Monday, August 28, 2006

Inerrancy is a Curious Thing

Believe it or not I am one who still believes in inerrancy. This may be a shock to a few who think, for whatever oddball reasons, that I don't.

However, inerrancy is a curious thing to me. I come at it basically from a flow of logic about the perfections of God. God is without error in his very Being. "God breathed out" all scripture (πασα γραφη θεοπνευστος) 2 Timothy 3:16. Unless God has bad breath, "all the writings" breathed out by God were also without error. Viola! Inerrant writings, but with this strong caveat--inerrant only in the original autographs. What "original autographs" means is that the only writings that were ever inerrant were the writings composed by the actual biblical authors themselves, guys like Moses, Isaiah, David, Mark, Paul, John, etc.

Now here is the most curious thing. To the knowledge of all biblical scholars past and present, none of the "original writings" have survived. Technically they are not "extant." They're all gone. Disappeared. Nada. All we have today are copies of copies of copies of the biblical manuscripts. Inerrancy does not apply to these oodles of copies. As a matter of fact these copies of copies are notorious for being errant...with error.

Not to fear, though, because no doctrine/teaching/belief/theological conclusion is jeopardized by these scribal errors in the copies of hand-written scrolls.* Yet, if that's true, then why are there so many different, even opposing views about major doctrines and teachings and theological conclusions? Good question. I think the answer is that all doctrinal statements and theological conclusions are human creations. The doctrine of sin says we are all errant. No Midas touch exists. Humans mess with the Bible like they mess with everything else like uranium. What's a camel? A horse made by a committee.

So, I do believe in inerrancy, but my belief, sadly, does not apply to anything available...not to my NIV, my TNIV, my NASB, my MESSAGE Bible, my NLT, any variations of my KJV and for crying out loud, the Catholic Bible has 12 extra books not in my Protestant Bibles! Inerrancy doesn't apply to the writings of the Didache, Clement, Tertullian, Augustine, Athanasius, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, Edwards, Van Til, Scofield, Warfield, Chafer, Ryrie, Grudem, D.A. Carson, Osteen, Lucado, Willard, Ortberg, Fee, Dan Brown, McKnight, McArthur, Stott, NT Wright, and even Bill O'Reilly.

So I hold on to belief in inerrancy out of deference to an inerrant God. I don't place my faith in the Bible. I place my faith in the Trinitarian God--Father, Son, and Spirit who conspired to reveal God's character, ways and will through a community of (errant) people for a community of errant people in a book called the Bible. This Bible promises that we may live new, but not inerrant lives in the midst of this world infested with trivial to ever more tragic errors. And we live in hope that when "the Perfect" is made known, errancy will be no more.

*To see some of the biblical Dead Sea Scrolls, click here.


At 8/28/2006 8:59 AM, Anonymous Susan said...


At 8/28/2006 10:53 AM, Blogger John Frye said...

Elaborate for me on your simple "Amen" about this post. I truly am interested in your thoughts.

At 8/28/2006 12:33 PM, Blogger sacred vapor said...

john, I wonder if the 'Inerrancy' debate in Christian circles is missing the real issue. The problem (at least for me) is not 'inerrancy' but 'interpretation.'

We can have bonafide written content from the finger of God, but if we misunderstand it, is that not the real problem?

of course the issue at hand is, what is the right interpretation of passage 'so and so', and hence we have multitudes of denominations that hold to their specific views.

But, regardless of the differences (in understanding passages) the topic of interest to many folks is that of 'inerrancy.' I'm just not sure that is the key problem.

what think ye?

At 8/28/2006 12:53 PM, Blogger Ted Gossard said...

I agree. Especially about grounding our confidence in the Triune God in regard to this.

I will say I think evangelicals or fundamentalists: we've applied inerrancy in ways that are not recognizing the genre we're reading. I do prefer "infallible", though could sign on "inerrant".

At 8/28/2006 12:55 PM, Blogger Ted Gossard said...

I also want to add that I don't think the original autographs would differ significantly from the many copies we have now. Particularly in matters in the Gospels, in which it is nigh impossible for us to harmonize. At least according to the way we may write a narrative.

At 8/28/2006 1:15 PM, Anonymous Susan said...

Well...I just got finished reading Wayne Grudem's little book Christian Beliefs(required reading for a class). One would think, from reading this book, that God is a Sharpie (permanent marker) whose breath does nothing but produce words and sentences that disseminate "clear" doctrine...

sorry...that's all I can write about this. I'm not in a frame of mind to do much more or any better.


At 8/28/2006 1:21 PM, Blogger Chris said...

