No, I am not an inerrantist.

Theology / Biblical Studies

A friend of mine pointed me to this entry over at Michael Spencer’s blog, The Internet Monk. It’s a decent post actually, and I recommend giving it a read. The point that my friend was intrigued by was the exhortation that as we read and interpret the Gospels, “Don’t harmonize the Gospels.”

Don’t harmonise them? Why not? Michael’s reason is fine. He says:

Don’t harmonize the Gospels. That’s like taking four paintings and combining them into one. You come up with something no one painted and no one intended to paint. Let each Gospel author be an artist in his own right. However, a Gospel synopsis, such as those available from UBS, are very useful and important in comparing Gospel texts to one another WITHOUT harmonizing them.

It has long been thought, and rightly so, that each of the four Gospel writers portrayed Jesus differently, and intentionally so. They emphasised a different side of his character, or a different focus of his mission, or a specific angle on his status (e.g. Luke has a clear emphasis on concern for the poor and eschatological reversal of fortunes, and John went out of his way to emphasis the divinity of Christ).

Simply as a matter of respecting what the writers were trying to convey, you should refrain from trying to map one Gospel onto another, blending them to get one picture rather than multiple pictures. But there’s another reason too. This is a subject I’ve been considering broaching for some time, and this question has given me a good platform to do so. Here goes:

The other reason that you shouldn’t harmonize the Gospels is that to do so presupposes a very strong doctrine of inerrancy, and that doctrine is false.

There. I said it. I’m not an inerrantist. Now having said it, let me put it another way: Either the doctrine of biblical inerrancy is false, or once it has been qualified so many times that it becomes acceptable, it also becomes virtually useless. So what is the doctrine of biblical inerrancy? It was most formally stated in “The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy,” and you can read the full text of that statement HERE. Of particular relevance are the following claims:

“WE AFFIRM that inspiration, though not conferring omniscience, guaranteed true and trustworthy utterance on all matters of which the Biblical authors were moved to speak and write.”

“WE AFFIRM that Scripture, having been given by divine inspiration, is infallible, so that, far from misleading us, it is true and reliable in all the matters it addresses.

WE AFFIRM that Scripture in its entirety is inerrant, being free from all falsehood, fraud, or deceit.

WE DENY that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science. We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.

WE AFFIRM that the doctrine of inerrancy has been integral to the Church’s faith throughout its history.

At this point some of my more conservative readers may be getting nervous. Good, because chances are you need to be made a little uncomfortable about this. It’s unfortunate that some proponents of inerrancy have portrayed the debate in a highly misleading way. Without naming names, some proponents of inerrancy have come right out and said that unless you affirm inerrancy, you don’t believe that the Bible is reliable. This is simply untrue, and is either the product of muddled thinking or partisan point scoring to warn people from peering over the walls of the inerrancy camp to see what’s outside.

If the texts of the Bible contain not a single error, then two biblical accounts of the same event will agree. They need not cover all the same aspects of the event, but they will agree in the sense that there will not be any conflict between them. Otherwise there is an error present, since two accounts of an event that conflict cannot both be fully correct. However, we know that this is not the case when it comes to the four Gospels. There are some cases where this is fairly obvious. For example, to choose a fairly trivial example, all four Gospels contain sentences attributed to Jesus, but they differ from one Gospel to the next. They convey a similar idea, granted, but they disagree as to the thrust and wording, and at times (and perhaps more importantly), meaning. As such they are incorrect as quotes. Other examples are popular fodder for sceptics who assume that all Christians believe in inerrancy and who think that they can shatter the faith by pointing them out. For example, Matthew 28:1 tells us that the people who went to visit the tomb of Jesus on Sunday morning and who discovered that Jesus was gone were Mary Magdalene and the other Mary. Mark 16:1 says that the group consisted of these two women as well as Salome. Luke 24:10 gives “Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them” as the list of women who saw this and relayed it to the other disciples. According to John 20:1-2, the only woman involved was Mary Magdalene, who ran and fetched Peter and John to have a look. Granted, none of this presents a contradiction in the sense that one said Peter was there and another explicitly denied that Peter was there, but reading all four accounts, could you tell who was there and who was not? Stated another way: If you were going to write a harmony of the Gospels, who would you include in that early morning trip to the tomb?

