Weblog of a Christian philosophy student

Weblog of a Christian philosophy student. Please feel free to comment. All of my posts are public domain. Subscribe to posts [Atom]. Email me at countaltair [at] yahoo.com.au. I also run a Chinese to English translation business at www.willfanyi.com.

Location: Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Scriptural (In)errancy - A Discussion

Scriptural (In)errancy - A Discussion
Will G

Note, the discussion is reflected upon, here.


This is a discussion I had with someone who emailed me through this website about scriptural inerrancy. I thought the discussion could be of use to some other Christians and help highlight my own views, since many good points were raised. I have omitted his name (of course).

Just to inform - my own views are that of partial inerrantism. Or rather 'errancy'. My view is that the Bible is physically errant in some places but always spiritually inerrant. In fact I think the weakest position on Biblical inerrancy you can have is probably that it is mostly physically inerrant and all spiritually inerrant (which is mine.) I endorse this view based on errors I think are difficult to explain in scripture - but I do not wish anyone else necessarily to hold this view - I do not wish to convince anyone to convert to errantism if they are a happy inerrantist, my purpose here is only to defend 2 things:

1. There are no really good philosophical reasons why partial inerrantism is wrong (or there are but it is a weak evidential argument.)
2. There are not very many good scriptural reasons to think that a hybrid errantist-inerrantist view is wrong.

My comments are in plain text, my responses/conversation is in bold and his response is in italics. My posts have been slightly altered to help add some points.

He wrote to me:

Dear sir, I'm wondering if you can help me sort out an apparant contradiction? [Editor's note - contradiction omitted]. I'm very confused, God bless, XXX

My response was:

I'm not an inerrantist so it doesn't really bother me. However take a look at YYY here.

And look up the scripture reference for these kinds of
issues, as they have a very good defense of inerrancy.


Now obviously I hadn't realised that this is actually where XXX had gone and hadn't solved the contradiction, so XXX wrote back to me about errantism:

Let me ask you since you brought it up though: How do you uphold scripture and deny inerrancy? I've always been curious about that.

So I sent back a rather curt response saying I DID uphold scripture - just not inerrantly. However I realised that wouldn't really answer his question, so I sent back a long response soon after making 4 philosophical points about inerrancy. There are actually 5 philosophical points I make about errancy - helping as in line with my introduction show that there aren't many good philosophical objections to errancy. This was my response:

I sent you an email earlier - I'd like to go into more detail about inerrancy and what it means for Christianity if the Bible is errant. I have about 4 points to make regarding my own views on scripture - if you're beginning to question inerrancy I can tell how my 'mostly inerrant' statement won't necessarily help you depending on your views. Here is a more extended response. These are not necessarily rebuttals to your views, they just illustrate what I think.

1. Regarding the claim that God should provide us with an inerrant Bible (in all respects) an argument might go like this:

1. An inerrant Bible is maximally effective at ensuring people stay saved
2. God wishes to save the most people
3. The Bible is not inerrant
4. God does not exist or does not wish to save the most people (same thing.)

The problem with this argument is that it assumes that we should 'demand' an inerrant Bible. For example, if everyone has the expectation that the Bible is inerrant, then any errancy will be greatly damaging. But if Christians do *not* have the expectation that the Bible should be inerrant, - then logically no argument like the above can be convincing. Arguments from the non-existence of God from errancy *only* have an effect on those with the expectation of inerrancy - and/or also demand that the Christians who are affected by any 'errancy' must have the expectation that the Bible is inerrant. If I don't see the reason to adopt this premise, then there is no argument (no logical argument anyway.)

2. Regarding the potential claim that if the Bible is errant we can't tell truth from fiction, I might note that what is up for grabs is small portions of a mostly physically inerrant Bible, - the Bible is all spiritually inerrant. Hence right from the start we can have the expectation that most of what we discover in the Bible, as well as being all literally spiritually true will probably be physically true as well.

But in any regard our spiritual inerrancy informs what we regard as physically true. For example any physical account that supports or helps the central claim of the gospel Christ is lord is non-negotiable. Hence we can regard as absolutely authentically true whatever helps the spiritual information of the gospel. However - it is the trivial items (like the Abraham case you mentioned) that may or may not be true - so the question can become - how do we know any trivial item is true or false? One possible way is to look at the spiritual intention of the author. Does the author's spiritual intent (assuming the truth of Christianity) need the literality of what the author is saying? Does it require the literal text to be free from error? Remember I hold to a view of spiritual inerrancy - so whatever spiritual message there is in the Bible is always going to be true - and inform our understanding.

