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By Norman L. Geisler
The Bible cannot err, since it is God's Word, and God cannot err. This does
not mean there are no difficulties in the Bible. But the difficulties are not
due to God's perfect revelation, but to our imperfect understanding of it. The
history of Bible criticism reveals that the Bible has no errors, but the
critics do. Most problems fall into one of the following categories.
Assuming the Unexplained Is Unexplainable
When a scientist comes upon an anomaly in nature, he does not give up
further scientific exploration. Rather, the unexplained motivates further
study. Scientists once could not explain meteors, eclipses, tornadoes,
hurricanes, and earthquakes. Until recently, scientists did not know how the
bumblebee could fly. All of these mysteries have yielded their secrets to
relentless patience. Scientists do not now know how life can grow on
thermo-vents in the depths of the sea. But no scientist throws in the towel and
cries "contradiction!" Likewise, the true biblical scholar approaches the Bible
with the same presumption that there are answers to the unexplained. Critics
once proposed that Moses could not have written the first five books of the
Bible because Moses' culture was preliterate. Now we know that writing had
existed thousands of years before Moses. Also, critics once believed that Bible
references to the Hittite people were totally fictional. Such a people by that
name had never existed. Now the Hittites' national library has been found in
Turkey. Thus, we have reason to believe that other unexplained phenomena in
Scripture will be explained later.
Assuming the Bible is Guilty of Error Unless Proven
Many critics assume the Bible is wrong until something proves it right.
However, like an American citizen charged with an offense, the Bible should be
read with at least the same presumption of accuracy given to other literature
that claims to be nonfiction. This is the way we approach all human
communications. If we did not, life would not be possible. If we assumed that
road signs and traffic signals were not telling the truth, we would probably be
dead before we could prove otherwise. If we assumed food packages are
mislabeled, we would have to open up all cans and packages before buying.
Likewise, the Bible, like any other book, should be presumed to be telling us
what the authors said, experienced, and heard. But, negative critics begin with
just the opposite presumption. Little wonder they conclude the Bible is riddled
Confusing our Fallible Interpretations with God's Infallible
Jesus affirmed that the "Scripture cannot be broken" (John 10:35, NASB). As
an infallible book, the Bible is also irrevocable. Jesus declared, "Truly I say
to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke
shall pass away from the Law, until all is accomplished" (Matt. 5:18; Luke
16:17, NASB). The Scriptures also have final authority, being the last word on
all it discusses. Jesus employed the Bible to resist the tempter (see Matt.
4:4, 7, 10), to settle doctrinal disputes (see Matt. 21:42), and to vindicate
his authority (see Mark 11:17). Sometimes a biblical teaching rests on a small
historical detail (see Heb. 7:4-10), a word or phrase (see Acts 15:13-17), or
the difference between the singular and the plural (see Gal. 3:16). But, while
the Bible is infallible, human interpretations are not. Even though God's Word
is perfect (see Ps. 19:7), as long as imperfect human beings exist, there will
be misinterpretations of God's Word and false views about his world. In view of
this, one should not be hasty in assuming that a currently dominant assumption
in science is the final word. Some of yesterday's irrefutable laws are
considered errors by today's scientists. So, contradictions between popular
opinions in science and widely accepted interpretations of the Bible can be
expected. But this falls short of proving there is a real contradiction.
Failure to Understand the Context
The most common mistake of all Bible interpreters, including some critical
scholars, is to read a text outside its proper context. As the adage goes, "A
text out of context is a pretext." One can prove anything from the Bible by
this mistaken procedure. The Bible says, "There is no God" (Ps. 14:1, NASB). Of
course, the context is: "The fool has said in his heart 'There is no God.' "
One may claim that Jesus admonished us not to resist evil (see Matt. 5:39), but
the antiretaliatory context in which he cast this statement must not be
ignored. Many read Jesus' statement to "Give to him who asks you," as though
one had an obligation to give a gun to a small child. Failure to note that
meaning is determined by context is a chief sin of those who find fault with
Interpreting the Difficult by the Clear
Some passages are hard to understand or appear to contradict some other part
of Scripture. James appears to be saying that salvation is by works (see James
2:14-26), whereas Paul teaches that it is by grace. Paul says Christians are
"saved through faith; and that not of yourselves. It is a gift of God: Not of
works, lest anyone should boast" (Eph. 2:8-9; Rom. 4:5, KJV). But the
contexts reveal that Paul is speaking about justification before
God (by faith alone), whereas James is referring to justification
before others (who only see what we do). And James and Paul both speak
of the fruitfulness that always comes in the life of one who loves God.
