The Importance of Biblical Inerrancy
May 27, 2010 4 Comments
I shouldn’t have to go to my local church [!] and end up having to defend the accuracy and authenticity of the Biblical texts. Unfortunately, this happened more than once. In a casual conversation one Sunday with someone I assumed was a kindred spirit, a heated discussion erupted over the reliability of the biblical texts. This prompted me to post some thoughts that hopefully illustrate the central importance of maintaining and defending, not just the accuracy and inerrancy of the texts, but also of the patristic and Traditional understanding of the texts as inerrant and historically reliable.
This is not a strict “scientific” treatment. This defense is more practical, patristic and presuppositional in nature. So please, no comments about an “unscientific” approach. I am familiar with different codices and their histories. That is the subject of another blog post or a whole series. And, on top of that, please, no comments about “fundamentalism.” I know firsthand what fundamentalism is (having been raised a Baptist “fundamentalist”), and I’ve read liberal higher critics. I’ve also read the Church Fathers, and conservative biblical scholars. I hope to show a couple presuppositional flaws that are apparent in the higher critical approaches, that it’s completely foreign to Tradition, and that the patristic tradition is unequivocally clear concerning inerrancy.
The first error made by my friend in conversation Sunday was the same error made by virtually all higher critics: because there are similarities in pagan texts and rituals in comparison with Christianity, the various biblical authors must have borrowed from these pagan sources. So, for example, the Gilgamesh Epic has a flood myth. Other pagan narratives have a first man or woman, so, the argument runs, the biblical account must have been borrowed and redacted these Ancient Near Eastern traditions. Note first of all that this rests on an obvious assumption—that the biblical authors borrowed from their pagan neighbors. Why not the other way? What if the devil inspired his minions to borrow from the true account and obscure it. “Absurd,” you say—”unscholarly and unscientific.” Beware, lest you come to find the hard way that “there is no wisdom or counsel against the Lord” (Prov. 21:30), and that “He overthrows the words of the faithless” (Prov. 22:12).
This line of argumentation found in liberal higher critics, comparative religion, and purported “scholars” and “experts” is not new. In fact, this exact same argument was being used in the Second Century against Christians. St. Justin the Philosopher (Justin Martyr) had to defend against this prevalent charge by unbelievers and did an excellent job. As Fr. Seraphim Rose has said, there is no problem in our modern churches that cannot be cured by returning to the Holy Fathers. I can adequately deal with this by quoting St. Justin in his First Apology:
”Chapter 23. The argument.
And that this may now become evident to you—(firstly) that whatever we assert in conformity with what has been taught us by Christ, and by the prophets who preceded Him, are alone true, and are older than all the writers who have existed; that we claim to be acknowledged, not because we say the same things as these writers said, but because we say true things: and (secondly) that Jesus Christ is the only proper Son who has been begotten by God, being His Word and first-begotten, and power; and, becoming man according to His will, He taught us these things for the conversion and restoration of the human race: and (thirdly) that before He became a man among men, some, influenced by the demons before mentioned, related beforehand, through the instrumentality of the poets, those circumstances as having really happened, which, having fictitiously devised, they narrated, in the same manner as they have caused to be fabricated the scandalous reports against us of infamous and impious actions, of which there is neither witness nor proof—we shall bring forward the following proof.
Chapter 24. Varieties of heathen worship.
In the first place [we furnish proof], because, though we say things similar to what the Greeks say, we only are hated on account of the name of Christ, and though we do no wrong, are put to death as sinners; other men in other places worshipping trees and rivers, and mice and cats and crocodiles, and many irrational animals. Nor are the same animals esteemed by all; but in one place one is worshipped, and another in another, so that all are profane in the judgment of one another, on account of their not worshipping the same objects. And this is the sole accusation you bring against us, that we do not reverence the same gods as you do, nor offer to the dead libations and the savour of fat, and crowns for their statues, and sacrifices. For you very well know that the same animals are with some esteemed gods, with others wild beasts, and with others sacrificial victims.
Later, he deals with the charge of his opponents that Christianity had ripped off its rituals from the Mithra Cult of his day. This is exactly the same argument made by liberal higher critics today:
Chapter 64. Further misrepresentations of the truth.
From what has been already said, you can understand how the devils, in imitation of what was said by Moses, asserted that Proserpine was the daughter of Jupiter, and instigated the people to set up an image of her under the name of Kore [Cora, i.e., the maiden or daughter] at the spring-heads. For, as we wrote above, Moses said, “In the beginning God made the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form and unfurnished: and the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters.” In imitation, therefore, of what is here said of the Spirit of God moving on the waters, they said that Proserpine [or Cora] was the daughter of Jupiter. And in like manner also they craftily feigned that Minerva was the daughter of Jupiter, not by sexual union, but, knowing that God conceived and made the world by the Word, they say that Minerva is the first conception; which we consider to be very absurd, bringing forward the form of the conception in a female shape. And in like manner the actions of those others who are called sons of Jupiter sufficiently condemn them.”
