Last week, we discussed the definition of biblical inerrancy and how this important doctrine works in areas of apparent disagreement between science and Scripture. Here, RTB editor Maureen Moser and I talk about rigidity and flexibility in inerrancy.
I came across an article by New Testament scholar Craig A. Evans in which he described an all-or-nothing approach to biblical interpretation. Christian fundamentalists, as Evans put it, tend to either say or imply that “Jesus spoke every word, performed every deed—and he did them in the locations and sequences described in the gospels.” What’s the problem with taking inerrancy to an all-or-nothing degree?
Remember when we talked about canonicity, we established that inspiration (from which canonicity and inerrancy flow) does not mean the Bible’s human authors went into zombie-like trances to take spiritual dictation. Rather, the Holy Spirit superintended and guided their writing.
Because the Holy Spirit is God and God cannot lie, we can trust Scripture to be authoritative and truthful in every area it addresses. However, I think what Evans is saying is that we have to be a little careful about adopting a wooden way of understanding Scripture. The biblical authors were, to some degree, editors.
Let’s take the Sermon on the Mount. Who knows how many times Jesus gave that sermon? He may have given it numerous times and, of course, if there were multiple sermons there could have been differing details in the different times it was delivered. It could be that the gospels are providing us with a summary of this talk. Similarly, the Gospel of Mark is probably a summary of the Apostle Peter’s “talking points,” as we might call them today. Meanwhile, Luke acted as a sort of investigative journalist, likely interviewing key people and then composing his gospel account.
So, we need to take the art of composition into account?
Yes. When the apostle first learned from Jesus, they learned orally. Years later, they wrote down the oral presentation. You can take the Gospel of Mark, which was written in Koine Greek, and you can translate it back into the language of Jesus (Aramaic) and you can see the way in which Jesus made memorable presentations of the gospel message so that the apostles could hear and easily memorize them.
Jesus likely spoke those things many different times. The apostles probably figured one gospel could never get Jesus in his fullness, so there are four of them. Matthew seems more for the Jews. Luke is for the Gentiles. Mark is fast paced, then this happened and then that happened. Then John is the old man who lives late into the first century and has been thinking about who Jesus was.
This diversity provides some breadth to the story of Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection, but it does not lend itself to the all-or-nothing approach that Evans described.
Evans mentioned that back in the days of the apostles, scribes and students were taught how to pass on the correct teachings, but to do so in a way that allowed for a certain amount of creativity in how they ordered the events, how they told the stories, and what details they included. This put me in mind of the genealogies of Genesis, which young-earth creationists have used to calculate the age of the earth, but which RTB argues likely have gaps in them.
That’s a good example. Such gaps and reordering of events run counter to our current ideas of how to record history and biography. But these authors were not of our culture and time period. That doesn’t make them wrong or in error. They just had different priorities than we do.
Take the gaps you mention. The priority of the genealogies was likely to record the most important figures of the family lineage. In ancient Hebrew, “father” can mean grandfather and so forth and “son” can mean grandson and so on. So adding up the genealogies, doing some quick mathematical formulation and arriving at 4004 BC as the date for creation is, I think, to misunderstand the role of genealogies in the Old Testament.
I think a good point is that if you have an overly literalistic or rigid view of how the Bible came to be, you’re probably going to run into problems. People like Evans and others are illustrating that maybe the more we know about the ancient world and the more we know about Jewish and Christian writing practices, the better we will understand the Bible’s composition history and its teachings.
I’ve heard people like Evans also emphasize that we have to take genre and metaphoric or poetic intent into account. For example, the conquest narratives in Joshua use strong, possibly hyperbolic, language because that was the literary style of time.
Yes, I interviewed Christian philosopher Paul Copan about this (here and here). He says something similar about the destruction of the Canaanites. In fact, he recently coauthored a book about this one issue entitled Did God Really Command Genocide?
One thought I have about all of that is, I think that Christian theology and apologetics has to be done within a community. No one can know enough; you can’t be a specialist in so many fields. You have to rely on others. You need New Testament scholars, historians of the ancient world, systematic theologians, and scientists. It does seem that for Christianity to be shown to be credible it takes a community. That means a lot of cooperation, a lot of teamwork. That’s what we call the church.