Sean Luke is a Bible Theology major and Philosophy Minor at Wheaton College. He’s extremely interested in systematic theology and apologetic defense of the Christian faith.
James Bishop is a graduate from Vega School of Brand Leadership specializing in Multimedia Design and Brand Communications. He is currently enrolled at Cornerstone Institute studying Theology and majoring in Psychology. His theological interests encompass comparative religion and the links between science and religion.”
See here for James’ opening remarks
First responses will be in two weeks time.
Not an Iota Will Pass: The Case for Biblical Inerrancy
“This is eternal life: that they know you, the true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.” (John 17:3)
The Christian life makes a startling claim about human existence: we were made for a reason. We have a design. Human life is something like a flower; the seed finds its life in the rays of the Sun, and stretch to the heavens to point back to it. Or better yet, the Lord Jesus once said that humans were designed to be branches stemming from the Vine; apart from the Vine, the branches lose their life. Just as branches exist as channels of the life of the Vine, humans exist to beam forth the beauty and life of God in a world that needs Him. And this happens only in communion with the living God. Christian theologians talk about “sanctification” as the process by which a Christian becomes more like God. Through the power of God’s Spirit, a Christian increasingly shows the world what God is like. The only way we could know what God is like is if He has told us about Himself. Indeed, Jesus suggests that He has: “sanctify them in truth. Your word is truth.” The word of God is His means of sanctification; it is God’s self-revelation by which He has given Himself to His people. His word is the revelation of who He is; and in His word, He has revealed Himself in history, poetry, art, parable, and a whole multitude of literary forms.
That’s why the doctrine of inerrancy matters. Inerrancy matters because God sanctifies His people through the word. How can the Bible lead us more deeply into God if it ends up distorting God’s character? Fundamentally, if Jesus Christ (as the truest revelation of God) taught the doctrine of inerrancy, wouldn’t His authority be compromised if inerrancy turns out to be false?
The doctrine of inerrancy says this: the Scriptural authors, once understood rightly as to their intended teaching, will be shown to have taught truly in all they taught. In other words, the Scriptural authors speak truly in all intended affirmations. I proceed now to argue for it. I will defend an argument made by the Princeton theologian Benjamin Warfield. He argues for these propositions:
1.) There is good historical evidence to suggest that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, and thus was vindicated as God’s decisive self-revelation
2.) There is good historical evidence to suggest that the New Testament documents are historically reliable
3.) There is good historical evidence to suggest that Jesus believed in the doctrine of inerrancy (as stated above)
4.) There is good historical evidence to suggest that the Apostles both met the risen Christ, and on His authority taught the doctrine of inerrancy
5.) If Jesus was wrong, then He cannot be the Messiah; by Jewish law He would have been reckoned a false prophet and worthy of death.
6.) Given the truth of 1.), 5.) could not be true, and therefore Jesus’ affirmation of inerrancy on His lips and on His apostles’ lips ought to suffice for the church of God.
I will assume 1; for my readers, check out James’ blog for why! I will proceed to argue for 2.)
There is good historical evidence to suggest that the New Testament documents are generally historically reliable.
To begin, it is my contention that the New Testament is based off eyewitness testimony.
First, if the New Testament Gospels were written either by eyewitnesses or in a community taught by eyewitnesses, then we’d expect it to cohere with ancient customs, geography, and history of the day. Indeed, this is what we find. The Roman historian Tacitus, in the Annals, records that Jesus was indeed crucified under Pontius Pilate. Josephus, a Jewish historian writing in the first century, records in his antiquities the crucifixion of Jesus. Colin Hermer, in The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History documents 84 facts in Luke-Acts that cohere with the archeological and historical record. Much more could be said here, but the question of authorship is extremely pertinent.