Another type of difference between different Gospels is the way that different events are said to have occurred in a different order. A well known example is the cleansing of the temple in Jerusalem. In the Synoptic Gospels this event occurs after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, fairly late in the narrative. In John’s Gospel however, this event occurs in chapter 2, before much else has happened.

It might be tempting to appeal to the widely accepted claim among inerrantists that inerrancy is compatible with each biblical author having his own individual style. Perhaps it is, but this is not a matter of style, but a matter of content and fact. Either one thing occurred before another or it did not. Conservative biblical scholars have long agreed that each Gospel writer deliberately changed and presented his material to present Jesus in a certain way, moulding it to deliver a message intended by the writer. This means that at least one version contains claims that are not exactly historically correct. Perhaps you want to qualify the idea of inerrancy still further, then. Maybe you want to rescue it by saying that inerrancy is not only compatible with individual writers using their own style, but it is also compatible with the fact that writers are doing no more than adhering to standards of accuracy that were acceptable in their day, and that is why there are no problems with the existence of conflicting accounts, because the fact is, standards of the day just weren’t very high. But this is inerrancy in name only, and it creates a hilarious spectacle for the sceptics to pour scorn upon. It’s like saying “this book contains no spelling errors because it was inspired by God, and when I say NO spelling errors, I mean that there are actually a few here and there, because where I come from people don’t spell too well.” If that’s what we mean by inerrancy, then what’s the difference between inerrancy and errancy? If we qualify inerrancy this much to save it, it becomes a useless idea altogether.

On other occasions, sceptics raise the claim that the Bible envisages a flat earth. I have no time for ignorant myths about medieval Christians believing that the earth was flat. We know that they believed no such thing. But the scientific knowledge of those who wrote the Old Testament was simply very limited, and as such, they wrote things that presuppose beliefs about the universe that are not true. For example, today we use the phrase “ends of the earth” as a figure of speech in English largely because it was used in the Old Testament as a literal description. For example we read in Daniel 4:11, “The tree grew and became strong, and its top reached to heaven, and it was visible to the end of the whole earth.”

I know, I have used very few examples. I know, I have not offered a detailed or robust case against inerrancy. That would take more time. I know, I haven’t considered the responses that could be made to my denial of inerrancy.  My primary point here is not to convince you to reject inerrancy. You can rush off and talk about how bad Glenn’s case against inerrancy is, but that would be to miss the point, and to pick a very scant few comments that I have made, rather than Glenn’s “case” against inerrancy. This is not a case against inerrancy, it is an acknowledgement that I do not believe in inerrancy, and what follows are (again, just a few) comments on why I think commitment to inerrancy may become a problem.

The nagging fear that some Christians have, and the glorious hope that many sceptics have (both of which are equally unfounded), is that if there is a single statement in the Bible that is not 100% historically or scientifically accurate, then the Bible becomes unreliable in general. It’s a bit of a psychological bogeyman in the hands of some sceptics just because they know that some Christians actually think this, thus giving the sceptic power over them. The fact that a small number of Christians really do think this way is what enables sensationalists like Bart Ehrman to gain publicity with apparently shocking announcements that the Gospels do not agree in every respect. In reply, inerrantists engage in all sorts of gymnastics, inventing multiple cleansings of the temple or multiple first visits to the tomb just so they can cobble together a picture with no conflicts whatsoever. This is just silly. It is akin to suggesting that if someone had written an ancient biography and said, somewhere in the middle, that the sun orbits the earth and not the other way around, then the biographical details are also rendered dubious. But this is obviously a conclusion that does not follow. Take the conflicting accounts of the aftermath of Jesus’ resurrection. Imagine that these accounts aren’t in the Bible, they’re just four accounts that you’ve gathered when trying to establish what really occurred in history. Let’s say that you’re operating on the assumption that if all accounts agree on an event, then that event (or something a lot like it) took place. All accounts agree that Jesus died by Roman crucifixion. All agree that he was buried in a borrowed tomb. All agree that the tomb was found empty just a few days later, as witnessed by at least some of his followers. All agree that he later appeared to his disciples, alive. Given what these accounts agree on, are you going to be even the slightest bit bothered over disagreements concerning the order in which the events of Jesus’ life were said to occur, or how many people actually did first discover the empty tomb? Here’s the kind of discrepancy that would bother me: Some accounts said that Jesus rose from the dead, but others say that the disciples found his dead body still in the tomb. That would be a problem.

