Scripture is inerrant because the personal word of God cannot be anything other than true. -John Frame (The Doctrine of the Word of God, 176 cited below)
One of the most difficult issues facing evangelical Christian apologists is the doctrine of inerrancy. I’m not trying to suggest the doctrine is itself problematic. Indeed, I have defended the doctrine in writing on more than one occasion. Instead, I am saying that defending this doctrine in an apologetics-related discussion is difficult. Here, I will explore one way that I think should be used more frequently when discussing the doctrine.
What is the problem?
There are any number of attacks on inerrancy and Biblical authority, generally speaking. Very often, when I discuss the Bible with others in a discussion over worldviews, I find that the challenge which is most frequently leveled against the notion of inerrancy is a series of alleged contradictions. The second most common objection is some sort of textual criticism which allegedly shows that the Bible could not be without error in its autographs. A third common argument against inerrancy is to quote specific verses and express utter incredulity at their contents.
Of course, it doesn’t help that the definition of inerrancy is often misunderstood. For simplicity’s sake, I will here operate under the definition that “The Bible, in all it teaches, is without error.” I have already written on some misconceptions about the definition of inerrancy, and readers looking for more clarification may wish to read that post.
How do we address the problem?
Most frequently, the way I have seen apologists engage with these challenges is through a series of arguments. First, they’ll argue for the general reliability of the Bible by pointing out the numerous places in which it lines up with archaeological or historical information we have. Second, they’ll argue that these historical reports given in the Bible cannot be divorced from the miraculous content contained therein. Given the accuracy with which these writers reported historical events, what basis is there to deny the miraculous events they also report?
Other apologists may establish inerrancy by rebutting arguments which are leveled against the doctrine. That is, if one puts forth an argument against inerrancy by pointing out alleged contradictions, these apologists seek to rebut those contradictions. Thus, once every single alleged error has been addressed, this approach concludes the Bible is inerrant.
Now, I’m not suggesting that either of these methods are wrong. Instead, I’m saying there is another way to approach the defense of the Bible.
A Presuppositional Defense of Inerrancy
Suppose God exists. Suppose further that this God which exists is indeed the God of classical Christian theism. Now, supposing that this is the case, what basis is there for arguing that the Bible is full of errors? For, given that the God of Christianity exists, it seems to be fairly obvious that such a God is not only capable of but would have the motivation to preserve His Word as reported in the Bible.
Or, consider the first step-by-step argument for inerrancy given in the section above, where one would present archaeological, philosophical, historical, etc. evidence point-by-point to make a case for miracles. Could it not be the case that the only reason for rejecting the miraculous reports as wholly inaccurate fictions while simultaneously acknowledging the careful historical accuracy of the authors is simply due to a worldview which cannot allow for the miraculous at the outset?
What’s the Point?
At this point one might be thinking, So what? Who cares?
Well, to answer this head on: my point is that one’s overall worldview is almost certainly going to determine how one views inerrancy. The point may seem obvious, but I think it is worth making very explicit. If we already hold to a Christian worldview broadly, then alleged contradictions in the Bible seem to be much less likely–after all, God, who cannot lie (Numbers 23:19), has given us this text as His Word. Here it is worth affirming again what John Frame said above: the Bible is inerrant because it is of God, who is true.
Thus, if one is to get just one takeaway from this entire post, my hope would be that it is this: ultimately the issue of Biblical inerrancy does not stand or fall on whether can rebut or explain individual alleged errors in the Bible–it stands or falls on one’s worldview.
One final objection may be noted: Some Christians do not believe in inerrancy, so it seems to go beyond an issue of worldview after all. Well yes, that is true. I’m not saying a defense of inerrancy is utterly reducible down to whether or not one is a Christian or not–as I said, I think evidential arguments are very powerful in their own right. I am saying that inerrancy is impossible given the prior probabilities assigned by non-Christian worldviews and altogether plausible (not certain) given Christian worldview assumptions.
A Positive Case for Inerrancy
Too often, defense of inerrancy take the via negativa–it proceeds simply by refuting objections to the doctrine. Here, my goal is to present, in brief, a positive argument for inerrancy. The argument I am proposing here looks something like this (and I admit readily that I have left out a number of steps):
1) Granting that a personal God exists, it seems likely that such a deity would want to interact with sentient beings
2) such a deity would be capable of communicating with creation
3) such a deity would be capable of preserving that communication without error
Therefore, given the desire and capability of giving a communication to people without error, it becomes vastly more plausible, if not altogether certain, that the Bible is inerrant. Of course, if God does not exist–if we deny that there is a person deity–then it seems altogether impossible that an inerrant text could be produced on anything, let alone a faith system.
