The Infallible and Inerrant Bible - Part 01

March 2, 2012 | Pr. Finny Samuel |

Biblical inerrancy is the doctrinal position that the biblical Scripture in the original manuscripts is accurate and totally free of error. Biblical infallibility is the doctrinal position that what the Bible says regarding matters of faith and Christian practice is wholly useful and true. In other words, 'Inerrant' means there are no errors; 'infallible' means there can be no errors.  

The Christian Church as a whole believes that the Bible is inspired, infallible, and inerrant. The words Infallibility and Inerrancy may be distinguished but not separated. The Bible is inerrant since it makes no false or misleading statements on any topic whatsoever and it is infallible since it makes no false or misleading statements on any matter of faith and practice. God himself has guided the personality and style of the sacred authors to communicate the message he desired. It is important to bear in mind that belief in inerrancy is in keeping with the character of God. If God is true and He is (Romans 3:4), and if God breathed out the Scripture, then the Scripture, being the product of God, must also be true.    

It is to be noted that this divine inspiration and inerrancy is only applicable to the original writings, not the copies and translations made by man. When critics of the Bible point out apparent contradictions, what they are doing is either failing to understand the context of the passages they are examining, or they have encountered a scribal copying error. Even the copies of the scriptural documents are so accurate that all of the copied biblical documents are 98.5% textually pure. The 1.5% that is in question is mainly nothing more than spelling errors and occasional word omissions like the words "the," "but," etc. This reduces any serious textual issues to a fraction of the 1.5%. Nevertheless, nothing in these issues affects doctrinal truths. In fact, nothing in ancient history even comes close to the accuracy of the biblical documents. The rationalists give much importance to show the Bible has errors hoping to question the reliability of God Himself and the integrity of Christian fundamentals.  

Scriptural inerrancy is established by a number of observations and processes, which include the historical accuracy of the Bible, the Bible's claims of its own inerrancy, Church history and tradition, and one’s individual experience with God. Since the doctrine of Bible Inerrancy is very much needed to assert the belief in biblical authority, every believer should understand and defend this doctrine.

Dimensions of Bible Inerrancy

Many of the so-called errors in the Bible, that those who oppose inerrancy point out, are easily eliminated because they fall into various categories that the doctrine of inerrancy allows for. In addition to this, since definitions of inerrancy are not plentiful, Errantists equate inerrancy with infallibility and then limit its scope to matters of faith and practice or to revelation matters or to the message of salvation. In view of this, when defining inerrancy, it is always important to state clearly what it means and what it does not mean. The fundamental issues that mesh with the concept of inerrancy can be summarized as follows:

  • Inerrancy extents its scope to the whole of Bible.

It is very interesting that many have, in very subtle ways, retained words like inspiration, infallible, and even inerrant in speaking about the Bible while denying its freedom from error. It is said by advocates of this position that it need not be a concern to the Christian that the Bible contains historical, scientific, and factual errors because the purpose of the Bible is to merely instruct the believer in the life they should live. For example, Stephan T Davis in his book "The Debate about the Bible" claims that "The Bible is infallible, as I define that term, but not inerrant. That is, there are historical and scientific errors in the Bible, but I have found none on matters of faith and practice".

This scoping is absolutely wrong. Wayne Grudem defines biblical inerrancy in the following way: "The inerrancy of Scripture means that Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact." This definition implies that whatever the Bible talks about can be trusted to be true and accurate, whether it is a matter of doctrine, ethics, history, or science. For example, by the divine intervention in history, God initiated His plan for the redemption of mankind from sin and realized it through specific historical events. The chain of historical events in Israel and the spiritual realities in the incarnation of Jesus of the salvation of man are so intertwined that if one is true other is true too. It is not logical to claim that doctrines depending on the historical events are inerrant but these events may be a myth. Furthermore, in the geographical realm, the archeological evidence and understanding of antiquity attest to the exactitude of the scriptures.

Though the Bible does not claim to be the manual of science or history, the facts mentioned in it never errs.

  • Inerrancy allows for variety in details

Inerrancy does NOT mean uniformity in all the minute details of a particular event in analogous accounts written by different authors. Such differences seen in the Holy Bible have been greatly exaggerated by radicals and often referred to as contradictions or errors. In fact, different authors are free to decide the level of details in their narration. All that matters is whether the details contradict the core substance of the event. This is true in the cases of event reporting, quotation, or a specification in doctrines.

  1. Complementary details in the narration

    If four witnesses to a crime gave testimony that was word-by-word, syllable-by-syllable the same, a judge or jury will certainly conclude that the testimony is framed and fabricated. This explains the freedom of details observed in the 4 Gospels for reporting conversations and events. In regard to Jesus’ quotes, it is to be noted that Jesus spoke in Aramaic and the writers of Scripture wrote their accounts in Greek and hence had to translate the original words into Greek. Writers might have used slightly different words to describe the same incident or quote, yet everyone gave the same meaning, albeit with different words. Another reason for the differences in the different standpoints/outlooks the writers had for the same event. Each author records what is important to himself as a historian emphasizing different points. These accounts are complementary, not contradictory.

