Does the Bible Have Errors?

This is the fourth in a series of five posts on inerrancy, including the historical background, the arguments of Albert Mohler and Peter Enns, as well as Michael Bird, Kevin Vanhoozer, and John Franke.

Reflecting on the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy and the five views presented by Albert Mohler, Peter Enns, Michael Bird, Kevin Vanhoozer, and John Franke, two key issues stand out for me: the definition of “error” and the nature of inspiration. If the doctrine of inerrancy stands on the paradigm of no error versus error, it’s necessary to define the terms before we can honestly affirm or reject the doctrine. Yet, a thorough explication of “error” is not found in CSBI. Nor is error defined by the scholars in Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy. Similarly, clarity is lacking regarding what it means that God inspired human beings. In what sense is humanity evident in Scripture? Is the Bible a purely divine book? A divine and human book? Does evidence of humanity in Scripture constitute fallibility? Is it possible for Scripture to be both fallible and divine at the same time? If so, would that mean some parts are true and others not?

The doctrine of inerrancy has a particular purpose. CSBI is not a replacement for the many creedal or doctrinal statements that already affirm the veracity of the Bible. The global Church throughout history has consistently affirmed the trustworthiness and authority of Scripture—this is true for Protestants, Orthodox, and Catholics. Rather, the drafters of CSBI were concerned that some theologians claimed the Bible has “errors” and is a “fallible” witness to God. In other words, some parts are true and some parts are not. For inerrantists, this creates unacceptable subjectivity in determining God’s inspired words from merely human words. Inerrantists also base their doctrine of Scripture on a doctrine of God. God is perfect, therefore Scripture must be perfect. If the Bible is not 100% accurate and true, then the authority of the Bible is undermined. Inerrancy is a doctrine that developed to clarify and affirm the authority of Scripture.

Mohler and CSBI argue there are no errors in Scripture. Period. However, inerrantists omit the following from the definition of error: “Biblical phenomena such as a lack of modern technical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, the reporting of falsehoods [descriptive], the use of hyperbole and round numbers, the topical arrangements of material, variant selections of material in parallel accounts, or the use of free citations [loose quotes of Scripture by biblical authors]” (Article XIII). According to R.C. Sproul, in his authorized commentary on CSBI, this list is not deemed exhaustive (20). However it’s  unclear what else might be exempt. Inerrantists also recognize the existence of copy errors by scribes, but affirm inerrancy in the original manuscripts. Similarly, they recognize larger difficulties or discrepancies in the Bible. But, these are not counted as error (Article XIV). Instead, the inability to resolve these difficulties is chalked up to lack of complete data. Sproul states:

A great deal of careful scrutiny has been applied to the investigation of these [difficulties], and that effort has yielded very positive results. A great many alleged contradictions have been resolved, some in the early church and others more recently. The trend has been in the direction of reducing problems rather than increasing them. New knowledge acquired about the ancient texts and the meaning of language in the biblical age as well as new discoveries coming from manuscripts and parchments uncovered by archaeology have given substantial help in resolving problems and have provided a solid basis for optimism with respect to future resolution of remaining difficulties. Difficulties that have not been resolved may yet be resolved under further scrutiny (20).

Sproul acknowledges that some critics say these qualifications to what constitutes an error render the idea of inerrancy questionable. But he says we should not accept the term “inerrancy” with rigid literalism (17). The term is meant to convey the idea that “the Bible does not violate its own principles of truth” and “it does not contain assertions which are in conflict with objective reality. . . .whether that reality is historical, factual or spiritual” (18-19). CSBI holds to a “correspondence view of truth.” That is, statements correspond to actual reality in contrast to “those who would redefine truth to relate merely to redemptive intent, the purely personal or the like” (19). For example, the story of Jonah does not have only redemptive significance; when Jesus said Jonah was in the belly of a fish it corresponds to reality. Jonah was really inside a great fish. Similarly, Adam, Moses, David and other persons and events described in the Bible are historical.