The question is not whether the long, long book that is the Bible contains absolutely no tensions in portraying historical events or not, or where the scientific assumptions made on the part of the writers are true or not. They probably held to all kinds of false scientific beliefs, but the fact is that they were not writing to pass on their scientific beliefs. The question is whether or not the message of the Bible is correct or not. Is Jesus the son of God who came into the world and died to reconcile us to God, rising from the dead to give us the hope of eternal life? If he is, then it’s pretty trivial to sit around haggling over something like how many women visited his tomb, wouldn’t you say?

Glenn Peoples

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{ 26 comments… add one }

  • Kenny June 2, 2009, 2:32 am

    I never know whether to say that I believe in inerrancy or not. I don’t think that the Bible contains any false assertions. But I have a fairly minimalist view of what people actually manage to assert in ordinary conversation.

    For example, if my wife comes home and tells me about a conversation she overheard today, and she starts telling me what various people said, I don’t take her to be asserting that those people said “exactly” (precise quotes) what she says they were saying. Nor do I take her to be in error if she does not provide me with exact quotations. Likewise, if someone tells me that the Sun moved across the horizon, in an ordinary conversational context, I don’t take them to be making any assertions about astronomy (and that would hold even if I found out that they actually believed in geocentrism – since either way, in an ordinary conversational context, such issues are beside the point).

    In a great number of conversational contexts, people fail to assert much of the literal content of the sentences they use. They often only manage to assert what is directly related to the point that they are trying to get across and only to the degree of accuracy that may be reasonably expected of them within the conversational context in which they are speaking. This, as I see it, is just plain common sense. And its common sense that applies just as well to reading Scripture as it does to communicating with people in everyday life.

    So I don’t, in fact, believe that the Scriptures contain errors. But often people who advocate a doctrine of “inerrancy” seem to be including more under that heading than just the bare belief that the Scriptures don’t contain errors.

  • Tuckster June 2, 2009, 2:57 am

    Glenn, I’m really, REALLY surprised to hear this about you. You are one of my favourite Christian bloggers partly because of your ‘outside the box’ thinking, so I’m REALLY surprised to see that you of all people have such a wooden definition of ‘inerrancy’.

    All in all, an in-depth discussion on the topic would probably be better suited for TheologyWeb than your blog (and I don’t have time for it now anyway), but here are some comments on a couple of things.

    I think the key phrase in your post is this:

    Either the doctrine of biblical inerrancy is false, or once it has been qualified so many times that it becomes acceptable, it also becomes virtually useless

    I don’t agree with that. Or rather, I do indeed agree that the doctrine needs to be qualified, but I don’t agree that that makes it useless.

    Inerrantists engage in all sorts of gymnastics, inventing multiple cleansings of the temple or multiple first visits to the tomb just so they can cobble together a picture with no conflicts whatsoever. This is just silly

    I’m really disappointed by this, Glenn, because I think usually you are fair, and consequently to wave things off as ‘gymnastics’ or ‘silly’ is beneath you. Most inerrantist explanations of supposed ‘conflicts’ that I’ve seen really do make a lot of sense once you understand them.

    I’m also surprised by things like this:

    The fact that a small number of Christians really do think this way

    And you’ve said elsewhere that inerrancy is a doctrine that most Christians don’t hold. I’m interested to hear you support the claim that most Christians don’t hold to inerrancy.

    Finally, I know you’re busy and can’t write everything in one entry, but I’m also disappointed that you didn’t answer the obvious next question, which is: if you don’t think scripture is inerrant, how do you know which parts to believe?

  • Kelp June 2, 2009, 5:43 am

    Lol. I like that the word “comments” and “name” are in German. Sehr shoen.

    Interesting entry. I’m honored that you consider me a friend, too :)

    Not sure what to say about it though. You’ve given me something to think about.

    Thanks.

  • Mr Dennis June 2, 2009, 11:03 am

    Good on you tackling this issue. I don’t agree with you, but just knowing that people will disagree is no reason to avoid a discussion, it can only help all of us come to understand the Scriptures better!

