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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: Don Stewart :: Answering Bible Difficulties

Don Stewart :: Can the Scripture Be Trustworthy If It Makes Mistakes in Scientific and Historical Statements? (Limited Inerrancy)

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Question 7

Can the Scripture Be Trustworthy If It Makes Mistakes in Scientific and Historical Statements? (Limited Inerrancy)

Can a person still rely on the Bible as being trustworthy if it contains some errors in its statements of history and science? Does the doctrine of inerrancy extend to all matters scientific and historical? Some people do not believe so. They teach that a person can accept the biblical teaching about God, heaven, hell, salvation, etc. without accepting the statements the Bible makes concerning historical or scientific matters. This view is known variously as “revelational inerrancy,” “dynamic inspiration,” or “limited inerrancy.”

There is also the view that the writers of Scripture were inerrant only that they faithfully reproduced the sources of their information. However, the sources themselves, may have been in error.

Claim: The Purpose of the Scriptures: To Make Us Wise Unto Salvation—It Is Not Necessarily Inerrant

Those who hold the view of limited inerrancy often emphasize that the purpose of Scripture is to make one “wise unto salvation,” or give unbelievers “wisdom unto salvation.” Paul wrote to Timothy about the purpose of Scripture:

You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. (2 Timothy 3:14-15 NASB)

Consequently, the incidental details of the events that are recorded in Scripture may or may not have happened. The important thing is that the message of salvation from sin comes across—not whether certain historical details actually occurred. Scripture is thus inerrant in purpose, but not inerrant in all its details. Through the Scripture, God accomplishes that which He desires even though there may be some factual errors.

The View That There Are Errors in the Sources

There is also the point of view that the biblical writers were error-free in the sense that they faithfully copied, or reproduced their sources. The sources of their information, both written and oral, were accurately recorded by the biblical writers. However, this does not mean that the sources they used were without error. These sources could have been mistaken. Thus, the biblical writers faithfully reproduced error without correcting it.

What are we to make of these positions?

Is Limited Inerrancy an Option?

Is the position of limited inerrancy an option for Christians? According to many, it is proper to make the distinction between the theological and historical statements. But the Bible makes no such distinction. On the contrary, the Bible teaches that all Scripture is breathed out by God:

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:16-17 ESV)

This verse not only teaches that all Scripture is God-breathed, it also says that the purpose of Scripture is that believers might be mature and completely equipped for every good work. How could the Scripture be profitable, and the believer equipped for every good work if the Bible was full of errors? The Bible does not place any restriction on the subjects upon which it speaks truthfully about. All Scripture is profitable.

A number of points need to be emphasized.

  1. Scripture Assumes that All Events Recorded Actually Occurred

    The Scripture makes it clear that all the events it records literally occurred. Nowhere do we find any of the biblical writers casting the slightest doubt on any other part of Scripture. To the contrary, they assumed that everything recorded was absolutely true in all its details. Of this, there is not the slightest doubt.

  2. There Is No Biblical Evidence of a Limited Inerrancy

    Scripture gives no evidence that its authority is limited in any way. There is no hint that any of the biblical statements, whether historical or theological, should be questioned. To make such a distinction is neither needful, nor helpful. The inerrancy of Scripture does extend to all matters scientific and historic. Evidence is lacking in the statements of Scripture for the notion that the Word is a product of a division of labor—God working with the writers on doctrinal matters while leaving the biblical writers to their own fallible wisdom on historical and scientific matters. This is not what happened.

    The New Testament writers trusted every detail of the Old Testament. For example, Paul stressed that he believed “everything” that was written in the Law and the Prophets:

    But I admit that I follow the Way, which they call a sect. I worship the God of our ancestors, and I firmly believe the Jewish law and everything written in the books of prophecy. (Acts 24:14 NLT)

    On the day of His resurrection, Jesus said that everything that was written in the Old Testament must be fulfilled:

    He said to them, “O how unwise and slow you are to believe in your hearts all that the prophets have spoken! Didn’t the Messiah have to suffer these things and enter into His glory?” (Luke 24:25-26 HCSB)

    All that the Old Testament said should be believed; there were no exceptions.

  3. There Are Other Important Purposes in the Scripture

    Furthermore, the fact that the relationship between God and humanity is the main concern of Scripture does not comment one way or another, about the Bible’s truthfulness in areas of history and science. Other passages do this. These passages make it clear that all parts of Scripture are the true words of God.

    The fact that the purpose of Scripture is to make its readers “wise unto salvation” certainly does not exclude it from being inerrant on other matters. It does not logically follow that if the Bible stresses one thing, it makes misstatements on things it emphasizes less.

    In addition, while the main purpose of Scripture may be to bring the message of salvation to its readers, this does not mean that there are no other important purposes. In short, the main concern of Scripture is not the only concern.

