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2012-03-01 issue:

On biblical inerrancy

Opinion: Perspectives from readers

by Steve Carpenter

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Note: This is the web exclusive, extended version.

Contrary to what some teach, the Bible need not be inerrant to be a fully trustworthy and reliable source for Christian faith, doctrine and living. Some pastors are urging their area conference to embrace the doctrine of biblical inerrancy which asserts the Bible is not only God’s word, but is without error. This doctrine says the Bible, in its original texts (sometimes called autographs), is true in every fact and detail. This concept was not held by early church leaders but has become popular in the last two centuries.

Harold Lindsell, in his 1978 book The Battle for the Bible, forcefully made the case for biblical inerrancy calling it a “watershed” doctrine, meaning if the Church abandons inerrancy the waters of uncertainty and Christian liberalism will burst through the floodgates and overwhelm the Church. This argument is made, not from reason but from fear.

I have a deep love and high regard for scripture. I have read through the Bible many times in my personal devotions, diligently followed the lectionary scriptures in corporate worship, and memorized many Bible passages. The Bible is central to my faith and a constant source of comfort, guidance and inspiration. Yet, I do not insist on its inerrancy mainly because the Bible makes no such claim for itself. The closest the Bible comes to such a claim is in the Apostle Paul’s letter to his young protégé Timothy.  II Timothy 2:16 says, “All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness (KJV).” It is important to remember the Apostle Paul was not referring to the Bible as we have it today, but to the Jewish scriptures as they existed in the first century. I agree fully with Paul’s assertion and so does the Mennonite Church USA. The Church’s current 1995 Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective, Article 4, Scripture says, “We believe that all scripture is inspired by God through the Holy Spirit for instruction in salvation and training in righteousness. We accept the Scriptures as the Word of God and as the fully reliable and trustworthy standard for Christian faith and life.” Article 2, Divine Revelation, of the Mennonite Church’s 1963 confession uses essentially the same language as the 1995 confession except it employs the term “infallible Guide to lead men to faith…” rather than “fully reliable and trustworthy standard.” You have to go back 90 years, during the height of the Fundamentalist movement in America, to find a Mennonite Confession which uses the term “inerrant.” The 1921 Mennonite Church confession included A Statement of Church Fundamentals which contains Article 1, Of the Word of God, which asserts a form of inerrancy but infallibility only with regard to faith and practice. It states “We believe in the plenary and verbal inspiration of the Bible as the Word of God, that it is authentic in its matter, authoritative in its counsels, inerrant in the original writings, and the only infallible rule of faith and practice.”

However, even that statement would not satisfy Lindsell and others. According to Davis, to claim Biblical inerrancy is “to claim that the Bible contains no errors at all—none in history, geography, botany, astronomy, sociology, psychiatry, economics, geology, logic, mathematics, or any area whatsoever.”  Neither the passage in Timothy, nor these two recent confessions claim inerrancy. Such a claim is as unmerited as the Catholic Church’s doctrine of papal infallibility. Neither doctrine can be factually supported.

Much of what follows appears in Stephen T. Davis’s book The Debate About the Bible, published in part to push evangelical leaders, including Lindsell and Francis Schaeffer, toward greater transparency in how they define and use the term “inerrancy.” Lindsell and Schaeffer readily admit the Bible contains grammatical errors and other mistakes made in its laborious hand transcription from earlier documents. These mistakes are justly excluded from the debate. However, there are hundreds of other inconsistencies in the Bible. Some can be reasonably explained away, others are more problematic. I cite several examples here, not to discredit the veracity of the Holy Scriptures but to expose the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy as untrue. First, what color was the robe placed on Jesus at Golgotha? Was it scarlet, as described by Matthew 27:28, or was it purple as two other gospel writers, Mark and John, claim (Mark 15:17 and John 19:2)? Perhaps it was a combination of both scarlet and purple which explains the difference. Or perhaps Matthew wanted to emphasize Jesus’ humanity by indicating the shame being heaped upon him, since red is a color associated with infamy, while Mark and John want to emphasize Christ’s divinity indicative of a royal purple robe. Either way, my faith does not depend on the accuracy of the gospel writer’s recall of this detail. Second, how did Judas die? Did he hang himself, as Matthew 27: 5 says or did he fall “headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spill out” as Luke claims in Acts 1:18? A reasonable, straight forward reading of scripture, which is a traditional Anabaptist approach to biblical interpretation, says they can’t both be true.