    I disagree with you about the resurrection accounts. If you consider where each of the gospel writers (or their key sources) actually were on the day of the resurrection, the whole thing snaps together quite well, and you get a far more detailed picture about what actually happened that day. I can’t find the good analysis I am looking for right now, but click here for a fairly good harmonization that makes good sense.

    The Scriptures are “breathed out” by God (2 Timothy 3:16). God only speaks truthfully (Titus 1:2), therefore the scriptures must be truthful.

    I don’t however believe that this means that all quotes must be verbatim – that is clearly not the case. But the meaning of the text is true and inerrant.

    We seem to think similarly – I just call this doctrine “inerrency” and you do not.

    Tuckster is right:
    “…if you don’t think scripture is inerrant, how do you know which parts to believe?”

    Once you start down that slope you can end up like John Spong, picking and choosing which bits of the scriptures you like and ignoring the rest.

  • Glenn June 2, 2009, 2:22 pm

    “Picking” and “choosing” is not accurate, because it implies choice on the part of the reader, rather than a standard to which the reader is submitting himself. Spong, for example, rejects events on which all biblical accounts agree and which the biblical accounts are actually centred around. Take the resurrection for example. This is plainly the result of choice rather than of internal considerations.

    Tuck, there’s no cause for disappointment. If you think I’m offering a wooden definition of inerrancy, my very best advice is to read the Chicago statement on inerrancy that I linked to. At some point we have to allow people’s definitions mean no more or less than they say. That’s really the point of definitions.

    The thing I’d ask you to consider is whether or not the qualifications you allude to are just a way of saying that we should allow errors of a certain type and severity. I suspect that this is what those qualifications would need to amount to, and by the time this qualification is added it just means “inerrancy with allowances for some errors.” If you find that unfair I guess I’m curious to know why. As for it being unfair to use the term “gymnastics,” I just don’t see that it is. The creative attempts to force these accounts into harmony are anything but natural.

    To those who wish to maintain that the biblical supposition of a flat earth or the conflicts surrounding those who visited the tomb first or the order of important events in the life of Jesus do not constitue errors, I think the onus rests with you to explain why.

    Kenny, I think you have a higher threshold of error. I didn’t use phenomenological examples like the sun rising, I used examples that commit to actual mistakes, plus some fairly clear conflicts. While you have a high threshold of what counts as error, I have a high threshold of the degree of error that actually matters.

    To all, I think I gave a reasonable account of why a certain degree of error actually doesn’t matter.

  • Tuckster June 2, 2009, 4:23 pm

    Glenn, after your recent twitter, I wanted to come back and tell you that I hope you did not feel I attacked you – that was not and never would be my intent, and I’m sorry if I came off that way. I was very surprised by your post, though.

    (That’s all I have time for right now.)

  • Glenn June 2, 2009, 9:34 pm

    Tuck, no I didn’t feel personally attacked at all. I think it can be a surprise to find that someone you know views a position you hold in such a dim light. You’ll get used to it. ;)

  • Mr Dennis June 4, 2009, 9:35 pm

    “Spong, for example, rejects events on which all biblical accounts agree and which the biblical accounts are actually centred around. Take the resurrection for example.”

    Yes, Spong is an extreme example. But what about Noah’s Flood for example? The Flood is described as a literal event in Genesis, and is referred back to as a factual event throughout the Bible, even by Christ himself (e.g. Luke 17:26). But many Christians believe the Flood never occurred, or “interpret” the account to just be a local event.

    I’m not writing this to debate the Flood, that’s another issue. My point is that if you start doubting the accuracy of the scriptures, you can choose which bits you believe are accurate or not.

    You don’t have to be as extreme as Spong to start doing this, even subconsciously.

  • Glenn June 4, 2009, 11:17 pm

    Mr Dennis, in the eyes of those who do not believe in a historical global flood, it’s not a question of inerrancy.

    If you don’t want to debate the flood, then there’s little point in explaining why it’s not a question of inerrancy in that case. But it’s not a question of the “accuracy” of the Scriptures. Firstly there’s no need to put the word “interpret” in quote marks. We all interpret. if someone interprets the flood narrative to be a local event, then clearly there’s no issue of inerrancy. Remember: Debates about accuracy are not debates about meaning.

