"How can you believe a Bible that is full of errors and contradictions?" Questions like this are asked of Christians every day by people all over the world. But it is incredible to find that in most cases those who ask such a question don't even have a particular error in mind but are rather making this assertion simply because they have heard somebody else say it. It appears that the idea that the Bible is full of discrepancies is something which is circulated from person to person as a kind of gossip without any real substance. But be that as it may, the question assumes that the Bible is filled with so many discrepancies that it is impossible to believe that it is of Divine origin.
But, on the other hand, there are others who are able to demonstrate what they feel are errors in the Bible. Atheists and others who oppose Christianity spend much time searching for what they see as errors in God's Word.
A number of years ago, in my home town, atheistic literature was being circulated in opposition to an evangelistic outreach of a Church which I was involved with. The literature which the Church was distributing was called the "Jim Times" ("Jim" standing for "Jesus in Me") and was left in such places as doctors waiting rooms, and libraries etc. However, someone (or some people) were going out of their way to place material critical of the Bible in these magazines. Slips of paper, with the title "The Atheist Times" with a list of about 20 "contradictions" would be clandestinely placed in between the Jim Times.
The Debate Over Inerrancy in the Church
But the real debate about the inerrancy of the Bible is not to be found among atheists and Christians. The real debate is actually between those in the Church. The rest of this article will therefore focus upon the debate within the Church. Before we proceed any further we need to identify the two main schools of thought in the inerrancy debate:
Wayne Grudem defines biblical inerrancy in the following way: "The inerrancy of Scripture means that Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact." This definition focuses on the issue of truthfulness and falsehood in the language of the Bible. In basic terms it implies that whatever the Bible talks about can be trusted to be true and accurate. At times critics of this view complain that if we do not have the original manuscripts then how can we be sure that what we have in the copies is the Word of God? In response it can be said that although we do not have any originals, through comparison of the many thousands of good copies that we have, and by examining the thousands of citations of Scripture in the writings of the early Church Fathers, scholars are able to produce a product that is as near as possible to the original, and can confidently be said to be the Word of God.
One of the most common themes that is raised by those who hold to a limited inerrancy is that the Bible is of use in the lives of the believer in the areas of "faith and practice" only. This position allows, however, for the possibility of false statements in the Bible in areas such as science and history. It is said by advocates of this position that it need not be a concern to the Christian that the Bible contains historical, scientific, and factual errors because the purpose of the Bible is to merely instruct the believer in the life they should live.
Those who hold to this position prefer to say that the Bible is "infallible", but hesitate in using the word "inerrant." But it should be noted that until about 1960-65 the word 'infallible' was used in the same way as the word 'inerrant'. In recent years the word infallible has come to be used in the weaker sense of the Bible not leading people astray in areas of faith and practice but allowing for factual errors. However, Harold Lindsell, in his book The Battle for the Bible, points out that apart from the recent definitions used by some theologians, he does not know of any standard dictionary that does not use the words inerrant and infallible interchangeably. He therefore feels that these two words should be used synonymously.
Some scholars, like Lindsell and Wayne Grudem, believe that a departure from the belief in the full inerrancy of the Bible is the first step to greater error and a denial of other cardinal Christian beliefs (the slippery slope argument). Although at this point, it has to be admitted that there are those who do not hold to inerrancy but at the same time are clearly orthodox in other matters of faith. But on the other hand, there does seem to be good evidence to show that for many individuals and institutions who have abandoned inerrancy it has been the first step to greater error. Lindsell believes that as soon as the doctrine of inerrancy of Scripture is abandoned by those in the Church it opens the door to further departures from the Christian faith. He contends that a denial of inerrancy will eventually lead to disaster. He says: "It will result in the loss of missionary outreach; it will quench missionary passion; it will lull congregations to sleep and undermine their belief in the full- orbed truth of the Bible; it will produce spiritual sloth and decay; and it will finally lead to apostasy."
An example of a denial of inerrancy leading to a denial of other Christian doctrines can be seen in the words of some theologians. For example, Professor R.S. Alley of the University of Richmond. Professor Alley denies that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God and writes: "While some persons may continue to hold that the historic Christian belief in biblical infallibility and inerrancy is the only valid starting point and framework for a theology of revelation, such contentions should be heard with a smile and incorporated into the bylaws of the Flat Earth Society. But always we should respect the integrity of a person in an argument or debate though his position may indeed be quite ridiculous." Professor Alley also calls those who hold to biblical inerrancy "dishonest" individuals who propagate a "false doctrine." His belief that inerrancy is a "false doctrine" has led him to declare that Adam, Eve, Noah, and Jonah were all fictional characters, that the virgin birth is not to be believed, that miracles did not occur, and that the resurrection of Christ is not an historical fact.
At this point it is worth observing that many of the so-called errors in the Bible, that those who oppose inerrancy point out, are easily eliminated because they fall into various categories that the doctrine of inerrancy allows for. For example:
Inerrancy allows for a 'wait and see' approach
Those who oppose inerrancy have often pointed to various historical statements throughout the Bible and have objected that they are at variance with other historical facts. However, often, satisfactory answers can be found. But where immediate answers are not apparent, defenders of inerrancy are able to take a 'wait and see approach.' Innerancists have been vindicated through this approach in the past and it will no doubt vindicate them again. For example, some scholars assumed that Luke's use of the word 'politarchs' in Acts 17:6, as a title for civil authorities in Thessalonica, was thought to be an inaccurate description since the word was not known to exist in classical literature. However, more recent discoveries have shown Luke to be perfectly accurate in his use of this word, since some nineteen inscriptions were discovered that make use of the title, five of which are used in specific reference to Thessalonica.
