Inerrancy, A Parable (Appetizer)

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wordI had just taught my Sunday morning Bible class when our campus minister approached me. “You know Stanley — he’s in pre-law at the University — don’t you?” I’m a lawyer, and so I usually meet the pre-law students who come through my church’s campus ministry.

“Sure. A good kid. I little intense, I think, but that’ll serve him well when he starts to practice.”

“Stanley would like to arrange a time to talk with you. Not about law. About the Bible.” He hesitated in a foreboding way. “About inerrancy. It seems his roommate has gotten into some literature that shows, he thinks, contradictions in the Bible. And now he’s in something of faith crisis. He grew up in a good home and good church, but he’s nearly been convinced that the Bible has contradictions — and this is making him question everything. Could you meet with him?”

I drew in a breath. I mean, I can argue before the federal Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit without fear, but these discussions are different. It’s not about winning and losing or even justice. There’s a soul  in the balance — maybe many souls. After all, if he surrenders his faith in Jesus, many other students and friends may follow him out of the church. You can’t decline such an invitation.

“Sure,” I said, with more confidence than I felt. I gave him my cell number, and that afternoon I found myself at a local barbecue joint, with a Bible, an iPhone filled with Bible apps, and a very earnest, very intense Stanley.

“So, Stanley, tell me what’s been going on with you. I hear you’re worried about some Bible contradictions?”

“Yes, sir, that’s right. And I really appreciate you taking this time. I’ve talked to my preacher back home, and I’ve talked to a couple of people on staff here, and no one seems to have an answer. I believe in Jesus, I do. But I’m not sure I ought to.

“You see, back home, my preacher taught that the Bible is inerrant because it’s inspired by God. God cannot make mistakes, and therefore the Bible cannot contain any error at all. We had a sermon series on Christian evidences when I was  in high school, and it really encouraged me. Strengthened my faith. But over and over, the preacher said the Bible has no contradictions. Can’t have contradictions. And he said that if it has any contradictions, Christianity is meaningless and my faith is vain!

“Then he said that many in the church are liberals — apostates — because they deny inerrancy. And they’re going to hell.

“And my roommate has shown me things in the Bible I never knew were there, and they sure seem like contradictions to me.

“So I figured I’m preparing for law school, right? And so I ought to be able to defend the faith. ‘Always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you,’ Peter wrote. And so I’ve gotten on the Internet, and I checked some commentaries out of the church library, and I have to say I think my roommate has the better end of the arguments. And I’m worried that integrity — intellectual honesty — requires me to give up my faith in Jesus.”

He looked at me with moist eyes. He did not want to leave Jesus, but his preacher and roommate had managed to very nearly persuaded him that he had to or else he wouldn’t be an honest man. Amazing that his preacher — his preacher! — had built the very case that was destroying his faith in Jesus!

“Stanley, let me start by disabusing you [this is how lawyers talk] of a few misunderstandings.

“First, your preacher is not an authority here. Neither am I. Christians take their guidance from scripture, and the scriptures nowhere claim the absence of any contradiction. And the scriptures nowhere claim to be inerrant. In fact, the word ‘inerrant’ wasn’t even coined until 1830 or so. It’s a concept taken from an Enlightenment worldview that didn’t exist in the First Century.

“In fact, the whole argument about the absence of contradiction and inerrancy was invented to refute atheism — a philosophy that wasn’t invented until after the Protestant Reformation. I mean, Paul converted people from Judaism and Greco-Roman paganism, not atheism.

“And he converted them by preaching the perfection of Jesus, as Messiah, not the perfection of the scriptures. The church had become a major religion in the Roman Empire long before the New Testament was assembled and the canon established — centuries after the apostles.

“In the meantime, the preaching that saved was preaching about Jesus. In Acts 2, Peter preached Jesus. When Paul appeared before Felix, he preached Jesus. The gospel is the good news about Jesus.

“If you aren’t careful, you can become guilty of bibliolatry, that is, making the Bible into an idol. The Bible does not save. Jesus does that. The Bible has no authority — except to the extent Jesus chooses to exercise his authority through it.

“Think about it. What passage teaches that?”

Our waitresses had been waiting patiently for us to notice her, with a basket of cheese biscuits and pitchers of sweet and unsweet tea. I needed some cheese biscuits. And to be sure Stanley was fully engaged, he needed to think about this for himself.

Stanley looked puzzled. “Stanley, I guarantee you’re familiar with this passage. If you grew up in the Churches of Christ, you know this one!”