What were burial traditions like in the ancient world? (1) Burial was considered an obligation to most first century Jews. In fact, if families were left unburied, this was often considered a sign of judgment from God. According to the Torah, the set of laws from God the Israelites had to obey, burial was a mandate: “And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is accursed by God; you shall not defile your land which the Lord your God gives you for an inheritance.” (Deut 21:22–23)
In order to avoid God’s punishment, therefore, the Israelites placed a huge emphasis on burying the dead. This information makes sense of the Gospel of John: “Since it was the day of Preparation, and so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken and that they might be taken away.” (John 19:31 ESV) The Sabbath was supposed to be a special day of rest, set aside for the worship of God. Add that to the occurrence of the Passover, a Jewish festival celebrating God’s deliverance of Israel from Egypt, and the demand would have been high to remove bodies off the Cross. Roman law would have made concessions to this Jewish custom, especially during peace. Why needlessly start riots over keeping bodies on the Cross when you could grant these bodies and avoid bloodshed? In fact, Roman law (the Digesta) says as much:
The bodies of those who are condemned to death should not be refused their relatives; and the Divine Augustus, in the Tenth Book of his Life, said that this rule had been observed. At present, the bodies of those who have been punished are only buried when this has been requested and permission granted; and sometimes it is not permitted, especially where persons have been convicted of high treason. (48.24.1)
The bodies of persons who have been punished should be given to whoever requests them for the purpose of burial. (48.24.3)
All three Gospel accounts testify to a man named “Joseph of Arimathea” burying Jesus. He was a member of the council that condemned Jesus to death, but according to the Gospel of Luke, he dissented from the decision (Luke 23:51). He, being devoted to Jesus, buried him in a personal tomb.
The coherence of the burial account with the historical setting shows that the Gospel writers aren’t just making stuff up. The Gospel writers know what they’re talking about. Hence, they had to have been written by people well-acquainted with the historical setting.
Evidence for Eyewitness Testimony.
In Against Heresies 3.1.1-2, Irenaeus (180AD) (a disciple of Polycarp, who was a disciple of St. John himself) tells us that Matthew wrote a “Gospel among the Jews in their own style“, that Mark, the disciple of Peter, recorded Peter’s teachings, and that Luke travelled with Paul and recorded his teachings. Additionally, St. John, an apostle of Jesus, set down his Gospel last while he was in Ephesus. Clement of Alexandria (180AD) writes that the Gospels with genealogies came first, Mark was done by request of Peter’s preaching in Rome, and John came last with the urging of friends. (Adumbrationes in Epistolas Canonicas on 1 Peter 5:13). Irenaeus (writing in Lyons) and Clement (in Alexandria) were substantially geographically separated; yet they tell us roughly the same thing. They provide two independent sources for the origin of the Gospel accounts. The Muratorian fragment, which dates to 170AD, was an early Canon. It states that Luke, the “well-known physician“, wrote the third Gospel, and that John wrote the last Gospel. Furthermore, it seems to imply that Mark was present at the preaching of Peter’s Gospel, and wrote down what Peter taught.
Moreover, a church father named Papias of Hierapolis (a disciple of John, writing in 125AD) writes:
“This, too, the elder used to say: Mark, who had been Peter’s interpreter, wrote down carefully, but not in order, all that he remebered of the Lord’s sayings and doings. For he had not heard the Lord or been one of his followers, but later, as I said, one of Peter’s. Peter used to adapt his teaching as to the occasion without making a systematic arrangement of the Lord’s sayings…” (Ecclesiastical History 3.39.15-16)
In the same passage, he says that Matthew wrote a “logia” (word) in the Hebrew dialect. A church father Tertullian makes the same claims in Against Marcion, writing in 200AD. The church fathers, writing in different geographical locations either at the same time or a generation prior, all believed the same things as to the origins of the Gospel accounts.
If we consider the names of the author of each Gospel (“Matthew, Mark, and Luke”), then two conclusions seem warranted by the evidence: first, although it is true that the Gospels were attributes to these figures after the publication of the autographs, it is a non-sequitur that therefore these names are somehow ad-hoc additions. Plenty of ancient writers left their works formally anonymous (anonymous in the autograph)–their authorship is determined by other historical records external to the document, or latter manuscripts.
