Reading Systematic Theology with Wayne Grudem – Are there any errors in the Bible?
This post is part of a 50+ post series from the classic work by Wayne Grudem (PhD, Cambridge), Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. The aim of each post is to provide an overview of each chapter in the book and related resources for each topic.
Synopsis of Chapter
In Chapter 5 of Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem explores a critical theological issue: whether the Bible contains any errors. The common term to illustrate the complete truthfulness of the Bible is inerrancy. Grudem describes the inerrancy of Scripture as Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact. In other words, the Bible always tells the truth.
The Bible affirms the truthfulness of Scripture in many places. From one perspective, it affirms that God cannot lie (2 Samuel 7:28, Titus 1:2, Hebrews 6:18). From another perspective it claims to be without error (Numbers 23:19, Psalm 12:6, 119:89, Matthew 24:35). One of the core verses of the chapter was Psalm 12:6, “The words of the LORD are pure words, like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times.” So the Bible claims of itself to be without error or inerrant.
However, many theologians claim to have found errors in the Scripture. There are several ways that they object to the truthfulness of the Bible, but ultimately it comes down to distrusting something they found in the text. The necessary implication for anyone who denies inerrancy is to make God a liar, since he is the omniscient author of Scripture (2 Timothy 3:16).
The Context and Truthfulness of Scripture
The Bible contains no errors. But it may not be apparent to the critical reader of Scripture. One reason is the Bible often communicates in everyday language. Similar to the way we communicate in common parlance, the Bible often estimates numbers, gives approximate quotations, and tells other true things in a way that would be understood as true by its original readers – but not always to 21st century readers. In addition, the Bible sometimes includes non-standard grammar or styles, but what is being communicated is still true.
The Bible is not a 21st century academic research journal. It is a collection of manuscripts that were written thousands of years ago to a group of people living thousands of years ago. The precision we expect in current academic papers cannot be transferred to documents where the original readers did not expect the same level of detail. So when reading the Bible, we expect general precision as did the original readers of the Bible. It is true, but quotations may be loose and numbers may be estimated. Nevertheless, the words recorded in Scripture are still without error.
Considering the numbers example, the truthfulness of Scripture can be likened to the way we describe large numbers to friends. We may attend a baseball game and know the stadium seats 10,000 people. And the stadium appears full. So we may describe the attendance as 10,000 people and it would be generally true. Or inerrant. But our description wouldn’t be exact (and that’s not the expectation of our hearers), and yet it would still be true. The Bible communicates in the same way.
Common Challenges to Inerrancy
Many object to the Bible’s own teaching about inerrancy. There are several reasons why people object to the truthfulness of the Scriptures.
One common objection is the non-biblical assertion the Bible is only true in matters of “faith and practice.” They divide the Bible into “faith and practice” areas and “fact” areas. According to the argument, the Bible is true in the “faith and practice” areas, but cannot always be trusted in the “fact” areas.
The problem with this argument is the Bible makes no such distinction. Instead, it declares “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” (2 Timothy 3:16, emphasis mine). In addition, those writers of Scripture who quoted Scripture never divided the “faith and practice” areas and the rest of the Bible. They instead trusted all the details of Scripture – like David eating bread (Matthew 12:3-4), Jonah in the great fish (Matthew 12:40), or Elijah living with the widow at Zarephath (Luke 4:25-26). No “fact” in Scripture is disputed by the Biblical authors, even if it was miraculous or difficult to believe.
Another objection relates to the term inerrancy. It is a non-biblical term and some scholars are uncomfortable with non-biblical terminology describing attributes of the Bible. This is a weak argument especially since theology utilizes many terms to describe what the Bible teaches, though the terms are not contained in Scripture. Consider the words Trinity or incarnation – neither of those important terms are found in the Bible and yet both describe important areas in theology. Part of mature field of study includes a growing vocabulary to describe the findings in a field.
Others object to inerrancy on the grounds we do no longer have the original manuscripts. Since those who believe in inerrancy of Scripture only affirm inerrancy for the original manuscripts, it seems disingenuous to believe in the inerrancy of documents that no longer exist. The problem with this objection is that we know what the original documents recorded up to 99 percent accuracy. In other words, there are very few areas of the Bible that are in question related to the original documents because of the progress of textual criticism – the science of understanding an original ancient text.
Another important objection inerrancy relates to how the Biblical authors accommodated their message to the hearers and thus affirmed or taught false ideas in the process. This objection suggests that biblical authors affirmed, even incidentally, falsehoods for the sake of accommodating to their hearers who believed falsehoods at the time. Although this charge makes sense to anyone who doubts the divine authorship of Scripture, it’s a variation of the previous charge of saying some things are simply untrue in the Bible. The same God who wrote and preserved the Scriptures for readers through redemptive history, is the same God who can communicate without error regardless of whether the hearers believed some false things.
Finally, others have simply charged the Bible with containing simple errors – whether scientific, historical, or other such error. By either explicitly stating or implying the Bible contains inaccuracies, these critics suggest the Bible cannot be trusted because of multiple passages that contain errors. Those who believe in inerrancy agree with the critics there are “problem passages.” Throughout church history, many theologians and apologists have attempted to answer these problem passages in a way that maintains the inerrancy of Scripture. Sometimes the explanations to the difficulties are easier to spot than others and other passages are more difficult to explain. Yet all of these problem passages can be explained to those who will read the Bible with a charitable perspective.
Conclusion: Problems with Denying Inerrancy
The inerrancy of Scripture is a crucial doctrine to uphold. To deny inerrancy creates several important problems. For one, since the Bible claims to be free from error (Psalm 12:6) and is also claimed to be written by God (2 Timothy 3:16), to claim the Scriptures contain errors is to charge God with lying. After all, God is supposed to know everything (Psalm 46:9-10), so he would know whether his word contained falsehood. In essence, to deny inerrancy is to call God a liar!
And if inerrancy were false, then we couldn’t trust God anywhere. If God lied to us in his word, why would we trust him in anything? And that would make us the authority of what is theologically accurate or morally correct – not God. So ultimately, denying inerrancy makes us wiser than God – a very non-Christian perspective to adopt.
The words of the LORD are pure words, like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times. – Psalm 12:6
- faith and practice
- textual variant
Resources: Wayne Grudem
- Wayne Grudem: Book: Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine
- Wayne Grudem: 148 Lectures on Systematic Theology at Scottsdale Bible Church
- Defending Inerrancy: A Resource Devoted to Biblical Inerrancy
- Tim Challies: The Inerrancy of Scripture
- Brian H. Edwards: Why Should We Believe in the Inerrancy of Scripture?
- Don Stewart: Does the Bible Claim to be God’s Inerrant Word?