What of those who claim that the Bible contains errors and discrepancies either in its internal unity or in its scientific or historical claims? Also, what of those who claim that the Biblical books were assembled, revised, and rewritten through the ages resulting in our modern Biblical text?
Largely, the claims that seek to refute the inerrancy of scripture fall into one of two categories. The first is that of simple inconsistencies that are seen on a cursory examination of scripture and the second falls into the category of the study of source criticism or what is often referred to as “Higher Biblical Criticism.”
The first category is more simply explained than the second. Many, in seeking to discredit the Bible have taken to seeking out areas of apparent discontinuity and have argued that there are errors within the text. Yet, in each of these cases, a thorough study of the passages in question as well of the broader contexts of those passages, will serve to nullify any claim to Biblical error. For every objection to the internal unity of the Bible, evangelical Christian scholars have set forth a reasonable and legitimate response which demonstrates the unity of the texts.
This first category also includes those who would look to current historical, scientific, or archaeological data and conclude that the Bible is in error in terms of the events that it relates. Once again, this demonstrates the limitations of modern science. Scientific and archaeological premises change from discovery to discovery and we cannot expect to rewrite our understanding according to the whim of these scientists. In addition, scientists are relying only on their own ability to observe the world around them, an ability that has been marred and weakened by the fall of man. Scripture is given by God, who has not been affected by the fall, thus it is relayed to us by the one who we ought to appeal to as the highest authority by which we understand the things in the world around us.
The second category is more involved, and that is in terms of the question of source criticism, a theory that dates back to the early eighteenth century and a French physician named Jean Astruc. His suggestion was that the ancient Biblical texts were not unique manuscripts written by one individual over a period of time, but were instead compilations of the writings of many assembled together to form the whole we have today. In the case of Astruc, he largely divided up the Pentateuch according to the use of God’s name and assigned each related text to a different tradition, assuming then that our Biblical account was combined from these source traditions to form a kind of amalgam that was revised and edited eventually into a final form.
While there were others who built on Astruc’s hypothesis, the major proponents of this principle were two German scholars named Julius Wellhausen and Karl Heinrich Graf who lived in the 19th century. Their position, called the Documentary Hypothesis theory, went as far as to suggest many contributors, later redactors, and then editors of the Biblical texts, constantly revising the text as history progressed. This theory has formed the basis for much of Biblical critical scholarship, essentially treating the Bible as they would a humanly written document.
To understand this challenge to scriptural inerrancy, one must understand the historical context behind the Graf-Wellhausen hypothesis. In the early 19th century, a philosopher named G.W.F. Hegel rose to prominence. Hegel argued that all things are constantly in the process of change, something he referred to as the “passing of opposites.” Opposite positions were constantly colliding with one another and as they collided, a synthesis would result. This process, Hegel called the “dialectic.” As a result of this presupposition, Hegel argued that this process applied to all things—including religion. Though his book on the Philosophy of Religion was published posthumously, it was a compilation of his lecture notes on the subject, notes that he taught to his students for many years. This position implies that religion began as the primitive worship of rocks and trees and as the people grew more sophisticated, so too, the religion became more spiritual, and hence a development takes place. Carl Marx would apply Hegel’s philosophy to politics, Charles Darwin would apply Hegel’s philosophy to biology, and Graf and Wellhausen would apply Hegel’s philosophy to the development of scripture.
Aside from being based on a faulty presupposition, for when you have a religious text given by an omniscient God, there is hardly room for this kind of theological revision, the principles upon which source criticism is based are faulty. First, we have already spoken of how they see use of different names of God to signify different traditions of authorship of the Biblical text. Yet, the reality is that the different names of God are used to describe different aspects or attributes of God’s character. Thus, depending on the context of the event that is being recorded, there is often variation in the name of God being used to reflect the activity that is taking place.
The second area of attack for source critics is that of repeated narratives, where we find a very similar story taking place in the lives of two people. First of all, this view simply ignores the rhetorical tradition of the Jewish people, where repetition was deliberately used as a mnemonic tool and to draw theological connections between two similar events. Neither of the events are manufactured as the source critics suppose, but in the providence of God, there were often similarities between two events so that the story could be told in such a way as to bring out those similarities and draw that connection.
The third area of attack for the source critics is that of apparent discrepancies, something we have already discussed. The fourth approach is to look at varying writing styles, which is connected with the variance in the use of the names of God. Can one not consider that a single author is capable of writing in different ways and using different vocabulary at different points in his life or when describing different situations? The position of the source critics in this area is based solely on the premise that one writer will always write with the same writing style and will always utilize the same vocabulary and themes to get his point across. This simply is not so, either in modern writing or in writing from ancient times. The final area of attack is that of distinctive theologies seeming to show up in the context of certain texts and not in others. For the same reasons, this position fails as well. Theology is developed in the scriptures not by thesis and antithesis colliding, but by the gradual revelation of God to his people.
To some degree, all who study the Bible need to use some level of source criticism. There are more than 5000 full or partial manuscripts of the New Testament text alone, from which scholars have worked to discern the most accurate rendering of the original text. Texts must be compared and one must determine which is most reliable and which likely carries scribal errors (misspelled words, transposed words, fuller explanations given, etc…). Yet, this level of scholarship does not hold the authenticity of divine revelation in question, but simply seeks to sift through the wealth of evidence at hand for the purpose of most accurately presenting that which is divinely revealed in scripture. Those involved in the “Higher Critical” schools take things one step further, placing into doubt the divine origin of scripture and arbitrarily eliminating texts or theological concepts that do not agree with their Hegelian presuppositions.