Thursday, September 05, 2002

Biblical Inerrancy

As described here, this post is part of my notes for my Sunday School.

Scripture is inerrant. That means just what is says. The books of the Bible, as originally written down, were flawless. God the Holy Spirit inspired (see below) the men who wrote them. This was a task (one of many as it turns out) in which God was pleased to use men, but not pleased to leave the results up to men. This was too important. God’s Word is our source of His special revelation and He took special care in making sure it is correct.

Scripture is inspired. What does that mean? It means that the Holy Spirit guided the men who wrote the scriptures. It does not mean God literally dictated the words, but that He breathed the thoughts into the minds of the authors. It means that each author was so powerfully guided as to preclude even the possibility of error -- and yet violence was not done to his individual style or personality.

How can we prove that scripture is inerrant and inspired? Unfortunately we can’t. We instead build up a plausibility argument. Some of the points to consider are:

  • It has never been demonstrated that scripture is in error. That is, nobody has established an irrefutable contradiction of biblical inerrancy. Of course, people often claim that the Bible contains many errors and contradictions. And I will not suggest that all discrepancies in the Bible have been resolved satisfactorily. I do know that most of the “contradictions” people point out (they can never produce “many”, as they first claim) are easy to resolve. Don’t be intimidated by people who make such a claim. Ask them to tell you specifically what contradictions they know of. If they pose tough questions that you cannot answer immediately, confidently promise to get back to them. A little research and discussion with other Christians will do the trick. You will strengthen your own faith and be a better witness when you respond to the naysayer.

  • Recent (20th century) archeological findings confirm biblical accounts of ancient events and locations, sometimes at the expense of prevailing and contradictory theory. The Bible has proved so historically reliable that secular historians have marveled its accuracy, even in comparison to contemporary and scholarly Jewish historians, such as Josephus. These discoveries have caused a shift wherein Christians, who were once leery of archeology-- lest the Bible be disproved, now actively support such research. This can be contrasted with the Mormon church, which is forced to cover-up, as best it can, overwhelming archeological findings that contradict the bizarre claims of Joseph Smith.

  • The Bible claims inerrancy (holy inspiration) for itself.
    All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; (2 Tim. 3:16, NASB).
    This bold, self referential claim is not, due to its obvious circularity, a proof. Yet it leaves little wiggle room. Consider someone you know for whom you have a great respect of their knowledge. If you tell that person “you are always right!” he will undoubtedly reply “Thank you, but hardly!” If that person makes an occasional mistake, your esteem will not diminish appreciably. Suppose, however, that the person had answered “Yes indeed, I am always right.” Then the standard will be very high: the first error will result in a substantive degradation of your respect. The Bible takes such a bold position by declaring itself to be inspired. In some sense, it cannot be just “a little” wrong. It is either the Truth, or a big lie. In essence we have the following possibilities:

    1. The Bible is inerrant, and I worship the true God it reveals
    2. The Bible is inerrant, and I worship an invented, false god
    3. The bible contains errors, I worship the god it reveals, which as presented (since the bible has errors) is a false god
    4. The bible contains errors, and I worship an invented, false god

    Of course we believe (1) to be correct. We consider (3) and (4) to be impossible since they start with the false premise that the Bible contains errors. Item (2) is the mistake made by liberal churches. They choose to ignore the revealed God and invent one that is “nicer”. More about that later.

Another plausibility approach to Biblical inerrancy is a type of bootstrap method. In his Book Reason to Believe, R. C. Sproul outlines this approach: 1
  1. The Bible is a basically reliable and trustworthy document.

  2. On the basis it its reliability, we have sufficient evidence to be confident that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.

  3. Jesus, being the Son of God, is surely infallible.

  4. Jesus teaches that the Bible is more than trustworthy; it is the very Word of God.

  5. The Word of God is infallible and inerrant, ergo the Bible is infallible and inerrant.
Still, the bottom line is that, although we have the above arguments to appeal to our reason, ultimately we must presuppose the Bible to be inerrant. There is nothing wrong with that approach, it’s the first method we use with our children:
Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.
We must believe that the original writings were inspired and hence inerrant. If not, we are basically the most miserable of creatures for we are worshiping an invented god. We can have no confidence in the good news of the gospel.

