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What Does it Mean to Say The Bible is Inerrant? – Dr. Robert Yarbrough

Home » What Does it Mean to Say The Bible is Inerrant? – Dr. Robert Yarbrough

 

Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Robert Yarbrough about the Bible’s divine origin, its truthfulness, and its reliability.

Conversation topics include:

  • What do we mean when we talk about the doctrine of inerrancy, and what don’t we mean?
  • How do we answer the charge that the doctrine of inerrancy is circular?
  • How do we answer the charge that the doctrine of inerrancy is a modern invention?
  • How important is the doctrine of inerrancy in relation to other doctrines such as the resurrection or deity of Christ?

Dr. Robert W. Yarbrough serves as professor of New Testament at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO. Dr. Yarbrough is the author of Clash of Visions: Populism and Elitism in New Testament Theology (Mentor, 2019). He also contributed The Letters to Timothy and Titus in the Pillar New Testament Commentary series (Eerdmans, 2018).

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Introduction (00:01):

Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.

Brian Arnold (00:17):

The Western church is facing a crisis of authority today as relativism rises in our nation. There’s things like “your truth” and “my truth,” but the question is—is there actual, capital T Truth: one universal meta-narrative, one truth claim that is the truth claim for Christians? That’s always been found in God’s Word, in the Bible, as we talk about the Bible as God’s inerrant, infallible, sufficient, necessary, and powerful Word. But for many, that foundation is eroding, and we want to have confidence as Christians that when we say that God has spoken and we can believe that and stake our entire lives on it, that we’re right and that we can trust God’s Word. Today to talk with us about that issue is Dr. Robert Yarbrough, professor of New Testament at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri. Dr. Yarbrough has spent his career defending the Bible against the acids of biblical criticism and is one of evangelicalism’s foremost scholars on the topic of inerrancy. Dr. Yarbrough, I’m so glad you’re with us today.

Robert Yarbrough (01:19):

It’s wonderful to be here, Brian. Thank you.

Brian Arnold (01:22):

Our big question is going to be this—what does inerrancy mean? But before we get into what it means, I want you to explain to our listeners what inerrancy is and what it isn’t.

Robert Yarbrough (01:32):

Okay. Those are great questions. As to what it is, let me give just a quick summary. It’s a high view of Scripture, rather than a low view. And more positively, I can say three things about what it is. Number one, inerrancy is the approach to Scripture that Christ exhibited—from his temptation to when he hung on the cross, we can tell by the words that he’s recorded as saying that he trusted what the Scriptures say completely. Secondly, inerrancy is a belief in Scripture’s divine origin. We read in 2 Peter that men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. And this describes the prophecies that we find in Scripture, the prophetic statements that are there. And thirdly, inerrancy is an effect of an attribute of God. Since God is truthful, what he says are wholly reliable.

Robert Yarbrough (02:35):

So there very quickly are three things that inerrancy is. As to what it’s not…first, you know, Brian it’s not the whole saving gospel message. You could believe in inerrancy and you could be lost, or you could have doubts that this or that in the Bible is true, and you could still be saved. Secondly, it’s not a claim that any human being or any church has a monopoly on the correct interpretation of every verse in the Bible. Inerrancy is not an automatic solution to all doctrinal differences. It’s just a view of Scripture that allows us to grant to God—who has come to us, and spoken to us, and died for us in Jesus Christ—we grant to God the respect and the authority that he deserves. And thirdly, inerrancy is not a doctrine that we arrive at on our own. But rather when we trust in Christ, his Holy Spirit guides us into trust in Holy Scripture, that Jesus said, “when the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth.” And I think that includes the truth that God’s Word, written, is fully trustworthy.

Brian Arnold (03:46):

I think all that’s really helpful on the positive, and kind of the what it’s not side of the doctrine of inerrancy. Even rooting it in the character of God himself. God is true and trustworthy—then his words are going to be true and trustworthy as well. And we can be assured of their authenticity and their weight. Even thinking about the term itself inerrant kind of imposes that word err into the discussion. So how have those who have defended inerrancy classically understood…what are we talking about, even with the idea of errors as they pertained to Scripture?

