Chapter 6: Scripture’s Light and Beauty. 1, Inspiration and Inerrancy

All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work (2 Tim. 3:16-17).

I studied Koine Greek for three semesters in college and, sometime in 1978, I jotted into my Bible’s margin the first part of the original sentence of 2 Timothy 3:16: Pasa graphê theopneustos kai ophelimos pros didaskalian. I felt smart—a shy 21-year-old, learning a biblical language—but I was also fascinated by new meanings opened up by a basic knowledge of Greek. The word “inspired” (theopneustos) means “in-spirited,” literally “God-breathed.” The Hebrew and Greek words ruah and pneuma mean both “spirit” and also “breath.” See, for instance, the well-known story Ezekiel 37:1-14. Interestingly, the verse could also be translated “All scripture inspired by God is profitable,” etc.

We might paraphrase theopneustos slightly as “God-empowered,” because breath—our breath or God’s Spirit—is essential for life and empowers life. If we read the verse in the equally valid alternative way, “All scripture inspired by God is…,” then we see how God’s “in-spiriting” is an ongoing miracle.[1]  The Holy Spirit inspired the original, multiple authorship of the Bible’s content and the centuries-long formation and canonization of the text, but the same Spirit also inspires us, today. The Bible, of course, can be read and studied without providing any special insight or experience, and certainly the Bible can be used and misused to suit personal circumstances. But the Holy Spirit opens the Bible’s truth, helps us interpret and understand the book, convinces and convicts us, and guides us in our relationship to God.

The Holy Spirit also forms the church in which we learn and read the scriptures. One of my professors writes, “Just as it was a serious mistake for scholastic Protestantism to attempt to defend rationally an infallible biblical text apart from the working of the Holy Spirit, it is equally erroneous for a modern theology to separate the function of the Spirit from the content of the written Word which continues to voice the one will of God for the church.”[2] The Holy Spirit, empowering the Bible, shapes the church, calls it to be truly the Body of Christ, works through the preached Word, and gives us grace through the sacraments.

Each of us may be social or private people, depending on our personalities, feelings of trust, and preferences in how to live our lives. But broadly speaking we are never solitary Christians; the Bible and the Holy Spirit guide and teach us through fellowships in which the Bible in turn is read aloud, expounded, studied, and taught.

*******

The Bible is inspired, but is it inerrant? That question bothered me during my college time.[3] I wondered why the Timothy text didn’t read theograptos, “God-written.” We don’t use “inspired” and “inerrant” as synonyms in everyday speech; we’re more likely to say that, for instance, a very “inspired” performance is “definitive” or “authoritative.”

Ethiopian Coptic cross, made from armaments.

Ethiopian Coptic cross, made from armaments.

As you dig into Bible study, you are going to find discrepancies, differences of theological outlook among the authors, differences ofdetails among passages, and variant, contrasting accounts of the same story. Leafing through my old Bible, I can find numerous examples. Accounts differ: 2 Samuel 21:19 states that Elhanan killed Goliath, while 1 Chronicles 20:5 states that Elhanan killed Goliath’s brother Lahmi. The two creation stories (Gen. 1:1-2:4a and 2:4b-2:24), and the two stories of God’s command to Noah (Gen. 6:19-22 and 7:1-5) vary in details. Is one version truer than the other?  Deuteronomy is primarily Moses’ reiteration of the law, but Deuteronomy has many differences with laws in other Torah books, including differences among the Ten Commandments (Ex. 20:2-17 and Deut. 5:6-21).[4] Isaiah 2:4 is a beautiful depiction of God’s will for peace (swords beaten into plowshares), but the opposite sentiment (reflecting different prophetic purposes, and referring to Gentiles’ attack on Israel) is expressed in Joel 3:9-10. In Mark 2:26, Jesus says that Abiathar was high priest when David ate the bread of the presence, but according to 1 Samuel 21:1-6 that recounts the event, Ahimelech was priest with whom David interacted (although in the overall story, David also interacts with Abiathar: 1 Samuel 22:20-23). The most important story in the Bible, the Resurrection, is recounted in the four gospels with variations of detail: Jesus rose, that’s certain, but otherwise, who exactly went to the tomb, who said what, and what exactly happened in what order? Recently I purchased a book that discusses various difficult passages and attempts to explain the discrepancies and questionable differences.[5]

In addition to these, we find many Bible passages that reflect a pre-scientific “model” of the earth and universe: for instance, Exodus 20:4, 2 Samuel 22:8, Job. 26:5, Psalms 24:2, 46:3, 136:6, 148:4, and Job 26:5.[6] Leviticus 11:19 lists bats among kinds of non-kosher birds; surely we don’t have to take the trouble to explain the Bible on this point in light of our modern scientific classifications. Many people, of course (myself included) do not believe that the essential and indispensable truths of Genesis 1 require belief in a week of 24-hour days, where, after all, the source of terrestrial days, the sun, was not created until the fourth day.

