I hope I am charitable and humble in what I write here. I begin typing this with great fear that I will not be these things and that I will bring dishonor to our Lord. I hope I have approached this with enough prayer…
Tim Challies has just concluded a series of posts about inerrancy http://www.challies.com/archives/articles/scripture/errors-and-contradictions-in-the-bible.php .
In certain ways I am excited by this series of posts and comments. They show a deep commitment to wrestling with the importance of the authority of God and Scripture in the church and what that means. They show a commitment to helping others in the church in areas that are important and practical. At the same time, I am deeply disturbed at this series of posts, many of the comments, and how the comments of some who are wrestling with questions were essentially ignored—or given some sort of ‘pat answer.’ In view of this, I desire to write some sort of engaging and dialogical response. Since I want to touch on many issues, especially a few of those raised in some of the comments but not answered, this post is somewhat lengthy.
As with everyone (I imagine) in that discussion, I have deep personal investments in these issues on many levels. I am a member of a Confessional Reformed (evangelical) church and believe that the Bible is inerrant—by which I mean that everything in it is doing exactly what God wants it to be doing. He inspired it in exactly the way he wanted it back in the ancient world that he controlled.
I have seen much discussion by Tim Challies of how questions of supposed contradictions and errors tend to come from people who are just ignorant, have not read their Bibles, and are just spouting off the latest fad from a website. Also, any supposed error or contradiction really is not either of those. Either (1) it is not a real error or contradiction or (2) we are assured that ‘experts’ have dealt with the issues. Since Gleason Archer has been brought up in all this, I will look at one of his pet books, Daniel.
For Gleason, Daniel is a 6th or early 5th century BCE book, not a 3rd-2nd century book as most historical scholars (including some evangelicals) think. For him this is an inerrancy and inspiration issue. I will bypass this for now. Daniel 5.30 and 9.1 confront us with ‘Darius the Mede.’ According to 5.30 he received the kingdom when Babylon was conquered and Belshazzar, son of Nebachadnezzar according to Daniel, was killed. In 9.1 we read, “In the first year of Darius the son of Xerxes, by descent a Mede…” I should start with Belshazzar. He was not Nebuchadnezzar’s son, as Dan 5 claims. He was the son of Nabonidus, a king subsequent not only to Nebuchadnezzar, but also subsequent to Amel-marduk, Neriglissar, and Labashi-marduk. Though ‘son’ can technically mean ‘grandson’ at times in Aramaic, this does not help since Nabonidus was not in any way descended from Nebuchadnezzar. Since Nabonidus, Belshazzar’s father, was a usurper, it is doubtful you could argue some form of ‘adopted into the family’ idea. So much for Belshazzar as Nebuchadnezzar’s son. I will pass over further issues associated with Nebuchadnezzar, Belshazzar, and Dan 4-5, save one. It seems Dan 4 was originally about Nabonidus and not Nebuchadnezzar and that Daniel, or whatever form of Daniel we have now, has appropriated the story as about Nebachadnezzar and so updated references to Belshazzar’s father in Dan 5 along these lines.