St. Justin moves on to consider the Christian ceremonies and how different they are, and the fact that they have nothing in common with pagan rites except what the demons have borrowed in order introduce confusion. He had just argued prior to that in Chpt. 54 that demons themselves are the originators of the whole heap of heathen myths and fables. So, if Christianity is practical as we are always told, why do we see so many
professing “Christians” using the same arguments as St. Justin’s opponents? Wouldn’t the practical approach be to believe that demons are real and that they are smart, and thus seek to subvert Christianity at its heart—the texts of Scripture? Many love C.S. Lewis, and many have read Screwtape Letters. Do you not see the same demonic subterfuge involved here? Unfortunately, one has to wonder whether my friend even believed that demons are real—whether there is a being named Lucifer! If you are at that point in your doubts, you are clearly removed from anything resembling historical Christianity.
If you don’t accept the authority of the biblical texts, however, I cannot imagine you would accept the authority of the Church Fathers in transmitting Tradition. Both are ancient. If, in this view, there can be errors throughout Scripture, then there can be heaps of errors throughout the texts of the Church Fathers and ancient councils. We all know that the Fathers are not individually infallible, and that is not what I am speaking to. I am speaking of the common faith they profess—the articles of the Creed, based on the texts of Scripture. Does my friend not see that the Nicene Creed, the pillar and foundation of true Tradition is itself based on the authority and authenticity of the texts of Sacred Scripture? These fans of higher critics are apt to argue, for example, that Adam, Eve, Noah, Job, the Flood, etc., may not have been actual historical entities or events, but rather they are “stories” based on myths that have some moral tale to tell us. So, the artificial divide between the message and the events of the texts is inserted.
The texts themselves claim that these people are historical and that these events are real. So, if the texts are wrong in asserting the historical reality, you cannot turn around and assert the truth of the message, since the text just lied, claiming the events were historical. It’s complete nonsense. Our Lord refers to Adam and Eve as two, actual historical persons in Matt. 19. Job and the reality of his trials are referred to as historical realities in James 5:11. Noah and the flood are spoken of as actual historical persons/events in 1 Peter 3:18-21. When the Petrine text came up in the conversation, I pointed out that St. Peter sees the historical flood as the type of baptism. If the Flood never happened, the anti-type of water baptism makes no sense! He again responded blithely that it’s really just the “message” that matters. I asked him if he thought St. Peter at least, in this epistle, thought that the events were historical. My friend responded that he did. So, I inquired whether he thought, then, that St. Peter could have erred on this fact. He thought for a minute, and responded that “it was possible.”
So, notice where he has gone in working out the consistency of his presuppositions. At first he wanted to question only the authenticity of certain Old Testament texts. When it’s made clear that the New Testament writers read these events as historical, he has now taken a further step into questioning New Testament textual authenticity. I asked him why he didn’t have a problem going there, and he said something vague about us moderns having more “data.” But notice that his argument is precisely the same as the unbelievers of St. Justin’s day! It has nothing to do with evidences and texts, but belief opposed to unbelief. Another interesting point I made to my pal was that the German higher critics that started out doubting Moses have bequeathed to us nowadays the wonders of the Historical Quest for Jesus. Historically within “academia” itself this ideology began with questioning the Torah, and ended up in total denial of the historical identity of Christ. Nowadays the Jesus Quest “scholars” think Christ said only a small percentage of what is actually in our Gospel texts. If the OT can be chock-full of errors, then so can the New. The purveyors of this argumentation in the higher critical schools have ended up in total unbelief.
But these “academics” are unbelievers. Why do believers care what they say, since they are in rebellion against God? I have spent the last several years in this arid, unbelieving atmosphere at my local State University, and am always amazed at the professing Christians’ desire to placate these god-hating “academics,” who, more often than not aren’t that smart anyway. For example, my feminist religious philosophy professor mentioned one day that nowhere mentioned in the OT believed in “Satan,” and that this was a New Testament invention. When I pointed out the various texts in Genesis, Job, Isaiah, Ezekiel and Zechariah, she was silent. You see, if I recall, she had probably just finished reading Elaine Pagel’s The Gnostics Gospels, which makes this very argument. But this is utter nonsense. This is the stuff of totally apostate academia—gnostic heresy.