A second way is that we should simply regard it the way we would any other historical resource, such as Herodotus or Tacitus, which is as tentatively true. When we find any historical document we assume it is true unless it makes controversial polemical claims. However even if we find some falsities, it doesn't change the fact that the non-falsified parts of the document are still regarded as true - if tentatively. We can regard scripture the same way regarding trivial physical accounts.

3. Regarding any possible moral atrocities or objections to God, or scripture generally I find the philosophy of religion rule useful that applies to God to be 'Experience of God equals perception of God'. Let me propose that as a general rule, what we experience from God is limited or determined by the way we perceive God - there is nothing wrong with that in Christian theology. However this gives a defense against moral problems in the Bible, which is that the experience the early Biblical writers had of God was limited by their perception of God - which has progressively gotten better until in Christ we have the perfect perception of God and hence perfect revelation. But for some of the Old Testament writers limited by their moral notions and imperfect beliefs about God, their experience of the moving of the Holy Spirit was limited similarly - hence we have objectionable accounts of God's actions/scripture.

4. Regarding trivial problems in the Bible, if my first point or third point aren't successful, let me remind you that the trivial problem is only an EVIDENTIAL problem, not a logical problem. For example, grant that everything else is explained and trustworthy - except trivial problems like the one you mentioned, that could only be 'strong' enough to constitute an evidential problem - even if we work with the assumption God should provide us with inerrant Bibles, inerrant in things such as trivial issues. For example, evaluate this argument (note I am assuming there are only trivial errors like the one you mentioned.)

1. A God would not author a book with trivial mistakes
2. The Bible contains trivial mistakes
3. The Bible is not of God, QED

How strong is this argument? Even if we accept the general thrust of it is only an EVIDENTIAL argument - in other words it is not really STRONG enough to constitute proof. It may be expressed logically but it is simply not 'powerful enough' to constitute a disproof. A better evidential formulation would go like this:

1. A God would PROBABLY not author a book with trivial mistakes
2. The Bible contains trivial mistakes
3. PROBABLY the Bible is not written by God.

If you accept this argument, then fine, this may be valid evidentially. But I urge you to consider it is only an EVIDENTIAL argument, i.e. like many other evidential reasons for this or that in the religious or secular world it is not inherently strong enough to 'force' you to change your position on scripture or belief in Christ. In fact - you are a Christian so you belief in evil, i.e. you believe in something posing an *evidential* problem for your beliefs, yet you remain a Christian. I ask you to consider the problem of the Bible with trivial mistakes in the same way - i.e. recognise the problem is evidential and simply tentatively hold that it *may* have something to contribute to a negative perception of Christianity, yet at the same time affirm the overpowering presence of God and the reasons to believe in the gospel.


After that rather long response XXX sent back:

All good thoughts....but the bottom line is that it seems very strange that God would allow mistakes to slip into his text.

I sent back with my fifth point:

In regards to trivial errors (solely) I find it hard to imagine any Christian losing their faith for instance (although it is true that many lose their faith of the Bible, it is rarely for i.e. the Abraham problem) if at all. Which puts to us the question - if hardly anyone or no one is being harmed by trivial errors - what is the problem?

Another point I might make is a general point about evidential arguments that I think gives one justification for not treating it too seriously. For example the tension in the argument is between:

1. The Christian God wishes to ensure the most amount of people stay saved
2. The Bible contains trivial errors

Although one might respond there is some tension between (1) and (2) (basically the argument) then you could also point out that they are in fact probably compatible. What I mean is, that if something isn't outright contradictory, and there appears to be no way to make it outright contradictory (hence it can't be made into a logical proof - this is evidential this argument) then in my experience it is usually the case that 'somehow' the 2 things are compatible. For example take the argument from evil which alleges the contradiction between god and evil. There *is* a tension - but no philosopher has thus far been able to find a 'contradiction' and the tension is FAR stronger between god and evil than this. We have been able to find partial theodicies that really work - and there are even some that work fully (!) although not friendly to standard Christian theism.

So I think there is some justification for thinking that - as this argument can ONLY be presented evidentially, and evidentially thus there is justification for thinking it is probably compatible in some way, then you are justified in applying the same standard to errancy and God in the same way as your other beliefs.

Although that's not an answer as to why there are trivial errors, I'm only pointing out that the problem is not that strong, and from MY experience there is probably (almost definitely) going to be an answer BECAUSE it isn't that strong.


That covers my opinion the 'PHILOSOPHICAL' force of the argument against errancy. Now for the scriptural argument. XXX sent back:

What do you think about certain passages of scripture that seem to enforce inerrancy though? (every jot and tittle, etc...)

