A response to Glenn Peoples's 'No, I am not an inerrantist'

A while back, one of New Zealand’s more prominent Christian bloggers, Glenn Peoples, wrote an article titled ‘No, I am not an inerrantist’. In it, he outlines his understanding of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, and why he disagrees with it. I’ve been meaning to respond for some time, but have only now gotten the opportunity.

As Glenn notes, the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy is the widely accepted benchmark for what this doctrine entails. Very briefly stated, it affirms that the Bible is without error. That is what “inerrant” means. Glenn singles out the following parts of the Statement for disagreement:

WE AFFIRM that inspiration, though not conferring omniscience, guaranteed true and trustworthy utterance on all matters of which the Biblical authors were moved to speak and write.

WE AFFIRM that Scripture, having been given by divine inspiration, is infallible, so that, far from misleading us, it is true and reliable in all the matters it addresses.

WE AFFIRM that Scripture in its entirety is inerrant, being free from all falsehood, fraud, or deceit.

WE DENY that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science. We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.

WE AFFIRM that the doctrine of inerrancy has been integral to the Church’s faith throughout its history.

One of the obvious problems with this disagreement is that it severely undermines one’s apologetic with regard to the witness of Scripture. By disagreeing with these statements, Glenn commits himself to admitting that the Bible is not guaranteed true, trustworthy, and reliable; and may be misleading and contain falsehood, fraud, or deceit. That is a difficult situation for a Christian apologist like him to be in.

For my own part, I am an inerrantist, and I find Glenn’s critique of inerrancy shallow and unsophisticated to the point of attacking a strawman. Here’s why.

The Objection Evaluated

Glenn provides the following evidence for discarding inerrancy:

If the texts of the Bible contain not a single error, then two biblical accounts of the same event will agree. They need not cover all the same aspects of the event, but they will agree in the sense that there will not be any conflict between them. Otherwise there is an error present, since two accounts of an event that conflict cannot both be fully correct. However, we know that this is not the case when it comes to the four Gospels. There are some cases where this is fairly obvious. For example, all four Gospels contain sentences attributed to Jesus, but they differ from one Gospel to the next.

What is obvious to anyone with even a little exegetical training is that Glenn is implicitly evaluating the Bible against a modern, scientific or journalistic standard of reporting. It should go without saying, however, that the Bible is an ancient, prescientific compilation. While, in the Modern West, it is considered “inaccurate” or even “dishonest” to quote someone without doing so verbatim, in the ancient Near East no such view existed. On the contrary, it was customary to quote the essence of what a person said, without concerning oneself over the minutiae of the words and sentence structure used. This fact was not lost on the framers of the Chicago Statement, as indicated by Article XIII:

We deny that it is proper to evaluate Scripture according to standards of truth and error that are alien to its usage or purpose. We further deny that inerrancy is negated by Biblical phenomena such as a lack of modern technical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, the reporting of falsehoods, the use of hyperbole and round numbers, the topical arrangement of material, variant selections of material in parallel accounts, or the use of free citations.

Variant Selections & Topical Arrangement

I highlight the latter items—topical arrangement and variant selections—because of additional evidence Glenn moves on to allege against biblical inerrancy. He presents for consideration the differences in who is reported to have visited the tomb on Sunday morning in Matthew 28:1, Mark 16:1, Luke 24:10, and John 20:1–2; concluding, reading all four accounts, could you tell who was there and who was not?

The answer, however is obviously yes. As the ESV Study Bible notes on Luke 24:10, It was Mary … and the other women indicates that at least five women went to the tomb. And of John 20:2, contra Glenn’s claim that according to John 20:1–2, the only woman involved was Mary Magdalene, it observes: The plural we suggests the presence of other women besides Mary. Since Luke 24:10 lists Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary the mother of James, and the other women with them, and Mark 16:1 lists at least one of those women as Salome, it’s trivial to deduce that these were all present—with at least one other, unnamed woman.

The only way in which one can find a difficulty in this passage is to suppose that each of the authors intended to exhaustively list everyone present. Yet even reading modern writing, that’s far from a reasonable or normal assumption. Imagine I were emailing someone to tell him about our going to an apologetics conference. I might say that “Thinking Matters went to the conference”; or, if the person I was telling knew particular people in Thinking Matters, but not others, I might say that “Jason and Stuart and I went to the conference”; or I might just mention Jason if the other people were less important in the telling. None of these even suggest that the rest of Thinking Matters wasn’t present; let alone entail it.

