Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Lesson 2: Biblical Inerrancy (Part 2)

(This is based on John Gerstner’s Primer on Biblical Inerrancy from a compilation of his primers in the book Primitive Theology. I am using Primitive Theology for my Sunday School class. There is a growing list of links on the left for the posts for this class.)

Aside: Judging from the last post, some readers are not so happy with my view: These arguments are (mostly) for the edification of the saints, atheists will never accept them. I'm not sure why people (on both sides) don't like that position. I think the bible teaches it clearly. Just one example: 1 Cor. 1:18, For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (That verse, by the way, is a very powerful comfort, in terms of providing assurance of your salvation. Turning it around, if you do not find the word as foolishness, well you can take that to the bank.)

I think atheists sense that I have given myself an easy way to end all debate: well of course you don't agree, you are an athiest. That's actually true, but I don't use that. I'll argue as best I can, as if I had a chance to convince, but I know that the words are falling on ears that cannot hear unless opened by God. To my fellow Christians, rest assured that I am not arguing that we should not witness. On the contrary, that activity should consume us.

A solid Basis for Biblical Inerrancy

Having dealt with the common “bad” arguments, we look at a good one. Again, we cannot make a mathematical, bullet proof justification. This argument will be most helpful to those who generally agree that the bible is reliable and written in “good faith” but not necessarily inerrant. If you think the bible is a complete fiction, then no human reasoning without concomitant divine intervention will make you think otherwise.

As an example, I recently had an exchange (yes, on Panda’s Thumb) with a bible-denier who claimed no New Testament scripture could have been written before the second century. (This he stated matter-of-factly, with no evidence.)

I argued:
That is utter, revisionist nonsense for many reasons, including circumstantial.

For example, there is no mention (except prophetically) of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by Roman legions in AD 70. This means that these Jewish writers didn’t think it important to mention, even in passing, the massacre of about a million Jews and the enslavement and relocation of 200,000 others. Not to mention the desecration and destruction of their center of worship.

This would be akin to multiple Jewish writers penning a history of the twentieth century without mentioning the Holocaust.
When others joined in (not on my side) my regrettable snarkiness got the better of me, and I wrote:
But to assume the gospels and the epistles, even if they are fiction, were written around AD 100 and (the writers) didn’t bother to weave in the destruction of Jerusalem, an event known from independent accounts to be factual, (well) the only argument you could make is that the writers conspired thusly:
  1. Let’s write a (fake) history of events from seventy (or more) years ago, so that we can have cushy ecclesiastical jobs, all that pesky persecution being little more than an annoyance.
  2. Oh, let’s not mention our holocaust of AD 70 so that it will look like we wrote these before that event.
  3. Oh, just for kicks, let’s put fake prophecy about AD 70 into the mouth of our invention, Jesus.
  4. Oh, but lets be very clever and make (the bulk of it) it vague. Not in the sense of the Oracle of Delphi, but so that in the distant future, many people will think it refers to a still future event, so that our descendants can continue to milk the same prophetic text as referring to a rapture and great tribulation.
And then you’d have to get Clement of Rome, just for another example, to insert into his writings of that era fictional references to Paul’s nonexistent letters to the Corinthians.

And of course, the failure to mention the events of AD 70 is just one reason why the late date is nonsense.
As you might have guessed, this approach didn’t work, because the response was generally along the lines of: yeah, that sounds about right.

(Aside to my fellow Christians who do believe the prophecy to which I am referring, the Olivet discourse (Matt. 24) is indeed about a future Great Tribulation--well that's a separate issue that we have looked at in the past and will look at again in the near future.)

So keeping in mind that the target is (for the most part) the believer who wants to learn why he can be confident in biblical inerrancy, let’s move forward.

The Testimony of Jesus

Our approach is to appeal to the testimony of Jesus. Jesus himself expresses the highest view of Scripture, saying that “not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen” in the law shall disappear or fail to be accomplished. (Matt. 5:18) We also know that Jesus was prone to use scripture in his arguments, often beginning sentences with “It is written” and to proclaim that he is the Messiah (Luke 4:21). And of course, Jesus used scripture alone when tempted by Satan.

In short, Jesus asserts that all of Scripture is inspired, inerrant, infallible, and authoritative to the letter. Therefore, the proper view of biblical inerrancy affirms not only the general events and doctrines taught in Scripture, but it affirms that God has infallibly caused to be written the very words used in the Bible. To deny this or to affirm anything short of this is to call Jesus a liar.

By now you should be screaming: yes all that is fine and good but you are appealing to the bible as evidence for what Jesus said, and so it cannot be proof of inerrancy. You are correct. It is just background.


We will use a bootstrapping approach. Here the idea is to build a logical chain from the least controversial claim to the conclusion, that the bible is the inerrant Word of God. The "proof" is then as strong as the weakest link.

Sproul uses a Christ-based bootstrapping argument based on this chain:
  1. The Bible is a basically reliable and trustworthy document.
  2. On the basis of this reliable document we have sufficient evidence to believe confidently that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.
  3. Jesus Christ being the Son of God is an inerrant authority.
  4. Jesus Christ teaches that the Bible is more than generally trustworthy; it is the very Word of God.
  5. The word, in that it comes from God, is utterly trustworthy because God is utterly trustworthy.
  6. Conclusion--On the basis of the inerrant authority of Jesus Christ, the church believes the Bible to be utterly trustworthy; i.e., inerrant.
We will use a similar chain:
  1. Jesus is a real historic figure
  2. The gospels are, at least, reasonable historic accounts
  3. Jesus performed miracles
  4. Miracles are a sign from God that the person performing them is a prophet
  5. As a prophet, Jesus would speak the truth
  6. Jesus affirmed the bible as the word of God
    Conclusion--Therefore, the bible is the word of God

Jesus is a historic figure

This receives very little criticism, even in secular circles. Non-Christian historians such as Josephus discuss Jesus. (Note: references to the resurrection in Josephus’ Antiquities were probably redactions by misguided Christians. However, the core reference to Jesus is generally considered reliable.)

