Inerrancy and Worldview: Modern Challenges to Inerrancy (Part 15)

inerrancy“Biblical theology is deeply embedded in biblical history and so in the real world in which we all live,” so writes Mark Thompson. History surrounds and penetrates the pages of Scriptures and we cannot do justice to the text without considering carefully its historicity. But as we do so, we want to keep before us a few principles regarding the relationship between the historicity of Scripture and the doctrine of inerrancy. The following principles will help us properly relate the history and inerrancy of the Bible.

#1 Acknowledge that the Bible is a historical document. Mark Noll wrote that the Bible has an “irreducibly historical character.” The Bible is written by real people, within real historical settings and situations, and involves historical accounts of God’s work and activity within real-time. As Graham Cole says:

Broadly speaking, sensitivity to the historical dimension of Scripture is not an option. It is inescapable if justice is to be done to the Bible’s own content. (Do Historical Matters, Matter to Faith)

To do theology apart from this historical dimension would be to turn God into a sort of phantom, and the theological concepts of the Scriptures into abstract and detached ideas, and the text of Scripture itself into a sort of religious resource for proof-texting such ideas. The Bible, however, functions as a narrative of God’s work in real history. Despite what some theologians desire to do, we cannot disconnect the Bible, or our theology, to the real history going on in and around the Bible. To do so is to misrepresent, and surely misunderstand Scripture.

#2 Acknowledge the existence of difficulties in the history of the Bible. Any honest study of Scripture will reveal that there are elements in the text that are difficult to understand, harmonize, or reconcile. Evangelicals need not be naïve, nor should we pretend that they don’t exist. To wrestle with the text is to ask why some Gospel accounts relate the same narrative with different details, or why some similarities exist between narratives in the Pentateuch and the writings of other ancient documents. We not only must acknowledge such tensions exist, but we should want to wrestle with them and understand them. It is safe, friends, to be honest about the difficulties in understanding the Bible.

#3 Acknowledge that our expectations of the history of the Bible may not be fair. Because the Bible is a historical document we must be willing to acknowledge that it was written in a specific time, that such a time had unique conventions and forms of communication, and that as such it may not conform to our expectations and conventions. We cannot impose onto the pages of the Bible a standard that is utterly foreign to it. Thompson observes:

Far too often in the discussion of biblical phenomena in this context, anachronistic expectations have been placed upon the texts, and little attention has been given to the differences between conventions of the first and twenty-first centuries in a range of areas. Greater sensitivity to the variety of literary devices used in Scripture (e.g., metaphor, hyperbole, phenomenological description) and the extent to which our “rules” are in fact conventions (e.g., standardized spelling, grammar, verbatim quotation) removes a great many difficulties at a single stroke.

It is only fair to read the Bible from within its own context before we start evaluating its historicity. The Bible contains a variety of genres and styles of literature (some of which are unique to the Bible itself), and utilizes conventions native to the time of its composition. Before we judge the text we must treat it fairly.

#4 Acknowledge the differences between tensions and contradictions. Many are too quick to pull the trigger on identifying something as a contradiction. The Bible does contain difficulties and we are more than willing to acknowledge that. But the presence of differences does not automatically equate with contradiction. A contradiction is a direct statement to the opposite of another statement. To say that the one angel was present at the tomb, is not the same as saying “only one, and not two angels” were present. We have a responsibility, surely, to wrestle with why there is this discrepancy, but we must be cautious to call a contradiction what, technically, is not.

#5 Acknowledge that the history of the Bible is written with theological agendas.  The Bible does not just give us “facts” or plain narratives. The authors are writing with a specific agenda and are being selective in the communication of their information, the arrangement of their information, and inclusion of their information, for the purposes of reaching that goal. We need not be scared by the presence of bias. Pure objectivity is a philosophical impossibility, and neither should it be assumed that such objectivity is preferred. We read the Bible as it is intended to be read, and that includes acknowledging the theological agendas of its authors (both human and divine).  As we accept this, it allows us to treat the matters of historicity in a way that is fair.

There are surely many more things we could say about the relationship between the history of the Scriptures and their inerrancy. These principles will guide us through the navigation of the bible in such a way that affirms its historicity and inerrancy, even while acknowledging the presence of difficulties in the text. Ultimately, however, if we stand behind the assertion that God is the divine author of Scripture then what he has said about it is true. The Bible affirms its own historicity, and as we continue to wrestle with the difficulties and tensions that exist in such a claim, we do so in submission to God. It is, after all, His book telling His Story.

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