Inerrancy


Psalm 12:6

We have so far considered in this short series 1) the nature of the Bible as the “Word of God written” and 2) its authority as the voice of the Almighty, no matter that it is also so self-consciously a product of human authorship. Tonight I want to consider what is not only an inevitable implication of those first two assertions that we have made about the Bible but a unmistakably a claim the Bible explicitly makes for itself. If the Bible has come out of God’s mouth, as Paul says it did; if men wrote from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit, as Peter said they did; if Scripture is the very Word of God as the Bible says it is thousands upon thousands of times, then, in the nature of the case, it is true. As we read in Psalm 12:6:

“…the words of the Lord are flawless, like silver refined in a furnace of clay, purified seven times.”

As Jesus put it, “Scripture cannot be broken.” In other words, it doesn’t make mistakes! There is not a word in it that is not the Word of the Lord that endures forever. That is, I say, not only the teaching of the Bible but the inevitable implication of the very nature of the Bible as God’s own word, his speaking through men. God, who is truth itself, who cannot lie, would not speak falsehood, even inadvertently; he would not permit his Word to contain them.

But, as you may be aware, over the past century and a half some evangelical Christians and many more non-evangelicals have thought it an advance to argue that the Bible is not inerrant, that it does contain mistakes, it asserts things that we now know not to be true, and, further, that this should not trouble believers at all. An errant Bible became necessary, of course, when in certain circles of biblical scholarship conclusions were reached that could not be reconciled with the factual assertions made in Holy Scripture. If the books of the Pentateuch – at least in their original form – were in fact written many centuries after the date the Bible assigns to them, then we know the Bible to be incorrect in that particular. If, as a number of archaeologists claim, there is no evidence that Canaan was invaded by the Israelites in the 14th century B.C., then the Bible’s report of that invasion is obviously in error as a matter of historical record. If Isaiah is, in fact, the product of two or even three authors, then to represent it as the production of a single pen is not accurate. Similarly, if Daniel is supposed to have received visions in the 6th century B.C. concerning events that happened in the 2nd century and we know that those visions were, in fact, written after not before the fact, then Daniel is not the 6th century book it is represented in the Bible to be. If Peter did not, in fact, write 2 Peter, the Bible’s claim that he did is not factually accurate, and so on. Even among some evangelicals, some of whom would still support a Pentateuch written by Moses, a 14th century conquest of Canaan, and a 6th century B.C. date for Daniel, it became popular to argue that nothing hangs on the inerrancy of the Bible. Often these evangelicals said that they believed in the infallibility of the Bible, not its inerrancy, and meant by the distinction they drew between two words that are in fact synonyms that, while the Bible might contain historical errors, it was entirely trustworthy and without error with respect to its true purpose, viz. to reveal the way of salvation and the knowledge of God.

In making this argument they often did what we did last time and likened the nature of the Bible to the nature of the incarnate Christ, both being both divine and human. But they used the divine/human character of the Bible to argue that among the human marks of the Bible was the fact that it was written by fallible men who, for one reason or another, didn’t get everything right. (Let me say at this point that this argument has always seemed to be particularly specious. If, as we did last time, we compare the nature of the Bible as at one and the same time a divine and human work to the incarnation of God the Son, Christ being man and God at one and the same time, the comparison would seem to require the inerrancy of the Bible. In becoming a man Jesus did not become a sinful man but a perfect man. And in being a human composition as well as a divine one, the Bible did not for that reason become defective. If you are going to compare Christ and the Bible as both embodying the incarnational principle, the conclusion should be that the Bible is as perfect as Christ’s manhood was perfect.)

But, be that as it may, when it became fashionable for supposed Bible-believers to argue that the Bible was not inerrant as the Word of God it became necessary, especially for those evangelicals who accepted the existence of errors in the Bible to argue that the doctrine of the inerrancy of the Bible itself was an innovation and not the historic teaching of the church. It is always more difficult to make a claim among Bible believers that the church has been wrong about something as basic as the Bible all these 2000 years. It is important, therefore, to get church history on one’s side. Indeed, the claim was actually made that the belief in the inerrancy of the Bible was the invention of Old Princeton in the 19th century and especially of two of her stalwart professors, Benjamin Warfield and Archibald Alexander Hodge. These two men together published a famous essay in 1881 asserting that the original autographs of Scripture were absolutely without error in everything they affirmed. They, to be sure, also argued that this conviction about the Bible was the unquestioned and universal belief of Christendom throughout its history.

