A reader at my blog brought to our attention an article penned by pastor Robert Charles Sproul concerning the doctrine of inerrancy. The reader asks, “What are your thoughts regarding that which R.C. Sproul said to his friend on the doctrine of inerrancy (do you agree in most part)?”
Having considered the article I think one could say much in response. Classical inerrancy is the view that the Bible cannot err in regards to historical, scientific and philosophical matters. If it does, alleges the inerrantist, it cannot be God’s word.
My first observation is that the inerrantist (in this case pastor Sproul) almost always grieves the “consequences” of a non-inerrant Bible, as if it amounts to an argument. The point being that disliking the consequences of abandoning classical, fundamentalist inerrancy does not amount to an argument. We don’t decide arguments on what we want to be true, instead we decide on evidence. And in this case evidence is so overwhelming against inerrancy that I’d give more credence to Jesus mythicist arguments any day.
After all, where can we start? The Bible is full of errors and although it is inspired it remains a book authored by fallible humans, who God chose, and who made mistakes. The mistakes are legion. We have contradictions, moral atrocities (human & infant sacrifice, mass genocide), assumed beliefs that Christians would view as false (polytheism), historical inaccuracy (the conquest narratives), pre-scientific myths (the Israelite concept of the universe, a global flood) etc. The Bible is a big book. It spans thousands of years and these inconsistencies and pre-scientific beliefs are what we would expect of the nature of such a book as the Old Testament. The time in which God revealed himself myths and pre-scientific beliefs were rampant, and as a result we’d expect these to colour the biblical texts in some way or another. Thus, the case against inerrancy is overwhelming. It cannot be the standard by which we judge scripture as God’s revealed word. As Christian scholar Thom Stark has rightly pointed out biblical “authority” or “inspiration” does not necessarily entail “inerrancy,” as the fundamentalist Christian alleges.
Sproul then affirms the creed of The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. This body is a number of scholars who make it their goal to defend biblical inerrancy. It has also been shown to be inadequate by non-Christians and Christians alike. For a scathing point-by-point rebuttal from a Christian I’d recommend getting one’s hands on Thom Stark’s book The Human Faces of God.
Sproul also imposes inerrancy as a standard for judging the authenticity of Jesus. In other words, Sproul denies Jesus humanity in which he made mistakes (after all, Jesus was mistaken in his prediction of the time of his return) and learnt traditions like any 1st century Jew would have. Jesus assumed things that contemporary scholars well know are incorrect, for example, he assumed Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch which overwhelming scholarly consensus denies. This fact led historian & Professor John Huxtable to write that “Jesus Christ came into the world to be its Saviour, not an authority on biblical criticism” (1). To deny Jesus’ humanity is a heresy, it denies that Jesus was “fully” human and God at the same time. To be fully human Jesus had to learn (Luke 2:41), make mistakes and be corrected. If Jesus is recorded to have learned things when he was just 12, then we’d also expect that he would continue to learn things when he was 30 (about the time he was preaching). This heresy is seen in that Sproul says if Jesus made mistakes then he “would be numbered among the transgressors for teaching an error.” This is heretical. It denies Jesus’ humanity as being fully human requires that one makes an error and learns. However, what matters is not Jesus’ infallibility but his resurrection, the pillar of the Christian faith, and of which we have ample reasons for affirming. Thus contrary to Sproul, that Jesus made mistakes does not undermine his authority. The late scholar James Barr is well aware of the tactics employed by Sproul and others, he explains:
“This endlessly repeated argument seeks to use the personal loyalty of Christians towards Jesus as a lever to force them into fundamentalist positions on historical and literary matters. There is no part of the fundamentalist positions on historical and literary matters. There is no part of the fundamentalist world view that should inspire so much distaste in the mind of other Christians. It is a distortion of the proper proportions of the Christian faith to the extreme” (2).
In other words, to hold Jesus in a high regard one cannot, according to the inerrantist, deny inerrancy. We are thus forced to choose between two options which are not necessarily the only ones. One could write this off as a false dichotomy.
Then Sproul includes Jesus’ Johannine words (8: 28, 14:10) to consolidate his argument for Jesus’ authority. This is begging the question. In other words, he assumes inerrancy in order to defend inerrancy. Therefore, one can reject his argument. And, to me at least, it is quite clear that the gospel authors put words into Jesus’ mouth, on occasion, that he never said. This is probably why many scholars doubt several statements Jesus is alleged to have made in the Gospel of John.
Thus Sproul constantly argues that “It is the integrity of Christ” that hangs on inerrancy. This is false. The integrity of Christ hangs on whether or not who was resurrected. As far as I know, he was and that is integrity enough. That fact is enough to pay careful attention to his teachings, to his instructions and commands. That is enough to follow in his footsteps and proclaim him as saviour. Therefore, I reject Sproul’s standard.
Sproul continues by saying that one who denies “inerrancy but still believe in Jesus as Lord and Savior… is inconsistent.” I’d easily return the charge that Sproul is profoundly inconsistent.
To affirm inerrancy Sproul would have to affirm that God slaughtered thousands of Canaanites (men, women and children) wholesale (which puts a hole in Sproul’s belief that God is the pinnacle of moral perfection and thus the greatest conceivable being), that God condones child sacrifices (Exodus 22:29 and elsewhere), that Jesus was not fully human which conflicts with the notion of a hypostatic union which Sproul affirms. I could charge that Sproul is inconsistent when it comes to other sacred literature too. According to him the Bible cannot ever err (although it does), but should Sproul get a whiff of an error in Koran or the Book of Mormon then he runs with it. That’s inconsistent because it holds to a double standard.
I think for these several reasons we can reject Sproul’s criterion of inerrancy for judging scripture.
1. Huxley, J. 1962. The Bible Says. p. 70.
2. Barr, J. 1977. Fundamentalism. p. 74.