of mustard seeds and inerrancy

I recently came across Wayne Grudem’s attempt to reconcile his doctrine of inerrancy with NT report of Jesus’ claim that the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds (Matt 13:31–32; Mark 4:31–32). It is part of a larger series of three talks he gave on the subject of the doctrine of inerrancy which are available here (just search for “inerrancy”). The problem he’s addressing is that there are smaller seeds than mustard seeds. So if your doctrine of Scripture incorporates the notion of inerrancy wherein the Bible is accurate in everything it states, this presents a problem.

Grudem’s resolution to the “problem” essentially follows John A. Sproule, “The Problem of the Mustard Seed” Grace Theological Journal 1.1 (1980) 37–42. The argument is based on the claim that the word σπέρμα (‘seed’) in an “agricultural society” means “seed for crops.” In other words, the Greek σπέρμα in the first century would have had a specific reference to seeds used for crops of which the mustard seed was, indeed, the smallest. Thus Jesus’ assertion is not made about all seeds, just that subset of all seeds employed in the early first-century in agriculture.

But there are problems with this argument.

First, at best it is an argument from silence. No other NT text refers to any non-cultivated seeds and so it isn’t clear that this term is restricted in reference to such seed alone (i.e. there is no instance where a reference to another type of seed is made and so we cannot tell what term may have been used in such a reference). There is also little help to be found elsewhere, perhaps only in Gen 1:11–12 (LXX) is there a reference to seeds in general (although that is doubtful in light of Gen 1:29), and that passage uses this term.

What is more, the biblical uses of σπέρμα generally provide clear contextual indicators that there referent is the use of the seed in an agricultural setting — indicators which would be redundant if the referent of the term was already restricted in this way.

In all there are very few literal references to seeds in ancient Greek literature that are not related to the agricultural use of seed, so determining whether the term is inherently restrictive is difficult. Nonetheless, there do exist a few non-biblical uses of σπέρμα which suggest that the term alone incorporated no such restriction. Some examples may be found in Aristotle, Metaphysics, section 1032a and Plato’s Republic, sections 491d and 497b.

The weight of probability thus suggests that σπέρμα incorporates no implicit restriction to a subset of all seeds. Rather, it appears to be a generic term referring to all seeds. Sproule’s and Grudem’s claim would seem to be an assertion made primarily on the basis of the need to prop up a particular view of Scripture, a view which I think needs to be revised.

There are, I believe, other problems with the doctrine of inerrancy affirmed by Grudem and adherents to the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. Perhaps foremost is that the claim that the autographs are inerrant, for this is a claim which is not supported by the Scriptures themselves. That this is so is apparent where the NT treats the LXX as Scripture — that is, when a translation of the Hebrew is treated as equal in authority to the Hebrew text itself. In other words, the NT does not apply a specific restrictive category to the autographs.

Furthermore, it would seem to me that there is some fundamental inconsistency in the idea that God would so supervise the composition of the autographs that they are “inerrant” in this very strong sense and yet both allow the autographs to be lost and the copies to be imperfect when ultimately both tasks of composition and transmission fall within the broad purview of God’s sovereignty.

Ultimately all this points to the inadequacy of the doctrine of inerrancy due to its inability to cope with the Bible we have in front of us today, with the claims the Bible makes of itself, and with the nature of communication and language. In doing so it imposes modern ideals upon the text and so misunderstands it. In the near future I will endeavour to post a follow-up to this post which outlines an approach to a doctrine of Scripture which seeks to take seriously the Bible’s claims about itself.

5 thoughts on “of mustard seeds and inerrancy

  1. Pingback: affirming inerrancy

  2. I listened to those messages last week and agree very much with your analysis. I have a very difficult time wrapping my mind around the fact that intelligent and educated people like Grudem would try to defend the bible that way.Grudem mentions over and over again in his writings that if he were hiring/ordaining/recommending, etc. a candidate that he would not do so if they did not hold to that version of inerrancy. I guess what is hard to understand is why that version of inerrancy is so critical to him.

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