Many Christians believe the Bible to be the inspired and inerrant word of God. But what does this really mean? By inspired do we actually mean God spoke directly to the writers and then directed the movements of their writing utensil across the papyri? Or do we mean the men were inspired some other way and still captured the inspiration of God’s teaching?
By inerrant do we mean the Bible is without error in all of its facets, or without error in doctrinal teaching? Is it without error in its many translations, are there no contradictions in the text anywhere? Would it make the Bible less reliable if some historical information wasn’t 100% accurate or a date for a ruler was off by a few years? Does this somehow dispel the truth of Christ’s message or God’s overall revelatory news to the world? This hardly seems plausible. So how much scrutiny, that is, how much and what kinds of error and contradictions (if proven to have any) can the Bible sustain and yet still be considered the word of God? If somehow it could be proven scientifically or genetically that the Biblical Adam did not exist, does this somehow cast doubt to the resurrection story of Jesus of Nazareth? Does a historical Adam have to exist in order for the Genesis creation story to be true? To what end, if any, are we willing to grant the writers of the Bible some human fallibility, and perhaps literary license, in their efforts to portray the truth of God’s love to humanity? What sort of claims does the Bible make in regards to itself?
As a Biblically faithful Christian I have found it challenging to tackle this subject more than anything because I probably run the risk of being branded a heretic for even exploring the truth of this matter. But how can a Christian who is Biblically faithfully and pronounce truth from the Bible not be willing to address some of the questions surrounding why we hold it in such high esteem? Not that I’m making myself a martyr here but let’s tackle the hard stuff shall we? Similar to other posts, this is a topic where volumes have been written so this post will be elementary at the most, but hopefully thought-provoking at the least.
A quick background of the Bible might be in order here. And when I say the term Bible, I am referring to both the Old and New Testaments. If I reference the phrase Hebrew Bible, that will refer to just the Old Testament (though faithful Jewish people hold differing views on their own scriptures as well). Many of you readers are highly intelligent and know the Bible is a collection of books of different authors (most of them male from what we know) which was recorded in some form of written and oral tradition over the course of perhaps more than 1,000 years and throughout numerous geographic locations. It was not written at one time nor was it all intended to be an eyewitness account. It is a combination of history, myth, poetry and prose, songs, stories, etc…brought to convey a remarkably succinct salvation story of a monotheistic God and the people He created.
Some Christian circles disagree(d) on what books should actually compose the Hebrew Bible and some Christians also disagree(d) on what books should have composed the New Testament scriptures, which took a few hundred years to officially decide. These books are a combination of Apocryphal and Deuterocanonical books which different Christian groups hold authentic, but of unknown or perhaps unfounded origin. These books are rejected by many Protestant Christians from the Biblical canon.
Historically what we know of the final decision on the makeup of the Biblical canon may not have occurred until the 4th or 5th century by the Catholic Church, and then a number of books of the Old Testament accepted by Catholics were later placed into Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical status by Protestant revisionists. Even the decision of what we know of as the Hebrew Bible may not have ben decided by the time of Jesus. Most Protestant Bibles today have 39 books in the Old, 27 in the New, for a total of 66 books of the Bible.
The point of this brief exercise is to introduce this as a process led by men, undoubtedly motivated and inspired by God, perhaps motivated for other reasons, with much debate, to formally include the books we now call the Bible. Research of canon evolution is pretty fascinating if one bothers to take the time.
A question to the reader is does the fact this collaborative process, over the course of generations, cultures, predominately led by fallible men, of perhaps diverse motivations, somehow lead to the conclusion it is fallacious and could possibly not be inspired by God or error free? I suppose it is possible this could be the conclusion, but could it also be possible this isn’t the conclusion? After all, if God, who is perfect, designed the process of His salvation story to be delivered in such a way, who are we to argue it? Would it look a little odd if someone just “found” it under a rock after 1000 years? Perhaps a little too suspicious?
Nevertheless, we have this document we call the Bible with us today and of course it is exceedingly popular, loved, hated, targeted, misrepresented, misinterpreted, and so on. What are we to make of this for those who claim it is God’s inspired and inerrant truth to His fallible people? If this is the case shouldn’t we all be able to interpret it as saying the same thing?
