Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Without Errors?

Claiming inerrancy for scripture is a moot point and any claim for a literal interpretation is just plain ludicrous.

To be sure, truth is found in the Bible, though not all truth. All the truth one needs to gain eternal salvation is found there. All the truth one needs to live a purposeful life is found there.

However, the idea of an inerrant scripture is neither logical nor productive. In fact it is destructive because it fosters stringent doctrinal stances that divide the Christian community rather than unite it.

There are three things that make claims for inerrancy a moot point. If there were an inerrant scripture, it would have to be found in the original manuscripts of which none exist. Several hundred years separate the oldest known manuscripts from the originals. Also, one cannot make a reasonable claim of inerrancy for the many translations the scripture has gone through. However, even if the translations were made without error, there are many words that do not translate well, if at all, from one language to another, so nuances can vary from translation to translation.

The second thing that makes inerrancy a moot point has to do with interpretation. Even if we could start with an inerrant translation, there are many portions of scripture that beg for interpretation. Only an egoist would claim inerrancy for his interpretation. One only has to look at the many different denominations or varieties of independent churches to realize that scripture does not always get interpreted the same way, and if we all claim truth for our way of looking at things, then the others are in error.

The third issue that gets involved here is that the author’s intent gets lost in our reading and understanding of the text. A modern idea in literature is that the reader completes the text or provides the meaning, not the author. What we know and understand to be the meaning of a text comes from our personal experience and understanding of words. We provide the meaning. When I first heard this, I was skeptical. Over the years, I have come to see the truth of this. Our understanding of any given word is usually only approximately the same as others understand it, rarely exactly the same. Sometimes it is drastically different.

There is also a Biblical reason why inerrancy is a moot issue. I Corinthians 2: 9-16 says truth is revealed by God to those who believe, and believers believe because they “have the mind of Christ.” This implies that Christianity is an esoteric or in group faith. A person believes because of what God has revealed to them, not because they believe the word is inerrant. Once you realize your understanding is a function of the Holy Spirit making something real to you, inerrancy loses its significance. This explains why a particular passage will speak to you today and not tomorrow. How often have you read a passage many times, and then one day you read it, and it comes alive? If God reveals the truth in a passage to you, you will believe it without a doctrine of inerrancy.

People who teach inerrancy of the scripture like to quote 2 Peter 1:21 that “holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit,” which refers to prophecies found in Old Testament Scripture. They argue that this guidance of the Holy Spirit protected the Scripture from error. And they turn to 2 Timothy 3:16 that “all scripture is given by inspiration of God,” to argue for inerrancy. However, verse 15 indicates the passage refers to the scripture of Timothy’s youth, which certainly was not the New Testament of the Christian Church.

The literal nature of scripture is much easier to deal with. We know the Bible is composed of several types of literature: law, history, poetry (which includes metaphors and similes), parables and myths (meaning fictional accounts written to present a truth, not fairy tales). To talk about anything other than law and history in literal terms is ludicrous. Did the trees in Psalms really clap their hands? Was there actually a wealthy man who left his assets in the hands of his servants to take care of while he went on a trip, and one of them buried his? There is a truth to be learned from these things that has nothing to do with the literalness of the words.

When I worked at a skid row mission, there was an Aleut who loved to regale me with the story of missionaries to a tribe of cannibals. The missionaries taught the cannibals to take scripture literally, so when they came to the part that says “this is my body eat it,” the cannibals did.

Doctrines of an inerrant and literal Bible tend to lead to a worship of scripture rather than worshiping the Truth behind those words. Human nature is fond of making “golden calves,” and it is easier to turn the Bible into one than to come to grips with the truth behind the words. There are too many Christians who have a reverence for the Bible based on its presumed inerrancy but never read the book or think deeply about what it says.

As long as I am discussing scripture, I will add my dislike for a major event in its evolution, the dividing into chapters and verses. At first glance, this is a blessing because it allows us to quickly find passages we want to read.

But, it has been a disaster, because it has also made it easy to proof-text instead of having to read passages in their entire context. Christians cannot resist the temptation to find a single text to prove their point and fire it at fellow Christians like darts rather than enter into a reasonable discussion about an entire context.


  1. My brother,
    it's so nice to see, in print, something I can agree with when it comes to the topic of inerrancy and scripture. There's a huge tempest in the Conservative American Evangelical Christian teapot right now over the words that some translators are using to translate "Son of God" and such terms (referred to as "divine familial terms" (meaning that the family is divine, not the terms)) in translations being done for languages used primarily in Muslim contexts. The church of our childhood is especially exercised over the issue. The issues of inerrancy, translation, interpretation, author's intent, reader's role - no wonder we can only see darkly. Yet, many unthinkingly claim remarkable certitude.
    Some day we (heretics) can dissect this in person. Until then, keep thinking the good thoughts.