Science in Christian Perspective
The Nature of Biblical lnerrancy
DANIEL P. FULLER
Fuller Theological Seminary
From: JACS 24 (June 1972): 47-51
A paper read at Pierce Chapel, Wheaton College, November 5, 1970, at a meeting sponsored by the Bible Department. The essentials of this paper were also read at the Southern California Section of the ASA, meeting at Fuller Seminary on November 16, 1968.
The Nature of Error
In its September 18, 1970 issue Life magazine cited Gordon Mills as the composer of the song, It's Not Unusual. But actually the song was jointly composed by Gordon Mills and Leslie Reed, and Reed's agent reported the error to Life. Life replied in its October 16 issue that "it was happy to set the record straight." Life had been in error. The intention of Life magazine is to set forth life as it is, but neither Life nor any other newspaper or magazine can claim inerrancy, and we all do well never to believe all that we read in them.
My family doctor may illustrate a principle of healthful living by referring to something from major league baseball, but in so doing he gets the wrong players on the wrong team. Nevertheless I get the point that he is illustrating and go on having complete confidence in him as my doctor because his intention is to be an expert not on baseball (and I am not consulting him for that) but on medicine, and as long as he fulfills that intention, I regard him as inerrant and therefore trustworthy.
A communication can be in error only if it fails to live up to the intention of its author. In considering the "nature of Biblical inerraney," we first let the Bible writers tell us what their intention was in writing, and then if they fulfill this intention, we regard them as inerrant. The Biblical writers make it clear that their purpose was to report the happenings and meaning of the redemptive acts of God in history so that men might he made wise unto salvation. Thus Paul in writing to Timothy (II Tim. 3:15) said,
From a babe thou [Timothy] hast known the sacred writings which are able to make thee wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus.
Paul regarded his teachings and those of the other apostles and their close associates as a continuation of the teaching of the Old Testament Scriptures which had made Timothy wise unto salvation. Thus in I Corinthians 2 6ff., he included himself, the other apostles, and their close associates in the "we" when he said, "We speak wisdom, although it is not wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age ... We speak a secret and hidden wisdom of God ... [It consists in] what no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man conceived. It is what God has prepared for them that love him." Then in I Corinthians 2:13 Paul went on to declare that these New Testament revelatory spokesmen, like their counterparts in the Old Testament, "speak this wisdom in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit." This means that all the revelatory spokesmen of the Bible were verbally inspired, that the words they used in teaching and writing were wholly the product of God speaking through them. Thus the Bible is inerrant, because, being verbally inspired, it fulfills its intention to recount and give the correct meaning of God's redemptive acts in history. Jesus claimed that the Bible was thus inerraot when he said, "The Scripture cannot be broken" (john 10:35). He also claimed it when he said "You do greatly err, not knowing the Scripture (Matt. 22:29), for b saying this, he was necessarily implying that what the Bible teaches is inerrant.
In considering the nature of Biblical inerrancy, we first let the Biblical writers tell us what their intention was in writing, and then if they fulfilled this intention, we regard them as inerrant.
But there are some today who regard the Bible's plenary and verbal inspiration as insuring its inerrancy not only in its declared intention to recount and interpret Cod's mighty redemptive acts but also in any and all of its incidental statements or aspects of statements that have to do with such non-rcvelational matters as geology, meteorology, cosmology, botany, astronomy, geography, etc. Thus the late Edward J. Young argued in his book, Thy Word is Truth, that "the Bible in its statements is not contrary to fact."1 He also said, "A person who continues to make socalled trifling mistakes is not one whom we can trust . . . If God has communicated wrong information even in socalled unimportant matters, he is not a trustworthy God."2
Now it might seem that since the Bible's importance consists precisely in the tremendous revelational teach ings it conveys, that it is really unimportant for Young to take another step and insist that between what the Bible merely touches upon and the referent there exists a one-to-one correspondence. Indeed the Bible is amazingly accurate in so many of its allusions to nonrevelational matters-which we define as capable of being checked out by human investigation, i.e., knowable by what eye can see and ear can hear. But the problem is that a consistent adherence to Young's position finally involves excising the Bible from the very history in which the Bible intends to say that revelation has occurred.
