It has long been recognized that both Jesus and the apostles accepted Scripture as the flawless Word of the living God (John 10:35, 17:17; Matthew 5:18; 2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:21). Unfortunately, many attack this view of Scripture mainly because they assume that the human authors’ capacity to err would result in the presence of errors in Scripture. The question that needs to be asked is whether the Bible contains error because it was written by human authors.
Many people are familiar with the Latin adage errare humanum est—to err is human. For instance, what person would ever claim to be without error? For this reason, the Swiss, neo-orthodox theologian Karl Barth (1886–1968), whose view of Scripture is still influential in certain circles within the evangelical community, believed that “we must dare to face the humanity of the biblical texts and therefore their fallibility.”1 Barth believed that Scripture contained error because human nature was involved in the process:
As truly as Jesus died on the cross, as Lazarus died in Jn. 11, as the lame were lame, as the blind were blind . . . so, too, the prophets and apostles as such, even in their office, even in their function as witnesses, even in the act of writing down their witness, were real, historical men as we are, and therefore sinful in their action, and capable and actually guilty of error in their spoken and written word.2
Barth’s ideas, as well as the end results of higher criticism, are still making an impression today, as can be seen in the work of biblical scholar and professing evangelical Kenton Sparks.3 Although Sparks believes God is inerrant, he also believes that the “finitude and fallenness” of the human authors whom God chose to speak through resulted in a flawed biblical text.4 In classic postmodern language Sparks states,
Orthodoxy demands that God does not err, and this implies, of course, that God does not err in Scripture. But it is one thing to argue that God does not err in Scripture; it is quite another thing that the human authors of Scripture did not err. Perhaps what we need is a way of understanding Scripture that paradoxically affirms inerrancy while admitting the human errors in Scripture.5
Sparks’ claim of an inerrant Scripture that is errant is founded “in contemporary postmodern hermeneutical theories which emphasize the roll [sic] of the reader in the interpretive process and human fallibility as agents and receptors of communication.”6 Sparks attributes the “errors” in Scripture to the fact that humans err: “the Bible is written by humans, therefore its statements often reflect ’human limitations and foibles.’”7 For both Barth and Sparks, an inerrant Bible is worthy of the charge of docetism (i.e., the denial of the true humanity of Scripture).8
Barth’s view of inspiration has been influential in how many theologians today understand Scripture.
Barth’s view of inspiration has been influential in how many theologians today understand Scripture. Barth believed that God’s revelation takes place through His actions and activity in history; revelation then for Barth is seen as an “event” rather than coming through propositions (a proposition is a statement describing some reality that is either true or false). For Barth, the Bible is a witness to revelation but is not revelation itself and, although there are propositional statements in Scripture, they are fallible human pointers to revelation-in-encounter.9 Michael Horton explains Barth’s idea of revelation:
For Barth, the Word of God (i.e., the event of God’s self-revelation) is always a new work, a free decision of God that cannot be bound to a creaturely form of mediation, including Scripture. This Word never belongs to history but is always an eternal event that confronts us in our contemporary existence.10
In his book Encountering Scripture: A Scientist Explores the Bible, one of the leading theistic evolutionists of today, John Polkinghorne, explains his view of Scripture:
I believe that the nature of divine revelation is not the mysterious transmission of infallible propositions . . . but the record of persons and events through which the divine will and nature have been most transparently made known. . . . The Word of God uttered to humanity is not a written text but a life lived. . . . Scripture contains witness to the incarnate Word, but it is not the Word himself.11
Like Sparks, Polkinghorne seems to be following Barth in his view of the inspiration of Scripture (misrepresenting the orthodox view in the process), which is opposed to the idea of revelation to divinely accredited messengers (the prophets and apostles). Therefore, in his view the Bible is not God’s Word but is only a witness to it with revelation seen as an event rather than the written Word of God (propositional truth statements). In other words, the Bible is a flawed record of God’s revelation to human beings, but it is not revelation itself. This view is not based on anything within the Bible, but is based upon extra-biblical, philosophical, critical grounds with which Polkinghorne is comfortable. Unfortunately, Polkinghorne offers a straw-man argument regarding the inspiration of Scripture as being “divinely dictated.”12 For him, the idea of the Bible being inerrant is “inappropriately idolatrous,”13 so he believes he has a right to judge Scripture with his own autonomous intellect.
