Thursday, July 12, 2007


At his site, Reasonable Faith, William Lane Craig responds to an issue or an inquiry each week. Recently the question asked was about the authority of Scripture, given its apparent errors and inconsistencies. Craig responded with a definition and explanation of what biblical "inerrancy" means. But he also points out that the truth of the gospel doesn't rise or fall depending on that doctrine. Portions of his answer:
...[T]he late Kenneth Kantzer, Dean of the seminary I attended, argued for inerrancy by means of the following two syllogisms:
  1. Whatever God teaches is true.
  2. Historical, prophetic, and other evidences show that Jesus is God.
  3. Therefore, whatever Jesus teaches is true.
  4. Whatever Jesus teaches is true.
  5. Jesus taught that the Scriptures are the inspired, inerrant Word of God.
  6. Therefore, the Scriptures are the inspired, inerrant Word of God.
The claim here is that we have good reasons to think that the Bible, despite its difficulties, is the inerrant Word of God and therefore we should accept it as such. As Friedrich Schleiermacher once put it, “We do not believe in Christ because we believe in the Bible; we believe in the Bible because we believe in Christ.” ....

Now the question raised by your letter is what our reaction should be if we become convinced that there really is an error in the Bible. Won’t such a conclusion have a kind of reverse effect along our chain of deductive reasoning, leading us to deny Jesus’ resurrection and deity? This was apparently the conclusion of Bart Ehrman, who says he lost his faith in Christ because he discovered one minor error in the Gospels.

Such a conclusion is unnecessary for two reasons. First, we may need instead to revise our understanding of what constitutes an error. Nobody thinks that when Jesus says that the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds (Mark 4.31) this is an error, even though there are smaller seeds than mustard seeds. Why? Because Jesus is not teaching botany; he is trying to teach a lesson about the Kingdom of God, and the illustration is incidental to this lesson. Defenders of inerrancy claim that the Bible is authoritative and inerrant in all that it teaches or all that it means to affirm. This raises the huge question as to what the authors of Scripture intend to affirm or teach. Questions of genre will have a significant bearing on our answer to that question. Poetry obviously is not intended to be taken literally, for example. But then what about the Gospels? What is their genre? Scholars have come to see that the genre to which the Gospels most closely conform is ancient biography. This is important for our question because ancient biography does not have the intention of providing a chronological account of the hero’s life from the cradle to the grave. Rather ancient biography relates anecdotes that serve to illustrate the hero’s character qualities. What one might consider an error in a modern biography need not at all count as an error in an ancient biography. To illustrate, at one time in my Christian life I believed that Jesus actually cleansed the Temple in Jerusalem twice, once near the beginning of his ministry as John relates, and once near the end of his life, as we read in the Synoptic Gospels. But an understanding of the Gospels as ancient biographies relieves us of such a supposition, for an ancient biographer can relate incidents in a non-chronological way. Only an unsympathetic (and uncomprehending) reader would take John’s moving the Temple cleansing to earlier in Jesus’ life as an error on John’s part. ....

So if we are confronted with what appears to be an error in Scripture, we should first ask whether we’re not imposing on Scripture a standard of inerrancy which is foreign to the genre of the writing and the intent of its author. ....

Evangelicals sometimes give lip service to the claim that the Gospels are historically reliable, even when examined by the canons of ordinary historical research; but I wonder if they really believe this. It really is true that a solid, persuasive case for Jesus’ resurrection can be made without any assumption of the Gospels’ inerrancy.

By contrast, the case for Jesus’ belief that the Old Testament Scriptures are inerrant is much weaker. I think there’s no doubt that (5) is the premise that would have to go if biblical inerrancy were to be abandoned. We should have to re-think our doctrine of inspiration in that case, but we needn’t give up belief in God or in Jesus, as Bart Ehrman did. Ehrman had, it seems to me, a flawed theological system of beliefs as a Christian. It seems that at the center of his web of theological beliefs was biblical inerrancy, and everything else, like the beliefs in the deity of Christ and in his resurrection, depended on that. Once the center was gone, the whole web soon collapsed. But when you think about it, such a structure is deeply flawed. At the center of our web of beliefs ought to be some core belief like the belief that God exists, with the deity and resurrection of Christ somewhere near the center. The doctrine of inspiration of Scripture will be somewhere further out and inerrancy even farther toward the periphery as a corollary of inspiration. If inerrancy goes, the web will feel the reverberations of that loss, as we adjust our doctrine of inspiration accordingly, but the web will not collapse because belief in God and Christ and his resurrection and so on don’t depend upon the doctrine of biblical inerrancy.
Reasonable Faith: What Price Biblical Errancy

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