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Vol. VI • 1983

In Defense of Biblical Inerrancy:
Higher Criticism of Higher Criticism
Paul D. Ackerman

Assume that there is a God behind history. Further assume that this God were to inspire a group of select persons to write an account of a portion of history along with pertinent spiritual information. Finally, for the sake of argument, assume this written record, though reflecting the individual styles and personalities of the various human authors, to be absolutely and perfectly without historical error. What would such an account be like? This is the central question in any serious consideration of the claim that the Bible is such a book.


For one thing such a book ought to be quite obviously remarkable and unique. Its perspective ought to demonstrably transcend the narrow perspective of the times in which it was written. It ought to be painfully candid at limes about weaknesses of the people it describes speaking of matters that would obviously not be the usual self-serving national propaganda produced by cultures in their merely human historical accounts. The document ought to have a certain timeless quality in the way it describes human nature and the human condition. It ought to contain astonishing insights and surprising statements attributed to God that would strike one as just not the sort of thing a merely human author would say or think of. In short, the book should at the least be easily shown to have a remarkable historical fidelity, a clearly transcendent quality, amazing candor about certain aspects of history, and a recognizable uniqueness among human writings.

The description I have given of some probable characteristics of a hypothetical Divinely inspired text fits, according to the testimony of countless scholarly witnesses through the ages, the Holy Bible. The Bible lays claim to Divine inspiration within its own pages (II Tim. 3:16; II Pet. 1:20-21 t and it has been regarded as inerrant by the church over the centuries. Its general historical accuracy, which was held in great doubt by many scholars only a hundred years ago after centuries of almost unquestioned acceptance, has by now been well established by intensive archaeological investigations. Even its most ardent critics must now acknowledge the Bible's overall credibility as a genuine historical document. Nevertheless the majority of modern Bible scholars, even if they accept it in a spiritual sense as "God's Word," reject the contention that the Bible is inerrant.  


In keeping with this skeptical view, secular and liberal Bible scholars have developed a highly inferential, analytic approach to the biblical text that is called "higher criticism." Among the fruits of this line of inquiry is a long list of textual difficulties and alleged discrepancies along with suggestions as to the motives, lack of information, education etc. which led the writer to err. Often the above analysis is followed by plausible hypotheses as to what really occurred historically. Many a Christian believer has been troubled by such analyses, and not a few have abandoned their faith commitment to the inerrancy of Scripture as a result thereof.

The point that must be emphasized is that while this intensive analytical approach to textual difficulties may have a certain interest for imaginative and creative speculation by someone who starts with the premise that the Bible contains errors, it has absolutely no pertinence or validity with regard to providing a real empirical test of inerrancy. The reason for this is quite simple. Let me explain.

We started off postulating a hypothetical Divinely inspired inerrant text. Some reasonable inferences were made about likely features of such a book if it existed, and it was pointed out that the Bible in a general way fits the qualifications. The Bible is a real book that we would like to test to see if it matches our hypothetical truly inspired book. A scientific approach in a general way would attempt to determine whether there is any difference between the Bible and our expectations for a truly Divinely inspired book. Regarding the specific issue of apparent textual difficulties, a scientific analysis would test to see whether there are more apparent difficulties in the Bible than there would be in an inspired text (or the scientist's expectations for such a text.)  


In no way whatsoever do higher critics approach the inerrancy issue in this scientific manner. Even if they wished to there would be grave difficulties and uncertainties. For one thing, no precise and testable information exists about expected rates of occurrence for textual difficulties nor even about the actual rates of occurrence for difficulties in the Bible itself. What the higher critic searches for and provides is an enumeration of biblical textual difficulties. Though impressive to the unwary, this kind of information is extremely misleading. These textual difficulties, or (improbabilities we might better call them) have simply been culled out from the text and set down in a long list. In this format they seem to present an unsurmountable challenge to inerrancy, but do they really? How does one know that a genuinely inspired, inerrant and infallible Word of God would not yield an equally lengthy list of impressive difficulties/improbabilities if subjected to the same kind of analytic scrutiny as the Bible has been over the years. The fact is that we don't know and cannot know for certain that it wouldn't. However, there is good reason to suppose that any truthful and accurate account of historical events, including a Divinely inspired account, would yield a list of difficulties just as the Bible does. In fact, as we shall presently see, the occurrence of a list of difficulties/improbabilities may be a vital clue to a document's historical reliability rather than evidence of its fallibility If the Bible presented no difficulties/improbabilities, that fact alone would make it suspect.  