Forgetting the Bible's Human Characteristics
With the exception of small sections such as the Ten Commandments, which
were "written by the finger of God" (Ex. 31:18, NASB), the Bible was not
verbally dictated. The writers were not secretaries of the Holy Spirit. They
were human composers employing their own literary styles and idiosyncrasies.
These human authors sometimes used human sources for their material
(see Josh. 10:13; Acts 17:28; 1 Cor. 15:33; Titus 1:12). In fact, every book of
the Bible is the composition of a human writer-about forty of them in
all. The Bible also manifests different human literary styles. Writers
speak from an observer's standpoint when they write of the sun rising or
setting (see Josh. 1:15). They also reveal human thought patterns,
including memory lapses (see 1 Cor. 1:14-16), as well as human
emotions (see Gal. 4:14). The Bible discloses specific human
interests. Hosea has a rural interest, Luke a medical concern, and James a
love of nature. Like Christ, the Bible is completely human, yet without error.
Forgetting the humanity of Scripture can lead to falsely impugning its
integrity by expecting a level of expression higher than that which is
customary to a human document. This will become more obvious as we discuss the
next mistakes of the critics.
Assuming a Partial Report Is a False Report
Critics often jump to the conclusion that a partial report is false.
However, this is not so. If it were, most of what has ever been said would be
false, since seldom does time or space permit an absolutely complete
report. For example, Peter's famous confession in the Gospels:
Matthew: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" (16:16,
Mark: "You are the Christ" (8:29, NASB).
Luke: "The Christ of God" (9:20, NASB).
Even the Ten Commandments, which were "written by the finger of God" (Deut.
9:10), are stated with variations the second time they are recorded (see Ex.
20:8-11 with Deut. 5:12-15). There are many differences between the books of
Kings and Chronicles in their description of identical events, yet they harbor
no contradiction in the events they narrate.
Assuming New Testament Citations of the Old Testaments must be
Critics often point to variations in the New Testament use of Old Testament
Scriptures as a proof of error. They forget that every citation need
not be an exact quotation. Sometimes we use indirect and sometimes
direct quotations. It was then (and is today) perfectly acceptable literary
style to give the essence of a statement without using precisely the
same words. The same meaning can be conveyed without using
the same verbal expressions.
Variations in the New Testament citations of the Old Testament fall into
different categories. Sometimes they are because there is a change of speaker.
For example, Zechariah records the Lord as saying, "they will look on
me whom they have pierced" (12:10, NASB). When this is cited in the
New Testament, John, not God, is speaking. So it is changed to "They shall look
on him whom they pierced" (John 19:37, NASB).
At other times, writers cite only part of the Old Testament text. Jesus did
this at His home synagogue in Nazareth (see Luke 4:18-19 citing Isa. 61:1-2).
In fact, He stopped in the middle of a sentence. Had He gone any farther, He
could not have made His central point from the text, "Today this Scripture is
fulfilled in your hearing" (vs. 21). The very next phrase, "And the day of
vengeance of our God," (see Isa. 61:1-2) refers to His second coming.
Sometimes the New Testament paraphrases or summarizes the Old Testament text
(see Matt. 2:6). Others blend two texts into one (see Matt. 27:9-10).
Occasionally a general truth is mentioned, without citing a specific text. For
example, Matthew said Jesus moved to Nazareth "that it might be fulfilled which
was spoken by the prophets, He shall be called a Nazarene" (Matt. 2:23, KJV).
Notice, Matthew quotes no given prophet, but rather "prophet" in general.
Several texts speak of the Messiah's lowliness. To be from Nazareth, a
Nazarene, was a byword for low status in the Israel of Jesus' day.
Assuming Divergent Accounts Are False
Because two or more accounts of the same event differ, does not mean they
are mutually exclusive. Matthew 28:5 says there was one angel at the tomb after
the resurrection; whereas John informs us there were two (see 20:12). But these
are not contradictory reports. An infallible mathematical rule easily explains
this problem: Where there are two, there is always one. Matthew did not say
there was only one angel. There may also have been one angel at the
tomb at one point on this confusing morning and two at another. One has to add
the word "only" to Matthew's account to make it contradict John's. But if the
critic comes to the texts to show they err, then the error is not in the Bible,
but in the critic.