Moreover, there’s good reason to think these Gospels are authentically named. When forged Gospels came out in the second century (the Gospel of Mary, the Gospel of Peter, the Gospel of Judas, etc), they all used the names of prominent figures. Why should “Matthew, Mark, and Luke” be the names employed if those attaching the names were lying about it? Instead of Matthew, why not pick a name with more historical weight–like Peter, or James? Instead of Mark, why not simply select Peter? Instead of Luke, why not attach the Gospel to Paul?
Indeed, the names that are chosen are rather obscure (save for John). And even in the case of John’s Gospel, there’s a good historical marker that tells us about the Johannine community: John 21:24. The verse claims that the Gospel derives from the testimony of the “beloved disciple”; the community of John’s Gospel (implied by the “we know his testimony is true”) therefore received eyewitness testimony. It is unlikely this figure was fabricated, because the chapter refutes a myth that had spread among the Christians: the “beloved” disciple would remain until Jesus’ return. Why would a rumor crop up around an imaginary disciple? Rumors about people’s long-life presuppose that the person actually exists!
With this context, we turn to Jesus’ sayings in the Gospels.
Our Lord’s View of the Old Testament
My method will be as such: assess pertinent verses to Jesus’ view on the Scriptures exegetically and historically. From surveying the Gospels testimony, we will draw conclusions on His view.
In Matthew 4, Jesus refutes the devil by quoting “what is written” (v.4, 7, & 10). He counters the devils temptations by saying “For it is written, you shall worship the Lord your God and serve Him only.” The “for” (gar) indicates an explanatory clause; “for it is written“, then, means that because it is written, it is to be believed and obeyed. We no reason to doubt this, as Jesus would have told Matthew (as one of his disciples) what He during His temptation. Moreover, in Matthew 5:17-18, Jesus says “do not think I have come to abolish the law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot will pass from the law until all is accomplish.” In Against Apion, our Jewish historian Josephus tells us that the books after Moses documenting Israel’s history were considered to have been written by prophets. Indeed, this is corroborated by the New Testament documents:
“And he said to them ‘O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?’…he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Luke 24:25-27)
Hence, Jesus affirms the enduring authority of even the slightest bit of the Old Testament Scriptures. Now, is Jesus pressing for obedience to the entire Jewish law? Absolutely not. In Matthew 19, Jesus repeals the allowance for divorce. In Matthew 5-7, he bans oath-taking, and lifts lex talionis. So what exactly is Jesus saying?
I think the passage means roughly this: since Jesus didn’t come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it, that means He didn’t repeal God’s right to command our lives. If Jesus had opposed to Law, the Jews would have understood it to mean that He was opposing God’s authority to command His people–as that’s what the Torah expressed. Since Jesus fulfills the Laws purpose, He hasn’t abolished God’s authority; and in fact, fulfilling the law (rather than abolishing it) allows Him to wield God’s authority to command God’s people. Indeed, the therefore clause indicates as much–Jesus’ followers must obey these commands (namely, the ones that Jesus is now giving).
In Matthew 15:6, Jesus makes it plain that the commands of Scriptures are “the word of God.” Moreover, Jesus often asks the question “have you never read” before quoting Scripture (Matthew 22:31, 12:3, 21:16, Mark 12:10, Luke 6:3). The implication is clear. Jesus is saying to his opponents: if you read this Scripture, you ought to have believed it. Jesus goes on to authenticate His actions (for example, riding into Jerusalem) on the basis of what Scripture says (particularly in Matthew 21:16). Strikingly, Jesus makes three extremely powerful statements with respect to inerrancy.
First, when the Sadducees tried to refute the idea of a final resurrection by a reduction ad absurdum, Jesus responds: “Is this not the reason you are wrong, because you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God…have you not read in the book of Moses, in the passage about the bush, how God spoke to him, saying ‘I am the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob? He is not the God of the dead, but of the living.” (Mark 12:24-26)
Jesus teaches that knowing the Scriptures keeps us from error. That does not make sense if the Scriptures themselves are errant. This is repeated in Matthew 22:31-32, and Luke 20:37.