    But secondly, even if the flood narrative was not meant to be actual history, then it still wouldn’t be a question of “accuracy” or inerrancy, because if the account was not meant to be an actual historical narrative (something you don’t want to discuss, and fair enough), then it’s not in error for failing to be one. Dig?

    My earlier point about “pick and choose” being a false label is this: Picking and choosing implies that there’s no principle involved and people can just make up their own minds. But this is not the case if one believes that we should actually be guided by reasons. I think there are some pretty basic principles that can guide us here so that “picking and choosing” should never enter our vocabulary (and especially never the vocabulary of someone wanting to dismiss a position with a derisive label). For example, we need to ask ourselves things like: What is being stated, and If that person had known more, would they have stated that?

    Another principle is that we should ask: What is the message here? I think that it is not just true but it is obviously true that a piece of writing can have a true message and still express a small number of false claims. For example the message of the Resurrection narratives is that Christ has risen and his disciples saw him alive again. If they got a few details wrong, this doesn’t affect that message at all.

    So abandoning inerrancy does not lead to “picking and choosing.” Indeed, choosing what one believes is simply irrational. What would you think, for example of a person who said, apart from a biblical context: “Since historical accounts of a person’s life might not be inerrant, we can just take full licence to pick and choose, believing what we like.” This is clearly false.

    Putting all of this another way altogether: Scripture is the medium that conveys the message. You do not need a perfect medium to convey the ultimate message.

  • Mr Dennis June 5, 2009, 2:14 pm

    You are right, people don’t just “pick and choose”, that is poor wording on my part. People believe what they do for underlying reasons.

    If someone believes everything must be explained by natural causes, this belief will lead them to reject the literal reading of miracles in scripture, such as the resurrection.

    If someone believes the earth is billions of years old, this belief will lead them to believe interpretations of the scriptures that accommodate this view, such as alternative views of the Flood.

    If someone believes God cannot be one and three at the same time, they may reject the Trinity and reinterpret the scriptures commonly used to support the Trinity to suit their own views.

    My point is that the stronger we hold to a doctrine of inerrency, the less flexibility we have in interpreting the scriptures.

    If the scriptures are completely unreliable (which I know is certainly not what you are advocating), we would be free to believe God was a purple jellyfish and then interpret the scriptures to support this notion. But note that the person holding this belief would have no malice in their reinterpretation, they would not do so to deceive, they would be genuinely wishing to understand the scriptures in the light of their understanding of God.

    If the scriptures are absolutely reliable down to the last word being quoted verbatim, we are forced into a far more narrow set of beliefs, and may be forced to believe that some events occurred more than once to fit both accounts. Note that there is still a range of beliefs here, scripture is not 100% clear on every issue, but the range of possible beliefs is narrower.

    Most people will understand scripture somewhere between those two extremes.

    But the stronger a person holds the doctrine of inerrancy, the more their beliefs must necessarily be guided by the scriptures, which will then be used to understand the physical world.

    The more flexible a person’s views on scripture, the more scope there is for their beliefs to be guided by the world, and scripture to be interpreted to fit these beliefs – whether or not those beliefs are true, and whether or not the person realises this is what they are doing.

    This is why I’d tend towards a stronger view on inerrency, to ensure my beliefs are guided by scripture rather than by the world.

  • Glenn June 5, 2009, 4:08 pm

    Mr Dennis, I get the feeling that the issue behind your post is your beliefs about creation. As noted, I just do not see that as an issue of errancy / inerrancy. That’s an issue of interpretation. You use the word “reinterpretation,” but what you’re actually talking about is when a person thinks that the Bible means something different from what you think it means, and that doesn’t touch on the question of inerrancy.

    With regard to the examples of miracles, the question is whether Scripture intends to convey the message that miracles have occured. I think it clearly does, and consequently that fact means that if we reject miracles we’re actually rejecting part of the message of Scripture.

    When it comes to the Trinity, again, while anti-Trinitarians are wrong, they certainly aren’t denying inerrancy. Jehovah’s witnesses will affirm with total honesty that they believe that the Bible is inerrant. My issue with them is one of how they interpret what the text says.

