CHRISTIAN TRACTATUS - SECTION 12

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12. From the viewpoint of internal consistency & style, the Bible gives the impression of being a generally reliable, but not inerrant, document.

12.1 The Bible, contrary to the more exaggerated criticisms of the Enlightenment, is a very reliable set of documents, at least when compared with other documents of similar dates.

12.1.1 In general, the Bible is obviously free from the gross misconceptions of early mythology. To say the least, it was compiled, in general, by very able individuals and is on a par with any other literary production of the ancient world. We must not allow any post-Enlightenment reaction to blind us to this fact.

12.2 However, it is a very big step indeed from the above statement to one asserting complete inerrancy.

12.2.1 In general, those who insist on inerrancy are too lax in the strictures they place on the Bible & too forward in proclaiming its excellences.

12.2.1.1 That is, "allowances" are made for the Bible when none are legitimate under the "inerrancy" paradigm. Evidence is very selective, the generally more acceptable Biblical texts being concentrated on at the expense of others.

12.2.1.2 Also, it usually turns out that no evidence is allowed to refute the claim to inerrancy. There is always the appeal to "further evidence" yet to be discovered. If this were a very occasional retreat into current ignorance it would be acceptable. However, this retreat has to be made more often than is commonly admitted. The claim of Biblical inerrancy is therefore analytic rather than synthetic : the Bible is declared to be inerrant by definition rather than from experience.

12.3 A paradigm of inerrancy of a "mathematical" character, such as one based on Biblical numerics and the over-zealous identification of chiasmus & other literary structures, is not borne out by the facts of the Biblical text.

12.3.1 The application of numerics & chiasmus to the Bible is considered at length in an Appendix to this document. Sufficient here to remark that the "mathematical" neatness of taking inerrancy as a model is totally undermined by the amount of special pleading that needs to be undertaken to make the model fit the facts, or, rather, to make the facts fit the model.

12.4 The ploy of ascribing the "good" in the Scriptures to divine inspiration & the "bad" to the style of the human author makes inerrancy incapable of demonstration on stylistic grounds. Since there is no way of falsifying such a claim, it is unscientific and may be rejected.

12.5 The Bible should not be taken as a "package". We should believe its statements (if we do) individually, recognising the diversity of the material with respect to date, provenance, intent, style and other literary qualities.

12.5.1 The alternative, to believe the whole of the Bible because of a presuppositional bias may, and in many cases must, lead to disingenuity on the part of the person holding such a view. It leads to "believing (numerous) impossible things before breakfast" and to other manifestations of self-deceit.

12.5.2 The assumption of stark alternatives - ie. that the Bible is either completely trustworthy or everywhere dubious - has resulted in many exaggerated claims on both sides of the debate.

12.5.2.1 Liberals have greatly exaggerated the Bible's defects.

12.5.2.2 Conservatives, fearful that the whole fabric of Christianity will collapse if one error is found in Scripture, have exaggerated its merits.

12.5.2.3 Both sides in the above controversy have managed to persuade themselves that arguments are cogent merely because they reach what are to them acceptable conclusions.

12.6 We now consider some issues of the internal self-consistency of the Bible, the major problems of which include the following discrepancies, or alleged discrepancies. Examples could be multiplied, but I have restricted myself to some general observations :-

a). Differences in the Old Testament between Kings & Chronicles etc.

b). Differences between parallel passages in the Gospels.

c). Different portrayals of Jesus in the Synoptic & Johannine Gospels.

d). Differences between the ethos of the Old and New Testaments.

e). Differences between the main thrusts of the Gospels & the Epistles.

12.6.1 In the context of the inerrancy / reliability debate, differences between parallel accounts of the same event act as double-edged swords.

12.6.1.1 On the one hand, the normal canons of journalism would suggest that slight discrepancies on the key issues (or wide divergences on peripheral matters) are confirmatory of independence and imply two or more independent witnesses, which is better than only one. Differences may be attributed to divergent interpretation or slips occasioned in the heat of the moment.

12.6.1.2 On the other hand, any discrepancy that would be no obstacle to journalistic acceptability is destructive of inerrancy. This fact explains the lengths to which exegetes are willing to go to harmonise divergent accounts of the same event or, where ingenuity fails them in this area, to multiply the alleged underlying events where physically possible.

12.6.2 In conservative Biblical scholarship, inter-source agreement on peripheral matters is sometimes taken as being a significant pointer to the reliability of the main subject-matter preserved in these sources. However, if the two accounts are, in general, identical in peripheral areas, literary dependence is the more natural conclusion.

12.6.2.1 The Synoptic Problem is an example of literary dependence.

12.6.3 Variations amongst the different parts of the Bible with respect to message or emphasis are not necessarily discrepancies. It is possible, indeed likely, that these differences were intended by the respective authors. For instance, God's ways of dealing with men (or the situation of the times generally) may have changed in the interim between the instances in question.

