03 November 2015

Our error-free, perfect bible?

It’s not enough to trust the scriptures. Some of us gotta include impossible claims for them.

Inerrancy /ɪn'ɛr.ən.si/ n. Belief the bible contains no errors of any kind.
[Inerrantist /ɪn'ɛr.ən.tɪst/]

We Christians put a lot of trust in the scriptures. We’re trusting their authors to steer us right when it comes to God, to Christ Jesus, to salvation, to eternal life. We’re using them as confirmation that the stuff God tells us personally, the stuff he reveals to Christians as we follow him, is valid. We’re basing an awful lot of our beliefs on the bible. It had better be up to the task.

I believe it is. As far as God and Jesus and salvation is concerned, the bible’s infallible. It is an accurate, trustworthy, truthful description of the stuff we need to know to connect with God, and corrects us when we go astray. That’s why God inspired it, why Christians kept it, and why we read it. 2Ti 3.16

Inerrantists claim this isn’t good enough. They insist the bible has no errors. At all. Period.

’Cause in order for the bible to be authoritative, inerrantists figure it has to be perfect—as they define perfect. Errors would make it imperfect. Therefore it can’t have any. And anything which appears to be an error or discrepancy in the scriptures, simply isn’t. Can’t be. There’s gotta be a reasonable explanation for it, and with a little investigation they’ll find it. But it doesn’t matter how much it looks like an error: There are none.

Why do they believe this? Mostly because humans are creatures of extremes. “You believe the bible’s trustworthy? I believe the bible is absolutely error-free. Hah. In your face. You don’t have faith. I have faith.”

Meh. That’s not faith. That’s wishful thinking. ’Cause the bible contains many things which at first glance look like errors. And when you look at them in a little bit more depth… well it’s really hard to explain why they’re not errors. Numbers of people or armies, once you bother to do the math, don’t add up. Genealogies don’t line up, and even Jesus has two significantly different genealogies. Parallel passages, like stories about King David from 2 Samuel and 1 Chronicles, or about Jesus in the four gospels, or Paul’s background in Acts and Galatians, differ in the details. There are proverbs which not only contradict one another; it’s like they’re meant to. The author of Proverbs deliberately put two of them next to one another.

Proverbs 26.4-5 KWL
4 Don’t respond to a fool’s foolishness, lest you be compared to them.
5 Respond to a fool’s foolishness, lest they become wise in their own eyes.

Despite what young-earth creationists would have you believe, the Genesis creation stories can’t stand up to scientific scrutiny. Historical anachronisms got added. Names got mixed up. Details got shuffled.

The simplest, clearest, and briefest explanation for all these things? Errors.

Really minor errors. Let’s be clear: These are trifling errors which don’t get in the way of the bible’s trustworthiness. When it tells us God loves the world enough to send us his son, Jn 3.16 there’s not some contradictory verse elsewhere claiming no he didn’t. Little details aren’t gonna get in the way of our beliefs about God and salvation.

Inerrantists don’t understand how people like me can still trust the bible, yet think there are errors in it. Which is kinda goofy. Don’t you have people in your life whom you trust? And you know they’re not perfect, ’cause no one but Jesus is; but when it comes to particular fields of expertise, they’re the ones you always go to. Same with the bible: The prophets and apostles and Jesus are the go-to experts about God. They won’t lead us astray.

But they aren’t gonna get every factual detail correct, and anyone who regularly, honestly reads their bible is gonna find their slip-ups. And even if they haven’t yet, I guarantee you the atheists have found ’em. They’ve made lists. They fling ’em in Christians’ faces for fun.

And they don’t bother me. I trust God way more than that.

“If it has errors, toss the whole thing out.”

Errors in the bible don’t bother me, but they bother the crap out of inerrantists. For good reason: They’ve made inerrancy a make-or-break belief. If the bible has errors, Christianity’s gotta go.

I’m serious. I grew up in a Fundamentalist church, and that’s precisely what I was taught. “The bible has no errors. And if it had any errors, we couldn’t trust it. It’d be unreliable. We couldn’t trust anything it taught us about God. We’d have to be rid of it. We’d have to throw it out.” They really did threaten to throw it out. That’s how hardline people get about inerrancy: The scriptures stand or fall based on it. And because they’re hardcore sola scriptura type Protestants, it means Christendom stands or falls based on it. No bible, no Christianity.

It’s basic logic, they argue. Imagine a big giant run-on sentence. A string of things like “Adam is tall, and Ben is old, and Carl is asleep, and Dan is shouting,” and so on down to “and Zach is eating.” Now, according to the rules of logic, if all these statements are true (i.e. Adam actually is tall, Ben actually is old, etc.) the sentence is logically true. And if any of these statements are false (i.e. Dan quit shouting), the sentence becomes logically false. It’s like those strings of Christmas lights where when any one bulb burns out, the whole string won’t work.

That, Fundamentalists insist, is our bible. Any verse in error? Throw the whole book away. It’s all error.

Okay yes, that’s how logic works when we’re determining the truth value of one sentence. It’s not how logic works when we apply the rule to entire books. Or a book collection like the bible. Fr’instance I have a copy of the Encyclopedia Brittanica. (I bought the CD-ROM version, but for fun let’s say I bought the 32-volume print version.) And say I found an error in one of its articles; say it reports Abraham Lincoln was born in 809, not 1809. Simple misprint. But following Fundamentalist logic, I need to make a bonfire of all 32 volumes, then climb to the highest building in town with a bullhorn and proclaim, “The Brittanica is wrong! Let no one be led astray by the devil-corrupted editors of the Brittanica!”