Let me illustrate. In handling the chronology of Abraham's life
Edward Young could
not find a plausible way to harmonize Genesis 11:26-12:4 and Acts
to Acts 7:1-4, it was only after Terab died in Haran that Abraham
went on to Canaan.
But according to the Genesis account, Abraham left his father in Haran and went
to Canaan some seventy years before his father died.
Young cannot see his way clear to solve this problem by recourse to the several solutions that commentators have proposed. (1) He cannot replace the Masoretic text at Genesis 11:32 with the reading of the Samaritan Pentateuch, which makes Abraham's departure coincide with Terah's death, because Young was convinced of the authority of the Masoretie text. (2) Sometimes the suggestion is made that Genesis 11:26 mentions Abraham first among the three sons Terah begat from age seventy onwards, not because he was born first, hot because he was the most prominent. Actually, so the suggestion goes, Abraham could have been the youngest son. If Terab was 130 when he begat Abraham, then Abraham's departure from Haran at age 75 would coincide with Terah's death at age 205. But Young rejects this as absurd because it would be impossible to understand how Abraham found it difficult to have a child at age 90 if his own father had begotten him at age 130. (3) Neither should the death of Terab, which according to Acts 7:4 occurred when Abraham left Harao, be understood as Terab's spiritual death or his death so far as Abraham was concerned, for this would be a gratuitous understanding of the verb "to die" in this context. Young cannot say that Luke simply reported Stephen's use, before the Sanhedrin, of the reading of a text now extant in the Samaritan Pentateuch, for when Stephen gave his speech he was an inspired man"full of the Holy Spirit" (Acts 7:55),3 and it is impossible to presume that inspiration would not expunge such an error. 'It would certainly be the part of presumption," Young concluded, "to assert that at this point there was positive error in Scripture. Far wiser is the course of candid acknowledgment that, with our present limited knowledge, the answer to this particular difficulty is not known to us."4 Thus Young is not willing to consider the explanation that Stephen's Abrahamic chronology came from a version of the Septuaginet that paralleled the Samaritan Pentateuch. Incidentally, F. F. Bruce indicates that it was likely that Stephen was well-versed in this text, because there are other parts of his speech in Acts 7 which parallel the usage of the Samaritan Pentateuch.5
Now a historian, unfettered by the necessity to uphold Young's doctrine of inerreney, would immediately
declare that it was highly probable that Stephen's peculiar chronology in Acts 7:1-4 stemmed from both his and his hearers having been nurtured in a text that is today extant in the Samaritan Pentateuch. But Edward Young, historical scholar that lie was, could not follow this highly probable pathway of historical reasoning. In the face of this discrepancy all that he could say was that 'the answer to this particular difficulty is not known to us."' But to be unwilling to let historical data supply a highly probable solution, is to reject historical data in the interest of theological dogma. By refusing the data provided by the Samaritan Pentateuch, Young would he forced to say that the parallels between Stephen and the Samaritan Pentateuch were merely coincidental, or, in other words, he would be forced to discount a cause commensurate with the effect found in Stephen's speech. To do this places all historical knowledge in jeopardy. To rule out, on theological grounds, historical data that can cast light on a source a Biblical writer was using would make it questionable whether any historical datum should ever be allowed to illuminate the meaning of a text of Scripture, and that would mean denying that the Bible is to be interpreted historically as well as grammatically. To adhere to such reasoning implies a basic distrust in the historical method, and to be consistent, one should never appeal to archaeology, etc., in support of the Bible.
The doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture, far from affirming that the Holy Spirit corrects nonrevelational, cultural references, demands instead that they be left unchanged.
Christian Faith Grounded in History
Then, too, if we, as Edward Young, let a theological dogma muzzle a highly probable historical datum, then it would he difficult for us to insist that the truth of the Christian faith is grounded in history. If a historical datum cannot be used to explain Stephen's departure from the Genesis chronology, then why should we use historical reasoning to ground our faith that Jesus is risen from the dead and from there argue to the truth of Scripture?