Inerrancy allows for the ordinary language of everyday speech
This is especially so with regard to scientific or historical descriptions. With this in mind the Bible can speak of the sun rising and the rain falling because from the perspective of the speaker that is exactly how these things are perceived. Similar considerations must also be bore in mind when numbers are used. For example, a reporter can say that 8, 000 men were killed in battle without saying that he had actually counted every single one. In actual fact, there may have been about 7, 823 men that were killed or slightly more, say 8, 242.
Inerrancy allows for loose or free quotations
It should be recognised that the procedures that people use when quoting others differ from culture to culture. In the modern Western world we are used to quoting a person's exact words. In New Testament times however, when people quoted others, it was more common to just give an accurate representation of the content of what a person had said, and not necessarily quote them word for word. Inerrancy is therefore consistent with loose or free quotations of the Old Testament in New Testament passages as long as the content is truthful.
At times the ancient writers were so free in their quotations that they would even combine the words of two Old Testament prophets. An example of this is seen in Matthew 27:9-10. Opponents of inerrancy often point out that although Matthew ascribes this prophecy to Jeremiah, when one looks at Zechariah 11:12-13 it appears that it is actually from the words of Zechariah. However, a comparison with other parts of Jeremiah do appear to be included in the prophecy that Matthew cites even though Matthew does not mention the prophet by name. This is seen by the fact that although Matthew makes reference to 'a field', no reference is made to this in the Zechariah reference. However, in Jeremiah 18:2 and 19:2-11 there are clear references to a field. Since Jeremiah is the "major" prophet, and Zechariah is a minor, then the major prophet's name is used. A similar thing happens in Mark 1:2-3, where prophecies from both Isaiah and Malachi are put together in one quotation. But because Isaiah is the major prophet, only he is mentioned while Malachi, as a minor prophet, is not.
Inerrancy allows for variety in details in explaining the same event
In the four Gospels we have evidence that a considerable amount of freedom was used in the reporting of conversations and events. For example, in the Gospels of Matthew (Ch. 28) and Mark (Ch. 16) one angel is said to appear at the empty tomb of Christ and proclaim the good news that Jesus has risen from the dead. But in the Gospel of Luke (Ch. 24) the writer says that there are two angels at the tomb. Furthermore, the Gospel of John does not even mention any angel or angels at all.
There are many of these kind of differences in the Gospels. Another, for example is the case of the blind men at Jericho. Matthew says only one man met Jesus, while Mark and Luke both state that there were two.
But when dealing with these events it should be noted that different accounts of the same incidents can differ from each other without being contradictory. For example, with regards to the issue of whether the Gospel accounts speak of there being one or two angels at the tomb of Jesus. The answer to this is that there were two. This can be illustrated with the following story: Suppose I met President Clinton and his advisor who both tell me to work on a project. I then meet you and tell you that I met President Clinton who had given me a job to do. Later I meet your friend and tell him/her of the meeting, but this time mention that it was both the president 'and' his advisor whom I had met. You and your friend meet and talk about how privileged I am to be given a job by the President. However, when you compare notes you discover that I have told you that I only met the president, whereas I tell your friend that I met his the president 'and' his advisor. There is an 'apparent' contradiction, but not an irreconcilable one. The same is true for the Gospel accounts of the angels. Some account speak of one angel only, and some of 2. So if there was 2 there was 1. This is to be expected even more so than in the previous illustration as we are dealing with the testimony of more than one witness.
Other problem passages that may not fall neatly into the areas just mentioned have been dealt with by competent scholars. For example, Wayne Grudem, has confidently said that in all his years of studying the Bible, he does not know of any biblical problem passage for which there is not a satisfactory explanation.
In conclusion it can be said that the Bible is a trustworthy book. Despite the criticisms that it has received both from without and within the Church, it remains unshakeable in the truth that it declares to proclaim. Reliable in matters of faith and practice? Both the limited and the unlimited inerrancists can agree and say yes. But the unlimited inerrancist goes further and believes that all the words of Scripture are true. In holding to this belief those who hold to the full inerrancy of the Bible are able to agree wholeheartedly with the writer of Proverbs when he declares that "Every Word of God proves true...(Prov. 30:5). Those who hold to inerrancy do not close their eyes to the difficulties within the Bible, but at the same time they do not see these difficulties as errors or contradictions. Such difficulties can be explained and are in no way irreconcilable with the doctrine of inerrancy.
Archer, G.L. Encyclopaedia of Bible Difficulties. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1982.
Atheist Times, tract.
Elwell, W.A. (ed.) Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 1995.
Grudem, W. Systematic Theology. Leicester: IVP, 1994.
Johnson, M. "Atheist Message Rebutted." Wirral Globe. 30th March, 1994.
Lindsell, H. Battle for the Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976.
Stuart, D. (eds. Nicole, R.R. and Ramsey, J.R.) Inerrancy and Common Sense. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980.
McDowell, J. Christianity: A Ready Defence. San Bernardino: Here's Life Publishers, Inc., 1991.
Roberts, Jason. "Mission in Magazine Shocker." Wirral News. 30th March, 1994.
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