Steve Chalke: Is the Bible infallible? image

Steve Chalke: Is the Bible infallible?

Sometimes, apologetics involves answering tough questions asked by Christians, and even responding to arguments mounted by Christian leaders in Christian publications. In a short piece two months ago in Christianity magazine, Steve Chalke made a series of challenges to the infallibility, and the inspiration, of Scripture; this month, Christianity were gracious enough to print my brief response. But since the questions he raised are so common in apologetics, both amongst people who follow Jesus and people who don’t, I thought it was worth writing a slightly fuller article, explaining why I think his arguments are completely wrong-headed. In the nicest possible way, of course.

He began with a series of questions, which set up where the article was going:

What does it mean when we say that the Bible is inspired by God? Is every word of it infallible? Is the whole Bible universally applicable? And if not, in what sense is scripture authoritative?

Good questions. Care is needed in answering them, though, because these four questions sound similar, but are clearly not the same as each other: to say that Scripture is ‘infallible’ is completely different from saying it is all ‘universally applicable’. To argue that the Mosaic law is without flaws, as I would (following the Psalmists, Jesus and Paul, among others), is clearly not to say that the instructions about mildew are as ‘universally applicable’ for us today as the instruction to love your neighbour. So even in reading the opening paragraph of an article like this, we have to be careful not to conflate words like ‘inspired’ and ‘infallible’ with a term like ‘universally applicable.’ He continues:

The writers of the New Testament are clear. Through Jesus, for the first time in history, we get to see God exactly as he is. Or, to put the other way round, if it doesn’t look like Jesus, it’s not God. Ironically, that’s the beginning of your dilemma. Jesus, even as he claimed to be committed to bringing the full meaning of the Old Testament to the surface (Matthew 5:17), is famous for his challenges to parts of its actual text. For instance, ‘You have heard it said that ... But I tell you that ...’ Jesus used this well-known formula first to quote from the Old Testament and then to radically re-write it. Indeed, it was his deliberately renegade attitude to these and many other Old Testament laws and teachings which increasingly got under the skin of Israel’s teachers.

Crumbs. I never thought I would see Matthew 5:17, Jesus’ famous announcement that he had not come to abolish the law, quoted in support of a Jesus who made ‘challenges’ to the text of the Old Testament so as to ‘radically re-write it’ with a ‘deliberately renegade attitude.’ That’s the equivalent of saying that someone who studies calculus and trigonometry is radically re-writing the times tables. Scholars of all stripes have repeatedly argued that the Sermon on the Mount is an intensification of the Torah not an abrogation of it—don’t murder people, obviously, but don’t even hate them either—and in the very next verse (5:18), Jesus says that no jot or tittle will disappear from the Law until heaven and earth pass away. The idea that Matthew, of all people, would perceive Jesus to have a ‘renegade’ attitude to the law (despite 5:19!) is particularly strange.

I guess another part of the question you are grappling with surrounds all the discrepancies and conflicting statements contained in the Bible. Take an example from the Old Testament. Was it Satan or God who inspired King David to carry out the census of the people of Israel which the Old Testament writers record? According to 1 Chronicles 21:1, ‘Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census’, whereas 2 Samuel 24:1 is adamant that ‘the LORD…incited David…saying, “Go and take a census of Israel and Judah.”’ Which is right? Not both!

Right, so we now move into the meat of the argument, which is that the Bible has lots of ‘discrepancies’ and ‘conflicting statements’. And the proof of this, apparently, is the fact that the same incident is said to come about as a result of Satan (1 Chronicles) and the LORD (2 Samuel). Surely, nobody could possibly believe that both Satan and the LORD could be seen as bringing about the same event?

Actually, lots of the biblical writers do just that, because of their vision of the sovereignty of God over all things. The book of Job is a classic example: Satan strikes Job with suffering, yet the author affirms that when Job says it is ultimately from the LORD, he is in the right (Job 2:10). Lamentations 3:38 and Amos 3:6 describe all events, good and bad, as being under the command of God. Luke regards Judas’ betrayal of Jesus as a result of Satan entering him (Luke 22:3), and at the same time as the result of God’s definite foreknowledge and plan (Acts 2:23). And so on. So it is very strange to argue that the writers of Samuel and Chronicles were contradicting each other when they drew attention to a census being brought about both by Satan (in one sense) and by the LORD (in another)—it may be hard for us to understand how divine agency can coexist with that of his creatures, but that doesn’t mean they involve ‘discrepancies’, because lots of biblical writers speak that way. Next we’ll be hearing that it’s a contradiction for someone to say that Macduff was killed by Macbeth, and also by Shakespeare.

This is no small point because both versions of the story go on to explain that ‘the LORD sent a plague on Israel’ and 70,000 people died in three days. This reported action of God – especially in the 2 Samuel version – raises huge theological issues about his nature.