At this point I wish I had space to spell out how I argue. historically that the risen Jesus must have appeared to Paul and have commissioned him to be an apostle, with all that that word means. Then, having established Paul as an apostle of Jesus Christ, I wish I could show how to argue from this to the inspiration of the rest of the New Testament and to the inspiration and authority of the Old Testament as well. In other words, basic to my concept is that inspiration is validated by history and not vice versa.
But consistent with his view of inerraoey, Edward Young did not, as Warfield, base the authority of Scripture on the empirical data of history. In the paper be read at the Wenham conference in 1966 Young said, in distinction to Warfield, that "our conviction that the Scriptural writers are reliable teachers of doctrine rests . . . simply and solely upon the inward testimony of the Holy Spirit." Young was even quite willing to affirm that basing faith in this way involves reasoning in a circle. He said,
If God has actually created us, it follows that all we know we must receive from Him. He must tell us what we are to believe about anything ... We need not he frightened by the charge that to accept the Scriptures as the infallible Word of God requires us to reason in a circle . . . If God is the Creator and man a creature, there is no way in which man can set himself up as a judge of what God has revealed.7
But one wonders if such unwillingness to submit the Bible to the criterion of historical reasoning does not jeopardize the strong Scriptural emphasis that God, in revealing himself to man, entered into the very stuff of history, that the "Word became flesh" (John 1:14)? If the revelation of God did thus become so completely a part of this world and its history, why then does not our access to knowledge of this revelation come always by way of historical methodology, which is our only means for knowing what happened in the past? Certainly a view of inerraney which lifts the Bible out of history cannot be regarded as satisfactory. Trustworthiness of God But is not Young right in saying that if Acts 7:1-4 contains wrong information in even so trivial a matter as a detail in Abraham's chronology, then God is not a trustworthy Cud? My reply would be an emphatic no. As the passages which I cited indicate, the intention and purpose of the Biblical writers is to set forth the revelational truths regarding the fact and meaning of God's acts in history. It is only because this revelation is set forth in propositions that are verbally inspired that men who take the trouble to exegete them accurately-savoring the nuances of the Hebrew and Greek words, and their syntactical relations and word order-are able to think God's thoughts after him accurately and not err in their understanding of the whole counsel of God.
The Christian is perfectly able to credit the teaching of the Bible and be a scientist or a historian at the same time.
But being verbally inspired, the Biblical writers were also supernaturally enabled by God to understand the best way to take certain nonrevelational, cultural matters, and without changing them, use them to enhance the communication of revelational truths to the original hearers or readers. For example, if, as would appear likely, Stephen and his hearers had been raised on a text which makes Genesis 11:31 say that Abraham left Haran after his father died, then God helped Stephen to communicate revelation to the Sanhedrin by directing him to go right ahead and use this, very possibly, less accurate text.
Nothing revelational hinges upon the exact
chronology of Abraham's early life, so it was reasonable for Stephen
to use this
version as a vehicle for trying to persuade the Sanhedrin of the revelational
truth that throughout Israel's history Cod had been constantly wooing
her to repent,
but that Israel had always resisted the Holy Spirit (Acts 7 passim,
esp. v. 51).
communication of this revelational truth would have been hindered had the Holy
Spirit directed Stephen to use the more accurate text, for its
strange sound would
have diverted his hearers' attention away from the revelatiossal point that God
was inspiring him to make. Thus God's inspiration enabled Stephen
both to utter,
inerrantly, the revelational truths of his speech and also, for
to make best use of the cultural, non-revelational contents of his speech.
