A New (Old?) Take on Inerrancy

The Bible is the book God wanted us to have, and He wanted us to have it the way it is.

I did the research and wrote a thesis in college in support of the concept that Scripture is inerrant. I have mentioned this before. I was not a religion major in college only because I did not turn in my thesis.

I didn’t turn it in because I was having a hard time getting to where I wanted to go using Scripture and the scholarly work that was done up to the early 1980’s. I could not support my thesis with integrity, so I shelved it and did not return to the subject for almost 40 years!

I had a high view of Scripture then, and I have a high view of Scripture now. I read the Bible daily for personal guidance and edification. I believe the Bible is the inspired Word of God (which I can support from Scripture itself (2 Timothy 3:16-17))

I believe, like the Moody Bible Institute, that the Old and New Testaments are divine revelation from God. The original autographs were verbally inspired by the Holy Spirit. The revelation is God’s self-disclosure recorded in human language. God is the source of it.

I stop, though, in going further to say that every word is true, and the Bible is free from error. The very statement begs the questions: which version? Written in which language? And other questions.

I agree with the Moody statement that the Bible is the supreme source of our knowledge of God and of salvation through Jesus Christ. I agree that it is “our indispensable resource for daily living”. I agree, also, that humans are left to interpret the Bible, and our interpretation is guided by “our reception and understanding of that which God revealed”.

I stop short of saying that God “recorded” Scripture, because we all know that it was written down by men. This difference distinguishes the Bible from the Quran and the Book of Mormon, both of which are claimed to have been dictated to men in a trance-like state.

I agree that “revelation is a divine act”, and “interpretation is a human responsibility”. I agree that our interpretation is fallible, but I must admit the possibility that the writing down of the Bible may, also, be fallible.

I say these things not to argue with anyone about the reliability of Scripture, and I do not desire to make a mountain out of a molehill. I go far down the road on my confidence in the reliability and trustworthiness of Scripture. I have written on the subject many times, and I have even given presentations on the topic.

I also recognize that I am fallible and must remain humble in my approach, so take what I say with a grain of salt and make your own determinations. I share my thoughts for what they are worth.

When I was in college sitting in a World Religion class, reading the Bible for the first time in my life, I was struck by a thought that I believe to this day came from the Holy Spirit (along with others). My professor was liberal and progressive, so I can’t “blame” it on him.

It occurred to me that, if God is real, and the God of the Bible is the creator of the universe, then He could orchestrate His communications to humans in a way that they could understand them and preserve the important points for posterity. If God is sovereign, He can do that.

I believe the Bible is the book God wanted us to have.

NT Wright

I still believe that, but I also like the way NT Wright puts it: “I believe the Bible is the book God wanted us to have.” I can buy that! Other things NT Wright says about the character of Scripture also make sense to me, so I will mix his words with mine in the remainder of this piece.

When put to the question on the podcast, Ask NT Wright Anything, he said that he prefers the word, trustworthiness, to inerrancy. He calls it “a pragmatic view” that he believes “the Bible is the book God wanted us to have, and He wanted us to have it the way it is….”

Here I will add observations I made early in that first encounter with the Bible that stay with me. The Bible was inspired and written down at the crossroads to humanity, opening the way for the biblical record to travel far – east, west, north and south.

The biblical record was finalized at a time when the Roman Empire literally paved the way to the rest of the world. As people came and went on Roman roads, these ways scattered the revelatory work far and wide more quickly than records could travel before them.

Those roads were traveled by people who spoke many different tongues, but the dominion of the Roman Empire over the Greek foundations of knowledge and discourse ensured common languages for the message throughout the world influenced by Greco-Roman culture.

Wright observes, “Jesus almost certainly spent most of the time speaking in Aramaic, but we have his words in Greek.” Thus, he calls Christianity “a translating faith in the beginning” because it was translated from Aramaic and Hebrew into Greek. And then Latin. And Syriac. And Coptic. And other languages.

Even as the parts that make up the New Testament are being written down, “it’s already making its way out into the world…”, says Wright, and it’s being translated into many languages as it goes.

From the work of Daniel Wallace, we know that almost 6000 Greek manuscripts still exist today, with some some going back to the 1st Century. While Greek was, perhaps, the language into which the earliest manuscripts were translated, even more manuscripts were translated into Latin, the language of Rome. We have about 10,000 of those Latin manuscripts still today!

The New Testament writings were also translated from the beginning into Syriac, Slavic, Gothic, Ethiopic, Coptic, Armenian and other languages. We still have about 9300 manuscripts in such other languages going back in time! We have an amazing wealth of ancient manuscripts of the New Testament! (Exponentially more than any other ancient writings.)