This may be the heart of the issue: the idea that an awesome and holy God was responsible for judging people for sin, even to the point of killing them, is not all that popular these days. Presumably, then, we need to abandon all the books where God is said to kill people: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, 1&2 Samuel, 1&2 Kings, 1&2 Chronicles … you get the picture. If you’re more of a New Testament person, which I think Steve Chalke probably is, you’ve still lost Luke, Acts, 1 Corinthians, Jude, Revelation, and probably others. Contemporary people may not like it, but holiness, sin, wrath and judgment are all aspects of God’s character and action, alongside grace, mercy, beauty and forgiveness. That doesn’t mean the Bible contains ‘discrepancies’.

So what do we do with texts like these? There’s a passage in the New Testament which, in my opinion, is very revealing. In 1 Corinthians 7 the Apostle Paul has a whole section of instructions about marriage and divorce. However, he is at pains to make clear a fundamental distinction between two parts of this teaching. The first section he says is not from him ‘but the Lord’ (v10) whereas, by contrast, the second is his opinion but ‘not the Lord’. The question is this: Was he right, or was he wrong? Is this second segment of teaching inspired by God, even though Paul claims it isn’t, or not? Either way we have a problem. If Paul is right, then not all scripture is directly inspired by God in the simple way we have sometimes assumed it to be. If Paul is wrong, and all his teaching was actually from God – then, by definition, because his erroneous statement is part of the New Testament, not all scripture is directly inspired by God in the simple way we have sometimes assumed it to be. One way or the other, this passage challenges an over simplistic understanding of what we are talking about when we refer to the infallibility of the Bible. It forces us to think more deeply. So in what sense is the Bible authoritative?

With the greatest respect to Steve—we have a lot of friends in common, he is a loved and valued brother in Christ, he has preached in my church and he does far more for the poor than I do—this argument is very weak, and could easily have been avoided with a bit of scholarly research. I have a host of commentaries on 1 Corinthians in my office, from evangelical, liberal and critical scholars alike, and I cannot find a single one that believes Paul’s phrase ‘I, not the Lord’ has anything to do with him not being ‘inspired by God.’ Virtually to a man, commentators agree that Paul is making the distinction here between areas where Jesus taught on the subject in his earthly ministry (‘not I, but the Lord’) and areas where he didn’t (‘I, not the Lord’). Later in the chapter, in fact, Paul specifically refers to the role of the Spirit in shaping his instructions (7:40). If we are going to overthrow not just the infallibility but the inspiration of Scripture, we need a better reason than a frankly poor bit of exegesis that almost all modern scholars would reject.

Many would ask why I don’t just quote Paul’s letter to his apprentice Timothy (2 Timothy 3:16): ‘All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness…’and leave it at that. The reason is because it’s vital that we are honest enough to take the setting, culture, context and even complexity of all scripture seriously. Though we now use Paul’s words to apply to the whole of the Christian Bible, in context he is actually referring only to the Old Testament. It’s clear that his original intention was not to regard his own letters to churches or individuals as scripture, and that he was also commenting before the Gospels, or the majority of the rest of what now comprises the New Testament, had been written.

There’s a grain of truth here—that Paul probably wasn’t referring to his own writings as ‘scripture’ in this particular verse—but even so, it is very misleading. If you’re a conservative scholar, you’re likely to believe Paul refers to Luke 10 as ‘scripture’ in 1 Timothy 5:18; if you’re a critical scholar, you may well believe 2 Timothy was written well after Paul’s death, and probably after the gospels anyway; if you’re N. T. Wright, who straddles both, you believe that the old idea that Paul wasn’t conscious of writing scripture is now discredited; and whoever you are, you should know that at least half the books of the New Testament were written before 2 Timothy (twelve of Paul’s letters, plus James, probably Mark and Hebrews, and possibly others).

Over the years I’ve had countless conversations with people – including church leaders – who are secretly struggling with these big issues, but feel there is a conspiracy of silence around them. Our love for God, for people and for the Bible should compel us to wrestle with this challenge rather than trying to push it away through the use of, what must sound to others like, shallow statements about the authority of God’s word. As we celebrate 400 years of the King James Bible, perhaps one of the best things we can do is to promote honest discussion in others – both inside and beyond the church.

At last, a paragraph I completely agree with. We do need honest, open discussion. We need to ask questions carefully, and answer them responsibly. And when we do, I think it’s always helpful to consider the way Jesus viewed Scripture: as something which couldn’t be broken, as the words of God which we depended on to stay alive, as containing prophecies and teachings that were to be submitted to, even to death. Or more simply, as Jesus liked to say, ‘It … is … written.’


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