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Response to J.S. Gibson, "The Error of Biblical Inerrancy"

By R.A. Baker - November 16, 2013

Inerrancy Articles
  • The Error of Biblical Inerrancy, by JS Gibson
  • Inerrancy: A Response, by RA Baker
  • Why Inerrancy Doesn't Matter, by R Olson

  • See Reader Comments
  • Inerrancy: Reader Comments and Responses
  • I. Introduction
    A. Personal History   B. What is Inerrancy?
    II. Problems with inerrancy
    A. Modern inerrancy and history
    III. Inerrancy and Problems with the Text
    IV. The Philosophical Problems
    A. Faith in the text rather than in the resurrection
    B. Insecurity with regards to faith   C. A new line of "orthodoxy"

    Preface
    After fielding numerous comments (angry, affirming, good criticisms and others) I have decided to add this Preface.
    I believe the scriptures are the inspired word of God. I believe we can trust the scriptures to guide our lives - when the text is clear I feel bound by the message given in the text. Some seem to think because I offer criticisms of particular texts that I must not believe in the truth of the biblical message. Of course, this is partly why I oppose the doctrine of inerrancy - it causes Christians to judge one another by an artificial measurement. Why/how do I use the term "artificial?"
    1. The scriptures ascribe to themselves "God-breathed," but what does that mean? There are many opinions as to what this even means. Some think that every single word is "inspired," but it does not say that. The lack of a clear definition causes the doctrine to be artificial, or perhaps a better term is subjective.
    2. Even those who hold to strict inerrancy cannot agree on the meaning of every important doctrine they teach. Some have argued with me that we must interpret the biblical text literally, yet when I challenge them with particular texts they eventually admit that we cannot take every text literally. Thus we all have to decide which texts we take literally and which we do not.
    3. Some have challenged my views: "If you are correct, then we cannot know anything. You are using your own human reasoning to understand the biblical text." But when I challenge their particulars they must admit that they also use their human reasoning - we cannot avoid this - God is using human language to communicate divine principles.

    I use the critical approach when I read the biblical text and I do not see this as a position of suspicion that I do not believe or trust the text, but as an attempt to better ferret out the facts, kind of cross-examining a witness in a courtroom.
    Now, why would we need to do this with the biblical text?
    1. Many times a simple, literal meaning is not possible.
    For example, "If your eye offends you, pluck it out." I doubt anyone thinks we should take this text literally. If you agree with this, you have opened the door for a more critical reading. If you apply a critical eye on this text, why not do it for other texts. For example, Luke's account given in Acts 15 does not completely square with that of Paul's account in Galatians 1-2. Am I suspicious because I think that Luke has either a) lied b) presented another side of the story, or c) is just mistaken? I believe the answer is "b," but I cannot accept that it is wrong to ask questions about the text with a critical eye.

    2. Sometimes the text at face value does not agree.
    I believe that Luke has Mark's gospel in front of him while he is writing his account. He clearly states that he knows of other attempts to tell the story and in many places Luke agrees with Mark in almost an exact verbal detail. Thus, when Luke is telling what is obviously the same story as one found in Mark, yet he presents the story differently, a questioning of the text (and the authors) is in order. It is not that I do not believe either of them, but since their story differs, IF I want to attempt to know what happened I have to think, question and hypothesize on possible answers. Now, most of the time it is just not that critical to know/understand the differences: quite frankly, the "message" of the text is not generally affected. But my belief in the veracity of BOTH texts is not undermined by admitting the difficulties and asking the questions. If two witnesses disagree in court they will get grilled with questions. I do not think we offend God when question His text.

    3. Sometimes the meaning of the text is not crystal clear.
    "Baptism for the dead." What does this mean?
    "Women shall keep silent." Is this a general principle that should always be adhered to? Seems to me the work Gordon Fee presents on the textual variances of 1 Cor 14:34,35 demand a hearing. Did Paul really write this or was it added in the MSS tradition at a later date? In this instance the veracity of the text is questioned. But this is different from questioning Pauline texts that are clear and without significant textual problems. If Paul did NOT write this, then do we really believe it as the "inspired" text?