Liberal scholarship had no difficulty believing that the church had long thought that the Bible was inerrant. They thought the church was wrong but they accepted that she had always believed in an inerrant Bible. They didn’t, but the church had. It was only the evangelicals who wanted to continue to be accepted as evangelicals who needed to buttress their claim that there was nothing so wrong with a Bible that contained falsehoods in it. And the best way to do that was to argue that the church had never thought the Bible was inerrant and never thought that the Bible needed to be inerrant to accomplish its purpose or perform its intended function. There were several books written that purported to demonstrate this, the most influential of which was published in 1979 by two Presbyterians of the old Northern Presbyterian Church (UPCUSA), J.B. Rogers and Donald McKim. Those books were rather easily exposed for their special pleading and for their attempt to concoct an argument out of statements here and there in various authors through the centuries that were far from explicit admissions that the Bible had errors in it. Nor did they canvas the great deal of evidence that was supportive of the opposite conclusion, that representative churchmen through the ages believed in an inerrant Bible. The fact is it was quite easy to demonstrate that whether or not the inerrancy of the Bible was explicitly taught – and it often wasn’t taught because it was so universally assumed – it was universally the conviction of the church: Roman Catholic and Protestant alike. And it was explicitly taught often enough.

Clement of Rome, who is so early that he may have written before the last book of the New Testament was written, expressed the conviction that in “the Holy Scriptures which are given through the Holy Spirit…nothing iniquitous or falsified is written.” [Cited in Packer, NDT, 337]

Augustine, expressing the same conviction, wrote of the four Gospels,

“The evangelists are free from all falsehood, both from that which proceeds from deliberate deceit…and that which is the result of forgetfulness.” [De Consensu Evangelistarum Libri, II, 12]

And so Luther:

“I have learned to ascribe the honor of infallibility only to those books that are accepted as canonical. I am profoundly convinced that none of the writers have erred. All other writers, however they may have distinguished themselves in holiness or in doctrine, I read in this way. I evaluate what they say, not on the basis that they themselves believe that a thing is true, but only insofar as they are able to convince me by the authority of the canonical books or by clear reason.” [Contra malignum Kohannis Eccii Judicium…Martini Lutheri Defensio, Weimar Ed., II, 618]

When John Wyclif in 1380 referred to the Bible as the “infallible rule of truth,” when the Belgic Confession of 1561 referred to the Bible as an “infallible” rule, when the Westminster Confession of 1647 referred to the Bible’s “infallible truth,” they were giving expression to a conviction that was universal in Christendom and not in dispute even when so many other doctrines were.

Warfield and Hodge, to be sure, put the doctrine of the errorlessness or inerrancy of Holy Scripture on a firmer footing – in the history of Christian theology most doctrines have been finally and clearly articulated and defended only in response to attacks made upon them and it wasn’t until the mid- and later 19th century that the authority of the Bible came under direct attack in the church herself – but their doctrine, it was quite easy to demonstrate had been the church’s doctrine from the beginning.

The evangelicals who denied the inerrancy of the Bible – a watershed was reached in 1972 when the faculty of Fuller Theological Seminary removed a commitment to the inerrancy of the Bible from the seminary’s statement of faith – still claimed to believe that the Bible is infallible in matters of faith and practice – it may make mistakes of history, but never of doctrine – but very soon it became clear, as anyone with a historical sense could have predicted, that the teaching of an error-filled Bible could be contradicted at any point. A Fuller professor, Paul Jewett, published in 1975 a book on the Bible’s view of men and women in which he argued that Paul was simply incorrect in his teaching about the headship of men in home and church. That clearly was a matter of faith and practice but the Bible, in Jewett’s view, was not infallible. It would not be the last time the teaching of the Bible would be abandoned, particularly where and when that teaching contradicted the orthodoxies and mores of modern Western culture.

In 1977 a group of evangelical scholars under the leadership of James Montgomery Boice created the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy. The “International” in the name was due to the fact that one member of the council, J.I. Packer, was English and was then still living in England. After ten years of conferences and papers it was disbanded, its job judged to have been done. Most importantly, it produced in 1978 what was called “The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.” That statement is the most sophisticated expression and defense of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy ever produced and is very helpful in stating both what is meant by inerrancy and what is not meant by it. For example, it leaves the Bible free to express its teaching in terms appropriate to the time and place of its writing, to provide varying accounts of the same Gospel episode for perfectly good reasons, and so on. Here is a selection of its articles, in the form of affirmations and denials.