(See Did Copyists Copy the New Testament Correctly? – Daniel Wallace, PhD; Dr. Daniel Wallace – How badly did the scribes corrupt the New Testament text?; and Dan Wallace – Recent Discoveries of NT Manuscripts. See also Biblical Manuscript in Wikipedia)

We have such a treasure of early New Testament manuscripts translated into many languages from the very beginning because of the geographical location in which the influence of Jesus occurred and the established travel networks that radiated out from it. Certainly, a sovereign God knew the multicultural, multilingual nature of the area in which he became man and spread the message of the Gospel!

NT Wright says that we should not be thinking about Scripture as something we can “analyze by some scientific test and prove that every syllable is true on some modern, pragmatist account of truth”. Scripture isn’t meant to stand up to scientific scrutiny like the laws of physics, but the lack of scientific testability does not diminish its value.

The important thing”, Wright says, “is to live within the narrative and see what it does…. The trustworthiness is [not] something that we … can put in our pockets and say, ‘I’ve got this infallible Scripture, so I am alright.’ …. [The important thing] is, if this story is the real story, then, what’s it doing in me and through me, and what’s it doing within and through the Church for the world?”

It’s dangerous to think that mere knowledge (or confidence in the source of that knowledge) is sufficient in itself to transform us from sinners to children of God. We need to let take hold us and do its work within us.

Jesus did not take it upon himself to prove to the world that he was God. Yes, he made those claims, and, yes he performed miracles, but not everyone believed. He didn’t chase anyone down and beat them over the head with the proof into believing. We don’t need to do that either.

He could have done that. Jesus could have proven irrefutably to the whole world that he was God, but he might have had to violate our free will to do that. Besides, even the demons believe…. Mere belief isn’t what Jesus was after.

Jesus also could have flung himself from a mountain and commanded the angels to catch him, but he didn’t do that either (though the devil tempted him to do it). (Matt. 4:5-6) We don’t need to double down on the Bible by claiming it is infallible.

Wright says, “As soon as you turn round and say, ‘Shall we call it inerrant or infallible’ … then you are getting trapped in the defensive mode, which is precisely what the Bible doesn’t want you to do.” Just as the Father didn’t want Jesus to give into the temptation of such a public display of his power as having the angels catch him from a plunge off a mountain.

I believe that Wright is accurate in his understanding of the way the concepts of infallibility and inerrancy arose. The ideas grew out of the Reformation and Enlightenment soil.

The Reformation raised the supremacy of Scripture against the authority of the pope and tradition. The Enlightenment influenced the Church to double down on the Bible as the source of truth from which reason springs to counter the rationalist and Deist assertions that reason is an independent determiner of truth over Scripture.

The influences caused the Church to double down on Scripture as the preeminent source of reason and truth, Using a particularly rationalist approach, according to Wright, they said, “‘There is a good God who wants His people to know the truth. He must have given us a true revelation, so therefore, since the Bible is obviously that revelation, it must be absolutely true.'”

Wright says, “I always worry when people argue must, must, must: that if there is a God who ____, then He must of done this. Because, actually, how do we know about God? We know about God by looking at Jesus. Yes, we know about Jesus by looking at Scripture, but Scripture presents us with a Jesus who doesn’t give us truth as a commodity that we can put in our pockets and possess. He gives us this Living Truth, which is utterly reliable, but which is not ours to possess.”

Skeptics do the same thing. How many times have we heard Richard Dawkins, or Sam Harris or someone else say things like, “If God is a good God, then He would have done __________, and He wouldn’t have allowed ______.” Presuming to know what God would or would not do is a fool’s errand.

All we can do is recognize the truth of what is. We don’t help ourselves to assume or make up concepts to smooth over what seems to be a problem. We often find that the problems we perceive aren’t really problems after once we can greater knowledge, understanding or perspective. This is true of science and faith.

Einstein famously added a fudge factor to his great mathematical proof of the theory of relativity because the formula suggested the expansion of the universe from a point in time. The implication of an expanding universe caused a problem for the accepted science of the time, which assumed a static, eternal universe.

Einstein didn’t need to add on to the formula. The formula, by itself, without the fudge factor, held together, but it didn’t make sense in light of the consensus view of the universe. Einstein called that added fudge factor the greatest mistake he ever made.

In the same way, we don’t need to add inerrancy or infallibility to Scripture. It isn’t necessary, and Scripture doesn’t use those terms for itself. Go-breathed/inspired, yes! Useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, yes! But, inerrant or infallible, no.

NT Wright says, “I have a very high view of Scripture. If I find myself saying in some exegetical argument, ‘At this point, Paul, or John, or whoever got it wrong’; then red lights start to flash.'” The same is true for me. I don’t presume to know better than Scripture, but I also don’t presume things about Scripture that Scripture, itself, doesn’t require and which the facts, as we know them, do not support.

I give Scripture the benefit of the doubt. It has proven itself to me reliable enough that I can trust it. I can let Scripture commend itself to others on the same basis. As someone once said, “We we don’t need to defend the truth because the truth defends itself!”

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