Friday, February 13, 2009

Does the Bible Err?

* I have changed the original title of this post because, upon further reflection I decided it was a bit snotty.

One of the important functions of the pastor is to identify error. The church is constantly confronted with preaching, teaching, and literature that leads many of God's people into error. One book that has garnered much attention in recent days is Kenton Sparks' God's Word in Human Words. I do not know Dr. Sparks (Professor of Biblical Studies at Eastern University) but I am sure he is a fine man. His book however should trouble anyone who believes the Bible to be the Word of God.

Andy Naselli has posted some helpful thoughts on Dr. Sparks' book.

Sparks uncritically accepts critical views and is overconfident in his conclusions while severely criticizing evangelicals like D. A. Carson, Robert Yarbrough, Kevin Vanhoozer, and James Hoffmeier. Sparks takes the debate beyond Peter Enns’s Inspiration and Incarnation. The book’s subtitle should not include the word “evangelical”: God’s Word in Human Words: An Evangelical Appropriation
of Critical Biblical Scholarship.

More reviews of this book are forthcoming. (For example, look for one by Robert Yarbrough in the next issue of Themelios.) Here are a couple of others already published:

1. The enthusiastic RBL review by Arthur Boulet, an M.A. student at Westminster Theological Seminary and an ardent supporter of Peter Enns, is sad. A sharp friend of mine who is working on a PhD elsewhere emailed me this after reading it: “This
review makes me want to cry. May God grant grace.”

2. The review by Kevin Bauder is a breath of fresh air in comparison.


1. S. M. Baugh reviewed Sparks’s book for Reformation21 in August 2008.

2. Gary L. W. Johnson comments on Sparks’s book in the introduction to Reforming or Conforming: Post-Conservative Evangelicals and the Emerging Church (ed. Gary L. W. Johnson and Ronald L. Gleason; Wheaton: Crossway, 2008), 23n21:

Sparks in particular paints contemporary defenders of inerrancy in very unflattering colors. Old Testament scholars such as R. K. Harrison, Gleason Archer, and E. J. Young are accused of sticking their heads in the sand to avoid dealing with the real issues raised by critical Old Testament scholars (133ff ) while New Testament scholars such as D. A. Carson and Douglas Moo are said to be guilty of deliberately dodging the issues of New Testament critics (167). Even greater disdain is heaped on Carl Henry, who had the misfortune of simply being a theologian and not a biblical scholar (138). However, the most reprehensible aspect of Sparks’s work is the facile labeling of all defenders of inerrancy as Cartesian foundationalists. Sparks declares Cornelius Van Til, and his presuppositional apologetics, to be Cartesian because Van Til underscored the importance of certainty, which to Sparks’s way of thinking automatically makes one a Cartesian (45). If that is the case, then we must place not only the Reformers and the church fathers in that category, but Christ and the apostles as well! Van Til was no Cartesian. His apologetical approach was rooted in classic Reformed theology, especially in the Dutch tradition of Kuyper and Bavinck, stretching back to the noted Dutch Protestant scholastic Peter Van Mastricht (1630–1706), who was an outspoken critic of all things Cartesian. As Richard Muller notes, “Mastricht’s consequent stress on the necessity of revelation for Christian theology (theology defined as ‘living before God in and through Christ’ or as the wisdom leading to that end) led to an adamant resistance to Cartesian thought with its method of radical doubt and its insistence on the primacy of autonomy of the mind in all matters of judgment.” Richard Muller, “Giving Direction to Theology: The Scholastic Dimension,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 28 (June 1985), 185.

Read Andy's entire post HERE.

The theory of the seminarian in one generation will become the theory of the church in the next.


Mark Traphagen said...

Art Boulet has responded to Mr. Naselli on his own blog:

A number of us are discussing the issue there.

Todd Pruitt said...

The thread that Mark links to only confirms the concern that many of us have over Dr. Sparks book.

Art Boulet's attitude is that if you do not accept the assumptions and assertions of critical biblical scholars then you don't really belong in the discussion.

To dismiss the veracity of God's Word with the arrogant wave of the post-modern hand is truly sad.

art said...

Hello Todd,

I'm not quite sure how firm of a grip one can have on another's "attitude" by reading a few comments, so I do not think your evaluation of my "attitude" is correct.