Article XI

We affirm that Scripture, having been given by divine inspiration, is infallible, so that, far from misleading us, it is true and reliable in all the matters it addresses.

We deny that it is possible for the Bible to be at the same time infallible and errant in its assertions. Infallibility and inerrancy may be distinguished, but not separated.

Article XII

We affirm that Scripture in its entirety is inerrant, being free from all falsehood, fraud, or deceit.

We deny that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science. We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.

Article XIII

We affirm the propriety of using inerrancy as a theological term with reference to the complete truthfulness of Scripture.

We deny that it is proper to evaluate Scripture according to standards of truth and error that are alien to its usage or purpose. We further deny that inerrancy is negated by Biblical phenomena such as a lack of modern technical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, the reporting of falsehoods, the use of hyperbole and round numbers, the topical arrangement of material, variant selections of material in parallel accounts, or the use of free citations.

I could go on, but that is enough to give you an impression. To sum up: 1) its own inerrancy or infallibility is the teaching of Holy Scripture itself; 2) it is the inevitable consequence of the Bible being the very Word of God in which the words of Scripture are co-extensive and identical with the words of God himself; 3) the inerrancy of the Bible cannot be denied without undermining the authority of Holy Scripture at any and every point, as both reason and historical observation demonstrate; and 4) the errorlessness of Scripture has in fact been the settled and nearly universal conviction of the Christian church throughout its history. Finally, to deny inerrancy lands us in the utterly impossible position of not knowing what to believe in the Bible.

Now I could stop here and leave you nodding your heads. But it is important, in my view, that you know that this doctrine, like any other doctrine of the Bible, has its difficulties and its mysteries. It is not altogether simple to believe in the inerrancy of the Bible. There are reasons why even Bible-believers have doubted the Bible’s infallibility. Many of those reasons are frankly insubstantial and should worry none of you. It is not the case that Genesis 1-11 are obviously mythology and not history. It is not the case that God’s prophets cannot predict the future. It is not the case that the evidence indicates that Isaiah has three authors or that Daniel was written in the 2nd century B.C. not the 6th, it is not at all the case that we know that Peter did not write 2 Peter. It is the case that the Gospel writers organized their material according to principles other than simple chronology, that there are any number of perfectly understandable reasons why the same account should be reported in slightly different ways from one Gospel to another. You are perhaps aware that many assertions of biblical errors have now had to be withdrawn because of new information. In the mid-19th century, German higher critics argued that Moses couldn’t have been the author of the Pentateuch because writing hadn’t been invented by that time. Archaeology has provided us with literature of various kinds and even bi-lingual dictionaries written more than a millennium before Moses was born. They also once thought that the Hittites were a biblical invention. Now there are so many Hittite documents that translating them has been for years a major project of ANE scholarship. They scorned Luke as a historian because he claimed there was a Roman proconsul in Cyprus, but now there is known to have been one. And on and on it goes.

But all of that is not to say that there are no outstanding difficulties. I want you to know that and to hold your conviction concerning the errorlessness of the Bible with intelligence and sophistication. I don’t want you to hear of the problems and the challenges first from some skeptic. We are happy to face these problems squarely. We are even willing to admit that we cannot as of yet resolve all the problems. That should not terribly surprise us when the Bible was written as much as 3,500 years ago and the form of it we have is copies many times removed from the autographs, the originals. Let me illustrate the problem in respect to biblical numbers.

A well-known British biblical scholar – and upholder of inerrancy – J. W. Wenham began a well-known article on this subject by saying: “It is notorious that the Old Testament in many places records numbers which seem impossibly large.” [“Large Numbers in the Old Testament,” Tyndale Bulletin 18 (1967)] Critics of the Bible, including those within the church, have often fastened on this fact as a primary method of disproving the accuracy and historical integrity of the Bible.

But others, including even scholars who by no means believe the Bible to be the inerrant Word of God, take note of the fact that the numbers are absurdly large and would have been known to be so by anyone who read them at the time. As Wenham puts it, “No one in his senses would…invent the story of a bus crash in which all 16,000 passengers were killed.” The more absurd the figures the less likely that they were invented. Rather, it appears that someone was trying to transmit the numbers accurately but either they have been corrupted in transmission or we are misunderstanding them.

