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« Answering Objections | Main | If God Is Good »

June 11, 2012


If Jesus was an inerrantist, then you could make an argument against Christianity from any error in the Bible, like this:

1. If the Bible is not inerrant, then Jesus was wrong to think it was.
2. If Jesus is wrong about the inerrancy of the Bible, then Jesus is not the messiah/prophet.
3. If Jesus is not the messiah/prophet, then Christianity is not true.
4. Therefore, if the Bible is not inerrant, then Christianity is not true.

I'd love to see apologetics ministries (like this one!) start to incorporate brief sketches of what 'divine accommodation' is (and maybe provide an uncontroversial example besides the Incarnation) in conversations about inerrancy. I think that it will be very important as the Church continues to work through the problems posed by evolution (as I don't see it going away).

If Jesus was an inerrantist, it goes without saying that he was an inerrantist viz-a-viz the Old Testament only. However, his many "You have heard...but I say..." pronouncements demonstrate the deep levels to the Biblical books which connote more than just a surface understanding. In other words, a common error is to simply read a text from the Bible and leap to literal-ness (another subject), which gets conflated with inerrancy as Greg describes it and thus creates doubt. I am talking about us old-earth creationists here, of which Greg is one.

For the New Testament, I find it harder to make a case for inerrancy because our authority for this collection of books appears to be Church councils. I have heard the circular reasoning ("The Bible says it's the Word of God, therefore it is") but I feel this is highly inadequate to support inerrancy.

I understand the process by which the councils decided which books to include, and which books excluded themselves (Greg has taught extensively on this topic). However, I find it difficult to find support to know conclusively that the NT books are inerrant.

Here is my question: Are the NT books inerrant in the sense that they accurately reflect the writers' words, while they may contain personal observations, beliefs, and opinions that are not inerrant, or rather just that - personal observations, beliefs, and opinions?


You claimed that the early church and various early councils didn't address any particular doctrine about the Bible itself (i.e., it's inerrancy, etc.). The impression I got from your statement is that perhaps the early church thought that this is a topic that didn't matter. Please correct me if I'm wrong, but I was thinking that the early church didn't really address this particular issue not because they didn't think it was important, but because it was a given. Which is why Paul and others wrote statements such as "All Scripture is God-breathed...", etc. So there wasn't a need in the early church to define a position on inerrancy because it was just a given that Scripture is the inerrant Word of God, and during the centuries since sinful man has tried to corrupt and confuse that particular issue, thus making it necessary to spell out exactly what the church position is.

All this aside, I'm in total agreement on the larger issue you addressed, which is that inerrancy is not a requirement to be a Christian; it doesn't get much simpler than when Paul states to the Philippian jailer, "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and you shall be saved..."

I've noticed people don't seem to question the validity of other books from the past as much as they do the Bible.

Has anyone here noticed the passage below while reading the Bible? It’s from Numbers 5. It has to be among the strangest and most flagitious things in the Bible (Dt. 25:11-12 is a close second). I realize that inerrantists will see nothing in it but moral purity and supreme reasonableness, but I bet those not in the grip of that mental martinet will find in the passage below reason enough to dismiss inerrancy as obviously false.

The passage concerns what to do if a husband suspects his wife of adultery. Apparently the test for discovering whether or not she had been unfaithful was quite elaborate. Furthermore, if she failed and was pregnant due to her infidelity, God aborted her child. Anyway, here’s the test of the dusty water for discovering infidelity:

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘If a man’s wife goes astray and is unfaithful to him so that another man has sexual relations with her, and this is hidden from her husband and her impurity is undetected (since there is no witness against her and she has not been caught in the act), and if feelings of jealousy come over her husband and he suspects his wife and she is impure—or if he is jealous and suspects her even though she is not impure— then he is to take his wife to the priest. He must also take an offering of a tenth of an ephah of barley flour on her behalf. He must not pour olive oil on it or put incense on it, because it is a grain offering for jealousy, a reminder-offering to draw attention to wrongdoing.