Getting back to ‘Darius the Mede,’ such a figure is not historical. Cyrus (ca 559-30), a Persian, conquered Babylon–not ’Dairus the Mede’ or the Medes (and certainly not Darius I [ca 522-486], whom it is likely the book of Daniel has recast as ‘Darius the Mede’). Indeed, various Evangelicals have put forward detailed arguments to explain ‘Darius the Mede,’ but they are all thick on speculation and arguments from silence and thin on engagement with extant historical materials. I should add that I have read refutations of the evangelical arguments that seemed much more honest with the Biblical and historical data than the evangelicals’ work—but this is me also appealing to ‘experts.’ From my point of view it is better to understand ‘Darius the Mede’ in Daniel as functioning in a very specific way. The book of Daniel operates with a traditional 4-kingdom schema, seen elsewhere in the Near East. It traditionally referred to Assyria, Media, Persia, and then Macedon (Greece)–of course, followed by a decisive final kingdom that will overthrow Macedon. It was a form of Near Eastern anti-Hellenistic political discourse arising in the aftermath of Alexander’s conquest of the Near East along with the Seleucid and Ptolemaic control of the area following Alexander. The book of Daniel shows it being re-appropriated in a Jewish context. Babylon has replaced Assyria and the final kingdom is, obviously, one established by the God of Israel for his people. In Daniel the scheme is thus Babylon, Media, Persia, then Macedon (Greece-Ptolemaic-Seleucid) followed by the decisive and eternal kingdom set up by the God of Israel. Many things in Daniel show the control of this schema. This is where ‘Darius the Mede’ comes in. Daniel has re-cast the well known Persian king Darius I—the Darius Dan 6 certainly has in view—to fit the 4-kingdom schema; a scheme that has a theological function in this book (I can go into this if someone would like). Darius I was not a Median—nor was he (1) the conqueror of Babylon as he is presented in 5.30 or (2) the son of Xerxes as presented in 9.1, he was actually Xerxes’ father! The book of Daniel presents him as such to preserve the 4-kingdom schema: (1) Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar–Babylon, (2) Darius–Media, (3) Cyrus–Persia, and (4) Macedon. The schema is partially repeated in the second half of the book: ‘Darius…by decent a Mede’ (9.1) and then ‘Cyrus king of Persia’ (10.1) leading up to the account of the Macedonian kings.
As to why Daniel 9 presents him as son of Xerxes—again, when he was actually Xerxes’ father—understanding Daniel as a 3rd or 2nd century BCE work helps here. It is doubtful that a 6th or 5th century author would have made this ‘mistake.’ People in the Persian empire—and certainly anyone writing a book such as Daniel, especially if the author was part of or had access to the imperial court!—back then would know (1) that Cyrus conquered Babylon, (2) Darius was a Persian and not a Mede, and (3) that Darius was Xerxes’ father and not the other way around. They would most certainly know 2 and 3. Perhaps the author of Daniel thought the way he did because he had a maximal knowledge of his peoples’ literature and traditions and a lesser knowledge of, for him, ancient Persian history. Thus the literary order of Ezra 4, for example, might have made him think that Xerxes (4.6) preceded Darius (4.24). Perhaps the author of Daniel was driven to fit the 4-kingdom schema around the conquering of Babylon the way he did—with the Medes and not Persians conquering Babylon (c.f. 5.30, again)—because he so understood Jer 51.11, “YHWH has stirred up the spirit of the Medes, because his purpose concerning Babylon is to destroy it.” Though I will not go into this further here, this type of explanation perhaps helps us understand better some other things the book of Daniel does. What I have presented from Daniel is a challenge to certain ways American Evangelicals, and Tim Challies, articulate and understand inerrancy. From one point of view Daniel contains historical errors. Furthermore, it structures itself theologically (and ‘historically’) around political propaganda discourse from its own world.
Why have I brought up Daniel and a few of the issues the book of Daniel has for inerrancy? Mr. Challies advocates starting with “the clear teaching of Scripture” that it is inerrant. This derives mainly from Tim’s doctrine of God—as it should be intimately related to that—of how God does not lie and how God would surely thus behave when giving us his Word. If I may quote from one relevant part of his final post on inerrancy, “So how do we answer charges of error and contradiction? First, I think we assure ourselves that the Bible is inerrant and then we ensure that what we believe about inerrancy is correct. We read what the Bible says about itself and express faith that what God says in Scripture is true. Having done that, it is often valuable to turn to the many resources available for those wrestling with apparent errors or contradictions. Most of these questions have been dealt with very well in the past—well enough to give you assurance that they reflect contemporary arrogance or misunderstanding more than error. When challenged with a list of contradictions I believe there is often little value in answering the charges of error point-by-point and engaging in lengthy dialog about each of them. Anyone who is really seeking the truth will find not only the contradictions but the many answers to them.”