Let me give you two illustrations of the problem; there are more but these two will suffice.

First, there is the size of the Israelite population as it left Egypt at the Exodus. We are told that Jacob’s household numbered 70 souls when the family moved to Egypt. We are told that 42,000 Jews returned to the Promised Land from exile in Babylon. These numbers certainly seem to be regarded as literal, being itemized in detail. But what of the numbers in between?

How many years were the Israelites in Egypt? Exodus 12:40 seems to say 430 years, though a later copy of the Pentateuch agrees with Galatians 3:17 that the 430 covers the time in Canaan and in Egypt. In Gen. 15:16 the Lord promised Abraham both that his descendants would be mistreated in a land not their own for 400 years and that his descendants would return to the Promised Land “in the fourth generation.” It is not a simple matter to reconcile all these different statements. Obviously a population is likely to grow larger over time. How much time in this case? That is the question? Then there is the further information that before the exodus the entire people of Israel seemed to be served by only two mid-wives and that it could be seriously considered by the Egyptians to throw all of their male babies into the Nile. Further, in the wilderness – certainly a very dry area – for most of the time there was sufficient water for the community without miraculous supply as there needed to be for food. Then, still more, though Israel is described in the wilderness as a great and populous nation, we read that they were confronted in Canaan with seven nations greater and mightier than they (Deut. 26:5; 1:28; 4:38; 7:1). The impression of all of this data, and other evidence that might be mentioned, is of a large migration, numbering thousands, certainly tens of thousands, but not millions. In other words, the numbers reported in Exodus and Numbers have either been misunderstood or corrupted in transmission.

Second, consider the size of the nation as reported in David’s census. To begin with 2 Sam. 24:9 tells us that there were 800,000 men who drew the sword in Israel and another 500,000 in Judah. 1 Chron. 21:5 gives the same census figures as 1,100,000 and 470,000, 300,000 higher in the first case and 30,000 lower in the other. The variance is almost certainly due to corruption during the copying of manuscripts.

Those figures, even the smaller ones given in 2 Samuel are too high. 1,300,000 men of military age would imply a total population of 5 million, producing a population density nearly twice the most thickly populated countries of modern Europe. In the Roman era the population of Palestine was approximately 1 million. The current population of the nation of Israel is 7.2 million of which 5.4 million are Jews, but the entire population of the area, as of the world, is vastly larger now than in pre-Christian times. Remember, the non-Israelite peoples were conquered but had not been absorbed and they also continued to live in the land in substantial numbers in David’s day. One scholar I read – who holds to the inerrancy of the Bible – points out that studies that purport to estimate the size of Israelite settlements in the first millennium B.C. based on either estimates of available supplies of water or the size of the known urban area and estimates of population density indicate that the population of Jerusalem in David’s time was probably not much greater than 5,000 inhabitants, though it may have grown to some 20,000 by Josiah’s time. [D. Fouts, “The Incredible Numbers of the Hebrew Kings,” Giving the Sense, 283-299] If the capital were a city of 5,000 souls, the nation did not contain 5 million! Most scholars think a Jewish population of half a million is more likely in David’s day, c. 1000 B.C.

Three possible explanations have been offered for these large numbers, each of which may account for some cases and not for others.

  1. Faulty transmission of numbers.

It is a fact of life, as easily demonstrated in our day as in former days, that numbers are the hardest information to copy and transmit accurately. Miriam Shelden told me the other day of receiving a bill for Rosemary’s violin lessons this spring from the University of Puget Sound in the amount of $34,162.50. This resulted from their calculation that Rosie would have 911 lessons this spring!

