Q & R: Does John 10:35 Teach Inerrancy?
I am wondering what Jesus meant when he said, “The Scriptures cannot be broken” in John 10:35. I have heard this bit of a verse used as proof of inerrancy. I would like to hear an explanation of the context of Jesus’ words, and especially how it relates to Psalm 82:6.
Such an important question! Let’s begin with the phrase itself. The “Scriptures” to which Jesus refers are indeed the Psalms, part of the Jewish holy books of his day. And these Scriptures, he says, “cannot be luthenai.” That precise word is used in this form three times in the New Testament:
- Luke 13:16 — referring to a woman Jesus had healed, “…should she not have been released/loosed from this bondage…”
- John 10:35 (this verse) — “and Scripture cannot be broken/set aside…”
- Revelation 20:3 — “…and [Satan] must be loosed/released for a little season…”
As you can see, the word has a range of meanings, but we can at least narrow it down to say this: it does not mean that Scripture can’t contain errors or contradictions. We already know this by a careful reading of the many texts where the various authors challenge each other (as any good rabbi must) and where Christ himself said, “You have heard it said, ____, but I say to you.”
John 10 in Context
Instead, in context, Jesus’ opponents have confronted him for saying, “I and my Father are one” (John 10:30), which they understood “as a mere man, claim to be God” (John 10:33). In fact, they’re about to stone him to death (verse 32).
In rebuttal, Jesus cites Psalm 82, where God himself refers to people as gods and effectively says, “Look, the Scriptures already referred to people as gods. You can’t just set them aside / discard them, are you?” It’s not a claim for Scriptural inerrancy, but rather, a rebuke for those who ignore the text for the sake of their own dogmatic assumptions.
Ironically, this applies directly to the inerrancy question. I was only able to maintain my own convictions about inerrancy by setting aside the Scriptures—in two ways. First, I had to ignore the many texts that directly controverted other passages. Second, I had to ignore the many verses that described God in ways that Jesus Christ overtly rejected as divine. And when my inerrantist teachers claimed there were not so thing, I could rightly say, “But this Scripture says ____. You cannot just set that aside. Even if it negates your doctrine of inerrancy.”
Psalm 82 in Context
To answer your second query, what is the Psalmist up to in Psalm 82? By way of brief commentary:
Verse 1: We read that God presides as judge among the ‘gods.’ Some suppose he’s referring to a divine council that serves at God’s throne (see Job 1) or speaking ironically of competing ‘gods’ that are idols and not gods at all. Read as a whole, the Psalm seems more likely to be addressing human rulers who reckon themselves divine. But the central point is that God alone is the most high Judge.
Verses 2-4: The divine Judge renders his verdict against those who are unjust—rulers who have favored the corrupt and failed to defend the weak, the poor, and the fatherless from the wicked.
Indeed, if Jesus had the whole Psalm in mind (as he generally does), then this indictment also fits the bill in John 10, where the Temple authorities, self-imagined representatives of God, had just condemned the blind man in John 9 and excommunicated him. In that sense, they have degraded the Temple to the same blasphemies as pagan kings.
Verse 5: God then condemns the other ‘gods’ as ignorant and walking in darkness. Again, while he may be referring to senseless idols, the charges are more likely directed at neighborhood kings who are worshiped as gods.
Verse 6-7: God acknowledges the truth that the rulers (vs. 7) can rightly be called “gods”—but only in the sense that every human being is a “child of the Most High.” Fair enough. But God reminds them that while they are offspring of God who bear his image, they are also as mortal as any other human and will have to face the meaning of their lives before one and the same Judge.
Verse 8: The Psalmist closes with an invocation for God to judge the earth and all the nations, because they all belong to him.
On one level, perhaps Jesus was only citing verse 6 as an example of the Bible using ‘god’ to describe mere humans. (And Scripture can’t be ‘broken’). But on another level, it’s possible that Jesus was also applying the whole Psalm to his unjust opponents.