Largely because it is not.

I do not believe that one has to 'accept the assumptions and assertions of critical biblical scholars' in order to be in the discussion. Otherwise I would not be in the discussion to begin with as I do not hold to all the assumptions or assertions of critical biblical scholars.

I would also challenge your last point, as I do not find myself dismissing the veracity of God's word nor would I consider myself 'postmodern' (as that label is relatively meaningless, unless it is used broadly as meaning 'what comes after modernity'). If I was dismissing the veracity of God's Word, then I agree that it should be considered sad.

Since that is, however, not the case, I think your comment is inaccurate.

Perhaps it would be better to say that I would dismiss your understanding of the Word of God via careful study of God's Word and argumentation.

If there is a counter-argument to what Kent and others propose then I would be happy to hear such an argument. I am open to hearing other's on this topic and and open to being corrected on my views.

What I am not particularly open to, however, is incorrect evaluations of the situation, which you display in your comment.


Art Boulet

Todd Pruitt said...

"The most helpful points in this book regarding the inadequacy of evangelical responses to
biblical criticism and the inadequate evangelical view of Scripture will undoubtedly be the
most debated by conservative evangelicals. Yet these points demonstrate why this book is
necessary. Sparks demonstrates that evangelical scholars, who often complain about not
being included in discussions centering on biblical criticism, need to come to grips with
the human dimension of Scripture in order for their approaches to do justice to the very
human phenomena of Scripture. Because evangelicals have underplayed or essentially denied the humanity of Scripture, their exclusion from these discussions is completely warranted. I am in full agreement with Sparks that evangelicals shirk the difficult
questions when it comes to biblical criticism and revert to fideism, hiding their heads in
the sand of the “essentially divine” origin of Scripture."
- Art Boulet

Incidentally, I don't know of any scholar who holds to inerrancy who denies the "humanity" of Scripture. Now, if the humanity of Scripture means "mistakes" then we will have to agree to disagree.

art said...


Is there a human, besides Jesus himself, who hasn't made a mistake?

Todd Pruitt said...


Are you referring to your mistake in writing that the exclusion of those who hold to inerrancy is "completely warranted" or are you referring to the many "mistakes" in the Bible?

art said...

You didn't answer my question.

Todd Pruitt said...


I did not know you were actually asking whether or not humans make mistakes. I just assumed you knew that all humans make mistakes. My bad.

Mainline Mom said...

Todd, did you know that Kent Sparks is a member and small church teacher at YOUR church? I haven't read his book so I can't speak about it, but he is a fantastic Bible teacher that has been extremely influential in the Young Families class.

Todd Pruitt said...


I certainly hope that the people at COS have not been taught that the Bible is full of errors.

Mark Traphagen said...


If we can get past the clumsiness of this form of communication, I think Art is driving at two things:

1) Yes, we all know humans err. That's not in question. The question is to what extent (if any) that tendency is reflected in Scripture, and whether or not Scripture can contain and reflect that tendency and remain the authoritative Word of God. You say no; Art says yes. You should move the debate on from there.

2) This has direct bearing on #1. If you read through our discussion on Art's blog (and other posts on his blog where the topic of inerrancy has come up), you'll find that what we are trying to think through is whether a black-and-white truth vs. error paradigm does justice to the biblical text, particularly in the socio-cultural context in which it was originally written and assembled. We are not questioning the infallibility or authority of the Bible, just whether a newspaper-report-standard of one-to-one correspondence of hard facts to reality is necessary to a "high view" of Scripture. Furthermore, we are pondering not only its possible lack of necessity, but whether it is actually harmful to such a view in the long run.

Hope that helps clarify some things.

Todd Pruitt said...

It's not always easy dealing with controversial issues within the church. The New Testament however shows us that the church was continually dealing with controversy and error. What we must not do is value the appearance of "niceness" above the truth.

I believe that postmodern epistomologies are not consistent with biblical truth. Some will disagree with me of course. Clearly, I hold to an historic orthodox understanding of the nature of God's Word.

The church is, it seems to me, entering into a new battle for the inerrancy of God's Word. Those who tell us that the Bible errs must understand that many of us will challenge that thesis.

