Q&R with Brad Jersak: “If the Bible isn’t inerrant, can we trust what the Gospels say about Jesus?”

QUESTION:

I have read many of your articles with interest and agree with much of what is written. May I ask a question, though?

You say that the bible is not infallible and inerrant. And while I can see the logic for that view, how then do we know what is written about the life and mission of Jesus is accurate? If the accounts of some of the incidents in the Old Testament are open to question, why not what is written about Jesus?

Thank you in advance for an answer.

RESPONSE:

A very fair question, thank you. 

Let me first begin by addressing the question of inspiration, infallibility and inerrancy. Then I’ll move on to how our convictions about this impact our faith in the Gospel narratives about Jesus. 

“INSPIRED”

These three long I-words developed over time, each in their own eras. The early church believed the Scriptures to be “Inspired” or literally “God-breathed,” based on this text in 2 Timothy, attributed to Paul:

  • “All scripture is breathed by God, and it is useful for teaching, for rebuke, for improvement, for training in righteousness, so that people who belong to God may be complete, fitted out and ready for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16-17). 

I was required to memorize this passage even before I received my first Bible at the age of 7 … and I’m glad I did. We were taught that God did not dictate the Scriptures but that the Holy Spirit did inspire those who wrote them. Inspired Scripture became God’s self-revelation to us—and not the only revelation, since “the heavens declare the glory of God” and Jesus Christ is the Word of God. There may be disagreement about what “inspired” includes, but as a historic biblical description that assures us that God’s fingerprints are on this Book, the Bible is a unique book unlike any other. I would still hold this conviction because the more I study it, the more taken I am with the supernatural genius that transcends the distinctly human qualities (such as the variety of worldviews and point of view among its authors).

“INFALLIBLE”

The word “infallible” literally means “incapable of making a mistake.” The word’s origin goes back through French to Latin in the 15thcentury, but sometimes it’s also used to translate older words from other languages. For example, if we travel back through the centuries to the most thorough and authoritative book written by the early church on how to interpret the Bible, we arrive at the Philocalia of Origen,” compiled in the 4thcentury but dating back to just after 200 AD when he was the head of the theological school in Alexandria Egypt.

Here’s what I notice: From chapter 1 onward, Origen repeatedly affirms the inspiration of Scripture but if we do a search for the word “infallible,” the word only comes up a few times and NEVER referring to the Scriptures. For Origen (and for me), only God is infallible. Specifically, the Holy Spirit is infallible and that Spirit partners with fallible authors to produce a co-authored book that features divine truth and obvious human mistakes. Knowing this does not carry nearly the same level of faith crisis as believing the Bible itself is infallible and then being confronted with a long list of blatant contradictions. Here’s an article with just 20 of them, but I’ve found lists of over 400. This would trouble me if I thought my faith rested on an infallible Bible. But I see no such claim. Rather, as I study the Scriptures, I hear a polyphony of voices in conversation throughout centuries of the spiritual development of a typically dysfunctional religion—all pointing upward and forward to the only infallible Word of God, Abba’s Messiah, Jesus Christ. 

Some Bible buffs seem to define infallibility more modestly: they say the Bible is “reliable and trustworthy”—but if you read more carefully, they claim this on the a priori assumption that it must have no defect whatsoever and that if you trust its infallible teachings, you’ll never be led astray. Lucky for us, that’s never happened! (Oops!!). 

 “INERRANT”

The term inerrancy was coined more recently and has a great breadth of definitions, depending on who you ask. The most recognized definition was standardized in “The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.” 

That statement asserts that the Bible is “God’s own Word, written by men prepared and superintended by His Spirit, is of infallible divine authority in all matters upon which it touches.”

What does it “touch on”? The committee claimed that “Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, [but not only that!] “no less in what it states about God’s acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God,  than in its witness to God’s saving grace in individual lives.”

They close by cornering themselves into this ideology: that the authority of Scripture is “inescapably impaired if this total divine inerrancy is in any way limited or disregarded.” 

Do you see what they did there? They’ve made their definition of inerrancy the standard of authority and conceded that any demonstration to the contrary (all too easy for people who read it) destroys the authority of Scripture! That’s why so many first-semester college students lose their faith. Any skeptic that demolishes their faith in inerrancy also destroys their confidence in the Bible and their faith in Christ by this definition. What a horrible deal to make with oneself and to impose on the next generation. 

