Accuracy is not Inerrancy

A news item mentioned on the Christianity Today blog (which itself interacts with and quotes Jim West’s blog) as well as in newspapers highlights a Babylonian tablet that correlates with information in Jeremiah. This is a fascinating discovery, and very interesting for historians. From a historian’s perspective, this just shows that the Bible at times provides reliable information – but mainstream historians already knew that. What it does not prove (and can never prove) is that the Bible is inerrant. Accuracy is not inerrancy.

  • Anonymous

    Okay, but would anything “prove” inerrancy” for you. What discoveries such as this do is to add to a well-established track record of “accuracy” as you might put it. While this may not “prove” inerrancy, it is helpful nonetheless. Let me illustrate. We often recognize that a person’s character is developed over time. That is, a person can be recognized as a person of integrity because he or she consistently show themselves to be a person of integrity. Now suppose someone were to come to you and insinuate that this person with a proven track record has done something that is not consistent with integrity. I dare say at the very least most of us would be quite skeptical of the charge because of what we have known and observed about that person. Now we realize that this person is capable of acting in ways contrary to their character but most of us would probably not start there. Most of us would give the person the benefit of the doubt until proven otherwise. The Bible has shown itself to be true time and again and I will accept its truth claims until proven otherwise. This recent discovery does not surprise me in the least.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14012171864888969953 James Diggs

    Anonymous,I think the Bible can be true and still not inerrant; I agree with James that “accuracy is not inerrancy” and just because something may have errors (and scripture does under many different forms of scholarly criticism) doesn’t mean it doesn’t speak to and testify to what is true. Defending the Bible as inerrant truth shouldn’t be necessary for Christians when we put our faith in Truth made flesh in Jesus Christ. Peace,James

  • Anonymous

    Really, how would you define true. One definition is simply: “the quality or being true; as: — (a) Conformity to fact or reality; exact accordance with that which is, or has been; or shall be.” Taking this definition then, how helpful is it to speak of truth, but in a untruthful way. Where I come from that is called a lie. While I agree that we should put our faith in Truth made flesh in Jesus Christ, the question is what Jesus are we talking about? Are we talking about the Jesus of the Bible? But what if the Bible is dead wrong about what it says about Jesus, or maybe half wrong, what true Jesus do you want me to place my faith in?

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    If we take the example of the Gospel of John, there is general agreement that the words it attributes to Jesus are not the historical ipsissima verba (i.e. the ‘exact words’) of Jesus. Just look at John 3, and note how it is impossible to tell where characters’ words end and the words of the narrator begin, and how the words of Jesus and John the Baptist are in the same style (and different from the sorts of things each says in the Synoptic Gospels).I don’t think this denigrates the Gospel of John in any respect, when considered in its historical context. But to say that the Gospel of John is ‘inerrant’ would involve the word ‘inerrancy’ dying the death of a thousand qualifications, so that it ends up meaningless.This doesn’t even mean that the Gospel of John is “not historical”. The Gospel of John is, like any other Biblical text and any other ancient text, a source that can be subjected to historical criticism and provide information and data that a historian can use. If you wish to claim that the Bible provides something more than “high quality and very useful historical information in places”, then you need to provide evidence for that claim. Simply asserting it or feeling it is theologically or existentially necessary is not a sufficient ground for doing so in the absence of clear evidence.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t think that your argument follows. Just because someone records the ipsissima vox of a person does not make it errant. Nor do I think you need to die a death of a thousand qualifications. If I faithfully paraphrase what someone said then that can be inerrant as far as it goes, i.e. communicating without error what someone was meaning to say. If that were not true then we would be guilty of errancy almost every time we refer to what someone else has said because we rarely ever quote someone word for word. I suspect that in circumstances where you are paraphrasing someone elses words you consider that paraphrase to be accurate on what the original speaker sought to convey. I also suspect that you don’t typically give a long list of qualifications saying something like: John really said this and used this word which I am substituting here, and there was actually a pause after this phrase, which probably should be represented by either a comma or a semi colon, and actually he used the pronoun “he” but what he really meant was he or she, etc.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    That’s a fair point. Even John’s introduction of the idea of Jesus’ pre-existence as the ‘Son of Man’ is not an ‘error’, but a reinterpretation, and quite possibly one that the author would have simply regarded as working out the logical implications of the information he inherited from both the Jewish and Christian traditions.Would the different dates implied for the birth of Jesus in the infancy narratives count as ‘errors’? They certainly cannot both be presenting accurate historical information, but it could be argued that they never intended to.The problem is that the average layperson tends to assume that the Bible is factual except perhaps in rare instances that are clearly indicated as poetry or something else, that the Gospel of John gives a straightforward account of Jesus’ actual words, and so on. Isn’t it disingenuous to use a term like ‘inerrancy’ when theologians use it in a very carefully qualified way, if they use it at all, and Christians with no theological training use it in another?

