Isn’t Belief in Inerrancy a Case of Faith over Fact

By: Dr. John Ankerberg and Dr. John Weldon; ©2012
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Isn’t Belief in Inerrancy a Case of Faith over Fact?

Doesn’t everyone see things differently?

In previous articles in this series we have stated there are no errors or genuine contradictions in the biblical text, but we have not fully explained how we arrive at our conclusion. In this article we will examine some of the principles for dealing with alleged contradictions and errors in the Bible. Why is it important for us to be aware of the claims to alleged contradictions in the Bible or the fact that they can be resolved by giving careful attention to the text? Because far too many people have taken for granted the claims of critics that the biblical accounts have errors or conflict and are thus unreliable, and that therefore the Bible itself must be called into question and cannot be believed. To prove that the Bible does not err or conflict is to give evidence of the historical care and accuracy of those who wrote it. And if the biblical writers were careful writers, then what they say can be trusted.

In the following material we will employ several principles for dealing with alleged discrepancies. Here we briefly describe five common “rules” or observations which the reader should keep in mind. There are others, but these primary ones are given to illustrate that one cannot read Scripture at a surface level only and then logically conclude that contradiction or error exists. Regrettably, religious and secular critics of Christianity, such as atheists, Muslims, Mormons, and humanists, do this all too frequently; e.g., simple differences are claimed as genuine contradictions. But in doing so, the critics characteristically uncover their own methodological errors or biases rather than any scriptural error or contradiction. Indeed, “to use the divergences to cast doubt on the historicity of events on which [all the Gospels] obviously agree is a strange sort of historical methodology.”[1] As Dr. Wilbur Smith points out, “Statements directly and positively contradictory to the main point at issue would undoubtedly justify our rejecting it; but where the main point is admitted by every witness, slighter divisions are not only perfectly consistent with its truth, but are of the utmost importance for establishing it.”[2]

The vast majority of alleged contradictions or errors result from three factors: 1) too cursory an examination; 2) the faulty methodologies of the critics; or 3) the biblical authors’ selective use of data. Careful analysis invariably reveals that no contradiction or error exists. Thus, concerning something like the resurrection narratives, typically the most abused and subject to attack by critics:

If, after these one hundred years of the sharpest, bitterest, most unmerciful criticism of these records, a criticism more terrifically severe than any other documents have endured, the Resurrection narrative still stands unshaken, unmutilated, unharmed, men ought to be persuaded that the things here spoken of are according to the truth….[3]

In fact, given the principles listed below, almost all the alleged contradictions or errors in the Bible are resolved merely by a careful evaluation of the Bible itself. This should tell us something. As Dr. Craig L. Blomberg (PhD, University of Aberdeen), Associate Professor of New Testament, Denver Seminary, and author of The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, observes for the Gospels, “Virtually all the so-called contradictions in the Gospels can be readily harmonized.”[4]

Principle One: The proper definition of a contradiction or error must be observed.

Many people misunderstand the proper definition of terms such as “contradiction” and “error.” This is one reason why misunderstanding exists when it comes to alleged errors and contradictions in the Scriptures. The oft-repeated claim of skeptics that there are “hundreds of contradictions” is a result of their failure to abide by proper definitions. When a critic charges that there is an error or contradiction in Scripture the burden of proof rests upon him to prove his claim.

Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language (College Edition) defines “to contradict” as “1. a) to assert the opposite of (what someone else has said).” This same dictionary defines “error” as 1. the state of believing what is untrue, incorrect, or wrong. 2. a wrong belief; incorrect opinion.” The dictionary points out that “error implies deviation from truth, accuracy, correctness, right, etc.”

The “principle of noncontradiction” is defined in Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary (2d ed., 1977) as “the axiom that truth and falsity are never inherent in the same thing simultaneously in the same sense.”

If a violation of the above definitions can be proven in Scripture, then a genuine contradiction or error has occurred. This has never been done.

Principle Two: The reader or critic must be fair with the biblical writers and grant them the courtesy he grants to other writers.