Robert Yarbrough (04:23):

Well, you know, your original big question was what does inerrancy mean? And I think there we need to say, it means that everything that the Bible affirms, rightly interpreted, is true. And often that’s where people run into problems is because they’ll attach a meaning to something in the Bible that’s not true. And then they’ll say, well, that’s not true, so the Bible speaks that untruth here.

Brian Arnold (04:49):

What’s an example of that? I think that’s an important point.

Robert Yarbrough (04:53):

You know, here’s a real crass example: when I was a child, I heard somebody teaching that the mark of Cain was colored skin. And I think that interpretation is still out in some parts of the world. And that’s just not what the Bible taught or what it means. But if you think that’s what it means, then that’s obviously an area in the Bible. Or, you know, sometimes the Bible uses round numbers. So one Gospel say it was about the ninth hour. So, you know, nine or 10 in the morning, another one will say well it was about the 12th hour. So 11 or noon. So they didn’t have clocks. So we’re talking sometime between roughly nine and noon. You know, round numbers, if you push the numbers, you can say, well, there’s a contradiction, but that’s not really a contradiction in terms of historical reporting in ancient times. So there are a lot of those kinds of generic charges you can make that the Bible still holds its truth when you look at it in the right way.

Brian Arnold (05:58):

I think that’s…those qualifications are critically important. And in the classic document that kind of lays this out, The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy from 1978, lays these distinctions out. But I think a lot of people when they hear the doctrine, don’t really think of those caveats that are made.

Robert Yarbrough (06:16):

Well, you know, Brian, you can google The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, but just as important as that statement, you know, google The Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics, because after they did the inerrancy statement, they made a statement just as long about how you need to approach interpretation of the Bible. Because if you do approach it in the wrong sort of way, you’re going to go up some blind alleys that you’re not gonna be able to get out of.

Brian Arnold (06:46):

Well, they’re intricately woven together, aren’t they? I think that’s a good case that you’re making—is hermeneutics even has an impact and influence on the way we view the doctrine of inerrancy.

Robert Yarbrough (06:56):

Well, unquestionably, and you know, one of the most important hermeneutical points I touched on when I said inerrancy is not a doctrine we arrive at on our own. It really is something…It’s an in-house doctrine of the church. And I’m not saying it’s circular reasoning, but I’m saying it’s God’s word. And if we don’t know God in the way he’s given himself to be known through his Son, Jesus Christ, we’re going to have a hard time accepting his Word, because we don’t know the author.

Brian Arnold (07:29):

That’s right. That’s right. Let me say two things there that I think have come up. One, some of our listeners may not know what hermeneutics is. That’s kind of inside jargon as well. And that’s just interpreting the Bible correctly. Using the kind of means and methods we do to extrapolate what the text means. The second thing you brought up was circular reasoning. So I hear that charge brought up against a view of inerrancy a lot—kind of lay that out, and why you think it doesn’t hold against our view of inerrancy.

Robert Yarbrough (08:01):

Well, you know, all true statements, I suppose—they’re situated in a network of related truths, and hopefully they all fit together. So you have a circle of sort of counter-balancing truths. If they hold together and if they have some grounding, then that’s not circular reasoning, that’s just coherent. But the charge of circular reasoning would be—if you assume something, let’s just say that…go back to Cain, that the mark of Cain is the color of his skin. And then you went to the Bible and every time that you found something that you could relate to that, you say, “see, that proves what that means.” But you imported that meaning, and then you’re using circular reasoning to support it. That’s the kind of circular reasoning that I don’t think we need to worry about when it comes to inerrancy, because I started out with Christ, Christ happened and puts himself in the Bible.

