So, I owe y’all some posts since I’ve been slacking for awhile. Actually, I have a doctoral seminar coming up in January on Advanced Greek Grammar, which isn’t, believe you me, nearly as exciting as it sounds, but I’ve had to put in some serious reading time to get ready for it. But here goes. Here’s what’s on my front burner lately. Let’s get some discussion going.
Lately, I’ve been reading a book called The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, by Craig Blomberg. I cannot recommend it highly enough as an introduction to scholarly criticism of the gospels, to the so-called “synoptic problem,” and as a defense of the general historical reliability of the gospel narratives.
Blomberg has accomplished his aim (in my case) of convincing me, more than ever before, of the historical reliability of the gospel writers’ account of the events surrounding the life of Jesus. His arguments are compelling and illuminating to be sure, and you can’t help but walk away from this book with a renewed and strengthened trust in the dependability of the four evangelists.
Interestingly, however, Blomberg has also raised some questions in my mind about the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture that I’m sure he did not intend. Do not misunderstand. I am not hereby renouncing my belief in inerrancy – not at all. But the ways in which Blomberg argues for the reliability of the gospel accounts, ironically enough, makes me think I may need to rethink or reformulate what I mean when I talk about the “inerrancy” of Scripture.
The typical evangelical formulation of the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture typically runs along the lines suggested by Wayne Grudem in his book, Systematic Theology: “The inerrancy of Scripture means that Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact.” This is the way I have formulated the doctrine of inerrancy since I first explored questions regarding biblical authority. Blomberg, however, explains some of the discrepancies between the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) in ways that seem, to me, to be incompatible with the standard evangelical understanding of inerrancy.
For example, Blomberg makes the following statement regarding paraphrasing in the gospel narratives:
“By far the most common kind of difference between gospel parallels involves simple variation in language. No one expects two different writers to retell a particular story with the identical words, but modern concerns for accurate quotation make many uneasy with certain examples of free paraphrases of others’ speech. The ancient world, however, had fewer such qualms. Greek and Hebrew had no symbols for quotation marks, and a historian or biographer referring to what some person said did not necessarily try to cite his exact wording. So long as what he wrote was faithful to the meaning of the original utterance, the author was free to phrase his report however he liked, and no one would accuse him of misquoting his source or producing an unreliable narrative.”
This seems to be a very helpful argument in defending the general reliability of the gospel accounts. Obviously, we cannot expect the sort of stenographic precision in note-taking expected in our age to apply to the gospel writers’ age. But this very fact makes me wonder if “inerrant” might be an unhelpful (or even misleading) way to talk about the truthfulness and reliability of Scripture.
Let me try to illustrate with a question: Is it a fact that God said to his Son, “You are my beloved son with whom I am well pleased’ (Mk. 1:11; Lk. 3:22), or is it a fact that he said about his Son, “This is my beloved son with whom I am well pleased’ (Mt. 3:17)? Mark and Luke say that God spoke these words to his Son. Matthew says he spoke them about his Son and to those who were observing. Either Mark and Luke’s account or Matthew’s account can be “factual,” but both of them cannot be. One of them, to use Grudem’s language, must be asserting something that it “contrary to fact.”
We might tiptoe around this one by saying, ‘Well, maybe God said it twice—once to Jesus and once to all the people watching.’ It certainly is possible, but it certainly isn’t plausible because (1) it seems somewhat redundant, like a mother who says things about you to other people while she’s standing right next to you, and then turns to you and repeats them to you, using the exact same language, even though you clearly heard it the first time, (2) no gospel writer reports God saying it twice, so we’d be saying something took place that no gospel author says took place, and so (3) this argument seems to be what debaters call “special pleading.”
Another example: Blomberg raises the supposed contradiction between Matthew and Mark on the matter of the reanimation of Jarius’s daughter. In Matthew’s account (Mt. 9:18-26), Jarius reports the death of his daughter when he first comes before Jesus. In Mark’s account (Mk. 5:21-43), when Jarius first comes to Jesus his daughter is dying. It is only after Jesus’ healing of the woman with the discharge that Jarius find out that his daughter is dead and reports it to Jesus.
This leads such a celebrated evangelical scholar as I.H. Marshall to write,
“We can, of course, explain the contradiction quite easily and acceptably by saying that Matthew, whose general policy was to tell stories about Jesus in fewer words than Mark, has abbreviated the story and given the general sense of what happened without going into details. But the fact remains that Matthew has attributed to Jairus words which he did not actually say at the time stated.”
Blomberg writes, “This is one of the key passages which makes Marshall feel that ‘inerrancy’ is an inappropriate category for analyzing the gospel data.” After all, Mark and Matthew clearly are affirming that mutually incompatible things are factual. This suggests that one of them has an error in his record, despite the fact that the detail is entirely inconsequential and does not affect the overall reliability of the story. In fact, as Blomberg argues elsewhere, the discrepancy actually bolsters the reliability of the story because the two writers clearly have not conspired with each other to “get their story straight.” They are relying on independent witnesses of the event.
Thus, my question for you all: Is “inerrancy” the best way to talk about the truthfulness, authority, and integrity of Scripture? It might be worth bearing in mind that the Bible itself never uses words like “inerrancy,” “infallibility,” or similar words that we modern readers use. Might it be better, then, to use more biblical words like “perfect,” “sure,” “right,” “pure,” “clean,” and “true” (cf. Psalm 19) rather than a clunky, modernistic term like “inerrant”?
Or, at the very least, might it be better to speak of inerrancy in terms less like Grudem (above), and more in terms like these: The Bible is inerrant such that, despite working through imperfect and fallible human authors, God sovereignly ensured that his Word was preserved in the original manuscripts exactly as he intended?
What say ye?