A Primer on Inerrancy (pt. 5)

from Mar 16, 2011 Category: Articles

In this excerpt from John Gerstner’s Primitive Theology, Dr. Gerstner looks at the issue of inerrancy and seeks briefly and non-technically to present a case for Bible Inerrancy that a serious-minded layman can follow and evaluate. Though by no means an exhaustive treatment, it is one that is sound and faithful to the Scriptures. This is the fifth part of the series. Dr. Gerstner has looked at four unsound bases for sound doctrine and is now in the midst of a discussion of a sound basis for sound doctrine.

This excerpt is longer than most we share at the blog, but there was no easy way to break up this point into a series. So stick with it and you should be able to follow Dr. Gerstner’s argument. It’s worth the attention you’ll give it!

Continued from Part 4

4. The evidence for the Inspiration of the Bible is as follows:

a. Men have appeared in history with powers which only God could have given them, namely, miracles. (The discussion of miracles which follows is reproduced from the author’s Reasons for Faith, published by Soli Deo Gloria.)

Concerning miracles there are two important questions to be asked: first, what is the evidence for miracles, and, second, what is their evidential value? If there is to be any argument from miracles, there must first be clear evidence that they actually occur.

Before we proceed to consider the evidence for miracles, let us ask ourselves whether there can be any such evidence. This is a rather absurd question, we grant, but we must consider it. Many persons never face the question at all because they rule out the possibility of miracles before they consider any actual evidence for them. One of the most outstanding Biblical scholars in the country once said publicly, in answer to a question concerning his interpretation of miracles in the Old Testament, “When I meet an alleged miracle, I simply treat it as legend.” This scholar no doubt would not bother reading this chapter or anything like it. He knows in advance that any and all alleged miracles are merely legends. But how does he know it? He does not know it; he merely declares it. However, there are more philosophically-minded thinkers who would say that this professor is right in his conclusion, but wrong in the way he arrives at it. They agree that there is no such thing as miracles, and that records of them must be legends of some sort, but these men attempt to prove their statement and not merely to assert it arbitrarily.

Some would offset the evidential power of miracles by claiming that there never could be enough proof of a miracle in the face of the overwhelming evidence of natural law against it. David Hume once argued that there is more evidence for regularity in nature than for irregularity (supernaturalism); therefore, regularity, and not irregularity, must be the truth of the matter. The argument is palpably unsound, indeed irrelevant. Certainly there is more evidence for the regular occurrence of nature than there ever could be for any supernatural occurrence. But the argument for miracles is not meant to be an argument against the regularity of nature. It is merely an argument against the regularity of nature in every particular instance. Indeed, the argument for miracles rests on the regularity of nature generally. There is no such thing as supernatural events except as they are seen in relation to the natural. And they would not be extraordinary if there were nothing ordinary against which background they are seen. They could not be signs of anything if they were not different from the status quo. When one argues for the occasional miracle, he is, in the same breath, arguing for the usually non-miraculous. If all nature became supernatural, there would be no room for miracles; nothing would be a miracle because all would be miraculous.

At the same time, all the evidence that there is for the regularity of nature generally is no argument at all against the occasional miracle. Such evidence simply argues for the fact that the normal course of nature is natural. It does not rule out or in, for that matter, the possibility that the irregular may happen. It only proves that as long as there is nothing but nature to take into consideration, there will probably be no deviation from the order with which we have become familiar. If there is a God, all the evidence of an undeviating nature from its creation to the present moment does not provide the slightest certainty that nature will continue the same way another moment. The same God who made it, and preserved it in the present pattern for so long, may have fulfilled His purpose in so doing, and may proceed immediately, this moment, to do otherwise than in the past. Only if the evidence for the regularity of nature were somehow to show that there is no being outside nature who can in any way alter it could there be an argument against the possibility of miracles. But this the evidence does not do, does not purport to do, cannot do. Therefore it can never be regarded as an argument against miracles. In the strictest sense Hume’s objection is irrelevant.

What is the relation of unpredictability in modem physics to the notion of miracle? Certainly the universe is no longer thought to be fixed in the sense that it once was. The quantum theory has satisfied most physicists that there is such a thing as indeterminism, or unpredictable behavior, in the laws of nature. As Bertrand Russell has remarked, while psychology in our time has become more deterministic, physics has become less so. Some have utilized the concept of indeterminacy in nature as a wedge for miracle. Having felt fenced in by the arguments based on the regularity of nature, they have welcomed this apparent avenue of escape by which they may remain scientific and still affirm miracles. Indeterminacy runs interference for the power of God, or more piously we should say, makes it possible to believe that God may act miraculously inasmuch as he acts indeterministically in created nature.