Robert Yarbrough (09:07):

And then we see how that plays out in the biblical authority structure of other biblical writers and other figures—Old Testament and New Testament. So that’s a coherent picture, but it’s not vicious circular reasoning. It’s just…it all fits together because it’s true. And if we were looking for a point of initial validation, how about that God came from heaven and spoke, and God came from heaven in the flesh and gave testimony to himself that was written down. So when you put those pieces together, yes, it forms…I don’t…call it what you will, a circle, a domain, a square, any shape you want, but it is coherent. And it does connect with space, time, and matter reality.

Brian Arnold (09:55):

I think that’s a really helpful way to kind of even get out of that circular argument charge that’s brought against people who hold the doctrine of inerrancy. When they think about all those components together, it gives a really rock solid foundation for our understanding of the doctrine. One of the things—my background is in church history, that’s my academic training. And so one of the charges I hear brought up against inerrancy all the time is that it’s a new invention in the church that some of these great Princetonian authors, people like B.B. Warfield, invented the doctrine. It kind of superimposed on the church and now it’s a hill that we’re dying on. But the historic church did not hold that position. What do you say to something like that?

Robert Yarbrough (10:37):

Well, Brian, if you’re in church history, then you’ll know the name John Woodbridge.

Brian Arnold (10:41):

Yep.

Robert Yarbrough (10:41):

And he wrote a little book. I mean, you could probably go on google and order it for $6 or something. It’s called Biblical Authority: Infallibility and Inerrancy in the Christian Tradition. It’s a little book, but he shows how a high view of Scripture, i.e. inerrancy, goes all the way back to the time of Augustine and before, so third or fourth century. And then there’s another little book by someone called Michael Graves…maybe a medium book. And it’s called The Inspiration and Interpretation of Scripture: What the Early Church Can Teach Us. And he goes back to the second, third, fourth century. And in chapter five, he has findings like this—I’m going to quote him—”Events, narrated in the Bible actually happened. Scripture does not have any errors in its facts. Scripture is not in conflict with pagan learning.” (In other words, it’s not just some esoteric, in-house set of claims.) And finally, “The original text of Scripture is authoritative.” So those are statements that resonate very strongly with what you call the “old Princeton view of inerrancy,” but they’re not from old Princeton. They’re from the second and third century. So I think in a word, the idea or the claim that inerrancy has only recently appeared in church vocabulary…while it may be technically true if you take the English word inerrancy, if you go to ancient languages like Greek and Latin, or German or Dutch, that word was being used, those concepts were being used much earlier than the Princeton school.

Brian Arnold (12:20):

Absolutely. And, you know, Augustine, as you mentioned, had a very high view of Scripture, even saying about the canonical books, “of these alone do I most firmly believe that the authors were completely free from error,” affirming his view of that. And one of my favorite stories, even from the early church, is Augustine writing a letter to Jerome—and Jerome was the translator of the Vulgate for those who may not know—and Augustine actually is asking him to stop his translation, because when the people heard his translation of Jonah 4 and he changed the word for gourd, I believe it is, the city almost erupted in a violent outbreak, because he had changed the words of Scripture. So that tells me a couple of things. Not only did they have a high view of the doctrine of inerrancy, saying that you can’t change a single word of the Bible, but one of the things I used this to talk to my students and even in churches about is—people knew the Word of God so well that when a single word was changed, they knew it and were upset by it.

Robert Yarbrough (13:21):

Absolutely. Yeah. And I’m not sure—it might’ve been Peter Brown, or it might’ve been some other well-known church historian, but they were talking about Augustine and, you know, the accolades he gets for having written The Confessions or maybe the City of God, as I said, the most important book that he wrote actually was his commentary on the Gospels, because he understood the kinds of charges that academicians were making against the truth of the gospel—he was an academician himself—and this was a life work. And he showed, to his satisfaction, that the Gospels did not have errors and did not contradict each other. And this church historian said for a thousand years after Augustine, nobody in the West challenged the truth of the canonical Gospels, because he had laid down such a strong defense for their full accuracy.