Likewise, Matthew (see 27:5) informs us that Judas hanged himself. But Luke
says that "he burst open in the middle and all his intestines gushed out" (Acts
1:18, NASB). Once more, these accounts are not mutually exclusive. If Judas
hanged himself from a tree over the edge of a cliff or gully in this rocky
area, and his body fell on sharp rocks below, then his entrails would gush out
just as Luke vividly describes.
Presuming That the Bible Approves of All It Records
It is a mistake to assume that everything contained in the Bible is
commended by the Bible. The whole Bible is true (see John 17:17), but
it records some lies, for example, Satan's (see Gen. 3:4; John 8:44)
and Rahab's (see Josh. 2:4). Inspiration encompasses the Bible fully in the
sense that it records accurately and truthfully even the lies and errors of
sinful beings. The truth of Scripture is found in what the Bible
reveals, not in everything it records. Unless this
distinction is held, it may be incorrectly concluded that the Bible teaches
immorality because it narrates David's sin (see 2 Sam. 11:4), that it promotes
polygamy because it records Solomon's (see 1 Kings 11:3), or that it affirms
atheism because it quotes the fool as saying "there is no God" (Ps. 14:1,
Forgetting That the Bible is Nontechnical
To be true, something does not have to use scholarly, technical, or
so-called "scientific" language. The Bible is written for the common person of
every generation, and it therefore uses common, everyday language. The use of
observational, nonscientific language is not unscientific, it is
merely prescientific. The Scriptures were written in ancient
times by ancient standards, and it would be anachronistic to superimpose modern
scientific standards upon them. However, it is no more unscientific to speak of
the sun standing still (see Josh. 10:12) than to refer to the sun "rising" (see
Josh. 1:16). Meteorologists still refer to the times of "sunrise" and
Assuming Round Numbers Are False
Like ordinary speech, the Bible uses round numbers (see Josh. 3:4; 4:13). It
refers to the diameter as being about one-third of the circumference of
something (see 1 Chron. 19:18; 21:5). While this technically is only an
approximation (see Lindsell, 165-66); it may be imprecise from the standpoint
of a technological society to speak of 3.14159265 as "3," but it is not
incorrect. It is sufficient for a "cast metal sea" (see 2 Chron. 4:2) in an
ancient Hebrew temple, even though it would not suffice for a computer in a
modern rocket. One should not expect to see actors referring to a wristwatch in
a Shakespearean play, nor people in a prescientific age to use precise
Neglecting to Note Literary Devices
Human language is not limited to one mode of expression. So, there is no
reason to suppose that only one literary genre was used in a divinely inspired
Book. The Bible reveals a number of literary devices. Whole books are written
as poetry (e.g., Job, Psalms, Proverbs). The Synoptic Gospels feature
parables. In Galatians 4, Paul utilizes an allegory. The New
Testament abounds with metaphors (see 2 Cor. 3:2-3; James 3:6),
similes (see Matt. 20:1; James 1:6), hyperbole (see John
21:25; 2 Cor. 3:2; Col. 1:23), and even poetic figures (see Job 41:1).
Jesus employed satire (see Matt. 19:24; 23:24). Figures of
speech are common throughout the Bible.
It is not a mistake for a biblical writer to use a figure of speech, but it
is a mistake for a reader to take a figure of speech literally. Obviously when
the Bible speaks of the believer resting under the shadow of God's "wings" (see
Ps. 36:7) it does not mean that God is a feathered bird. When the Bible says
God "awakes" (see Ps. 44:23), as though he were sleeping, it means God is
roused to action.
Forgetting That Only the Original Text Is Inerrant
Genuine mistakes have been found-in copies of Bible text made hundreds of
years after the autographs. God only uttered the original text of Scripture,
not the copies. Therefore, only the original text is without error. Inspiration
does not guarantee that every copy is without error, especially in copies made
from copies made from copies made from copies. For example, the King James
Version (KJV) of 2 Kings 8:26 gives the age of King Ahaziah as 22, whereas 2
Chronicles 22:2 says 42. The later number cannot be correct, or he would have
been older than his father. This is obviously a copyist error, but it does not
alter the inerrancy of the original.
First, these are errors in the copies, not the originals. Second, they are
minor errors (often in names or numbers) which do not affect any teaching.
Third, these copyist errors are relatively few in number. Fourth, usually by
the context, or by another Scripture, we know which is in error. For example,
Ahaziah must have been 22. Finally, though there is a copyist error, the entire
message comes through. For example, if you received a letter with the following
statement, would you assume you could collect some money?
