Flavors of Inerrancy

As “Bible-believing” Christians, we are strongly committed to the concept that the Bible is Inerrant.  It seems to me, however, that it can sometimes be difficult to rightly divide between when the Bible is Inerrantly reporting history, and when the Bible is Inerrantly establishing doctrine.  For instance, we know that Abraham and Jacob had children from multiple wives/concubines.  Is polygamy therefore Biblically endorsed for us?

Or another case which is particularly puzzling to me, the letter from the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15Now the original impetus that convened the council was “some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.'”  (Interesting side note; v. 1 there, and later (Christian) Pharisees in v. 5 claim circumcision for fulfillment of the law of Moses, not the covenant of Abraham!)

The response of the Council addressed more than just circumcision, however.  As a matter of fact, the word “circumcision” does not even appear in the letter, but is referenced only indirectly (“some persons have gone out from us and troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instructions”), and is notable only by omission from the “requirements” set forth in the rest of the letter.

But what of these “requirements” (KJV: “necessary things”; NAS “essentials”)?  Don’t eat food offered to idols?  What about I Cor 8, where food sacrificed to idols is is explicitly cleared (subject to the faith of whoever might be watching)?  Stay away from blood and strangled food?  How Mosaic does that sound?  I thought that Jesus declared all foods clean.

And how are these “requirements”?  Requirements for what — salvation?  Why does the letter conclude only “you will do well” to keep the “requirements”?  Why the non-comittal language “it has seemed good” in vv. 25 and 28 (the latter applied even to the Holy Spirit — what, God couldn’t quite make up his mind)?

So my question at the end of the day is this: is this Biblical passage inerrantly reporting the historical convention of the council in Jerusalem, and the letter they sent out, or is the Bible inerrantly presenting the contents of that letter as doctrine?  It seems to me the former, but then you have to swallow the apostles making such an egregious theological goof (in writing no less!).

Another example of this dilemma in the Bible which I can think of off the top of my head: the whole book of Job, which is filled with speeches from Job’s friends, who are discredited by God himself at the end of the book.  So how much of Job is incorrectly-applied truth, and how much is just plain wrong (but inerrantly reported as having been said)?



9 Responses

  1. It’s time for you to put How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth by Stuart and Fee on your “to read–very soon” list, Reuben. I am pretty sure your dad has a copy. It is an excellent introduction to the science/art of hermeneutics, whose principles can help you sort out all the puzzlers you mention.

  2. Duly added. I have to get through Redemption: Accomplished and Applied first though. I hope to do so during another upcoming business trip.

  3. English student: “Mom, today Mr. Hobson said he was going to kill me!”

    Mom: “Really. What’d you do?”

    English student: “Nothing. He was just up there teaching — something about stressed and unstressed syllables. And he said this thing about how you never get four stressed syllables in a row, unless it’s a really rare exception. And then he just blurted out, ‘I will kill you!'”

    Mom: “Hmm. You know — and this is just a hunch — I don’t think you’ve got anything to worry about.”

  4. Ha ha! It took me a minute to figure out how your amusing anecdote is a comment in relation to the post!

    It reminds me of the childhood dilemma: when you tattle on a cusser, is it cussing to say what word they said?

  5. Making the ‘food involved in pagan worship’ question even more strange is that Paul was involved in both pronouncements. Maybe he was over-ruled by a majority at the council. Maybe the specific situations that existed for each of the recipients necessitated the 180 degree swing.

    If I had the time and had a burning desire to get answers, I know what I would do. I would head to WSCAL library and look up the (what I am sure are) numerous journal articles that address this conundrum. One thing you can be sure of: no easy answer will be found, since scripture is silent on it.

    I do think that the fact that this discrepancy exists does contribute to a better understanding of what inerrancy is or should be. In general, the party line is ‘Scripture is inerrant in what it intends to say’. As opposed to Scripture being flawless in every detail. Otherwise, we would not have things like one gospel writer narrating two demoniacs and another narrating one in the story of the pigs jumping into the sea.

    The Job’s friends issue is not a problem. The question that jumps out for me is whether or not you can see that (or where, if you hold to the idea that part of their input is good) Job’s friends go wrong without reading God’s rebuke or without knowing in advance that God does rebuke them. And how ’bout Elihu? Good guy or bad guy? What do you think?