My problem with this is that I believe this approach is ultimately not a very ‘high view’ of Scripture or God. This is so even though it sounds like it is (and is surely meant that way) on the surface. Functionally his approach works out to looking at Scriptures such as 2Tim 3.16, 2Pet 1.20-21, 2Sam 7.28, Num 23.9, Ps 12.6, Prv 30.5, etc, and noting how they state that Scripture is true, inspired, God does not lie, etc. This approach’s understanding of what it means for God not to lie and for the Bible to be true then defines what the Bible is as inerrant—what a properly Christian approach to the Bible CAN say and find about it. When confronted with material that calls this into question, it is assumed that the Bible cannot behave differently than expected and thus the material does not really challenge this inerrancy view of Scripture. The misunderstanding is either (1) due to ignorance of the Bible or the proper definition of inerrancy or (2) though this does not get as much play here but I suspect will come out soon, because the person presenting said material is not approaching the Bible in an acceptably Christian way. With these assumptions it is assumed that answers can be found from the evangelical experts or that appealing to inerrant autographs that would not have this problem will save our view of inerrancy from any real challenge. Thus Mr. Challies can say, “When challenged with a list of contradictions I believe there is often little value in answering the charges of error point-by-point and engaging in lengthy dialog about each of them.” In many contexts this is certainly sound pastoral advice. But, in the way Challies used it, and what he disallows in context by it, I find this unhelpful.
I submit that a truly high view of Scripture will, in certain ways, be willing to allow ALL our conceptions of God, theology, Scripture, and interpretations of Scripture to be challenged by Scripture itself. It will not consciously decide ahead of time how God MUST HAVE behaved when giving us his Word such that things that challenge that notion can be functionally ignored—even if it seems that Scripture has told us it ‘is’ that way. When historically examining the Bible, a truly high view of Scripture will not assume that everything can be explained to fit some pre-existing paradigm of what Scripture ‘is.’ Rather, it will glory in material along the lines of what I have presented in Daniel as yet another window God has given us on what it means that the bible is His word. This material is equally a part of the Bible as the verses Mr. Challies, for example, would cite to derive inerrancy. Such material should inform not only how we understand those verses, but also how we understand what the Bible ‘is.’ What do we do if we find that we have (1) misunderstood those verses Mr. Challies cites or, equally important yet often neglected, (2) if we have misunderstood how those verses function with the rest of Scripture to inform us of what it means that the Bible is God’s Word? What if the Bible is not as univocal on different points as we thought it was? What if a type of diversity exists within the Bible that does not fit our conceptions of inerrancy? What if God inspired things in the Bible that are ‘counter to fact’ (as we understand fact) for an ultimately edifying purpose. Again, we might protest that such things would mean God has lied. But, again, what if the Bible actually does these things? Are we unwilling to allow the Bible to modify our conception of God, who he is, and how he behaves? Are we willing to allow YHWH, through the Bible, to continue to challenge and to surprise us in our conceptions of him just as he did when he sent His Son? Or, is YHWH only allowed to challenge us in ways that are not really challenging to what we think about Him and His word?
As Reformed we have a traditional commitment to sola-Scriptura and to following the Bible wherever it goes. Studying it, what it is, and living out its authority is, for us, ultimately the essence of practical. This is one of the reasons I am driven to rigorous historical study of the Bible, frequently in ways that challenge aspects of our traditional conception of inerrancy. I am unwilling to press the Bible into a mold that it does not really fit—this stifles our engagement as a church with what God actually said and meant (and means) in the writings of the Bible. When you decide ahead of time how the Bible must behave and explain away all material that challenges that, you functionally cease allowing the Bible to work us over. R.C. Sproul is correct that, “The Christian has nothing to fear from rigorous historical research. Rather, we have everything to gain.” We should make explicit that modifications of traditional conceptions of what Scripture ‘is’ are not exempt from what we ‘gain’ from rigorous historical research.