Secondly, on the road to Emmaus, Jesus chastises Cleopas and the other disciple for dismaying at His death. “Foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” (Luke 24:24-27)
As Josephus has shown us, the entire canon was considered to have been written by prophets of God—spokesmen. Luke provides independent attestation for that right here, as Jesus shows the disciples what all the prophets have spoken by opening up the Scriptures. In other words, our Lord’s toggle between “all the prophets have spoken” and “all the Scriptures” shows that He means the same thing by both phrases. Hence, if the prophets wrote the entire canon, then Jesus (after the Resurrection, even!) is calling anyone who does not believe the entire Scriptural witness “foolish”.
Finally, in John 10:31-39, Jesus implies His equality with the Father. The Jews were angered by Him for “making Himself God” (v. 33). Jesus responds with an argument in three premises:
1.) If God called the ones he gave his Word “gods”
2.) And if the Scriptures cannot be broken
3.) How can they accuse Jesus, who was sent by the Father, of blasphemy? (Implicitly: how much more worthy of the title is He than they?)
If premise 2) is false, than Jesus’ argument collapses. His argument depends on the truthfulness of the second statement. Clearly, by “broken” Jesus must mean “proven wrong”, as Jesus’ first premise depends on the truthfulness of the Scriptures. In premise 2, He’s saying “if the Scriptures are right in their assessment”, which would bolster premise 1.
As we think about the Gospel’s witness to Jesus’ attitude towards the Scriptures as a whole, John Wenham observes: “He consistently treats them as straightforward records of facts. We have references to: Abel (Lk. xi. 51),Noah (Mt. xxiv. 37-39; Lk. xvii. 26, 27), Abraham (Jn. viii. 56), the institution of circumcision (Jn. vii. 22; cf. Gn. xvll. 10-12; Lv. xii. 3), Sodom and Gomorrah (Mt. x. 15, xi. 23, 24; Lk. x. 12). Lot (Lk. xvii. 28-32), Isaac and Jacob (Mt. viii. 11; Lk. xiii. 28), the manna (in. vi. 31, 49, 58), the wilderness serpent (Jn. iii. 14), David eating the shewbread (Mt. xii. 3, 4; Mk. ii. 25, 26; Lk. vi. 3, 4) and as a Psalm-writer (Mt. xxii. 43; Mk. xii. 36; Lk. xx. 42), Solomon (Mt. vi. 29, xii. 42; Lk. xi. 31, xii. 27), Elijah (Lk. iv. 25, 26), Elisha (Lk. iv. 27), Jonah (Mt. xii. 39-41; Lk. xi. 29, 30, 32), Zachariah (Lk. xi. 51). This last passage brings out His sense of the unity of history and His grasp of its wide sweep. His eye surveys the whole course of history from ‘the foundation of the world’ to ‘this generation’. There are repeated references to Moses as the giver of the law (Mt. viii. 4, xix. 8; Mk. i. 44, vii. 10, x. 5, xii. 26; Lk. v. 14, xx. 37; Jn. v. 46, vii. 19); the sufferings of the prophets are also mentioned frequently (Mt. v. 12, xiii. 57, xxi. 34-36, xxiii. 29-37; Mk. vi. 4 (cf. Lk. iv. 24; Jn. iv. 44), xii. 2-5; Lk. vi. 23, xi. 47-51, xiii. 34, xx. 10-12); and there is a reference to the popularity of the false prophets (Lk. vi. 26). He sets the stamp of His approval on passages in Gn. i and ii (Mt. xix. 4, 5; Mk. x. 6-8.)”
There can be no doubt: the Gospels present Jesus as teaching the total truthfulness of the Scriptures.
Is the Gospel witness correct?
Did the Gospel writers get Jesus right? I think we have about as much evidence for Jesus’ view of the Scriptures as we do for anything else in His life. The sources give us multiple independent attestation; John, written independently of the Synoptics, coheres with the Synoptics on this point. Luke, in his Emmaus account, gives us even further independent attestation (since this material isn’t found in any other Gospel).
