Bible Apologetics Overview (Doctrine of Inerrancy & Canonicity)
On this page, we’ll present an overview of the Bible Apologetics, in particular the doctrine of Inerrancy. This doctrine is not a simple as it might seem at first glance, so we suggest that you first understand The Meaning of Bible Inerrancy before continuing this article.
Written Dec 2008.
Table of Contents
- What is Biblical Apologetics
- Limits of Biblical Apologetics
- Claims of inspiration
- History of Canonicity and Inerrancy
- Objections to the Doctrine of Inerrancy
- Canon of the Bible
What is Bible Apologetics?
In the broadest sense, all Christian apologetics (from the Greek apologia, meaning “speaking in defense”) are Bible apologetics since, as the Word of God, it is our chief source of revelation and thus, the foundation for defending all objections to our faith. We use the term Bible apologetics to refer to the branch of apologetics dealing with various attacks on the attributes of the Bible, such as its inspiration, veracity, authority etc. These attributes are interdependent. If the Bible is inspired by God, then the Scriptures must be truthful since God can’t lie (Tt 1:2, Heb 6:18). Likewise, if the Bible is true, including its claims regarding being inspired by God, then it wields the authority of God.
Most objections by the critics boil down to an opposition to the Bible’s truthfulness, which in effect, are also attacks on its authority. Challenges to the veracity of the Bible include its divine authorship (inspiration), transmission, and canon. In resistance to these attacks, the church developed the doctrine of inerrancy. This doctrine is often misunderstood, so if you have not read “The Meaning of Inerrancy”, we suggest doing so before continuing this article. A proper understanding of the definition of inerrancy is vital in comprehending the various arguments for and against the doctrine.
The other opposition voiced by the critics is to the canon (from the Greek kanon, meaning measuring stick) of the Bible. We use the term canon to describe the set of books which are considered to be authoritative as Holy Scripture, so objections arose as to which books should be included or excluded. Biblical apologetics also provides answers to these objections, which we’ll visit later in this article.
[TOC] [Top of Page]
Limits of Bible Apologetics?
Before we go any further, we should make a quick note regarding the limitation of Biblical Apologetics (and Apologetics in general). Even if we could use human arguments to prove the Bible beyond any doubt, the natural man (unbeliever) would not accept the truths since they are foolishness to him (1Cor 2:14). This requires illumination by the Holy Spirit, who never operates against Scripture. If the person to whom we’re speaking has some honest intellectual objections, the Holy Spirit can use our apologetics to remove these doubts. If however, the person has a spiritual problem with the Scripture, the Holy Spirit must first change his mind and attitude to make him open and receptive to what we have to say. See our article How to respond to “I believe in God, but not in the Bible being the Word of God”.
[TOC] [Top of Page]
Claims of Inspiration
We don’t find the word “inerrancy” in the Bible, but as we stated above, the Scriptures claim to be inspired by God (2Tim 3:16, 2Pt 1:20-21), and since God can’t lie (Tt 1:2, Heb 6:18), it naturally follows that the Bible claims to be inerrant. The Bible also contains dozens upon dozens of statements by Jesus upholding the Scripture. He was continually quoting the law or prophets as the final word on a subject. In addition He also directly proclaimed the truth of the Word on many other occasions. For example, he prayed to the Father for us saying “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth” (Jn 17:17). Jesus said that the Bible did not merely contain and speak about truth, but that it is truth. Regarding the OT law, he said “I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished” (Mt 5:18). Finally, He also proclaimed that “the Scripture can’t be broken” (Jn 10:35). In addition, we have hundreds of claims by the prophets and apostles to the truthfulness and authority of the Scriptures. We also see that the Bible’s claim to be the Word of God is not limited to its role as an accurate historical record of God’s works, but along with the Holy Spirit, is also an instrument by which God accomplishes his will and purposes (Heb 4:12, Jms 1:18, 1Pt 1:23).
There are two primary schools of thought regarding how to respond to attacks against the Bible’s claim to be the inerrant Word of God. The first position is summed up by the statement “God said it, I believe it, that settles it,” (although it is inconsequential whether or not we believe it, since our belief has no bearing on its veracity). As such, the Word of God is never to be the object of our scrutiny or “higher criticism”, but instead, it is by the standard of the Word of God that the Holy Spirit scrutinizes us. Others appeal to Peter’s first epistle which exhorts us to always be ready to give a defense of the hope that is in us (1Pt 3:15). I don’t see these two thoughts as being mutually exclusive, but as being complementary. We should constantly examine the Scriptures, understanding its rich language of contrasts and paradoxes in order to be prepared to defend our faith. In that spirit, let’s continue the article by looking at the history of the doctrine of inerrancy and the canon.
