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Saint Stephen's  Slip-up


The God of glory appeared to our father Abram while he was still in Mesopotamia, before he lived in Haran. 'Leave your country and your people', God said, 'and go to the land I will show you.' So he left the land of the Chaldeans and settled in Haran.  Afer the death of his father, God sent him to this land where you are now living. (Acts 7:3-4)

This quote is from Stephen at his finest hour, when he faces down the enemies of the Gospel and casts the truth of Christ into their teeth.

However, Stephen's description of Abram differs slightly from the account in Genesis.  Abram went to Haran, not because God appeared to him, but rather because his father Terah brought him (Gen. 11:31).  There is no record at all that God appeared to Abram in Mesopotamia.  It appears rather that the LORD spoke to Abram in Haran, for the LORD said,  "Leave your father's household", and Abram left his father's household in Haran, not Mesopotamia. (see Genesis 12:1-3).

An additional discrepancy appears when we compare the Genesis account with Acts 7:4.  According to Stephen, Abram left Haran after his father died.   But according to the numbers in Genesis, Terah lived another 60 years after Abram left for Canaan, which may be seen as follows:

Terah's age at Abram's birth:  70   (Genesis 11:26)
Terah's age when Abram left for Canaan: 145 (Genesis 12:4)
Terah's age at death: 205 (Genesis 11:32)
Some commentators claim that Terah was actually more than 70 years old when Abram was born .  But in order for Terah to have died before Abram's departure, he must have been 130 years old when Abram was born. If this were so, then why would Isaac's birth in Abraham's hundredth year have been considered miraculous (Genesis 17:17)?

It appears that Stephen, though inspired by the Holy Spirit (Acts 6:15, 7:55) still slipped up in his recollection of Genesis.  Did Stephen make factual errors?  Or did he have special access to ancient facts which were not recorded in Scripture?  It's possible that he learned them from Jesus, who in His divinity would naturally be familiar with everything which happened to Abram and not just what is recorded in Scripture. But when Jesus became a man, He laid down His  divine prerogatives (Philippians 2:7), including His omniscience.  So would he teach the Old Testament beyond what is written in the Scriptures?

If Stephen did indeed err slightly in his Scriptural references, there are significant consequences in our understanding of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  We can no longer hold to the "plenary verbal inspiration" doctrine, which maintains that the Holy Spirit stamped His seal of special approval on every single word which was uttered by those who were inspired.  But if this be so, then how can the Scriptures be said to be inerrant?

I maintain that we can still hold to inerrancy in the strongest practical sense:  namely, that the thoughts and intentions of God's heart are clearly and uncorruptly expressed through the Scriptures, unaffected by the minor inaccuracies which creep in because of human fallibility. Practically, this means that a genuine  interpretation of God's message through His Word does not depend on shades of meaning of single words, on duration or exact chronological order, on finicky details or on esoteric numerical patterns.  Rather, the LORD expresses Himself cumulatively, through entire episodes (e.g. the sacrifice of Isaac) or through a person's life history over several years (e.g. Joseph), or through entire parables which can be visually and immediately grasped in their totality.  In this way, God's message is robust -- it can readily be translated into any language, and is impervious to small textual corruptions and variants.

Though I continue to maintain the inerrancy of Scripture, there is an important caveat.  Though God speaks inerrantly through His Word, His  word is inerrantly understood only by those whose hearts and minds are pure.  But who can claim to have a pure heart?  Hence, we all understand the Scriptures only imperfectly.  Nonetheless, our hope and earnest expectation is that by drawing closer to Him, our hearts are increasingly purified by sprinkling of His blood, the washing of His Word, and the fire of His Spirit.  The eyes of our hearts are opened wider and wider, and we become increasingly sensitive and cognizant of His voice through the Scriptures.

Prayer: Father, thank You that You see fit to express your infallible Word through fallible instruments.  May Your truth and your glory be expressed through us, through every word,  every action, every encounter, .  You WILL be glorified through our lives, whether or not we cooperate with you--Father, help us to willingly and knowingly cooperate with You, and not unwittingly oppose  You.  Help us to set our course and dress our sails so as to catch the wind of Your Spirit, that we might be propelled by your divine energy rather than our  own frantic flailings.  Teach us to  draw our strength from stillness, quietness and confidence in You.



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Last Revised: June 22, 2003

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