  • Anonymous

    Not sure what you mean by different dates for the birth of Jesus. There are no dates given in the canonical Gospels although Luke provides a couple of chronological clues.No I do not think it is disingenuous to use theological terms which can be understood and used in other ways by people. Even scholars use theological terms in different ways but they still use them. For example consider the terms prophecy, inspiration, justification, salvation, to name but a few. If we only used terms that had strict adherence to a particular understanding then we would probably not be able to use any theological term at all! To further illustrate, take the example of James Diggs whom I responded to a couple of comments back. I would think that part of the issue is how do you define “true” or “truth.” Just because his definition may be different than mine (which I suspect), it is not disingenuous of me or him to use the term unless either of us are intentionally intending to mislead. What should be done is that the terms be defined (which I did). Unfortunately, he did not do so.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02561146722461747647 James F. McGrath

    Matthew indicates Jesus was born before the death of Herod the Great in 6 BCE. Luke connects Jesus’ birth with the census of Quirinius in 6 CE. There is no real room for adjustment, since the Quirinius census was famous, connected as it was to the deposing of Herod’s son from the throne and the institution of direct Roman rule. It gave birth (because of the references in the Jewish Scriptures to ‘numbering the people of God’ bringing divine wrath on the nation) to what eventually became the ‘zealot’ movement’.I added a hyperlink to the text of my previous comment, but I suppose I should have been more specific – here is a link to a web page about historical issues in the infancy narratives: http://blue.butler.edu/~jfmcgrat/jesus/quirinius.htm

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/14012171864888969953 James Diggs

    Anonymous,I apologize for not getting back to you sooner. I am not sure I can give you a better definition of truth but I can hopefully tell you what I think it means to know truth. While I believe that God is absolute truth, I am not convinced that such truth can be absolutely known in the sense of having absolute knowledge or understanding. I think this is true also for those that wrote the scriptures; even Paul says that he “sees through a mirror dimly”. Jesus said that he came to “fulfill” the law and the prophets or make them “complete”; this implies that the scriptures are incomplete compared to the revelation of God that is in the person of Jesus Christ. Do the limitations of the inspired human testimony about God in scripture mean that these limitations are a lie? I don’t think so; especially because their testimony is not about itself, but points to the truth of God who has manifested himself in the world through Jesus Christ.How do can we truly know truth? Well I believe because truth is most completely revealed in the person of Jesus Christ that to know Jesus is to know Truth. This is a great and wonderful mystery that goes far beyond just understanding the right facts because not only can I know Truth as the person of Jesus Christ but I am also known by Truth. While I am not sure I could define it better, this kind of truth does seem to go beyond the definition that you provide. The issue you seem to have with scripture is whether or not it tells the truth; I think it does within the limitations of language, culture, and even humanity so it does not have to be inerrant to do this. I believe Scripture speaks to truth because it points us to Jesus who came, and his claim is not that he just told the truth but that he IS Truth. So you ask for my definition of truth, the best answer I can give is that the definition of truth is the person of Christ. I think this is consistent with your definition but defining truth as the person of Christ offers something more. That does not make your definition a lie, but just not as completely true as Christ himself.Peace,James


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