As Christians we don’t need unbelieving scholarship, even if once in a blue moon it discovers some insightful piece of info (see the St. John of Damascus quote below on this). In the course of the conversation, my friend said he took this route to be able to dialogue better with the intelligent unbeliever. This is ridiculous, since any intelligent unbelieving academic could use all these same higher critical arguments and easily refute the Christian who is so eager to placate him. He need only respond, “If your texts are unreliable, then your creeds and your tradition are unreliable. The whole foundation is faulty and I need not accept your view.” It’s that simple. The Apostles don’t go out in Acts and do apologetics with the desire to water everything down for the sake of the god-hating “intellectuals.” In Acts 17, St. Paul simply proclaims to the “philosophers” the fact of the biblical narratives. End of story. Accept it or perish. There’s no doubting of the texts and no whiny sniveling and groveling before the “academics” of Mars Hill. In fact, it’s in this very context that St. Paul teaches direct creation and the historical reality of Adam as the father of the whole human race (Acts 17:26). By the way, if Adam isn’t a historical reality, Christ cannot be the Second Adam.
Critics of this post will say that I don’t understand hermeneutics and exegesis—as if I don’t understand the different levels of the text (historical, tropological, anagogical, and allegorical). They will say I have given a fundamentalist account, and that I am not aware of the deeper sense of the texts. This is false. In fact, one of my favorite topics is typology. I believe in deriving our hermeneutic from the Apostles themselves, first and foremost. How do the Apostles read the Old Testament? The perfect answer to this confusion is solved in St. Paul’s allegory of Galatians 4. There, St. Paul grounds the allegorical and mystical meaning in the reality of the historical events! The symbolism of Hagar and Mt. Sinai, Sarah and the heavenly Jerusalem become meaningless if these people weren’t actual entities. And again, St. Paul reads them as actual. So, you see, the “spiritual,” or “mystical” meaning is grounded in the historical. All biblical symbolism that is not overtly a parable, simile or metaphor also functions this way. The Flood waters correspond to the waters of Baptism in 1 Peter 3. The actual person of the high priest is a type of Christ as the true high priest. It would be absurd to argue, for example, that the high priest of the Old Testament is a type of Christ, but that there never was a historical high priest. So, there are two extremes to be avoided here: the fundamentalist evangelical who never recognizes allegories and symbolism, and the modern-day Origenists and Hellenists who makes everything an allegory or symbol, and negate the historical.
Once that is clear, there should be no confusion over thinking that defending the historical reality is “fundamentalism,” and the “spiritual” meaning thus trumps the historical and negates it. Are their symbols in Eden and Genesis 1-3. Of course. Eve is a type of the Church, for example, and Adam a type of Christ. But if these are mere archetypes, the reality of the antitype is also lost historically. Christ is spoken of in the genealogy of St. Luke as being the descendent of Adam, through Adam, Seth, Methuselah, Enoch, up through David to St. Mary. So, chop off the historical reality of anyone in this line, and Christ is not the promised Messiah, who must come from this lineage in order to fulfill the prophecies. In short, the texts all hang or fall together as a unit. Our Lord says the “Scriptures cannot be broken” (John 10:35). You cannot be a faithful Orthodox believer and continue in rejection and doubt of the accuracy and authenticity of the texts. The fruits of this position are manifest—apostasy and heresy. Nor do Christians need to placate unbelieving “scholars,” who more often than not don’t even know what they are talking about.
In conclusion, since our Church is the Church of the Fathers, we ought to heed the Fathers. Really the only patristic evidence to my knowledge of any weight that can be given for doubting the historical authenticity of the texts is Origen, who was a heretic. But even Origen was much more inclined to generally admit the reality of the historical events, since he too held the allegorical and mystical meanings are usually grounded in the reality of the historical. Aside from this heretic, the right-believing Fathers are more than clear on the accuracy and inerrancy of the texts. And if the Fathers are much closer to what you think is “fundamentalism,” maybe you need to rethink what you thought “fundamentalism” was. A few among hundreds of quotes should suffice:
But many in these times, even when they come to church, do not know what is read; whereas the eunuch, even in public and riding in his chariot, applied himself to the reading of the Scriptures. Not so you: none takes the Bible in hand: nay, everything rather than the Bible. Say, what are the Scriptures for? For as much as in you lies, it is all undone….Say, when is a person most insulted—when he is silent, and one makes no answer, or, when he does speak (and is unheeded)? So that the insult is greater in the present case, when He does speak and you will not hear: greater the contempt. “Speak not to us” (Is. xxx. 10), we read, they said of old to the Prophets: but ye do worse, saying, Speak: we will not do. For there they turned them away that they should not even speak, as feeling that from the voice itself they got some sort of awe and obligation; whereas you, in the excess of your contempt, do not even this. [how apt a quote for my friend who won't hear what is said]
-St. John Chrysostom, Holmily 19 on Acts.
