|At Issue Index White Index Table of Contents Previous Next|
The Question of Inerrancy in Inspired Writings
Robert W. Olson
Are there discrepancies in the Holy Scriptures? The answer is, yes. Some of the problems of accuracy or inaccuracy confronting Bible scholars may be cataloged as follows:
1. Historical Uncertainties—Did David kill 40,000 horsemen (2 San. 10:18) or 40,000 footmen (1 Chron. 19:18)? Did Jesus heal blind Bartimaeus as He approached the city of Jericho (Luke 18:35) or as He left it (Mark 10:46)? Was Hobab Moses' brother-in-law (Num. 10:29) or father-in-law (Judges 4:11)? Did the cock crow once when Peter denied the Lord (Matt. 26:34, 69-75) or twice (Mark 14:66-72)? Does Cainan (Luke 3:36) belong between Salah and Arphaxad or not (Gen. 11:12)?
2. Numerical and Chronological Problems—Did 24,000 die in the plague as in Numbers 25:9, or was it 23,000 as in 1 Cor. 10:8? Did Solomon have 40,000 stalls for his horses (I Kings 4:25) or was it 4,000 (2 Chron. 9:25)? Was Jehoachin eighteen (2 Kings 24:8) or eight (2 Chron. 36:9) when he began to reign? Did Ahaziah come to the throne at the age of 22 ( 2 Kings 8:26) or 42 (2 Chron. 22:2)? Was David the eighth son of Jesse (1 Sam. 16:10,11) or the seventh son (1 Chron. 2:15)? Was the period of the judges 450 years in length (Acts 13:20) or about 350 years, as would be necessary if 1 Kings 6:1 is correct.
3. Inaccurate Citations by New Testament Authors—Matthew quotes from Zechariah 11:13, but gives Jeremiah the credit (Matt. 27:9). The author of Hebrews gives a substantially different description of the dedication of the old covenant (Heb. 9:19-21) from that given by Moses (Ex. 24:5-8).
4. Use of Scripture Out of Context—According to Hosea 11:1 God called His Son—Israel—out of Egypt. Matthew says this was a prophecy that the child Jesus would be called out of Egypt (Matt. 2:15). Matthew also declares that the promised sign to Ahaz was really a prediction of the virgin birth of Christ.. The "young woman" of Isaiah 7:14 became a "virgin in Matthew 1:23.
5. Grammatical Imperfections—Roger Nicole states:
6. Discrepancies in the Original Manuscripts—Douglas Stuart states:
How should we deal with these problems? Should we simply ignore them and hope that somehow they will go away? Should we acknowledge them and allow that an inspired record may contain within itself some flaws in unimportant matters? Or are there other explanations?
The last two of the six categories mentioned above do not pose any serious problems to most evangelical scholars. Grammatical imperfections are accepted even by those who advocate a doctrine of inerrancy. As far as discrepancies in the original manuscripts are concerned, most textual critics would probably agree with Douglas Stuart when he says:
The other examples of discrepancies in Scripture are not so easily dealt with. Augustine, the famous bishop of Hippo, had three possible explanations for these problems. He stated:
Martin Luther echoes Augustine when he states:
John Calvin's position, according to Presbyterian scholar Edward Dowey, Jr., was essentially that of Augustine and Luther. Dowey states that although Calvin
A typical example of how Calvin handles discrepancies is found in his commentary on Matthew 27:9 where he says:
John Wesley took the same stance as his illustrious predecessors. He believed the maxim "False in one, false in all," assuming that nothing in Scripture could be trusted if even one error could be found there. He states:
Harold Lindsell no doubt speaks for many twentieth century Christians when he says:
Lindsell does not regard all discrepancies as copyists' errors. He attempts to harmonize some apparent contradictions. For example, he solves the cock-crowing problem by having Peter deny Christ six times instead of three (op. cit., pp. 174-176). Rather than resort to such artificial explanations we think it is much more sensible to simply acknowledge that inspired writings may contain flaws in unimportant matters.