Let’s start off with the idea of it being God’s inspired Word. What does it mean to say the holy scriptures (both Old and New Testaments) are inspired? Does the Bible make this claim? Well, sort of. To remain faithful to the Biblical text let’s go to 2 Timothy 3:16, by far one of the most popular verses on scriptural inspiration we have. The author is widely recognized to be the apostle Paul, who says “(A)ll scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” (NRV)
The interesting thing about this verse is some Christians take this verse to cover the whole Bible, Old and New, yet this cannot possibly be the case because when this letter was written we had no semblance of a New Testament canon as some of the letters hadn’t even been written yet! So clearly Paul is referring to the Hebrew Bible at the time at the time he wrote this letter. Do you think Paul had the impudence at this time to think he was actually writing new scripture? Perhaps, but I’m not convinced he did. I do think he felt inspired under the witness of the Holy Spirit that he was conveying truth, but nowhere do you see Paul make the claim in his letters that they are holy scripture. In the proceeding verse he tells his adult audience (mainly Timothy) “how from childhood you have known the sacred writings…” This again would have to be familiarity with the Hebrew Bible although Timothy was almost certainly familiar with some of Paul’s other letters and perhaps even a Gospel or two. Timothy would have been very familiar with the Hebrew Bible and the prophesies regarding Messiah. In regards to inspiration though, Paul clearly states the Hebrew Bible as being inspired by God.
The second letter of Peter in chapter 1:20-21 also reminds us “men and women moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” (NRV) Now it is very hard to make a present-day case regarding who is and isn’t moved by the Holy Spirit, and how much more of a claim to say this about people who lived two-three millennia ago. Many Christians take it at face value that men and women were inspired by God and that these individuals (again mostly men that we are aware of) recorded these events faithfully, even if some of them weren’t historical. Perhaps some of them were faithfully recorded to teach us lessons of truth, not convey true historical occurrences? Does this make it any less inspired or truthful? I think it would be hard to reason anything close to an absolute no on this.
We also have numerous passages in the Gospels where Jesus references the Old Testament, at times perhaps giving the allusion he is making a correction to it, but more appropriately, and most likely interpreting it rightly for the particular audience he is speaking to and the lesson He wished to impart. Just a taste of the numerous verses are:
Matthew 5:1-6, 7-9, 17-18, & 38-42, 9:13, 10:35-36, 19:16-20
Mark 14:11-13, 27
Luke 4:17-19, 21, 19:46, 20:37-38
John 8:12-13, 17-18
And this makes perfect sense for a man who was claiming, like Jesus was, a unique relationship with God. How else was He supposed to be tested but through performing miracles and the divine inspiration of the Hebrew Bible? The Pharisees and Sadducees took Him for a poor Galilean, a carpenter’s son, without schooling and tutoring, and here was Jesus quoting to them their scriptures and the application for Jewish life and worship. They were supposed to be the experts and the strict adherents of God’s law! Who was this Jew to explain their scriptures to them? It seems quite clear Jesus used the Hebrew Bible to not only rightly interpret to the Jewish people the context and meaning of God’s salvation plan, He also used it as evidence He had standing to make the claims He was making.
So the grounds for criticism of the Hebrew Bible being inspired is definitely very thin, especially when we have the New Testament Gospels full of Jesus (assuming of course Jesus was who He said He was) using that very scripture (and His interpretation of it) as a means of validating His teaching. And just because a document has a number of authors who were fallible men, written over time and space, doesn’t seem we have to come to the conclusion it is somehow false. Do we really reject history as untrue because it is old, perhaps fanciful and fantastic, perhaps unpopular, and written by one gender? Some would say nowadays we definitely do. If so I wonder what, if anything, passes the scrutiny test?!
We’ll leave that aside for now and let the textual critics continue to throw blows, and turn to where the authority for inspiration comes from for the New Testament portion of the Bible? Now many Christians at this point would want me to answer emphatically it was God who had the authority, and in a sense they are correct. However, in the case of the New Testament what was included in our New Testament canon was decided by men (one could definitely make a case they were working under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit), and here is where the early church fathers enter the story.
