Sunday Study: Inerrancy and Biblical Authority

Recently Glenn Peoples and Dominic Bnonn Tennant had an interesting exchange over the issue of biblical inerrancy, the doctrine, that the bible contains no errors. In his post, Errantly Assuming Inerrancy in History, Peoples makes this interesting comment,

While there has always been a clear expression of the view that what Scripture teaches is correct, this has certainly not always been seen in terms of the notion of “inerrancy.” After all, the very disagreement that exists between evangelicals who affirm inerrancy and those who do not is whether or not the idea that the Bible is authoritative and truthful in what it teaches us should (or need not) give rise to the further claim that the Bible is also inerrant.

Peoples here distinguishes between two theses; the first is that bible contains no errors, the second is that whatever the bible teaches is true. In his article Peoples argues that the first of these theses is false, he argues that there are numerous factual errors in scripture. On the other hand Peoples maintains that the second thesis is true, none of the errors he mentions call into question the authority of scripture because they do not affect the truth or falsity of what scripture teaches. Hence, one can affirm the authority of the bible, even the claim that it is infallible in what it teaches, without affirming that it is inerrant, in the sense of containing no errors.

In A response to Glenn Peoples’s ‘No, I am not an inerrantist’ Bnonn argues that Peoples is attacking a straw-man. The doctrine that the bible is inerrant does not mean to deny that the kind of discrepancies Peoples points to do not exist; rather, supporters of the position Peoples attacked have in mind a different account of what constitutes an error to what Peoples’ critique suggests. Here, I do not want to discuss whether Bnonn is correct or incorrect here because whether he is or not, I think Peoples is onto an important distinction here and he offers an important critique of one way of understanding biblical authority which is often assumed by sceptics.

A couple of examples may illustrate this point. In Does God Exist Michael Tooley, for example, suggests that those who hold that Genesis is the revealed word of God run into trouble because in Genesis God decided to “drown all men, women, and children in a great flood” and suggests that this means they must believe that God has engaged in genocide of the human race.[1] David Brink similarly argues that the Genesis story of Adam and Eve is contradicted by contemporary geological evidence and evolutionary biology so, hence, is unreliable.[2] Fales notes “then, there is the generally mythical character of Genesis, and the fact that many of the themes in the first eleven chapters are borrowed from, or influenced by, the myths of other ancient Near Eastern cultures”[3] and considers this to undercut the authority and reliability of the book of Genesis. Some sceptics contend that primitive scientific understandings of the world are presupposed in various biblical passages. In Matt 15:18-19 Jesus states “But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these things make a man unclean. For out of the heart comes evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander” Some sceptics argue that this passage reflects a primitive ancient understanding of human anatomy that held that the heart was literally the seat of the emotions, will and intellect.

Now some evangelical scholars would contest each of these claims by questioning the existence of such underlying cultural beliefs, the geological evidence and so on, however, here, for the sake of argument, I will assume these basic contentions are correct. I think an important question to ask is, so what? Because even if the sceptic’s claims are true it is far from clear that this actually calls into question biblical authority, the distinction Peoples raised gives us some insight into why. The examples might show that the text contains errors in some sense of that term but it is not clear that they actually show that what the bible teaches is false.

Interestingly something like this distinction occurs in the characterisation of inerrancy offered by two leading, contemporary, Christian philosophers. Alvin Plantinga states, “Scripture is inerrant: the Lord makes no mistakes; what he proposes for our belief is what we ought to believe”. Here Plantinga defines inerrancy not in terms of the bible containing no errors at all, but rather that what God proposes to teach with scripture is not mistaken. William Lane Craig articulates a similar account:

Nobody thinks that when Jesus says that the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds (Mark 4.31) this is an error, even though there are smaller seeds than mustard seeds.  Why?  Because Jesus is not teaching botany; he is trying to teach a lesson about the Kingdom of God, and the illustration is incidental to this lesson. Defenders of inerrancy claim that the Bible is authoritative and inerrant in all that it teaches or all that it means to affirm.  This raises the huge question as to what the authors of Scripture intend to affirm or teach.[4]

Craig’s point here is that Jesus’s comment taken literally contains a falsehood, that the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds. I myself am inclined to see hyperbole here and so do not think that Jesus did literally say the mustard seed is the smallest of seeds, suppose however he did, then his statement would be false. Nether the less Craig notes, and I think correctly, that this is irrelevant because even if Christ said this about mustard seeds, this passage is not supposed to teach us about Botany. It’s a teaching about the growth of the kingdom of God. The saying about the mustard seed is simply a way of illustrating the point Jesus is trying to teach. And it’s the truth or falsity of this teaching, not the details of the illustration that is what is at stake in the question of biblical authority.  I think Craig is correct here, God uses texts written by human beings to teach people certain truths about himself and the world. What is authoritative is what is taught not the details of how it is expressed. This distinction between what the text teaches and what it contains then is I think illuminating, it also I think casts some light on cases of error that Peoples refers to the difference between the gospel of John and the synoptic gospels in terms of the cleansing of the temple:

