Inerrancy and Synoptic Harmonization

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Question: Does the inspiration of Scripture means that it has no errors whatsoever, not even historically? Doesn’t it stand to reason that since imperfect men wrote the Bible there would be some slight inconsistencies that however do not detract from its main ideas? For example, can you harmonize the triumphal entry narratives in Matthew and Mark?

Yes, the inspiration of Scripture means it is without error in all its historical affirmations. Yes, the triumphal entry narratives can be harmonized. However, let me address three foundational issues first.

Theology

If God says that Scripture represents what He intended to communicate, then Scripture cannot contain errors, because God cannot lie (Titus 1:2) or err (Psa. 18:30). God’s use of imperfect men would necessitate that Scripture be flawed, if and only if, humans are unable to communicate a message without error.

Normal human experience demonstrates that humans are capable of communicating a message without error. Therefore, it is not a logical necessity or even a logical probability that a divine message communicated by humans will contain error.

Further, since Jesus himself explicitly states that we should believe “all” that the prophets wrote (Luke 24:25) and that Scriptures cannot be broken (John 10:35), the inerrancy of the OT Scripture is not only a logical entailment of God’s nature, it is the implicit affirmation of God Himself in the person of the Son. Yet, it is the OT, not the NT, where some of the most difficult harmonization problems are found.

Epistemology

Who is the ultimate arbiter of truth: our minds or God? Should finite, fallible, fallen men claim the right to pronounce as errant what God Himself has said ought to be believed?  This is, of course, precisely what we are doing if we assert that Scripture errs historically.

We have undeniable evidence for the resurrection of Jesus. Jesus’ resurrection is the basis for our acceptance of His claims—to be the Christ, to be God, to be the Savior of the World. As One who spoke only the words that the Father taught Him, Jesus’ words have the authority of omniscience behind them. Once we accept Jesus’ authority as the Son of God, we have no legitimate basis for questioning the truthfulness of His claims.

In other words, our inability to see how certain detail of Scripture can be harmonized internally or with external data cannot be a basis for rejecting them. To do so is to implicitly assert that we know enough to know that Jesus was wrong about the trustworthiness of Scripture. What our inability should teach us is that we are finite being with limited knowledge.

Hermeneutics

As a rule of thumb for interpreting any author, we assume coherence until we encounter a necessary logical contradiction. For example, if an author said, “Jesus is God” and “Jesus is not God” and meant the same thing by the words he used, he would be guilty of being self-contradictory.

When we have reason to believe that an author is trustworthy but have found what appears to be a contradiction, we should always explore possible ways in which the contradiction may be resolved. Since God is the author of Scripture, contradiction is not possible. So, when I encounter an apparent contradiction in Scripture, I always assume that I am missing some key piece of data that, if I had it, would resolve the contradiction.

The key to resolving the apparent contradiction between Matthew and Mark’s account of the triumphal entry is understanding that Matthew is presenting a theologically motivated topical account whereas Mark is presenting a chronological account.

Topical arrangements show up in multiple places in the gospels (e.g., the temptation narrative, disciples plucking grain, healing of Jairus’ daughter). Matthew shifts from a chronological narrative to a thematic treatment in Matt. 22:12, putting the cleansing of the temple before he narrates the cursing of the fig tree.

A careful comparison of Matt. 22:12-22 to Mark 11:11-26 shows that Mark gives multiple chronological notes; whereas Matthew uses only general time indicators. For an excellent discussion of the issues involved in harmonizing the gospels, see “The Problem of Apparent Chronological Contradictions in the Synoptics.”


Originally posted in the Ministry Library of God’s Bible School & College.

 

Philip Brown
Philip Brown
Dr. Philip Brown is Graduate Program Director and Professor at God's Bible School & College. He holds a PhD in Old Testament Interpretation from Bob Jones University.
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