Brian Arnold (14:17):

Well, and he did that, it seems like, for so many other areas of the faith as well, and in setting the course for Western theology. But even mentioning, kind of the Gospels and his view of inerrancy, he even said, “I did not hesitate to suppose that either the manuscript is faulty or the translator has not caught the meaning of what was said, or I myself have failed to understand it.” So if he finds an issue with Scripture, I love the humility that even Augustine said—I will assume the problem is with me before I even assume that the problem is in the Bible itself.

Robert Yarbrough (14:52):

That’s so…that’s very wise.

Brian Arnold (14:54):

Well, and that’s how he set the trajectory for so long, I think. He was able to really bring a lot of clarity to those issues and then stand firm in his doctrinal convictions when it came to important things like the view of Scripture.

Robert Yarbrough (15:08):

Yes.

Brian Arnold (15:08):

One of the things that I think is really helpful for our listeners, many of them may be either new to the faith or really seeking to grow in their understanding of the Christian faith, is an idea of doctrinal triage. And we had Dr. Gavin Ortlund on recently to talk about his new book on doctrinal triage. Obviously that concept really came to the fore through the thinking and writing of Dr. Albert Mohler. And you say something in an article that you’d written, and you even mentioned this a little bit in passing earlier, about where we can kind of think of putting the idea of inerrancy into a category of triage. You say this, “inerrancy is not an essential doctrine in the same sense that Christ’s resurrection is, or his full divinity and humanity, yet it is barely less than essential.” So maybe help us walk through—where do we put this in kind of our doctrinal triage? Is it on the top tier, this is a make or break issue, this is a matter of orthodoxy or heresy? Or somewhere down that triage list.

Robert Yarbrough (16:11):

Well, I’ll kind of bounce that back to you here, hypothetically, and ask—how true is it that God saves us by his Word? You know, that’s kind of a stress of Protestantism, that faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God. Or the Old Testament call to worship—”Hear, O Israel.” If God does save us by his Word, then if we doubt his Word, then it’s pretty difficult to find the resolve to repent of our sins and believe in Christ—believe that he was the Son of God, and rose from the dead, and to be saved. Because it’s only the biblical writings that tell us about Christ and tell us what these things mean. What is repentance? What is sin? What’s a savior? We don’t find that in common literature somewhere. We only find it in what we call the canonical writings.

Robert Yarbrough (17:11):

Also, the notion of a Christian who’s skeptical of the Bible—skeptical of the truth of the Bible—is a pretty recent invention, you know, modern invention. It’s not the inerrancy that’s a modern invention, it’s the idea that you can be a communicant Christian in good standing, but be skeptical about the Bible. This is actually a characteristic of a religion that came to be called, and could still be called today, liberalism. And I would just remind readers, or listeners, that there’s a book, an old book—a hundred years old now—by J. Greshem Machen called Christianity and Liberalism. And he shows that it’s not really Christianity that takes this antagonistic stand, or even agnostic stand, towards the written Word of God. If you cast the truth of the Bible in doubt, then you’re putting faith in something other than God’s written Word, probably in your own thinking. You know, I think that’s wrong, because I know better.

Brian Arnold (18:20):

That’s exactly how it’s framed.

Robert Yarbrough (18:20):

The Bible says “trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.” And I think that’s a good pointer to seeing that while we don’t have to affirm inerrancy to be saved, if we go very far down the road in doubting that Scripture is wholly true, it’s going to be really hard to meet God through Scripture.

Brian Arnold (18:44):

That’s a really great response, I think, to that—connecting it to soteriology, the doctrine of salvation, in particular. That if we’re concerned about how someone’s saved, well, we know about that through Scripture. If we’re concerned about who God is, we need to know that through Scripture. So our view of Scripture itself is going to determine a lot about what we believe about the doctrine of salvation. And let me commend that book that you just mentioned, J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism. All of our students at Phoenix Seminary read that book. It’s almost a hundred years old, and the response is always the same. Our students say,”it sounds like he could have written that and published it last month, it’s still so relevant.” And I know you’ve spent a lot of your career on the issue of theological liberalism and how that’s happened. And I’ve really appreciated that about your writing.

Robert Yarbrough (19:28):

Yeah, well, Machen really was a prophet for our times. Wasn’t he?

