How Are the Synoptics “Without Error”?
Article One of Bethel's “Affirmation of Faith” reads: “The Bible is. . . without error in the original manuscripts.” There is a wide diversity of opinions about the meaning of “error” in such an affirmation. This is especially the case when the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) are being considered.
I will suggest two definitions of “error,” the first of which I consider proper for judging the reliability of any literature including the Synoptics, and the second of which I consider improper. According to the first, I believe the Synoptics are “without error.”
- A writer is in error when the basic intention in his statements and admonitions, properly understood in their nearer and wider context, is not true. (In reference to the indicative statements, “true” means that what is affirmed corresponds to reality, and in reference to imperative statements, “true” means that obedience of these admonitions is in harmony with reality, i.e., it accords with the will of God.)
- A writer is in error if any of his individual statements is not literally true.
The difference between these two definitions and my own understanding of the truth of the Synoptic Gospels may be clarified by several illustrations from the texts.
The Mustard Seed
Jesus says in Mark 4:31 that the kingdom of God “is like a grain of mustard seed which when sown upon the ground is the smallest of all the seeds of the earth. . .”
According to definition #2 above, Jesus erred here because the mustard seed is not the smallest seed on earth. But according to the first definition, he did not err because his basic intention was not in the least botanical. The point is the great contrast between the smallness of the seed and the largeness of the full-grown shrub. Jesus capitalized on the proverbial smallness of the mustard seed to make a perfect, inerrant point about the kingdom of God.
If we used definition #2 above, the Gospel writers would have to be accused of error in their chronology of the events of Jesus's life. Just one illustration: The story of the healing of the paralytic (Matthew 9:1–8; Mark 2:1–12; Luke 5:17–26), the call of Levi (Matthew 9:9–13; Mark 2:13–17; Luke 5:27–32), and the question about fasting (Matthew 9:14–17; Mark 2:18–22; Luke 5:33–39) follow back to back in all three Synoptics and so refer to the same events. Again, the stilling of the storm (Matthew 8:23–27; Mark 4:35–41; Luke 8:22–25) and the Gesarene demoniac (Matthew 8:28; Mark 5:1–20; Luke 8:26–39) follow back to back in all three Synoptics so that with the verbal parallels one can see that the same sequence of events is being referred to in each Gospel. But Matthew has these last two events before the three cited above, while Mark and Luke have them after these three events. It cannot be both ways.
But the Synoptics are not in error here according to the first definition above, because it was not their basic intention to give a rigid chronology of Jesus's ministry (which Papias said already in the second century, cf. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, III, 39,14ff). Their intention was rather to give a faithful representation of the essential features of Jesus's teaching and deeds. In this particular instance, Matthew probably felt he could best do this by including the storm stilling and Gesarene demoniac scenes in his composition of chapters 8 and 9, where he has gathered ten miracle stories. This presentation of Jesus's miracle working is then bracketed together with the Sermon of the Mount with the identical summary statements in 4:23 and 9:35. Thus we have a literary unit which beautifully and inerrantly sets forth the essential features of our Lord's ministry.
The Long-Proved Tradition
These two illustrations could be multiplied, and other kinds of problems could be discussed (like changes in Jesus's words from one Synoptic to another). But these may suffice at least for an introduction to my understanding of how the Synoptics are “without error”.
I thus gladly align myself with the long-proved tradition: perfectio respectu finis (perfection with respect to purpose). I know no better statement of my own position on this matter than that of the Second Baptist Confession of 1677: “The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain and infallible rule of all saving knowledge, faith, and obedience. . .”
But I think just as important as agreeing with Article One in detail is my deep commitment to the spirit of it. From history, and from my own experience, I can say that it is almost impossible to exaggerate the importance of the Bible. We humans are incapable of finding out what we need so much to know: how to overcome sin, to escape the wrath of God, to become new creatures, to walk pleasing to the Lord. God must reveal this to us or we perish. This he has done, and continues to do, by means of a written Word, the Bible. When a man has understood the Bible, he has understood the revelation of God infallibly, inerrantly and verbally.
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