The Mustard Seed
Another example of this is Jesus' allusion to the mustard seed as the smallest of the seeds (Matt. 13:31; 17:20), Botanists know of seeds even smaller than the mustard seed.5 In the culture of the people to whom he was speaking, however, the mustard represented the smallest seed, for it was regarded as the smallest thing which the eye could see.9 Thus the culture of the hearers provided Jesus with an illustration that aided the communication of the revelational truths that a very little faith could remove mountains, and that the kingdom of God, though very small then, would eventually become very large. Surely Jesus, in his omniscience, knew perfectly well that there were smaller seeds, but he used this facet of the culture of the people to whom he was speaking as a vehicle for conveying the cargo of revelational truth. Had Jesus spoken of the seed which was indeed the smallest, he would have been scientifically more accurate, but his hearers would have been so confused trying to understand what he was talking about that they would have concerned themselves more with the illustration than with the revelational truths it was illustrating. Therefore, the doctrine of the inerraney of Scripture, far from affirming that the Holy Spirit corrects non-revelational, cultural references, demands instead that they be left unchanged. As Bernard Ramm has said,
No objection can be brought against the inerrancy of the Bible because it is a culturally conditioned revelation. The Bible uses the terms and expressions of the times of its writers. Any revelation must be so accommodated to the human mind...W hen the religious liberal renounces much of the Bible because it is culturally conditioned, he fails to understand that inspiration used cultural terms and expressions to convey an infallible revelation.10
C alvin, who often spoke of the Bible as being dic tated by God, also followed this approach in commenting on Hebrews 11:21, which follows the Septuagint reading of Genesis 47:31, "Jacob worshiped, leaning upon the top of his staff," when the Hebrew reads, "Jacob bowed himself upon the bed's head." Calvin realized that the translators of the Septuagint had mistaken the Hebrew word mittah (bed) for matteh (staff). But he justified the writer of Hebrews for following the Septuagint, saying,
The Apostle [sic] hesitated not to apply to his purpose what was commonly received: he was indeed writing to the Jews; but they who were dispersed into various countries had changed their own language for the Greek. And we know that the Apostles were not so scrupulous in this respect, as not to accommodate themselves to the unlearned, who had as yet need of milk . . . But, in reality, the difference is but little; for the main thing was that Jacob worshiped.. .
Bible as Revelation
Thus my point is that the Bible's intention is to set forth a revelation of the happening and meaning of God's redemptive acts in history. The whole Bible is revelation. Most of its propositions are directly revelational, while others" and certain aspects of some revelational propositions function to facilitate the transmission of what is directly revelational. I am persuaded that the Bible is without any kind of error in whole or in part, in that it lives up perfectly to its intention to convey a revelation from God in the most pedagogically suitable manner for the original hearers and readers.
But one misinterprets Scripture if he tries always to harmonize with science and history aspects of Biblical statements whose purpose is only to facilitate the communication of rcvelational truth. For example, the time span of Genesis 5 has a very essential revelational aspect in that it emphasizes that events before and after it happened in history. But the exact number of years is not essential to the author's intention to be a revelational spokesman. No doubt he, along with his original readers, thought that the number of years indicated in chapter 5 was the length of time that transpired between the Fall and the Flood, just as he arid they probably thought that the sun and stars moved across the heaven of a stationary earth. Since such matters, however, are non-revelational, they lie outside the boundary of the Biblical writers' intention, and are therefore irrelevant to the question of Biblical incrrancy. A book is inerrant only against the criterion of its writer's intention. Interpretation is not concerned with everything that was in an author's mind, but only with the meaning which he necessarily implied by what he intended to say. Consequently the Biblical writers are to he judged only on the terms of the revelational teachings they, intended to communicate, for revelation concerns what eye cannot see or ear hear by itself.
Thus since the Bible declares that its purpose is to impart revelation, we run no risk of distorting its message as we credit its revelational teachings and admit the possibility that its non-revelational statements and implications are a reflection of the culture of the writer and his original readers. Such an approach is perfectly willing to let Biblical statements in the nonrevelational areas of science and history he fully tested against 'what men can find out about such matters for themselves and in terms of the pedagogy the Biblical writers used to impart this revelation. Because all the Biblical writers were verbally inspired of God, they accomplished perfectly all that was involved in inscripturating a propositional revelation. Knowing that verbal inspiration kept the Biblical writers free from all error in revelational matters, we are not afraid that what we can learn about history or science ourselves may jeopardize the validity of what the Bible teaches. To be sure, God revealed himself in the events of redemptive history-e.g., the Fall, the Flood, the call of Abraham, the Exodus, the inauguration of the Davidic covenant, and many others; if some aspect of these events which is an essential of revelation, did not happen, then it would destroy the truth of Scripture lust as much as if historical reasoning should show that Jesus did not rise from the dead.