Additionally, both scriptural accounts refer to a “Field of Blood.” But Matthew says the field was purchased by the chief priests, while Acts claims Judas bought the land just before his death. Can both accounts be right? Is it essential to our faith that these accounts are right in every detail?

The following examples are cited by Davis. The so called “missing thousand” refers to a discrepancy between Numbers 25:9 and I Corinthians 10:8. The Old Testament account says 24,000 died in the Shittim plague, whereas Paul, while warning the Corinthians against sexual immorality, says 23,000 were killed. Both cannot be correct. Lindsell dismisses this discrepancy claiming the actual number may have been 23,500 and both writers are speaking in generalities and rounding off.

In one of Jesus’ parables, Matthew 13:31-32, he refers to a mustard seed saying “it is the smallest of all seeds” yet scientifically that is not true. There are many plant seeds smaller that a mustard seed including some orchid seeds. Lindsell argues it was not Jesus’ intent to teach botany. He limits inerrancy to the intent of the biblical writer, thus this error does not invalidate his claim that the Bible is inerrant. So many caveats and conditions hedge the claim of inerrancy as to make it impossible to disprove since it is difficult to know the writer’s intent and the original authographs no longer exist.

The Bible can be faithful and true without being miraculously, supernaturally error free. But, not for those who insist on biblical inerrancy. They insist every word must be accurate and true. Even inconsequential facts must be consistent. If not, a scenario is developed which reconciles any apparent inconsistency, sometimes by changing the sequence of Biblical events. An extreme example concerns Christ’s statement to Peter telling Peter he will deny Jesus three times. The discrepancy revolves around how many times the cock crows. Matthew, Luke and John all say the cock will crow once and attest that is what happened, whereas Mark 14:30 and 72 predict and affirm the cock crowed twice. Those who hold to inerrancy developed a scenario whereby Peter denies Christ six times, in two sets of three, with the cock crowing after each set of three denials. The problem with such a scheme it that it then brings into question “Why didn’t the three other gospel writers say Peter would deny Jesus six times?”

 There are many examples of biblical inconsistencies but let me name just three more. Matthew, the gospel writer, in chapter 27:9-10 reportedly quotes the prophet Jeremiah but his citation does not appear anywhere in the book of Jeremiah. Zechariah 11:12-13 contains a phrase similar to Matthew’s quote but not precisely. The next example is a counting discrepancy which cannot be dismissed as a rounding error. According to II Samuel 24:9, when King David numbered Israel he found 800,000 warriors in Israel and 500,000 in Judah while I Chronicles 21:5 records the same event numbered more warriors in Israel, 1,100,000, and fewer in Judah, 450,000. Finally, there is the problem of the “staff or no staff.” In Matthew’s and Luke’s version of Jesus’ instructions to his disciples before sending them out to preach, Matthew 10:9-10 and Luke 9:3, he tells them not to take a staff. Whereas Mark 6:8 records the same three prohibitions named by Luke—money, bread and bag—but in Mark’s version Jesus allows them to take a staff. Are they recording the same events? If so, which is correct?

Those who adhere to inerrancy sometimes treat the Bible like a supernaturally perfect book which embodies God. But, the God who created the universe cannot be confined to the pages of a text. We do not worship Father, Son and Holy Scriptures but Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The debate about Biblical inerrancy distracts the church from its primary mission of proclaiming the gospel and being communities of healing and hope. Yes we need to revere the Bible but there is far more fruit in reading and obeying it rather than defending its inerrancy through convoluted mental gymnastics. The Christian faith does not depend on the Bible being accurate in every detail, i.e. the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. Rather, our faith depends on the resurrection of Jesus Christ. That is the important thing! The empty tomb, the risen Christ! Paul writes in I Corinthians 15:17 “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.” But, thanks be to God our faith does not depend on the certainty of every detail recorded in the Bible but on the “fully reliable and trustworthy” record of first hand witnesses who testify to Christ’s sacrificial death and glorious resurrection.

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