Latest in a series of posts exploring common arguments for “biblical inerrancy,” the belief that the Bible was authored by God and is without error in its every statement.
If you want to win an argument about theology or the Bible or really anything, your best move is to demonstrate that Jesus is on your side. Somewhere on the social Internet at this very moment, someone is posting something glib and ill-researched about Jesus’ politics, his views on gun control, or which shows would fill his DVR. For evangelicals defending the inerrancy of the Bible, it has become quite popular in the last few years to claim that Jesus himself was the original biblical inerrantist.
Different forms of this argument have come from different corners of Christian culture, but most of them say something like this: Jesus believed and taught that the Bible is the inerrant, verbally inspired Word of God, and so must we. The specific claims attributed to Jesus here are that all the words of the Bible are a) perfectly true and without error, because b) they were supernaturally transmitted to their authors by God Himself. In a moment we will consider sayings of Jesus that are commonly used to support these claims.
You Know The Drill
If you’ve been following this series you know what comes next. Before we can assess the prooftexts for this argument, a major technical clarification has to be made. Our first question, of course, is what “Bible” or “Scripture” might have meant to Jesus. It certainly cannot have included the New Testament, the contents of which would not be written for some decades after his departure. To complicate matters further, there wouldn’t even be an official canon of Hebrew Scriptures until that same later period. Jesus quotes many of the familiar Hebrew texts from our “Old Testament” and surely considered them sacred scripture. Still, it must be established here on the outset that “the Bible” or “the Scriptures” did not and could not mean precisely the same thing to Jesus as they do to the Christian inerrantists who invoke his endorsement.
Now let’s look at the two most popular passages of New Testament scripture used to demonstrate that Jesus affirmed the inerrancy of the Hebrew Bible.
Matthew 5: Every Jot and Tittle
In the Gospel of Matthew, in the famous “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus says the following:
“Don’t suppose that I have come to destroy the law or the prophets. I didn’t come to destroy them; I came to fulfill them! I’m telling you the truth: until heaven and earth pass away, not one jot, not one tittle, is going to disappear from the law until it’s all come true. So anyone who relaxes a single one of these commandments, even the little ones, and teaches that to people, will be called the least in the kingdom of heaven. But anyone who does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
We have every reason to believe that the “law” and “prophets” Jesus refers to are portions of the same Hebrew Scriptures we know today. And as to whether his comments constitute a claim to the “inerrancy” of those scriptures, it would frankly be difficult to suggest otherwise. The real issue, however, is how this “inerrancy” might work and what it means and accomplishes. In a sense, it is ironic that modern inerrantists would appeal to this passage, which calls for strict obedience to a law that no Christian feels compelled to keep today. But their point, they’ll say, is that Jesus believed the law (and thus our biblical record of it) to be perfect and infallible.
But surely his unequivocal endorsement of the law must be weighed against Jesus’ radical re-interpretations of it, which enraged and scandalized the “inerrantist” watchdogs of his own day. Jesus’ claim is not merely that the law is true, but that it is going to “come true,” that every squiggle and dot of it will be “fulfilled,” and he will personally make this happen. He then presumes to reframe and reshape the law on his own authority, in many sayings like this one:
“You heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you: don’t use violence to resist evil! Instead, when someone hits you on the right cheek, turn the other one toward him.”
So which one is inerrant, “an eye for an eye” (from the written law) or “turn the other cheek” (from Jesus)? They represent two very different responses to evil. The jots and tittles say one thing, Jesus says another. It appears that the ultimate fulfillment and truth of the law, according to Jesus, is not to be found in the aging scrolls or their classical interpretations, but in the person and perspective of Jesus himself.
John 10: Scripture Cannot Be Broken
“We’re not stoning you for good deeds,” replied the Judaeans, “but because of blasphemy! Here you are, a mere man, and you’re making yourself into God!”
“It’s written in your law, isn’t it,” replied Jesus to them, “‘I said, you are gods’? Well, if the law calls people ‘gods,’ people to whom God’s word came (and scripture cannot be broken), how can you accuse someone of blasphemy when the Father has placed him apart and sent him into the world, and he says, ‘I am the son of God’?”
So this one is interesting. Basically, some of Jesus’ neighbors want to execute him for calling himself “son of God” (something he only does in John’s gospel, but that’s another discussion). Jesus defends himself by quoting Psalm 82, in which God incidentally refers to a group of mortal beings as “gods.” However, it is Jesus’ parenthetical statement that “scripture cannot be broken” that has become a slogan of the inerrancy movement. This too is rather ironic.
The overall point of Jesus’ words seems to be that scripture can be used to condemn or to rationalize almost anything. By the scriptures an angry mob can set out to murder a blasphemer, and by the same scriptures the victim can defend and justify himself. Both Jesus and his attackers agree that “scripture cannot be broken,” what sets them apart is what they choose to do with it. Unbreakable scriptures can be a weapon or an instrument of salvation.
This passage is also understood by some to support the “plenary verbal inspiration” of scripture, the belief that God supernaturally dictated the words of scripture to its authors. But I have to chalk this up to a (willful?) misreading of the text. The “people to whom God’s word came” are not the inspired authors of the Psalm, but the “sons of the Most High” in the context of the Psalm, the ones God called ‘gods.’ On this point it’s a bit of a stretch.
To sum this all up: It would be foolish to deny that Jesus had the highest possible view of the Jewish scriptures. But this is not a complete picture. He also shifted the onus of infallibility and authority onto himself and his teaching as the ultimate fulfillment of the scriptures. When today’s inerrantists use the Bible as an impenetrable shield against criticism and doubt, or a foregone justification of their own self-interested interpretations, they are at cross-purposes with Jesus. Jesus points us not to the static words of the ancient written law or to cold, unbending religious certitude, but to his own authoritative interpretation of the scriptures which always bends toward empathy and selfless love.
Using Jesus to establish the integrity and authority of the Bible gets it completely backwards. Jesus is our beacon of truth and authority, not the book. For Christians, Jesus is the inerrant word of God.