A final evidence alleged against inerrancy is as follows:

Another type of difference between different Gospels is the way that different events are placed in a different order. A well known example is the cleansing of the temple in Jerusalem. In the Synoptic Gospels this event occurs after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, fairly late in the narrative. In John’s Gospel however, this event occurs in chapter 2, before much else has happened.

But it’s a well-documented fact that adhering to a strict chronological order when reporting is a relatively modern invention. In the ancient Near East, arranging anecdotes by topic or by idea was an extremely common, not to mention effective, story-telling technique. It’s called block logic. It’s not wrong, unless you’re specifically intending to present a chronological description of events. It’s just a different way of recounting things. Someone claiming enough exegetical competence to reject the doctrine of inerrancy should know this.

Standards of Truth

Now, Glenn even acknowledges that standards of truth in the ancient Near East may differ to those in the modern West. Yet in doing so, rather than seriously considering the issue and recognizing the relevant cultural distinctions, he appears to mock the notion:

Maybe you want to rescue it by saying that inerrancy is not only compatible with individual writers using their own style, but it is also compatible with the fact that writers are doing no more than adhering to standards of accuracy that were acceptable in their day, and that is why there are no problems with the existence of conflicting accounts, because the fact is, standards of the day just weren’t very high. But this is inerrancy in name only, and it creates a hilarious spectacle for the sceptics to pour scorn upon. […] If we qualify inerrancy this much to save it, it becomes a useless idea altogether.

There is simply no way to overstate how theologically inept—not to mention culturally prejudiced—this statement is. It amounts to saying that using the grammatico-historical method of exegesis to determine our doctrine is a hilarious spectacle. It’s akin to saying that all we need are English Bible translations, because qualifying our understanding of Scripture against its sociolinguistic context is to qualify it so much that it becomes useless. It’s to say that putting ourselves into the shoes of the authors and audience of the scriptural autographs is not merely irrelevant, but an exercise in comedy.

What Glenn wants us to believe is that how the original authors and audience of Scripture understood errors merely indicates that their standards were too low. And, if we qualify inerrancy to mean that the Bible is free from error as its original authors and audience understood errors to be, then it’s a “hilarious spectacle” and a “useless idea altogether”. This objection is dead on arrival for two reasons:

Inerrancy is supposed to be defined by Scripture

Firstly, even if standards of truth in biblical times were sub par—tsk, tsk—it remains that the biblical authors wrote in those times. Now, maybe Glenn thinks those scamps should have used modern Western standards of reporting, even though these were totally alien to their culture, where the retelling of stories was a largely verbal affair and the manner of conceptualization was quite different. But the fact remains that they didn’t use our standards. They used their own. Probably because the ignorant peons they were writing to, wretched, barely hominid gimps that they were, expected it.

Thus, taking into account what the Bible itself considers an error when we’re defining inerrancy is not a “qualification”. It is a central tenet of the doctrine. When Scripture attests to its own inerrancy, it does so assuming an ancient Near Eastern concept of truth and error.

Modern journalistic standards are not an objective ideal

Secondly, what justification does Glenn have for taking his view that the “standards of the day just weren’t very high”? High compared to what? It isn’t as if our modern Western conventions for journalism constitute an objective standard against which any kind of story-telling should be judged. They’re not some pinnacle of reporting—a gilt-edged ideal that any writer in any culture should be looking up to and trying to imitate, even if that were possible without the use of technologies unavailable to them. In fact, these standards aren’t even commonly used in Western society.

Does Glenn really believe that the genre of the gospels is functionally identical with modern journalism? Does he seriously believe that using any other story-telling conventions actually amounts to error? If I tell him that “Thinking Matters went to an apologetics conference last month”, and he tells his wife that Bnonn said, “Last month, Thinking Matters went to an apologetics conference,” should we say that his standards of testimony are so low that, in fact, he has reported what I said erroneously? Even in the modern day there is no presumption that we retell the exact words someone used unless we’re doing so in very specific circumstances—such as writing for a newspaper, or using a blockquote tag. Certainly, the advent of copy and paste has made this much easier, and thus raised our expectations. But that hardly implies that reporting the gist, if not the precise words, is a lowlier method, and in fact constitutes error. The only time that would be true is if there is a presumption of a verbatim quote. Unless Glenn has remarkable evidence to the contrary, in the case of Scripture, there is not.