I had coffee recently with a young man who graduated from a local baptist university. His faith is all but shipwrecked because his Bible professors told him that the Bible is unreliable. As he pointed at the Bible on the table between us he said, "It's an issue of authority. I don't know what I can believe anymore."

That broke my heart.

Mark Traphagen said...

I hear and appreciate your pastoral concern, Todd. Believe it or not, it is out of a similar concern that some of us are raising these questions. The difference between us and your young person's college professors is that we aren't saying the Bible is "unreliable." Quite the opposite, we insist that the Bible is very reliable for us to learn about who God is and what he wants us to know to have a relationship with him. What concerns us is that Chicago Statment-type inerrancy may actually be a hindrance to believing the Bible's reliability among the rising generation who are educated enough to spot that the Bible just doesn't look and act the way the inerrantists insist it does.

This is why Enns and Sparks wrote their books. However wrong you may still think they are, their motives are clear and should not be impugned. They both were alarmed by the number of people they saw whose faith was being shipwrecked because increasingly they could not reconcile the Bible as it had been taught to them with what overwhelming evidence was telling them was otherwise to be the case.

In the case of Enns in particular, I can tell you that the whole purpose of his book is to bolster belief in the reliability and authority of Scripture by showing that we don't have to turn off our brains to believe the Bible is the Word of God; that the Bible is the way it is not by "mistake" but because that is the very way that a God who would incarnate himself would choose to reveal himself to his created image-bearers.

One other point: I would reject your equating of "inerrancy" (at least as you seem to formulate it, i.e., Chicago Statement-ish) with "historic Christian orthodoxy." One of the things that has opened this door of exploration for many of us is the discovery that this kind of inerrancy is a relatively recent development in the church.

Mainline Mom said...

Todd, Far from it, which is why I find these criticisms so surprising. Kent has always taught that the Bible is the ultimate, infallible authority. He is very conservative in my view, from all my interactions with him. But he is also a man filled with God's grace, who has facilitated discussions about hot topics in a very edifying and scriptural way. He was the first to clue me in on the Emergent church and its dangers. Yet he delinieated truthfully how much we have in common with the Roman Catholic church. I don't believe he thinks the Bible is full of mistakes, at least he certainly has never taught as such.

Belle Geary said...

I am very pleased that you are having this discussion, and am in full agreement with all that you say, especially that we are at war for the very Word of God. We should not be surprised by the forces, both human and spiritual that will try to pervert true Christianity, nor the methods they will use. What does concern me is how pervasive these false teachings have become in “Christian” academia. It is almost as if we are education a generation of young Christian leaders who do not except that there is ultimate truth and who do not truly understand how foundational the inerrancy of scripture is. To say that all men are flawed is one thing, to say that those flaws have carried over to scripture is another. American Christians have become very soft and very lazy.
God Bless

art said...


The reason I was looking for an answer to whether or not all humans make mistakes was to force the point that by saying that the biblical authors did not make a mistake is to essentially deny their humanity. It's saying something to the effect that they were humans in their everyday life, but something more then human when writing.

I don't see anywhere in Scripture where such an affirmation is made of the biblical authors. As such, I would say that modern formulations of inerrancy are as extra-biblical as purgatory and indulgences. At its fundamental level it is adding doctrines to Scripture that are not clearly present.

As an aside, I think it probably would have been more beneficial to have a conversation with Kent before making a post claiming that he is "off the reservation"...considering he is a member of your church and all (a simple Google search of "church of the savior kent sparks" shows this...or a search of your membership directory).


You said, "It is almost as if we are education [sic] a generation of young Christian leaders who do not except [sic] that there is ultimate truth and who do not truly understand how foundational the inerrancy of scripture is."

I'm not quite sure how you came up with the idea that Kent or anyone commenting does not accept that there is not ultimate truth. Could you point me to a place where either Kent, Mark, or myself has said such a thing? If not, then you're statement is completely unfounded.