There are clearly problems of this type with the numbers that we have in the Hebrew part of the Bible. For example, in 2 Samuel 10:18 we read that David’s army killed 700 Aramean charioteers. But in the parallel account in 1 Chronicles 19:18 we read that 7,000 charioteers were killed. A zero has been added. I don’t mean they used zero as a number; only that this is the effect of the error. In 1 Kings 4:26 we read that Solomon had 40,000 stalls for his chariot horses. The parallel in 2 Chronicles 9:25 reads 4,000. Again a zero has been added or lost. 2 Samuel 15:7, depending upon what text you read indicates that Absalom took 4 years to develop his plan for a coup, or 40 years. 2 Kings 24:8 reports that Johoiachin was 18 years old when he began to reign; 2 Chronicles 36:9 says that he was 8 years of age. 1 Samuel 13:1 says that Saul was a year old when he became king; some LXX manuscripts of 1 Samuel have 30 years old. It’s even more complicated than this. Sometimes the item being counted isn’t the same from one text to another. 2 Samuel 10:18 speaks of 40,000 horsemen and 1 Chron. 19:18 of 40,000 footmen (the NIV has adjusted the Samuel text to match that in Chronicles, but the ESV reports what the Hebrew actually reads). 2 Samuel 10:6 has 20,000 footmen and 12,000 men which becomes in 1 Chronicles 19:7 32,000 chariots. 1 Kings 7:26 gives the capacity of the huge water tank, the “sea” in front of Solomon’s temple, as 2,000 baths. 2 Chronicles 4:5 gives it as 3,000. The list of such numerical inconsistencies is quite long.

All of this suggests not the inaccurate reporting of numbers – the intention seems to be to report the right numbers – but their faulty transmission. If we had the original manuscripts the numbers would agree. Our copies have errors in them. Hebrew letters were used in absence of numbers and in earlier stages of the language some of those letters were easily confused with one another. In fact, there is no certainty yet among scholars of the history of the Hebrew language precisely how numbers were written and represented in earlier years.

  1. Misunderstanding of terms

There are several terms, significant to the numbers of the OT, including the word that is translated “thousand” in the English versions of the Old Testament (אלף), that scholars continue to debate the meaning of. Most of the very large numbers reported in the Hebrew Bible are in thousands, usually round numbers of thousands, and so the meaning of that word obviously matters a great deal. Besides its literal use as “one thousand,” it is used as a general term for large numbers, but it seems also to be used for a social unit – family or clan – and perhaps as well for a military unit of some size. It may also refer to individuals, including military men such as chieftans or captains. For example, in Judges 20:2 were there 400,000 men on foot that drew the sword, or 400 fully armed soldiers? In other words does אלף refer to “thousand” or to a particular type of soldier. And were the losses reported later in the chapter 22 men or 22,000 men on the first day; 18 or 18,000 men on the second day, and was the ambush set by 10 soldiers or 10,000 (Is it likely that the narrator supposed that 10,000 men could have been hidden in ambush near the small village of Gibeah?). The numbers frankly make much more sense in the narrative not taking the אלף as an actual number but as a reference to a type of soldier. Interestingly, this term survives today in compounds to designate some of the higher ranks in the Israeli army.

There is a great deal of complicated scholarship back and forth on all such questions. I’m simply indicating the various directions taken in discussions concerning the large numbers.

  1. The convention of hyperbole with numbers

Some others have argued that the large numbers are simply hyperbole, a standard convention of ancient Near Eastern writing. We have, for example, the Lord’s promise that he would multiply Abraham’s seed until they were as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore, literally speaking impossibly large numbers. But in Joshua 11:4, for example, the size of the army of Canaanite peoples that came against the Israelites is said to have been “as numerous as the sand on the seashore,” the same phrase. It is hyperbole, exaggeration for effect. In the same way, some scholars conclude that the 5 million or so we are told inhabited Israel in David’s day was a “sand on the seashore” type of number.

The fact is holding to the inerrancy of the Bible doesn’t prevent us from employing any or all of these explanations for the large numbers we encounter in the OT. Inerrancy still requires us rightly to understand what the Bible is actually saying and to understand it in the terms in which it was written.

What I want to say is that we have every reason to believe that the Bible is the Word of God – those reasons we take up next time – and, therefore, as the Word of God to believe it to be without error. But, like every other doctrine of Holy Scripture, this too has its difficulties and we must carefully work them out. This doctrine requires faith and confidence in the Lord as does every other. The Bible has been confirmed in its accuracy many times when it had been doubted; I have no doubt that it will continue to be confirmed. But some questions may never be answered and certainly cannot be answered in the present state of our knowledge. Nevertheless, we do not doubt that what the biblical writer wrote, as he was carried along by the Holy Spirit, was precisely what God intended to say, and therefore is true. If there are problems they are apparent problems only and the Bible will be proved true at the last. [cf. Warfield, Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, 215]

Think of it carefully,
Study it prayerfully,
Deep in your heart
Let its oracles dwell
Ponder its mystery,
Slight not its history,
For none ever loved it
Too fondly or well.