12.6.3.1 Hence, one passage (Isaiah 2:4 & Micah 4:3) may quite validly urge the beating of swords into ploughshares while another (Joel 3:10) urges the reverse, because the occasions differ. Where the occasions are the same (as in the swords of Luke 22:36 ff as against Matthew 26, Mark 14 & John 18) we encounter problems, however.

12.6.3.2 This is the claim of the New Testament as against the Old. It is the claim of dispensationalism to explain these differences further and to explain the differences between various parts of the New Testament.

12.6.3.3 However, it is remarkable that it is the later documents that take pains to distinguish themselves from the earlier. Little warning of an impending change is given in the earlier documents and, where it is, the change is not always what would have been expected.

12.6.3.4 For instance, the "New Covenant" prophesy of Jeremiah 31 is used by most Christians to justify the term "New Testament". However, ultra-dispensationalists cannot accept that the New Covenant, in the sense intended by Jeremiah and therefore (they submit) by Jesus, is yet in force, because its promises do not yet seem to have been realised.

12.6.3.5 Similarly, there is little in the Synoptics of the main theological thrust of John's Gospel or of Paul's Epistles. Even John's Gospel, which is replete with popular evangelical passages (even though John 3:16 is worked to death in popular preaching) has a different overall slant to Paul.

12.6.4 Another problem internal to the Bible is the way in which the New Testament uses the Old. Superficially, at least, the New Testament takes texts out of context, quotes the text loosely where the precise wording would seem to be essential to the argument, and adopts other liberties with the text that no competent modern Bible student would dare to do.

12.6.4.1 There is a significant parallel between the New Testament's use of the Old Testament and the so-called Pesher exegesis adopted by the Qumran literature. That is, ancient texts were taken to apply prophetically to the (then) present situation in a manner that appears to modern eyes to be unsound, with free use being made of allegory.

12.6.4.2 It is admitted that typology may go some way towards explaining the various otherwise unlikely exegeses. However, typology seems to be little more than a wide-ranging pesher with a respectable name. I do not find this explanation for Matthew 2:15's use of Hosea 11:1 ("Out of Egypt have I called my Son [and Israel is my first borne]") to explain the "flight into Egypt" very convincing. Nor would most Jews.

12.6.4.3 The argument that, since the Holy Spirit is the author of both Testaments, he can do what he likes with his own words is obnoxious on several counts, not least because it ignores the human agent (who is morally involved) and tends towards the dictation theory of inspiration. An author may not take such liberties even with his own work because words, once written, retain their meaning in context.

12.7 As a final topic in the consideration of the internals of the Bible, we need to consider the state of the text, for unless the text of the Bible is in good condition and faithfully reflects the original autographs (where such existed), much of the authority it may once have had will have been lost.

12.7.1 In response to this, it may immediately be affirmed that the text of the Bible is very reliable indeed, and is supported by a larger number of earlier manuscripts than any other ancient text. These manuscripts also agree amongst themselves to a very significant degree.

12.7.2 However, it has to be recognised that, as is the case with most other significant ancient works, the original autographs have all perished.

12.7.2.1 The above assumes that there ever were original autographs. In the case of compilation texts, or those that passed through several redactions, the equivalent of the autograph would have been the "final edition" when the text stabilised.

12.7.3 Though it is possible, in the vast majority of cases, to come up with a very probable reconstruction of the original (or final) text, it has to be recognised that the text is verbally uncertain in almost every passage. However, there are probably relatively few passages in which the original author's intent has become corrupted during textual transmission.

12.7.4 The Old Testament has a greater appearance of textual uniformity than the New. However, this is an illusion created by the standardisation of the text by the early mediaeval Massoretes, albeit followed by a careful subsequent transmission.

12.7.4.1 There are, however, substantial discrepancies between the Massoretic text and that underlying the Dead Sea Scrolls and again between these two textual traditions and the Septuagint. Nonetheless, these differences are not so great as to make the varying traditions speak with completely different voices.

12.7.5 The above facts make it difficult to maintain any useful application of "full verbal inspiration" or "inerrancy". Applying these epithets to Scripture "as originally given" may save us from imputing error to God but offers no practical help since Scripture is not recoverable in its pristine state.

12.7.5.1 It is to be noted, however, that the state of the text of the Bible presents no obstacle to the Bible's substantial reliability.

12.8 In conclusion, despite the problems associated with the relationship of the Old Testament to the New and with parallel passages in both Testaments, there is nothing internal to either Testament that is fatal to the view of their possessing a general unity of message nor of their being generally reliable. While there are different emphases in the various parts of the Bible, and considerable doctrinal development, there is little internal to the Bible that is destructive of general reliability.

12.8.1 However, the detailed problems that arise would appear to be destructive of claims to inerrancy.



© Theo Todman 1992 - 2000.
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