I must stress, this approach does not ask questions of ‘is the Bible God’s Word’? What criteria would one use to assess this since God and Scripture are above any other authority? The problem with the conception of inerrancy presented by Mr. Challies is that it establishes a functional criteria on what it means that the Bible is God’s Word. It is, of course, assumed that the Bible cannot deviate from this inerrancy understanding; an understanding seemingly derived from Scripture. But, the fact remains that the effect of this way of understanding inerrancy is that anything deviating from it (falling short of it?) could not be God’s Word. This is a dangerous way to approach God and the Bible. God did not give us his Word as an application to be our God, “Here is my Word, I trust it will continue to live up to your conceptions of what something must be in order to be the Word of God.” Even though we know this in our theology, I submit that conceptions of inerrancy along the lines of what Mr. Challies presents cause us to approach the Bible in this Application way. Such traditional conceptions of inerrancy cause people to walk away from the church when it is found that the Bible does not match the inerrancy-criteria of Mr. Challies. Obviously this is where people such as Tim Challies and I have some different assumptions. He assumes that the Bible CANNOT contain material that challenges his understanding of inerrancy, which from his point of view was derived from the Bible. I assume that the Bible WILL continue to challenge our conceptions of it, and from my point of view I get this understanding from the Bible. I should stress, and I hope Mr. Challies agrees with me, that this does not mean one of us is basically a Christian (or functioning from Christian commitments) while the other is not. Rather, I would see both of us as wrestling with what it means to follow the authority of Christ our Lord as expressed in his Word. What we have in common there transcends our differences in how we understand that authority playing out; in how we understand what it means for the Bible to be God’s Word.
Even though my post should end there—it is already too long winded—I feel as though I should address some of the issues brought up in the comments. A couple people have brought up issues of text-transmission, canon, and the notion of autographs. Albert already brought up some issues that challenge some of our ideas of autographs. Most, if not all, the writings of our Bible have very long and complex composition and editorial histories PRECEDING the forms of the writings we have in our Bible. Albert brought up Samuel-Kings. I would like to submit the example of Jeremiah. The Masoretic Text—MT: the Hebrew text version our translations operate from and the one generally considered inspired by evangelicals—version of Jeremiah is a theologically modified version of an earlier shorter Hebrew version of Jeremiah. We can see the social, cultural, and political reasons along the lines of which the MT was theologically updated and modified—and not by the historical Jeremiah. So, how does this factor into our conception of the autograph? Jeremiah and Samual-Kings are not alone in this. We know that other books of our Old Testament existed in multiple different versions, even before and around the time of Jesus (so, what version did He use?). These many instances should not be viewed as the exception to the rule but rather a window on how the texts that make up our Bible were handled in the ancient world by God’s people.
What about scribal transmission of the texts. Scribes did alter their texts. Though this is debated, I am convinced that scribes copying texts of the New Testament sometime altered their texts consciously for theological reasons—just as scribes who transmitted and updated the texts of our Old Testament and scribes who transmitted other ancient literature did. So, what does it mean to discuss autographs, which we do not have? PeterG is correct, how does tying inerrancy to autographs help when we derive our doctrines from forms of the text clearly different from ‘the autograph’ (a dubious notion anyway)? I agree that the God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ has preserved the Bible for us. But, we need to be honest. He has not preserved it in a way that makes most of us comfortable. What does it actually mean to say what WCF 1.8 says, “The Old Testament in Hebrew [the MT for the framers of the WCF]…and the New Testament in Greek…being immediately inspired by God, and, by his singular care and providence, kept pure in all ages, are THEREFORE [?!] authentical…”? What do we mean by ‘kept pure in all ages’? Is there some standard for this such that if the transmission process does not conform to it the Bible is not THEREFORE authentical? Again, our notions of what the Bible ‘is,’ both in the ancient world and the one we have, need to be informed by what God has actually done in the transmission process. For me, at least, going to the notion of the autograph is not helpful. That is not the Bible we have. Rather, we have the Bible God wants us to have and this is a messier situation than we would like.