While assertions of inerrancy in the original manuscripts sound comfortable and soul—satisfying, these pronouncements are not based on known fact. No one living today has ever seen any of the autographs of the Scriptures. In fact, the autographs may all have been lost before the end of the first century A.D. To insist on inerrancy for those documents is to take a position which can be neither proved nor disproved. It should be clearly understood that the doctrine of Scriptural inerrancy is an a priori assumption and is based entirely on faith.
In our opinion, it is not necessary to advocate a doctrine of inerrancy in the autographs in order to preserve a high view of Scripture. Copyists errors in existing manuscripts do not destroy the inspiration of the Bible as we have it.
Then why should original error destroy the inspiration of the Bible as it was first given? Note the following facts:
(1) The Word of God was given to make us wise unto salvation (2 Tim.3:15).
(2) The Scriptures have been supernaturally preserved from destruction during the past 2,000 years.
(3) God could have preserved the Bible for us completely free from copyists' or other errors if He had chosen to do so.
(4) The sacred record as we have it contains some unimportant flaws.
In light of these facts, we conclude:
(1) That it is not necessary for us to have an inerrant Bible in order for God's purposes for us to be accomplished.
(2) That it was therefore likewise not necessary for the first-century Christians to have an inerrant Bible, and
(3) That some of the discrepancies found in Scripture may have been penned by the Scripture-writers themselves.
Not everyone can accept these conclusions easily. There are those who say, in effect, “God wouldn't do that to us; He just would not give the world an errant Bible.” But it is not our place to lay down conditions which God must meet before we will accept the Bible as His Word.
In addition to the discrepancies enumerated above, the Scriptures contain “problem texts” of a different nature which also confront students of the Word. These include the imprecatory psalms (Ps. 39:23,24; 109:10-12; 131:8,9), the hanging of seven men to end a famine (2 Sam. 21), the story of Jephthah and his daughter (Judges 11), the slaying of innocent children (1 Sam. 15:2,3), Ezekiel's temple that was never built, etc.
Having acknowledged these difficulties, we must underscore the fact that they do not relate in any way to doctrine, morals, or behavior. They occur in insignificant areas of technical detail only. In no way do they dilute the inspiration of the Scriptures or detract from its authority. Christ treated the Old Testament as a totally trustworthy document. He repeatedly settled arguments with His opponents by quoting Scripture (e.g. Matt. 4:10; 19:3-5). In spite of imperfections in matters not essential to its purpose, the Bible still furnishes us a safe and sufficient guide to truth and salvation.
Turning now to the writings of Ellen G. White, we ask, are there any discrepancies in her letters, articles, and books? The answer is, Yes. Mrs. White herself allowed for the possibility of mistakes when she wrote, "In regard to infallibility, I never claimed it; God alone is infallible. His word is true, and in Him is no variableness, or shadow of turning" (lSM 31).
If in the 773,000 words of the Bible a series of human imperfections can be found, we would expect to find an even larger number in the approximately ten million published words of Ellen G. White. The marvel is that the errors are so few, and that they are not related to matters of any consequence. They may be cataloged as follows:
1. Inaccurate Descriptions of Biblical Events—In 3SG, 301, Ellen White placed the tower of Babel before the flood. In 2SP 183-184, she states that John the Baptist was dead when the events of Matthew 4:18-22 occurred, while in DA 245, she indicates that John was “languishing alone in the dungeon” at the time. In PP 134, she says that Chedorlaomer had four allies, while Genesis 14:1,9, states that he had only three allies. In 1SG 58, Ellen White has the nails crashing through Christ's “bone and muscle," but in DA 744 the nails are driven only through His flesh, in harmony with John 19:36.