These men were in charge of the local churches as the apostles aged and died. The earliest ones would have been people like Polycarp of Smyrna, Irenaeus of Lyons, Clement of Rome, and Ignatius of Antioch. Men like Polycarp listened and personally knew the apostle John. Now this isn’t the place to introduce all of these men and talk about their torch-bearing for the church, I will try to do that in another post, but the early church representatives, like the men mentioned above, collected portions of, or in some cases all of the documents we have today, regarding some as scripture and others as not. In time criteria were developed by the early church as to what would be canonical and what wouldn’t be?
Generally, the following were accepted criteria for scriptural inclusion:
- The writing had to be written by a recognized prophet or apostle or an associate connected to them.
- The writing had to be a statement of God’s truth.
- The writing had to have faithfulness to previous canonical scripture.
- The writing had to have been confirmed by Christ, prophet, or apostle.
- It had to have widespread church usage and recognition.
It’s important to understand the evolution and inspiration of this decision. When you read an author like Paul in the New Testament it becomes pretty clear he was anticipating the imminent return of Christ, and he probably wasn’t alone. There are allusions to the imminent return of Christ throughout the New Testament, and a person could make a strong Biblical argument Paul and other disciples thought Jesus would return in their lifetime. But Christ didn’t return in their lifetime. So how is the early church supposed to keep the Gospel message flowing orally and free of error while the disciples are all dying and Christ still hasn’t returned? This is where writings like the Gospels, the letters of Paul and so forth start gaining more importance as the idea of developing a body of Christian-specific documents becomes necessary, not only for the early church to continue to grow, but to defend itself against heretical teaching, such as the many spurious documents we see come on the scene once all the original disciples are gone. How else could the church create such continuity in its beliefs, formulate its eventual creedal statements, without the possession and acknowledgement of these testimonials? And so the painstaking process began within the catholic (i.e. universal) church to develop a canon of documents it felt met the aforementioned criteria. And be mindful that just because the church may not have included a document in the canon, such as Clement’s letter to the Corinthians, didn’t mean the document was heretical, it may have been perfectly appropriate and truthful, even inspired, it just didn’t meet the criteria above. So, while some documents were clearly heretical, others were still held in high esteem and regarded as inspired and truthful, just not meeting the criteria that was established by church leaders.
In regards to Biblical inerrancy, we could recapitulate many of the authorities for this already mentioned, but we won’t. The authority for views of inerrancy do come from God by way of inspired people. The Bible itself, similar to the inspiration claim, does not make the inerrancy claim for the whole canon of scripture. One could argue it makes that claim for the Hebrew Bible with the references from 2 Timothy and 2 Peter, but it is an impossible claim for the whole of scripture because the claim would have to come after the body of documents was known, not prior or concurrent to. Surprisingly there is very little literature within the early church of any debates about this. Most of the debates regarding Biblical inerrancy have come about in the last 150 years or so, as important, yet complex movements like social justice, equality, archeology, the scientific method, civil rights, or more recently critical race theory, etc, come to the fore.
In 1978 a convention was held where a number of conservative Christian leaders met and over the course of three days drafted what is known as the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. The short statement reads as follows:
1. God, who is Himself Truth and speaks truth only, has inspired Holy Scripture in order thereby to reveal Himself to lost mankind through Jesus Christ as Creator and Lord, Redeemer and Judge. Holy Scripture is God’s witness to Himself.
2. Holy Scripture, being God’s own Word, written by men prepared and superintended by His Spirit, is of infallible divine authority in all matters upon which it touches: it is to be believed, as God’s instruction, in all that it affirms, obeyed, as God’s command, in all that it requires; embraced, as God’s pledge, in all that it promises.
3. The Holy Spirit, Scripture’s divine Author, both authenticates it to us by His inward witness and opens our minds to understand its meaning.
4. Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God’s acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God’s saving grace in individual lives.
