Did God Actually Say? Biblical Inerrancy in an Age of Doubt
by Dan Leischner, Chairman Elder
This week's article is a reposting from our previous newsletter published in March 2019.
Here at Canby Christian Church we see the Bible, the written Word of God, as the foundation of all that we do. One of our core values is simply labeled, “God’s Word” and it reads:
We value the ministry of the Word of God. We strive to be people of the Book. We teach the Scriptures, read the Scriptures, and live the Scriptures. Furthermore, we believe the Bible points to Jesus as the fulfillment of the Old Testament and the promise in the New. [i]
We live according to the Scriptures individually, and as a congregation, because we believe that the Bible contains the words of God to tell us about:
Jesus Christ, and His redemptive work throughout history
Salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, the Son of the Living God
God’s creative work in history, and how God interacts with His people
Teachings from God in wisdom and righteousness
We look to, and rely upon, the whole of the Bible above any other book or policy or teaching. The Bible contains God’s words, given to men, inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit. As the Word of God, we believe it to be fully true and accurate in all that it affirms. This means that we can’t pick and choose which parts of the Bible we follow and which to ignore.
Throughout history there have been people who have cast doubt on the truth and validity of God’s Word. From the beginning in the Garden of Eden the serpent (Satan) twisted God’s Word and sowed seeds of doubt by asking Eve, “Did God actually say…?” Satan knew if he could create doubt in God’s Word, if he could cause Eve to question if God was really being truthful, then he could get her to disobey and turn away from God’s simple command. Even today, people try to cast doubt on God’s Word, either because they don’t want to follow God’s clear teaching, or they want to deny God altogether. They know if any part of the Bible is in error or can be shown to be untrue, then the whole Bible becomes suspect. Said another way, if part of the Bible is not true, then how can we know that any of it is true? If the Bible can be reduced to just another inspirational book, rather than God’s revealed truth, then we can simply ignore what the Bible says.
Questions about the truth of the Bible:
In writing this article about biblical inerrancy, I wanted to understand the arguments of people who label themselves as anti-religion and/or anti-God. Understanding the arguments of people who disagree with you can help to inform what you, yourself, believe. Non-believers often point to several supposed errors and contradictions which (they say) prove that the Bible cannot possibly be true. After all, if some parts of the Bible can be shown to be false, or if two or more Scriptures contradict each other, then it logically follows that the Bible cannot be trusted. Our culture wants to undermine our trust in God and there are many messages against God and against God’s Word. These messages are so prevalent that even some Christians are asking questions about the Bible and its truthfulness. Let’s look at a few of these arguments/questions that raise doubt in God’s Word related to Contradictions, Errors, and various Interpretations:[ii]
Doesn’t the Bible have lots of contradictions?– If the Bible contains two different statements that contradict each other, how can both statements be correct? At least one statement must be wrong, right? Here are just a couple of examples of Biblical “contradictions”:
“Contradiction” 1: There are two passages in Scripture that talk about how Judas Iscariot died. First, Matthew 27:5 says of Judas, “… he departed and he went and hanged himself.” However, the second passage, Acts 1:18, appears to tell a different story of Judas’ death which says, “…and falling headlong he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out.” So did Judas hang himself, or did he fall and burst apart?
Actually, both statements can be true, and here is one possible answer: Matthew points out that Judas hanged himself, while Acts does not indicate how Judas died; only that he fell and burst open. Judas hanged himself (cause of death), and after hanging in the hot sun, his body swelled up until it eventually ruptured. This is a gruesome scene of Judas’ final fate, but these two passages are not contradictory, they merely tell different parts of the same story about what happened to Judas after he betrayed Jesus.
“Contradiction” 2: There are two different passages regarding the time of Jesus’ crucifixion. Mark 15:25 says, “It was the third hour when they crucified Him,” while John 19:14-15 indicates that Jesus was crucified at, “…about the sixth hour.” These passages seem to indicate two very different times for Jesus’ crucifixion, until you consider how people thought about time in ancient Palestine.
People did not have wristwatches, there were no wall-mounted clocks, and sundials were in short supply. People told time by noting the relative position of the sun. Sunrise was the beginning of first hour, mid-morning was the third hour, noon was the beginning of the sixth hour and so on. However, with no clocks or wristwatches, nobody knew for sure if it was 9:00 a.m. (the precise beginning of the 3rd hour) or 10:30 (somewhere between the 3rd and 6th hour) or the 6th hour (when the sun was at the highest point in the sky). Thus, Mark 15:25 should be understood as, “sometime during the 3rd hour (between 9:00 a.m. and noon),” and John 19:14-15 as, “somewhere around noon.” The issue here is not a contradiction, but about how each author estimated the time. In fact, it is possible that the exact time of the crucifixion was 11:00 a.m., and Mark and John simply used different words to explain the precise time of Jesus’s death. It should also be noted that our doctrines of Jesus Christ and of Salvation are unchanged whether the crucifixion was at 10:00 a.m. or 11:00 a.m.