  • Jason S. Kong June 7, 2009, 7:25 am

    I wonder what would make a good definition of inerrancy, since I don’t disagree with anything you said, but I don’t disagree with the Chicago statement, either, with possible caveats on “We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.”

  • geoff June 7, 2009, 11:09 am

    Jason,

    So, I dont agree with your caveat. Scripture talks about the metaphysical (or rather, theological) origins of creation. It does not make any scientific determinations regarding it.

    Science does not and can not make theological determinations (metaphysical claims) because it deals only with measurable, observable, empirical data. Likewise, the Bible creation account can not make scientific claims about the origin of the universe, because its purpose is to make a theological determination about how and why everything came to be.

    The sooner scientists and creationists get their heads around this the better.

  • Jason S. Kong June 8, 2009, 12:20 am

    Geoff, since I never mentioned any caveats, you essentially argued something I never wrote about.

    You should at least wait until I make a point before trying to refute it.

  • Glenn June 8, 2009, 1:51 am

    Jason, just out of interest – what would those caveats be in regard to the Chicago statement?

  • geoff June 8, 2009, 9:21 am

    Jason, you said:

    “…with possible caveats on “We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.”

    This was the caveat to which I referred.

  • Glenn June 8, 2009, 4:34 pm

    Geoff, I suspect Jason was talking about you saying “I dont agree with your caveat” when he hadn’t actually said what the caveats were. he wasn’t quoting his caveats, he was quoting the Chicago statement itself and saying that he’d want to add caveats to it.

  • geoff June 8, 2009, 9:33 pm

    ahh, I thought that was _his_ caveat…

    my bad in that case

  • Jason S. Kong June 9, 2009, 3:33 am

    As Glenn said, that was a quotation from the Chicago Statement, not something I may necessarily agree with.

    My caveat is:

    “We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.”

    I’m not even convinced that the two are entirely/completely related.

    For example, the Framework Hypothesis (as I understand it) is not compatible with the Chicago Statement.

  • Jason S. Kong June 9, 2009, 3:36 am

    Darn it, I wanted to add this, too:

    For example, the Framework Hypothesis (as I understand it) is not compatible with the Chicago Statement, and even the PCA, which I consider to be pretty conservative as far as it goes, accepts the Framework Hypothesis as an acceptable position for the PCA (of course, it was based on their reading of the Westminster Confession, which Glenn and I have briefly chatted about before and would not care to talk about again :P). So I find that sentence to be severely limiting. I’d have to reread the Chicago statement again in full to see if I disagree anywhere else.

    That said, the last time I read the Chicago statement in full was… probably a year and a half ago.

  • David June 13, 2009, 5:12 am

    People will defend this and YEC to an almost idolatrous extent these days… A lot of people I know IRL would actually leave Christianity if they ever came to the conclusion that scripture wasn’t inerrant or if that YEC was false.

    Kinda sad, really, especially once you consider that inerrancy is actually irrelevant. Just because there’s a few errors in the text does not mean that said text is unreliable.

  • Tim June 16, 2009, 4:25 pm

    Glenn,

    I think I’d be inclined to split the difference on this one. Defending inerrancy doesn’t interest me, but I think that some of your examples are not the best examples to choose. The sorts of discrepancies we find among the resurrection narratives are quite typical of those we find for multiply-attested events in secular history, such as the death of Julius Caesar or the death of Caracalla. We can, for the most part, reconcile the accounts without straining; the few points at which there remain unresolved discrepancies may be due either to ignorance on our part or to what Thomas Starkie calls “the ordinary sources” of variations in testimony, such as inadvertance, inattention, or defect of memory.

    If you want a place to press on inerrancy, forget the names of the women at the tomb (obviously each author is just naming the ones who come to his mind or were mentioned to him) and don’t get hung up on the geometry of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (because even if “the earth” is not being used in a local sense, it’s, you know, a dream, and dreams quite commonly have screwy geometry even for those of us with orthodox beliefs about the shape of the earth). There are better places to press, if one must.

    But even those don’t look very impressive in the way of throwing up huge blocks to our understanding of the narrative. Here, I agree with you as over against Tuckster: viewing the Bible as a human text, with human errors here and there, does not stop us from finding the great and important truths it teaches.

