There is a current controversy surrounding inerrancy, and it has become heated in recent months. The questions surround the degree of literalness of certain passages of scripture. Part of the issue is the intent of the author, which I have already dealt with (see here). In this post I will respond to several of the passages which have been mentioned as potential problems, and provide a response. In short, the primary concern is not the human ability to interpret, but whether the text of scripture has integrity in itself.
Passages. The following passages are ones that have been mentioned as examples of why we should not hold dogmatically to a literal meaning of the scriptures. This first section will attempt to present the opposing view as they have presented it. A response will follow.
Matthew 19: 12: For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it.” The point here is that some people in the past have taken this to mean that Christian men should castrate themselves, and that a literal interpretation is obviously flawed.
John the Baptist & Elijah: John 1:21 has John denying he is Elijah, yet Matthew 11:14 has Jesus saying John is the Elijah to come. Therefore we should not hold John 1 or Matthew 11 as literal, but that John was a prophet likened to Elijah.
Jesus was often misinterpreted: passages such as John 2:19, where Jesus declares “destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up” are examples of where those listening to Jesus at the time he spoke them misinterpreted Jesus by taking his words literally, when in fact they had a non-literal meaning. Therefore we should not be dogmatic about taking the Bible too literally. Other examples are John 3 with Jesus speaking to Nicodemus about being born again, John 4 with Jesus speaking to the woman at the well about living water, John 6 with Jesus saying that people must eat His flesh and drink his blood, and John 11 where Jesus speaks of Lazarus being asleep. If we hold to a literal interpretation, the Roman Catholic view of the eucharist must be correct.
It seems that throughout the New Testament, Jesus is often speaking metaphorically and the people who misinterpret Him are the ones who take Him literally.
Ambiguity of terms: Sometimes words are not clear as to what they mean. For example, in John 3:4-6, Jesus uses the same Greek word that the English translations render spirit in v.4-5, yet render the same word wind in v.6. Therefore some words are not clear as to their meaning, and therefore we should not be dogmatic as to one particular viewpoint of their meaning.
Author’s intent: If we cannot be certain as to whether the author of scripture meant a passage to be historical, we should not be dogmatic as to whether it is indeed historical. Since we cannot know whether Matthew or John intended their passages to be literal and historical, it is best to not
Artificial barriers: For us to hold our own methods of interpretation as a barrier that should not be crossed is something we should not do. For if we put methods of our own choosing as a standard to measure others, we are guilty of the same problem that the Pharisees did with their own interpretation. We should not reject an interpretive method simply because others may abuse it.
Apocalyptic language. Many passages, such as those in Revelation, are apocalyptic or symbolic, and therefore not meant to be taken literally.
These are all held to be examples of situations where we should not be overly strict in a literal interpretation of the Bible. Therefore those who hold to the apocalyptic method maintain that passages such as Matthew 21:52, with graves being opened, and John 18:6 when the guard fell backward, should not be held to be dogmatically true, for they could be literary devices or apocalyptic language.
First, there is a fundamental distinction that must be clarified. It is this: The largest concern with the apocalyptic method does not involve interpretation at all. That people have misinterpreted the Bible is not news, nor should it be part of the present discussion, for the concern is not with the reader’s ability to interpret. Most of the passages mentioned above deal with whether or not someone correctly understood the words of God. The major issue with the current Licona/Geisler issue should not center around such a concern at all, and I cannot help but think that many in the debate are talking past each other.
The fact that humans have a problem with interpretation is a given, and is nothing to divide over. In that, I would agree with much of what is listed above. However, the issue at hand is much different. If someone concludes that Matthew 21:52 and John 18:6 are not historical, it is not an issue of interpretation at all, but an issue of whether the text is true in the first place. The issue is the integrity of the text of scripture, not the human ability to interpret.
Let’s take the passage about eunuchs as an example. Person A claims the passage is literal and means Christian men should castrate themselves, while Person B claims the passage has a figurative meaning, and only means that Christians should set themselves apart from the world. Does this not relate to the current debate on inerrancy? No, it does not, for the conclusions by those in the current debate are quite different. Theirs is the equivalent of a Person C, who would claim that Jesus never said anything about being a eunuch at all, and Matthew invented the words and put them in Jesus’ mouth for emphasis. Both Persons A & B would both hold that whatever Jesus meant, it is true that Jesus said it, true that Matthew recorded it correctly, and true that it has a specific historical meaning. The distinction between Persons A & B may be important, but should not raise to the same level of concern as Person C, who has undermined the integrity of the scriptures.
Therefore those who keep presenting examples of misinterpreted metaphors are missing the main point entirely. The question is not of interpretation, but of whether the text of scripture is true in the first place.
Second, as pointed out in a previous post, the point here is that language in books such as Revelation are contextually symbolic, but representative of something literally true. By contrast, the apocalyptic method takes passages such as Matthew 27:52, which are presented in the text not as symbolic but as if they are literal, and makes these passages mean nothing at all except exaggeration to make a literary point. Thus truly symbolic language in Revelation is symbolic of something literally true, and the apocalyptic method takes literal context and takes it as not true at all, in any sense other than a literary device. Further, they hold the text to not be true, yet can still be inerrant because they theorize the author might have intended it to not be true. We reject this view as profoundly in error.
Third, as to author’s intent, this has already been refuted (see here).
Fourth, many passages are explained in the text itself when it is examined. Luke 1:17 tells us that John the Baptist came in the spirit and power of Elijah, so that there is one sense in which he was Elijah, and a different sense in which he was not. The dragon in Revelation 12:4 is explained for us in 12:9. Thus many passages are not as mysterious as they may first appear. But even the ones which we may have trouble understanding are still true. Even though humans may not understand what they mean, the text is still recorded accurately and means what it says; it is never the case the passage is untrue. John the Baptist is never Elijah in no sense whatsoever, the dragon is not added because John likes them and was looking for a place to insert one, and the general resurrection of Matthew 27:52 is not added for special effect. Whatever Matthew 27 means, it is true.
Fifth, there is a clear distinction between historical contexts and poetic or symbolic ones. We do not hold that the words in Acts 2:20, about the moon turning to blood, are somehow hard to distinguish from Acts 2:22, which has Peter standing and speaking about Jesus’ sign miracles. If we claim that we are unsure whether Jesus sign miracles might be poetic devices invented by Luke, we have undermined the integrity of the scriptures.
In conclusion, what has lately been called the apocalyptic method profoundly undermines the integrity of the scriptures. It is not an issue of methods of our own choosing, but rather whether the Bible is true in the first place. The current rise of the apocalyptic method mirrors the early stages of Form Criticism which a century ago resulted in significant error, to the point that some who followed it crossed the line into heresy. But more immediately, it appears that the usage of the term ‘inerrant’ has changed to the degree that those of us who deny Form Criticism must refine a new term to describe what we mean. ‘Inerrant’ was useful for but one generation.