Opinions on faith and life

The Bible, Inspiration, and Inerrancy, Part Two

2011-06-18

In Part One we looked at attacks against the OT scriptures regarding its origination (humanly speaking) and transmission. We considered the fallacious nature of some, such as the fact that the order of written documents is not necessarily the order of revelation, such that it is at least as likely that God first spoke to people and then, because of rebellion, divine wisdom was forgotten or corrupted. Then we were introduced to some quality research to support a view of the OT that gives us confidence in its accuracy and authenticity, as a counterbalance to the typical claims made against it. In this part we’ll examine similar issues regarding the New Testament.

One criticism is that the NT is somehow useless as a reliable source about Jesus because of alleged bias on the part of those who wrote it down. But as the Thinktank article on that topic explains, this is known as the “genetic fallacy”, a type of “ad hominem” or attack against the person instead of judging the material on its own merit. While we often say “history is written by the victors”, one wonders how the early Christians could be considered such in light of their persecution at the hands of the Jews in the beginning. Someone making up stories about a mythical or ordinary figure would not, for example, feature women and Gentiles so prominently, nor portray the disciples as cowards hiding in a locked room on the morning Jesus rose from the dead. We can also note that the bulk of the NT went very much against the grain of people who spoke and acted as devout Jews and who were the most unlikely sort to instigate a revolution. Perhaps this is one of the reasons Jesus picked ordinary people as disciples instead of the rich and powerful.

Another point brought out in that article is the issue of credibility as witnesses. Critics point to apparent contradictions as evidence that God had nothing to do with the text, yet as any trial lawyer will testify, not every difference is necessarily a contradiction. If four people witness a traffic accident from four different angles, the investigating officer will suspect collusion if all the stories are identical. But if there are differences then the investigator can deduce whether they are due to mistaken witnesses or simple matters of one’s angle of view to the event.

In the case of the gospels and Acts, we must take such things into account and remember that historians of the time did not concern themselves with strict chronology, numerical precision, or exhaustive documentation as we are today. For the most part these witnesses were, as stated, ordinary people, with the exception of the physician Luke. And no attempt was made by the generations that followed to turn them into legends or gods or any such “larger than life” characters. All things considered, if the gospels and Acts are a fraud, the fraudsters did the poorest job of it. After all, what kind of mischievous fishermen don’t tell tall tales?

The article touches only briefly on the topic of miracles. But here again, if the citation of miracles automatically makes the NT a book of fables, this is begging the question: we would have to presume that miracles never happened, and then use the presence of them in a text as a reason to dismiss it. And for professing Christians who doubt the many miracles found especially in the gospels and Acts, why do they hold on to the biggest ones of all— the resurrections of Lazarus, Dorcas, and Jesus from the dead?

For more discussion about NT reliability, please also see this email exchange at the Thinktank. But as good as the Thinktank articles are, no study of the reliability of the gospels is complete without a careful reading of Simon Greenleaf’s Testimony of the Evangelists. From the introductory paragraph:

Greenleaf, one of the principle founders of the Harvard Law School, originally set out to disprove the biblical testimony concerning the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He was certain that a careful examination of the internal witness of the Gospels would dispel all the myths at the heart of Christianity. But this legal scholar came to the conclusion that the witnesses were reliable, and that the resurrection did in fact happen.

The rest of the NT is composed of the Letters (or Epistles) and the one prophetic book of Revelation. I won’t be going into the question about how the Bible canon was assembled, but since it comes up often in such debates I recommend this Thinktank article as a handy reference. Sadly, the intended range of material was never completely covered, but there is still plenty to study.

The Letters were exactly that: letters. Most were written by Paul to various congregations, for the purpose of addressing problems and questions the young faith was experiencing. It is likened to hearing one side of a telephone conversation, as we know little about the actual questions Paul was asked and have to piece together other contextual clues as best we can. But though they may not have been consciously written as theological treatises, they tell us what “the teachings of the apostles” were (Acts 2:42) and give us insight into the ways in which various problems were faced and handled. They show us the winding path from purity and innocence to “passing the test” and achieving maturity. We get a glimpse of what kind of behavior the apostles exhibited in everyday life, and even a smattering of things to come.

Of course, the “things to come” are most concentrated in the book of Revelation. But remember that though it is replete with visions and symbols, these point to literal realities. An apocalyptic genre is not something to be hidden but to be revealed; that is the meaning of the word and where we get the title Revelation. John described what he was literally seeing, and in some cases he was told exactly what it meant. Just as Peter’s rooftop vision in Acts 10 was to teach him that the Gentiles were to be equal heirs of salvation, so also John’s revelation has a purpose as well, and it isn’t just to paint a colorful picture of world history or give a vague and poetic impression of the epic struggle between good and evil. So the common interpretations that reduce Revelation to a scary story or mystical exercise are themselves works of fiction. As is the case on many other topics, the mere ability to propose an alternate explanation of something does not mean the first or primary explanation is invalid. Far from “an old man’s bitter diatribe against the Romans” as some like to say, Revelation is indeed a road map to the end of life as we know it.

What I hope is clear at this point is that there are in fact valid counter-arguments to the seeming airtight assaults typically leveled against the Bible in colleges and message boards around the world. As we are told in Proverbs 18:17, the first person to speak always seems right… until they are cross-examined. Many grow up hearing one side but just give it up without a fight the first time they hear the other. To honestly examine such an important issue, we need to go back and forth numerous times until we are satisfied we’ve given each side a fair hearing. To always be prepared to give an answer for the hope that we have (1 Peter 3:15) means more than our personal testimony of salvation. And if for whatever reason we are not able to take that extra step, we need to connect the one asking us with those who are.

Now that we have a good foundation for the reliability of the text of the Bible, the next step is to examine the issue of Inerrancy and Inspiration. Those two concepts really intertwine, because if the Bible is not inspired then there’s little reason to ask whether it is inerrant. While the reliability issue assures us that the text is at least as accurate as any other of the era and is therefore reliable as history and literature, the next logical step involves the matter of perfection in every detail.

Part One, Part Three