This piece is based on transcripts of a lecture I gave on the subject.
This lecture on the so-called phenomena of Scripture is necessary because in the modern and postmodern eras it has become more and more common not only to refer to the inspiration of Scripture, which is clearly a biblical doctrine, but to bolster this claim with the assertion of biblical inerrancy; it is perfectly justifiable to think and speak in these terms. Inspiration includes inerrancy and authority requires inerrancy.
Evangelicals Against Inerrancy
There are some though who do not take this position, who we would yet call evangelical in most other respects. Contemporaries whom we might identify as non-inerrantists are A.T.B. McGowan, William Lane Craig, and Craig Blomberg. Older representatives would be James Orr, and Francis L. Patton. Patton, for example, said this:
To say that the Bible is trustworthy because of its accuracy is by implication to say that we have the right and power to discern between truth and error. You cannot license reason to seek truth and deny her right to see error. It is a hazardous thing to say that being inspired the Bible must be free from error, for then the discovery of a single error would destroy its inspiration. Nor have we any right to substitute the word inerrancy for inspiration in our discussion of the Bible, unless we are prepared to show from the teaching of the Bible that inspiration means inerrancy and that I think would be a difficult thing to do…
Suppose that scientific proofs should compel you to put another interpretation upon the program of creation as it has compelled you to give another meaning to the word ‘day’. Would you give up the whole of the New Testament? Without pertaining to any special scientific knowledge, it seems to me remarkable that the biblical account of creation, which so wonderfully taught the essential truth of creation to man ages before science was born, still teaches it to scientific men if their prosaic science has not caused their imagination to suffer atrophy. But how foolish it would be to give up the Gospel simply because of a dead literalism of interpretation would find no support in a modern textbook on biology. – Francis L. Patton [President of Princeton Seminary, 1902-1913], Fundamental Christianity, 163-165
We see from that quotation from Patton’s book, which was written in 1925, reveals a man who certainly is very clearly evangelical and yet who strongly hesitates to equate inerrancy with the doctrine of inspiration. In fact, that whole chapter has to do with the seat of authority in Christianity and therefore he does not believe either that the doctrine of inerrancy is necessary for the Scriptures to be authoritative.
Now these objections to inerrancy are from a clearly evidentialist perspective, that is from the perspective of someone who is concerned with matching the assertions of Scripture with the ‘facts’ of science. They serve to show us that this subject of the actual contents of the Bible as we have it, is an important subject for evangelicals to get straight.
A Way to Proceed
I am concerned to answer the objections of those who have claimed to find errors in the text of Scripture as it has come down to us; thus, we are dealing with what has become known as the phenomena of Scripture.
Here is the NT scholar Everett Harrison:
If a person has become convinced by the study of the word that its majesty and perfection can only be accounted for on the basis that the text was free from error as originally given, such a person ought not to be charged with intellectual dishonesty if he refuses to let perplexing problems in the sacred record move him from his solid conviction. He may feel bound to seek explanation for the problems and perhaps be dissatisfied with the explanations he receives, yet he continues to rest in his conviction less the abandonment of his position mean the forsaking of Scripture as the word of God. – Everett F. Harrison, Revelation and the Bible, edited by Carl F. H. Henry , 238
Now what he’s saying here is, as all evangelicals have basically said – including the drafters of the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy, the Bible in its original manuscripts, in its autographs, is inerrant. There is a possibility that you may find certain problematical errors which you cannot explain, but you do not have to admit them as errors. If you have a poor translation you may very well find some errors within it, but those are translation errors not textual errors or errors in the text that has been providentially given to us. Of course, the word “errors” has to be defined.
What does an ‘error’ mean?
Here is a basic definition of an error:
If the statements that it contains, that is the Bible, concerning matters of history and science can be proven by extra-biblical records, by ancient documents recovered through the archaeological digs, or by the established facts of modern science to be contrary to the truth then there is grave doubt as to its trustworthiness in matters of religion. – Gleason L. Archer, Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, 23
In other words, if the biblical record can be proved fallible in areas of fact that can be verified, then it is hardly to be trusted in areas where it cannot be tested. As a witness for God, the Bible would be discredited as untrustworthy.
R. C. Sproul, one of the authors of the Chicago Statement, wrote,
It would be inappropriate to evaluate the Bible’s internal consistency with its own truth claims by standards foreign to the Bible’s own view of truth. When we say that the trustworthiness of Scripture ought to be evaluated according to its own standards, that means that for the Scripture to be true to its claim it must have an internal consistency compatible with the biblical concept of truth and that all the claims of the Bible must correspond with reality, whether that reality is historical, factual, or spiritual. – R. C. Sproul, Scripture Alone, 157. [He is expounding Article 13 of the Chicago Statement]
Going back to Harrison, the first thing that he speaks to on this issue of the phenomena of Scripture is the text of Scripture itself. Something that he brings up straightaway, which most people would not give a second thought to, is the fact that we do have a text of Scripture. It is not that we don’t have one, that we’re saying that the text of Scripture isn’t there and that we have to piece it together as much as we can…no, we really do have the text of the Old and New Testament, and we have it in thousands of manuscripts and thousands of quotations from church fathers and lections and different versions of Old and New Testament.
Yes, there are variant readings, but when people like Bart Ehrman speak about the thousands of variants which make it difficult for us to know what the originals said; we should put this into the right context. He blows it out of all proportion. When we examine it more closely it becomes clear that we’re talking about spelling variants, about a transposition of words, etc. In fact, for the most part, we are simply noting the employment of the “movable Nu” in a sentence.
Harrison, in his essay then he moves on to biblical chronology. Now this is somewhere where many critics will say “Well, the chronology is all wrong; it doesn’t add up.” Without again going into detail, the following example will help.
When we once accept the premise of an original reckoning of reigns in Israel according to the non-accession year system, with the latest shift to the accession year method, of the early use in Judah of accession year reckoning, a shift to the non-accession year system, and then a return to the original accession year method; when we begin the Regnal year in Israel with Nissan and with Tishri in Judah; when we take into consideration the existence of a number of co-regencies, and when we recognize that at some late date long after the original records of the Kings have been set in order, and when the true arrangement of the reigns had been forgotten, certain synchronisms in 2 Kings 17 and 18 were introduced by some late hands strangely out of harmony with the original pattern of reigns; when all this is understood we have shown that it becomes possible to set forth an arrangement of reigns for the Hebrew kings in which we find both internal harmony and agreement with the facts of contemporary history. – Edwin H. Thiele, The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings [cited by Harrison]
If what Thiele says is correct there is nothing there to point to error. Even what Thiele says about ‘synchronisms’ by later compilers or redactors, – and we certainly know that that happened in the case of the historical books – that being the case, those not errors because somebody is putting together the history and they are doing it in an accurate way, even if it does not follow after the dictates of modern historiography. [For more on this consult the work by Eugene Merrill, Kingdom of Priests which goes through all of this in great detail]