Quotables: Inerrant in Faith and Practice?

quotables

One of the most frequent objections is raised by those who say that the purpose of Scripture is to teach us in areas that concern “faith and practice” only; that is, in areas that directly relate to our religious faith or to our ethical conduct. This position would allow for the possibility of false statements in Scripture, for example, in other areas such as in minor historical details or scientific facts—these areas, it is said, do not concern the purpose of the Bible, which is to instruct us in what we should believe and how we are to live.1 Its advocates often prefer to say that the Bible is “infallible” but they hesitate to use the word inerrant. 2

The response to this objection can be stated as follows: the Bible repeatedly affirms that all of Scripture is profitable for us (2 Tim. 3:16) and that all of it is “God-breathed.” Thus it is completely pure (Ps. 12:6), perfect (Ps. 119:96), and true (Prov. 30:5). The Bible itself does not make any restriction on the kinds of subjects to which it speaks truthfully.

The New Testament contains further affirmations of the reliability of all parts of Scripture: in Acts 24:14, Paul says that he worships God, “believing everything laid down by the law or written in the prophets.” In Luke 24:25, Jesus says that the disciples are “foolish men” because they are “slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken.” In Romans 15:4, Paul says that “whatever was written” in the Old Testament was “written for our instruction.” These texts give no indication that there is any part of Scripture that is not to be trusted or relied on completely. Similarly, in 1 Corinthians 10:11, Paul can refer even to minor historical details in the Old Testament (sitting down to eat and drink, rising up to dance) and can say both that they “happened” (thus implying historical reliability) and “were written down for our instruction.”

If we begin to examine the way in which the New Testament authors trust the smallest historical details of the Old Testament narrative, we see no intention to separate out matters of “faith and practice,” or to say that this is somehow a recognizable category of affirmations, or to imply that statements not in that category need not be trusted or thought to be inerrant. Rather, it seems that the New Testament authors are willing to cite and affirm as true every detail of the Old Testament.

In the following list are some examples of these historical details cited by New Testament authors. If all of these are matters of “faith and practice,” then every historical detail of the Old Testament is a matter of “faith and practice,” and this objection ceases to be an objection to inerrancy. On the other hand, if so many details can be affirmed, then it seems that all of the historical details in the Old Testament can be affirmed as true, and we should not speak of restricting the necessary truthfulness of Scripture to some category of “faith and practice” that would exclude certain minor details. There are no types of details left that could not be affirmed as true.

The New Testament gives us the following data: David ate the bread of the Presence (Matt. 12:3-4); Jonah was in the whale (Matt. 12:40); the men of Nineveh repented (Matt. 12:41); the queen of the South came to hear Solomon (Matt. 12:42); Elijah was sent to the widow of Zarephath (Luke 4:25-26); Naaman the Syrian was cleansed of leprosy (Luke 4:27); on the day Lot left Sodom fire and brimstone rained from heaven (Luke 17:29; cf. v. 32 with its reference to Lot’s wife who turned to salt); Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness (John 3:14); Jacob gave a field to Joseph (John 4:5); many details of the history of Israel occurred (Acts 13:17-23); Abraham believed and received the promise before he was circumcised (Rom. 4:10); Abraham was about one hundred years old (Rom. 4:19); God told Rebekah before her children were born that the elder child would serve the younger (Rom. 9:10-12); Elijah spoke with God (Rom. 11:2-4); the people of Israel passed through the sea, ate and drank spiritual food and drink, desired evil, sat down to drink, rose up to dance, indulged in immorality, grumbled, and were destroyed (1 Cor. 10:11); Abraham gave a tenth of everything to Melchizedek (Heb. 7:1-2); the Old Testament tabernacle had a specific and detailed design (Heb. 9:1-5); Moses sprinkled the people and the tabernacle vessels with blood and water, using scarlet wool and hyssop (Heb. 9:19-21); the world was created by the Word of God (Heb. 11:3);3 many details of the lives of Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Rahab, and others actually happened (Heb. 11, passim); Esau sold his birthright for a single meal and later sought it back with tears (Heb. 12:16-17); Rahab received the spies and sent them out another way (James 2:25); eight persons were saved in the ark (1 Peter 3:20; 2 Peter 2:5); God turned Sodom and Gomorrah to ashes but saved Lot (2 Peter 2:6-7); Balaam’s donkey spoke (2 Peter 2:16).

This list indicates that the New Testament writers were willing to rely on the truthfulness of any part of the historical narratives of the Old Testament. No detail was too insignificant to be used for the instruction of New Testament Christians. There is no indication that they thought of a certain category of scriptural statements that were unreliable and untrustworthy (such as “historical and scientific” statements as opposed to doctrinal and moral passages). It seems clear that the Bible itself does not support any restriction on the kinds of subjects to which it speaks with absolute authority and truth; indeed, many passages in Scripture actually exclude the validity of this kind of restriction.

A second response to those who limit the necessary truthfulness of Scripture to matters of “faith and practice” is to note that this position mistakes the major purpose of Scripture for the total purpose of Scripture. To say that the major purpose of Scripture is to teach us in matters of “faith and practice” is to make a useful and correct summary of God’s purpose in giving us the Bible. But as a summary it includes only the most prominent purpose of God in giving us Scripture. It is not, however, legitimate to use this summary to deny that it is part of the purpose of Scripture to tell us about minor historical details or about some aspects of astronomy or geography, and so forth. A summary cannot properly be used to deny one of the things it is summarizing! To use it this way would simply show that the summary is not detailed enough to specify the items in question.

It is better to say that the whole purpose of Scripture is to say everything it does say, on whatever subject. Every one of God’s words in Scripture was deemed by him to be important for us. Thus, God issues severe warnings to anyone who would take away even one word from what he has said to us (Deut. 4:2; 12:32; Rev. 22:18-19): we cannot add to God’s words or take from them, for all are part of his larger purpose in speaking to us. Everything stated in Scripture is there because God intended it to be there: God does not say anything unintentionally! Thus, this first objection to inerrancy makes a wrong use of a summary and thereby incorrectly attempts to impose artificial limits on the kinds of things about which God can speak to us.


1 A good defense of this position can be found in a collection of essays edited by Jack Rogers, Biblical Authority (Waco, Tex.: Word, 1977); and, more extensively, in Jack B. Rogers and Donald McKim, The Authority and Interpretation of the Bible: An Historical Approach (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1979).

2 Until about 1960 or 1965 the word infallible was used interchangeably with the word inerrant. But in recent years, at least in the United States, the word infallible has been used in a weaker sense to mean that the Bible will not lead us astray in matters of faith and practice.

3 This is not a minor detail, but it is useful as an example of a “scientific” fact that is affirmed in the Old Testament and one about which the author says that we have knowledge “by faith”; thus, faith here is explicitly said to involve trust in the truthfulness of a scientific and historical fact recorded in the Old Testament.

Grudem, W. A. (1994). Systematic theology : An introduction to biblical doctrine (93). Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, Mich.: Inter-Varsity Press; Zondervan Pub. House.

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