    4. Many texts seem clear, but are interpreted very differently by those who hold to the text being "inspired."
    When someone is criticizing my approach to the biblical text with an underlying assumption that I somehow do not hold the text as "holy," I like to ask them some questions. I usually quickly find out what their particular theological persuasion is and I focus in on a topic like water baptism or "eternal security." I like to ask, "How is it that I know others who speak just like they do about how important the text is and how God intends to give us clear teaching, etc. yet these 'others' believe quite differently about the particular topic (baptism, eternal security, etc.)." IF I can get them to admit that others who know the text just as well as they do and reverence the text just as much as they disagree with them on a topic that is SO important...how can they take the stand that we should just read and accept the text at face value?
    This simply does not work. It never has. It never will. This is why we have ALWAYS had sects in the body of Christ.

    Because I approach the text with a critical eye/mind I do not want someone to assume that I:
    a) do not think the text is "inspired"
    b) do not accept the truthfulness of the scriptures when the text is clear
    c) think the message of the biblical text is relative to my culture

    Where the text is clear, I am bound by the text.
    But loving God with "all of my mind" demands that I think seriously and critically about the text.

    We should not be afraid of where it is NOT clear. I take it that God has not intended to make everything crystal clear - He wants us to love each other even when we cannot agree. It takes humility. Nobody is correct about everything they believe - we just do not know which parts are wrong...yet.

    I. Introduction
    As a young man I was taught the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. I remember asking challenging questions (about many topics) throughout my first few years as a Christian because certain things I was taught seemed to conflict either with other doctrines or with biblical text. Numerous times I was told something close to this, "You ask too many questions. Do not try to figure it all out. It is dangerous to think too much. Just believe."

    I was raised in a nominal Christian family attending a liberal United Methodist Church. My father was a NASA engineer his entire career and, as might be imagined, I was taught to think, ask questions and argue against established positions to get closer to the truth about ANY data. Nonetheless, after being told several times by earnest Christian men that I was trying to think too much, I was slowly trained to "just believe."

    I was a fundamentalist without knowing it. I held to inerrancy and several other "fundamentals" - and I figured out answers to every objection. I became something of an apologist, reading writers such as Josh McDowell to cloak my views in what I would now call psuedo-intellectualism. It worked for several years - I helped many young people find faith in Christ and helped many others feel more secure about faith. Around this time I went through a university ministry training program where I was challenged to think and question my positions. I was taught sound biblical exegesis - how to read and interpret the New Testament within context. This started an evolution of faith that continues to this day.

    As I continued serving in ministry and doing my best to use sound biblical teaching I began to see some of the issues pointed out by John Gibson in his article, "The Error of Biblical Inerrancy." For disclosure, John Gibson served with me on our pastoral staff during this period - he and I argued/discussed many of these points of difficulty for countless hours. Later we both would realize we had made this trek away from fundamentalism together.

    I wanted to give this personal introduction so any reader will know how I came to my positions. My last personal comment is to ask the reader to imagine my utter dismay and irritation when I read how an early Christian critic, (second century philosopher Celsus) chided the early movement saying only simpletons become Christians because church leaders tell their people, "Don't ask questions, just believe." [Contra Celsum I.9, Chadwick, Henry Cambridge Press, 1953] Chadwick reminds us in his footnote that Galen the physician had said something very similar. [p.12, n3]

    What is Inerrancy?
    For most who hold to strict inerrancy the idea is that the biblical text is inspired and without any error down to the very words. When the writer put pen to paper the very words they penned were perfect and carried God's message exactly as God had intended. This view maintains that there were no errors and no contradictions in the original manuscripts. This strict view applies to the original Greek manuscripts.

    This does not account for translating the Greek into a modern language. Anyone who can speak more than one language knows and understands the difficulty of translations - there are no perfect translations. Because of this, some who hold to strict inerrancy will only apply the "perfect" reading to a particular translation. King James Only people, for example. But there are others who hold to a strict inerrancy that applies to most translations. These would typically not approve of a paraphrase.

    There are some who hold a less strict view of inerrancy. These would say the text is inspired and carries the message of God. They would hold that where the NT is clear, God's message in the text is always true and binding, thus "inerrant," without error. This distinction is unusual because typically "inerrancy" points not the meaning of the text, but to the actual text itself.