Moreover, it should be clear that the writers of the Gospel accounts all believed that Jesus taught this doctrine multiple times (as noted above) throughout his ministry. Given their proximity to Jesus (Mark as a record of Peter’s preaching, Matthew as a derivation from the Matthean logia, Luke as a follower of Paul), it should be clear that their source material comes from eyewitness testimony.
Especially in light of the arguments above for the general reliability of the Gospels, we have no reason to doubt that the Gospel writers are representing Jesus’ view correctly. If James argues that these writers may have misrepresented the wording of Jesus at certain points, we must remember that the attestation is multiple and independent. On material unique to each Gospel (and thus, without any collaboration), Jesus’ doctrine of Scripture remains the same. Furthermore, no one can dispute that this is the impression Jesus left on His followers. In other words, inerrancy was the doctrine the eyewitnesses remembered Jesus’ teaching. Overwhelmingly and unanimously, the communities to which these Gospel writers belong (communities of the eyewitnesses) all agree that Jesus believed in Scripture’s total truthfulness.
The only way to argue that Jesus didn’t teach this doctrine would be to dispense with the general reliability of the New Testament, as my argument rests on the same grounds; I don’t think James wants to do that.
We now turn briefly to Paul’s witness. First, Paul claims striking authority for his own teaching: “If anyone thinks that he is a prophet or spiritual, he should acknowledge that the things I am writing to you are a command of the Lord. (ἐπιγινωσκέτω ἃ γράφω ὑμῖν ὅτι Κυρίου ἐστὶν ἐντολή)
The relative ἃ is an accusative neuter plural relative pronoun. What the heck does that mean? It means that Paul is saying that whatever he writes is a command of the Lord. As James has argued on his blog, Paul is dead serious. He was willing to preach a Gospel he knew sounded stupid to the ones he preached, and was willing to endure untold suffering for the cause of Christ. He genuinely believed he had this kind of authority, just as he genuinely believed he encountered the risen Christ. If he’s right about his teaching, then we must take it seriously. If he met the risen Christ and was instructed by him (Galatians 1), then his teachings are not his own; they are the risen Lord’s.
In Rom 9:17, 10:33, 11:8, 2:24, 3:4, 3:10, 1 Cor 3:19, and many, many other places, Paul uses “for it is written” or “as it is written” statements. In other words, he, along with our Lord, implies that if something is written then it ought to be believed. In 2 Timothy 3:16, Paul uses a predicate construction to claims that every Scripture is “God-breathed”. (https://bible.org/article/relation-2-timothy-316) In Romans 15:4, Paul says that “whatever was written in former days was written for our instructions, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” The church cannot be instructed by error—error does not yield true instruction. Nor can hope or endurance be founded on error.
Hence, Paul blatantly teaches that the Scriptures are trustworthy and true; this assumption permeates his writings.
This leads to a stark problem: if either Paul or Jesus were wrong, then (according to Jewish law), they’d be worthy of death.
The Challenge of Deuteronomy
“The prophet who speaks a word in my name that I have not commanded him to speak, or who speaks in the name of other gods, that same prophet shall die”. (Deuteronomy 18:20)
As we have seen, Paul claims that his authority comes from Jesus, who is YHWH with us. The Lord Christ declares that His teaching comes from the Father (John 7:16, John 12:46, Mark 12:31-33), and claims several times that “whoever receives Him receives the Father.” How does one receive Christ? Isn’t it by receiving that which Christ teaches us?
Nor can we say that the Gospel writers are simply misrepresenting Jesus here; the impression He leaves on the eyewitnesses and the communities of the eyewitnesses is that He has divine authority.
Hence, if Jesus and Paul taught wrongly in the name of the Lord, then according to Jewish law, they were both worthy of death. But of course, that jeopardizes Jesus’ whole identity as the Savior; He cannot be our Savior if He Himself was sinful. He could not be a perfect human, or a lamb without blemish.
