean slate to the Bible. There still are these difficulties. But for the most part it has been overwhelmingly confirmatory, and that is unique to Judaism and Christianity. Nelson Glueck, who was a very world famous archaeologist, said that he was prepared to go on record as saying that no archaeological finding in history has ever controverted the accuracy of the biblical narrative decisively.
We will bring it to a close with that. Next time we will take up a question that several of you have already alluded to. That is, how do we know which books have been inspired by God?
 See Q&A articles #16 “Slaughter of the Canaanites” at http://www.reasonablefaith.org/slaughter-of-the-canaanites , #225 “The ‘Slaughter’ of the Canaanites Revisited” at http://www.reasonablefaith.org/the-slaughter-of-the-canaanites-re-visited , and #331 “Once More: The Slaughter of the Canaanites” at http://www.reasonablefaith.org/once-more-the-slaughter-of-the-canaanites (links accessed January 28, 2015).
 Total Running Time: 43:36 (Copyright © 2015 William Lane Craig)