What about my Bible?

Does that mean the bible you hold in your hand is inerrant? Assuming that you do not have a lunatic-fringe translation, then to a large extent, yes. However, it cannot be ruled out that some small errors that have entered in because of translation.

Different Bible translations use somewhat different sets of ancient manuscripts. The KJV and the NKJV used (primarily) the Byzantine family of manuscripts (A.D. 500 - 1000) frequently referred to as the Textus Receptus.

Other translations (NASB and NIV) will substitute, when they are available, older manuscripts. This accounts for a handful of verses that are in some translations but not in others.

For example, examine 1 John 5:7 using two of the more common translations:
For there are three that bear witness in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit; and these three are one. (1 John 5:7, NKJV)

For there are three that testify: (1 John 5:7, NASB)
The additional “bullet proof” description of the Trinity in the NKJV is not in the earliest manuscripts of 1 John, but does appear in the Textus Receptus.

Different Bible translations also have different goals. Some (NIV) have the goal of readability. Others (NASB) seek to translate as literally as possible.

Note that translators do not work from a single set of ancient manuscripts, but multiple independent copies, which they check for self-consistency.

For the commonly accepted English translations, you can be certain that teams of scholarly translators under the supervision of a well-intentioned editorial board worked out the translations. Some of the very latest translations are succumbing to political correctness. For example, Zondervan has released the gender-neutral TNIV (Today’s NIV) which was clearly produced with a political agenda rather than a zest for accuracy.

Scholarly review has documented how accurate the accepted translations have been. There really aren’t substantive differences among the NKJV, NASB and NIV, just to take an example. This is especially impressive when you contrast it with translations of literature. Different translations of, say, The Iliad or Dante’s Inferno, which are often done by a lone assistant professor looking for a ticket to tenure (and hence under pressure to come up with a “new, revolutionary” translation) differ much, much, more than Bible translations.

Among the translations accepted by conservative evangelical Christians, is there a “best” translation? Not in my mind. Personally I prefer the NASB. I think that since the writing of the venerable King James Version two important developments have occurred. (1) Additional (and older) Greek and Hebrew manuscripts have been found and (2) the sciences of translation and lexicography have matured, and the knowledge of ancient Greek and Hebrew has exploded. This gives me more confidence in the (scholarly) modern translations such as the NASB and NIV.

The Canon: How did we get these 39 (OT) plus 27 (NT) = 66 Books?

There are good histories of the Bible that will address this in excruciating detail.

One question that arises is how did a book gain acceptance into the New Testament? In general these guidelines were followed:
  1. It had to be written by an Apostle or be endorsed by an Apostle. For example, it is believed that Mark wrote on Peter’s behalf, and Luke had the sanction of Paul, who in fact quotes Luke’s gospel (and refers to it as Scripture) in his own epistle:
    For the Scripture says, "Do not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain,"and "The worker deserves his wages."(1 Tim. 5:18, NIV)

    Stay in that house, eating and drinking whatever they give you, for the worker deserves his wages. Do not move around from house to house. (Luke 10:7, NIV)
  2. They must have been accepted as scripture by the early church.

  3. There were “no-brainer” selections such as the Gospels and the Pauline epistles. In addition to the above requirement, all other books had to be consistent with these obvious choices.
Allow me to comment on two popular misconceptions that exist when it comes to the canon.
  • There was no New Testament before the Fifth Century. There was, obviously, New Testament scripture from apostolic times. As noted earlier, Paul refers to Luke’s gospel. Paul also talks about scripture, in a way that necessarily includes New Testament scripture, in virtually all epistles, especially in his letters to Timothy. Peter gives Paul’s letters the honorific of Scripture:
    He [Paul] writes the same way in all his letters, speaking in them of these matters. His letters contain some things that are hard to understand, which ignorant and unstable people distort, as they do the other Scriptures, to their own destruction. (2 Pet. 3:16, NIV)
    There was no formal New Testament, but the books existed and “the 27” were recognized by the early church, long before they were collected and received into the canon.