“‘The priest shall bring her and have her stand before the LORD. Then he shall take some holy water in a clay jar and put some dust from the tabernacle floor into the water. After the priest has had the woman stand before the LORD, he shall loosen her hair and place in her hands the reminder-offering, the grain offering for jealousy, while he himself holds the bitter water that brings a curse. Then the priest shall put the woman under oath and say to her, “If no other man has had sexual relations with you and you have not gone astray and become impure while married to your husband, may this bitter water that brings a curse not harm you. But if you have gone astray while married to your husband and you have made yourself impure by having sexual relations with a man other than your husband”— here the priest is to put the woman under this curse —“may the LORD cause you to become a curse among your people when he makes your womb miscarry and your abdomen swell. May this water that brings a curse enter your body so that your abdomen swells or your womb miscarries.”

“‘Then the woman is to say, “Amen. So be it. ”

“‘The priest is to write these curses on a scroll and then wash them off into the bitter water. He shall make the woman drink the bitter water that brings a curse, and this water that brings a curse and causes bitter suffering will enter her. The priest is to take from her hands the grain offering for jealousy, wave it before the LORD and bring it to the altar. The priest is then to take a handful of the grain offering as a memorial offering and burn it on the altar; after that, he is to have the woman drink the water. If she has made herself impure and been unfaithful to her husband, this will be the result: When she is made to drink the water that brings a curse and causes bitter suffering, it will enter her, her abdomen will swell and her womb will miscarry, and she will become a curse. If, however, the woman has not made herself impure, but is clean, she will be cleared of guilt and will be able to have children.

“‘This, then, is the law of jealousy when a woman goes astray and makes herself impure while married to her husband, or when feelings of jealousy come over a man because he suspects his wife. The priest is to have her stand before the LORD and is to apply this entire law to her. The husband will be innocent of any wrongdoing, but the woman will bear the consequences of her sin.’” (Numbers 5:11-31)

Yeah, Malebranche, those of us who read the Bible actually notice its passages.
Other than showing off your oh-so impressive vocabulary what is your point?

I mean, why didn't you just quote Genesis 1. Anyone can read that and know the Bible is not true, how God God speak a world into being?
Or Genesis 6. A flood? Obviously false.
Or Matthew 14 when Jesus walked on water?
Or His Resurrection. Surely only the most committed and illogical inerrantist would believe such things, right?

Funny how the hardest pill of them all, though, justification by Grace alone, seems to go down so smoothly.

If the woman is pure, she will not be harmed. So, what exactly is your objection? And even if you don't feel good about it morally, how does that make it untrue?

Call me crazy, but it seems a tad incredible that in the past God instituted a test of cursed, dusty water in order to detect a wife's infidelity which, in cases of those who failed the test, resulted in a supernaturally induced abortion. Perhaps a shirt reading "Who Would God Abort? Children of Adulteresses (Numbers 5:11-31)" would suffice for most to have their suspicions aroused against these silly texts. But of course for many inerrantists, it wouldn't matter if the text recommended burning the woman alive. In that case we would be told that such measures were necessary in order to impress upon Israel the necessity of being a holy nation. After all, if God let Israel wander off into sin, that would jeopardize salvation, since Jesus comes from Israel. And so on and so forth...

Call me crazy, but it seems a tad incredible that Jesus healed lepers and blind men, that he raised people from the dead, that He Resurrected and ascended to Heaven and forgives our sins.
But it's true.

Prove that the Bible is not true. If people don't believe because it hasn't been "proven" then they have to believe because they can't disprove it. Can we really be neutral? Not deciding is still choosing.

I always thought the passage Malebranche refers to proved the seriousness and reality of psychosomatic illnesses. It never occurred to me otherwise. Possibly most of the Pentecostal healing we hear about is related to psychosomatic illness.

Malebranche is a very thoughtful contributor here. Even when I disagree with him, he typically makes me think pretty hard.

Unfortunately, I think the post above is well below his usual standards.

It's probably not surprising. The vast majority of particular charges of error directed at the Scriptures are pretty lame. Since, Malebranche is, I think, attempting such a charge here, it stands to reason that it's probably going to be pretty lame.

Now, on to the specific charge.

God clearly dealt with Ancient Israel and the Early Church differently than He deals with us today. For example, today, looking at a stick with a snake nailed to it will not cure snakebite. Nor is spittle mixed with mud likely to cure blindness. The trial by cursed water is really no different from these other cases. God suggests that He will miraculously intervene to punish unfaithful wives.

Could He do something like that?