“RELIABILITY” OF THE GOSPELS 

Paul’s claim to the God-breathed nature of the Bible was not the self-authenticating ideology that I was raised on. Contra the apologist Josh McDowell, he did not count on “evidence that demands a verdict.” Rather, the apostle posits “inspiration” as an attribute of the sacred text that Christ-followers will observe as they search the Scriptures for its witness to Christ and are trained by the Scriptures to become Christlike. As we incorporate the Bible (through study, prayer and obedience) into our faith practice, we will indeed conclude it is not only useful but wonderfully and uniquely inspired. 

On the other hand, without ever erecting a rickety scaffolding of doctrine about Scripture over their faith in Christ, neither Paul nor many centuries after him wavered in their commitment to Christ. For them, Christ—not the Bible—is the Word of God and final Authority. The Bible itself is simply the testimony of human witnesses to the truth that Christ had been and continues to be in their midst. The book is a record of their experiences from their perspectives. And when the four Gospels offer differing versions of the same events, we needn’t be crushed by that. I’m quite amazed that they didn’t connive more to get their stories straight. To me, this doesn’t undermine the central truth they absolution agree on—it verifies it by negating charges of collusion (that existed from the beginning). 

Here’s an easy example: take some time to read only the Resurrection morning accounts in all four Gospels. Really do it. Carefully. Questions arise:   

  • 1.    Which women come to the tomb?
  • 2.    Who greets them at the tomb? A young man, an angel or two angels? Where are they situated? Inside the tomb? Outside the tomb? 
  • 3.    Who meets the risen Christ first? Mary or several women? Do they touch him or not? 
  • 4.    Where does Jesus appear to the disciples? Jerusalem or Galilee?

That’s one example where the four Gospels cannot be harmonized to a standard that meets the criteria for infallibility or inerrancy IF you let the Bible say what it says. Sadly, some are so committed to their ideology of Scripture that they even twist Scripture to make it fit. Now that’s the very real violation of the authority of Scripture. 

But now let’s go back to the text. According to the four Evangelists,

  • 1.    Was Christ truly and fully dead? How do they witness to this?
  • 2.    Was Christ truly buried (by 2 Sanhedrin members!) in a tomb, sealed with a large stone and guarded by Roman soldiers? 
  • 3.    Was the stone gone, the tomb empty and the body gone? Was there a dramatic and supernatural encounter at the tomb experienced by multiple eye-witnesses. 
  • 4.    Were there eye-witnesses of the risen Christ that morning, that evening and a week later? If you wanted multiple verification from those who were skeptical at first, who could you ask? 

The witnesses simply don’t give us a non-contradictory account of all the facts. And yet they witness to the inspired truth without any question in my mind. What’s the inspired truth? That the Bible is inerrant? No! That Jesus is alive! The inspiration is not referring to the witnesses but to the truth to which they point. And their apparent inability to agree precisely about all the details, while fascinating, confirms my own experience—that Christ is risen and alive and in fact, we’ve met him too (whatever that might mean to you).  

Finally, I would add that within the Bible, there is a great range of factual accuracy and inspired revelation, based on the worldview of those who experienced the events and those who recorded them. Consider the differences marked by these circumstances:

  • 1.    Developing worldview issues: A tribal warrior from between 1400-1000 B.C. complains that God isn’t smiting his enemies and asks him for help. When the warrior wipes them out, he’s happy and sings a song of praise that God is on his side.
  • 2.    Historical distance issues: A Jewish rabbi in exile in Babylon (587 B.C.) records oral traditions about the world’s origins dating back 5000 years. 
  • 3.    Genre issues: That same rabbi recognizes he’s recording mythology through his own cosmology, but modernist Christians think they need to read it ‘literally’ or the Bible is not true and Jesus isn’t alive. 
  • 4.    Overt disagreement: The author of Samuel says God tempted David but the Chronicler disagrees. Satan tempted David. James agrees. God tempts no one. OR The Law [of God] says _____, but Jesus [who is God] says, ‘You’ve heard this. But I say to you _______.’

At least for me, all these elements have not undermined my faith in Christ nor caused me to set aside my Bible. I love it more than ever, read it more carefully than ever and try to help those who are repulsed by it because they were told they MUST believe God literally commanded genocide. Of course he didn’t. How do we know? Because Christ is the final and only perfect Word of God … just as the Scriptures claim. 

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