Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Why Trust the Bible (3)

Are there errors in the Bible?

If we are serious about treating the Bible as God’s word then the answer has to be no. Numbers 23:19 says ‘God is not man, that He should lie’, John 17:17 says ‘your word is truth’ and Psalm 12:6 says: ‘The words of the LORD are pure words’
But how can we defend Biblical inerrancy? The word inerrant means ‘containing no errors, or simply infallible. I think there are four or five reasons.

1) The Bible can be inerrant and still speak in the ordinary language of every day speech.
For example, the Bible can talk of there being 8,000 people somewhere, when in fact there were 7,800 or 8,100 and still be inerrant. I can say ‘I live a mile away from the office’, and whether I live three quarters of a mile or a mile and a half from the office my statement is still inerrant in that it’s not untrue. If I lived five miles from the office, then I’d be wrong. Inerrancy is to do with truthfulness not degrees of precision.

2) The Bible can be inerrant and still contain loose or free quotations.
This is a question of culture. In the period the Bible was being written the importance of quoting someone word for word was much less than the importance of getting the gist of what someone said. Content was more important than words. So if someone says to me ‘I’ll be there in five minutes’ and I write down ‘he’ll be here soon’ what I’ve written down is still error free, even if it’s not word for word what was said.

3) The problem of original manuscripts.
Some people might object that we can only claim inerrancy for the original manuscripts. These originals no longer exist, we only have copies of copies of what Paul, or Moses or Solomon wrote, so what’s the point of defending a stance that is irrelevant to the Bible we actually hold in our hands. Surely no one can tell us that this Bible right here is inerrant, even if we think the original manuscripts were?

This is a good question, but it has a good answer. We can, in fact, be sure of 99% of the words in the original. Even where we’re not sure, the meaning is usually obvious, and where it’s not it changes nothing of the meaning of the verse or overall point. We don’t even have to speak Greek or Hebrew to know where these variations occur, because our Bibles actually tell us. Look at the end of Mark’s Gospel, or try looking up Luke 17:36. The fact that the Bible itself tells us where the problems occur should give us a tremendous amount of confidence in this area.
That’s not to say that we need to do away with the debate over variations for good. In fact, the more research scholars have done on this issue, the closer we’ve actually come to knowing what the original manuscripts said.

For most practical purposes then, we can be sure that the published scholarly texts on which our Bibles are based are the same as the originals. So when we say we believe that the original manuscripts were inerrant we are saying that what we read every day is inerrant, because we know they are 99% the same. Inerrancy directly concerns our every day Bibles. Because of this, we must obviously defend the inerrancy of the original manuscripts.

4) The problem of contradictions.
People are keen to make this argument. I’ve often found that it’s best to ask them which particular text they have in mind before leaping into a defence. First of all, because it’s easier to talk in specifics than in generals in this area, and secondly because in most cases they don’t have an example, they’re just repeating what they’ve heard from others. Most perceived contradictions can be dealt with according to a careful reading of the text, and an attention paid to context. Text plus context equals meaning. For example the commands of the law might seem to contradict the commands of the Sermon on the Mount. When they’re carefully put into their redemptive historical context, the problem is sorted. Remember always that the whole Bible is about Jesus.

What about what many people view as the deepest contradiction in the Bible, that of the perceived contradiction between the character of God on the OT ands NT. This idea, again, just doesn’t stand up to Biblical analysis. In fact if anything it’s the wrong way around. Look at how God deals with Noah, or Lot, or indeed the returning exiles. Look at how God gives Pharaoh nine chances to repent, or how He gives His enemies four hundred years to repent. Witness Jesus calling the Pharisees a brood of vipers, or Him saying that he comes to bring division on the earth. Or the fact that He spoke more about Hell than anyone else. Now, obviously I’ve missed out large parts of the story in both testaments, but you take my point.

Even areas such as the differing reports of the death of Judas should not cause major problems. Whether he died by hanging himself, or fell open in a field the point of the scripture is that Judas died. Even those two accounts are not necessarily mutually exclusive. There is also material on this question from the Apostolic Fathers (explain) that says that Judas did indeed hang himself, but that he didn’t die then, but lived on, and eventually became so fat that just fell over and sort of popped.

Scholars are aware of no ‘problem text’ that causes a problem that can not be solved. Ultimately we must remember that the Bible has been in its present form for 1900 years. The problem passages have been there all along, and inerrancy has always been believed in.

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