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Sunday, June 14, 2015

On Faith, Doubt, and Biblical Inerrancy

Dear Christian,

Have you ever encountered a contradiction in the Bible?  I have.  When I was a freshman in college, I took a course called "Literature of the Old and New Testament," which raised for me such questions as, "Why do different accounts of the same events have different details?" leading to "Can the Bible be trusted?" leading to "Is my Christian faith reasonable and true?"

For example, that course raised the question, "Why do the creation accounts in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 disagree on the order of creation?" Genesis 1 has God creating plants on the third day and man on the sixth day, while Genesis 2 states that man was created when "no shrub of the field was yet in the earth, and no plant of the field had yet sprouted" (Gen 2:5).  This is a very difficult discrepancy to explain away, and it occurs literally within the first two pages of my Bible.  How in the world can I trust this book?

After about a year of uncertainty about these things, God was gracious to restore and strengthen my faith in Him in spite of my doubts, and I can confidently say I believe the gospel is true.  But I never found a very satisfying answer to my doubts about Biblical inerrancy (i.e., the belief that the Bible contains no errors).

It's also not an easy question to bring up in a Bible study.  "Hey guys!  Did you notice these mistakes in the Bible?  What do you think about them? .... Wait, you never noticed them?  Oh, sorry.  Ooo, now you're doubting your salvation?  Whoooooopppppps."  (Or, conversely, now you're doubting MY salvation?)

However, good news!  I finally found a good answer in the book A Reasonable Response by Christian philosopher William Lane Craig.  This is just a book of letters in which he answers questions from readers and seekers.  I found the four letters on Biblical inerrancy to be very helpful.

One questioner asks,
"...After re-evaluating my Christian faith and pruning it for two years, I can't shake what seem like two disparate conclusions.  One is that the evidence for Jesus' resurrection is impeccable.  But the other is that there seem to be some very awkward realities about the composition of Scripture (like errors or authors claiming to write by another name).  Yet the authors of the New Testament, including Jesus, seem to use Scripture in a way that assumes it is word for word from God" (p. 105).
 There are several parts of Craig's response that I want to share.  He says,
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 (p. 106).
 He goes on to say that we all know that poetry is not meant to be taken literally.  None of us (Christian or non-Christian) insists that all of the poems, songs, and figurative language in the Bible must be literally true for us to believe that the Bible is without error.

But what I didn't realize is that many other parts of the Bible are written in a genre from which we would not expect journalistic attention to detail and chronology.  He states that the gospels are most closely in the genre of "ancient biography," such as Plutarch's Lives, which do 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" (p. 108).

The question of chronology actually briefly came up in my Bible study just a couple weeks ago; someone was reading aloud from the book of Mark, and their translation had added a heading to the temple cleansing story: "Jesus clears the temple again." Again?  Well, if you're trying to harmonize the gospels chronologically you need Jesus clearing the temple twice, because John puts the event early in his ministry and Mark puts it right before Jesus is killed.  But Craig says, "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" (p. 108).

To simplify, I think it's hugely helpful to not demand that the Bible be written as a fact-by-fact, moment-by-moment newspaper account in order to trust that it's true.  Craig says, "A Bible that employs a rich variety of genres should not be treated like a flat, monotone book.  We need to come to God's Word with humility and learn from it what it intends to teach and affirm" (p. 109).

But what if you take into account the different genres that the Bible contains and still find errors that you can't resolve?  In other words, what if you lose your faith in Biblical inerrancy?  Must you then forsake your faith in Christ?  That's what I thought would have to happen when I was a freshman in my Lit of Old and New Testaments class.  But I know from experiencing the work of the Holy Spirit in my life that Jesus has changed me.  So how can I reconcile that with a reasonable faith?

As Craig says,
"Suppose you've done all that and are still convinced that Scripture is not inerrant.  Does that mean that the deity and resurrection of Christ go down the drain?  Not at all" (p. 110).
 He mentions a man named Bret Ehrman who found a discrepancy in the New Testament that he could not resolve, and then renounced his faith.  Craig says,
"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 further 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" (p. 110-111).
What I gained from this reading is that inerrancy can be a doctrine held by a rational, intellectual Christian even in the face of apparent discrepancies if the genre of the original writing is taken into account.  But even if the rational, intellectual Christian comes to believe there are mistakes in the Bible, he or she can still believe in the inspiration of the Bible as God's word and in the historical fact of Christ's resurrection, which can be defended both from theology and philosophy as well as from history.


I realize this is kind of dense reading and probably only one or two of you are still with me.  But if these are questions you've thought of, or have some insight on, I'd love to hear from you.

Post Edit:  My friend Lisa just e-mailed me using the phrase "literary vs literal" reading of the Bible, which is a good summary of the first point in this post and, blessedly, MUCH SHORTER.

Also, I've been enjoying William Lane Craig's website this week.  Check it out at  I especially like the Q&A.


Jessica said...

Yes! Well said. (I'd write more, but every time I've tried to post a comment it won't let me.)

Alison said...

If it makes you feel any better, i can't comment either unless I'm on my phone or a newer computer. I don't know what's wrong with blogger.
But, thanks for your comment and I'd love to know all the thoughts that disappeared with your failed comment attempts.