    For instance, in the Gospels of Matthew (Ch. 28) and Mark (Ch. 16), one angel is said to appear at the empty tomb of Christ and proclaim the good news that Jesus has risen from the dead. But in the Gospel of Luke (Ch. 24), the writer says that there are two angels at the tomb. These differences do not contradict each other. Though 2 angels appeared, only one spoke to the disciples. This can be illustrated with the following story: Suppose I met President of India and his adviser. I then meet you and tell you that I met the President. Later I meet your friend and tell him of the meeting, but this time mention that it was both the president 'and' his adviser whom I had met. You and your friend meet and talk about how privileged I am to meet the President. However, when you compare notes you discover that I have told you that I "only" met the president, whereas I tell your friend that I met the president 'and' his adviser. There is an 'apparent' contradiction, but not an irreconcilable one. The same is true for the Gospel accounts of the angels.

  2. Nonverbatim repetition of event or quotation.

    In his book, "Thy Word Is Truth" E. J. Young noted that, “In times of antiquity it was not the practice to give a verbatim repetition every time something was written out”. A verbatim repetition of an event or quote was not always possible due to the need for translation. While Jesus’ quotes had to be translated from Aramaic to Greek, the Old Testament records had to be translated from Hebrew and/or Aramaic. Furthermore, Old Testament scrolls were so long that it was very difficult to unroll it every time a reference is needed. The fact that these scrolls were not readily and easily available for any writer made the nonverbatim repetition further necessary. Hence Inerrancy allows for quotations to be paraphrases rather than word by word translation.

    Some ancient writers took the liberty of nonverbatim quotation to the extent of combining the words of two Old Testament prophets. In Matthew 27:9-10, though the author ascribes the prophecy to Jeremiah, on a closer look, it can be understood that it is a combination of Zechariah 11:12-13, Jeremiah 18:2 and Jeremiah 19:2-11. Opponents of inerrancy argue that Matthew got it wrong by mentioning Jeremiah instead of Zechariah. However, in reality, what Matthew does is a comparison with some parts of the prophecy by Jeremiah. This is understood by the fact that although Matthew makes reference to 'a field', no reference is made to this by Zechariah. On the contrary, in Jeremiah 18:2 and 19:2-11 there are clear references to a field. Since Jeremiah is the "major" prophet, and Zechariah is a minor, the major prophet's name is used here. Mark also does the same by mentioning Isaiah not Malachi in Mark 1:2-3.

  3. Non Contradiction on the subject matter.

    Inerrancy demands the account does not teach error or contradiction. In Bible, we can learn that all the statements reflect as they are despite the variance in the details. For instance, in Matthew 8:5-13 it is noted that the centurion came to Jesus and said, “I am not qualified.” In Luke 7:1-10, it is noted that the elders came and said concerning the centurion, “He is worthy.” It seems that the elders first came and spoke to Jesus, and later the centurion himself came. Both accounts are in accord with things as they are.

    It is a psychological fact that, due to inevitable differences in points of view, observation, and individual emphasis, several individuals, each completely honest, will tell the very same events in quite different ways and words.
  • Inerrancy allows for variety in writing styles

Inerrancy allows each biblical author to use his own unique style in terms of vocabulary, grammar, and method of presentation. It also accounts for the behavior of the writings. For instance, Paul wrote his books with a lot of emotion and reflects the logic of a philosopher while Matthew gets straight to the point.

  1. Ordinary language in everyday speech.

    The ways approximations are used in numbers are not usually considered for accuracy. For instance, in a battle, while the death toll is 7946 or 8124, a reporter can report it as 8000. This will not be an error or contradiction when it is considered as rounding off. The gospel of John was written in the simple style one might expect of an unlearned fisherman; Luke was written with a more sophisticated vocabulary of an educated person. It is in line with the form of everyday speech that sun is considered as “rising” in Ecclesiastes 1:5
  2. Pictorial language and Symbolic statements

    The doctrine of Inerrancy allows for departure from standard forms of grammar. Hence Inerrancydoes not exclude the use of pictorial language and figures of speech.

    For instance, in John 10:9 Jesus declares, “I am the door,” whereas in verse 11 He states, “I am the Good Shepherd.” In the English language, this is considered mixing metaphors, but for Greek grammar or Hebrew language, this is not an issue. Similarly, In John 14:26 Jesus refers to the Spirit as no gender (pneuma = neuter) and then refers to the Spirit as “He” (ekeinos = masculine). This may raise an English grammarian’s eyebrows, but it is not a problem of Greek grammar. The context will help to determine whether the interpretation is literal, spiritual, or symbolical.

