by C Michael PattonDecember 29th, 2009 56 Comments
Added to my “. . . And Other Stupid Statements” series.
Consider this story (adapted from a true story):
Greg Jones was an evangelical Christian, active in his church, a regular preacher, teacher and served on the elder board. He says that he was addicted to fundamentalism. He slept, ate, and drank the truths of Christianity. After a decade of faithful service to the church, he is now a professing atheist who rejects the naivety of all that he held to so dearly. Why? Well, as he tells the story, he says that he was awakened out of his slumber of fundamentalism through many encounters with “the truth.” Chief among these encounters was when he finally realized that the Bible was “full of errors.” He describes his turn by referencing the discrepancies that he found throughout Scripture and being unable to come to a way to reconcile them. “For years,” he describes, “I was the best at answering the skeptic with regards to any objection that he could levy against the Scriptures. I knew how to reconcile any supposed contradiction. It became like an art form that I was proud of. No matter how difficult the problem, I could find a way out. After a time, I don’t know why, but I began to reflect upon the lengths that I had to go to make it all fit together. I realized that the art of answering the contradictions became a subjective smokescreen that I raised not only to those I was responding to, but also to myself. I had to be honest with myself. John says ‘No one who is born of God sins,’ then turns around and says “If anyone sins, we have an advocate with the Father.” Which one is it? There are literally hundreds of problems like this in Scripture. My answers may have satisfied those I taught, but they no longer satisfied me. Eventually I realized (sadly, I might say) that I had to let go of the inerrancy of Scripture. Once I did that, I had to let go of Christianity all together.”
This description is a common testimony of many who have walked away from the faith. But this blog is not about walking away from the faith per se, but with the danger of the doctrine of inerrancy. When Greg rejected the doctrine of inerrancy because of his inability to reconcile the discrepancies, did this necessarily mean that he had to walk away from the faith?
Here is the question: Is the doctrine of inerrancy so central to the Christian faith that if one were to deny it, he or she should pack their bags and search for a new worldview? In other words (and let me be very clear), if the Scriptures are not inerrant, does that mean the Christian faith is false?
Most of you know that I hold to the doctrine of inerrancy. I call my view “reasoned” inerrancy which does not suppose a particular wooden hermeneutic to be tied to it. (You can read more about it here).
Having said this, I believe that this doctrine, while important, is not the article upon which Christianity stands or falls. I believe that the Scriptures could contain error and the Christian faith remain essentially in tact. Why? Because Christianity is not built upon the inerrancy of Scripture, but the historical Advent of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Christ became man, lived a perfect life, died an atoning death, and rose on the third day not because the Scriptures inerrantly say that these events occurred, but because they did, in fact, occur. The truth is in the objectivity of the event, not the accuracy of the record of the event. The cause and effect must be put into proper place here. The historical event of the incarnation caused the recording of Scripture, Scripture was not the cause of the events. Again, Christianity is founded upon the Advent, not the inerrant record of the Advent.
Think about this: Do we only trust the historical records of those accounts that have an inerrant witness? Are the ancient histories inerrant? I have never heard anyone say that Polybius (c.200-after 118 BCE) was inerrant in his records of Roman history, yet we treat him as generally reliable. As well, Josephus (37- after 93 CE) is seen as a generally reliable Jewish historian, but not inerrant. Those who write history books for our schools today do not have to submit a resume with credentials of inerrancy before they are approved by the publishers to write upper-level history textbooks do they? No. Why? Because it is a well accepted understanding that people can give a reliable and truthful witness, even if they are not inerrant. What if we followed the example set by Greg in the above story. Once we find a discrepancy of any kind in any work, this renders the entire work untrustworthy. If this were our method of historical inquiry, we would be completely agnostic to all of history. We would end up saying that all works written by historians of past are complete lies and fabrications, because they are not inerrant.
Thankfully, this is not the dilemma that is presented to us in understanding history (or any other discipline). We understand that people, while errant, can give us generally trustworthy accounts. Those who hold positions as university professors, scientists, engineers, historians, mathematicians, politicians, and just about every other career must rely upon the general trustworthiness of the witness of other errant individuals.