    Having said this, you can read a very interesting story of how the definition of "inerrancy" has changed over time, even in the last 30 years: "Why inerrancy doesn't matter," Roger E. Olson (Professor at Baylor's Truett Seminary). A particular personal account cited by Olson explains in part the title of his article.

    In fairness I also want to point to another evangelical scholar who DOES hold to inerrancy. Dr. Wallace and I have had a few nice e-mail exchanges. I have respect for him as a scholar and Dr. Wallace's comments on inerrancy are very good.

    I want to make it clear that my problem with this doctrine is threefold:
    1. It just does not make sense given the evidence of the problems in the NT manuscripts and various conflicting texts.
    2. Historically it is a new doctrine - neither the early fathers nor the Reformers held to this view of scripture.
    3. Philosophically I think it actually damages some aspects of faith.


    II. Problems with Inerrancy
    Inerrancy does not make sense given the evidence of the problems in the NT manuscripts and various conflicting texts. To illustrate my point I will use a famous modern historical marker.

    The Modern Inerrancy Position
    In 1978 Evangelical leaders from all over the world gathered in Chicago for a conference to draft a statement of inerrancy that a broad section of the evangelical community could affirm. The Preface proclaims the importance of the biblical text along with a "warning against its denial." Later in this paragraph it admits the weakness of crafting such an important document in what was a three day conference. But the Preface does say that this statement does "not propose that this Statement be given creedal weight."

    While I agree with the three Articles and the first four statements (which are generally affirming the biblical text), the fifth statement says "The authority of Scripture is inescapably impaired if this total divine inerrancy is in any way limited..." So these men have stated in the Preface, BEFORE they have defined what they even mean by the term "inerrancy," that anyone who disagrees with "total divine inerrancy" causes the biblical text to be damaged.

    I am fairly sure most of these men (probably all of them) are/were Protestant, yet they did what they despise about the Catholic Church - they are meeting at a weekend conference to draft a doctrine that you better agree with or (you have been warned) you are damaging the inspired text of Scripture (thus you are not orthodox). In my opinion, this is arrogant. These men are taking a stand on a relatively new idea. I am getting ahead of my outline, but these men are drawing a line in the sand that great fathers of the past had not drawn: Tertullian, Origen, Athanasius, Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Wesley - none of these held to a doctrine of "inerrancy" like this statement describes.

    Article VI states, "We affirm that the whole of Scripture and all its parts, down to the very words of the original, were given by divine inspiration."

    "Down to the very words of the original" seems meaningless since we do not have the originals. In the Exposition for their Statement it admits "hyperbole and metaphor, generalization...and imprecise citation" exist within the text, yet do not affect inerrancy. "Apparent inconsistencies should not be ignored" and "one day they will be seen to have been illusions." (Section C.)  Section E begins, "Since God has nowhere promised an inerrant transmission of Scripture, it is necessary to affirm that only the autographic text of the original documents was inspired..."

    To end this first point, even the Chicago Statement seems to admit the general difficulty of holding inerrancy in the face of the many manuscript problems, "apparent contradictions" and other textual problems. Quite honestly, I do not see the point of this statement given the admissions in the Exposition. My guess is that the King James Version Only advocates dismiss these guys as "liberals."

    Article VII admits "The mode of divine inspiration remains largely a mystery to us."
    They could have cut this conference to a one day event, drafted that simple admission and been consistent with the prior 1,900 years of Christian history.

    Point Two: Historically it is a new doctrine
    The doctrine of inerrancy has never been articulated like this, with this precision, in Christian history until the late 19th century. This idea of the critical nature of the biblical text being held without error and without contradiction down to the very words cannot be found in ANY of the early creeds. In fact, the sacred text is not even mentioned in the Apostles' Creed (very early tradition), the Nicene Creed (cir.325AD), the Athanasian Creed (cir.415AD) nor in the Creed of Chalcedon (cir.451AD).

    The early fathers held the text as "inspired," but always acknowledged, discussed and debated the difficulties. There were always those who tried to take the text more literally; and there were others who interpreted the text allegorically because they could not always make sense of particular texts when taken literally. The point here is that the biblical text was not referred to as "inerrant" with the kind of precision now being presented, "down to the very words."