He has done something like that.

Actuality is knock-down proof of possibility.

So the answer is "yes".

Other than the trial by cursed water being weird I'm not sure what the charge is. I agree that it is weird. But then, the Bible is full of weird the snake on the stick and the spitting miracles. But the position held by Greg and many who place comments on this blog, including myself, is not inweirdancy it's inerrancy. So there's no competent charge here.

I would also note that the passage never says how many times the trial by cursed water brought down the curse on the woman. My guess is: never or almost never.

This is not because God couldn't do it, but because I seriously doubt that female infidelity was terribly common in Israel. What with death being the penalty and wives being under the thumbs of their husbands, it was probably well nigh impossible for most women to even entertain infidelity. And, again because wives were under their husband's thumbs, it would be difficult, to say the least, for the rare unfaithful wife to cover her tracks. So there was likely to be credible evidence against her. But in that case, Malebranche's 'flagitious' passage does not apply.

On the other hand the sin of the husband in the passage, irrational and unfounded jealousy, is a fairly timeless failing, and was sacrificed for every time.

BTW "flagitious" means extremely brutal or cruel and is meant to be applied to persons, actions or times...not scriptural passages.

But let's grant that it does apply to passages. Or let's read Malebranche as using the adjective to modify the action of the-jealous-husband-bringing-a-grain-offering-while-the-suspect-wife-is-compelled-to-drink-water. In that case, the issue seems to be that the trial by cursed water is somehow immoral.

But even granting all this, I'm not seeing the cruelty and brutality, let alone the extreme cruelty and brutality.

Your husband suspects that you are unfaithful, so you're compelled to drink a glass of water. It's a little bitter. Oh! The humanity!

The trial by cursed water seems not to be brutal or cruel at all. But at a minimum, it seems not even to be on the same scale as Malebranche's favorite canard: that God approves the smashing of infants' skulls. So hardly the most flagitious 'thing' in the Bible.

He must not pour olive oil on it or put incense on it, because it is a grain offering for jealousy, a reminder-offering to draw attention to wrongdoing.

God forbids the use of olive oil? I think Malabranche is right.

I'll leave it to the readers to judge whether what I regard as morally repulsive about the procedure is that a woman has to drink dusty water or that an innocent child is killed as part of the punishment for his or her mother's adultery. Those inerrantists that wish defend the abortion can help themselves to it. It's not as though they have not felt obliged by their inerrantism to defend far worse things with an air of reasonableness and probity.

Oh yes, the readers. Anyone whose mind has been changed by Malebranche's gleaning of quotes from atheist websites has not even read the Bible, let alone dealt with its inerrancy from the perspective of a believer.
Once again Malebranche's argument is one of moral indignation.


Everyone dies. Sometimes children even die as a result of miscarriage. Sometimes it's the mother's fault that a pregnancy ends in miscarriage. What are you saying here? God shouldn't allow that to happen?

But let's assume that it is some sort of moral embarrassment to God that a child dies as a result of God's judgement who would not have died otherwise.

Did that really happen in this case?

If adultery were proven against the woman, she would be stoned to death, and any child she is currently carrying would die as a result of her death.

But the passage does not actually say that any child she is currently carrying will miscarry. It says that her belly will swell and her womb will miscarry. So the curse is that all future pregnancies will end in miscarriage.

A woman who is adulterous and who suddenly starts having a swollen belly after drinking the water will probably have very little incentive to become pregnant (since she'll just lose the child). Furthermore, her husband will view her as accursed, so he'll be very likely to not want children with her, and will probably divorce her. No other man will want her either.

As such, very few, if any, children died as a result of God's judgement who would not have died anyway.

But all that happens only if she is guilty.

What do you think? I think the vast, vast, vast majority of those glasses of water were nothing more than glasses of water, and no mischief followed and the irrationally jealous husband was chastened.

I don't want this to be taken the wrong way, but God will do whatever He pleases whether we like it or not. That's just how it is. Who's gonna stop Him? The best thing to do is fall down to your knees and worship Him. God does love fallen humanity and that's why Jesus came and offered Himself as a propitiation, but God will also punish evil. It is the "reflex" action of a perfect God.

You're right Billy of course. And it's certain that God has morally sufficient reasons for all His acts. So it's not for us to judge Him.