Let’s take this same approach with the Scriptures for a moment. Let’s assume that the Scriptures are not inerrant. (Please, at least attempt to go there with me!). Let’s take it a step further and say that the Scriptures are not inspired at all. Here then is the situation: the Scriptures are a collection of 66 ancient historical records, given through various types of literature. The records, like any other record, may have errors-historical, scientific, or otherwise. Now that we are rollin’, let’s say that John did indeed make a mistake about the number of women who came to the tomb of Jesus after His resurrection. Does this make the testimony of John completely false? Does this mean that the entire testimony of John is now wrong at every turn? Of course not! Any historian who followed this methodology would quickly find himself out of a job, for he would have no sources for his research. If the Scriptures were like any other records of history with minor discrepancies, then this would not justify a total rejection of the events they record. Their credibility is based upon the assumption of general historic reliability as evidenced through the rules of historic inquiry—which do not include a criteria for inerrancy.
Let me take this one more step further. The fact is that we don’t even need the Scriptures in order for Christianity to be true. Remember, the Christian worldview is Christocentric (centered around the Advent of Christ), not bibliocentric (centered around the Bible). It is because of God’s grace that we even have the record of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. But if for some reason God had decided to withhold His grace and not record these events in Scripture, does this mean that the events did not take place? Of course not. Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection are historical events that happened whether or not we have inspired records.
You may say to me, how would we know about the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ had it not been recorded? This is a good question, but you must first take this next step of concession. Not only is it true that Christianity is not dependent upon inerrancy, inspiration, and recording of the events, but it is also not reliant upon our knowledge of the events. Theoretically speaking, God could have sent His Son to die for the world and raise from the grave and not told anyone at all and Christianity would still be true. The point is that Christianity stands or falls upon the historical truth of the Advent of the Son of God, not the record of these events through Scripture. How God decides to communicate these events, should He choose to do so, is not the issue. I suppose, for the sake of arguement, God could have used unwritten tradition, the testimony of angels, dreams and visions, or direct encounters.
Now, apologetically speaking, there is no reason whatsoever, I believe, for one to reject the general historical reliability of the Scriptures if presented as such. If one were to accept the Gospels, for instance, like any other historical writing, then they would have to be persuaded of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth based upon honest and solid historical inquiry. If they did not, then, in my opinion, their methodology is flawed by other unjustifiable presuppositions such as the impossibility of miracles.
Why did Greg feel compelled to reject the entirety of Christianity because of a few supposed errors? Because that is what he was taught by conservative, well meaning Christians. I believe that we often times, in our zeal for the Scriptures, create a false dilemma suggesting that belief in inerrancy and total rejection of the Christian message are the only two options. These are not the only two options. The Scriptures can be generally reliable historical accounts and the Christian faith still be true.
To those of you who are struggling with or reject the doctrine of inerrancy, while I believe you are wrong, this does not mean that you have grounds to reject the historicity of the death, burial, and resurrection of the Son of God as recorded in Scripture. There are 27 ancient documents that have historical credibility that must be referenced just like any other ancient document (not to mention the witness of dozens of first and second century historical documents that are not included in this New Testament canon). If you reject Christianity based upon your belief of the errancy of these documents, you must also reject all the records of ancient history.
To those of you who believe in inspiration and inerrancy, your belief is on solid ground. But please be careful not to create a false dilemma concerning a strict adherence to your persuasion. While the authority of God’s word is of central importance, Christianity is Christocentric, not bibliocentric. Christ is still Lord, even if the Scriptures were never written.
What is the danger of inerrancy? Making it the doctrine upon which the Christian faith stands or falls. Again, while I hold to this doctrine, I am not even convinced that it is a linchpin of Evangelicalism.
- The Danger of Inerrancy
- The Danger of Inerrancy
- Case Studies in Inerrancy: A New P&P Series
- Is Inerrancy the Linchpin of Evangelicalism?
- A Possible Error in the Bible?