[TOC] [Top of Page]
History of Canonicity and Inerrancy
The Hebrew Scriptures, our Old Testament (OT), was translated into Greek (the Septuagint) in the late 3rd century BC, so the OT canon was set prior to this time. The Jewish rabbis stated in the Talmud (Jewish oral tradition) that following the death of the last prophets Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi, the Holy Spirit left Israel. Thus, Malachi was the last inspired book of the OT and its canon was declared closed.
The New Testament (NT) developed during the 2nd, 3rd and 4th centuries AD in response to heretics such as Marcion, who were developing their own canons. From the first councils, most of our current NT books were included as authoritative scripture. The NT was formed from various councils, primarily in the third and fourth centuries. In the second century, the heretic, Marcion was making his own canon. Marcion was anti-Jewish, viewing the God of the Jews as inferior to the God of Christianity, so he completely rejected the OT. In his NT, he removed any relationship between Jesus and the OT from the Gospels, and even included several Gnostic writings. The church fathers then felt it necessary to formally recognize a true canon. The church father Irenaeus is believed to be the first to issue an official list (approx 20 books) in response to Marcion. The first list containing the 27 books of the NT was issued by the Bishop of Alexandria about the mid-fourth century. Toward the end of the century, the council of Hippo (393 AD) followed with the same list. The canon was "officially" closed a few years later at the council of Carthage in 397 AD (other later councils recognized the same 27 books). Actually, there were only a handful of NT books that were in question. Hebrews (unknown author), James ("apparent" conflict with Paul’s teaching of salvation by grace alone), 2nd Peter (different writing style from 1st Peter - written by scribe), 2nd & 3rd John (referred to writer as elder rather than apostle - Peter was also called elder, so resolved), Jude (referred to a couple of non-canon books - resolved since even Paul quoted from other sources), and Revelation (a local cult also taught thousand year reign of Christ - teaching was accepted by most early church fathers, so the objection was dropped).
During the debates, then throughout the Middle Ages and the Reformation, the accuracy and authority of the canonized books were not questioned. This thinking changed in the mid-seventeenth century with the arrival of the Enlightenment (aka the Age of Reason), when God-centered religion began being replaced by man-centered philosophies. Human reason was elevated above divine revelation as the philosophers launched critiques and began rejecting the truth of the Bible and traditional Christian doctrine. Relying on weak philosophical presuppositions and arguments rather than sound historical research, these modern liberal critics ignored or rejected the traditional views which have been overwhelmingly held by the church fathers and leading scholars for almost two millennia, claiming to have bridged the time, language, geographical and cultural gap to finally "discover the truth" about the Bible and the mental processes of the authors who were eyewitnesses to the events. For more information, see our article on Modern Bible Criticism.
In response to these liberal critics, the church began developing what eventually became known as the doctrine of inerrancy. The word inerrant was not used prior to the 19th century simply because, prior to the Enlightenment and subsequent development of liberal theology, the doctrine was not needed.
[TOC] [Top of Page]
Objections to the Doctrine of Inerrancy
Modern critics claim the book was written by men, not by God.
This is an attack on the Inspiration of the Bible. Anyone who has done any serious Bible study should be able to rule this out. I think the major arguments against the Bible being written by men is the unity and fulfilled prophecy. The sixty six books of the Bible were written over a span of about 1500 years, on several continents, in three languages, by dozens of authors from all walks of life. Only by divine inspiration could the scripture be in such harmony. There have also been approximately 2000 prophecies fulfilled without a single error (including about 400 by Jesus alone). Odds are astronomically past the point of impossibility of these happening by chance.
Modern critics claim the Bible is full of errors and contradictions.
As we’ve stated in a related article, Is the Bible the Word of God, most people making this claim are simply parroting what they’ve heard from others. Having seldom, if ever, studied the Bible, most could not point out a “perceived” error if asked. That said, there are many difficult passages in the Bible, but most can be resolved with careful study of the context. Many difficulties stem from language translation limitations, such as when an exact English (or other modern language) equivalent may not exist. A related challenge is that Greek or Hebrew slang could change from generation to generation (anyone with teenagers can attest). In each case, a proper understanding of the original language can resolve the situation. Another common claim involves historical “errors”. Most have been cleared by new archaeological discoveries, so there is no reason to doubt that the remaining ones will not be also. It is also important to note that no archaeological discovery has ever confirmed an alleged Biblical error. In general, critics tend to classify any difficulty (anything not fully understood) as an error. In a court of law, the more cross-examination a piece of evidence is subject to, the more weight it carries as fact. Nothing throughout history has stood up to as many attacks as the Bible.
Finally, many supposed errors are simply an issue of faulty presuppositions. Many persons reject any miraculous event on the basis of believing only what can be scientifically proven. This is usually a spiritual issue rather than an intellectual one, since a true scientific method must be rejected as invalid if it refuses to consider a possible outcome before it even begins.
Modern critics claim the manuscripts are unreliable due to errors by scribes.