    The earliest fathers of the first 200+ years could not have held to the doctrine of "inerrancy" since they did not have a New Testament. Some early fathers held non-NT documents as "inspired:" Didache, 1 Clement, Shepherd of Hermas and Barnabas, just naming a few. This alone precludes the doctrine. If "inerrancy" is true it must be true for all the ages, yet this was impossible for the early fathers. If someone argues they held to inerrancy of the Old Testament: first, I have never read any early father speaking of the OT in terms of no errors, no contradictions, every single word is ordained to be there and all doctrinal points are clearly represented without conflicting texts. Secondly, ALL the early fathers spoke in favor of apostolic traditions, paradosis, teaching that was "handed down" from one person (or generation) to another. Of course, they speak of this tradition because the Apostle Paul references it several times. (1 Cor 11:2; 2 Thess 2:15; 2 Tim 2:2 - there are others) Finally, how did early Christianity (the fathers) come up with the trinity, for example? Most evangelicals affirm the doctrine of the trinity, yet no good NT scholar or church historian will tell you this doctrine is clearly presented in the NT documents. The trinity and the dual natures of Christ were "handed down" to us, not through the NT, but through church "traditions" recorded at church councils in the great creeds.

    The Reformation leaders introduced a new wrinkle, sola scriptura, "only the scriptures." Martin Luther and those who followed in his wake were reacting against obvious problems and abuses in Catholic traditions - too many doctrines not supported by the New Testament. Yet the Reformers never held to a doctrine of "inerrancy" like what we see today.

    While the Reformers had a very high view of scripture, they did not separate the bibical text from early church tradition. DH Williams does a masterful job of showing how the Reformers leaned heavily on the early church fathers for their interpretations of the biblical text. ("Retrieving the Tradition and Renewing Evangelicalism," 1999, Eerdmans, pp.173-204). The Reformers highly valued the traditions expressed in the early fathers. (p.175) They were not rejecting the early "traditions," but were rejecting what had become the "Tradition" of Romanism (p.176). The Reformers did not hold to "inerrancy."
    I would also encourage the reader to see Appendix II of this Williams text: "Sola Scriptura in the Early Church" (pp.229-234) where he asserts that early tradition had "chronological and logical precedence over the texts which would eventually become the New Testament, (p.230) and for evangelicals to claim that early traditions were a corruption of the gospel "is patently false." (p.231) And finally, "any search for a doctrine of sola scriptura in the writings of the Fathers fails to grasp how the early church understood apostolic authority." (p.234)

    Even the Westminster Confession (1643) never clearly espouses this doctrine of "inerrancy." The scriptures are said to be "inspired," "pure" and "authentical:" The Holy Spirit directed the whole process: "the writers of the Holy Scriptures [were] inspired to record infallibly the mind and will of God."
    To some this might seem to be speaking the same language as the Chicago Statement. Though similar, this is not the same meaning as "inerrancy," but this is the trajectory that leads to "inerrancy."

    It was not only the Catholic Church that held to the traditions of early Christianity - we tend to ignore the Eastern Church which also always held tradition as important and necessary in proper biblical interpretation. Inerrancy is a fairly new Protestant doctrine - it was not held by the Reformers; it is not held by Catholic scholars; it is not held by scholars in the Orthodox Churches. It is a fairly recent doctrinal development.

    IV. Inerrancy and Problems with the Text
    John Gibson ("The Error of Biblical Inerrancy") did a fine job of illustrating some of the textual problems that exist in the NT manuscripts. With Gibson I hold to the "inspiration" and authority of the NT texts. Just because someone does not hold to "inerrancy," does not mean they reject the authority of the biblical text. I believe God spoke to (and through) the writers. When the NT is clear on a particular point I feel bound by the text. No matter how much the culture or my personal circumstances beckon me to shrug off the text, I cannot do it when it is clear. The problem with most Christians who hold to "inerrancy" is an unwillingness to admit to problems, difficulties and the idea that some teachings/positions are just not clear.