    Interpreting the Bible literally does not rule out figurative language when the context calls for it. The Bible uses literary devices such as metaphor, simile, and hyperbole to make a point. Inerrancy does not mean that passages need to be interpreted in a "hyper-literal" manner. It is to be noted that many things in Psalms, the Song of Solomon and the Prophets, as well as the parables in the gospels and in Revelation are figurative. Besides, thousand of expressions in both the Old and New Testaments are closer to poetry than a prose.
  • Inerrancy does not demand scientific precision

The opponents of the inerrancy theory often argue that some historical statements in the Bible vary with other facts. Inerrant assumes the truth of a statement, even if it is not of absolute scientific precision since the writer and the readers understand that exact precision was not intended. Rounding off numbers or approximation of years may be considered as inerrant since the context is given importance rather than the numbers. For instance, In Joshua 4:9, it’s mentioned that the 12 stones set up in Jordan “are there unto this day”. “This day” obviously means that the day that scripture was written and not the day the reader reads it.

Placement of statements in right historical setting

Often times, the defenders of inerrancy had to take a “wait and see” approach in justifying certain historic or scientific aspect. Till day, that approach has vindicated them. For instance, until recently some scholars had believed that the usage of the word “politarchs” in Acts 17:6 as the title of the civil authorities in Thessalonica is incorrect since no reference to this word could be found in any classical literature. However, recent discoveries uncovered about 19 inscriptions that use this term and interestingly 5 of them are mentioned specifically to Thessalonica.

Another instance is Christ’s reference to mustard seed as the smallest of the seeds in Matthew 13: 31-32. Today orchid seed, not the mustard seed is known as the smallest of the seeds. Jesus’ purpose was not to be a scientific discoverer but to teach the common man among His immediate audience about the kingdom of God in a language and science known to him. Hence this reference is not seen as an error.

Biblical chronologies have always been under attack by radicals. However, the fact the critics do not know or consider is that in ancient days, there was no universal calendar. The duration of the reigns of the kings was often calculated and recorded based on different calendars. Very technical work following the ancient ways of calculation has been done in the latter part of the 20thcentury to prove that biblical chronologies are accurate than any other ancient writers.

Placing the biblical statements in the right historical context will solve the questions arising from the differences in the usage of some grammar and writing style as well.

  • Inerrancy allows for non-technical descriptions

The usage of exact technical vocabulary that conforms to modern-day science is not implied by the doctrine of inerrancy. It is reasonable to expect a biblical author to explain a natural event from the viewpoint of a common man (considering the recipient of the message) in pure non-technical descriptions. For instance, in Numbers 11:9, it says dew fell on the camp. Scientifically dew is “Tiny drops of water that form on cool surfaces at night when atmospheric vapor condenses.” However, from the vantage point of an observer, manna looked like falling with small droplets of water. Here it is to be noted that the author is not mentioning scientific statements on the nature of universe. This is true in the case of Ecclesiastes 1:5 also, where it is mentioned sun to ‘rise’. It is not logical to expect Genesis 24:63 to read, “When the revolution of the earth upon its axis caused the rays of the solar luminary to impinge horizontally upon the retina, Isaac went out to meditate.”

The biblical record of creation touches upon areas of geology, astronomy, biology, meteorology, zoology, physiology, and several others, without mentioning the exact technical expressions. Still, they are error free in regard to fundamental principles.

  • Inerrancy allows for problem passage to exist

The main subject matter of the Bible is the salvation of humankind from sin. Bible is not intended to give the perfect solutions to all historical and scientific questions. Since the aim of bible records is not to provide total information on every subject, the doctrine of inerrancy allows for the existence of passages that are not comprehensive or complete. In some cases, the answers may be formulated only by further development in archeology and science. While waiting for the answers it makes sense to consider it as inerrant, rather than referring to error.

  • Inerrancy does not demand omniscience of authors

It is not reasonable to demand the authors of biblical records to be omniscient or scholars in all subjects. Every book in the Bible revolves around a central subject and that context is given importance rather than the comprehensiveness of all matters written in it. For instance, each of the 4 gospels has its own distinctive role in portraying the life of Jesus. None of them is intended to be the day-to-day biography of Jesus Christ. John specifically mentions in his gospel that the comprehensive record of Jesus’ life and ministry is not humanly possible and it is not his intention. The events which help a person to accept Jesus as his personal savior got recorded in different contexts by different authors.

Click Here to read Part 02 of this study.

References

  • Reliability Of The Canon by Dr. Johnson C. Philip and Dr. Saneesh Cherian
  • http://bible.org
  • http://www.drbarrick.org
  • http://www.spotlightministries.org.uk
  • http://www.blueletterbible.org

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