Thursday, May 16, 2002

Posts are in reverse chronological order.

Mail Call

I thought I would share an email (having obtained permission from the sender).


I am fairly new Christian (although an experienced student of philosophy), and I have come to Christianity because I have spent 25 years studying the world and the evidence of Christianity seems to me overwhelming. I am [now] reading thru the entire Bible, to give me the correct baseline (I have completed the New Testiment, and am currently in Numbers in the Old Testiment). I read your description of what a Christian is, and agree with all the points I understand, but I do not entirely understand the first: "The Bible is the inerrant and sufficient inspired word of God."

I don't quite know what you mean. I recognize the Bible as an important resource for understanding God's will, along with the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the community of Christian believers, but since I group it with these other things I am having trouble with "sufficient", especially since my (no doubt limited) understanding that it is *only* with the support of the Holy Spirit that we can really get what God wants us to out of the Bible.

And I don't understand "inerrant", either. Again, with the Holy Spirit at our elbows I have faith we will make no mistakes, as long as we listen. But the book itself has passed thru the hands of men, and they will introduce errors if *they* don't listen, and some are bound to have failed in that regard since we are all sinners. After all, there are many translations of the Bible, and approached literally they do not all agree. So what does "inerrant" mean?

My Response

Dear Reader,

Your letter points out a serious flaw with the Christian blog format: the possibility of overwhelming a new believer with small, terminology-laden snippets. If you were what we normally think of as a "new believer" or someone just searching, then I would advise you to ignore all this terminology for now and to let me call you on the phone to tell you that we all are sinners in need of a savior, that Christ is that Savior and he died for us -- paying the full price of our sins, and best of all he offers salvation as a free gift.

From your letter I surmise that you already have heard this good news, and are now undertaking a serious study to improve your understanding. I will be talking as a fellow believer but definitely a layman -- I have no formal theological training. Your email said you have been reading the bible (GREAT!) but it did not say whether you attended a church. If you don't, then your first order of business is to start attending a bible believing church. You can also ask your pastor and elders these questions. Ultimately, discernment will be your responsibility – but thankfully you won't be alone – pray for guidance by the Holy Spirit.

On Bible Inerrancy

I believe 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. Inerrancy and inspiration do not require that God literally dictated the words. 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.

Now, what about the influence of men? There are two possibilities here. One is that men messed up the canon -- i.e., which books made it into the Bible. The other is that translators have corrupted what was originally perfect.

There are good histories of the Bible that will address this in excruciating detail. Let me try to summarize as I see it.

The men who selected the canon and who organized translations were scholarly, meticulous believers. For a mini history lesson, look here. To me, it is manifest that they were also guided by the Holy Spirit. Scholarly review has documented how accurate the accepted translations have been. There really aren’t substantive differences among, say, 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 The Iliad or Dante’s Inferno differ much, much, more than Bible translations.

Nevertheless (assuming you aren’t going to learn Greek and Hebrew) a good (albeit expensive) strategy is to obtain study Bibles for a couple of widely accepted translations. While the notes are not inspired, they will often give insight as to what was in the Greek or Hebrew text. Commentaries are also helpful.

On Bible Sufficiency

You were the first to call me on this! In an earlier post What is A Christian I wrote:

The Bible is the inerrant and sufficient inspired word of God.

Aside: A reader has graciously (and correctly) pointed out that I biased my definition such that I was really talking about the more narrow definition of what is a Reformed Christian (i.e., Calvinist). See the comments for that post.

I italicized and sufficient without comment. Primarily because I believe it to be so:

I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues which are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his part from the tree of life and from the holy city, which are written in this book. (Rev 22:18-19, NASB)


Beloved, while I was making every effort to write you about our common salvation, I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints. (Jude 1:3, NASB)

To me (but not to everyone) these verses say: revelation ended with the apostolic age; the Word is both necessary and sufficient.

This is a contentious issue. It can be very devisive between Christians who are Charismatic and those who are not. I don’t know how to deal with this division; it is very painful because it is among believers who have so much in common. I didn’t want to go there, especially with new believers -- so I italicized "and sufficient" as a way to signal my non-charismatic position.

Sufficient in no way implies we don’t need the assistance of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, without His help the words would be foolishness to our ears. And it does not mean that you can squirrel yourself away in some corner with the Bible with no need of anything else. You will need instruction from Godly teachers and regular fellowship with a body of believers. It means (in my mind) that no additional revelation or true prophet will be forthcoming until Christ returns.

A Final Comment

Your letter stated:

Again, with the Holy Spirit at our elbows I have faith we will make no mistakes, as long as we listen.

At first I was going to disagree, but maybe this is true. The problem is that we are imperfect listeners. The Holy Spirit is working with damaged goods. If it were not so, I suppose we would all be in agreement over these thorny theological issues we so dearly love to debate.

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