“Well, it’s not Acts 2:38. So that means it must be —

(Matt 28:17 ESV) And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. 18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

“Exactly!” I said as I wiped biscuit from my lips. “If Jesus has ‘all authority,’ then the authority we must honor is his personal authority. The only the authority that the scriptures have comes from Jesus — if at all.

“Now, I’m not questioning that the scriptures have a kind of authority, but we need to be very careful to distinguish the inherent, ultimate authority of Jesus — the authority of a King — to the King exercising his authority through the scriptures.

“So, how does Jesus exercise his authority through the scriptures?”

“He inspires the scriptures, right? The scriptures are ‘God breathed’!” Stanley declared.

“Again, you are exactly right. The passage says,

(2Ti 3:16-4:1 ESV) 16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,  17 that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

“Please understand. I believe this with all my heart.

“Now, based on the Holy Bible, not your preacher’s sermons, what is the significance of scripture being God-breathed?”

Stanley read over the passage three or four times. I ate some biscuit. He lifted his eyes and said, “It’s obvious, right? Because the scriptures are inspired, they are ‘profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.'”

“Obviously, Paul is speaking of the scriptures as a whole. He’s not saying that every census count in Numbers or every generation in every genealogy is ‘profitable for … reproof.’ Now, did your roommate point out a single place where the scriptures aren’t profitable for teaching, etc.?”

“Well, no, taking the scriptures as a whole. But if there is any error at all in the scriptures, how can we trust them?”

“Do you trust your mother?” I asked.

“Of course.”

“Has she ever made a mistake?”

He smiled at the realization. “Yes, but not often. Not so many mistakes that I can’t rely on her for wisdom and guidance.”

“Exactly,” I said. “She may not be free from contradiction. She may not be inerrant. But she’s reliable — and when the question is whether Jesus is the Messiah, the test is reliability and trustworthiness, not inerrancy. After all, for centuries — centuries — the church grew and spread and souls were saved based on the testimony of people who had either a very incomplete New Testament canon or no canon at all! And these were humans and therefore not inerrant. Our faith in Jesus does not require a complete, inerrant, contradiction-free New Testament. It requires reliable, trustworthy testimony.

(Heb 2:1-4 ESV) Therefore we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it.  2 For since the message declared by angels proved to be reliable, and every transgression or disobedience received a just retribution,  3 how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation? It was declared at first by the Lord, and it was attested to us by those who heard,  4 while God also bore witness by signs and wonders and various miracles and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.

“The Hebrews writer says that the Law of Moses — the Torah — proved ‘reliable’ after being given to Moses by angels. Then he speaks of the gospel as being declared by Jesus, ‘attested to us by those who heard,’ and witnessed by the testimony of God himself through miracles and gifts of the Spirit. The evidence for the reliability of the gospel is the testimony of those who were with Jesus and who saw the miracles.

“The Gospels had not yet been written — certainly not all of them — when Hebrews was written, and so the author is not speaking about the authority of the New Testament. Rather, he is speaking of the reliability of those who heard Jesus and who saw the miracles and the gifts of the Spirit. He is relying on human testimony — which is reliable but not necessarily inerrant. Not everyone who was with Jesus or who saw the miracles was inspired!

“Here’s a less familiar passage —

(Tit 1:9 ESV)  9 [An elder] must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.

“We desperately want to interpret ‘word’ to mean ‘New Testament,’ but there was no complete New Testament at this time. Paul meant ‘the trustworthy word as I taught you.’ He was speaking of the message of Christ as passed from evangelist to convert.

“And notice that the reason Paul says it’s important for the word to be trustworthy is so an elder can instruct his congregation with ‘sound doctrine’ or ‘healthy teaching’. It’s not so that the elder can demonstrate the inspiration of scripture by proving every incidental detail to be scientifically accurate. It’s about the gospel and how to live righteously. And I guarantee you that your roommate hasn’t shown a single example that contradicts what the scriptures say is important about the scriptures.”

Stanley leaned back and drew in a breath. “You’re right. But it still bothers me that there are these contradictions. They seem to seriously impeach the credibility — a good legal term — the credibility of these witnesses. If they’re in error about small things, then maybe they’re in error about big things.”

“Ah, we should talk about that,” I said. “It’ll give us time to order our entrées.” I ordered a pulled pork sandwich. Stanley went for the hamburger.

“Look. There’s not enough food on the menu to let us cover all the alleged contradictions in the Bible. And I’m sure I can’t address all of them from memory. We may have to call a recess and reconvene in a few days. But give me your number 1 contradiction — the one that gives you the greatest pause.”

Read Part 2 “Entree” here

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