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July 08, 2009

Question and Answer of the Week: Is the Bible inerrant?

BibleI believe in the inspiration and authority of Scripture, but I don't think this means I have to believe in inerrancy. The Bible isn't meant to be a textbook, and we don't need to believe in the details of the creation account, and the first man and woman in the garden, or about Jonah being swallowed by a whale. The Bible contains parables and metaphors. Do I really have believe it has to be correct in all the little details to be God's Word?

Usually when people say they believe the Bible contains errors, I ask them to name those errors so we can look at them. They may raise easily answered questions such as "Where did Cain get his wife?" But usually they can't name many supposed errors, if any at all. They often take the word of other people that the Bible contains errors, without investigating for themselves. I have investigated for myself, and I am convinced that when God says all Scripture is "God breathed" (2 Timothy 3:16), He means that it is all accurate and reliable. When He says that "men spoke from God, as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit" (2 Peter 1:21), He means that God was the source of their words and protected them from error.

My biggest problem with not embracing inerrancy is this: once we say the Bible contains errors, who decides what is true and what is false? A group of scholars, such as the Jesus Seminar group who cast votes on whether Jesus really said a certain thing (and decide he didn't, because as a loving person Jesus would not really say people are going to an eternal hell)? If so, then who is my real authority? Not Scripture, but these scholars. (And what is THEIR authority? Not Scripture, but themselves.)

Or do I trust my own judgment, my biases, my frail and faulty and ever-changing "knowledge," my desires and felt needs, and then conclude that because I want to leave my wife (I don't, by the way, she's terrific :), the passages restricting divorce are not really accurate, and come from the gospel writers' and Paul's restrictive conservativism, not from the loving heart of God. Or I want to live with my girlfriend, or my partner of the same gender, and I choose to believe the love and grace parts of Scripture, but not those that say such things are wrong. If I do this, then who is my real authority? Not Scripture, but myself (and "myself" is largely shaped by the current values of my culture).

Thomas JeffersonThomas Jefferson constructed a literal cut and paste Bible, that included what he liked and excluded what he didn't. (There was a great deal he didn't like—once you start cutting, where do you stop?) Who then was the authority? Not the Bible, but Thomas Jefferson.

We inevitably end up like the final verse of Judges: "There was no King in Israel; and every man did what was right in his own eyes." Unless God's Word is fully trustworthy, inevitably I must rely upon myself or others to decide which parts I should trust and which I shouldn't. If some of Scripture is false, I must develop some process whereby I determine which parts are true, since truth-seekers will not wish to embrace what isn't true. Then my authority is no longer God's Word, but my own judgment in determining which parts are true and which aren't.

Failure to believe in inerrancy must logically lead to my inability to trust the Bible as authoritative. Clearly those parts which are false—I speak not of parable or metaphor, but if Scripture actually affirms historical details that are not true—cannot be authoritative. I cannot rely upon what I do not believe to be accurate. I cannot place myself under the authority of that which is historically false. I cannot build my belief system upon the sand and chaff of historical error. (See Francis Schaeffer's Genesis in Space and Time on this subject.)

If I do not believe there was a first man named Adam created from the ground, as Genesis tells me, then I cannot believe that we all sinned in Adam, etc. Neither can I believe Christ is God, since he clearly believed Adam was a real first man, and if Jesus was wrong, I cannot trust Him, nor was he the perfect sacrifice for my sins.

LiarWhen I hear Christians say that Jonah really wasn't swallowed by a fish, because that's just impossible, I consider the words of Jesus in Matthew 12:40: "For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth." So I guess if it wasn't true about Jonah, we don't need to believe in Christ's literal death, burial, and resurrection either. And more to the point, why should we believe Christ's claim to be the truth and speak the truth and "I and the Father are one" if he naively believed in what was false—that Jonah was actually swallowed by a fish?

To believe that Jonah wasn't swallowed by a fish may seem to us a minor point—but how can it be minor if it means that Jesus was WRONG? Theologically speaking, what is at stake is not just bibliology but Christology. Failure to believe in inerrancy will lead me to believe Jesus was mistaken in implicitly trusting Scripture—which means not only that the Bible is errant, but also that the one who died for me on the cross was errant. If he was, then the whole redemptive work of God comes tumbling down like a house of cards. But if Jesus was the infallible living Word, affirming the infallible and authoritative written Word (by which I mean inerrant, for if it's errant it isn't infallible or authoritative), then redemption is not a house of cards to be blown in the wind by every passing critic. Rather, it is a chain of rock-solid historical truths involving Adam and Eve, a garden, a flood, Abraham, David, Christ, a crucifixion, death, burial, resurrection and ascension, and a return of Christ that is as real and certain as all of these were.

anvil and hammerAs humans we are proud, and much of the efforts to discredit Scripture come from pride. Ironically, without studying Scripture or researching the actual facts in evidence, countless believers embrace the claims of the Bible's critics. Spurgeon said the Bible no more needed his defense than a lion did. The Huguenots said of the Bible and its critics, "Hammer away ye hostile hands; your hammers break, God's anvil stands."

When people claim to believe the Bible is inspired and authoritative yet do not believe it is inerrant, I know many of them are sincere, but I do think this logical inconsistency can only hang on temporarily. The person holding to it may not end up setting the Bible aside because of their belief that parts of it are not reliable, but their children and grandchildren will. Meanwhile, they trust themselves and others to sit in judgment of revealed Scripture—which, if it is breathed out from God, cannot be other than true, and if not true cannot be breathed out from God. So instead of sitting under Scripture's judgment, we set ourselves up as judges over Scripture. Not only is this inappropriate, I believe, but it also simply won't work in the long haul. It will lead to the problems of disbelief not only in the culture but also in the church.

Francis Schaeffer warned us about this thirty years ago. For those unfamiliar with Schaeffer, you can find excerpts from nearly all of his books at www.rationalpi.com/theshelter/sitemap.html

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