If James argues that this verse in Deuteronomy didn’t come from God, but itself is a false teaching, then we lose all criteria for identifying what has actually come from God or not. Jesus’ own views would not suffice, nor would Paul’s. It seems as though we can disregard Scriptural content as we please.
Moreover, suppose we say that Jesus and Paul taught wrongly on this matter. What criteria would we then use to assess which of Jesus and Paul’s teachings are true, and which are errant cultural assumptions?
Finally, if Paul’s criteria for Jesus’ sinlessness is wrong (namely, that Jesus refrained from all violations of the law), then what criteria are we to use to say that Jesus was sinless?
In fact, it seems like the so-called “fundamentalist” concern follows: what in Scripture should we trust as true revelation of God, and what in Scripture lies to us about God? I think James’ view leaves us with no answer to that question.
Concluding Thoughts to my readers
I think reposting the thoughts of Benjamin Warfield will be instructive here:
“Now if this doctrine is to be assailed on critical grounds, it is very clear that, first of all, criticism must be required to proceed against the evidence on which it is based. This evidence, it is obvious, is twofold. First, there is the exegetical evidence that the doctrine held and taught by the Church is the doctrine held and taught by the Biblical writers themselves. And secondly, there is the whole mass of evidence—internal and external, objective and subjective, historical and philosophical, human and divine—which goes to show that the Biblical writers are trustworthy as doctrinal guides. If they are trustworthy teachers of doctrine and if they held and taught this doctrine, then this doctrine is true, and is to be accepted and acted upon as true by us all. In that case, any objections brought against the doctrine from other spheres of inquiry are inoperative; it being a settled logical principle that so long as the proper evidence by which a proposition is established remains unrefuted, all so-called objections brought against it pass out of the category of objections to its truth into the category of difficulties to be adjusted to it. If criticism is to assail this doctrine, therefore, it must proceed against and fairly overcome one or the other element of its proper proof. It must either show that this doctrine is not the doctrine of the Biblical writers, or else it must show that the Biblical writers are not trustworthy as doctrinal guides” (2).
Warfield’s point is that the fundamental evidence needed to establish the presupposition of inerrancy has been provided: the Lord Jesus held to it, and His apostles held to it. To illustrate how this works, let’s consider the case of two long-lost twins. Suppose Bobby and Bob both bump into each other while shopping at a mall, and feel a strange familial bond. Suspicious, they have their DNA tested and find that it’s a perfect match; they’re identical twins. Naturally, many questions arise: how were we separated? If we’re related, why do both of our parents claim that they are our biological parents? Despite any apparent contradictions previous data would have warranted, a key piece of evidence has been provided to establish their relation: the DNA test. Given that key piece of evidence, the brothers can know that, although they may not have all the answers to these questions, at least these questions do in fact have an answer.
Similarly, any objection to inerrancy from apparent contradictions or inconsistencies must have an answer. I have tried to prove that on historical grounds, while also bolstering Warfield’s argument by showing that Jesus could not be wrong lest He be accused of sin.
I have tried to escape the charge of circularity by establishing on purely historical grounds that a) Jesus (and Paul) believed and taught the doctrine that is now called “inerrancy” and b) if He was wrong, that would compromise His authority and render Him worthy of death (which is impossible).
As I look at the portrait of the Lord Jesus Christ, I see an unshakeable foundation for hope. The community of those who saw Him knew that He possessed the uncompromising, hell-shaking authority of God. I trust this portrait because I know this Jesus. He did not err at any single point in His teaching. No. Jesus Christ is God-with-us, Immanuel. He is fully God and fully man, fully sinless and fully faithful. God has spoken authoritatively in Christ because He walked among us as Jesus Christ; and in Christ God has spoken definitively about His word. The Scriptures are His living voice; hear them, and hear His call of love and mercy. Taste His glory, and see that He is good!
I look forward to your response, James!
1. For an extensive treatment, see Craig Evans.
2. Warfield, B. Inspiration and the Authority of Scripture. p. 174.