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How can we know for sure?

I discuss the doctrine of Inerrancy in the context of the debate between Protestants and Catholics.

Process for Deriving the Doctrine | The Foundation of Inerrancy | Objections | Another View of Inerrancy


Inerrancy of the Bible

Both Catholics and evangelical, fundamental Protestants accept the doctrine of the inerrancy of the Bible. By this is meant that the Bible is inspired by the Holy Spirit and that it is true in all it asserts. But how do we know that these claims are true?

Protestants have no basis for claiming the Bible is inerrant. Instead they must be content to merely claim that the Bible is:

  1. Trustworthy — That the Bible is a trustworthy source of knowledge in the subjects it deals with, and
  2. Effective — That the writers of the Bible were (1) selected by God for that ministry, and (2) trained by God according to his plan so that their words are, as a result, effective. Some of this training involved supernatural events.

As I will show, Protestants are unable to provide a framework in which they can effectively develop the doctrine of inerrancy. This is a consequence of their rejection of the authority of church tradition. As a result they must read the Bible in the same way as they would read any other historical book and on this basis they must content themselves with merely accepting that the claims of the Bible are sound. Although they will insist otherwise, the New Testament itself can never be used to claim its own inerrancy, nor does it do so.


Process for Deriving the Doctrine

How is the doctrine of inerrancy derived? The first few steps of the process for determining whether or not the Bible is inerrant are the same for both Protestantism and Catholicism. These common steps are:

  1. We start by considering the Bible as we would any other ancient text. We validate that the copies are accurate and that what we have in our possession is basically what the writers wrote.

  2. We then read what it says and determine whether it appears to be a factual account of what happened historically. We compare the text with other historical records and with archaeological evidence. If this evidence demonstrates the basic trustworthiness of the Bible (which it does), then we continue on to the next step.

  3. We believe the Biblical accounts as being true and commit ourselves to living our lives based on the truths we discover.

At this point the process diverges for Catholicism and Protestantism. Let's look at the Catholic version first:

  1. We learn from the pages of the New Testament (which we don't yet consider as inerrant) that Jesus intended to establish an infallible Churchwhich was to be the authority on matters of faith and doctrine. A key passage is: "You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church" (Matthew 16:18).

  2. The Church then determined and decreed that the Bible is inerrant and Catholics accept this on faith.

Now let's consider the Protestant version:

  1. Once we know that the Bible is trustworthy, we can look within its pages to learn whether or not it is infallible. Passages such as "all Scripture is God-breathed" (2 Timothy 3:16) are cited as evidence.

The Foundation of Inerrancy

In the Protestant view of inerrancy it is necessary to first place our faith in a particular interpretation of certain Biblical passages before we can know that the Bible is inerrant. We have to ask:

  1. Do the passages used to support the doctrine of inerrancy really claim that the New Testament is inerrant? And can a document's claim to inerrancy be used as evidence of its own inerrancy? (If this were true then the Book of Mormon would also be inerrant since it claims to be.)

  2. Why do we even need to know that the Bible is inerrant at all? After all, we didn't need to know the Bible was inerrant when we examined the passages interpreted as defining the doctrine of inerrancy.

  3. If we can determine something as important as the doctrine of inerrancy without knowing that the Bible is inerrant, why can't we determine other things as well?

In the Catholic view of inerrancy, it is not necessary to first place our faith in a particular interpretation of certain Biblical passages before we can know that the Bible is inerrant. If this were not the case we might be tempted to give weight to these two questions:

  1. If we can determine something as important as Christ's purpose and plan for his Church without knowing that the Bible is inerrant, why can't we determine other things as well?

  2. Why do we even need to know that the Bible is inerrant at all? After all, we didn't need to know this when we determined God's plan for the Church?

These questions are answered when we consider that the Church (the apostles) wrote the New Testament and established the practice of the early church under the tutelage of the Holy Spirit. So the real issue is whether we can trust the Church in properly representing the history and teachings of Christ, and in its role as the visible Church on earth. Determining the Church's credentials does not depend on first determining whether or not the New Testament is inerrant, but rather on whether its writings are trustworthy sources of truth.

In Catholicism these questions are easily answered due to the unbroken chain of teaching authority which can answer these questions. Even Protestants accept this in part when they adopt the Catholic Church's teaching of the Trinity (for example). Certainly the Bible itself does not provide the modern Trinitarian formulation — it has been developed over the centuries before the Protestant Reformation.

In Protestantism these questions remain unanswered. The doctrine of Biblical inerrancy cannot be determined conclusively — it is merely assumed or, as with the doctrine of the Trinity, it is taken as is from the creeds of the early church. But there is no justification for Protestants to "borrow" doctrines from the early church in this piecemeal fashion — they should accept all old historical doctrines if they accept even one. But of course, no Protestant would ever do this.


Objections

Both Catholics and Protestants have objections to the way in which the other determines that the Bible is inerrant. For thoroughness I'm including both the objections and a typical answer given to address the objection.

Objections by Catholics

Objections by Protestants


Another View of Inerrancy

There is another way to understand the doctrine of inerrancy. The question of inerrancy is whether or not we can trust the Bible to be free from error. But this question depends on the more foundational question of whether or not we can trust the apostles and writers of the Bible.

The early Christians trusted the apostles to give them a historically accurate account of what Jesus did and said. They didn't require a doctrine of "the inerrancy of the apostles" to do this. Jesus selected his disciples and trained them to carry the banner and to start his church.

The apostles made decisions based on what they had learned during their training with Jesus. And, yes, the Holy Spirit was involved in every step of the process as he is today. But the apostles weren't "inerrant." They made mistakes and helped each other figure out the correct course as they evangelized people and established the early church.

Others, such as Paul, who were not part of the original twelve disciples of Jesus were either involved with the apostles from very early, or in the case of Paul, instructed by Jesus Himself. This was their authority. They were trained by Jesus or those who had been with Him; they were tested to prove that they had what it took to establish the church; and Jesus trusted them to do the job and passed the banner on to them.

The Bible describes this process in a lot of detail but it is not comprehensive in every detail. In the same way that the apostles started the early church and passed the banner on to the next generation of church leaders, orthodox Christian teachers passed-it on over subsequent generations. Yes, there have been many false teachers over the centuries, but this has been discovered by comparing their teaching and practices with the writings of the Early Church Fathers and the writers of the Bible. So today, we have a rather large collection of writings to help keep us from doctrinal error. In addition, we have the reflection of great men of God over the course of history who have provided important insights.

The Bible is inerrant in the same way that Paul's or Peter's real-life speeches were inerrant — they contain the truth about God and salvation. Really the Bible is just a way for us who live centuries after the historical days of the apostolic era to understand the message and the truth of God's plan of redemption. The Bible is inerrant for two reasons:

Many of the cultural issues that we read about in the Bible cannot be completely understood by us today. But in reading about these events in the Bible, we gain insight as we try to understand what it must have been like for those living at the time. In our zeal to understand God's commands and will for us today, we have created a body of commentaries on the Bible just as the Israelites did with the Talmud and other writings.

We should return to the simplicity of the gospel as we read and study the Bible. As we read the New Testament, we should seek to understand what the people of the day understood the words to mean and should apply the lessons to our own lives and to our modern world. In doing so we should accept the historical church teachings (such as the Nicene Creed) to keep us from inventing new doctrines and distorting others by giving a private interpretation to scripture.