I would also challenge the idea that inerrancy is foundational to understanding Scripture. If this truly is the case, then could you please show where the term 'inerrancy' is located in the writings of, for instance, Augustine, Calvin, Luther, or any of the church fathers? Or perhaps even in an ancient Creed? Those are rhetorical questions because you will not find the term there. I bring that up to say that inerrancy is a modern invention and is, perhaps, foundational to your understanding of Scripture, but certainly not for the church's historic understanding of Scripture. Of course, if you can show how I am incorrect by evidence from church history then I will be convinced otherwise. If you can't, then it's probably best not to make unfounded statements.

Belle Geary said...

I understand your position and also your annoyance at those “less” educated in Biblical studies than you questioning your thoughts. All I am saying is that God is fully capable of passing His Word down from generation to generation intact. Once you start down the slippery slope of error where do you stop? Which parts do you consider in error? Which parts do I consider in error? Which parts no longer fit with our personal beliefs? Which parts are no longer comfortable in our society? What you are really doing is opening the door to “personal” gods and personal beliefs and to what ultimately becomes a feel good religion. What I have found is that schools like Eastern have become institutions more interested in social engineering with concepts like “social justice” than true Christian education and I think we as Christians need to start standing against it.
God Bless

Todd Pruitt said...

I have no doubt that Dr. Sparks is a fine man who loves God with heart and mind. I simply disagree about inerrancy and I think it is an important disagreement.

Those of us who hold to the Bible's inerrancy do not treat the Bible as "a newspaper-report-standard of one-to-one correspondence."

I attended a liberal seminary. My professors were hostile to the idea of inerrancy. We read Bultmann and Barth but not Warfield and Machen. I suppose that only would have confused us.

Thanks for your concern over my pastoral sensativities.

Clearly you and I are not going to agree. That's fine with me. Also, we're not going to change each other's minds through these comments. We have a fundamentally different understanding of how the Spirit of God "carried [men] along" as they wrote the words He would have them write. To say that people err therefore there are errors in the Bible is not an adequate understanding of inspiration. I also disagree with your assertions about the Bible's self attestation of its inerrancy.

The Bible does not use the word "Trinity." Does that mean the Bible does not teach the doctrine of the Trinity?

Todd Pruitt said...


I am throwing in with the likes of Calvin, John Owen, Edwards, Hodge, Warfield, Machen, Packer, Boice, Sproul, Moo, Piper, Bock, Carson, and Blomberg.

That list is just scratching the surface but if you are going to say that those men are wrong in their doctrine of Scripture then you have a pretty tall order.

art said...


You said, "To say that people err therefore there are errors in the Bible is not an adequate understanding of inspiration."

Well, I would argue that to say that humans err, yet didn't err while writing something, is not an adequate view of humanity, the fall, or the noetic effects of sin.

You said, "The Bible does not use the word "Trinity." Does that mean the Bible does not teach the doctrine of the Trinity?"

The Trinity is different from inerrancy. I'm not making the argument that because a word isn't used in the Bible then it isn't true.

The content of Scripture teaches about the Trinity without using the word. I would argue that the same is not true for inerrancy.

"I am throwing in with the likes of Calvin, John Owen, Edwards, Hodge, Warfield, Machen, Packer, Boice, Sproul, Moo, Piper, Bock, Carson, and Blomberg."

Could you please quote a section from Calvin, Owen, or Edwards where they use the term inerrancy in the same way as it used in modern evangelicalism? I would appreciate a reference or quote before your statement can be seen as being true.

Todd Pruitt said...

One more comment and then I think I'm done with this thread...

I suppose I am a bit surprised that it is controversial or surprising that I would publically disagree with those who publically claim that the Bible errs. I am equally dismayed by the fact that it seems odd that I publically support great biblical scholars (like those mentioned above) whose views are publically criticized. We have even been told that they should not be included in the conversation concerning the issue of inerrancy.

Here is my final comment on this thread - I believe the Bible is true. God has not erred in transmitting his word to us through the means of inspiration. People however do err. We err sometimes in our reading, understanding, and interpretation of God's Word. The community of faith with the help and guidance of faithful scholars and pastors assist us in understanding the Bible properly.

Todd Pruitt said...


Your first statement demonstrates the profound difference that exists between our understanding of God's Word and the doctrine of inspiration.

I do believe humans err when writing "something." I don't believe however that God's Word is just "something" and I don't believe it was written under normal circumstances. When the Holy Spirit inspired men, indeed carried them along, they did not err.

