FORT WORTH, Texas (BP) -- Years ago while I was a master of divinity student at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, N.C., I took a New Testament Survey class taught by a man who was a notorious "moderate" among Southern Baptists.
This professor had been fired from Southern Seminary in 1958 because of his views on the nature of Scripture, and he was teaching adjunctively at Southeastern that year (1987-1988) as a substitute for one of the regular faculty members who was on sabbatical. Many believe that the teaching invitation extended to him by the then-current administration of Southeastern was an act of protest, as it were, against the Conservative Resurgence in the Southern Baptist Convention. What better way to thumb one's nose at the conservatives than to hire someone who had been fired by Southern Seminary for doctrinal reasons nearly three decades earlier?
Knowing nothing about the history of this professor, I enrolled in my first semester of classes, including New Testament Survey taught by the professor. It did not take long for me to realize that he had a particular agenda. Given the circumstances in the Southern Baptist Convention at the time it was not unusual for the question of the truthfulness of Scripture to be raised in class. However, this particular professor took every opportunity to disparage those who believed that the Scriptures were inerrant. One particular occasion was especially memorable. While discussing the birth of Jesus as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, he paused for a moment, slammed his hand loudly on the lectern, and declared:
"For those of you who believe that the Bible contains no errors, look at this -- Luke says that Jesus was born in a stable while Matthew says that He was born in a house!"
This outburst shocked the class, not only because of its abruptness but also because of its absurdity.
Anyone with any knowledge of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke knows that Matthew never claims that Jesus was "born" in a house. Matthew simply records the fact of Jesus' birth and then immediately transitions to the account of the wise men traveling from the east to Jerusalem and their meeting with Herod. Only after their meeting with Herod do they visit Jesus in Bethlehem -- more than sufficient time for Joseph to secure more suitable lodgings for his family.
Furthermore, when one considers the fact that Herod ordered the slaughter of all children two years old and younger, one should certainly conclude that the visit of the wise men could have been as much as two years after the birth of Jesus -- again, more than enough time for Joseph to find other lodgings for Mary, Jesus and himself. Matthew and Luke chose to provide slightly different details, but no matter how one looks at the differences between these two accounts, there is no reason whatsoever to conclude that these two accounts are contradictory -- not even if one is predisposed to assume that there are errors in the text of Scripture, as my professor certainly was.
This incident taught me much about Scripture and the interpretation of Scripture. First, it taught me that the attitude of the interpreter is central to the proper interpretation of Scripture. Since my professor was on a mission seeking errors in the text, he found errors everywhere, even where no other reasonable person would see an error. On the other hand, someone approaching the Scriptures with an attitude of trust, knowing that God would not mislead us in His Word, would never reach the conclusion reached by my professor.
Second, the sheer absurdity of the professor's interpretation that day taught me something even more important -- if I am going to claim that there are errors in the text of Scripture, then I must first claim that there are no errors in my interpretation of that text. There are really only two alternatives when asking whether the Scriptures have errors. The first alternative is to conclude that my interpretation is valid and without any error and that I am right to conclude that this particular text contains an error.
In other words, in order for me to claim that the Scriptures contain errors, I must first claim inerrancy for my own interpretation. The other alternative is to conclude that I might be mistaken in my interpretation of the text and it is therefore impossible for me to conclude that this text has an error until I have inerrant knowledge of the biblical languages, the historical background, other events not recorded by this particular narrator, any unique idioms that might have been employed by this biblical writer, as well as inerrant knowledge of the political, social, legal, cultural, familial, geographical, topological, and ethnic setting of the text -- just to name a few.
Given these two alternatives, it is clear that the decision of the interpreter is ultimately a spiritual decision. Either I claim omniscience for my own interpretation or I humbly admit that my own knowledge is limited and trust that God will never mislead me in His Word. For this interpreter the decision is clear. Every day I am confronted by my own limitations. I of all people could never claim to have inerrant knowledge of Scripture, much less the historical and cultural background underlying the text. Frankly, it is frightening to consider the sheer audacity required for someone to declare that a particular text contains an error. No! This interpreter is not going to make that mistake. This is one reason among many why I believe that the Scriptures are inerrant.
Kevin D. Kennedy is associate professor of theology at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).