As we saw, one rule for examining ancient manuscripts is to assume that the writers were accurate unless sufficient reason exists to disqualify them. This involves no more than the common courtesy of giving the writer the benefit of the doubt until proven otherwise. In 2,000 years, the New Testament writers have not been proven to be dishonest or the victims of deception. As the noted biblical scholar F. F. Bruce observes,

There is, I imagine, no body of literature in the world that has been exposed to the stringent analytical study that the four Gospels have sustained for the past 200 years. This is not something to be regretted; it is something to be accepted with satisfaction. Scholars today who trust the Gospels as credible historical documents do so in the full light of this analytical study, not by closing their minds to it.[5]

What more could critics want?

Given such a lengthy span of time in which to discredit the New Testament, the fact that it has not been discredited would certainly indicate its essential integrity. Thus, rather than presuppose error or even fraud, fair-minded scholarship assumes that the writer is being honest until proven otherwise. Dr. Arndt argues as follows:

Fairness demands that, when we meet two seemingly contradictory statements in an author, we do not exaggerate the differences, but make an honest endeavor to harmonize them. The a priori assumption must always be that the author has not contradicted himself. This rule is observed in dealing with secular authors. At what pains, for instance, have not editors been to bring about agreement between seemingly conflicting statements in the writings of Plato! The principle by which they were guided is that no contradiction must be assumed unless all attempts at harmonizing fail. That is in accordance with the dictates of fairness. Let but the same amount of goodwill be manifested in the treatment of the difficult passages in the Bible, and the charge that it contains irreconcilable discrepancies will no longer be heard.[6]

Principle Three: Informed study must be given to all relevant areas: original languages, history, culture, literary form, etc.

For example, the works of John W. Haley, William Arndt, and Gleason Archer collectively examine over a thousand alleged Bible discrepancies, almost all of which are adequately resolved by careful attention to relevant detail: original languages, immediate and larger contexts, geography, culture, sound principles of literary interpretation, archeological data, specialized use of terms, etc.

Thus, surface discrepancies should never be accepted as genuine errors without sufficient regard to the details of the text itself. It is crucial that an individual not be swayed by first impressions but that he be willing to make a thorough study of the alleged problem, because at times a good deal of study is necessary in order to resolve an apparent contradiction.

Unless one understands what an author has actually stated, he will be unable to interpret him properly. Such misunderstandings lead to false interpretations, which may subsequently lead to charges of contradiction or error.

Everyone knows that the Bible contains a wide variety of literary styles: historical narrative, prophecy, law, gospel, poetry, parable, apocalyptic, and many figurative uses of language: metaphor, hyperbole, simile, allegory, and others. But principles of interpretation that apply to one literary form do not always apply to another. For example, Gordon Fee, Professor of New Testament at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, and Douglas Stuart, Professor of Old Testament at Gordon Conwell, observe in How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth that different biblical genres require different exegetical questions and skills. They show how easy it is to misunderstand the biblical text:

At its highest level, of course, exegesis requires knowledge of many things… the biblical languages; the Jewish, Semitic, and Hellenistic backgrounds; how to determine the original text when the manuscripts have variant readings; the use of all kinds of primary sources and tools…. The key to good exegesis, and therefore to a more intelligent reading of the Bible, is to learn to read the text carefully and to ask the right questions of the text. One of the best things one could do in this regard would be to read Mortimer J. Adler’s How to Read a Book (1940, rev. ed., with Charles Van Doren, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1972). Our experience over many years in college and seminary teaching is that many people simply do not know how to read well. To read or study the Bible intelligently demands careful reading, and that includes learning to ask the right questions of the text.[7]

For example, even the simple name of an apostle can present apparent contradictions. The apostle Peter is given the following names in Scripture: Peter, Cephas, Simeon, Simon, Simon Peter, Simon Bar-jona, and Simon son of Jonas. To confuse them with someone else may lead to a seeming contradiction.