So far as we can see, the situation for the credibility of miracles is neither improved nor worsened by indeterminacy. For one thing, indeterminacy is hardly a proven concept. Or, more precisely, it would seem more likely that man cannot in every case determine the laws by which nature operates than that she herself is indeterministic. It is conceivable that in the area of quantum physics, no less than elsewhere, nature is deterministic, and what is undetermined are the laws of her behavior. Nature may be determined, but man has not determined how. If this is the case, the to-do about indeterminism is wasted mental effort.

If nature herself is indeterministic, then what? Then it still would remain highly unlikely that an indeterminism in nature could explain why once and only once, thousands of years ago, a man walked on water, but no one else has been able to do so before or since. Presumably the indeterminism of nature could never be employed to account for such a unique phenomenon. Furthermore, if this is the explanation, Christ Himself was deceived. He should have been surprised to be around at the one moment when nature was behaving differently from all previous times. He should have been as much amazed as the others, unless (and here is the hopeless supposition) He were a downright, sophisticated fraud who took advantage of the most unbelievable opportunity that the world could imagine. Furthermore, there is the matter of His actual predictions, which would be rendered impossible in an indeterministic universe.

Some would affirm the a priori impossibility of miracles because of the nonexistence of God. They rightly state that a miracle, to have meaning, must be the work of an intelligent, powerful, and purposive divine being. In this we go along with them. Then they say that since there is no such being as this, there can be no such thing as a miracle. And we agree with that. If it can be shown that there is no God, it will also be shown in the same effort that there is no miracle. But the non-existence of God cannot be proven, while His existence has been.

What is the positive evidence that miracles have occurred? A discussion of this subject with any degree of fullness would require an entire volume itself. We must delimit the field. And so we will consider here only the miracles of Jesus Christ.
Everyone knows that the Gospel narratives (considered only as good historical sources, not necessarily inspired) tell of a large number of miracles that were performed by Christ. A great many more are alluded to, but not related. This is so generally known that I feel perfectly safe in assuming the readers’ acquaintance with the accounts of Christ’s healing the sick, opening the eyes of the blind, raising the dead, walking on water, multiplying a boy’s lunch to feed more than five thousand hungry persons, and a host of other such deeds.

No one disputes the fact that the Gospel accounts tell of Jesus Christ’s performing miracles. There have been attempted naturalistic explanations, to be sure, but so far as we know no one has attempted the job of showing that all accounts of the apparently miraculous are merely accounts of natural events which were misconstrued by the writer or reader. For example, who would care to show that John’s report of Thomas’ placing his fingers in the side of the resurrected Christ to feel his former wounds was not meant to present an essentially supernatural event, namely, physical resurrection? Persons may or may not believe what John says, but how can they doubt that John presents them as happening? As even naturalistic New Testament critics usually say, there is no doubt that the early Christians believed these supernatural things did occur.

If it is granted that the biographers of Christ say He wrought miracles, the only questions remaining are: can these writers be believed (please note again we are not, in a circular fashion, assuming their Inspiration but the well-established historical value of their manuscripts), and, if so, what do the miracles prove?

Can these writers be believed when they relate that Christ wrought supernatural deeds or miracles? Well, why not? People are assumed to be reliable in their relating of events unless there is some reason for thinking that they are not so. What reason is there for thinking that these writers are not reliable? So far as they are known, they have the reputation of honesty. Was there some bias present which would have tended to corrupt their honesty in the case of these miracles? There is no evidence of bribery by money or position. Their reporting of miracles as vindications of Jesus did not bring them into good standing with the powers in their own community. It caused Peter and John to be imprisoned and all the apostles to be brought into disfavor with most of the Jewish community. It stands to reason that a person cannot advance his own worldly interests by championing a person condemned by law and executed as a criminal.

But what about their other-worldly interests? Is it possible that these men believed that by shading the truth and relating what did not occur they would thereby gain an interest in heaven? Did they think that because of their lying about “miracles,” Jesus would own them in the next world?

Merely to ask this question dispels it. The whole picture of Jesus is that of a teacher of righteousness who required His disciples to make righteous judgments and speak the truth which alone could make free. It would not seem reasonable to believe that they could have thought they would please Jesus by telling lies about Him, and actually earn His praise in the world of perfect righteousness to come.

Or could they have been sentimentalists? That is, could they have supposed that, by telling what they knew to be untrue, they could nevertheless do good? Could they have felt that if people could be persuaded that this Jesus was a supernatural being with supernatural powers, they would then obey Him and walk in paths of righteousness? Could they have supposed that by doing evil this great good would come? Is it possible that they, knowing there were no miracles, were nonetheless willing to follow Christ to the death, but that others would need the help of such superstition?