2. Errors in Dates and Years—Ellen White said that Solomon's temple stood for more than four centuries, (PK 149), a statement in harmony with Ussher's chronology and the date printed in many Bibles. However, we are told that the correct figure is now known to be 384 years, from 970 B.C. to 586 B.C. In 2SG 12 and 14, she located William Miller's two visits to Portland, Maine, in 1839 and 1841, whereas in 1T 14 and 21, she gave the years as 1840 and 1842. (In 2SG 296, she had requested “that if any find incorrect statements in this book they will immediately inform me.”)
3. Application of Scripture Out of Context—In PP 686, Ellen White states that Christ would come "after" the working of Satan (2 Thess. 2:9). She uses the word "after" in a temporal sense, which was clearly not Paul's intent. In 8T 226 she quotes 2 Thessalonians 2:9 in harmony with its true meaning.
4. Erroneous Attribution of a Quoted Work—Ellen White wrote in the Review and Herald of October 30, 1913, "The love of Christ constraineth us, the apostle Peter declared." Actually, it was Paul, not Peter, who wrote those words in 2 Corinthians 5:14.
5. Grammatical Imperfections—Ellen White once lamented, "I an not a scholar. I cannot prepare my own writings for the press. . . . I an not a grammarian" (3SM 90). W. C. White states, “Mother's copyists are entrusted with the work of correcting grammatical errors, of eliminating unnecessary repetitions, and of grouping paragraphs and sections in their best order” (W. C. White to 6. A. Irwin, May 7, 1900).
6. Historical Discrepancies—In 1888 Ellen White wrote that the pope "styles himself" Lord God the Pope (GC 50), whereas in 1911 she changed the passage to read, he has "been styled Lord God the Pope". In 1888 she wrote that "the Waldenses were the first of all the people of Europe to obtain a translation of the Holy Scriptures" (GC 65). Upon being informed that at least one
other group had the Scriptures in their own language before the Waldenses did, she changed the sentence in 1911 to read, "The Waldenses were among the first of the peoples of Europe to obtain a translation of the Holy Scriptures."
Ellen White made no pretense of writing a textbook on history when she wrote The Great Controversy. Rather, her purpose was to “use valuable illustrations to make plain important spiritual truths” (see One Hundred and One Questions, p. 49). W. C. White wrote, "When Controversy was written, Mother never thought that the readers would take it as authority on historical dates or use it to settle controversy regarding details of history, and she does not now feel that it should be used in that way" (3SM 447).
In addition to this inventory of some of the discrepancies to be found in Ellen White's writings, there are other problems which do not have an easy solution. For example, she wrote that the use of swine's flesh, under certain circumstances, can cause leprosy (2SM 417). She linked the wearing of wigs with moral behavior (Health Reformer, Oct. 1871, p. 121), and indicated that self abuse (masturbation) could cause imbecility (Appeal to Mothers, p. 62). Although the accuracy of these and a few other statements is disputed by medical scientists today, it would be well to remember that Ellen White's teachings on pre-natal influence, cancerous germs, and the malignant nature of tobacco, while once thought to be erroneous, are no longer challenged.
On the masturbation issue, Carl C. Pfeiffer, M.D., Ph.D., recently wrote:
We might ask why the Lord did not protect His messages so that they would have come to us without any shortcomings. One answer to that question is that "Faith grows by conflicts with doubts" (SD, 191). Ellen White states:
We should not "lament that these difficulties exist, but accept then as permitted by the wisdom of God" (5T 706).
And so, while we today freely admit that the frailties of humanity have entered into the writing of the Bible and the books we lovingly label as the "Spirit of Prophecy," we should not use these imperfections as excuses for questioning or rejecting the counsels of the Lord to us. If we do, we are the losers.
God has spoken. He has spoken through vessels of clay. The divine oracles bear the marks of the human channel through which they have come to us. But these messages, both ancient and modern, also bear within them compelling evidence of their heavenly source. Let us listen.
Ellen G. White Estate