Brian Arnold (19:32):

He was. He told us what was coming, and he’s been right all along the way. One of the things…as we think about the idea of triage, and we’re talking about the doctrine of inerrancy—there have been some recent challenges to that. I think about somebody like a Michael Bird who says that the idea of inerrancy is even more of a North American phenomenon and not something…he’s an Australian Christian scholar. And I’ve heard others say in the UK people don’t really get hung up on this idea. So that seems like one of the challenges. So I would love to hear you speak about that. And just maybe one or two other things that you see as major threats to the doctrine of inerrancy in our day.

Robert Yarbrough (20:14):

Well, they’re…number one, Michael Bird’s a friend of mine. And I appreciate his scholarship, but I think where you’re quoting there, I just think he’s overstating. I’ve worked in other parts of the world—Romania, Sudan, South Africa—and in the church, where people are dying and where it really becomes critical whether the Bible is really true or not, at the cost of your life—people believe the Bible is true. That’s why, you know, The Center for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Seminary says that every day about 247 Christians die in the world. That’s 90,000 a year. Year after year. And those people are predominantly people that believe in the truth of the Bible. So to say it’s just North American, I think it’s just wide of the mark. There are objections to inerrancy, for example, from the Muslim world, that’s maybe one fifth of the world’s population.

Robert Yarbrough (21:21):

They say that the Christian Scriptures are corrupted. I think they’re wrong, but that’s one major objection. You know, Hindus would have objections on other grounds, and that’s a huge body of people too. A lot of scholars in biblical scholarship, when it comes to certain documents, like the book of Isaiah or book of Matthew or the book of Ephesians, they’ll argue that they really weren’t written by people on the scene or on the ground. There are multiple authors, or they’re written by communities. So, to put it negatively, they’re forged. So they’re not really historically accurate. There are a lot of non-Christians who you don’t get far in talking about the inerrancy of the Bible, because they say, well, what the Bible teaches is unacceptable. It teaches final judgment. It teaches that Jesus is the only way to be saved.

Robert Yarbrough (22:17):

It teaches certain things about male and female, and morality, and we hate those things. And we don’t agree with those things. So it can’t be true, because we reject that as a modern civilized society. And then, you know, another objection to inerrancy, Brian, and one, you know, we should take to heart, is the failure of Christians to reflect and live out the truth that they say the Bible teaches. In other words, sometimes we’re our own worst enemies. We’ll say we believe the truth of the Bible, but people look at our lives, and they say, “you don’t believe that, or you wouldn’t live like that.” So there are a lot of objections. I think there are responses to them, but we really do need the help of the work of God in the world to convince skeptics, because there’s a lot of grounds for skepticism out there.

Brian Arnold (23:06):

There are. And the one you bring up there at the end is a word that all Christians need to hear. Our lives will reflect whether or not people see the truth of our faith. And if we say that we’re basing our lives on the Bible, and yet our lives don’t live up to Christ’s commands, it’s going to look like the Bible itself is not a firm foundation.

Robert Yarbrough (23:29):

Very true.

Brian Arnold (23:30):

Well, Dr. Yarbrough, I really appreciate you joining us on this episode, because we stake our entire lives as Christians on the Holy Bible as the Word of God. And we need to have that great confidence that we can trust it. And by trusting it, we trust its principal author, God himself. So I do hope this episode has been really helpful for Christians, as they think through this idea of inerrancy—can I trust the Bible? It’s a critical issue in our day, as there is a crisis of authority. People want to know—what can I stand on? What is truth? So thank you, Dr. Yarbrough for helping us understand this doctrine better.

Robert Yarbrough (24:03):

Thank you very much for having me, Brian,

Outro (24:05):

Thank you for listening to the Faith Seeking Understanding podcast. If you want to grow more in your understanding of the faith, consider studying at Phoenix Seminary, where men and women are trained for Christ-centered ministry for the building up of healthy churches in Phoenix and throughout the world. Learn more at ps.edu.

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