Scholars have come to see that the genre to which the Gospels most closely conform is ancient biography.  This is important for our question because ancient biography does not have the intention of providing a chronological account of the hero’s life from the cradle to the grave.  Rather ancient biography relates anecdotes that serve to illustrate the hero’s character qualities.  What one might consider an error in a modern biography need not at all count as an error in an ancient biography.  To illustrate, at one time in my Christian life I believed that Jesus actually cleansed the Temple in Jerusalem twice, once near the beginning of his ministry as John relates, and once near the end of his life, as we read in the Synoptic Gospels.  But an understanding of the Gospels as ancient biographies relieves us of such a supposition, for an ancient biographer can relate incidents in a non-chronological way.

Craig’s point can be seen this way. John records the cleansing of the temple near the beginning of his ministry, whereas the synoptic gospels record it occurring near the end of his ministry. Hence, these accounts contain contradictory records of the same event. This, however, does not call into question the accuracy of what is being taught because once one understands the genre being employed, the genre of ancient biography, it is evident the authors did not intend to teach that every event they recorded actually happened in the precise way they narrate. The authors are not teaching that Christ actually cleansed the temple at a particular time and place in history, they are trying, rather, to provide a faithful account of who Christ was, what he was like, what he taught, the major things he did and said. These records are accurate if they faithfully reflect a correct answer to these questions. They, like other biographers of the time, drew on accounts or traditions that highlighted the point they were trying to make without necessarily accepting that every account they refer to actually happened precisely how it is stated. The authors, in relaying the story of the cleansing of the temple, are teaching not that the event actually happened as they narrated it but that Christ was opposed to the kind of actions that were taking place in the temple; he was so opposed to it that given the opportunity, whether late in his ministry or early, he would respond in the way the Gospels portray and take the kind of stance he is portrayed as taking. The text teaches truth if it is true that Christ was like this and false if he was not. If Christ had no problem with money changers in the temple, and considered this activity to be a perfectly appropriate way to make money, then what this text asserts would be false.

I think many of the cases cited by sceptics of the Hebrew and Greek scriptures are unpersuasive because they fail to distinguish between what is contained in the text and what the text teaches. Given this they fail to really challenge biblical authority as this has, according to Peoples, been traditionally understood.

Suppose, as Fales suggests, the evidence supports the contention that Genesis is not an historical account of origins but a rewritten legend or myth, it does not follow that what this myth teaches is false. Myths are used to teach theological and ethical points and the question of whether these points are true or false or not is whether the genre that expresses them is mythic.

Similar points can be made about the other examples. The fact that Genesis contains a story about God drowning the human race in a flood does not entail that the text teaches that God committed genocide. For this latter conclusion to follow one would need to establish that the genre of Genesis is on par with the genre of modern histography and hence intends to teach the events recorded actually happened. This may or may not be the case but it requires argument. Merely citing a passage does not do this.

Similarly, Brinks’ argument assumes that the text not only contains stories about Adam and Eve but also teaches the story occurred as historical fact. This involves important questions of genre that Brink ignores. It is possible that these stories are included by the author to teach certain theological and moral truths about human beings, sin and God; of course they might not be either, but merely pointing out that a story contains error if taken as literal historical fact does not substantiate this.

Finally, even if Christ’s statement presupposes or reflects a mistaken ancient view of human anatomy it is clear that in the passage in question he is not teaching that this anatomy is true. He is teaching about human sin and its relationship to the Torah. He might use a primitive understanding of anatomy to illustrate or make the point but that is not the point he is imparting.

Here, as elsewhere, sceptics show themselves up as fundamentalists working with an excessively pedantic understanding of inerrancy; a conception that Peoples correctly rejects and also argues, again correctly, is largely irrelevant to the question of biblical authority. Moreover, if Bnonn is correct, most inerrantists do not assume this understanding of biblical authority either, which means that such arguments are simply attacks on straw men, often by people who should know better.

[1] Michael Tooley “Does God Exist?” in The Knowledge of God eds Michael Tooley and Alvin Plantinga (Malden, M A: Blackwell Publishers, 2008) 75.
David O Brink “The Autonomy of Ethics” The Cambridge Companion to Atheism ed Michael Martin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007) 159.
[3] Evan Fales “Plantinga’s Case against Naturalistic Epistemology” 63 Philosophy of Science 1996, 447-448.
William Lane Craig “What Price Biblical Errancy?Reasonable Faith Q&A.

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