Supporters of inerrancy are loath to call differences, problems, and anomalies in the text “errors.” They argue that the original manuscripts of the Bible were inerrant, but now a few errors have crept in thanks to centuries of copying, a theory that accounts for the discrepancies one sometimes finds between biblical books. If there are errors in the Bible, then the whole scripture is wrong and God is a liar. But God cannot lie (Heb. 6:18, Titus 1:2) and therefore the Bible has inerrant.

That is a false choice. Again: we don’t make those distinctions in everyday use. I regret an error that I made in a history book I wrote. I’d checked several sources and made a suitable conclusion, but later new information surfaced which would’ve changed my conclusion. The error only pointed to the incompleteness of my human knowledge. The mistake doesn’t imply that it should be explained away through artificial means, or I’m a liar, or that the entire book is a lie.

At my college library, I discovered the writings of the Dutch Calvinist theologian G. C. Berkouwer. In his book on the scriptures, he notes that proponents of biblical inerrancy confuse two definition of error, one the sense of incorrect knowledge and the other the sense of deception and sin. The biblical authors, within their particular time and culture, had limited knowledge of science, of certain historical occurrences, and of the content of other writings that became canonized in the Bible; but we cannot thereby say that the biblical authors lied or that God lied. The scriptures are still light for our path and the Holy Spirit still testifies through them. But when the definition of “error” is so formalized, “the relationship of the organic, God-breathed character to the organic unity and scope of the total testimony of Scripture is almost totally ignored.”[7]

Questions of biblical authority are often raised in the context of conflicts concerning the theories and discoveries of modern science. We should recognize the historical development and time-bound character of the Bible writers, so that when we encounter in the Bible ancient and “outdated” views of the cosmos, we need not think that we’re selling-out the Bible to science when we recognize the former’s cultural origins, nor do we have to declare the Bible wholly false if the scientific discoveries do not comfort to biblical details. What is needed, instead, is “naturalness” on our parts to witness to the reliability and authority of the Bible in its overall purpose as a God-breathed witness to God—not a science book.[8]

Ideas of formal inerrancy can be disagreed with, but we still have to think about ways God inspires scripture, so that its authority is advanced rather than unintentionally damaged.[9]

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[1] The Reformation doctrine of the testimonium Spiritus Sancti internum, the “inner witness of the Holy Spirit,” refers to the power of the Holy Spirit to illuminate one’s heart in order to “receive” the scripture.

[2]  Brevard S. Childs, Biblical Theology of the Old and New Testaments (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 663.

[3] A book widely discussed when I was in college, for instance, was Harold Lindsell, The Battle for the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976).  Also Carl F. H. Henry’s Frontiers of Modern Theology: A Critique of Current Theological Trends (Chicago: Moody Press, 1965). For a fuller account of the arguments in favor of inerrancy, one should read the 1978 “Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy,” the text of which can be found at http://www.bible-researcher.com/chicago1.html. Contemporary Anglo-American and continental discussions about biblical hermeneutics have different emphases than writers like Lindsell and Warfield.

[4] For several differences among the laws, see Marc Zvi Brettler, How to Read the Jewish Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), chapter 10.

[5]  Gleason L. Archer, New International Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982). The forward and introduction of this book also spell out several of the issues concerning inerrancy.

[6]  These selections are from G. C. Berkouwer, Studies in Dogmatics: Holy Scripture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmanns, 1975), 182.

[7]  Berkouwer, 181-182 (quote on 182).

[8]  Berkouwer, 182-183.  In another context, the great Jewish scholar and activist Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “In Rabbi Akiva’s view, textual teaching exists for expansion. One who confines exegesis to the surface meaning is like a poor man looking for gleanings. Torah must not be fixed. The text should be treated as is any living organism that will not remain inert and that has multiple facets. For there is life in the text, and it can grow and bear fruit.” Abraham Joshua Heschel, Heavenly Torah: As Reflected through the Generations, edited and translated by Gordon Tucker (New York: Continuum, 2011), 56.

[9] Berkouwer, Studies in Dogmatics, 183.

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