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Authority of Scripture

What are the doctrines of Verbal Inspiration and Inerrancy of Scripture? Why are they important? What difference do they make in our spiritual life?

Verbal Inspiration means that the Holy Spirit saw to it that the very words of the documents of Scripture are exactly what He wanted, in order to convey the truth we needed to know. Does it mean He dictated those words? In most cases, "no," but there are a few passages that begin, "Thus saith the Lord," and the tablet of the law was actually written by God's own hand.

Are we to be worshipers of words? Even in Scripture we have precedent for translation because Jesus probably read from the original Hebrew of the Old Testament, taught in Aramaic and was recorded by his disciples in Greek. Clearly what is important is the meaning that the words convey, but that means also that the words cannot be conveying a wrong meaning.

And for the most part, the writers were using their own words and the concepts God had taught them, as well as including concepts that they may not have fully understood themselves. For example, David almost certainly did not realize in writing of his own anguish in Psalm 22 that he was also prophesying the suffering of Christ. Can God do this? Of course. Can He also see to it that the Jewish community and the early church were moved to canonize the inspired documents and reject those that were just ordinary? Why not?

What does inerrancy mean? It is usually stated as "inerrant in the original documents (or autographs)." Some might say that since we only have copies of copies of copies, which might have errors of transmission, what difference does it make? It is this. By the techniques of textual criticism, two or more copies can be compared and the most likely original be determined. Wear and tear of the original or slips of the pen might be introduced but the common ones are recognizable. Ancient translations are also helpful because common errors in one language will be different from those in another language.

And anyway, the integrity of the text in the copies was carefully preserved, and this is attested to by comparison of the Dead Sea Scrolls with copies dated nearly 1000 years later. Jewish scribes would carefully copy, then check, then count the words, count the letters, find the middle word and the middle letter, in both the original and the copy. If discrepancies could not be reconciled, the copy was discarded, no matter how long it took to prepare. We all recall that the Scribes did not all recognize Jesus when He came. He rebuked them for not seeing Him in the Scriptures but did not tell them to stop reading (or copying) the Scriptures.

Inerrancy of the Scripture means that the Scripture does not teach error. For example, when we read in Ecclesiastes "all is vanity, everything is useless," does the Scripture teach that statement as a fact? No, of course not. The reader of the whole book knows that the writer (it sure sounds like Solomon from the description) really felt that way at the time, but he came to the conclusion at the end of the book that meaning comes from obeying God – and THAT is the teaching. Further, clear poetry can be accepted as poetry and clear imagery as imagery. But when something is written as history it is not "docu-drama" and when it is written as prophecy, it is not after the fact.

Does it make a difference? If Scripture has errors, then, even by reconstructing the original, it could not be considered to always teach truth. For example, if we reconstruct a document to state that Jericho was destroyed under the leadership of Joshua but in truth Jericho was already in ruins at that time, then Scripture is teaching an error. And indeed, that was the view of some archeologists until the dating of the exodus from Egypt was corrected. In their view, the Jericho account was a made up story used to teach a lesson -- that could also be described as a pious fraud. But a correct dating of the events revealed that the Scripture was completely vindicated -- the walls fell outward (so they were not pushed in) and the invaders could have walked right in, it was harvest time with grain lying on the rooftops and yet the city was not looted.

Can inerrancy be proven logically? Not really because it is not possible to prove a negative. Does that mean it is illogical? Certainly not. It makes sense that God would not mislead us and whenever the Bible is confirmed by new discoveries, it increases our faith that the unsolved mysteries can also be solved. Also, unlike the holy books of many other religions, the Bible is tied to history. Thus when God is known as "The God Who brought you out of Egypt," it clearly implies that the events really happened. The same is true of "the God Who raised Jesus Christ from the dead." By tying the principles of the gospel to verifiable events, God is saying, "You can believe the things you cannot test on the basis of the things you can."

Thus, if some of the testable facts of the Scripture are proven false, it throws the trustworthiness of the spiritual message into doubt as well. If Jonah was a made up story and Jesus talked about him as a historical person, we may wonder what else Jesus might be mistaken about. If Jesus claimed to cast out demons but it could be proven that he was simply treating mental illness, does that not make us less confident that He is really the way, the truth and the life?

Of course the Scripture must be properly interpreted and there may be questions about some passages. Some people think the book of Jonah is too dramatic to be real and question the possibility of survival in the belly of the large sea creature. But that presupposes that God could not have performed a miracle. And, after all, Jesus really DOES speak of Jonah and his experience as real and an actual foreshadowing of His own death and resurrection.

Can a person be a Christian and not believe in the inerrancy of Scripture? Yes, of course. But their knowledge of Christ is in danger of erosion. And their attitude towards the Scripture changes. Instead of coming to the Scripture humbly, to be judged and to learn, they come to judge, deciding which parts are genuine and which parts are false. The end of that line is seen in the so called "Jesus Seminar" which regularly meets to pare away what its participants regard as additions to the Gospels and ends up with a human teacher.

Can the authorship of a book in the Bible be in doubt and it still be regarded as inspired? Yes, of course. If we believe that the early church was equipped by the Holy Spirit to determine which books were to be included, they could surely have done that even for books of uncertain authorship, although the qualifications of an author tended to be a Devine stamp of approval. The book of Hebrews, for example, does not sound like a writing of Paul, but some feel that it was written under his authority by an associate who was given stylistic latitude.

And in the case of the Pentateuch (Genesis through Deuteronomy), although the last chapter was clearly not written by Moses (describing Moses death) and the events recorded in Genesis occurred before the time of Moses so that he would have had to reply on other sources, whether oral or written or supernatural knowledge, still the tradition of the Jews and the most logical conclusion is that these are indeed "The Books of Moses."

Thus we would expect them to be contemporary accounts of the event he witnessed and to be rich in geographical and cultural details that would have been lost if this were all written 800 years later, perhaps by Ezra, after the Babylonian captivity. And also, in addition to having reasonable doubt about those details, the reader would have to conclude that some things were made up. For example the finding of the "Lost Scrolls" of the Law in the time of Josiah would have to be interpreted as a cover story, explaining why the (newly written) "Books of Moses" had not been seen before. This would put Ezra on the same level as Joseph Smith who found and translated the golden tablets and then reported that they went up into heaven.

If confronted with a seeming contradiction or inaccuracy in the Scripture, the person who does not believe in inerrancy says, "See, there you have it." Such as the parallel passages in 2 Samuel 24:1 where it says that God incited David to take a census and 1 Chronicles 21:1 where it says that Satan incited David to take a census. That person would possibly conclude that the Jews borrowed the concept of Satan from the Babylonians. Yet the person who believes in inerrancy will not give up so fast and in that case knows that both can be considered true. Just as in the case of Job's suffering, Satan was given permission to afflict Job, so it was God and it was Satan. Moreover, it does not mean that God is evil, because the Lord had His own agenda in all this, and He accomplished it.

Ross S. Olson

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