If you believe that Calvin, Owen, and Edwards believed that the Bible errs then we have clearly read diffent men with the same names.

Since I don't find this to be a very helpful forum for actually debating an issue in a redemptive way, this will be the final word in this thread.


art said...


I can agree with you that God does not err while humans certainly do err. So we have some common ground there.

It would be nice to see some actual quotes from Calvin, Owen and Edwards that prove your point. After all, if they did hold to your understanding of inerrancy than just a quote would not be hard to find.

art said...

Oh, I apologize. I didn't realize that this conversation was over.

Blessings to you as well.

Todd Pruitt said...


You are my brother in Christ.

I have no doubt that you have a genuine love for God and people. In that I rejoice.

We are both pretty jealous for our understandings of inspiration (as we should be). I respect you but I disagree with you.

I would love to change your mind in this lifetime. In heaven (where I fully expect to be worshipping with you) I am sure we will be agreed.

Harley A. said...

Interesting discussion.


Help me understand. Are the only errors present in scripture those which are obvious to us - i.e. in the form of overt contradictions ? Should that be the limit of my criticism as I study scripture ? Contradiction is, after all, not the only form of literary error.

Mark Traphagen said...

With all due respect, Todd, this is why people like Art and me get frustrated. In nearly all the discussions we have with people who assert that inerrancy is the only orthodox way to view the Bible, when we ask questions or ask about specific instances, those questions are almost never answered. Instead, we get a list of affirmations and denials that are simply stated, or a reference list of great scholars who all defend inerrancy. And if we try to press beyond that, we get "this discussion is now over because I think the Bible is inerrant and you don't, and we'll just never agree."

Can you see that for many of us who began to dare to ask questions about inerrancy, such obfuscation might only serve to feed our suspicion that the emperor has no clothes?

Mark Traphagen said...

Also, "this is not a helpful forum for debating these issues in a redemptive way"?

May I point out that you are the one that brought it up in "this forum"? Again, I don't mean this as antagonistically as it may sound, but if you don't want to discuss or debate assertions you make, then don't have a blog, have your own web site with no comments allowed.

I only bring this up not to do a "gotcha" on you, but because I have a passion to try to help pastors who "defend" inerrancy as you have done so far that some intelligent people who are able to follow logical argumentation may begin to suspect that you don't really have a defense. I'm not saying that is the case, but I am saying that it begins to appear that way.

art said...


I would like to answer your question, but I don't want to hijack Todd's comments section if he is unwilling to continue the discussion.

If he is, then I would be happy to respond to you.

If not, check out my blog and we'll have the discussion there.

Todd Pruitt said...


I have a blog because I want to engage a variety of issues from a biblical worldview.

I have a full time job that keeps me more busy than I should be. I have a wife and three children. I shouldn't be spending so much time on this blog on a Saturday.

It is not my intention to change anyone's mind on this blog. I have never seen that happen. Perhaps you have seen it happen.

If you have a blog I would encourage you to spend as much time as you would like debating back and forth. But discourse that is not eye-to-eye is not, in my experience very redemptive.

My emphasis is pastoral. I write for the lay person. I want to keep people informed about a whole host of issues. I also include book recommendations and devotional reflections on Scripture and doctrinal themes.

When a book is published that denies the inerrancy of Scripture and criticizes men whom I hold in high esteem then that is an issue that interests me. This is important to the lay person because what is taught in the Christian academy will eventually be taught in the church.

If this does not suit you then I would encourage you to not put yourself through any more frustration.

And yes, I do feel like your tone was a bit of a "gotcha." Apparently you did to or you would not have mentioned it.

Thank you for your passion to help me learn but I have a whole host of men (their names have already been mentioned) who have been excellent teachers for me.

Mark Traphagen said...

Thank you, then Todd, for the discussion as far as you cared to engage. I agree that we got as far as we're likely to get. Sorry to have consumed time from your family and ministry.

hcfischer1 said...

"1. The enthusiastic RBL review by Arthur Boulet, an M.A. student at Westminster Theological Seminary and an ardent supporter of Peter Enns, is sad. A sharp friend of mine who is working on a PhD elsewhere emailed me this after reading it: “This
review makes me want to cry. May God grant grace."