WithWarfield we are therefore content to let the Bible always be subject to historical investigation without any theological a prioris. Warfield said,
We do not adopt the doctrine of the plenary inspiration of Scripture . . . on a priori or general grounds of whatever kind. We adopt it specifically because it is taught as troth by Christ and His apostles, in the Scriptural record of their teaching, arid the evidence for its truth is, therefore ........... precisely that evidence in weight and amount, which vindicates for us the trustworthiness of Christ and His apostles as teachers of doctrine. Of course, this evidence is not in the strict logical sense 'demonstrative'; it is probable evidence. It therefore leaves open the metaphysical possibility of its being mistaken.12
Science and the Bible
Since the truth of the Bible, as well as what may he learned about science and history, comes from empirical investigation, the Christian, therefore, is perfectly able to credit the teaching of the Bible and be a scientist or a historian at the same time. It is the Bible which provides the overall matrix into which historical and scientific knowledge is fitted. The Bible has much to say about God as the creator and sustainer of this world and the one who rules in the affairs of its history. The Bible also tells about the nature, the inner motivation of us human beings who live in the world. But this 'world, its history, and the nature of man are areas in which science also gleans knowledge. Science, however, confesses that it cannot answer the ultimate questions about man, the world, and history. While it can analyze matter, it can only speculate about its ultimate origin. While historiography can gain knowledge of the past, it can only speculate about the ultimate meaning of any event in history. While it can describe the patterns into which human behavior tends to fall in different sets of circumstances, it can only speculate about why human beings differentiate themselves so radically from the animals that they can develop sufficient anxiety about the purpose and meaning of life to commit suicide. But the Bible, because it is a revelation from God, provides the answers to these ultimate questions and lays out, as it were, the great framework on which a world view is to be built. Science and history contribute a part of the mortar and brick that completes the remainder of the building comprising the unity of truth.
Since the Bible's non-revelatinnal statements and implications do not have the same function as its revelational propositions, the Christian need not limit his being a scientist and historian only to those areas where the Bible is silent. He can follow the truth taught by Scripture, as well as the truth taught by science and history. It is the Christian's privilege to construct a world view from Scripture into which all other knowledge can he fitted. With theology as the queen of the sciences, the Christian has an open door to all truth and he alone is able to see it all as cohering into unity.
1Edward J. Young, Thy Word is Truth, (Grand Rapids: Eerd mans, 1957), p. 136.
2lbid., p. 166.
3Young, op cit., p. 177.
4Ibid., p. 179.
5F. F. Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles, (London: Tyndale Press, 1951), p. 162, note.
6Young, op cit., p. 179.
7Ibid., p. 34.
8Claus-Hunno Honzinger, "sinapi," Theologisches Warterboeh zum Neuen Testament, VII, 288. 9Strack-Billerbeck, Kommentar zum Neuen Testament, I, 699.
10Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation, 2nd ed.; (Boston: W. A. Wilde Co., 1956), p. 192.
11An example of a non-revelational proposition in the Bible is Proverbs 30:25 "the ants are a people not strong, yet they provide their food in the summer." All that this verse says can be known through the human eye. Yet these two propositions serve the revelational purpose of Proverbs 30, which is to set forth the fathomless wisdom of God the creator and sustainer of the universe.
12Benjamin B. Warfield, 'The Real Problem of Inspiration," The Inspiration and Authority of Scripture. S. Craig (ed. (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1948), p. 218. It should be noted that Edward J. Young took serious issue with Warfield on this point in his paper which he read at the conference of evangelical scholars at Wenham, Massachusetts, in June 1966. "Our conviction that the Scriptural writers are reliable teachers of doctrine," he said, "rests ... simply and solely upon the inward testimony of the Holy Spirit."