In contrast to the inerrantists, Karl Barth did not believe errors jeopardized the authority of the Bible. In fact, for him, the miracle is that God’s words can be revealed through fallible human words. Barth writes:

That the lame walk, that the blind see, that the dead are raised, that sinful and erring men as such speak to us the Word of God: that is the miracle of which we speak when we say that the Bible is the Word of God . . . . If the prophets and apostles are not real and therefore fallible men, even in their office, even when they speak and write of God’s revelation, then it is not a miracle that they speak the Word of God. But if it is not a miracle, how can it be the Word of God that they speak, how can their speaking, and our hearing of their human words, possess as the Word of God the character of revelation? To the bold postulate, that if their word is to be the Word of God they must be inerrant in every word, we oppose the even bolder assertion, that according to the scriptural witness about man, which applies to them too, they can be at fault in any word, and have been at fault in every word, and yet according to the same scriptural witness, being justified and sanctified by grace alone, they have still spoken the Word of God in their fallible and erring human word. It is the fact that in the Bible we can take part in this real miracle, the miracle of the grace of God to sinners, and not the idle miracle of human words which were not really human words at all, which is the foundation of the dignity and authority of the Bible . . . .

and . . .

We are absolved from differentiating the Word of God in the Bible from other contents, infallible portions and expressions from the erroneous ones, the infallible from the fallible, and from imagining that by means of such discoveries we can create for ourselves encounters with the genuine Word of God in the Bible. If God was not ashamed of the fallibility of all the human words of the Bible, of their historical and scientific inaccuracies, their theological contradictions, the uncertainty of their tradition, and, above all, their Judaism, but adopted and made use of these expressions in all their fallibility, we do not need to be ashamed when He wills to renew it to us in all its fallibility as witness . . . . If now it is true in time, as it is true in eternity, that the Bible is the Word of God, then according to what we have just said, God Himself now says what the text says. The work of God is done through this text. The miracle of God takes place in this text formed of human words. This text in all its humanity, including all the fallibility which belongs to it, is the object of this work and miracle. By the decision of God this text is now taken and used . . . . If God speaks to man, He really speaks the language of this concrete human word of man. That is the right and necessary truth in the concept of verbal inspiration. If the word is not to be separated from the matter, if there is no such thing as verbal inspiredness, the matter is not to be separated from the word, and there is real inspiration, the hearing of the Word of God, only in the form of verbal inspiration, the hearing of the Word of God only in the concrete form of the biblical word. Verbal inspiration does not mean the infallibility of the biblical word in its linguistic, historical and theological character as a human word. It means that the fallible and faulty human word is as such used by God and has to be received and heard in spite of its human fallibility (Church Dogmatics: Doctrine of the Word of God, I.2, 529-533).

For Barth, how we think about “errors” relates to the doctrine of inspiration. Human beings are fallible. Thus, if God inspired human beings, then it had to be human beings as they really are otherwise the result would be mechanical dictation. Sproul, explicating Article III of CSBI rebuts:

To this we reply, erroneousness is not an inevitable concomitant of human nature. Adam, before the fall, may well have been free from proneness to error, and Christ, though fully human, never erred. Since the fall it is a common tendency of men to err. We deny, however, that it is necessary for men to err always and everywhere in what they say or write, even apart from inspiration. However, with the aid of divine inspiration and the superintendence of the Holy Spirit in the giving of sacred Scripture, the writings of the Bible are free from the normal tendencies and propensities of fallen men to distort the truth. Though our language, and especially our language about God, is never comprehensive and exhaustive in its ability to capture eternal truths, nevertheless it is adequate to give us truth without falsehood (5).

This all brings us back to how error is defined. Inerrantists and Barth are reading the same text. Both notice some discrepancies, but they interpret them differently. Inerrantists acknowledge minor issues (grammatical, ancient scientific knowledge versus modern knowledge) that don’t impact the truth claims of the Bible, and they consider any larger problems resolvable with time and thus not actual errors. Barth, on the other hand, sees “historical and scientific inaccuracies,” “theological contradictions,” and “the uncertainty of their tradition” (CD, 1, 2, 531). He denies a unity or coherence to Scripture as a whole even as he believes the Bible is authoritative. This begs the question: are there historical and scientific inaccuracies in Scripture? Or theological contradictions? This is where the debate in the Five Views on Inerrancy helps to flesh out the discussion.

