Premise 1: Whatever Jesus Christ taught is true.
Premise 2: Jesus Christ taught that Scripture is inerrant.
Conclusion: Therefore, Scripture is inerrant.
The above is a logically deductive argument, more specifically a syllogism. The form of this argument is such that, if the premises are true, the conclusion must be true. I have stated the premises in normal English for ease of reading, but they can be stated more formally to make clear the logical structure of the argument:
Premise 1: Whatever is one of the teachings of Jesus Christ is true.
Premise 2: That Scripture is inerrant is one of the teachings of Jesus Christ.
Conclusion: Therefore, that Scripture is inerrant is true.
The above argument follows the simple syllogistic form:
All Xs are B.
A is X.
Therefore, A is B.
Given the validity of the deductive form of the argument, the only way to challenge the argument rationally (reasonably) is to challenge one or both of the premises. Again, if the two premises of the argument are both true, then the conclusion must be true. Conversely, the case for the soundness of this argument rests on the evidence supporting the two premises. This does not mean that no premise may be used for which we cannot provide compelling proof that would satisfy everyone. For example, in a discussion between Catholics and Protestants, there will be no need to defend the premise that Jesus rose from the grave, since both sides accept this claim as fact. In a discussion between Protestants and Buddhists, on the other hand, this claim cannot be assumed as fact but must be defended with evidence. In this context, my argument is aimed at persuading any and all professing Christians that Scripture in inerrant. That includes but is not limited to Mormons. Anyone who professes to believe in Jesus Christ should, if I have presented the argument properly, find this argument persuasive. Still, in this presentation I will focus on presenting the evidence supporting my argument to Mormons.
Although the argument is simple, the defense of the argument need not be simplistic. There is considerable evidence that can and should be considered pertaining to the premises of the argument. In the remainder of this post, I will discuss briefly the basis for accepting the two premises of my argument. I make no apologies for the length of this treatment; it is necessary if the argument is to be understood properly and if the evidence for its premises is to be appreciated.
First Premise: Whatever Jesus Christ Taught Is True
Mormons should have no trouble assenting to the first premise of my argument: whatever Jesus Christ taught is true. Obviously, I would not make this a major premise of an argument intended to persuade atheists or Jews or Buddhists. But the belief of Latter-day Saints that Jesus Christ was Jehovah and that he came into the world as a human being for our salvation obviously demands assent to this first premise. The following statements nicely illustrate the usual if not uniform stance that the LDS Church and its leaders take on this point.
“A dictionary defines a Christian as ‘one who professes belief in Jesus as the Christ or follows the religion based on [the life and teachings of Jesus],’ and ‘one who lives according to the teachings of Jesus.’ Thus two characteristics identify Christians: (1) they profess belief in a Savior, and (2) they act in harmony with the Savior’s teachings. Faithful members of the Church, called Saints or Latter-day Saints, qualify clearly in both characteristics.”--Joseph B. Wirthlin, “Christians in Belief and Action,” Ensign (Conference Report), Nov. 1996, 70.
“For followers of Jesus Christ, nothing has more authority or significance than his very words.”--Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 4:742.
I sincerely hope that we do not need to debate this premise. If Jesus Christ taught something, then those of us who call ourselves Christians should accept what he taught as true.
Past experience leads me to anticipate that although Mormons will almost certainly have to agree to this premise, some of them will demand to know on what basis I accept it. That question is really a diversion from the present argument in its present context. Logically, anyone who accepts both premises of the argument must accept the conclusion, regardless of their reasons for accepting those premises. If you accept the first premise for reasons that differ from mine, that may be interesting, but it has nothing to do with the soundness of the present argument.
Still, I don’t mind giving a short answer to the question. I am convinced that everything Jesus Christ taught is true because I am convinced on historical grounds that he resurrected from the grave. Jesus’ resurrection proves that he was sent from God, as he claimed. To anticipate another objection, the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus does not depend on the belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. Simply looking at the sources from an historian’s perspective, examining the evidence and seeking to determine the best explanation for that evidence, leads me to conclude that Jesus’ resurrection is historical fact. Evangelical scholars have produced numerous excellent works defending the historicity of the Resurrection in just this way. A good introduction to the subject is Gary Habermas and Michael Licona’s book The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2004).
