Understanding the Hard Sayings of the Bible

InterVarsity Press have added a helpful feature to their site: each day they are posting an entry from their book Hard Sayings of the Bible.

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R.C. Sproul Interviews D.A. Carson on Biblical Exegesis

In this video, two scholars sit down for a short discussion about hermeneutics, problem Bible passages, and exegetical fallacies.

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Authority and Application

“We learn the meaning of Scripture as we apply it to situations. Adam learned the meaning of “subdue the earth” as he studied the creation and discovered applications for that command. A person does not understand Scripture, Scripture tells us, unless he can apply it to new situations, to situations not even envisaged in the original text (Matt. 16.3; 22:29; Luke 24:25; John 5:39f.; Rom. 15:4; 2 Tim. 3:16f.; 2 Peter 1:19-21 – in context). Scripture says that its whole purpose is to apply truth to our lives (John 20:31.; Rom. 15:4; 2 Tim. 3:16f.). Furthermore, the applications of Scripture are as authoritative as the specific statements of Scripture. In the passages referred to above, Jesus and others held their hearers responsible if they failed to apply Scripture properly. If God says “Thou shall not steal” and I take a doughnut without paying, I cannot excuse myself by saying that Scripture fails to mention doughnuts. Unless applications are as authoritative as the explicit teachings of Scripture (cf. The Westminister Confession of Faith, I, on “good and necessary consequence”), the scriptural authority becomes a dead letter. To be sure, we are fallible in determining the proper applications; but we are also fallible in translating, exegeting, and understanding the explicit statements of Scripture.  The distinction between explicit statements and applications will not save us from the effects of our fallibility. Yet we must translate, exegete, and “apply” – not fearfully but confidently – because God’s Word is clear and powerful and because God gives it to us for our good.”

John Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1987), pp 84.

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.


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.