This led to some points about scriptural passages that seem to support inerrancy.

[Editor's note 9/16: I thought of another good point to make since we were going into discussions of scripture I might insert at this juncture (that I did not email to him) generally about 'scriptural objections' to stuff.

Just a general note since we're headed into the territory of scriptural authority, and it's one that is relevant to any discourse. When I am doing philosophy of religion it is often the case I think of doctrines or ideas that are Biblically incompatible, some to a lesser or greater extent. However occasionally I think of a really good idea but which seems to be incompatible with one or two Bible verses (in the whole Bible.) My approach, in terms of finding a solution is generally to look at the BIBLE PASSAGE rather than at my doctrine. Epistemically if I am 'sure' of myself the 'weak point' in finding a solution is to look at the Bible. There are many different exegeses performable on any given text in the Bible, so I find it is often the case that new Biblical knowledge, new textual evidence or interpretations are able to re-interpret that passage in a more favourable way. So if one sees a difficulty, just as a general comment it is often a good idea to stay with the doctrine and try and think of a compatibility - unless you are absolutely sure there is no possible reconciliation.]

Anyway, back to my specific defense of scripturally-compatible physical errancy. I sent back:

Here are my opinions on those Bible passages so far.

Matthew 5:18: "For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled."

With this quote (Matthew) it seems to be referring to the law only. It is the law that is effectively perfect till 'all is fulfilled'.

So Matthew might not refer to 'errancy' beyond simply the Law and commandments of God. So if we take the 'Law' approach, then we can say that Matthew in this passage is only emphasizing inerrancy regarding God's instructions to humanity. Hence in a view like mine, as long as the Law itself is inerrant it is ok.

On that subject, we must ask, IS IT IN FACT INERRANT? To my knowledge it is free in itself from trivial errors in itself or other errors - but is it morally errant (the worst kind of errancy?)

Regarding this, I agree that many points of the Law seem harsh or unjust. The typical answer is a rather relativistic one, which is that Ancient Near East people had very different social structures, ways of viewing the world (they were honor/shame rather than honor/guilt), etc... which boils down to the explanation that 'they thought differently.' This may well be true. A more meaningful explanation is that in their situation, not only did they think differently, but there were actual physical differences between our society and theirs that MADE them think that way - i.e. it doesn't imply an 'evolving morality' but simply people adapting to different situations using the same moral tools.

I should note that the Law of Moses is a better 'law' if you will, than any other ancient law from that time period (i.e. Hammurabi) - in the sense that it atleast TRIES to proportion the punishment to the crime - although we would regard it as unduly harsh. It also contains many fine sentiments such as 'You shall love thy neighbour as thyself', and the prophets repeatedly said that the essence of the law was to love God and love man. As well of course, as the rabbis of those time periods.

Finally I would like to ruminate on the 'expiry date' of the law in that first quote. It would seem to expire when 'heaven and earth passes away' or 'till all be fulfilled' (presumably they mean the same thing.) But I always thought Jesus Christ was the fulfillment - which would mean that the 'jot and tittle' laid down by the law have been superseded by life in the Holy Spirit - needing no instruction. It could be referring to 'till the New Kingdom comes into being, the ONLY change to the law will be when Jesus dies and and resurrects - fulfillment, which will remove the 'jot and tittle' in favour of a life in the Holy Spirit replacing written down commands.

If that last point is true, then the Law poses no CURRENT moral problem (however I could be doing bad exegesis.)

Regarding whether that contradicts the eternality of the law in the OT I think Glenn Miller gives a good defense that this is not a problem here.

So provided this, then the Law, if it is errant now (in terms of commands) is not a problem. And establishing it was errant THEN, of course, would require more information than simply 'it is bad' it would require taking into account the kind of society they had. To my knowledge the Law is far more defensible than it appears in this respect, and Glenn Miller's site has alot of good information in this regard. Next quote:

John 10:34-35: "Is it not written in your law, 'I said ye are gods? If he called them gods to whom the word of God came (and the scripture cannot be broken)

Regarding this John quote, we know the law is inerrant (under my view) but doesn't this seem to be applying to all scripture - even in the context of the law? What about that?

This is the part where we errantists divide the scripture up into 2 meanings. Spiritual meanings and physical meanings. A spiritual meaning is some kind of spiritual message - i.e. emphasizing the faith of God, goodness, etc. A physical meaning is obviously that something happened physically - and I count trivial contradictions among such things.

