Friday, October 06, 2006


This is not to stumble anyone. If you can't swallow it, leave it.

The argument for inerrancy is usually God-centred as in it presupposes God's preservation in the canonization process:
1) God is inerrant
2) The Bible is God's word
3) Thus the Bible is inerrant

The problem here is at (2).

Question 1. How do we judge a New Testamental book/letter belongs in to the category of the Bible or not?

The usual answer from apologists is 3:
1) The book/letter has to be authored by the direct apostle of Jesus or the direct followers of the apostles.
2) The book/letter has to be circulated widely among the early churches.
3) The book/letter doesnt contradict the early doctrines of the church.

Problem 1.
I come to realize that a fundamental shift happened when a deeper question being raised (Question 1). The shift is from a very God-centred paradigm to a very human-centred one. In the first, apologist presupposes God's sovereignty over the canonization of the Bible, when the question on the canonization being raised, the apologist draws bullets from human judgement. That means the ultimate foundation for the argument for inerrancy is not by prsupposing God but by investigating human's findings. Thus the argument by presupposing God's sovereignty for inerrancy doesnt stand because at best it only able to argue for the inerrancy of the 'pre-determined canon'; and left the fundamental issue left unsettled (the canonization).

Problem 2.
Granted that God's sovereignty covers the canonization process (means presuppositional argument being validated). All books in the NT are being canonized because the early church was guided by God to recognised them. If that can be argued, then why shouldnt we canonized the gospel of Thomas as well? Or better, the shepherd of Hermas and the epistle of Barnabas, since both of them are found in codex sinaiticus and vaticanus (two earliest full manuscripts available) which our modern Bible translation based upon? Or even better, the Didache (teaching of the 12 apostles) which its authorship (not its earliest manuscript) dated as early as AD 70. The usual argument offered by apologist for the exclusion of these extra-biblical manuscripts in the Canon is 'late authorship'. But then, again, it's going back into investigating human findings instead of the philosophical argument offered at first. If the presuppositional argument stands, then the sovereignty of God can also be argued to have cover the process of authoring the shepherd of Hermas, the epistle of Barnabas, Thomas gospel, and the Didache.

Problem 3 (the biggest) If canonization can't be settle by philosophical argument, then the inerrancy part doesnt hold water. How can one talk about inerrancy when there is no canon?


Benjamin Ho said...

Let me continue where you left off, Josh.

In other words, the argument that the Bible is inerrant is simply a circular argument... as critics would put it.

That's where the concept of revelation is so important... and that truth is Total - it corresponds and is coherent within the framework of the reality we live in. Our faith is not simply a theoretical or even theological one - it is total, speaking to Man in all aspects of his life. This is the starting point of Christian theism.

Anonymous said...

And how can one speak of canonization without the Holy Spirit (on a mystical level) nor authority (on a human level, though this concept is inevitable tied up with the action of the Holy Spirit)?

Sze Zeng said...

Benjamin, thanks for that!

Hi Anonymous, if you realize, the whole post is directed towards the argument of Holy Spirit by presupposing God look-over the entire process of canonization. My point is that to argue merely from Holy Spirit/ God for inerrancy doesn't stand cos at the end it's the people that compiled the canon. If u say that it's the Holy Spirit that directs the compilation process, then how do you explain the exclusion of apocrypha and pseudipigrapha and other early religious manuscripts?

Anonymous said...

Not being well-versed in the historicity of the Bible events nor exactly the way the Scriptures (not the Bible) came about, this is where I find that the Christian logic, when it comes to the bible, circular.

The bible speaks of the Holy Spirit guiding into all the truth. Hence, because Christians believe that the bible is true, they must trust that the Holy Spirit has guided its (true) compilation as well. But then again, you can only trust this if the bible is true...which is only so if the Holy Spirit has guided the process. That is why Christians have Faith, because when you KNOW for certain, something as a fact, right before your human eyes, it no longer requires Faith for you to acknowledge that something's presence.

I would suggest that Tradition played a role. Oh, and an extensive knowledge of the fields mentioned would help in giving one a better understanding of the process (of compilation and canonization). Won't necessarily give one faith though.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi Anonymous,

yes, the purely philosophical argument for Scriptures is circular though that doesn't discredit itself.

When one wants to break through such circularity to get a firmer conviction founded on 'facts' (if u like), one has to look for the "point of reference" of the circular proposition.

In our case, that would be 'history'. By history, i dont mean an uninterpreted facts, but rather factual events that happened in the past.

For eg. Jesus' "reappearance" after His death is a factual events. Whether it is merely the disciples' own experiences or that He really did rose from the dead physically is an interpretation alluded and deduced from the accumulated historical facts (gospels, the origin of Christianity etc).

And because history itself is an interpretation hence it is no less philosophical in order for us to find out the best inferred explanation that keep up to reality.

Historical studies is itself a philosophical quest, no less, despite alot misunderstood this.

The "point of reference" for any circular argument is crucial for itself to stand or fall.

Thank you for your suggestion of looking at the issue from Tradition. It is not wrong but not entirely right. Tradition itself bears too many misinterpretations. If one merely appeal to Tradition without getting beforehand what actually does it means will just muddle further the matter. For eg:

"...the NT tradition (is) the tradition which give birth to the NT, the tradition which is in the NT, and the which, within which, and through which the NT continues to be heard meaningfully."