Several people brought up issues of canon and how do we know we have the correct Bible. On the one hand, I agree with Challies that accepting our Protestant canon is ultimately a faith commitment. On the other hand, I do not think Mr. Challies was as helpful in discussing the ‘selection’ process. Mr. Challies puts forth the thesis most forcefully presented by R.L. Harris in 1957 (Inspiration and Canonicity of the Bible: An Historical and Exegetical Study). Challies, whether consciously functioning from Harris or not, claims that inspiration was the criteria of canonicity: “The primary measure they used was whether a book was inspired by God.” Furthermore, “When the Bible was compiled into the book we know and love today, it represented every word God had ever written”—read: everything that was inspired. From a historical point of view this has been decisively refuted by many, including some evangelical scholars. The most forceful refutation was Everett Kalin’s 1967 dissertation, which directly addressed Harris’ claims. Inspiration was not a factor or criteria discussed in the literature and thought of the ancient church in relation to what writings are sacred scripture or should be in the canon. Furthermore, the ancient church predicated inspiration of other documents, bishops, councils, those who interpreted sacred writings, etc. From a historical point of view, how the writings we know of as the New Testament came together is much messier than what Mr. Challies’ understanding of inspiration, canon, and inerrancy would seem to allow. The criteria discussed were very explicitly appeals to types of authority that make us uncomfortable: did the writing conform to the church’s tradition and understanding of what is orthodox, was the writing one seen to be used widely in the church, etc? The writings of our Bible were functionally authoritative in so far as they were interpreted along the lines of church tradition.
I should touch on issues of the Catholic Bible (with the Apocrypha; what Catholics call Deuterocanoncial writings) versus the Protestant Bible from a historical point of view along with other general issues of canon. Many of the early church figures and writers to whom we look for information on the development of the canon make the situation messier for us than we would like. We look to many of these people to find our early attestation of our 4 Gospels, Acts, some collection of Paul, 1 John, 1 Peter, etc. These same figures, however, also quote many writings as Scripture that are not part of our canon. Two apocalypses, the Shepherd of Hermas and the Apocalypse of Peter, are at the top of this category. Some gospels that are not one of our 4 are more widely attested as ‘scripture’ at an earlier period than some of the writings that are now in our New Testament—especially 2 Peter. Moving to the Old Testament situation, evangelicals commonly hold to the thesis most recently propounded by Roger Beckwith, that the Old Testament canon was closed by the early to mid 2nd century BCE—and it happened to coincide with our OT canon. Thus, we can use the argument that the canon of Jesus is our canon. This is one of the primary ways of refuting claims that the Apocrypha is part of the canon. The problem with this is that the historical material does not support Beckwith’s detailed arguments. Books such as Jubilees and various of the writings making up 1 Enoch were wildly popular as Scripture around the time of Jesus and in the century or two preceding him. In fact, one of the writings of 1 Enoch—the Book of the Watchers; 1En 1-36; a Jewish apocalypse of the 3rd century BCE—is quoted as scripture by the book of Jude (14-15). More than this, those same early church figures to whom we go for our material on the formation of the New Testament canon quote many of the writings of the Apocrypha as scripture. This is especially common of the writings of Sirach, Wisdom of Solomon, Tobit, Baruch, etc. This continues up into the 4th and 5th centuries for some. 1 Enoch is also cited as Scripture by multiple of these same figures in the early church. My point here, as I said above, is that the canon situation is much messier than we would like. At the same time, my point is not that we need ‘to go to Rome’ or that the Catholic Bible is the one for us. Rather, since we believe that our Lord ultimately controlled all these processes and the ancient world within which it happened, studying this should somehow shed light on what our Bible ‘is.’ From my point of view, it should make us more comfortable with the messiness that will not be cleaned up by some aspects of our traditional conceptions of inerrancy and canon.
My goal here has not been to provide all the answers. I hope to have helped us have an encounter with our Lord through looking at the Bible in all its glorious details. Since the glory of our Lord involved the cross, we should not be surprised that the glory of His Word will look very different from some of our clean conceptions of inerrancy. As I hope to have made clear, in no way does this material (should I be accurate in my presentations of it) threaten the Bible as God’s Word. Rather, it is what we must wrestle with together as we grapple with what it means that the Bible is God’s Word. Mr. Challies and I agree (I think) that accepting the Bible we have as God’s word is ultimately a faith-in-our-true-Lord commitment. It seems we disagree as to what that means in practice when dealing with certain parts of the Bible and articulating what it means that the Bible is our God’s authoritative Word. We both agree that we must follow it and the Christ with which it challenges us. I hope this post serves to further the work of the church in following its Lord. I hope that I have been humble and charitable, keeping in mind that Christianity is ultimately about our Lord and our faithfulness to and in Him.