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Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Is the Bible inerrant?

Question: Good afternoon and greetings from England.

I have been a member of the fundamentalist movement for a long time now and
I realise that the movement insists that I accept the doctrine of Biblical
inerrancy. The definition of Biblical inerrancy is; "...in its original
form, the Bible is totally without error, and free from all
contradiction..."

I read the Bible in my daily devotions and I have felt for a long time that
I have noticed more and more examples of contradictory verses. These
contradictory verses would destroy the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy.

One example I have found is the account of Jesus raising Jairus' daughter,
as recorded in Matthew chapter 9, Mark chapter 5 and Luke chapter 8. In
Matthew's gospel, Jairus leaves to find Jesus AFTER his daughter has died.
In Luke and Mark's accounts, he leave BEFORE his daughter dies. Although
this is only a detail difference, it makes these two accounts mutually
exclusive. They are contradictory and cannot both be true at the same time.

A non-Biblical example of the same type of contradictory verses would be
the two statements;
1. My sister became a Christian for the first time BEFORE her 18th
birthday, and
2. My sister became a Christian for the first time AFTER her 18th birthday.


I have asked a number of my fellow Christians how they have dealt with
this, and have received various suggestions. However, these suggestions are
rather weak:

1. One said, "Don't look at the contradictions, look at the happy ending
and the raising of Jairus' daughter". While I am more than happy to rejoice
at what the passage shows me of God, if I ignore the contradictory passages
then I am doing no more than 'putting my head in the sand'.

2. Another said, "Look how much these passages agree. That shows they are
consistent". Unfortunately, even if passages are 75%, 80% or even 99%
consistent, if they contradict each other even once, it destroys the
doctrine of inerrancy. You can't have 'degrees' of inerrancy. Something is
either inerrant or it isn't.

3. Another said, "By asking this question, you miss the big picture of
God's grace". However, I do not miss the big picture of God. I love God,
but am asking about a contradiction that challenges a doctrine of the
church.

3. Another said "Look what happens with witnesses at a road accident. One
witness will say that three cars were involved while another will say that
there were four cars. It's just a case of fallible humans getting the
details wrong". This would hold water if the Bible were like humans, i.e.
errant and liable to make mistakes. But it is not. The Bible is the word of
God, written via Luke, Paul, Matthew etc etc. So, if it has the same author
and is inerrant, it CANNOT contradict itself. Unlike witness statements,
the Bible is written by God.

The bottom line is this: God never contradicts Himself. The Bible is God's
word, so Q.E.D. the Bible cannot contradict itself.


Please let me set something straight before I go further. I am a Christian.
I love God. I am not questioning God. However, I AM questioning a doctrine
of the fundamentalist wing of the world-wide Christian church. Seeing as
the church isn't God, it's possible for me to question the church without
questioning God.

For example, we all feel more than able to question the doctrines of the
liberal wing of the worldwide Christian church, and we all feel more than
able to question the doctrines of the Episcopalian wing of the worldwide
Christian church. So any accusation that, in asking this question, I'm
somehow 'backsliding' and need to 'bow the knee' is not applicable.

I would therefore appreciate it if you would explain how we fundamentalists
can sustain the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy in light of the above.

Many Regards

Name withheld

Answer: First of all, let me say thank you for your poignant question. As an evagnelical Christian committed to the authority of Scripture, I too have struggled with this issue. In answer to your question, I think that modern Christians born and raised in the post-enlightenmnet West read the Scriptures in a way that is absolutely foreign to the worldview of the ancient readers to whom the Scriptures were originally written. For example, the idea that something has to be a fact to be true may seem inevitable to us, but, in fact, this idea has only been around for about 200 years. Take the Creation Account in Genesis. We look at the seven days of creation and and try to figure out which came first, the sun or daylight. Ancient readers would have understood the point to be that only one God exists, and that one God is not a moon god, a plant god, or a sun god. In other words, the 7-day creation account wasn't written for scientists, but for an ancient audience steeped in a pagan worldview. Also consider that Jesus said the mustard seed is the smallest seed in the ground. Botanists know there are smaller seeds than the mustard seed. So, was Jesus giving a botany lesson or teaching about the Kingdom of God?

I think if we realize that the Bible is both a divine and a human document, we will not squabble over details irrelevant to the intent of the Biblical authors. We may think the chronological timing of whether the daughter was dead before or after Jairus went to see Jesus is an important detail, but would that have been important to the Biblical authors writing in the first century? The disciples of Jesus weren't writing for the Associate Press. They were writing in a style common to the Jewish culture of their day.

It's important to understand that the Bible does not claim to be dictated by God. The Bible claims to be inspired by God (2 Timothy 3:16). There is a vast difference between divine dictation and divine inspiration. Divine dictation means that God dictated every jot and tittle he wanted in the Bible. Divine inspiration means that God inspired human authors to express His will in the language and the culture of their day without overriding their human personalities.

Why did God choose to inspire the Bible rather than dictate the Bible? I don't fully know, but I have a hunch it's because God is far more interested in a relationship with human beings than dictating words from the sky. God likes to use human beings for His purposes and He isn't as concerned with squabbling over details as we are. I personally thinks this makes the Bible much more interesting. I'll take the Apostle James' diatribe against the rich over automatic writing any day.

3 comments:

Pete said...

Good question. While looking into the "synoptic problem", this has been discussed at length in my classes. The answer Aaron gave is about as good of an explanation as any. Basically, the Spirit never contradicted itself in inspiring the words of the Bible, but perhaps the writers did on some small details. The cursing of the olive tree is another prime example, and yet, when you look at these examples and see these inconsistencies we may miss the big picture. There are upwards of fourty different authors of the Bible who wrote independently of each other and not once does the spriritual content contradict itself. That is quite a miracle if you consider it. You couldn't get even 5 pastors of the same denomination to write down their doctrine without coming up with some discrepancies.
The authors may not have been perfect, but the spiritual content of the Bible does not contradict itself and is in that way inerrant.
Pete
P.S. All my opinion and should not be considered the official doctrine of my church or college

Pete said...

NOTE: Okay, so I was really tired when I wrote the above and yeah, Jesus cursed a FIG tree not an olive tree. Wow, sorry about that!
Pete

Aaron D. Taylor said...

Thank you Pete for your affirmation of my answer. I too have noticed the discrepancies in the account of the withered fig tree. After working it through over a thousand times in my head, I finally concluded that minor details just aren't as important to the Biblical authors as they are to us.