The Roman historian Tacitus (ca. 56–ca. 117) wrote, describing Rome’s burning under Nero:
Nero fastened the guilt… on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus (Christ), from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of… Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judaea, the first source of the evil, but even Rome… (Tacitus, Annals 15.44, cited in Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ, 82.)

There are references to Jesus in the Babylonian Talmud, of which the earliest period of compilation occurred between AD 70 to AD 200. One reference to Jesus from this period states:
On the eve of the Passover Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald . . . cried, "He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy."
There are also references in the writings of Pliny the Younger, the Roman governor of Bithynia in Asia Minorca, ca. 112 (where he seeks advice from Rome on how to prosecute Christians). The Greek playwright Lucian (AD 120- ~180) mentions (satirically) Christians and Christ (though not by name). Even the Koran mentions Jesus. There is little argument that Jesus existed.

The gospels are, at least, reasonable historic accounts

Again, there is little argument here. Both historically and archeologically, the gospels have proved to be models of reliability. In particular, no archeological work has ever disproved a claim of one of the gospels.

In his article The Inerrancy of Scripture Tim Challies writes:
Only a couple of generations ago, scholars pointed to the Bible's claim that there was a king of Assyria named Tiglath-Pileser as an error, for archaeological evidence had not proven that any such king existed. But then archaeologists excavated Tiglath-Pileser's capital city and found this carved into bricks: "I, Tiglath-Pileser, king of Assyria..." It is a fact that "the results of sound scholarship have not tended to uncover more and more problems...Rather they have tended to resolve problems and to show that what were once thought to be errors are not errors at all" (James Boice, Whatever Happened to the Gospel of Grace, page 70). R.C. Sproul writes, "The Christian has nothing to fear from rigorous historical research. Rather, we have everything to gain."

Jesus performed miracles

Given that we know the gospels are reasonable historic writings, and not subject to wild speculation, we acknowledge that Jesus performed miracles. We know that not only did his friends attest to and write down his miracles, his enemies also acknowledged them, although they attributed his miraculous works to Satan. Furthermore, his miracles were witnessed by a large number of people, many of whom would have had ample opportunity to deny the miracles when the apostles began preaching in Jerusalem. This is no known account of someone claiming “I was there, I was among the crowd, and that didn’t happen.” There is, of course, a great deal of skepticism among even some who say they are Christians about the truth of the miracles, but most acknowledge that the writers of the gospels believed that had witnessed actual miracles, i.e., they were not lying.

Miracles are a sign from God that the person performing them is a prophet

Miracles are expressions of divine power and as such they bear witness to the fact that the performer has been marked by God as His prophet. They are, in fact, God offering proof that the messenger is His messenger. They do not necessarily imply deity: God has empowered humans (such as Moses) to perform miracles, or to be the conveyor of miraculous, divine power. If a human performs a true miracle, we are confident that he doing so at the pleasure of God, the ultimate power behind the miracle.

We conclude then, at a minimum, Jesus was a prophet of God.

As a prophet, Jesus would speak the truth

As a prophet of God, speaking as God’s messenger, Jesus would speak the truth. The assumption here is that God would not go to the trouble of providing the credentials of a prophet, via miracles, without ensuring that the messenger’s message was true.

In fact, the prophet will speak the truth even though he will often not understand what he is saying. Prophets generally do not understand their own prophecy. Peter tells us that their prophecy (concerning Jesus) was not for them or even their contemporaries, but for us (1 Peter 1:10-12). That we may look back and see how the prophecy was fulfilled. If you believe that the story of Jesus is generally true, it is useful to go back and study the Messianic prophecies of the Old Testament. Then you will see how precisely it was filled, which should give further confidence in biblical inerrancy. (Or, once again, that it was a carefully crafted fiction.)

This is a crucial point. The bible is so self-referential (across vast time periods), and so detailed, and so specific, that the only two rational choices are that it is the truth or it is a pack of lies.

Jesus affirmed the bible as the word of God

As mentioned in the introductory paragraph, Jesus attested to scripture being of God on many occasions. Again, most liberal scholars do not dispute that Jesus spoke of scripture as being inspired. However, a claim is sometimes made that Jesus was mislead by his times—the Jews of that day also believed in inspiration. Jesus, in his human nature, it is argued, was not omniscient (Matt. 24:36). This is true, but we do not rely on Jesus’ omniscience but his sinlessness. For He makes bold claims of doing nothing except the father’s bidding—claims that would be outright lies regardless of His times or the lack of omniscience of His human nature. Thus Jesus, as truthful messenger, could not have treated the bible as inspired solely because he was misled by His times.

Therefore, the bible is the word of God

Since Jesus is a true prophet, and He taught of the authority of scripture, then scripture must indeed be the word of God.

In summary—the gospels, once we grant their being generally reliable as almost all scholars do—then bootstraps itself into being the word of God through the claims of Jesus. The only real alternative, if the gospel writers were even just mostly reliable, is that Jesus was the consummate fraud and fakir. His miracles have not been disputed, including a bold prediction that Jerusalem itself would be destroyed within a generation. The only hole in this approach is if you believe that a true prophet could lie, and Jesus lied egregiously when it came to his view of scripture.

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