Moreover, even in modern journalistic writing it is never expected that the author report everything, or that he not be selective about the facts he conveys. In fact, basic common sense tells us that every reporter must do these things, because it is inherent to the nature of reporting as a subjective exercise. And this may become more pronounced depending on the kind of story-telling techniques an author is using, and the specific reasons he has for writing. In short, Glenn appears to ignore even the most obvious facts of literary criticism in his efforts to make his case.

Conclusion

Overall, Glenn’s understanding of inerrancy is too inadequate for his critique to gain any actual traction against the doctrine. The fundamental exegetical principles of genre, language, cultural context, and intent are all ignored, meaning that inerrancy itself is essentially ignored, while a strawman is burned in its place. Indeed, it’s as if he’s unaware that inerrancy is an exegetical issue at all. Instead of looking at the scriptural foundation for the doctrine, and the linguistic nuances of the term “error”, he imposes upon Scripture his own arbitrary conventions of reporting, finds it lacking, and then declares that inerrancy must be false. Sadly, the comments on his blog suggest that many other Christians don’t see anything immediately problematic with this approach. Hopefully this article can serve as a corrective.

65 replies
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  1. Jonny King
    Jonny King says:

    Glenn,

    Thanks for getting back to me, I was beginning to think I had blog B.O.!

    I would like to understand your position with greater clarity and definition! Therefore, let me outline some details, asking you some questions, which may help in this regard.

    1) The concept of “Inerrancy,” as I understand it, fundamentally involves a two-part equation. In the first instance, as Carson affirms, in its foremost technical reality, it relates only to the “original autographs,” which he makes clear by stating that it is uncommon for this to be applied to the subsequent manuscripts.

    I think in the Chicago statement, the key affirmation for this interaction is number 10, which, while it relates to inspiration, provides the context for the subsequent statements on “inerrancy” in numbers 12, and following.

    In Statement 10, it also notes the doctrine of “inspiration” as relating to the “autographic text of Scripture.”

    Glenn, do you hold that the original autographs of Scripture are Inerrant as it is being described in these documents? If so, could you please affirm why or how you have come to this position?… and of course, if you don’t why you haven’t also!

    2) In the second instance, those who affirm it historically, as in the Chicago statement/ Carson, nuance the meaning given for the original autographs. This explains why Carson will not affirm it for subsequent manuscripts, and why the Chicago statement in number 10 affirms the following: “We further affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original.”

    Therefore, the question seems to be, when we affirm inerrancy, are we saying that everything in our English translations are the “inerrant” Word of God, which are based on subsequent manuscripts that Carson affirms do not come under this definition of “inerrancy,” and as the Chicago statement affirms it… “to the EXTENT that they faithfully represent the original” (emphasis mine)?

    In other words, to the extent that they do not faithfully represent it, they are not the Word of God, and are outside this definition. This, for example, could be illuminated by the longer reading at the end of Mark. This definition seems to also allow one to rectify scribal errors and differences in subsequent manuscript/s.

    What issue/s do you have with this explanation of “inerrancy” as it relates to subsequent manuscripts… not the originals?

    It seems, as I have read your’s and Bnonn’s interaction, if I am reading you both correctly, that he is presently bringing the definition of “inerrancy” that is related to the “original autographs” and applying it to the subsequent manuscripts, which our translations are based on, which means he is not allowing those parts that do not reflect the originals to be viewed as outside this definiton.

    Whereas you have not drawn any distinction between the “originals” and subsequent manuscripts (assuming you view such as legitimate), which means, because of these realities (e.g., end of Mark), you view these as negating the legitimacy of the concept of “inerrancy” to the Word of God, when, in fact, as it relates to the basis for this interaction, it is defined differently for subsequent manuscripts.

    I think that will do for now…

    Hope this brings more light to the discussion…

  2. Bnonn
    Bnonn says:

    It seems, as I have read your’s and Bnonn’s interaction, if I am reading you both correctly, that he is presently bringing the definition of “inerrancy” that is related to the “original autographs” and applying it to the subsequent manuscripts

    I have no idea why you’d think that, given that I’ve already told you that I only hold to the inerrancy of the autographs. I affirm the Chicago Statement’s view that inerrancy does not apply to the later manuscripts.