There is an insuperable objection to this “pious fraud” idea. As we have already mentioned, Christ Himself is depicted as a teacher of strict truth and righteousness. If the disciples had told deliberate and huge falsehoods, their very zeal would have led them into the grossest kind of disobedience. They would also have known that their own souls were in peril, for Christ had said that a good tree brings forth good fruit, and that He would say to liars in the last day, “I never knew you; depart from Me, ye that work iniquity” (Matthew 7:22–23). “If you love Me,” Christ had said, “keep My commandments.” It seems incredible that the disciples, in their very zeal for Jesus, would zealously disobey His commandments, that in their desire to be with Him and advance His cause they would seal their own doom.

So much for the inherent improbability of such a course on the part of the disciples. But there is equally great difficulty in the external situation. Even if it were conceivable that the disciples so forgot their Master’s teachings and their own spiritual interest as to violate this grossly His canons of righteousness, it does not at all follow that those to whom they addressed themselves stood to be deceived. After all, the disciples would have foisted these “pious frauds” upon those among whom they were supposed to have been done. They would have told the very people who were supposed to have been present on the occasion the fiction that Jesus fed five thousand. They would have told the people of Cana themselves that Christ turned water to wine at a feast in their small community, which everybody in that community would immediately deny ever took place there. The “pious fraud” idea, even if it were psychologically thinkable, could be historically thinkable only if it were perpetrated in a different land at a different time. But that in the same generation these things could have been preached as having occurred among the very people who knew that they had not occurred is hardly credible.

Although the witnesses of these events might have gotten away with such reports among highly credulous strangers who knew nothing about the events in question, they could never have deceived the very people among whom the miracles were supposed to have taken place. It would therefore seem impossible to impeach the honesty of the witnesses. All the factors actually favor their honesty, which must be assumed in the first instance unless there is some reason for questioning it. But when we examine any possible reasons, we find none. Candor requires that their record be received as a record of what they thought took place.

But the question still remains whether what they thought took place actually did take place. Granted that they meant to tell the truth, but did they succeed in their honest intention? With the best of intentions men have often been grossly mistaken. Is it not possible that these writers were similarly mistaken? In other words, there remains the question of the competency of the witnesses.

We note, in the first place, that they had the best possible jury to test their competency—their own contemporaries, among whom the events related were said to have taken place. If the writers had been palpably contradicted by the
facts, the people to whom they related the facts would have been the very ones to expose them. If they had been misguided zealots, the non-zealots to whom they spoke could have spotted it in a moment and repudiated it as quickly. If they had garbled the actual events, eyewitnesses in quantity could have testified to the contrary. If these historians had actually been bigoted, benighted fanatics with no historical sense, incapable of distinguishing between fact and fancy, between occurrences in external nature and in their own imagination, thousands of Israelites could have made that very clear.

As a matter of fact, their record went unchallenged. No man called them liars; none controverted their story. Those who least believed in Jesus did not dispute the claims to His supernatural power. The apostles were imprisoned for speaking about the resurrection of Christ, not, however, on the ground that what they said was untrue, but that it was unsettling to the people. They were accused of being heretical, deluded, illegal, un-Jewish, but they were not accused of being inaccurate. And that would have been by far the easiest to prove if it had been thought to be true.

Actually, the Israelites of Jesus’ own day, so far from denying his miraculous power, admitted it. They not only admitted it, but they used it against Him. Precisely because He did miracles, they condemned Him. That is, they attributed the miracles, which they admitted He did, to the power of the devil (Matthew 12:24). We are not here concerned with the accusation, but with the incidental admission. What we are concerned with here is that hostile, contemporary leaders freely admitted that Jesus’ miracles were true, however evil they held their origin to be. The fact they did not dispute, only the interpretation of it. The witness they did not question. The competency of the writers was not doubted by the very generation which alone could have challenged it. It seems highly irrelevant on historical grounds for subsequent generations to raise such questions when the generation in which the events are said to have occurred did not do so. Later generations may object on philosophical grounds, or argue a priori that these things could not have happened. Those arguments have to be met on their own grounds, as we have attempted to do. But the historicity of certain events cannot be questioned by people who were not there when they were not questioned by the people who were there. We may or may not agree with the Pharisees’ interpretation that Christ did His works by Satan’s power, but we are in no position to contest the Pharisees’ knowledge of what He did. They were there and we were not.