I consider this a positive argument because it proceeds from principles which can be established (or denied) as opposed to a simple assertion. It is not a matter of just presupposing inerrancy and challenging anyone who would take it on; instead it is a matter of arguing that God exists, desires communication with His people, and has brought about this communication without error. Although each premise needs to be expanded and defended on its on right, I ultimately think that each is true or at least more plausible than its denial. Christians who deny inerrancy must, I think, interact with an argument similar to this one. Their denial of inerrancy seems to entail a denial of one of these premises. I would contend that such a denial would be inconsistent within the Christian worldview.
Note that this argument turns on the issue of whether or not God exists. That is, for this argument to be carried, one must first turn to the question of whether God exists. I would note this is intentional: I do think that inerrancy is ultimately an issue which will be dependent upon and perhaps even derivative of one’s view of God.
One counter-argument which inevitably comes up in conversations about an argument like this is that of “other books.” That is, could not the Mormon and the Muslim (among others) also make a similar case.
The short answer: Yes, they could.
Here is where I would turn to the evidence for each individual book. Granting a common ground that these claimed revelations–the Bible, the Book of Mormon, the Qu’ran, etc.–are each purported to be inerrant and that their inerrancy is more probable on a theistic view, which best matches reality? In other words, I would turn here to investigate the claims found within each book in order to see if they match with what we can discern from the world.
The argument I am making here is not intended to be a one step argument for Christian theism. Instead, it is an argument about the possibility of an inerrant work.
Vern Poythress provides an example of how this approach works. In his work, Inerrancy and Worldview (my review of this work can be found here), he continually focuses on how worldviews color one’s approach to challenges presented against inerrancy such as historical criticism, certain sociological theories, and philosophy of language. One example can be found in his discussion of historical criticism:
The difference between the two interpretations of the principle [of criticism] goes back to a difference in worldview. Does God govern the universe, including its history, or do impersonal laws govern it? If we assume the latter, it should not be surprising that the resulting principle undermines the Bible… It undermines the Bible because it assumes at the beginning that the God of the Bible does not exist. (Poythress, Inerrancy and Worldview , 53, cited below)
Yet it is important to see that my approach here is different from that of Poythress. His approach seems to be largely negative. That is, he utilizes presuppositionalism in order to counter various challenges to the Bible. When a challenge is brought up to inerrancy, he argues that it of course stems from an issue of worldview. Although this is similar to my approach, Poythress never makes a positive argument for inerrancy, which I consider to be a vital part of the overall defense of the doctrine.
Appendix 2: Standard Presuppositionalism and Inerrancy
I would like to note that I am not attempting to claim that my defense of inerrancy here is the standard presuppositional approach. The standard presuppositional approach is much simpler: the apologist simply assumes the absolute truth and authority of God’s word as the starting point for all knowledge.
It should not surprise readers that, given this approach, most (if not all) presuppositionalists embrace the via negativa for defense of inerrancy. That is, the standard presuppositional defense of the Bible usually is reducible to merely pointing out how the attacks on Scripture stem largely from one’s worldview, not from the facts.
Thus, one of the foremost presuppositional apologists to have lived, Greg Bahnsen, writes:
[I]f the believer and unbeliever have different starting points [that is, different presuppositions from which all authority comes for the realm of knowledge] how can apologetic debate ever be resolved? [In answer to this,] the Christian carries his argument beyond “the facts…” to the level of self-evidencing presuppositions–the ultimate assumptions which select and interpret the facts. (Bahnsen, Always Ready, 72 cited below).
It should be clear that this standard presuppositional defense is therefore very different from what I have offered here. The standard presuppositional defense simply reduces the debate to “starting points” and attempts to show contradictions in other “starting points” in method, exposition, or the like. My defense has noted the vast importance of worldviews in a denial of inerrancy, but has also offered a positive defense of inerrancy. Yes, this defense turns on whether God exists, but that can hardly be seen as a defect or circularity in the argument.
Like this page on Facebook: J.W. Wartick – “Always Have a Reason.” I often ask questions for readers and give links related to interests on this site.
The Presuppositional Apologetic of Cornelius Van Til– I explore the presuppositional method of apologetics through a case study of the man who may fairly be called its founder, Cornelius Van Til.
Debate Review: Greg Bahnsen vs. Gordon Stein– I review a debate between a prominent presuppositional apologist, the late Greg Bahnsen, and a leading atheist, Gordon Stein. It is worth reading/listening to because the debate really brings out the distinctiveness of the presuppositional apologetic.
Greg Bahnsen, Always Ready (Nacogdoches, TX: Covenant Media Press, 1996).
John Frame The Doctrine of the Word of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2010).
Vern Sheridan Poythress, Inerrancy and Worldview (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012).
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