If someone claimed to speak for God and then backed up his claim by rising from the dead, I consider his resurrection ample validation of his claim. Therefore, I accept that everything that Jesus Christ taught is true.
Second Premise: Jesus Christ Taught that Scripture Is Inerrant
I expect that the debate will focus on this second premise. My claim is that Jesus Christ taught that Scripture is inerrant. If this premise is true, then, given that whatever Jesus Christ taught must be true, it would follow that Scripture is indeed inerrant.
A. Defining Terms
Before proceeding further, it is crucial to define terms.
By Scripture I mean any and all texts that are extant, inspired by God, and properly treated as normative, foundational, or authoritative writings for the community of the people of God. Note that my definition stipulates three conditions for a text to be considered Scripture.
(1) It must be extant, that is, we must have access to the text. If a text is not extant, it is not presently Scripture. I leave open the question, then, of what to make of a text that was not extant but then becomes extant. Even supposing this can happen, as long as the text is not extant, it is not Scripture.
(2) It must be inspired by God. Obviously, we could engage in a lengthy discussion about what it means for a text to be inspired by God. I suggest that we simply stipulate that what we mean by this is a text that stands apart from other respected Christian literature as the result of God guiding the authors in some way to produce the text as an expression of divine revelation. This definition is deliberately imprecise because, again, I wish to avoid defining inspiration in a way that would beg the question of scriptural inerrancy.
(3) It must be properly treated as one of the normative writings of the community of the people of God. I could use the one-word term “canonical” to denote this idea, but since some people argue that canonicity is a concept that developed after the New Testament period, we might do well to avoid using that term here. Notice that I am not addressing the question of whether all extant inspired texts are Scripture, that is, whether the class of extant inspired texts is identical to the class of Scripture texts. I think this is so, but I am not arguing the point here. I simply stipulate that the term Scripture refers to extant inspired texts that are normative texts of the community of the people of God.
By inerrant I mean that the text, properly read and understood, expresses no false teachings or doctrines, no conceptual falsehoods. Another way to state this is that inerrancy means that the text is fully truthful in what it affirms. If a text of Scripture affirms or teaches T, and if Scripture is inerrant, then T must be true and cannot be erroneous.
Please note that the concept of inerrancy admits of various legitimate qualifications. Inerrancy does not mean that the text must be absolutely precise in its reporting of numbers or of a person’s speech or in its quotation of other sources. It does not entail that the text provides exhaustive information. It does not require that narrative texts recount events in precise chronological order. It acknowledges that copies of the text may have copying errors of various kinds and that translations of the text may not convey the meaning of the text with perfect accuracy. All of these qualifications are consistent with the claim that the text, properly read and understood, is fully truthful in all that it affirms. For a formal statement on the subject that articulates these qualifications in a helpful way, see the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.
Finally, I should point out that inerrancy of Scripture does not mean that Scripture is complete or that the “canon” of Scripture is closed. I do believe that the canon of Scripture is complete, but this is not part of what I mean by inerrancy. Rather, inerrancy simply means that whatever Scripture exists teaches no false conceptions or doctrines. If new Scripture comes along, it will also be inerrant, if it is true that Scripture is inerrant.
Since this premise is the one that Mormons will likely dispute, we must face the question of how one would go about establishing what Jesus taught on the subject of the nature of Scripture. The most important methodological concern is to avoid question-begging approaches. It won’t do for me to argue that Jesus taught scriptural inerrancy merely because Scripture reports Jesus teaching it, since this argument assumes what it seeks to prove. Nor will it do for Mormons to argue that Jesus didn’t teach scriptural inerrancy because their LDS scriptures deny scriptural inerrancy, for a somewhat different reason: such an argument is arguably self-defeating. That is, the argument, “This scripture says that scripture is not inerrant; therefore, scripture is not inerrant,” is self-defeating because it presupposes that we should accept as true whatever scripture says—which is precisely what the argument claims to disprove!
In order to avoid both question-begging and self-defeating arguments, I propose an inductive, historical approach that seeks to determine what Jesus taught about the nature of Scripture from the most historically reliable sources of information about the teachings of Jesus. Notice that I am now considering documents as historical sources, not as scriptural texts (though they may be both). (This is the same method I use to show that Jesus rose from the dead.) In order to make the argument doubly relevant for Mormons, I will also focus on documents that both evangelicals and Mormons revere highly as essential sources of information about the teachings of Jesus. Thus, although my argument is primarily historical, it is also theologically relevant in this context.