However, contrary to Barth and Polkinghorne, the Bible records not merely events, but also God’s interpretation of the meaning and significance of the events. We have not only the gospel but also the epistles, which interpret the significance of the events of the gospel for us propositionally. This can be seen, for example, in the event of the crucifixion of Christ. At the time of Jesus’s ministry, the high priest Caiaphas saw the event of Jesus’ death as a historical expedient in that it was necessary for the good of the nation for one man to die (John 18:14). Meanwhile the Roman centurion standing underneath the cross came to believe that Jesus was “truly . . . the Son of God” (Mark 15:39). Yet, Caiaphas and the centurion could not have known apart from divine revelation that the death of Christ was ultimately an atoning sacrifice, made to satisfy the demands of God’s justice (Romans 3:25). We need more than an event in the Bible; we must also have the revelation of the meaning of the event or the meaning simply becomes subjective. God has given us the meaning and significance of these events through His chosen medium of the prophets and the apostles. Furthermore, the charge of biblical docetism moves too quickly in presuming genuine humanity necessitates error, as Thompson points out:
Given an understanding of the Spirit’s work that superintends the production of the text without bypassing the human author’s personality, mind or will, and given that truth can be expressed perspectivally—that is, we do not need to know everything or to speak from a position of absolute objectivity or neutrality in order to speak truly—what exactly would be docetic about an infallible text should we be given one?14
What is more, the adage “to err is human” is simply assumed to be true. It may be true that humans err, but it is not true that it is intrinsic for humanity to necessarily always err. There are many things we can do as humans and not err (examinations for example), and we must remember God created humanity at the beginning of creation as sinless and therefore with the capacity not to err. Also the incarnation of Jesus Christ shows sin, and therefore error, not to be normal. Jesus “who is impeccable was made in the likeness of sinful flesh, but being in ‘fashion as a man [was] still ‘holy harmless and undefiled.’ To err is human is a false statement.”15
One could argue that both Barth’s and Sparks’ view of Scripture is, in fact, “Arian” (denial of the true divine inspiration of Scripture). Moreover, though Sparks’ contends that God never errs but accommodates Himself through human authors, he fails to see that if this contention is true, then it is also possible that the biblical authors erred in stating that God is inerrant. How in their erroneous humanity then would they know God is inerrant unless He revealed it to them?
The Holy Spirit moved the human authors of Scripture in such a way that they were moved not by their own “will” but by the Holy Spirit.
Furthermore, orthodox Christianity does not deny the true humanity of Scripture; rather it properly recognizes that to be human does not necessarily entail error, and that the Holy Spirit kept the biblical writers from making errors they might otherwise have made. The assertion of a mechanical view of inspiration (God dictates the words to human authors) is simply a canard. Rather, orthodox Christianity embraces a theory of organic inspiration. In other words, “God sanctifies the natural gifts, personalities, histories, languages, and cultural inheritance of the biblical writers.”16 The orthodox view of the inspiration of Scripture, as opposed to the neo-orthodox view, is that revelation comes from God in and through words. In 2 Peter 1:21 we are told, “For prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit.” Prophecy was not motivated by man’s will, in that it did not come from human impulse. Peter tells us how the prophets were able to speak from God by the fact that they were being continually “moved” (pheromenoi, present passive participle) by the Holy Spirit as they spoke or wrote. The Holy Spirit moved the human authors of Scripture in such a way that they were moved not by their own “will” but by the Holy Spirit. This does not mean that human authors of Scripture were automatons; they were active rather than passive in the process of writing Scripture, as can be seen in their style of writing and the vocabulary they used. The role of the Holy Spirit was to teach the authors of Scripture (John 14:26, 16:12–15). In the New Testament, it was the apostles or New Testament prophets whom the Spirit led to write truth and overcome their human tendency to err. The apostles shared Jesus’s view of Scripture, presenting their message as God’s Word (1 Thessalonians 2:13) and proclaiming that it was “not in words which man’s wisdom teaches but which the Holy Spirit teaches” (1 Corinthians 2:13). Revelation then did not come about within the apostle or prophet, but it has its source in the Triune God (2 Peter 1:21).
The relationship between the inspiration of the biblical text through the Holy Spirit and human authorship is too intimate to allow for errors in the text. In the same way that Jesus can assume our full humanity without sin, so it is that God can speak through the fully human words of prophets and apostles without error.