  4. There Would Be No Basis of Authority with a Limited Inerrancy

    There is more. If the biblical writers were mistaken in their historical, geographical and scientific references, then why, one might ask, should their statements in the theological realm be trusted? It is meaningless to assert that the biblical writers made errors in history, science, and geography, but were kept error-free when they recorded statements in the theological realm (heaven, hell, salvation, etc.). We may rightly ask, “In what sense is the Bible divinely inspired?”

  5. The Idea of Reproducing Errant Sources Makes the Doctrine of Inerrancy Meaningless

    Finally, the idea that some hold that the biblical writers faithfully reproduced sources that had errors in it makes the end result of Scripture in doubt.

    While this perspective is held by some Christians, it does not instill much confidence in Scripture. Many parts of the Bible consist of the writer using sources. This includes the early chapters of Genesis and the entire gospel of Luke. According to this view, the creation account recorded in Genesis, as well as Luke’s entire gospel, is now suspect.

    Moses, the writer of Genesis, had to compile his work from sources. Though he may have had written sources from the time of Adam and Eve, he certainly did not have any written sources before human beings were created! At the very least, the creation account in the first chapter of Genesis now becomes suspect. Furthermore, the remainder of the Book of Genesis, which is based upon some type of source, either oral or written, likewise becomes suspect.

    In his prologue, Luke explained that his entire gospel was based upon sources. Therefore, his entire work now comes under suspicion. While some may argue that both Moses and Luke faithfully reproduced the information from their sources, it is no benefit for us whatsoever if these sources contained errors.

Conclusion: the Scripture Must Always Be Correct

The Bible must be correct on things that can be verified. While it is not a textbook on history, the historical references must be accurate. While the Bible is not a textbook on science, its statements of a scientific nature must be accurate. If the Bible cannot be trusted in areas in which it can be verified, then why should we trust it in areas, which by definition, cannot be verified? Jesus said:

If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? (John 3:12 NRSV)

We must believe the earthly, as well as the heavenly, things that God has told us. All of God’s words are important. This is why the Bible commands us not to add to or subtract from them. The Bible says:

You shall not add to the word which I command you, nor take from it; that you may keep the commandments of the LORD your God which I command you. (Deuteronomy 4:2 RSV)

The Bible says there are severe penalties for adding to or subtracting from what God has revealed:

I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues which are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his part from the tree of life and from the holy city, which are written in this book. (Revelation 22:18-19 NASB)

Paul wrote to the Romans about the necessity to believe everything that was written:

For whatever was written before was written for our instruction, so that through our endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we may have hope. (Romans 15:4 HCSB)

It is important that we believe that everything in Scripture has been put there for a purpose, even the so-called incidental details.

Another problem with this point of view is to determine exactly which statements are divinely inspired, and which are not. The questions that immediately arise are these: Who decides what is true? How can one differentiate between facts and teaching? How can one separate the essential message of the teaching of the Bible from the background in which it is presented?

There is certainly no such distinction recognized in Scripture itself. Whoever does this sort of thing sets himself or herself above the Bible, and reverses roles with God.

Therefore, the doctrine of limited inerrancy causes more problems than it solves.

Summary - Question 7
Can the Scripture Be Trustworthy If It Makes Mistakes in Scientific and Historical Statements? (Limited Inerrancy)

The doctrine of limited inerrancy believes that inerrancy does not extend to matters historical and scientific—only theological statements are error-free. The purpose of the Bible is to make its readers “wise unto salvation” —not to be an historically accurate record in every detail it presents. Therefore, it is argued that the Bible can be considered totally trustworthy even if it makes some minor mistakes in matters of history, geography, and science.

This position cannot be justified biblically. Scripture treats all its events as literally occurring. In addition, there is no hint that the insignificant details recorded did not actually take place. All Scripture is assumed to be correct in everything that it says.

Furthermore, the main concern of Scripture, to bring salvation to its readers, is not the only concern of Scripture. The Bible testifies that it also reveals the true words of God to humanity in every place that it records God speaking. This includes the direct words of God, the words of the prophets, or the historical details recorded in Scripture.

The position of limited inerrancy also causes more problems than it solves. There must be some standard to determine what passages are theological and which are merely historical or scientific. Who will determine the standard?

Some may argue that the Bible can survive even if a small number of errors are found in it. However, this may be the start of a downhill slide that will logically end in unbelief. Every part of the Bible will become suspect. Limited inerrancy is not a sufficient answer to the question of inerrancy.

In addition, those who argue that the biblical writers were inerrant only so far as to correctly reproduce their errant sources, likewise, gives us a meaningless doctrine of inerrancy.

What Are the Consequences When the Doctrine of Inerrancy Is Rejected? ← Prior Section
Why Do Some Christians Believe the Bible Contains Errors? Next Section →
CONTENT DISCLAIMER:

The Blue Letter Bible ministry and the BLB Institute hold to the historical, conservative Christian faith, which includes a firm belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. Since the text and audio content provided by BLB represent a range of evangelical traditions, all of the ideas and principles conveyed in the resource materials are not necessarily affirmed, in total, by this ministry.

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