Tag: Inerrancy

What is the Bible? Pt3: A ‘Ground’ for Truth?

This is Part 3 in a series of posts about the Bible.  (See Part 1 and Part 2)  The format of this series is an imaginary conversation between 2013 Me (in bold) and present-day Me (in regular type).

2013 Me: I’ve been thinking about our conversation about inerrancy, and I’m not convinced.  I realize that thinking about the Bible in terms of inerrancy doesn’t do justice to its awesome stories and its ability to change my life.  But honestly, I’m so full of doubts right now and I’m really hoping that, with a little work, I can make the Bible into an absolutely true, God-given document, and then I’ll be able to base my subsequent truth-claims on the Bible!  I don’t mind squishing the Bible a bit to make that happen.

2016 Me: Let’s take a minute to really think about this “ground of truth” business.  Let’s assume for a moment that fundamentalist Christians are right and that God really did “write” the Bible word for word.  Let’s say that God really cares as much as you do about pure facts.  And let’s also imagine that you’ will eventually resolve all of the potential contradictions that you notice within the Bible.  Now what?  How do you get that Truth off the pages?

I’d just read the Bible, get the Truth, and use that to answer all my questions, of course!  How hard could it be?

It could be very hard!  Consider the sheer multiplicity of Christian denominations (by some accounts, there 9,000 of them), many (most?) of which claim that their own specific beliefs are clearly supported by Scripture and that everyone else is getting it wrong.  Let’s not forget that both pacifists and violent colonists, slave-owners and abolitionists, Luther and his Catholic enemies all passionately argued that the Bible is on their side.  If it’s really so easy to find the meaning of Scripture, then why do Christians find support for so many contradictory beliefs in the same Bible?

Obviously, most people interpret Scripture incorrectly because they want to force the Bible to confirm whatever they already believe.  But I won’t do that; I’ll stay open and let the Bible correct me.

In your US History class, you had to read a sermon by a pro-slavery Civil War-era pastor.  Did his use of the Bible seem particularly forced?

I remember that sermon.  Honestly, he didn’t sound very different from the Christian speakers today who talk about how the Bible condemns homosexuality.  They all seem genuinely concerned about what the Bible has to say.  The scariest part of reading that sermon in history class was that he was so persuasive!  It really seemed like the simplest interpretation of Scripture supports slavery.

So maybe intentional mishandling of the text doesn’t explain the diversity of interpretations of the Bible.  But if it’s not a problem of intentional misreading of the Bible, then how do so many people get so many different meanings from the same book?

Perhaps the context in which you read a verse, a passage, or the entire Bible itself determines what meaning you end up with.  Maybe different people interpret the Bible differently, and that’s why they come to such differing conclusions.

That’s it!  I know how to make the Bible Absolutely True again!  I bet the Bible was most true back when it was first written down – you know, back in its original historical context.  But most Christians aren’t historians, so they read the Bible out of the correct context!  If I just do some research and find out what the Bible originally meant, then I can finally side-step all of this ambiguity and get to the one true meaning of Scripture, and after that I’ll be able to ground truth in Scripture!

In one sense, I agree with you.  If you’re going to treat the Bible as a bank of true information, then you have to specify which context it should be read in, and the original historical context probably has the best shot at being “correct.”  But here’s the problem: by picking one specific and complicated method of interpreting the Bible, you have made it impossible to ground Truth in the Bible.

Wait – why not?  Why can’t I have both?

Judging between different interpretations of the Bible requires you to make truth-judgments before you interpret the Bible and have its meaning to work with.  If the meaning of Scripture is going to be true, you must already have your Truth before you start interpreting it, or else you’ll likely interpret the True document incorrectly and end up with non-Truth.  If you need to work out a correct method of interpretation before you crack open the Bible, then the meaning of the Bible is dependent on your opinions about truth – and not the other way around!

Reading the Bible requires assumptions: assumptions about which translation of Greek/Hebrew to English is best, what the words in your English translation mean themselves, how to reconcile seemingly contradictory verses and passages, what is literal and what is figurative, etc. etc. etc.  The text can’t tell you which assumptions to make in order to get the right meaning; even if the Bible did include a methodological prelude, you would need to make a bunch of assumptions on your own before you could even read that!  What you bring to the Bible determines what you can find in the Bible.  Again, if you need a concrete example of just how big a difference interpretive assumptions can make, look to the shocking diversity among “Bible-believing” denominations.

In order to turn the Bible into the “ground of Truth,” you would need to first elevate your own interpretive decisions and assumptions to the status of Absolute Truth.  Otherwise, a limited, human interpretation of a limitless, Absolute Truth remains, for all practical purposes, limited and human.

You ruin everything!!

Sorry.

First of all, I don’t forgive you.  Second of all, I’m going to ignore all of your confusing theoretical ideas.  I want to find the meaning of the Bible in its original context anyway.  Maybe I can get past your theoretical roadblocks once I have the original meaning in my hands.