I am interested in this discussion of Biblical inerrancy, but I am left with a few questions.
First, what is meant by inerrancy? Do you see the Bible as inerrant in a similar way to how it was articulated by the conservative Protestants in The Chicago Statement? This seems to bring us to arguments concerning authorial intent, or to a negative argument that accepting one error in the Bible leads one down a slippery slope that ends in rejecting that the Bible has any value greater than some other book.
Are you writing of Scriptural innerrancy concerning historical facts and moral issues?
Or does inerrant mean that the Bible doesn't contradict itself? How then would one deal with the apparent tensions between Isaiah 2:4 and Joel 3:10 concerning spears and pruning hooks, swords and plowshares?
This would seem to bring us to a more fundamental tension and my second overarching question; what is the nature of Scripture? If the Bible is a timeless set of doctrines, I see the need for the discussion of inerrancy and non-contradiction. However, it seems, the Bible is a story written to a particular people in a particular context where the apparent contradictions are elements of the dynamic story.
Is the Bible inerrant for all time or for the particular people it was written for in a particular spatio-temporal context?
Furthermore, do you see Scripture as having an objective meaning existing prior to (and in some cases, despite) interpretation? Perhaps, a sub question could be; what is the role of interpretation? Is there one right interpretation of Scripture or passages of Scripture? Is authorial intent the correct interpretation? Is there room, in the face of spatio-temporal distantiation, for imagination, recontextualization, and appropriation in reading?
Also, thirdly, you speak of biblical inspiration (or actually expiration), all scripture is "God breathed out" (theopneustos). The pneuma (Greek: “breath”) as the root of pneustos in theopneustos could be translated, as it often is, as spirit. Therefore, theopneustos could be translated as “God-Spirited”, and refer to Scripture as directed by the Holy Spirit. But how is this different from the traditional Church? In John 16:13, he quotes Jesus again as saying, “But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.” In this reading, both Scripture and the Church are directed by the Spirit, but we wouldn't want to speak of the Church and the Church's interpretation of Scripture as inerrant (unless, of course, one subscribes to the Catholic position on inerrancy articulated in Dei Verbum).

So basically, what is the nature of Scripture? From there, in what way is Scripture theopneustos (God-breathed or God-Spirited)? And finally, what does it mean to be, and what is the importance of being, inerrant?
These are a few of my questions, I hope that I haven't made them unintelligible.
(Congratulations on the birth of your granddaughter).

At 8/28/2006 1:51 PM, Blogger Scot McKnight said...

I didn't get all the way through Chris' comment, but I would say that a critical issue for me is that the word "inerrancy" tells us something about the original autographs (and, yes, about God), namely that they are "true." (So I prefer saying the Bible is "truthful.")

Two more points: first, my relationship to the Bible is not well expressed by the word "inerrancy." For that, and this is more important, I prefer "identity shaping." The Bible, if I live in it, becomes my story.

Second, I have long been puzzled that God didn't evidently care to preserve those original writings and to let the Bible undergo the process that ancient mss all underwent. Why is that?

At 8/28/2006 2:02 PM, Blogger John Frye said...

Sacred Vapor,
I was in seminary in the early 70's and the battle for the Bible was the rage and inerrancy got a lot of press. I'm wondering, like you, if there are other matters more pressing than the inerrancy issue. But in the blogosphere it still seems to be a litmus test for some.

At 8/28/2006 2:03 PM, Blogger John Frye said...

I read all the reasons for inerrancy and they sound like reasons for the Bible's authority, uniqueness, etc.

At 8/28/2006 2:06 PM, Blogger John Frye said...

Thanks for mustering what you have. I appreciate it. And peace be with you.

At 8/28/2006 2:15 PM, Blogger John Frye said...

You raise the issue that Scot McKnight picks up on in the next comment. Do we fall prey to the Enlightenment/Modern view of "truth." Does inerrancy by it's very existence lump those who are afraid of liberalism and a low view of the Bible right in with the liberals? It seems we go far afiled when we fight to make the Bible "scientifically" correct and not just correct in matters of faith and morals, e.g., the mustard seed is not botanically the smallest seed, but Jesus added "smallest seed THAT IS SOWN." Whew! We escaped that one! Good questions.

At 8/28/2006 2:28 PM, Blogger John Frye said...

So you would move the discussion from errorlessness to truthfulness.
Inerrancy is about truth. Also, the Bible is identity-shaping letting us know who we are and the story we find ourselves in.

Isn't "inerrancy" an apologetics term that supports those evangelicals who say we have good, reasonable answers for all the alledged errors or contradicitons in the Bible? Like reconciling 1 Corinthians 10:8 with Numbers 25:9?

