The Erosion of Inerrancy?

Should Scripture be the basis for our understanding of Scripture? I hope so. Reading the Bible faithfully means trusting that Scripture is true, and that the God of Scripture has been faithful to his nature and his promises to us.

However, each of us comes to Scripture with his/her own baggage. Scripture itself has its own “baggage”: history, tradition, language, time. But the situation is not as bleak as some would make it out to be: we know a lot about the historical background of the Bible, and much has been preserved in tradition. And–most important–we as Christians have the Holy Spirit indwelling us, helping us to understand the biblical texts.

On Saturday night (at the Semiannual Westminster Beerfest), I had a lengthy discussion with some friends about inerrancy and the nature of Scripture. I’d like to share some thoughts stemming from that discussion.

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The question at hand was whether apparent contradictions in Scripture should influence our understanding of inerrancy. Now, I started by invoking a statement from the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, from the initial Summary, point. 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.

Now, I think I will want to disagree with, or at least nuance, points 4-5 in that same section. But I believe this is a wonderful, helpful statement. In my discussion, I was trying to spin out some of the implications of the phrases I underlined in the statement. Biblical authority and inerrancy is a given; the real question is, what does Scripture actually affirm?

Of course, most inerrantists would say that Scripture does not truly affirm faulty cosmology, such as pillars supporting the earth, or a heavenly dome with storehouses. Scripture does not affirm lies recorded in Scripture, such as words of Satan (Job 1) or false prophecy (1 Kgs 13:18). But how do we know this? We learn this by looking at the larger context, the whole counsel of God. The story of Job demonstrates that YHWH vindicates his people over the slanderous charges of hassatan. The mentions of cosmology in poetry affirm God’s creative and sustaining power over the world. Scripture affirms truth.

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So far, so good. But what about trickier questions of history and historiography, and synoptic contrasts between Samuel-Kings and Chronicles, or between the Gospels?

There are many examples I could give, but in Saturday’s discussion I used as a test case the question of the date of Passover in the Passion narratives. Here’s a summary of the conflict.

  • In all four Gospels, the Last Supper is a Thursday evening, and the crucifixion is a Friday. Jesus is removed from the cross and buried before the Sabbath began on Friday evening (Mat 27:62, Mk 15:42, Lk 23:54,
  • In the Synoptics, the Feast of Passover/Unleavened Bread begins on Thursday evening (all Jewish holidays begin in the evening); see Mat 26:2, 17-20, 26-30; Mk 14:1-2, 12-15, 26; and Lk 22:1, 7, 11, 15. Note that Mark refers to Thursday as the “First Day of Unleavened Bread,” not the first festival day, but the day of preparing the meal (“when they sacrificed the Passover lamb”).
  • In John, the Passover begins on Friday evening, and Jesus is crucified at the time when the lambs are being sacrificed in preparation for the Passover (Jn 13:1; 19:14, 31). The Last Supper does not appear to be a Passover meal at all.

So, was the first day of Passover Thursday-night-Friday-daytime, or was it Friday-night-Saturday-daytime? These two portrayals seem to be irreconcilable, though some have tried. Either one is right and one is wrong, or both are wrong–but both can’t be “right.” So, does Scripture affirm historical error?

This example is a very useful one, because we see conflicting historical facts that are important parts of the authors’ respective points-of-view. In the Synoptic chronology, Jesus is a new high priest and king, sitting around the Passover table (new exodus) with his Twelve (new Israel). John, probably writing 30 years after the other Evangelists, portrays Jesus as the Passover “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29; Rev 5). He probably also wants to place some distance (politically and socially) between Christianity and the post-70-CE Judaism, thus marginalizing the connection between the Eucharist and the Passover.

If we understand inerrancy as encompassing all the historical details of these stories, I believe we do the Bible a disservice by making it affirm contradictions. However, if we say that Scripture affirms the theological points that the Evangelists are making on the basis of conflicting historical facts, then we can see that they are not only compatible, they are complementary.

Synoptics John
Higher truth: What Scripture actually affirms Jesus is priest and king over a new Israel = Jesus is the Lamb of God
Lower truth: Portrayal of history Passover begins Thursday night; the Last Supper is a Passover Seder Passover begins Friday night; Jesus is crucified before Passover begins at sundown

I don’t want to say that Scripture is contradictory, because that implies that it affirms everything contained in it. Remember: “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16), so what Scripture teaches and affirms is useful for the church in these ways. Scripture is without error in what it truly affirms.

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I realize there are a whole host of questions that this presentation raises. But it seems to me that Scripture itself raises them, and we can’t just avoid them. A flat statement to the effect of, “God doesn’t lie, so the Holy Spirit wouldn’t inspire error,” is not sufficient. In my view, that’s a shortcut out of doing the difficult exegetical, theological and historical work that is required to discern what Scripture truly affirms.

Furthermore, I think that understanding these apparent contradictions enhances our understanding of Scripture. Without going into detail, we understand all the Gospels more fully when we see what Matthew and Luke did with Mark’s material, and we understand Samuel-Kings in contrast to what the Chronicler did with those sources. Source criticism and synoptic comparison can be a helpful tool to illumine authorial intent. If we believe that God inspired human authors, we shouldn’t be afraid to discern what these authors were doing–in fact, it is imperative that we do so.

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About Benj

I’m a native North Jerseyan, exiled to the land of Phillies fans…an Old Testament professor and former liturgist…husband to Corrie…father to Daniel and Elizabeth…eldest sibling to three, brother-in-law to Josh and Hannah…uncle to Marshall.
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3 Responses to The Erosion of Inerrancy?

  1. Jared says:

    To follow up on our conversation, Benj, I just wanted to touch on this:

    “I realize there are a whole host of questions that this presentation raises. But it seems to me that Scripture itself raises them, and we can’t just avoid them. A flat statement to the effect of, “God doesn’t lie, so the Holy Spirit wouldn’t inspire error,” is not sufficient. In my view, that’s a shortcut out of doing the difficult exegetical, theological and historical work that is required to discern what Scripture truly affirms.”

    I think you’re right, a statement like that is not sufficient and should never be used as an out for real exegetical work. At the same time, I think the statement is true from the biblical witness to it, and I don’t think critical, rigorous scholarship and that statement are mutually exclusive. In fact, I fail to see how just allowing a text to be a flat contradiction or error can be any less of an excuse for cursory exegesis. Neither view, in my opinion, automatically lends itself to exegetical laziness. Whether God’s character is questioned in allowing that God has in fact written errors is a completely different but related issue. Whether someone believes that about God’s character or doesn’t believe that about God, both camps are commenting on something that can’t be exclusively found in whatever difficult individual passage they exegete.

    • thinkhardthinkwell says:

      @Jared: Thanks for your thoughts. As I remember, we found quite a lot more agreement than disagreement in that discussion, as we do now. I hope you didn’t feel that I presented a caricature of your perspective.

      I do see how acknowledging that there are factual contradictions in the Bible can also result in exegetical laziness. After all, someone like Bart Ehrman looks at the synoptic problems and textual variants, and uses them as an excuse to reject the NT, even though his real “problem” with the Bible is that he doesn’t like its theodicy.

      Let’s keep being “Isra-‘el,” wrestling with God and with his Word. Jon Levenson allegedly said, “For Jews, the Bible is a problem to be solved; for Christians it is a message to be proclaimed.” I hope that as Christians committed to Scripture we can do both as an ongoing process.

  2. Pingback: Best of 2010 | think hard, think well

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