    So, back to splitting the difference: Do harmonize the gospels where this can be sensibly done. Do not assume that every apparent discrepancy must be a genuine contradiction. But when you find that the job of reconciliation presses the bounds of good sense — when it requires assumptions that are not plausible — then stop.

  • Glenn June 16, 2009, 5:46 pm

    Tim, I’m more than happy to let things like the ones I listed slide on the grounds that they are indeed the sorts of discrepancies we find in multiply attested secular events. In a way that’s the point: I’m prepared to not worry about errors like this because they don’t matter in the big scheme of things. Little mistakes like that are errors, but they don’t change anything important. If I were an inerrantist in any useful sense of that word, I guess I would see the very presence of such errors as important.

    I agree that the errors we find in Scripture don’t look very impressive int he way of preventing us from getting the message. That’s really why I think we should forget about inerrancy and instead claim that the message, whatever it is, is what is true.

    When I agreed with the internet monk that we shouldn’t harmonise, what I really meant (and should have emphasised) is – don’t insist on harmonising no matter what it takes.

  • Tim June 17, 2009, 1:23 am

    When I agreed with the internet monk that we shouldn’t harmonise, what I really meant (and should have emphasised) is – don’t insist on harmonising no matter what it takes.

    Thanks — this clarifies your position nicely. I don’t think I could disagree with that.

  • Tim June 17, 2009, 1:47 am

    Incidentally, here is a surprisingly apposite quotation from B. B. Warfield, “The Real Problem of Inspiration,” Presbyterian and Reformed Review (1893), pp. 208-09:

    Let it not be said that thus we found the whole Christian system on the doctrine of plenary inspiration. . . . Were there no such thing as inspiration, Christianity would be true, and all its essential doctrines would be credibly witnessed to, as in the generally trustworthy reports of the teaching of our Lord and of His authoritative agents in founding the Church, preserved in the writings of the apostles and their first followers, and in the historical witness of the living Church. Inspiration is not the most fundamental of Christian doctrines, nor even the first thing we prove about the Scriptures. It is the last and crowning fact as to the Scriptures. These we first prove authentic, historically credible, generally trustworthy, before we prove them inspired. And the proof of their authenticity, credibility, and general trustworthiness would give us a firm basis for Christianity, prior to any knowledge on our part of their inspiration, and apart, indeed, from the existence of inspiration. The present writer, in order to prevent all misunderstanding, desires to repeat here what he has said on every proper occasion. . . . Without any inspiration we could have had Christianity; yea, and men could still have heard the truth, and through it been awakened, and justified, and sanctified, and glorified.

    Warfield was, of course, a noted defender of the doctrine of inspiration, and he goes on in this article to explain why he believes that it is important. That fact only makes his exceptionally clear statement here all the more remarkable.

  • Joe Johnson June 23, 2009, 11:04 am

    The problem with inerrancy (Chicago-style) is that it gets to define the Bible. It gets to say what the Bible is: a book of precise data. Inerrancy is not about accuracy, it is about genre. It is attempting to define the Bible as a type/genre of text that it never claims for itself. It’s a scientific classification — an argument about rhetorical structure — not a question of accuracy or truth. Inerrancy has never been about truth. It’s about how we, as readers, will accept truth: only if it is without a empirical flaw, only if it conforms to a standard that we design.

    God-breathed=inerrant. Huh. Maybe it means God-breathed, like in the garden, like with a pile of dust that became humanity. Is the God-breathed pile of dust a perfect representation of the flawless breather?

    Or is God-breathed metaphoric? It certainly isn’t a technical term. It isn’t “inerrancy” until we place that scientific-rhetorical-genre mode upon it — unless we define it.

    Why put a genre grid on top of the Bible? Why, when we otherwise call it “testimony” (or Testaments) can’t we say that maybe the standard is closer to legal standards of representation? If, as Glenn noted, the witnesses all agree to the resurrection, then why is that not good enough? Why do we have to apologize for what the text is or is not?

    What happens when we find out that the Bible is not consistent with the genre of “inerrant”? Well, then the Bible is hopelessly flawed, as Ehrman says, right? What if the Bible is consistent with what it is? What if it defines itself? Or is that too frightening?

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