Many critics concede the inerrancy of the original autographa, but raise two basic objections to the accuracy of the surviving manuscripts. This is an assault on the accuracy of the transmission of the Scriptures. They argue that major errors have been introduced by the scribes as the manuscripts were reproduced by hand. They also question that, since the original documents no longer exist, how we can know their exact content when we have a time gap between the oldest extant manuscripts and the originals. The doctrine of inerrancy applies only to the original documents, but Biblical apologists also address the transmission issue so that we may have confidence in the accuracy of our modern manuscripts.
The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls did much to silence the transmission objections. We now possessed existing manuscripts dating within a few years of some of the original documents (compared to 1200 years for Plato and 1400 years for Aristotle). The DSS verified the accuracy of the previously oldest known manuscripts, which dated about a thousand years later. In addition, we have the surviving writings of many of the Church fathers from the second and third centuries. If all the extant manuscripts were lost, we would be able to recreate all but a dozen or so verses from the quotes within the Church father’s writings.
Regarding the transmission methods (how the content of the original documents were transmitted to the Scriptures we have today), the scribes had such a system of checks built into their method (counting each character, calculating the middle character etc) that the Jewish Rabbis accepted the newer copies as having the same authority as the originals. There were some copyist discrepancies, but most were misspelled words, or adding minor clarifications, none of which affected any minor doctrine, much less a major one. If we had only a few surviving copies, it would be difficult to determine the original wording of the original document, but with the sheer volume of thousands of existing ancient manuscripts in the original Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic languages, scholars can actually determine the original wording with a high degree of accuracy, finding and correcting any errors that had been introduced. Therefore, we can be assured that modern Bible translators can produce highly accurate word-for-word and/or thought-for-thought reproductions of the original inspired Word of God. Although no Bible translation is perfect (or final, as new textual resources become available), we know that God uses imperfect people and things to accomplish His will for His honor and glory.
[TOC] [Top of Page]
Canon of the Bible
We’ve already discussed the history of the Biblical canon, so now we’ll look at the method in which it was formed. We mentioned that the word canon means measuring stick or rod, thus a canonized book is the standard by which all other teachings are measured. We also remarked that the OT canon was set at least a couple of centuries before Christ. The constant confirming by Jesus and the apostles of the authority of the OT scriptures only reinforced this fact. Modern critics however, question whether the correct books were included in the NT of the Bible.
Critics argue that the canonized books of the NT were handpicked by men, that is, men gave the scripture its authority. The Roman Catholic position is that the canon is an infallible set of infallible books, due to the infallibility of the Catholic Church. In this view, the church “created” or “determined” the canon, and therefore shares equal authority with the Scriptures. Classical Protestantism denies this view, asserting that the church merely “discovered, recognized and accepted” the inherent infallibility and authority of books of the canon. That is, the authority of the scriptures does not depend on men, but men only "recognized" which scriptures were authoritative. The scriptures would have been authoritative whether the councils had recognized them or not. Furthermore, God, through the Holy Spirit, providentially guided the councils to insure the proper books were included or excluded.
Criterions for Recognizing a Canonical Book
The various church fathers and councils subjected each book to a series of conditions required for recognition as a divinely inspired writing. In recognizing whether a book should be included in the canon, the church fathers primarily used five prerequisites.
- It must be authoritative (inspired). It needed to have the sense of saying "Thus said the Lord" (OT) or "Verily, I say unto you" (NT).
- It must be written or endorsed by a prophet (OT) or an apostle (NT), who were confirmed by acts of God. Examples of non-apostle writings sanctioned by an apostle are Mark (Peter) and Luke (Paul).
- It must be authentic, telling the truth about God, and possessing harmony with previous revelation (books about which there was no doubt).
- It must be dynamic, employing the power of God to change lives.
- It must be received and accepted by the people of God (under the divine illumination of the Holy Spirit).
Are there Lost Books of the Bible?
Critics and the media (particularly around Christmas and Easter) seem to always “discover” some lost book that should have been included in the canon. Most of these are the heretic Gnostic documents written in the second and third centuries by unknown authors using an apostle’s name to make them appear authentic (the Gospel of Jim Bob probably would not receive a wide reading). The media allege that “thousands of books” were considered for the canon, so what are the odds that the 27 chosen books are the correct ones. In reality, of all the books that were rejected, only a few such as 1st Clement, The Didache, and The Shepherd of Hermes, received serious consideration, and were excluded since they were not written by an apostle, and even the writers themselves acknowledged their authority to be inferior to that of the apostles. We mentioned in the History section above that, even a few of the canonical books were subjected to some doubt at one time due to the strict conditions placed on them, so it’s highly doubtful that any un-inspired book would have been included. In the case of the media’s heavily promoted Gnostic books, none can pass even one of the five criterions for canonization.
On a personal note, it is hard for me to believe that God would have been so precise in revealing Himself to man through the divine inspiration of the Holy Scriptures and not lend some guidance to the men who received the canon.
[TOC] [Top of Page]