In the fall of 1990 I engaged in a televised debate with a professor from Eastern Kentucky University over the question of the inerrancy of Scripture. Is the Bible without error in all that it teaches? I defended the affirmative. My opponent was a Southern Baptist who was outraged by the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s recent shift toward belief in inerrancy as an expectation for its faculty. I was invited to participate in the debate because I penned a letter to the editor in response to an op-ed piece of his in the Lexington Herald-Leader. I don’t think I realized at the time that my opponent, Dr. James Robert Miller, was the head of the philosophy and religion department at EKU. I wasn’t even finished with my master’s degree! But young and foolish as I was, when the host of the tv program told me he had tried to get twenty other people to represent the inerrancy view and they declined, I felt like I should do it. Besides, the show was going to air really early on Saturday morning, so I figured that if I blew it, no one would know!
I was happy to defend inerrancy then, and I am glad to do so now. It is the view of Scripture implied by the testimony of Jesus in passages like John 10:35 – “Scripture cannot be broken.” Since Jesus is Lord, His word on the matter is authoritative.
But based on many, many conversations I have had with young Christians who are struggling with their faith, I believe that a lot of believers do not understand the place of inerrancy in the overall structure of Christian faith. I get emails and Facebook messages on a regular basis that go something like this: I am a Christian, but I am starting to doubt my belief in God because I think there is a mistake in the Bible. [insert alleged mistake] My faith is really shaken.
If we laid out this thinking in a logical series of steps, it would go like this:
- Christianity rests on the inerrancy of Scripture.
- I think the Bible contains mistakes.
- Therefore, Christianity is false.
The problem here is that the premise that Christianity rests on the inerrancy of Scripture is simply false. That is not how the apostles presented the case for Christianity, and that is not how the best thinkers throughout history have argued for Christianity.* Inerrancy is the fruit of Christian apologetics, it is not the root.
The classical argument for Christianity begins with belief in God on the basis of the natural order. You can see the outlines of such an argument in Paul’s preaching to the pagans at Lystra –
Men, why are you doing these things? We also are men, of like nature with you, and we bring you good news, that you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them. In past generations he allowed all the nations to walk in their own ways. Yet he did not leave himself without witness, for he did good by giving you rains from heaven and fruitful seasons, satisfying your hearts with food and gladness (Acts 14:15-17).
The second step in the defense of Christian faith is to show how the true God has revealed Himself in the person of Jesus Christ. This move is based on the historical testimony of the gospels about the teaching, the miracles, and the death and resurrection of Jesus. You can see Paul shift from the argument for God to the truth of the resurrection of Jesus in his presentation to the philosophers of Athens –
Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead (Acts 17:29-31).
What sort of testimony did the apostles provide as the basis for faith in Christ? Contemporary eyewitness testimony. Here’s a sample of this kind of presentation – Peter’s sermon at the house of Cornelius –
You yourselves know what happened throughout all Judea, beginning from Galilee after the baptism that John proclaimed: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power. He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. And we are witnesses of all that he did both in the country of the Jews and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree, but God raised him on the third day and made him to appear, not to all the people but to us who had been chosen by God as witnesses, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. And he commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name” (Acts 10:37-43).
Now at this point I need to head off a common misunderstanding. I have often heard people raise this objection: You are using the gospels to prove that Jesus is Lord, but to do so you have to assume that the gospels are inerrant. But you’ve already said that you believe in inerrancy because Jesus is Lord. This is circular reasoning!
And indeed, if that was my approach, it would be circular reasoning. But that is not what I am saying at all. I do not urge people to consider the claims of the gospels because I am assuming that they are inerrant. I urge people to consider the claims of the gospels because they are historically reliable. Historical reliability is much different than the theological doctrine inerrancy. It is based on certain criteria commonly used by historians, such as whether the testimony is based on contemporary accounts, whether there are multiple accounts, and whether the accounts are credible (if you would like to pursue the issue of the historical reliability of the gospels, check out The Jesus Legend).
So the first step in defending the Christian faith is demonstrating the existence of God on the basis of the natural order. The second step is to show that God has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ on the basis of historical testimony. And the third step of the systematic defense of the faith is to look at what this historical testimony shows us the Lord Jesus said about truthfulness of Scripture. Inerrancy is a further step, a conclusion that I believe is reasonably drawn from what Jesus says about Scripture. But as you can see, inerrancy is the outgrowth of Christian faith; it is not the basis of it.
By now I hope it is clear that no one should ever question his or her faith in Christ simply because they fear some passage in Scripture may contain an error. Yet there are many people who have lost faith in Christ because of this very sort of fragile fundamentalism. This is a tragedy. Our salvation hinges on events that took place in history – NOT whether the gospel accounts of those events are completely free from error.
Let me illustrate the difference. My family is related to the McCoys of the infamous Hatfield-McCoy feud. I have a book about the McCoy family, and in the back there is a genealogy. When I first got the book I was eager to trace out the Scott side of the family, so I immediately browsed though the genealogy. Sure enough, it listed my great-grandfather, Champlain Scott, and almost all of his children, with one glaring exception – my granddad! Does that mean Homer Scott didn’t exist? No. Did I suddenly pop out of existence? NO! Why not? Because there is a difference between an event in history and the record of that event.
Our salvation rests on the death and resurrection of Jesus. If the gospels contained mistakes (which I do not believe), that would not necessarily mean the events they described never happened. And with regard to the central tenets of Christianity (that Jesus died, that He was buried, that His tomb was empty, and that He was later seen by many people), the claims of the gospel accounts meet a high level of historical reliability.
Let’s assume for the sake of argument that I believed there is a mistake in the Bible. Would that mean that God doesn’t exist or that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead? Of course not – neither of those beliefs hinges on inerrancy. At the very most it would mean that I drew an incorrect inference from Jesus’ statements about the Bible.
I’m not suggesting that the doctrine of inerrancy is unimportant. I believe it is vital for those who preach and those who are elders to have a very high view of Scripture. And I further believe that as Christians grow deeper in knowledge and learn to read the Bible in its ancient context rather than in light of modern assumptions, many of the alleged mistakes of the Bible dissolve.
But what I am saying is that we need to make sure young Christians understand that their faith in Christ doesn’t hinge on such alleged mistakes in the Bible as whether the robe placed on Jesus was scarlet or purple, or whether rabbits chew cud, or what year Quirinius’s census took place. Putting inerrancy in its proper perspective will give those struggling with such questions some space to breathe as they work out such questions in the context of a deep commitment to the risen Lord.
*There is a school of thought in apologetics called presuppositionalism that does begin with the inerrancy of Scripture. I believe its methodology is seriously flawed, but it does have some value in highlighting the unwarranted assumptions of the atheistic worldview. If you would like to read about various approaches to apologetics, here’s a great place to start.