Fine.  Then next time, we’ll talk about the Bible within its original historical context – a topic that I’ve explored through one college class (I took New Testament at Virginia Tech, taught by the incredible scholar and professor Elizabeth Struthers Malbon) and the 16 books on that subject that I’ve read on my own.

Click here for “What is the Bible? Pt4: Historical Document?

What is the Bible? Pt 2: Inerrancy

This is Part 2 in a series of posts about the Bible.  The format of this series is an imaginary conversation between 2013 Me (in bold) and present-day Me (in regular type).  In the previous post, we (I? I’s?) explored the problems with thinking about the Bible as the exhaustive answer book.  But what about inerrancy?

2016 Me: Last time, we talked about how your curiosity is inevitably going to bring up questions about the Bible.  How have things been going since that little revelation?

2013 Me: Not well!  Once I stopped assuming that the Bible is true, I started to notice all kinds of problems:  God’s command to commit genocide seems to contradict the command to “love your enemies”, James seems to disagree with Paul about faith vs. works, Mark and John have Jesus cleansing the temple on opposite ends of his ministry, –

2016 Me: -I’m gonna have to stop you there because we don’t have all day.  I get your point.  Sounds like someone is having doubts about inerrancy!

I don’t have any idea what that word means.

“Inerrancy” is a term that many of your favorite pastors and speakers would use to describe the Bible.  It means that the Bible is totally error-free from the smallest detail to the most recurring theme – this includes everything it says about God, morality, science, history, etc.

Side note: The generally accepted statement of the doctrine of Biblical Inerrancy was written in 1978 and can be found at this link.  (It’s worth noting that even that document makes two giant qualifications: (1) The Bible can contain a “lack of modern technical precision” while still counting as “inerrant” (2) Only the original manuscripts of the books in our Bible are inerrant, even though no one claims to have access to those documents.  (We only have older copies.)  For an Evangelical Christian’s problems with inerrancy, check out this post.

First of all, the official version of inerrancy seems way more comfortable with error in our Bibles than I would’ve expected.

Second of all, I think I’m supposed to believe in inerrancy, but it’s not working anymore!  I bet that many of the contradictions I’ve noticed in the Bible can  be resolved, but what if even just one of them remains?  I don’t know how to think about the Bible apart from inerrancy, but I can’t honestly believe that the Bible is inerrant until I explain away all of the potential errors that I notice – and there are many!  How can I make it work again?!

When certain Christians oppose inerrancy, they tend to bring up that exact problem.  If your faith is based on a completely error-free Bible, then you’re always one  error away from a crisis of faith.

(For more on that, scroll down to “The Language of ‘Inerancy’ and its Dangers” on this Evangelical seminary’s website and/or check out Chapter 5 of this awesome book by James D.G. Dunn.)

I guess that makes some sense.  But let’s suppose that I am eventually able to resolve each apparent contradiction once and for all – then could I finally go back to inerrancy?  I miss my old relationship with the Bible?

Maybe you could.  But maybe you shouldn’t go down the road of inerrancy even if the Bible seemed completely free of contradictions.  Although most of your favorite Christian speakers and churches would call the Bible inerrant, does inerrancy really match the practical ways of reading the Bible that you learned in church?  After all, much of your formation in church had to do with Bible stories.  But how could a story be free from error?

I don’t understand the problem.  Saying that a story is error-free just means that it accurately reports historical events.

So what about the parables that Jesus tells in the Gospels?  Are those accurate historical reports?

Well, no; parables are made up.  Parables aren’t the same as history reports.  They’re a different genre.  But excluding the parables, why couldn’t the other Bible stories be inerrant historical accounts?

If the entire Bible is inerrant, then the Parable must be completely true, too – even the parables.  And if parables could be meaningful (and perhaps in some sense “true”) without being historically accurate, then should we really expect that we can do justice to the other Bible stories by thinking of them in terms of inerrancy?

On a more practical level, thinking about stories primarily in terms of “lack of error” makes for awkward reading.  After all, when you were growing up in church, were you taught to treat the other stories in the Bible just like an error-free World History textbook?  Do you read the stories about Jesus in the same way that you read the stories about Napoleon?

I guess not.  Bible stories are supposed to change us, but I’ve never experienced that kind of transformation in history class.  And aren’t we supposed to read the Bible in order to hear from God?  Hearing from God isn’t the same as just learning accurate information.  I guess I can see how inerrancy could cause me to miss the point.

Wait – are you trying to trick me?  Just because there’s more to those stories than true history doesn’t mean that they aren’t also historically accurate.  Inerrancy isn’t necessarily wrong unless those events didn’t really happen. 

Please don’t rule out inerrancy!  I really, really want a foundation for truth, and inerrancy might help me get one!

First of all, remember that Hebrews 4:12 calls the “word of God” “living and active.”  What if the Bible is living and active?  Maybe treating the Bible as a “foundation for truth,” to use your analogy, is like building a house on any other living thing (like a lion, for example): construction can only begin after you’ve killed and flattened out the creature.  Living and active things don’t make for very good foundations.