Since this argument for my second premise is historical in nature, that means that the argument is inductive in form and its conclusion will be more or less probable. That is, an historical argument does not claim to provide deductively or mathematically certain proof for its conclusion, but rather some measure of factual support for the conclusion. Depending on the strength of the evidence, an historical argument may establish that its conclusion is plausible, likely, probable, or virtually certain. In this case, I will argue that the historical evidence demonstrates that it is somewhere between highly probable and virtually certain that Jesus held to the inerrancy of Scripture. Such a high degree of probability or likelihood is sufficient that the reasonable person should accept this premise based on that evidence.
I propose that the sources on which we should base our historical investigation into Jesus’ teachings about the nature of Scripture are the NT Gospels. I have two reasons for this proposal.
First, historians generally regard the NT Gospels as the most reliable sources of historical information about the activities and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. A few scholars may prefer the Gospel of Thomas or some other source, but one may speak of a broad consensus among historians that the NT Gospels are our best sources of information about the historical Jesus. For example, Bart Ehrman—an agnostic New Testament scholar—has this to say:
“…some of the traditions preserved in the noncanonical Gospels, especially in the Gospels of Thomas and Peter, may be much older than the books themselves, at least as old as some of the traditions in the canonical books. On the whole, though, the noncanonical Gospels are of greater importance for understanding the diversity of Christianity in the second and third and later centuries than for knowing about the writings of the earliest Christians.”—Bart D. Ehrman, The New Testament: A Historical Introduction to the Early Christian Writings, 4th ed. (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 221.
Second, Mormons generally profess confidence in and acceptance of the teachings of Jesus in the NT Gospels, as the following statement illustrates:
“The teachings of Jesus in the New Testament comprise the core of LDS doctrine, and their preeminence is evidenced by their frequent appearance in other LDS standard works accepted as scripture and in LDS speaking and writing.”—Encyclopedia of Mormonism, 1:108.
In using the NT Gospels as the primary source of information about the teachings of the historical Jesus, I am not assuming their inspiration or inerrancy. My method is to treat these texts as historical sources, which means that their information must be compared with other sources of historical information and critically assessed. This method will pay attention to such issues as the sources that scholars think stand behind the Gospel texts. It will also give conclusions about what Jesus taught more credence if those conclusions are supported from multiple strands of material in the Gospels. If an idea appears in more than one Gospel, in different “layers” or sources of tradition within the Gospels, and in different subgenres or types of speech (e.g., parables, discourses, polemical discussions with religious leaders, etc.), these multiple sources strengthen the argument for concluding that the idea was part of Jesus’ teaching.
D. The Most Common Objection
Before examining the evidence from the NT Gospels, I must address up front a common objection that could easily confuse the issue. In examining what Jesus said in the NT Gospels about Scripture, obviously we will be looking at statements pertaining in that historical context specifically to the OT. We all know that none of the NT books existed when Jesus spoke in Galilee or Jerusalem. (We also know that in the NT Gospels, Jesus never refers to the Book of Mormon or other LDS scriptures.) My claim is that whatever Jesus taught about the nature of Scripture should apply to all Scripture, not just the OT. The alternative is to suppose that OT Scripture is inerrant but other Scripture (say, the NT) is not inerrant. This is a plausible position for an Orthodox Jew, but not for a Mormon or for anyone who professes to be a Christian. I have yet to meet any professing Christian who accepted the OT as inerrant Scripture but regarded the NT as errant. Perhaps such individuals exist, but I don’t think this is a viable position in the context of the dispute between evangelicals and Mormons on the nature of Scripture. Indeed, most Christians of whatever religious perspective who deny scriptural inerrancy usually have the strongest objections or criticisms with regard to the OT—and this includes Mormons. Thus, I think we can plausibly contend that if OT Scripture is inerrant, then a fortiori other Scripture must also be inerrant. But if anyone wishes to argue that as followers of Jesus we should view the OT as inerrant but not the NT, let him make his case!
(continued in next post)