Saturday, January 11, 2014

Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy

For the first, we chose Joshua 6, since current archaeological and historiographical evidence calls into question the details of the text’s account. Obviously, those who maintain a strictly factual account of inerrancy must defend the Bible’s factuality. But for those who have a broader or different understanding of truth, or for those whose under- standing of inspiration does not extend to factual accuracy, we wanted to see how Joshua 6 could still function as Scripture without being factually correct. For the second, we chose the discrepancy between Acts 9:7 and Acts 22:9. Both texts describe Saul’s conversion. The former says that his travel companions “heard the voice but saw no one,” while the latter says that they “saw the light but did not hear the voice of the one who was speaking” (NRSV).21 For questions of theological coherence, we asked authors to consider Deuteronomy 20 in relation to Matthew 5. Deuteronomy is of course a portion of the Law of Israel, while many scholars believe that the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5 is Jesus acting as a new Moses bringing the new Law of God. Jesus himself claims that his instructions constitute the fulfillment of the Law (Matt. 5:17–20). But this is where the question of theological coherence is pressing. How is it that Deuteronomy 20 instructs Israel that the complete extermination of Yahweh’s enemies is a matter of Israel’s purity before and obedience to Yahweh, while Jesus subsequently says that faithfulness to God requires nonretaliation and sacrificial love of enemies (Matt. 5:38–48)? If, as in some views of inerrancy, new revelation cannot be seen to correct or alter previous revelation, then how can these passages be understood? While all of our choices raise the issue of truth and inspiration, this one particularly raises the extent of inspiration. How could our knowledge of God be said to be accurate if the human relationship to God varies over time? J. Merrick, ed. Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy (Zondervan 2013), 22-23. 

I'll briefly comment on this:

I. Jericho

We need to have realistic expectations regarding what physical evidence survives the passage of some 3500 years (give or take). There are two explanations consistent with the Biblical account:

i) Brant Wood thinks the surviving evidence corresponds in striking ways with the biblical description of the event:

ii) Conversely, Kenneth Kitchen thinks the lack of evidence is due to the predictable effects of erosion. Cf. On the Reliability of the Old Testament, 187f. 

Last time I checked, you can read Kitchen's analysis online in the Google book edition of his monograph.

Just input jericho and click on page 187.

II. Acts

i) The fact that there are verbal variations in Paul's account of the Christophany is realistic. If these are real speeches which he gave on three different occasions, then we'd expect him to vary the wording somewhat. That's what people do in real life when they repeatedly recount some incident from their past. They aren't reading from a script. If, by contrast, Luke gave three identical verbatim speeches, it would be natural to conclude that these were set speeches which he put into Paul's mouth, rather than transcriptions or summaries of what Paul actually said at different times and places. 

ii) The terminology is somewhat ambiguous. But there's a consistent distinction: on the one hand, this was an objective event, perceptible to all parties. On the other hand, the level of perception varied.

Paul's traveling companions saw and heard something, without seeing Jesus or hearing his words. By contrast, Paul's perception went deeper. He saw Jesus in the light, and he heard what Jesus said. God controlled the specificity of the perception. It was an eyewitnessed event, but Paul was enabled to perceive more given his superior mission.

III. The Sermon on the Mount

Liberals like Peter Enns and Roger Olson relieve the imagined tension by rejecting the inspiration of Deut 20. They pit Jesus against Deuteronomy.

i) But there's a fundamental problem with that tactic. Just a chapter before, during the Temptation, Jesus approvingly quotes the OT three times to reprove Satan. Each time he quotes from the same OT book: Deuteronomy (6:13,16; 8:3). He identifies Deuteronomy as God's word. And he clearly regards Deuteronomy as trustworthy. 

ii) At the Last Judgment, Jesus will be the eschatological Judge (Mt 25). The historical judgment which the Canaanites underwent is just a shadow of the eschatological judgment which unbelievers will experience. Matthew doesn't soften OT judgement. If anything, Matthew intensifies OT judgment. OT historical judgments pale compared to the Final Judgment. 

Divine mercy typically precedes divine judgment. Mercy is extended to save a remnant, after which God exacts judgment on unbelievers. The relationship between the Sermon on the Mount and the Olivet Discourse is consistent with that divine modus operandi. Mercy before judgment.

Some people think the Sermon on the Mount represents the norm, whereas Deut 20 is a temporary concession. The truth is nearly the reverse: the Sermon on the Mount is a temporary concession whereas divine judgment is normative. And that's a good thing. Injustice should not be allowed to continue indefinitely. 


  1. Superb post Steve. I especially like this excellent summary regarding the Acts accounts:

    Paul's traveling companions saw and heard something, without seeing Jesus or hearing his words. By contrast, Paul's perception went deeper. He saw Jesus in the light, and he heard what Jesus said. God controlled the specificity of the perception. It was an eyewitnessed event, but Paul was enabled to perceive more given his superior mission.

  2. I don't think it's at all clear that "Yahweh's enemies" in Deuteronomy 20 are the same "enemies" that Jesus refers to in Matthew 5.

    To the contrary, Jesus seems to be referring to our interpersonal enemies, the same people that the Old Testament commanded us to treat kindly and take care of when they are in need.

  3. In regards to Acts 9 and 22 James White dealt in some detail with this objection in his book "Letters to a Mormon Elder." His response is also contained here in his reply to a Muslim apologist. The beginning of this post deals with the Acts issue:

    Steve, do you think James White's response is a good one? adequate?

  4. Regarding Acts 9:7 and Acts 22:9, I was going to post the same url Richard Klaus did. Here's a direct link:

    Regarding The Sermon on the Mount, Steve is absolutely right. It not like God will never judge the wicked or never uses His covenant people to execute historical judgement. It just so happens that during the interadventual period (i.e. in between the 1st and 2nd Coming of Christ) the Church is to reserve judgement to God in His timing and future means (Rom. 12:19). Not to sound like a Dispensationalist, but it is the case that we are in an age or "dispensation" when God is offering salvation to the world (the "Church Age"). It's not a time when God is directly executing historical judgement through His covenant people. Eschatological judgment in the future will probably involve the saints (cf. Rom. 16:20; Rev. 2:26-27; 19:14; 20:4; 1 Cor. 6:3; Dan. 7:22, 27; Matt. 19:28; Luke 22:29-30).

    Also, in that passage Jesus doesn't seem to be referring to our enemies for Gospel related issues. Issues concerning the Gospel, the Kingdom and Law of God. Jesus seems to be focusing on our personal "enemies" who have a grudge against us or whom we understandably might have a grudge against. Apparently, some Jews were appealing to those OT passages to treat their personal enemies in such a way. Also, in that same book (i.e. Matthew), and in fact all the the synoptic Gospels (and John) affirm future eschatological judgement on the wicked. The way Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy interprets Matt. 5:17–20 would contradict Matt. 19:28. It generates an unnecessary internal contradiction in the book of Matthew.