"#OU HAVE WON $20 MILLION."
Even though there is a mistake in the first word, the entire message comes
through-you are 20 million dollars richer! And if you received another letter
the next day that read like this, you would be even more sure:
"Y#U HAVE WON $20 MILLION."
The more mistakes of this kind there are (each in a different place), the
more sure you are of the original message. This is why scribal mistakes in the
biblical manuscripts do not affect the basic message of the Bible.
Confusing General with Universal Statements
Like other literature, the Bible often uses generalizations. The book of
Proverbs has many of these. Proverbial sayings, by their very nature, offer
general guidance, not universal assurance. They are rules for life, but rules
that admit of exceptions. Proverbs 16:7, HCSB affirms that "when a man's ways
please the Lord, He makes even his enemies to be at peace with him." This
obviously was not intended to be a universal truth. Paul was pleasing to the
Lord and his enemies stoned him (Acts 14:19). Jesus was pleasing the Lord, and
his enemies crucified him. Nonetheless, it is a general truth that one who acts
in a way pleasing to God can minimize his enemies' antagonism.
Proverbs are wisdom (general guides), not law (universally binding
imperatives). When the Bible declares "You shall be holy, for I am holy" (Lev.
11:45, NASB), then there are no exceptions. Holiness, goodness, love, truth,
and justice are rooted in the very nature of an unchanging God. But wisdom
literature applies God's universal truths to life's changing circumstances. The
results will not always be the same. Nonetheless, they are helpful guides.
Forgetting That Later Revelation Supersedes Earlier
Sometimes critics do not recognize progressive revelation. God does not
reveal everything at once, nor does he lay down the same conditions for every
period of history. Some of his later revelations will supersede his earlier
statements. Bible critics sometimes confuse a change in revelation
with a mistake. That a parent allows a very small child to eat with
his fingers but demands that an older child use a fork and spoon, is not a
contradiction. This is progressive revelation, with each command suited to the
There was a time when God tested the human race by forbidding them to eat of
a specific tree in the Garden of Eden (see Gen. 2:16-17). This command is no
longer in effect, but the later revelation does not contradict this former
revelation. Also, there was a period (under the Mosaic law) when God commanded
that animals be sacrificed for people's sin. However, since Christ offered the
perfect sacrifice for sin (see Heb. 10:11-14), this Old Testament command is no
longer in effect. There is no contradiction between the later and the former
Of course, God cannot change commands that have to do with his unchangeable
nature (see Mal. 3:6; Heb. 6:18). For example, since God is love (see 1 John
4:16), he cannot command that we hate him. Nor can he command what is logically
impossible, for example, to both offer and not offer a sacrifice for sin at the
same time and in the same sense. But these moral and logical limits
notwithstanding, God can and has given noncontradictory, progressive
revelations which, if taken out of its proper context and juxtaposed, can look
contradictory. This is as much a mistake as to assume a parent is
self-contradictory for allowing a 16-year-old to stay up later at night than a
In summation, the Bible cannot err, but critics can and have. There is no
error in God's revelation, but there are errors in our understanding of it.
Hence, when approaching Bible difficulties, the wisdom of St. Augustine is
best: "If we are perplexed by any apparent contradiction in Scripture, it is
not allowable to say, The author of this book is mistaken; but either  the
manuscript is faulty, or  the translation is wrong, or  you have not
understood." (Augustine, City of God 11.5)
G. L. Archer, Jr., An Encyclopedia of Biblical Difficulties
W. Arndt, Bible Difficulties
---, Does the Bible Contradict Itself?
Augustine, City of God.
Augustine, Reply to Faustus the Manichaean, in P. Schaff, ed., A
Select Library of the Nicene and Ante-Nicene Fathers of the Christian
N. L. Geisler, "The Concept of Truth in the Inerrancy Debate," .,
---and T. Howe, When Critics Ask---and W. E. Nix, General
Introduction to the Bible
J. W. Haley, Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible
H. Lindsell, The Battle for the Bible
J. Orr, The Problems of the Old Testament Considered with Reference to
J. R. Rice, Our God-Breathed Book-The Bible
E. Thiele, The Mysterious Numbers of the Kings of Israel
R. Tuck, ed., A Handbook of Biblical Difficulties
R. D. Wilson, A Scientific Investigation of the Old
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