The same word 'tradition' being used 3 times in the passage above but each times, it is used differently.

"...the NT tradition [is] the tradition (pre-gospels written, oral tradition) which give birth to the NT, the tradition (the content of the NT) which is in the NT, and the tradition (Christianity) which, within which, and through which the NT continues to be heard meaningfully."

Thus, to understand canonization is to critically examined and to understand the 'dialogue' between Tradition and Scriptures. How does tradition influences the formation of Scriptures & vice versa? What kind of tradition influences them? How much authority does tradition has upon scriptures & vice versa?

These are questions need to be grapple with in order to understand the canonization process of the Bible. And to do just that, historical studies (which is no less philosophical) is the means.

We need to get this "point of reference" right to vindicate the circular argument.

alwyn said...

great discussion, S.Zeng. I've always suspected something amiss with the whole idea of inerrancy *as a presupposition* (though some might argue that one can't be neutral on these things and assumptions either way will 'colour' the readings, etc.)

I'd prefer to take a case-by-case study on 'controversial' verses and sorta let the beauty and accuracy of Scripture gradually emerge via careful study and investigation (as opposed to a priori argument on whether it is or is not inerrant).

Anonymous said...

Joshua, I don’t know why you titled this "inerrancy" when its really an issue of canon. The church has not prescribed the canon, but described it by a dual process of an inherited library and falsification test on other alien entry attempts. There is a solid case for the canon, just read Lee Strobel's case for Christ (or was that faith?). As for inerrancy, I with Mark Knoll on this matter, i think the statement "the bible is inerrant" is a silly modern American construct that is irrelevant and unnecessary.

Leon Jackson

alwyn said...

Hi Leon, I think it's case for FAITH (the 'Christ' one was all about the historical Jesus...).

I'm also interested to know more about your views on inerrancy, and why you subscribe to Knoll's statement. You gonna blog on this any time soon?

jacksons said...

Hi Alwyn,

I have been meaning to blog on this, but I have not finished the ground work (I am like 30% done) that I need to do to be able to pick this up confidently. Needless to say that I was very happy when I heard Knoll say on an interview with Mark Dever that the whole question of inerrancy was irrelevant.

I am currently of the opinion that the desire to proclaim the bible as inerrant is rooted in 2 myths in popular American Christian culture;

1. the Bible is a scientific or historical book (Now I subscribe to the fact that the bible makes claims to record history in some parts like the gospels, and these collaborate with historical and archaeological findings) in the modern sense of the word. The literary prose, style, methods and emphasis may not be the same as what we have today – for example, in Genesis and the Gospels, there is no need for tight chronology when the tell the stories, rather they follow the theological significance for their sequence in the stories.

2. The Bible has to be perfect verbatim words for it to be the word of God. People in fear of putting their faith in the word of man rather than the word of God, go through various degrees of denial of the human element in the composition of the bible – from a dictation type of theory to a King James Only type of fantasy of a persevered translation.

On the contrary here is what I currently believe. I think the men who were inspired by the Holy Spirit, were going about their different paths – some knew they were speaking verbatim from God (like Moses in some parts), others put words to impressions they got deep within (like some prophets), and some were even about the business of daily life, like the history writers of Kings and Paul writing his letters and God selected and managed His content by His Sovereignty and made a cut off date for the compilation, the OT first in the NT times and the NT from very early (I am convinced from the evidence that we have a good reliable cannon, though I can never say I am scientifically sure about Hebrews) was identified and passed on.

This collection and chronicle of the redemption of the Jewish people, culminating in the climatic birth, life, ministry and crucification and resurrection of Jesus Christ became the catalyst for Christianity, the force of major change in the history of the world. And this catalyst, continues to guide man to God and His laws and reality – and is thus called “the Word of God” though I am always very careful to define the term, and it carries baggage of the notion of a “fax from heaven”.

Can the bible make a statement that is Scientifically and Historically wrong? My answer is yes – because some parts are limited to the knowledge of the human involved in speaking the words recorded or writing them. Is the Bible then still reliable? My answer is yes, because in the places where it claims to record history, it does so very well. How do I reconcile my two statements above – the hard work must be done to work out the genre of the section your reading. Does it mean to make a historical statement? I think Hermeneutics (that is not afraid to be informed by science and history) is the most crucial element in this discussion on the inerrancy and the reliability of the bible.

Now let me end this short note in saying that I think Karl Barth was on to something when he accused us evangelicals of doceticism in this issue, but I am not satisfied with his solution of Neo Orthodoxy. I am also not satisfied with Carl Henry’s comeback to Barth that the Bible can be both human and inerrant just as Christ was both man and sinless – because there is no satisfactory reason for me to project this reality of Christ’s nature on to the bible itself, the bible to me is not clear of claiming to be above human error just because it does claim that God is always truthful and inerrant (again, the different genres and my rejection of the oversimplification of calling everything in the Bible God’s word as if its all verbatim) and finally, truth itself like science and history does show us some places where the statements in the bible may have been made from the limited knowledge of a person.

Now having said that, I am NOT CONVINCED yet that the alleged errors are indeed errors and not the by product of bad hermeneutics. When I have finished examining them, I may come out on the side of the inerrancy evangelicals!