  3. Jonny King
    Jonny King says:

    Hey Bnonn,

    I have described your practical position as applying it to subsequent manuscripts, as it seemed, and I say seemed, as this type of communication is not comprehensive… nevertheless, in the way you responded to Glenn’s statements about Gerasenes/ Gadarenes.

    Inerrancy is in no way affected by such issues, as one, these examples are using subsequent manuscripts in a debate that is dealing with a concept that finds its nexus in the originals, which, subsequently, can also be reconciled by affirming that these are scribal errors.

    Therefore, it was your maintenance of these distinctive realities “in practice” that I was commenting on.

  4. Bnonn
    Bnonn says:

    But do you have any evidence that the Gerasenes/Gadarenes issue can be attributed to scribal error, Johnny? Not every prima facie textual problem can be explained away by assuming a mistake in a later manuscript.

  5. Jonny King
    Jonny King says:

    True, but if you are affirming “Inerrancy” in the “original autographs,” is this not what those who hold to this doctrine are effectively doing… presupposing it away as some mistake, in some shape or form?! Otherwise, those who use these as an argument against inerrancy in the originals, have effectively won the argument… which is why it is important to maintain the two-stage approach in discussions!

    BTW, I hold to it!

    The use of the gadarenes/gerasenes was meant more as an exemplification, not necessarily as an actual or even a good example… no I didn’t look it up beforehand!

    However, you have identified the more conservative approach to understanding how each evangelist approached this text, in your examples.

    I have done some text critical work many moons ago when I studied Hebrew. It would only be described as introductory, but we used Brotzman, and worked through Esther.

    In saying all this, it is one’s presuppositions that play a large part in how one view’s the “original autographs,” with mine not only being exegetically informed, but also, as a corollary, theologically!

  6. Robin Boom
    Robin Boom says:

    Bnonn

    Okay if the Bible is inerrant, which account of Judas death is correct? Did he commit suicide and throw the money into the temple as Matthew wrote, or did he go out into a field he had purchased with the betrayal money and tumble over and die from disembowellment as Luke wrote?

    Also who was Joseph’s father? Heli or Jacob? and their respective fathers, etc? Lukes genealogy account or Matthews?

    You also claim only the 66 books canonized by Constantine’s bishops are what ‘All scripture’ refers to. When Paul wrote this, John’s gospel and his epistles had not been written. The Codex Sinaiticus includes the Epistle of Barnabus. Why not include this? The book of Enoch that Jude quotes, why not include this? Erasmus Textus Receptus includes some verses not found in earlier manuscripts to Jerome’s Latin Vulgate. Should we include these?

    Regarding the historicity of both Old and New Testament, the largest body of modern scholarship today comprises members of the Westar Institute (previously known as the Jesus Seminar). In the book The Five Gospels, these hundreds of scholars have gone through the gospels and categorised different verses in terms of their reliability as being actual sayings and actions of Jesus. Their conclusion is that there are lots of bogus and suspect claims in the gospels. Claims of inerrancy and infallibility are claims of ‘faith’ made by naive fundamentalists who fail to look beyond their rose-tinted glasses of scripture, and disregard the historicity of the very book they are idolising.

    BTW, I have debated with several Westar Institute members on some of their claims also, and they too have been found wanting. What we should be interested in is truth. Not dogma.

  7. Bnonn
    Bnonn says:

    Robin, I’m not going to answer any and all harmonization objections you care to bring. That is not the purpose of this thread. If you’re genuinely interested in the answers, sites like Tektonics are far better equipped to provide them than I. If you aren’t, you’re just wasting both our time.

    You also claim only the 66 books canonized by Constantine’s bishops are what ‘All scripture’ refers to. When Paul wrote this, John’s gospel and his epistles had not been written.

    What’s your point? The sensus plenior is clear.

    As regards your questions on the formation of the canon, both Glenn and I have told you that this is incidental to the topic of inerrancy, so I’m not sure why you’re still harping on about it. Again, if you’re genuinely interested in the answers to the questions you’ve raised, I’ve already pointed you to some resources which will help.

    As regards the Jesus Seminar, plenty has been written refuting these so-called scholars. By your own admission they are “wanting”. So the fact that you reference them as a serious objection indicates that you’re just trying to get off your pet talking points, rather than engage in any meaningful debate.

    What we should be interested in is truth. Not dogma.

    I am profoundly interested in the truth. That is why I defend scriptural inerrancy—God’s word is truth (John 17:17). Your illicit bifurcation of truth and dogma is telling.

