The Biblical Inerrancy Claim At The Heart Of Evangelical Faith: Why You Can Believe It But You Can’t Prove It
By Kalinda Rose Stevenson Ph.D.
The claim of biblical inerrancy of the “Word of God” is the foundation of Bible authority for Evangelical Christians. However, this faith claim can be believed but not proved.
Claiming The Bible Is The Infallible, Inerrant, Word Of God
This first article of the Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary “Statement Of Faith” crams several claims into two sentences.
The sixty-six canonical books of the Bible as originally written were inspired of God, hence free from error. They constitute the only infallible guide in faith and practice (Article I of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary’s Statement Of Faith.)
A Look At The Logical Problems Of The Claim Of Biblical Inerrancy
Let’s start with the phrase, “as originally written.” Already, we have run into a huge problem. The statement is claiming that the books of the Bible “as originally written” are the inspired Word of God, and therefore “free from error.”
But notice the second part of the claim. “They” constitute the only infallible guide in faith and practice. Grammatically and logically, “they” refers back to the sixty-six canonical books “as originally written.”
This leads to a question. Are the current sixty-six canonical books of the Bible identical to the sixty-six canonical books as originally written? The short answer is: We have no way of knowing.
Where Are The Original Documents?
Let’s make this as simple as possible and consider only the New Testament books, which were all written at various times and in various locations sometime in the first and second centuries of the Common Era. (By the way, no two biblical scholars would agree on exactly when and where all 27 canonical New Testament books were written, but that discussion would take me far off my point.)
My point is that no one anywhere has an original document for anything in any book of the Bible, whether you call it Old Testament, Hebrew Bible, New Testament, or anything else.
A Tiny Scrap Of Papyrus
The earliest existing fragment of any Biblical book is a tiny scrap of the Gospel of John called the “Rylands Papyrus.”
One of the earliest surviving pieces of New Testament Scripture is a fragment of a papyrus codex containing John 18:31-33 and 37-38, called the Rylands Papyrus (P52). This papyrus was found in Egypt, and has been dated at about 125 A.D. It currently resides at the John Rylands Library in Manchester, England. Rylands Papyrus
I don’t know if any scholar of the Gospel of John claims that this piece is part of the original manuscript. Even if it were, this bit of papyrus is only a tiny fragment. The rest of the manuscript is long gone.
So, the Gordon-Conwell Statement Of Faith begins with a claim about the inerrancy of “original writings” that, as far as anyone knows, no longer exist.
Fun With Syllogisms
Let’s also consider this claim from the perspective of logic. You are probably familiar with the syllogism from classical logic, and its best known example.
All men are mortal.
Socrates is a man.
Socrates is mortal.
A categorical syllogism is an argument consisting of exactly three categorical propositions (two premises and a conclusion) in which there appear a total of exactly three categorical terms, each of which is used exactly twice ( Syllogism.)
So the major premise is: “All men are mortal.”
The minor premise is: “Socrates is a man.”
The conclusion that follows from these two premises is: “Socrates is mortal.”
(If you want to brush up on your syllogistic logic, check out Silly Syllogisms.)
Just for fun, let’s consider a syllogism based on this claim in the Statement Of Faith.
The original books are free from error.
The current books are the same as the original books.
The current books are free from error.
The major premise is: “The original books are free from error.’
The minor premise is: “The current books are the same as the original books.”
The conclusion is: “The current books are free from error.”
The Tricky Little Enthymeme
However we have run into another problem. The Statement Of Faith is not a syllogism. Instead, it is a tricky little rhetorical device called an “enthymeme,” also known as a “truncated syllogism.”
The informal method of reasoning typical of rhetorical discourse. The enthymeme is sometimes defined as a “truncated syllogism” since either the major or minor premise found in that more formal method of reasoning is left implied. The enthymeme typically occurs as a conclusion coupled with a reason. When several enthymemes are linked together, this becomes sorites.
“We cannot trust this man, for he has perjured himself in the past.”
In this enthymeme, the major premise of the complete syllogism is missing:
“Those who perjure themselves cannot be trusted.” (Major premise – omitted)
“This man has perjured himself in the past.” (Minor premise – stated)
“This man is not to be trusted.” (Conclusion – stated) Enthymeme
As an enthymeme, the Gordon-Conwell Statement Of Faith has only the major premise and a conclusion
Major Premise: “The original books are free from error.”
Conclusion: “They [the original books] are the only infallible guide for faith and practice.“
The Logical Flaw
Notice that both the premise and the conclusion are about the original writings. But even though the conclusion uses the pronoun “they,” which refers back to the “original writings,” the whole point of the Statement Of Faith is to make a claim about the current sixty-six canonical books. It implies that the current books are the same as the original books, and therefore without error.
Since no original books exist, it is impossible to prove this claim. Therefore the entire argument hangs on an unprovable implied premise, that the current books are the same as the original books.
My assessment of this logic is that the syllogism behind the enthymeme is flawed. We cannot prove that the current books are the same as the original books.
An Unprovable Statement of Faith
Does mean that the claim is false? We can’t prove that either. We can only assert that the “Statement Of Faith” is what it claims to be. The premise and conclusion can be claimed as part of a statement of faith, but they are unprovable.
I will never argue against anyone’s faith claim, because a faith claim is not based on logical argument, and cannot be proved or disproved by argument. It can only be claimed. Anyone who claims—as a matter of faith—that the current Bible is inerrant because it is identical to the original writings is certainly free to do so.
What About Inconsistencies, Variations, and Errors?
However, as a scholar of the Bible, I will point out that the manuscripts that have come down to us from antiquity—whether they are fragments or entire manuscripts—demonstrate multitudes of inconsistencies, variations, and demonstrable errors. All of our current Bibles—in any language and in any translation—are based on these various manuscripts rather than on “original writings” that no longer exist.
In another post, I am going to return to the idea of perfection behind this faith claim, to make the point that this idea owes more to Greek philosophy than it does to any biblical understanding of divine revelation.
Why We Need More Syllogisms In Religion and Politics
I’ll end this post with my own opinion that the world could use a lot more syllogisms and a lot fewer enthymemes. This doesn’t mean every enthymeme is always based on a false missing premise. Enthymemes are often both logical and valid. It’s just that it’s easier to jump to a false conclusion with an enthymeme than a syllogism.
Classical rhetoric and logic, with their stodgy old syllogisms, sound very dull and dry, the kinds of things that equally dull and dry scholars talk about in musty seminar rooms. Who needs that kind of stuff in the real world?
If everyone who made any sort of claim about anything first sat down and attempted to put the claim into a syllogism, with a major premise, a minor premise, and a conclusion based on those two premises, our public conversation about topics—both polite and impolite—would be elevated to a point where we could have real debate about significant topics, based on real arguments rather than rumors and character attacks.
If politicians had to identify the syllogistic logic behind their conclusions, we wouldn’t have to endure the kind of illogical claims that get bandied about, especially in what passes for political debate in election years.
The same goes for religious debate. Imagine what would happen if people who make public statements about religious beliefs had to demonstrate the logic behind their conclusions. My mind boggles at the possibilities.
But instead of syllogistic logic on political and religious topics, we too often get flawed enthymemes. People make claims that jump from a premise to a conclusion, based on a faulty implied premise. And all of us are worse off from the use faulty enthymemes instead of logically valid syllogisms.
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For Your Freedom,
Kalinda Rose Stevenson, Ph.D.
Revised version of post originally published on Impolite Topics
Cross-published on Bible Authority In American Politics