45. And this one may see from our own experience; for if when a word proceeds from men we infer that the mind is its source, and, by thinking about the word, see with our reason the mind which it reveals, by far greater evidence and incomparably more, seeing the power of the Word, we receive a knowledge also of His good Father, as the Saviour Himself says, “He that has seen Me has seen the Father John 14:9 . “But this all inspired Scripture also teaches more plainly and with more authority, so that we in our turn write boldly to you as we do, and you, if you refer to them, will be able to verify what we say. 3. For an argument when confirmed by higher authority is irresistibly proved.
-St. Athanasius, Ad Gentes, 45.
Now it is the opinion of some, that the Scriptures do not agree together, or that God, Who gave the commandment, is false. But there is no disagreement whatever, far from it, neither can the Father, Who is truth, lie; ‘for it is impossible that God should lie Hebrews 6:18,’ as Paul affirms. But all these things are plain to those who rightly consider them, and to those who receive with faith the writings of the law.
-St. Athanasius, Letter 19, Section 3.
But forasmuch as they pretend to charge me with cowardice, it is necessary that I should write somewhat concerning this, whereby it shall be proved that they are men of wicked minds, who have not read the sacred Scriptures: or if they have read them, that they do not believe the divine inspiration of the oracles they contain. For had they believed this, they would not dare to act contrary to them, nor imitate the malice of the Jews who slew the Lord.
-St. Athanasius, De Fuga, Section 2.
IV. And if we must also look at ancient history, I perceive that Enoch, Jude 14 the seventh among our ancestors, was honored by translation. I perceive also that the twenty-first, Abraham, Genesis 5:22, was given the glory of the Patriarchate, by the addition of a greater mystery. For the Hebdomad thrice repeated brings out this number. And one who is very bold might venture even to come to the New Adam, my God and Lord Jesus Christ, Who is counted the Seventy-seventh from the old Adam who fell under sin, in the backward genealogy according to Luke. Luke 3:34.
-St. Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 41, Section 4.
17. Have thou ever in your mind this seal, which for the present has been lightly touched in my discourse, by way of summary, but shall be stated, should the Lord permit, to the best of my power with the proof from the Scriptures. For concerning the divine and holy mysteries of the Faith, not even a casual statement must be delivered without the Holy Scriptures; nor must we be drawn aside by mere plausibility and artifices of speech. Even to me, who tell you these things, give not absolute credence, unless thou receive the proof of the things which I announce from the Divine Scriptures. For this salvation which we believe depends not on ingenious reasoning, but on demonstration of the Holy Scriptures.
-St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, 4.
16. Was it without reason that Christ was made Man? Are our teachings ingenious phrases and human subtleties? Are not the Holy Scriptures our salvation? Are not the predictions of the Prophets? Keep then, I pray you, this deposit undisturbed, and let none remove you: believe that God became Man. But though it has been proved possible for Him to be made Man, yet if the Jews still disbelieve, let us hold this forth to them: What strange thing do we announce in saying that God was made Man, when yourselves say that Abraham received the Lord as a guest? What strange thing do we announce, when Jacob says, For I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved? The Lord, who ate with Abraham, ate also with us. What strange thing then do we announce? Nay more, we produce two witnesses, those who stood before Lord on Mount Sinai: Moses was in a cleft of the rock Exodus 33:22, and Elias was once in a cleft of the rock 1 Kings 19:8 : they being present with Him at His Transfiguration on Mount Tabor, spoke to the Disciples of His decease which fire should accomplish at Jerusalem. But, as I said before, it has been proved possible for Him to be made man: and the rest of the proofs may be left for the studious to collect.
-St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, 12.
All Scripture, then, is given by inspiration of God and is also assuredly profitable 2 Timothy 3:16 . Wherefore to search the Scriptures is a work most fair and most profitable for souls. For just as the tree planted by the channels of waters, so also the soul watered by the divine Scripture is enriched and gives fruit in its season, viz. orthodox belief, and is adorned with evergreen leafage, I mean, actions pleasing to God. For through the Holy Scriptures we are trained to action that is pleasing to God, and untroubled contemplation….Here let us luxuriate, let us revel insatiate: for the Scriptures possess inexhaustible grace. But if we are able to pluck anything profitable from outside sources, there is nothing to forbid that. Let us become tried money-dealers, heaping up the true and pure gold and discarding the spurious. Let us keep the fairest sayings but let us throw to the dogs absurd gods and strange myths: for we might prevail most mightily against them through themselves.
-St. John of Damascus, On the Orthodox Faith, Bk. 4, Chpt. 17.