Let me give an example of this is the genealogies in Matthew and Luke. Matthew counts from Abraham, emphasizing Jesus is descended from Abraham who found righteousness in God, whereas Luke counts from Adam emphasizing Christ brings the new covenant and is the 'second Adam'. If there are errors in the genealogies, then it means that the author made a mistake, but the point is that they are true in what they tell us about Christ - not each individual 'begat'. If some of the 'begats' are wrong - does this imply that 'scripture is broken?'

The only way that we could say scripture is broken in the case of Matthew is if we had a VERY SPECIFIC VIEW of scripture contrary to the spiritual inerrantist one - as a spiritual inerrantist would say 'no, scripture is not broken, the spiritual meaning is the important thing.' Now obviously we don't all have such clear spiritual meanings. But I argue that another criterion for telling errancy from inerrancy in the Bible is to look at the author's intent. What spiritual message is this author communicating? Does it require it to be physically true or free from contradiction to communicate it? Although not every example is as clear as the genealogies and their spiritual meaning, I maintain that ALL scripture has a spiritual meaning, and as long as this is the case (and the 'models' of any errors we find fit into this pattern) then scripture can be said 'not to be broken', i.e. it is unbroken.

[Editor's Note 9/16: He sent me back some more questions about spiritual inerrancy so I'm updating this to respond.]

John 10 seems a little more difficult though. Simply dividing up Scripture into physical and spiritual doesn't seem to alleviate the problem as you propose. It specifically says that it cannot be broken.....that's got to apply to all of it, don't you think?

I sent back:

Under my view scripture is not really divided up into 'parts' like 'this part' is physical and 'this part' is spiritual, and some physical parts are errant, but under 'views'. Under a physical view of scripture, there are potential errors, but under a spiritual view of scripture, there are no errors, everything is a spiritual message from God. So IF Jesus WAS referring to 'scripture' in the sense of a higher spiritual view, then necessarily ALL scripture would be included in that summation... all scripture viewed spiritually.

[Editor's note 9/16: Of course no one doubts some scripture such as parables shouldn't be viewed under a physical view - the actual 'problem' really comes from the fact that it seems we should be viewing some scripture under a physical view when we are unable to do so without running into errancy.]

You may argue this is not the 'fairest' perspective to put on it, but in MY position, believing in Christianity, and that the Bible is probably errant, if it is 'possible' to be viewed this way, then for me that elevates it to the primary (adopted) explanation. But for the same reasons it need not be compelling to others (i.e. inerrantists).

[Back to the second-to-last email.]

Another quote on this track (actually very compatible with the spiritual inerrantist position is):

2 Timothy 3:16-17: "All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, thoroughly furnished unto all good works."

A spiritual inerrantist can easily say that scripture - all being spiritually inerrant in its message, is under the above view.

Revelation 22:18-19: "For I testify unto every man that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book, If any man shall add unto these things, God shall add unto him the plagues that are written in this book: And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from the things which are written in this book.

I have never read this as applying to the whole Bible - it seems pretty obvious this applies just to the author of Revelation. If the book of revelation is very important (or going to be at some time) to Christians it would make sense to add a warning. But I don't see how it is fair or necessary to apply this to the *entire* Bible - so that is an argument against that.

If my explanations aren't good exegesis or don't fit in properly then perhaps there is some resource from another physical errantist that might be better. (Or on the other hand you could just be an inerrantist. But I think the BEST objection to errantism is actually the scriptural one - not the philosophical ones we've discussed.)


I think this illustrates my philosophical/scriptural defense of inerrancy quite well. Regarding the PHILOSOPHICAL argument against errancy - i.e. that a perfect God would order a perfect book etc, there are some problems. First of all, that only works if Christians work with the assumption that the Bible should be inerrant. If we don't work with that assumption and see no reason to hold it - then any errancy doesn't create a LOGICAL argument. Secondly, even if there are trivial errors (i.e. minor physical contradictions), then that is only an evidential formulation that 1) isn't that strong and 2) is probably false - because it isn't that strong. Thirdly, regarding moral errancies the philosophy of religion rule 'perception of God equals experience of God' could hold and deliver pretty much what we see in the Bible. Fourthly I don't see that an errant Bible as long as it is spiritually inerrant really poses that much of a threat to our chances to understand anything about it, for the reasons I outlined.

Regarding scripture, there is always the general possibility that a new interpretation could solve the problem. And if the law is morally errant, even back then, then it is a problem both for inerrancy and errancy views of scripture. However there are no really good reasons to think this once we culturally contextualise it. Secondly a spiritual inerrantist can hold that scripture is useful and unbroken so long as it communicates a good spiritual message to people - even if it is a bit savage we should understand the limitation of inspiration for those imperfectly perceiving God and try to understand what the author meant in a good light.


The discussion is reflected upon here.