Fee and Stuart continue to illustrate the importance of careful study by offering the following examples:

It simply makes a difference in understanding to know the personal background of Amos, Hosea, or Isaiah, or that Haggai prophesied after the exile, or to know the messianic expectations of Israel when John the Baptist and Jesus appeared on the scene, or to understand the differences between the cities of Corinth and Philippi and how these affect the churches in each. One’s reading of Jesus’ parables is greatly enhanced by knowing something about the customs of Jesus’ day. Surely it makes a difference in understanding to know that the “penny” (KJV), or denarius, offered to the workers in Matthew 20:1-16 was the equivalent of a full day’s wage. Even matters of topography are important. One who was raised in the American West—or East for that matter—must be careful not to think of “the mountains that surround Jerusalem” (Ps. 125:2) in terms of his or her own experience of mountains![8]

Principle Four: Mere differences do not equal contradictions.

All writers have the right to select those facts that fit their purposes and disregard others. Critics who will not accept this principle are applying a standard to the biblical writers that they would apply to no one else, including themselves. For example, Numbers 25:9 declares that a total of 24,000 people died in a plague of divine judgment. When citing this incident the apostle Paul declares that 23,000 of them died “in one day” (1 Corinthians 10:8). Clearly the other thousand took longer to die than one day. Paul’s emphasis here is on the suddenness of the judgment. Yet many critics have cited these verses as a biblical contradiction, either not reading the texts carefully or neglecting the fact that mere differences do not necessarily equal contradictions or errors.

John W. Haley discusses this cause of apparent discrepancies, which is particularly relevant for the resurrection narratives:

Many other apparent discrepancies, of a historical character, are occasioned by the adoption, by the several authors, of different principles and methods of arrangement. One writer follows the strict chronological order; another disposes his materials according to the principle of association of ideas. One writes history minutely and consecutively; another omits, condenses, or expands to suit his purpose…. The methods of the several authors being thus different, it cannot but be that their narratives, when compared, will present appearances of dislocation, deficiency, redundancy, anachronism, or even antagonism—one or all of these…. Nor is an author’s omission to mention an event equivalent to a denial of that event. It should also be remembered that a writer may imply customary phraseology, involving a historical inaccuracy, yet not be chargeable with falsehood, inasmuch as he does not intend to teach anything in reference to the matter. For example, a historian might incidentally speak of the “battle of Bunker Hill,” while he knows perfectly well the battle was fought on Breed’s Hill.[9]

Principle Five: The limitations on human knowledge should be granted.

Over the centuries, biblical critics have frequently offered “proof” of error in Scripture by appealing to various names, numbers, dates, events, etc., which were found in the Bible alone. In other words, because no extra-biblical confirmation could be found an error was assumed. Examples include the civilization of the Hittites (Gen. 10:15), King Sargon (Isa. 20:1), and Darius the Mede (Dan. 5:31).

But to be fair, one must assume that an author who has already established his credibility remains credible even when something he has said cannot directly be proven from other sources. Time and again the biblical authors have proven their accuracy. It is thus far more logical to assume that further information will sustain their credibility than destroy it. Indeed, this is exactly what we find. Every alleged error or contradiction in Scripture has been proven a truthful statement once sufficient archeological, linguistic, or other information has been discovered. This gives one great confidence that problems currently unresolvable for lack of data will eventually have a similar outcome.


  1. Newman, “Miracles and the Historicity,” in John W. Montgomery, ed., Evidence for Faith: Deciding the God Question (Doppler and Sons Ltd, 2004), p. 294.
  2. Wilbur Smith, The Supernaturalness of Christ (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1974, rpt.), p. 205.
  3. Ibid., p. 221.
  4. Craig L. Blomberg, “Where Do We Start Studying Jesus?” in Michael J. Wilkins and J. P. Moreland, eds., Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus (Grand Rapids, 1995), p. 44.
  5. F. F. Bruce, Foreword in Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1987),p. ix.
  6. W. Arndt, Does the Bible Contradict Itself? A Discussion of Alleged Contradictions in the Bible (St. Louis: Concordia, 5th ed. rev. 1955), p. vi.
  7. Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth: A Guide to Understanding the Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1982), pp. 22-23.
  8. Ibid., p. 23.
  9. John W. Haley, Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1982, rpt.), pp. 9-11.

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