If you're a Lord of the Rings fan, our charging God with evil is a bit like the Orcs charging Gandalf with evil (or, to get closer to the mark for uber-LOTR-nerds, it's like the Orcs charging Eru with evil).

Nevertheless, I think that that's precisely what Malebranche is doing in his post: charging the God described in the OT with the monstrous evil of the trial by water.

Now, his point is not to be against God, but to argue that the Bible must not be inerrant (at least, not in any typical sense of "inerrant").

I actually am a fan of LOTR. I couldn't help but notice some parallels in the story to the nature of man. The Matrix is also like that. I wonder if stories like that are so popular because of the talent of the writers or because of the internal spiritual recognition of the underlying meaning. We were created by God and we all know there is a God. Some suppress the Truth in unrighteousness but subconsciously they respond to it when they see it in these stories. That was a hard idea for me to write out. I hope it makes sense.

The inerrancy of the Bible is obvious to me but I think only because God allows it to be so. Finding fault with scripture is not a reason for unbelief it's just an expression of unbelief. I don't think it's wrong to ask questions in order to be more knowledgeable about the Bible, but rebellion is easy to spot.

Something to consider when talking about inerrancy:

For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased," we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, (2 Peter 1:16-19 ESV)

In these verses Peter is saying that the prophetic word is even more sure than the eyewitness experience of seeing these things take place. I realize that this does not cover all of the Bible, but I think prophecy does contain some rather impressive miracles. If those miracles are even more trustworthy because of the prophetic word then what makes the other stuff so unbelievable?

If those miracles are even more trustworthy because of the prophetic word then what makes the other stuff so unbelievable?

History and archaeology. The conquest of Canaan is a perfect example of this. It's hard to believe that the conquest happened the way the bible says it does because there is so much evidence to the contrary (and in this case, a very significant lack of evidence that should be present if it did).


Malebranche's point is better than it's being regarded here.

Take a look at the passage closely. The woman is presumed to be guilty from the get go and given a "test" that will kill a baby without some sort of divine intervention.

To me, that's morally repulsive. If a pastor applied this procedure today, he'd rightfully be thrown in jail.

And that says nothing of how incredibly sexist the entire passage is. What about male adulterers? And if you read closely, it's possible for any man who "suspects" his wife to submit her to this procedure. No evidence or proof required, just jealousy and suspicion. Patriarchy at its finest.

It's truly disgusting, and if it weren't from the bible, no Christian would even consider endorsing it.

That creates problems for advocates of inerrancy. If this truly is God prescribing, then this God is sexist and unjust. Divine accommodation doesn't get you out of that problem. If God is omnipotent, then God allowing something like this to occur is the same as God doing it.

And to throw another monkey wrench into the conversation, let's say this passage weren't in the bible but were in the Koran. How would you feel about it then?

Well, a lot of what you are saying is based on how you feel about God's status in the whole argument. If God's standard is supreme (which it is) then an opinion formed on the basis of only seeing a very small part of the big pucture is really inadequate for establishing what is or isn't just.

As far as the Koran: God can't deny Himself. If the Koran says that Jesus was only a prophet and not God then it would be God denying Himself. Muslims say the Koran is one of the four inspired books. So they believe in the law of Moses, the psalms of David and the Gospel of Jesus. So if they do then what do they think of this verse:

But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. (Galatians 1:8 ESV)

That's a problem for Muslims as well as the other problems, but not to get too far into that.

At one time people criticized the Bible for mentioning the Hittites. Now that group of people is fairly well known about because of archaeology. Archaeology is a great enemy of the unbeliever.

My point with the verse (2 Peter 1:16-19) was that empiricism must bow to prophecy. If people don't believe then they won't agree. Reality exists unthwarted by expectations and objections.


If you don't mind me asking, what are your beliefs, religiously speaking?

Re Malebranche's reply that started out:
"Call me crazy, but it seems a tad incredible ..." and included "But of course for many inerrantists, it wouldn't matter if the text recommended burning the woman alive..."

I was sure I read somewhere (perhaps it was in some infallible book...) that the judgment against adultery was the death of BOTH the man and the woman, which would also result in the death of any baby the woman was carrying? And I think 'most' of the time it was stoning, not burning.

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