Isn’t the Bible full of errors?– Just like contradictions, if the Bible contains errors or false statements then it cannot be trusted. Here are some “errors” that have been pointed out:
“Error” 1: How many horses did Solomon have? In 1 Kings 4:26 we read, “Solomon also had 40,000 stalls of horses for his chariots”, while in 2 Chronicles 9:25 we read, “And Solomon had 4,000 stalls for horses and chariots.” So which is it – 40,000 or 4,000? There are two possible answers. First, it's possible for minor errors (such as adding or dropping one digit) to occur as a transcriber hand-writes a new copy of the biblical text. There were no printing presses at that time and every new copy of a document was written out by hand, thus leaving the opportunity for human error in copies of the original work. The second possible answer is that these two passages are not in disagreement, but that Solomon had 40,000 stalls that would fit horses, and 4,000 stalls that would fit horses and chariots – making both statements true because they are each offering complimentary information about Solomon’s stalls. Regardless of what the original writers of these passages actually wrote, the point is that Solomon had an incredibly large herd of horses!
“Error” 2: Incorrect calculation of the diameter of the Molten Sea [iii]. In 2 Chronicles 4 we read about the furnishings in the Temple and in verse 2 we see a large metal basin for washing. The text says, “Then he made the sea of cast metal. It was round, ten cubits from brim to brim, and five cubits high, and a line of thirty cubits measured its circumference.”[iv]
The “error” has to do with mathematical accuracy. If a circle is 10 cubits across, then its circumference is 31.1416 cubit, not 30 cubits. While these two values (31.1416 and 30) are not identical, it does not mean that there is an error. 2 Chronicles is not a mathematical textbook and we should not expect the same degree of precision. Perhaps the writer was rounding off to a simple number – this would not make the text in error, just not useful for teaching math. It is also possible that the writer was measuring the inside circumference of the basin which would be very close to (if not precisely) 30 cubits. Regardless, the circumference of the basin has no bearing on any doctrine or teaching of the Bible.
There are so many different denominations in Christianity and each of them have a different interpretation. How can we know if any are correct?– Correctly interpreting God’s word is the key to understanding what God really meant when His words were written down. Some try to say that there are many interpretations, but one of my seminary professors said that there is only one correct interpretation, but many applications.
In his book Christian Theology, Millard Erickson states:
The Bible, when correctly interpreted in light of the level to which culture and the means of communication had developed at the time that it was written, and in view of the purposes for which it was given, is fully truthful in all that it affirms.[v]
In order to correctly understand the truth of the Bible, we need to understand what the original writer meant in his original historical context, in his language, and in light of the original purpose for which he was writing. As we will see later, the Bible is made up of many different types of writing, and each of them are used for a different purpose.
Original language and Original culture
We know that God cannot lie, and the words He told to Moses, the prophets and the other biblical authors were true. When these words were written down by the original writers in their own language, their writings were also true and correctly understood by the original readers. Over time, words can change their meeting, and people in different cultures will understand words and phrases differently. Thus, we must understand the scriptures as they would have been understood by the original writers and readers in their own language. Some words don’t translate well into other languages (even into English) and thus deep scholarly study of the Bible must include consideration of the original Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic languages (and the cultural context) in which each book of the Bible were written. This does not mean that our English texts cannot be relied upon. Quite to the contrary, translators of the Bible use extensive knowledge of the original languages to render the best possible representation in our English language.
Different Literary Styles
Imagine if you were writing an email to a friend because he/she was excited to know about the new business you started. You might tell them about all the new clients that you have and that you had a great first year! Now imagine if you were writing a letter to the IRS because they also wanted to know about this new business that you started (think: audit). Assuming that you are fully truthful in each letter, wouldn’t you use different words, phrases and include different information in each letter? Your friend wants to know what you think about your new business and how you are doing; the IRS wants to know if you have followed the tax rules in reporting your business income. Each letter has a very different purpose and a very different context, thus if someone were to read each letter they may be confused at the differences – it would be easy to think that the letters contradict each other and probably contain untruths or misrepresentations. However, each letter could be 100% factual in the things that they say, even though they use different words when describing the business.