5. The authority of Scripture is inescapably impaired if this total divine inerrancy is in any way limited or disregarded, or made relative to a view of truth contrary to the Bible’s own; and such lapses bring serious loss to both the individual and the Church.
There are also 19 Articles of affirmation and denial attached to this document for those of you looking to do more reading. It is important to note these men who drafted this document claim fallibility on their part as human beings, yet felt compelled through the Spirit because of their viewpoints on the current state of affairs within humanity to draft a document trying to solidify what Biblically inerrancy means to them. And they took a pretty good stab at it. The short statement alone seems to set the bar pretty high, as you would expect for any document purporting to be God’s truth. For some Christians though, even a statement such as this doesn’t really define the slippery issue of what it means to be inerrant. For to be inerrant we also have to understand interpretation within the text, and that opens up a whole post of posts which we don’t have time for right now.
What I wish to extend here in my own humble way are some ways for us to think about this, both as Christians and non-Christians. If the Bible is wrong on something like a historical matter, such as how long King David ruled, or how long the historical Adam lived for, what is at risk for the Bible-believing Christian? Jesus Christ wasn’t a real person, didn’t die, and didn’t get resurrected from the dead?
I have kept a journal of my life for nearly 30 years and I guarantee there are numerous errors in there about dates, names, places, etc…Now my journal is not an inspiration by God nor do I make any claim I was inspired by the Spirit to write it, yet it is true isn’t it? Who could make the claim it wasn’t? I wrote it, right? Shouldn’t I know whether these things happened in my life? Does the possibility that someone later in life fact-checked some of my claims and found them wrong, render in any way my journal and life story as fallacious? I find this a true leap of faith.
I bring this crude example to light because as human beings, in most any event(s) where humans are present, we should expect there to be witnesses of the event, and we should expect those witnesses to disagree on some of the finer details of what they witnessed. In fact if all stories are perfectly in agreement we are suspicious aren’t we? Almost like they concocted the story beforehand. So the fact these humans relay truths and doubts about what they experienced, do we then doubt the whole experience? For example, when we look at the Gospel narratives of Jesus’s resurrection, they are all different. Now because they are all different means we cannot know which one is the most accurate account, but does this somehow disprove He rose from the dead, or that there is error? Again, this would be a leap of faith. So, in the case of the resurrection event, what are the core components of the story? Women came to the tomb early on the morning of the first day of the week (which means they knew where He was buried), the stone was rolled away, the tomb was empty, there was an angelic appearance of some variety or by Jesus Himself, by what they saw (or didn’t see!) they went and told the disciples, and somehow weeks after this event the very group of people who followed Jesus started making outrageous claims within the city walls He was crucified in, that He had risen from the grave and had personally seen, heard, or touched Him.
The point of this little thought exercise and specific reflection of the resurrection narrative is to allow a Christian some breathing room on the definition of Biblical inerrancy in some of these accounts that don’t perfectly corroborate (some would argue contradict) each other without having to fall on your sword and claim a very wooden type of Biblical inerrancy. Where is the error here in the resurrection story? Narratives which are slightly different doesn’t necessarily imply error does it? I don’t think so, and in fact I am more than happy at granting some of the authors of the Bible some literary license in how they felt the Spirit was commending them to record the story. Please remember this about the Bible (and I’m excluding claims of the resurrection event as fictitious, as I believe the evidence for it being a historical event are truly compelling), not everything it claims is meant to be proof of a historical record. Events recorded in the Bible could be written to express God’s truth in other ways, not just historical. That is to say, written in a way which teaches a true lesson about God’s love, God’s salvation plan, God’s justice, His mercy, His truth, etc. As a Christian, when you make the claim of Biblical inerrancy regarding something, please ensure you understand the claim you are making for the truth you are defending.
It is my prayer this post has been helpful in your journey of God’s truth in the Bible. I encourage you to keep going farther than I could with this post. Study to understand the Hebrew and Greek of the passages you are working on, seek help from those more learned than you in this subject, understand the differences between exegesis and eisegesis (Christians especially, beware of eisegesis!), get an understanding of hermeneutics, and so on, it will only enrich your personal appreciation of God’s Holy Word.