Inerrancy is a topic that I have addressed before but Paul Little brings it up in his chapter “Is the Bible God’s Word” so we need to discuss it again [see St. John Studies November 17, 2015 for the earlier discussion].
What is it and why is it a concern for believers and non-believers?
Inerrancy means “that when all the facts are known, the Scriptures in their original autographs [original documents], properly interpreted, will be shown to be wholly true in everything they affirm, whether this has to do with doctrine or morality or with social, physical, or life sciences” [Josh McDowell, The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict].
As in yesterday’s discussion of the literal interpretation of Scripture, the inerrancy question is a “no win” question. If a believer asks you about it and you explain that you don’t ascribe to inerrancy, it may sound like there are weak spots in your Christian belief system. For the unbeliever to ask you about inerrancy is to walk into a trap, a trap where you may find yourself denying contemporary knowledge of the social, physical and life sciences. That will make you look stupid to the unbeliever.
Where are the sticking points that a believer needs to avoid in this debate?
Paul Little lays out some of those.
Let’s talk about phenomenology. If you are like me, that is not a word you use every day. A simple definition of phenomenology is it is the study of consciousness and the objects of direct experience. Let’s make it simpler to understand with some examples. When the Bible was written, the people of that time described the world as they knew it. Demonic possession occurs in many places in the Bible but today much of that can be explained by contemporary psychiatric and medical knowledge. A convulsion caused by an epileptic seizure was a sign of a demonic possession but today we know the reason for the seizure. It is not demonic possession of course. Personality disorders are very real today but they were not “real” in Bible times because ancient peoples had limited knowledge of the human brain and human behavior. What we would call schizophrenia today may have simply been called demonic possession in ancient days. Were they wrong to label this behavior this way? No, that is what they knew; that is what they were conscious of and their direct experience had to have some explanation. Demonic possession seemed appropriate.
What happens when a believer says the Bible is inerrant? What they may be saying is that epileptic seizures are demonic possessions when we strongly suspect they are just epileptic seizures. When an unbeliever tries to trap you with a question about inerrancy, it may be best to say the Bible was written in some instances to reflect the truth of the day. Are we making a mistake to apply contemporary knowledge to a world many years ago? I think so. Some of the truth of Bible times may be surpassed by contemporary explanation. However much of the truth of the Bible is timeless. I am reading the Old Testament now and I can see a common theme in all the sacrifices that are offered to God: a sacrifice is only a worthy offering when it costs something of the giver.
As Paul Little says, “let’s not kill the goose that lays the golden egg.” Just because some contemporary knowledge may alter how we see the world, let’s not throw God’s Word away because we know more than the Bible authors knew when they wrote the Bible. Very important truths are still in God’s Word.
Let’s talk about practical matters like transmissional errors. The doctrine of inerrancy also refers to the original copies of the Bible. Let’s be “real”. The original documents of the Bible do not exist but very old copies do and Biblical scholars have spent countless hours poring over very old autographs [manuscripts]. The scholars try to compare old autographs to detect errors in transcription. Until the printing press was invented, the Bible had to be copied by hand for at least a thousand years. It is entirely possible that transmissional errors crept into the text.
Wow, does that mean my Bible is full of errors?
No, it does not mean that.
Archeological discoveries and painstaking Biblical scholarship have confirmed that Masoretic Jews in charge of copying texts were amazingly accurate due to comparing fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls with older text. Josh McDowell reports of the 40,000 fragments that exist, the oldest texts date back to a century before the birth of Christ [125 BC to 916 AD]. There is a 95% accuracy rate for the comparison of texts.
Let’s be realistic and let’s be fair.
It is not fair to apply today’s level of knowledge to Bible-time level of knowledge. What we know today definitely shapes the way we view the world. What the writers of the Bible knew in their timeframe shaped the way they saw their world.
That does not mean they were wrong.
The Bible has a rich history as a document. It has been passed down to us from many sources as it has been translated to the language of the day. That transmission through history does not mean that it was handled carelessly. Unbelievable effort was made to present an accurate text to the Bible reader.
The “bottom line” is this. Do I or do I not have a Bible that is the inspired and inerrant Word of God? Can I be confident that what I read in the Bible is truly from God? The answer is yes, the Bible today is the inspired Word of God. Truths like those found in Luke when Jesus tells the parable of the prodigal son will always be relevant. We need to recover the lost who have drifted away, we need to minister to the self-righteous, and forgiveness should be extended as one is restored to relationship with the Father God.
Let’s not get too anxious about our Bibles. “You can trust your Bible….The pollution which intruded in the transmission and translation of the Bible is minor, under control and diminishing” [McDowell, 349].
Read your Bible.
Your reading and study is definitely not a “no win” situation.
As Paul Little says, “The presence of problems does not prevent our accepting the Bible as the supernatural Word of God.”