The Bible also employs several different types of literature (or writing styles) which includes Letters or Epistles (like to a friend) as well as Law and Statues (like the IRS tax rules). Different types of biblical literature must be understood according to their genre. Here are some of the different types of biblical literature[vi]:
Epistle/Letter (e.g. Romans, Galatians, 1 & 2 Timothy)
Genealogical (Genesis 5, Matthew 1, Luke 3)
Historical Narrative (Joshua, Ruth, the four Gospels, and Acts)
Law/Statutory (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Deuteronomy)
Parable (there are a few examples of parables in the Old Testament, but Jesus made extensive use of parables in His teachings)
Poetry (the books of Psalms is a prime example of biblical poetry)
Prophecy (Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Revelation)
Proverbial/Wisdom Literature (Proverbs and Ecclesiastes)
In order to have a correct interpretation of a passage, we must come to that passage with an understanding of the purpose of the writing and the type of literature in which it was written. We cannot interpret poetry in the same way that we interpret genealogy because they were written in different styles and with a different purpose.
Hyperbole or Deliberate Exaggeration
In our English language we sometimes make an extreme statement in order to make a point. Maybe you’ve heard a co-worker say, “I have a million things to do today,” or maybe you have heard the phrase, “I am so hungry that I could eat a horse”. Do we think that the co-worker really has 1 million things to get done in one day? Do you actually think that the hungry person can really eat an entire horse? We hear these kinds of statements all the time and we know that the person is using hyperbole to emphasize a point. Jesus also used such a device when he said, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell”[vii] Taken literally, it would seem that Jesus was advocating mutilation, but Jews did not believe in mutilating the body. God told Israel not to cut themselves in Leviticus 19:28 and Deuteronomy 14:1, and we know that Jesus’ disciples did not take this saying literally, otherwise we would read about all the early Christians who had removed an eye or a hand! We need to interpret this particular statement of Jesus as a literary device to show the dangers of sin; Jesus does not want people to mutilate themselves because of sin, or to be cast into hell, but to repent and be saved – the need for salvation is the point of Jesus statement, not mutilation.
Thus, correct interpretation takes place only when we consider the full context of the passage, the historical setting, the purpose of the writing, the style of the writing in the original language. As stated by Boa and Moody:
“When interpretive disagreement occurs, it is usually because of faulty or inconsistent methods of interpretation (hermeneutics). For instance, some people impose their own preconceived notions upon the pages of Scripture (eisegesis) instead of allowing Scripture to speak for itself (exegesis).”[viii]
The Work of the Holy Spirit
Jesus told His disciples that after He left He would send the Helper, the Holy Spirit and, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”[ix] Jesus sent the Holy Spirit so that His disciples could know the truth. How can any of us really understand the Word of God unless God reveals it to us? This revelation of God’s Word is part of the work of the Holy Spirit.
Just as God’s Holy Spirit inspired and guided the original writers of the Bible, the Holy Spirit gives us understanding of the words that they wrote. The Holy Spirit will reveal the truth that is already written in God’s Word. This is important to understand: The Holy Spirit is not making new revelations that are outside of or in addition to God’s written Word – He only takes the words given from God through Jesus, and He gives us understanding of those words.
God has also placed us in a community of believers, a church family, wherein we can discuss the Bible and what it means. Together, we can encourage each other to righteousness and a right understanding of God’s Word, and we can correct each other so that we avoid false teachings and wrong understandings of the Bible. We can have confidence that the Bible is true in all that it affirms, and we can trust in God’s Word for how we live our lives. Together we can agree with the Chicago Statement of faith that says:
We affirm that a confession of the full authority, infallibility, and inerrancy of Scripture is vital to a sound understanding of the whole of the Christian faith. We further affirm that such confession should lead to increasing conformity to the image of Christ.[x]
[i]Canby Christian Church values, 2019
[ii]Freedom From Religion Foundation, Copyright 1992 by Dan Barker. https://ffrf.org/legacy/books/lfif/?t=contra
[iii]I’m Glad you Asked, Ken Boa and Larry Moody, (Colorado Springs, Victor Books, 1994) pg. 110
[iv]2 Chronicles 4:2, English Standard Version, Text Edition, (Good News Publishers, 2001)
[v]Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, Second Edition(Grand Rapids, Baker Books, 1998) pg. 259
[vi]Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry, Alex Carmichael undated, https://carm.org/Bible-writing-styles
[vii]Matthew 5:29, English Standard Version, Text Edition, (Good News Publishers, 2001)
[viii]I’m Glad you Asked, Ken Boa and Larry Moody, (Colorado Springs, Victor Books, 1994) pg. 108
[ix]John 16:13-14, English Standard Version, Text Edition, (Good News Publishers, 2001)
[x]The Chicago Statements on Biblical Inerrancy and Hermeneutics, (International Council on Biblical Inerrancy Chicago, Illinois, October 26 – 28, 1978)