Tuesday, February 3, 2009

A Bible Without "Error"


Thanks to God’s providence and power, Scripture, in the original manuscripts, is for us a completely errorless text in all it affirms. Every word, every fact, every matter of faith and practice is without any error, in keeping with the character of God, who inspired (God-breathed) the text. In the process of writing Scripture, the Holy Spirit spoke infallibly through fallible men, all the while allowing the style and personality of the writer, and the cultural distinctives (including the various literary genres) to shape the final form of the original text.

We must certainly be willing to acknowledge the potential for errors to occur in the transmission process, and comparing what known manuscripts we currently have can substantiate many of these errors. This is likely to happen through hundreds of years of copying by scribes. With this understanding, the science of textual criticism is then employed, so as to arrive to as close a reading as we can to the original autographs. We can acknowledge mistakes in transmission, but it is more important to acknowledge the fact that God does not lie and does not communicate to us in such a way that what he says is contrary to fact. Using the context to aid us, we can safely conclude that we have the original manuscript with 99 percent accuracy and that none of this compromises important doctrine. Furthermore, it is not necessary to see discrepancies in numbers (which may be rounded) and a lack of concrete language as “errors” in the text. To be imprecise is not necessarily to be in err. Modern day tests of precision and accuracy need not usurp inerrancy. As John Frame rightly asks and answers,

But why does God allow vagueness in His inerrant Word? Because vagueness is often both necessary and desirable for communication, and God’s purpose in Scripture is to communicate, not to state the truth in the most precise form possible.[1]

With regard to numbers which may be rounded, for it to be concluded that what was written is factually in error, it would have to be shown that “the degree of precision implied by the speaker and expected by his original hearers” is completely or grossly contrary to historical fact.[2] Thus to claim that there were 1,000 men killed by Samson (Jud 15:15) when in fact it could be substantiated that there were only 3 or 4 killed would be to indeed find an error.[3] The issue we are getting at here is truthfulness, which must be measured in its rightful context. It is essential to affirm that chronicles in Scripture can and do provide accurate “informational” content, because it is impossible to disconnect the theological or moral meaning from its historical moorings. Much work has been done to show that many “problem texts” in Scripture can indeed be resolved and harmonized through deeper historical, linguistic, and literary study. I find it interesting that even as I write this, archaeologists have just uncovered the ancient wall in Jerusalem built by Nehemiah. I love it when this happens!

The analogy of faith is also a binding conviction in my understanding of Scripture. This is a principle of interpretation that recognizes the inherent unity of the Bible (Genesis through Revelation). We then can clarify “problem texts” that are suspicious that would seem to advocate more than just a factual error. For example, a contextual study of James 2:24 would help us see that it does not contradict Ephesians 2:8-9 or Romans 3:28. The harmonization of these texts reveal to us that although we indeed are saved by grace through faith alone, a true saving faith is one that will embody fruit or works in keeping with repentance. Therefore, the Bible does not contradict itself resulting in some doctrinal and moral error. It is, as Wayne Grudem puts it, a “gracious condescension” for God to speak to us in human language through the Holy Scriptures. And as such, it is an "action" of God that is without error.[4] In what the Bible claims, whether this is a historical fact or a theological or moral assertion couched in such, it is wholly true.

[1] John M. Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 1987), 221. The latter emphasis is mine.

[2] Wayne A. Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 91. Grudem also notes that it was acceptable in the ancient world to loosely quote the content of an earlier speaker or writer without presenting an exact quotation (92). Surely this is what many of the Apostles did in the NT when quoting the OT. Yet using a loose quotation (an indirect quote) does not deny the truthfulness of what is being said or cause one to note a contradiction resulting in a false assertion.

[3] For a helpful essay which seeks to resolve some alleged errors in the text, see Gleason L. Archer, “Alleged Errors and Discrepancies in the Original Manuscripts of the Bible,” in Inerrancy, ed. Norman L. Geisler (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980), 57-82.

[4] The connection of seeing Holy Scripture as divine action embodied in human language is further reason why one can advocate inerrancy. God is performing an action when He speaks, and all His actions are perfect. These are known as "speech acts."

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