Why is that? With inerrancy being so crucial for many and their commitment to the integrity of the Bible, yet in actual effect inerrancy applies to nothing available? Why did God allow the manuscript history to unfold as it has?

At 8/28/2006 2:47 PM, Blogger Chris said...

We are safe with the mustard seed, however, we are vulnerable when it comes to the circumference of a circle. The Bible implies its value is 3. In listing the specifications for Solomon’s temple, I Kings 7:23 reads,
"And he made a molten sea, ten cubits from one brim to another: it was round all about, and his height was five cubits: and a line of thirty cubits did compass it about."

Here, the text describes a large brass casting, with 10-cubit diameter and 30-cubit circumference. Thus, pi is 3. If we accept that the Temple was constructed around 950 BC, the circumference-pi formula was already known (or it was known, at least since the Egyptians in 1650 BC, that pi was more precise than 3. I don't know how safe we are on this one!
Is the Bible "correct in matters of faith and morals"? Contextually, yes. Timelessly, at least, I would have to answer in the negative. This brings us back to the nature of Scripture and the role of the Church in interpretation and continuing the story.

At 8/28/2006 3:11 PM, Blogger Chris said...

If I may add my two cents concerning the discussion of the subsequent re-editing of the original manuscripts, it seems that ancient manuscripts were context-specific and the subsequent editors appropriated, reinterpreted, and reworked the ancient manuscripts to recontextualize them for there specific context. I agree with Scot, John, and Paul Ricoeur that stories are identity shaping, but while the story shapes us, we also shape, become part of, and continue the dynamic story.
The ancient manuscripts are important. But there importance doesn't seem to lie in whether or not they were inerrant, this category, at least to me, doesn't seem imperative. It seems that the ancient manuscripts are important because they were the original interpretations of our story, that we are shaped by, find ourselves in, and are called to continue.

At 8/28/2006 5:02 PM, Blogger Terry Rayburn said...

Three comments:

1. I think John hit the nail on the head with, "So I hold on to belief in inerrancy out of deference to an inerrant God. I don't place my faith in the Bible. I place my faith in the Trinitarian God--Father, Son, and Spirit...

Jesus said that the Pharisees studied the scriptures thinking that in them were eternal life, but that the scriptures spoke of *Him*.

2. I like Scot's slant, "the word 'inerrancy' tells us something about the original autographs (and, yes, about God), namely that they are 'true.'"

But the "truth" that they tell us is living and active, and most importantly *spiritually* discerned.

That's why an 80-year-old grandma with her KJV may have richer communion with Jesus than a young strapping scholar, who may run rings around Grandma in knowledge of theology or verse memorization.

Also "truth" must be dug out and reasoned from context at times (e.g., Job's friends voiced non-truth, even though it is "inerrantly" recorded).

3. I believe there are many loopholes of *apparent* error, which allow the unbeliever to justify his unbelief. Usually they take the form of "contradictions".

Some *apparent* contradictions have been dealt with handily many times, but still persist, usually among skeptics who think they are "wise", but sometimes by honest questioners like Chris.

For example, the "molten sea" circumference was explained by Harold Lindsell in his Battle for the Bible, which I read in 1977. (The sea had a thick brim, so the outside diameter was 10, the inside only 9.56 or thereabouts. So the circumference in Chris' passage was for the *interior*, while the diameter was for the *exterior*. Or something like that, given my errant memory.)

"...out of deference to an innerant God..."

I love that. Thanks, John.

At 8/28/2006 5:25 PM, Blogger Chris said...

I wasn't serious with my post. I was simply continuing the mood of the end of John's post into mine: we are safe when it comes to the mustard seed, but not safe when it comes to pi.
I didn't know that someone had attempted to explain this away. An explanation may have its place, but it seems rather frivolous to me, the Bible is not a math book, nor is it a botany book.
Again it seems that we return to a question on the nature and purpose of Scripture. What is Scripture? It seems that we are all writing with different implicit presuppositions as to the nature and purpose of Scripture, and are trying and (to some extent) failing to bridge the gulf between us because we understand the nature and purpose of Scripture in fundamentally different ways.

At 8/29/2006 6:00 AM, Blogger John Frye said...

I was only illustrating with the mustard seed what you illustrated with pi. We end up doing a "we-have-to-have-an-answer" dance to a tune foreign to God and the Bible.

At 8/29/2006 6:02 AM, Blogger John Frye said...

Thanks for commenting on this issue. I want to honor the Bible's veracity and authority without having to jump through hoops of a way of knowing foreign to the Bible itself.