This corroborative testimony of contemporaries, friends, and, especially, enemies, is the main vindication of the competency of the Gospel witnesses. But there is also the feasibility of the documents themselves. These miracles are not fantastic things such as those recorded in the apocryphal accounts of Jesus. They are of a piece with the character of Jesus Himself—benign, instructive, redemptive. He Himself was a special and unique person; it is not surprising that He had special and unique powers. Indeed, it would be more surprising if He had not had them. Never man so spake, never man so lived, never man so loved, never man so acted. As Karl Adam has said, Jesus’ life was a blaze of miracle. Miracles were as natural to Him as they would be unnatural to other men. He was a true man indeed, but He was no ordinary man. Miracles are surprising when attributed to other men; it would appear surprising if they had not been associated with this man.

Some have asked whether the miracles may not be naturally explained as the result of Christ’s unusual knowledge and understanding of the laws of nature. May he not have possessed some occult acquaintance with the secrets of nature that enabled Him to unleash certain of her powers in a perfectly natural manner, however supernatural it may have appeared to those unfamiliar with these esoteric laws?

To this there are several negative replies. For one thing there is a moral objection. Jesus Himself referred to His works, or allowed others to refer to them, as evidence of His supernatural power. It would have been palpable dishonesty to do so if He had known all the time that He was merely exerting secret, but natural, power. Thus He asked His disciples, if they could not believe Him for His words’ sake, to believe Him for His works’ sake (John 14:11). He reassured the doubting John the Baptist of the reality of His Messianic calling by appealing to the miracles He wrought (Matthew 11:2–4). He did not object when Nicodemus said, “We know that thou art a teacher come from God: for no man can do these miracles that thou doest, except God be with him” (John 3:2). The blind man whom He healed believed on Him because of this miracle, and Christ took full advantage of that belief to press His claim to being the Messiah (John 9:35ff.). He refuted the Pharisees who had criticized Him for forgiving a man’s sins by pointing out that He was able to do the equally supernatural thing of instantly curing his sickness. “Whether is easier, to say, Thy sins be forgiven thee; or to say, Arise, and walk? But that ye may know that the Son of man hath power on earth to forgive sins (then saith he to the sick of the palsy), Arise, take up thy bed, and go into thine house” (Matthew 9:5–6).

The Messianic prophecies had frequently foreseen the Messiah as a miracle worker. Jesus not only knew this, but obviously pointed to Himself as qualified in this very particular. If He did not believe Himself to be possessed of supernatural powers, He must have known Himself to be engaged in palpable fraud and deliberate deception. So from the moral angle, if Christ wrought what He wrought merely by an unusual knowledge of nature and not by supernatural power, He must have been a lying deceiver. That is more difficult to believe than any miracle with which He has ever been credited.

Second, on the supposition before us, His own argument in His defense would be an argument against Him. That is to say, when the unbelieving Jews claimed that He did His works by the power of Beelzebub, He replied, “How can Satan cast out Satan? And if a kingdom be divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house be divided against itself, that house cannot stand. And if Satan rise up against himself, and be divided, he cannot stand, but hath an end” (Mark 3:23 ff.). But if Christ really did not do true miracles, but only took advantage of His superior knowledge to play on the credulity of His times and later times, then He would have been perpetrating fraud as the prince of deceivers, and as such He would have been the devil’s instrument. For He regarded the devil as the father of lies, and He would have been his son. Not only is such a thing utterly unthinkable from a moral standpoint, but it is, as His argument makes it, utterly irrational. For Satan would have been using lies to destroy his own kingdom. By these frauds of his servant Jesus, he would have been establishing the kingdom of Jesus, which was founded on truth and which called men to repent of their sins. Thus Satan’s house would have been divided against itself, for Christ, the son of lies, would by His lies have been destroying His father’s kingdom of lies.

Third, if Christ had the kind of knowledge which this theory attributes to Him, such knowledge would have been as miraculous as the miracles it attempts to explain away. For centuries before and for centuries after, no other person but this solitary, untutored Jew knew how to walk on water. Modern science has performed many amazing feats in this century, but it still is nowhere nearer than it was in Jesus’ day to multiplying loaves and fishes by a mere word. Machines can compare, classify, and do hitherto unbelievable things, but with all their powers they still depend on the feeble mind of man, their inventor. They cannot even put a question to themselves, but can only operate with their wonderful efficiency along channels made for them by men. Certainly none of them can anticipate an historical event tomorrow, much less predict the fall of a city a generation hence as precisely as Jesus did (Matthew 24:1ff.). This explanation of the miracles of Jesus, therefore, requires as much, if not more, explanation than the miracles. It would be the miracle to end all miracles. Intellectually, it would be straining the gnat and swallowing the camel.

To be continued…

Excerpted from Primitive Theology by John H. Gerstner.