  • There was tremendous debate concerning thousands of books. Actually, most of the “candidates” were immediately dismissed as heretical (mostly along Gnostic lines). Of the books that were accepted, there was some debate concerning Hebrews, James, 2 Peter, 2 John, 3 John, Jude and Revelation. Only a few books “almost” made it, such as 1 Clement, The Shepherd of Hermas, and The Didache. They were generally declined because the authors themselves acknowledged that they had no apostolic authority.

It should be noted that we differ from Roman Catholics on two points when it comes to the canon. The first is that Catholic Church recognizes additional books know as the Apocrypha. Second, Catholics affirm that the canon is infallible, while Protestants do not. As the late John Gerstner put it:
  • Catholic Position: The canon (Bible) is an infallible collection of inerrant books.

  • Protestant Position: The canon (Bible) is an fallible collection of inerrant books.
The Catholic position is much more pleasing. However, it relies on the Catholic Church’s claim of its own infallibility and sacred tradition, which we as Protestants deny (more about this later). As Protestants, we can have confidence that the extreme care taken resulted in the correct books being included. We are also free to believe that the Holy Spirit guided the selection process. What we must stop short of saying is that we are certain that the men (or the church) were absolutely infallible—even though we believe the correct choices were made.

Agreeing on what the Bible says is not always easy

Even if we agree that the Bible is inerrant and inspired, that does not mean that we will agree on interpretation. Not by a long shot. Well intended Bible readers can sometimes come to vastly different conclusions. Here is my favorite example.

And he will make a firm covenant with the many for one week, but in the middle of the week he will put a stop to sacrifice and grain offering; and on the wing of abominations will come one who makes desolate, even until a complete destruction, one that is decreed, is poured out on the one who makes desolate. (Dan 9-27, NASB).
Now if your view of eschatology is amillennial (historically the dominant eschatology, which does not expect a literal 1000 year earthly kingdom), then you interpret the “he” in this verse as referring to the Messiah. If you are dispensational premillennial (think of those Left Behind books), which today has many proponents, then the “he” is the antichrist! Can’t disagree any more than that!

Is it so bad if the Bible is not Inerrant?

It is very bad. It would be a disaster of, well, biblical proportions. For if the Bible is not inerrant, we have no confidence that the promises of God that it contains, the very promises upon which we rest our hope for eternal security, are anything more than cruel fictions.

Claiming that the Bible is not inerrant is the mistake made by liberal churches. There are parts of the Bible that offend our enlightened 21st century sensibilities. God is sometimes too harsh. He commands the killing of women and children (1 Sam. 15:3). He condemns homosexuality (Lev. 18:22) in no uncertain terms. He requires that elders and deacons be men (Titus 1:6). Many if not most (Matt. 22:14) people are going to hell. More people would come to church if he weren’t so intolerant.

And so God is reinvented according to their tastes. He is a much “nicer” but a false god. The question that is never asked is this: If God is not as described in the Bible, how do we know he is nicer? Maybe he is mean, capricious, or even dead. If the Bible lied about God’s commands and attributes, perhaps it also lied about His plan for salvation. How can you have confidence anything?

This is not a road upon which we should travel. Our faith rests on the inerrant Word of God.

As we already discussed, the fact that the Bible is inerrant does not mean that we will always agree as to what it says. Furthermore, it does not mean that God endorses everything that is in the Bible in the sense of it being “good”. It just means it is accurate; sometimes it is an accurate report of something bad. For example, Judges 11:29-35 describes a case of human sacrifice resulting from a foolish vow made by Jephthah. The inclusion of this story in the Bible in no way implies that God endorsed the killing of Jephthah’s daughter.


We can march forward in this study confident that scripture is inerrant. While debates about interpretation will surely arise, those are in-house debates wherein all parties agree that the Bible is the True Word of God.

Next we will discuss whether the Bible is also the sufficient Word of God.

1 Reason to Believe, R. C. Sproul, Zondervan, 1978.

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