  6. My Bible reading schedule is taking me through Job right now. I’ll let you know what I think next month.

  7. A coupla more comments from me on this one.

    I wouldn’t say polygamy is Biblically endorsed, but I do think it’s permitted. (Egad! Did I just say that?) Just because it’s not American doesn’t mean it’s not Biblical. Yes, monogamous marriage is the clearest illustration of the Christ-church relationship, but the eldership requirements mentioned in the epistles do leave room for legitimate church members to be polygamous. In some third world nations, women claim that men should be allowed to take more than one wife — it would improve many women’s situations in life. Polygamy may not be the wisest choice, but could be a lesser of two evils in some circumstances. It kinda depends on what you want out of marriage — close relationship or just transaction. (I’m open to being corrected on this subject.)

    As for the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, I would take into consideration the fact that the entire book of Acts is not theological but rather historical in purpose, as evidenced from Luke 1:1-4 and continud in Acts 1:1. I have no problem swallowing the fact that the apostles would make an egregious theological goof. But is it really egregious? Abstaining from sexual immorality is supported throughout the epistles. Considering that the freedom of Gentile converts was causing a schism between them and Jewish converts, the other requirements also seem to fall in line with Romans 14. Quoting in part: “As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean. If your brother is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy your brother for whom Christ died. Do not allow what you consider good to be spoken of as evil. … Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a man to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble.”

    As for Job … I can’t believe the Bible is “inerrantly reporting what is said” because I sincerely doubt people were speaking chapters on end without interruption. I take Job as a literary work, a play, that as a whole inerrantly teaches spiritual wisdom. Quoting haphazardly from a character later rebuked by God for lack of wisdom would be as silly as claiming that the Bible says, “There is no God” (Proverbs context: “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God'”).

    Some people claim that those who hold to inerrancy actually throw out as many verses (head coverings, holy kiss, etc.) as those who claim only infallability. I disagree. I may not heed some verses, but that doesn’t mean I view them as erroneous, or less than God’s Word. Instead, on a spectrum of importance (which Jesus Himself used, summing up the entire law of Moses in two commands), I view them as less important than other issues I need to focus on.

    In those places where literal details seem to be changed between one account and another, I would suggest these two principles. First, we don’t have the original manuscripts (inerrancy usually applies only to the originals). Second, a discrepancy may seem erroneous to us because we’re removed from the action. I’m often struck by how often in life, when I estimate that an event stems from two probable causes, I’m surprised by a third option I never conceived. Text is black and white. Full flesh-and-blood life is much more dimensional, and those full dimensions often fail to represent well in text.

    Poke holes in my thoughts …

  8. More of the Acts 15 Jerusalem Council: see I Corinthians 8, where Paul insists that “if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall.” He follows this up in I Corinthians 9 with, “Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. … I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.”

    And then compare these statements with Paul’s decision to circumcise the adult believer Timothy in Acts 16 before bringing him on a missionary journey — and this came immediately after the Acts 15 decision that spared Gentile converts from having to be circumcised.

    I think the whole Acts 15 issue boils down to the implied conflict in Acts 15:21, where James explains that “Moses has been preached in every city from the earliest times and is read in the synagogues on every Sabbath.” When Gentiles converted to Christianity and laid claim to the promises of the Messiah, their better grasp of the freedom of the Gospel was becoming a stumbling block to Jews in their cities, who saw in them not a completion of the Mosaic law, but instead a complete abandonment of it.

  9. Thx all for your intriguing thoughts. Some feedfeedback (or is it feedbackback?)

    Concerning Polygamy, I have always been perplexed by the seeming permissibility of more than one wife for non-elders. But it seems that Jesus, in reinforcing that marriage is when two become one, would be anti-polygamy. In the same passage, he seems to condone divorce, as an unfortunate effect of sin. The eldership requirements also include not being a drunkard. Maybe having more than one wife is akin to having more than one drink?

    As for Job, you raise an excellent point that there is no way these four guys could have just sat around and spontaneously spouted such perfect and poetic language for 40+ chapters (while using broken pottery to scrape pus). That concept really changes the way I think about inerrancy. To what, I’m not sure, but it makes Job even harder to know how to understand.

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