Enns comes closest to Barth’s perspective. He emphasizes humanity in the nature of Scripture, making an analogy with the incarnation. Just as Jesus took on human flesh to speak to us so also in Scripture God speaks to us through human beings. Enns sees historical inaccuracies in Scripture. He points to the lack of archaeological evidence for the walls of Jericho falling, as well as the conquest of Canaan (at least to the extent of the biblical depiction). Enns also sees contradictions in different biblical authors’ perspectives of the Israelite monarchy and in the violent theology of conquest versus Jesus’ teaching to love one’s enemies. In response, Michael Bird challenges Enns’ objection to the historical veracity of some biblical stories—Enns still needs to prove with certainty that these events did not happen. Archaeology cannot always give us conclusive data. Bird also suggests Enns provides a false dichotomy between God’s love and wrath since both are found in the Old Testament as well as the New Testament. Kevin Vanhoozer adds that CSBI does not require particular scientific readings of Scripture (i.e. a literal six day creation). Thus, alleged scientific errors do not have to be deemed errors. Rather we need to attend to the literary genres of the text. The problem is not scientific inaccuracies in Scripture, but problematic literalistic readings of the text. John Franke agrees that Enns overstates his case and that Article 13 allows for a hermeneutic that takes into consideration the ancient Near Eastern context when interpreting the Bible.

In response, Enns notes that his objectors don’t adequately engage with archaeology even when they acknowledge archaeological findings might indicate certain conclusions. Instead they resort to the inerrantist approach that problems not currently resolved will be resolved when more data is available. He also does not feel Vanhoozer’s attention to literary genres and conventions, while helpful, goes far enough. Enns states:

[I]nerrancy prescribes biblical interpretation too narrowly because it prescribes God too narrowly. The premise all inerrantists hold to on some level—albeit in varying degrees—is that an inerrant Bible is the only kind of book that, logically, God would be able to produce, the only means by which a truth-telling God would communicate . . . .What should be brought explicitly to the forefront here—at the outset—is the manner in which God speaks in Scripture, namely through the idioms, attitudes, assumptions, and general worldviews of the ancient authors. . . . Scripture is varied and on the move, and so for inner-biblical reasons alone, I don’t expect every part of Scripture—even those parts that talk about God—to provide absolute, unerring, truth.

In other words, for Enns, if we enter biblical exegesis with certain presuppositions, it will require us to interpret the text in particular ways instead of allowing our research to discover all there is to be discovered. He uses an example of apparent Israelite belief that many gods existed among the other nations, while other parts of Scripture refer to the existence of only one God. What do we do with the fact that the Israelites seemed to have held some beliefs that are later contradicted or corrected? Enns argues that certain events described in the Old Testament (e.g. conquest) are not “the final word historically or theologically . . . . God is portrayed differently by the biblical writers at different times and places. Within the Old Testament God is already portrayed in diverse ways. In the Gospel, Christians believe, the fuller gaze on God is provided through the Gospel.” Like Barth, Enns does not see this as a problem. Historical context of the Bible is not a dilemma to resolve; it exemplifies “how God willingly and lovingly participates in the human drama.” Ultimately, Enns does not believe inerrancy adequately captures what Scripture does or provides the theological language for why the Bible “acts so ancient.” In response, a critic might argue that inerrancy does not preclude attention to historical context or require rigorous interpretation be forsaken.

So, what are we to make of these various arguments? I agree with Enns that inerrancy can prescribe interpretation. In other words, it can force the reader to look for harmonization regardless of whether or not it is there. On the other hand, I agree with inerrantists that if we conclude the Bible has errors it’s easy to dismiss particular texts without adequately wrestling with what we find. The best approach seems to be to give Scripture the benefit of the doubt (i.e. there is something important God is doing here) and thus engage deeply with the text, while at the same time not forcing harmonization. However, where I disagree with both sides is that I do not think difficulties in the text are necessarily errors. Inerrantists would say they are not errors because they are just problems waiting to be solved. That is not what I am asserting. I believe there are genuine difficulties and a plurality of views in Scripture—but I do not think “error” is the right category to describe what is occurring. I do not believe humanness itself constitutes error. It speaks, instead, to creatureliness. We are limited beings by the Creator’s intentional design. And the Bible reflects the mysterious collaboration of creature and Creator (I write more about that in a separate series). Finally, I also think some of what is considered “error” can come down to hermeneutical differences, and how we understand what it is the biblical authors are doing. So, does this mean I would sign the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy? Would you? In my next and final post in this series I get down to the nitty-gritty by examining each article of CSBI.

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