At 8/29/2006 6:06 AM, Blogger John Frye said...

While we engage the Story that the ancient manuscripts tell and while we continue the Story in our lives, we still must wrestle with the accuracy of the Story as preserved in the manscript data.

At 8/29/2006 6:55 AM, Blogger Tim said...

So I don't get why when Paul says in 2 Timothy 'God breathed out" all scripture we attribute that idea to the New Testament also. Surely Paul wasn't talking about his own writings and some that hadn't been written yet. Wasn't he referring to the Jewish bible at the time?

I haven't ever thought about the fact that we don't have the originals ... good point.

I have to say that I am so relieved to be able to trust in the triune God and not just the bible. I like the bible and I believe it to be true because I experience it to be that way and because it seems to me God uses it to reveal himself to us, but sometimes the arguments for it seem a bit sketchy at times.

At 8/29/2006 6:58 AM, Blogger Tim said...

hmmmm ... not great use of the english language there at the end. Sorry about that, it's kinda late here. :-D

At 8/29/2006 7:24 AM, Blogger Chris said...

I agree that the so-called problems posed by the mustard seed and pi sometimes cause us to do an unnecessary "we-have-to-have-an-answer" dance to a tune foreign to God and the Bible. I don't think a theological or historical explanation is imperative to save the Bible from it's would be attackers.
I don't understand why we are worried about the importance of the accuracy of the ancient manuscripts that we don't even have.
Anyway, I still don't really understand the importance of inerrancy. A cookbook could be inerrant, a instruction manual could be inerrant, why is it special that the Bible is inerrant. It just doesn't seem like an important category.

At 8/29/2006 7:25 AM, Blogger Terry Rayburn said...

John wrote, "We end up doing a 'we-have-to-have-an-answer' dance to a tune foreign to God and the Bible."

That is so good. Reminds me of Deut. 29:29, "The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our sons forever..."

It's wisdom to "get understanding". It's also wisdom to rest in the knowledge that we will never get it all.

At 8/29/2006 7:42 AM, Blogger Terry Rayburn said...

"We end up doing a 'we-have-to-have-an-answer' dance to a tune foreign to God and the Bible."

It also reminds me of when I was a new believer, and was enthralled with Josh McDowell's Evidence That Demands A Verdict, which "proved" Jesus was who He said He was.

I went forth to crush all skeptics with the "evidence", but the crushed skeptics remained skeptics. Somewhat crushed myself by this strange phenomenon, I told the simple gospel, and bam!, some skeptics became believers.

The evidence "dance" had no power, the music of the gospel was the power of God for salvation.

At 8/29/2006 8:08 AM, Blogger sacred vapor said...

I think the reason is that the josh McDowell type of evidence doesn't really work with postmoderns.

But your point about the telling the simple Gospel is valid. I had similar experiences.

At 8/29/2006 8:27 AM, Blogger John Frye said...

I agree that there is something mysterious and Spirit-caused in the creation and sustaining of faith. It's not just let's get the evidence out there so we can convinced you mentally. I am not against apologetics, but they are not as faith-inducing as we think. A person who believes because of an argument is always at the mercy of a better argument. I don't think Jesus called us to be the best arguers on the planet, but the best lovers of others.

At 8/29/2006 8:37 AM, Blogger Terry Rayburn said...

Sacred Vapor,
You're certainly right that McDowell apologetics doesn't work with postmoderns. But I don't think it ever did work with anyone, when it comes to true belief in Jesus (except possibly to get a hearing for the gospel).

Also, in the '70s postmodernity was a little chick cracking out of it's shell, compared to today.

Sidenote: I love your photos. Wonderful eye. Keep it sacred :)

At 8/29/2006 1:33 PM, Blogger Rob said...

As alluded to by others, is defending inerrancy answering the wrong question? It places the sacred Scriptures in the realm of science, and uses its rules as a means of justification. When the Scriptures were challenged by the critics using human reason and higher criticism, the church reacted and set out to defend the Bible. I believe that it ended up using the very same human reason and scientific method as their defense. Inerrancy says that the Bible is now an indubitable foundation, free of errors. Sounds to me like what science uses as a means to prove something is valid and factual. What happened to the church saying “we believe the Scriptures by faith, and our relationship to their Author”? Why did we give up the fight of faith for the realm of reason, and defend our faith on their (higher critics) grounds?

At 8/29/2006 1:55 PM, Blogger John Frye said...

While inerrancy has a place in one realm, it certainly is not neede by the Spirit in the other realm. Your last question is indeed the question.

At 11/10/2006 12:54 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

monkeys didn't create the universe, god did.

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