  8. Robin Boom
    Robin Boom says:

    Anonn

    I used to try and reconcile the contradictions of Judas death similar to the website you referred me to does, with Judas body swelling up and bursting, and that he somehow bought the field, or the priests bought the field etc, all in a weaselly sort of way. However, such reconciliations are dishonest. They are blatantly different stories of Judas death. Even my young daughter can figure that one out. I have given my reasons for why I believe Matthew’s is the correct one. You conveniently avoid the issue, because to confront it honestly would make you have to admit that either Luke or Matthew made an error, and this violates your ‘inerrant’ paradigm in regard to scripture.

    If you were interested in truth as you claim, you would also be interested in the historicity of the Bible and be interested in objections raised. You would be interested in what the Westar Institute and their ilk say, and would determine whether such objections are valid. You have demonstrated you are not interested in this, and therefore don’t want your little boat rocked. You want to believe something because there is safety in such a belief, and you are scared of straying beyond your comfortzone of ignorance.

    Your quote John 17:17 ‘Gods word is truth’ is a theological proposition which I have no issue with. We understand ‘God is not a man that He should lie’. But to equate something as powerful as God’s uttered word (John 1), which was so powerful that it created the universe and all there is, with penned human words found in the Bible is taking a huge leap of faith akin to walking on thin ice. The Bible was not in the beginning with God. The Bible did not make the universe and all that is in it. The Bible is not ‘quick and powerful’ The Bible is not living!! The Word of God is living. He is truth. His name is Jesus. Worship the Bible if you like, but I worship the Living Word of God. He is inerrant. The Bible is not.

    The Bible contains some wonderful truths, but it also contains mistakes and errors. It is therefore neither inerrant nor infallible. Some people take and all or nothing approach to the Bible. Its writers never intended an all or nothing approach. Paul even makes it clear in some of his letters, that some of what he said was just opinion, albeit the opinion of a learned and diligent Apostle. However on some issues I think Paul was wrong, such as his not allowing women to speak in Christian gatherings. We may dismiss this today as a cultural thing at the time or whatever, and need to hear what the Holy Spirit is saying to us today, for as Jesus said, it is Him who leads us into Truth (John 16:13). Not the Bible. We need Him to help us ‘rightly divide’ the scriptures.

  9. Bnonn
    Bnonn says:

    They are blatantly different stories of Judas death. Even my young daughter can figure that one out.

    Why would I try to debate with someone who, by his own admission, believes that a competent critique of the Bible requires only the reading comprehension, contextual knowledge, and exegetical expertise of a child?

    The Bible is not living!! The Word of God is living.

    A case in point. A young child, reading her English Bible, might assume that Hebrews 4:12 uses the same Greek word as John 1:1. A competent adult, exegeting Scripture properly, would know otherwise. Logos and rhema are quite different terms.

    When you’re ready to interact at an adult level, look me up.

  10. Other Simon
    Other Simon says:

    Glenn,

    Other Simon -, although I can see that inerrancy isn’t a biblical doctrine, and I have no other reason to believe it either, I have to observe that your arguments are just shocking! How is it an error to not state the virgin birth? How is it an error to draw from another Gospel writer? Seriously, you’re at the opposite end of the spectrum fromt he inerrantists: both seeing things that just are not there.

    To not state the virgin birth in your gospel you would have to believe that there was no virgin birth. You would be otherwise insane to leave it out, especially since christians claim that the gospels are of a ‘historical-record’ nature compared with other biblical text types.

    It is not an ‘error’ to leave out the virgin birth, but leaving it out renders the gospels as rather less inerrant. Drawing and modifying from other gospels is also not an ‘error’, but it makes the gospels much less reliable, independant, and inerrant.

  11. Other Simon
    Other Simon says:

    Why would I try to debate with someone who, by his own admission, believes that a competent critique of the Bible requires only the reading comprehension, contextual knowledge, and exegetical expertise of a child?

    When you’re ready to interact at an adult level, look me up.

    I do often wonder what it is that you gain from demeaning people, Bnonn. Perhaps you should too. Your last comment does not come from an adult.

  12. jonathan robinson
    jonathan robinson says:

    BTW John 1:1 and Heb 4:12 do use the same Greek word for “word”, logos, so I’m not sure what point you are making? The referrent of the word is determined by context, so they do not necessarily refer to the same thing even so but really, which Greek text were you using to arrive at your conclusions?

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