What does that even mean?

Don’t worry about it.

Second of all, I’m not trying to convince you that the Bible stories didn’t actually happen.  I’m just trying to show you that the official description of the Bible that you grew up with, summed up best in the doctrine inerrancy, can actually get in the way of reading the Bible.  At the end of the day, if you try to treat the Bible as primarily error-free lists of information, then you can easily get bogged down with addressing apparent contradictions, reduce stories to history lessons, and forget to listen for God.

If your doubts have problematized your earlier view of the Bible, why not get an upgrade while you’re here?

That will have to wait for another time.  Right now I need a break.

Fair enough.  Next time, we’ll talk about truth and interpretation.

Click here for What is the Bible? Pt 3: A ‘Ground’ for Truth?

Review & Reflection: The Last Word by N.T. Wright

The first theology-type book that I ever read was The Last Word by N.T. Wright, a British priest (now retired) and New Testament scholar.  After at least six bitter months of heavy doubting, I finally decided that if my doubts weren’t going away any time soon, I might as well think about them, and if I was going to think about them, I might as well see what people who are smarter than me have to say about them.  I browsed the Religion section of my college’s library for weeks.  Eventually I checked out The Last Word because it seemed to address many of the topics on my mind at that time, including postmodernism, homosexuality, and the Bible.

(If you search for “The Last Word by N.T. Wright,” you might have trouble finding it.  Turns out, it was re-published with a different title a few years after its original publication.)

I returned my library copy years ago, but last summer I picked up my own copy of The Last Word at a used books store.  Recently, I’ve spent some time flipping through the pages of The Last Word.  I also re-discovered the giant “report” that I made for this book when I first read it, back in 2013.  Somehow I managed to write down 44 pages’ worth of summaries and reflections on a book that was only 146 pages long.  To say that I read this book carefully on my first go would be an understatement.

Looking back through my old notes, I’m struck by how much The Last Word resonated with me when I first read it.  Right around that time, I was discovering intellectuals who were a part of the type of Christianity that I grew up with (Evangelical Christianity).  They challenged me to think about my faith in a more complicated and sophisticated way than I had as a kid/teenager.

N.T. Wright became very meaningful to me in this context.  On the one hand, Wright reminded me of the Christianity that I grew up with: he emphasized Biblical Authority, a life of faith, individual morality, and the centrality of Jesus.  I was encouraged to find a combination of Evangelical Christian flavor and thoughtfulness without the threatening, dismissive, and defensive tone of many vocal American Evangelicals.  Reading his book gave me the hope that maybe my doubts wouldn’t necessarily destroy the beautiful and meaningful parts of my childhood faith.

On the other hand, Wright’s careful thought and articulation was able to point out problems with Evangelical Christianity (especially the American version).  I was relieved to know that I wasn’t the only one who felt like my childhood beliefs needed some sort of upgrade. At that time, postmodern philosophy was the main boogie-man spooking my faith, so Wright’s commitment to go “through” postmodernism “and out the other side,” rather than defensively dismiss it without much thought (like so many loud American Evangelicals) confirmed my own sense that my doubt would not be “fixed” until after I had really taken postmodernism seriously.

In particular, I appreciated how biblical Wright’s description of the Bible seemed to be.  Many conservative Evangelicals vehemently insist that the Bible must be described using the language of “inerrancy” and/or “objective truth,” despite the absence of such language in the Bible.  By contrast, Wright’s description of the Bible uses language and themes that can be found within the Bible itself.  He seems to care enough about the Bible to describe the Bible on its own terms.

For Wright, the Bible is an extension of the kingdom of God, bringing all of Creation under God’s creative and redeeming rule.  God uses the Bible to empower, heal, and guide the Church, especially by giving us stories to read and live within.  The Bible isn’t a dead set of handy facts; it’s a living and active Word from God that change lives.

Wright’s take on the Bible isn’t antithetical to the “Biblical inerrancy” model that is so popular in conservative Evangelical circles.  Like American Evangelicals (and unlike many progressive/liberal Christians), Wright says that we can’t criticize or disagree with what the Bible says.  Although Wright isn’t satisfied with the paradigm of inerrancy, he certainly isn’t arguing that the Bible does have errors.  At the end of the day, N.T. Wright’s description of the Bible comes off as a more substantial and biblical version of inerrancy.

Since reading The Last Word, I’ve read nine more books by N.T. Wright.  Yet none of these books really resolved all of the questions that I had hoped they would.  Quite the opposite: today, some of my favorite thinkers are the people who Wright was writing against.  Even so, skimming back through the Last Word has reminded me that N.T. Wright was a crucial help to me along one leg of my journey of faith and thought.  N.T. Wright’s writing helped me to imagine a peaceful relationship between my faith and critical thinking without resorting to the anxious and defensive attitude of my seemingly doubt-free church friends.