    Inerrancy tends to remove mystery, uncertainty and enigma. Inerrants resist uncertainty. This is a discussion I have had with several people and it quickly becomes apparent to me that inerrantists cannot accept uncertainty. Yet Paul makes it clear that everything is NOT clear:

    Now we see through a glass in enigma...   - 1 Cor. 13:12

    Most people do not recognize this text as such, but Paul uses in enigmati which can easily be translated "in enigma." (See an interlinear NT depiction of 1 Cor 13:12)
    The typical inerrantist does not like this kind of discussion.

    IV. Philosophical Problems with Inerrancy
    This is the most important aspect of my argument.
    For me the most obvious argument against inerrancy is that the early church did not hold this view. My problems with "inerrancy," however are not so much with the history or the particular problems of the text - the most important objection is philosophical. Let me pose some critical questions to illustrate my point:
    Can a person be come to saving faith without ever having a bible?
    Without ever hearing the scriptures?
    Could a person living in rural China in the 1950's be saved?
    During a period when the Christian scriptures were almost non-existent, could that person truly be saved?
    How did early Gentile Christians come to Christ and then grow in their faith without the NT documents? Only 5% of the general population was literate. No Christians in the first two centuries ever held the entire NT in their hands. Very few probably ever held ANY NT document in their hands.

    Most American Protestant evangelicals own at least two bibles and cannot grasp the reality of the questions just asked. Most of us grew up in the era when every good Christian brought his/her bible to church.

    The developments of Luther's sola scriptura has led to a view of the biblical text that goes against the very teachings of the text in my opinion. The NT text was gradually elevated to a place where it was becoming an "object" of faith - almost like the icons the Reformers so disliked. The doctrine of inerrancy leads pastors to stand up in the pulpit, hold their Bible in the air and say, "This book is perfect, without any flaw. Every single word was spoken by God into the ear of the apostles as they wrote."

    Over years of hearing this presentation Christians begin to place their faith in the biblical text. I realize that the inerrancy movement grew out of the need to defend the text against those who would attack it as having no authority, but now we have young Christians being taught that every single word is exactly what God intended, no mistakes, no errors and in essence no real difficulties. This is how I was taught as a young man and a brand new Christian. I heard men say the things I quoted above. I have heard this message many times. This leads to faith resting on the text rather than resting on what the text testifies to: the true object of our faith - the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. I think this is very much like the worship of icons, or praying the rosary, or using confession and then being told by the priest to pray the rosary. Having faith in the text is not New Testament Christianity.

    Teaching this doctrine of "inerrancy" causes insecurity and instability of faith when a young person is confronted by those who attack the Bible. I say this after having served as a university pastor for 14 years on three different campuses and having to deal with this very issue. The sharp person with the ability to think critically has difficulty being told "Don't listen to them. Just have faith and believe."

    "No, wait. You told me that there were no contradictions, but it says right here in Matthew that the rooster crows once, then in Mark it says the rooster crows twice. Both cannot be true."

    The simplistic explanations I used to give to this kind of question will not hold up to good critical thinking. We built their faith ON THE BIBLICAL TEXT being perfect and now that text has been compromised.
    Remember the earliest Christians?!
    They had faith without a New Testament.
    Many had faith without ANY biblical text!

    Lastly, fundamentalists, conservatives, and now many evangelicals have established a new "orthodoxy" in the doctrine of inerrancy. (Roger E. Olson has a good piece on this topic "What distinguishes 'evangelical' from 'fundamentalist?',") Now I am labeled as a "liberal" even though I believe in the physical resurrection and the virgin birth. My faith is based on the resurrection of Jesus. My experiences of Christ making Himself real in my life AND the "inspired" text give witness to His resurrection. But remember, belief in the resurrection of Jesus, and the faith that is embraced because of this belief, existed BEFORE there was a New Testament.

    Inerrancy should not be the new litmus test. Bible believing Christians need to understand that their faith does not rest on "inerrancy," nor on the biblical text.

    "My hope is built on nothing less,
        than Jesus' blood and righteousness...
    On Christ the Solid Rock I stand,
        all other ground is sinking sand
        all other ground is sinking sand."

    The Solid Rock is the Lord Jesus Christ, not the text.

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