Not only is the approach of the higher critics improper as scientific analysis, it is also inadequate as historical analysis. The problem is simply this. In any historical analysis involving gaps of information one is unalterably wedded to one's subjective view of the most probable, reasonable and logical course of events for all of the unknown aspects and parameters. Historical reality, however, is not so wedded, which is why it is often said that "truth is stranger than fiction." On sheer probabilistic considerations we would expect one out of every one hundred events to be a one-in-a-hundred long shot; one out of every one thousand events to be a one-in-a-thousand long shot; and so forth. An historical analysis setting out to fill in missing details must do soon the basis of conjecture about likelihood, and therefore it will in principle be wrong at all those points where the unlikely was what in fact happened. Thus, historical analysis is going to be wrong at many points. When the filling in of historical unknowns begins to involve not single inferences of likelihood but long inferential chains of likelihood the situation becomes quite absurd. In a long chain of inferences leading to a conclusion even if each link has a high degree of likelihood the conclusion is almost certainly false. Good historians are humble and cautious people.1

The same considerations apply when one attempts to judge an account or set of accounts laid down by the writers of the biblical text centuries ago. If they are writing true history accurately, then the vast majority of accounts will seem quite plausible. But a small percentage of accounts and relationships between accounts will upon reflection or analysis seem quite unlikely. This in fact describes that state of affairs with the biblical record quite well. Of course, if one could ever show that even one account in the Bible was absolutely impossible, then the Bible's claim to inerrancy would be shattered. But even a casual reading of some of the literature on both sides of the inerrancy issue makes it clear that as regards the Bible that is just not going to happen. The miracles are, of course, accepted as such by the faithful. The various problem texts have long since been identified and pored over by scholars on both sides of the issue. It is clear that no difficulty is to be found in the Bible for which some creative apologist cannot provide a possible however implausible resolution.2 The Bible's claim to inerrancy will not fall to a single critical test.

Even if such an impossibility were found and agreed upon, the question of whether the text was really part of the original autographs, whether it had been accurately transmitted, whether our modern understanding of idiomatic usage of the language by the ancients was correctly understood. etc. would still remain. The only other course of refutation of biblical Divine inspiration and inerrancy open to modern critics is to argue that the weight of the combined difficulties and improbabilities is such as to indicate to any reasonable person that errors exist in the Bible. But the reasonable person must ask at this point what is the frame of reference for judging the weight of these combined difficulties. Combing through the Bible to cull out the one-in-a thousand or one-in-a-million features so that they may be examined or presented anecdotally and out of context is totally improper and misleading. The only meaningful scientific approach would be to draw a random sample of biblical accounts and then ask what percentage of these accounts strike one as implausible or suspect. Then one would have to assess in some way whether this percentage is out of line in terms of reasonable expectations for an inerrant Bible.  


The problem of higher criticism in trying to present a long-term viable threat to the historical biblical faith is that it will inevitably fall victim to itself. Higher criticism is not a genuine method of scientific analysis but basically an anecdotal method of attacking the credibility of the Bible by persons already rejecting the contention that it is God's inerrant Word. The fact is that higher criticism must ultimately fail because it cannot itself withstand the scrutiny of higher criticism. By this it is meant that when the procedure and method of higher criticism is itself subjected to critical, analytic scrutiny its true nature becomes apparent. Higher criticism is not a method of inquiry regarding biblical inerrancy but rather a method of speculative historical reconstruction based on the ironclad premise that the Bible contains errors.

When the dust has settled and the new has worn-off this age of arrogant inference-by-analysis and its concomitant academic fad of "higher criticism," the children of God will be wiser, their faith will be stronger, and the Word of God will remain.


1 With regard to problems of historical reconstruction, a similar and illustrative difficulty is encountered by people trying to construct lists of random numbers. It turns out that they don't do a good job of it at all, and the difference between a human generated list and a true randomly generated list become obvious once one knows what to look for. In a truly random series there will be occasional occurrences of "meaningful" strings of numbers such as "1,2,3,4; 4,4,4,4; etc. When human subjects try to simulate these random lists they censor out all such apparently meaningful strings so that it always "looks random."

2 While I was in college many years ago, a very strange once-in-a-lifetime coincidence occurred.! had a role in a college play which was being staged in a local church sanctuary. (The play was T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral). One afternoon we were to have rehearsal, and I left the fraternity where I lived and drove to the church. I arrived several minutes before the scheduled rehearsal time and found that I was the first one there. Although the church was empty, the door was unlocked so! went in. I had only been there alone for a few minutes when the phone rang. Thinking that it might be the play director or possibly related to the business of the play production, I answered the phone. It was for me!

A fellow student in a geology class! was taking was on the phone, and began to explain that he had missed the last class due to illness and was calling me for some information about the notes from that day. As we talked I began to wonder how he knew to call me at the church. I had told no one where I was going. When I asked my fellow student how he knew where I was he did not know what I was talking about. He had simply looked my name up in the campus phone directory and called my listed number. He had misdialed it and got me at the church by sheer coincidence. I later discovered that my phone number and the church phone number were the same except for one digit. If a group of biographers were to write about my life including some of the events of that day, yet not telling the whole story of that quite irrelevant but amazing coincidence, it is easy to imagine what might happen if a later historian were able by comparing different accounts to piece together some of the details surrounding the coincidence. It would appear for all the world that one or more of the earlier biographers had been quite in error. The arguments of the "higher critics" would be highly plausible but entirely wrong.  


Consider footnote 1 carefully and in the context of what is said in the article about the difficulties of historical reconstruction.

Can you explain the similarity between the procedure of testing for randomness or meaninglessness in a series of numbers by looking for instances of apparently improbable and meaningful number sequences, and the procedure attesting for biblical inerrancy by looking for instances of historical improbabilities or apparent difficulties?

"In Defense of Biblical Inerrancy: Higher Criticism of Higher Criticism"
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