I'm sorry Pastor Pruitt but you cannot expect Art not to respond or defend his position after posting something like that. This discussion may be time consuming, that I understand. However, perhaps if you do not have the time to dialogue with Art about it then you should not have posted that portion of it to begin with.

Todd Pruitt said...


Art is a big boy. He can handle it. He is taking a few swipes at me over at his blog. I have no inention of commenting because I know it would be fruitless.

What is not helpful or a good use of time is endless threads going back and forth between people whose minds are not going to change. But that does not mean that I will not post on controversial issues.

I generally do not spend much time on blogs that frustrate me. Life is too short.

art said...


You said, "Art is a big boy. He can handle it. He is taking a few swipes at me over at his blog. I have no inention [sic] of commenting because I know it would be fruitless."

I agree that I am a big boy (although I am working on dropping a few pounds before my wedding this fall), but I do not think age, maturity, or size has much to do with what Heather is saying.

You continue to state that you believe further discussion would be fruitless, yet you have people such as Mark, Heather, and myself who are continually telling you the complete opposite.

Perhaps you have your mind made up and so further discussion is not needed. But please don't make that assumption about the rest of us involved. I know Mark and Heather personally and can safely say that we are all comfortably 'in process' and welcome all discussion on topics and issues that we care about.

The continual unwillingness to dialogue is further evidence that my post that you feel is taking a 'swipe' at you is warranted (although I see it less of a 'swipe' and more of a description of reality).

If you don't want to dialogue, then don't open up your posts for comments. But, like Heather said, don't expect to be able to quote a negative assessment of someone and not be held accountable for that assessment.

Todd Pruitt said...


1. Congratulations on your coming nuptuals. Marriage is great.

2. My comment "Art is a big boy" had nothing to do with your weight. I've never seen you. I'll bet you ten dollars that I need to lose more weight than do you.

3. Run your blog any way you like. If you want to engage in lengthy debates in the comment stream then blessings with that. My experience tells me that is not a fruitful forum for debate. Additionally I don't have the time for that. Once you have a family I think you may be able to identify with what I am saying.

Also, I suspect that your mind is made up regarding the value of critical scholarship and the intellectual and spiritual bankruptcy of inerrancy. If Warfield can't change you mind then I'm pretty sure I won't either. If you think that means that the emperor has no clothes then so be it.

I respectfully disagree with your call for me to stop including comments if I am unwilling to engage in lengthy debates. I have a different opinion. I don't know how many ways I can say it.

One other observation...
It seems strange to me that you want to engage in debate when you have written that those who believe what I believe about the Bible's inerrancy should be excluded from the conversation. That does not seem very consistent to me.

art said...


You wrote: "It seems strange to me that you want to engage in debate when you have written that those who believe what I believe about the Bible's inerrancy should be excluded from the conversation. That does not seem very consistent to me."

Just to be crystal, I didn't say that 'all those who believe in inerrancy should be excluded from the debate.'

Many should because their arguments make no sense when approached with the data of Scripture. Others should not because they take the data seriously. It's not a statement that should be applied with a wide brush. If you had read Kent's book and then read my review (as opposed to not reading Kent's book and only reading my review) you would have had a better idea of whom I was referring to. I don't blame you for not reading his book, though, as you are a busy man ( sarcasm intended).

Apparently there is no where else to go with this conversation except to say that we agree to disagree, appreciate each other as brothers in Christ, and hope the best for one another in their current and future ministry.


Todd Pruitt said...


Blessings to you.

I am currently reading Dr. Sparks book. If all goes well I will complete it in about a week.

Harley A. said...

Art, I did go visit your blog. No need to answer my question posed here. I think I got a feel for how you'd answer. Agreed - best not to hijack Todd's blog over it...

Kent Sparks said...

For purposes of clarity, I should add that my book DOES defend a version of inerrancy, but it distinguishes between divine errors (which I take as impossible, by definition) and human errors (which I take as inevitable, by definition). My approach is based on insights gleaned from classical Christian sources (patristics and Calvin) as well as from modern philosophy (especially, postmodern practical realism).

Under no circumstances do I allow that God errs in Scripture.