Christians and pagans alike recognize the Britannica’s an authoritative reference tool. Same with the Oxford English Dictionary, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or almanacs, biographies, concordances, desk references, thesauruses, etc. Now, do any of us believe any of these references are inerrant?

Of course not. That thought maybe never occurred to you till I asked you that. But realistically, we all know humans make mistakes. No matter how many fact-checkers they have on staff, some goofs slipped through all these reference materials. Does this mean we can’t use these references? That we gotta stop crediting them as authoritative? Nah. That’d be stupid.

But when it comes to the bible, inerrantists threaten to throw it away.

Hiding the errors.

Most Christians don’t even think about inerrancy. We just trust the bible. As we should.

We figure the scriptures are accurate when it comes to God. As for the discrepancies, we really don’t care. So 1 Kings says Solomon had 40,000 horse-stalls, and 2 Chronicles says he had only 4,000. 1Ki 4.26, 2Ch 9.25 NASB Big deal. One of the writers goofed. Either way, Solomon had a lot of horses… in violation of Deuteronomy 17.16, by the way.

Inerrantists totally care, and as a result they’ve produced several books which deal with these “bible difficulties,” or “hard sayings,” or “hard passages.” I own a few: Gleason Archer’s New International Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties, and Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe’s Big Book of Bible Difficulties. A lot of the more conservative bible commentaries are likewise edited by inerrantists. And when they don’t stick their heads in the sand about the “problem scriptures,” they’ll go through the most foolish twists and turns in order to explain them away.

Sometimes we won’t even notice these discrepancies, ’cause they’re invisible. Y’see, some translations, like the New International Version, deliberately hide them. Seriously. In the NIV, both 1 Kings and 2 Chronicles say Solomon had 4,000 stalls. 1Ki 4.26, 2Ch 9.25 NIV You wouldn’t know there was any discrepancy unless you read the footnote in 1 Kings, and who reads footnotes? The NIV’s translators believe it’s more important to support inerrancy than show people what the bible actually has in it.

It’s for this and many other reasons, by the way, I consider the NIV wholly unfit for serious bible study.

Hiding the fact you’re no inerrantist.

While most Christians don’t fret over inerrancy, many churches surely do. Among Fundamentalists, inerrancy is a mandatory belief. If you don’t care whether the bible has errors, or if you dare suggest it has any, inerrantists will insist you’re trying to undermine the bible, faith in God, Christianity, the kingdom, everything. According to their churches and organizations’ faith statements, the bible is inerrant. State otherwise and you’re a heretic.

I used to work for a Christian school which included inerrancy in their faith statement. Whenever people applied for a job, they had to agree to the faith statement. In my application I simply crossed out the word “inerrant,” initialed it, signed off on the rest, and told the principal what I’d done. If he had a problem with my differing belief, or wouldn’t hire me because of it, so be it. I wasn’t gonna lie. Thankfully he didn’t care. Neither did his successors (though I doubt any of ’em double-checked my application).

Other organizations and churches and leaders absolutely do care. New college presidents will take it upon themselves to boldly stand up for inerrancy, change the school’s faith statement to reflect this, then purge the faculty of any non-inerrantists among them. Ministries which don’t even teach bible will suddenly draft a new faith statement and likewise purge the staff of its non-inerrantists. All in the name of Fundamentalism.

Hence I’ve known a lot of Christians who don’t wanna lose their jobs over a Fundie witch-hunt, so they took it upon themselves to redefine “inerrancy” till it’s something they can believe. Till they can claim, “Yes I do believe in inerrancy,” and sign any faith statement you give ’em. It’s the old George Costanza con, “It’s not a lie… if you believe it.”

Nah. It’s a lie. Here are a few of ’em.

Inerrant in its original manuscripts. This is the most common form of fake inerrancy: Claiming the original drafts of the bible had no errors, but our copies… well, there might be a few errors. But they sure weren’t there when God first had ’em written. When Mark wrote his gospel, he didn’t make a single error. When Paul dictated his letters, neither he nor his secretaries miswrote. Over the centuries, mistakes were made. But the originals were pristine.

How do we know this to be true? Well, we don’t. Same as inerrancy itself, people believe it because they wish it were so. Can’t prove it though. The originals vanished a long time ago.

Now, when people claim the bible has no errors, is this what they’re thinking? Are they talking about the original bible, or their bible? ’Cause when you say the original was inerrant, you imply the current bible—their bible—isn’t. And that’s hardly what people mean by inerrancy.

Limited inerrancy (or “inerrancy of purpose”). These folks believe the scriptures are totally, infallibly accurate when they describe God and salvation. It’s why they were written, after all. But in every other subject, which they weren’t primarily written to deal with, the authors weren’t trying to be fully accurate. If they mixed up any details, so what? They got God right, and that’s the important thing.

Y’know, this is basically what I, and most other Christians, believe. But I don’t call it inerrancy. Because it’s not. It’s infallibility.

And again, is this what people mean by inerrancy? Inerrancy means no errors period. Not no errors in one particular subject area. Limited inerrancy means limited errancy.

Full inerrancy. Or so they mislabel it.

This is the view embraced by most of the conservative “inerrantist” scholars I know. Millard Erickson spelled out how it works in Christian Theology:

The bible, when correctly interpreted in light of the level to which culture and the means of communication had developed at the time it was written, and in view of the purposes for which it was given, is fully truthful in all that it affirms. Erickson 259

In simpler terms: When the apostles wrote the New Testament in the first century, they were “right” as far as any first-century person was concerned.

What about “right” as far as a 21st-century person is concerned? Nope. We know more about science and history and archeology than they, so some of their statements about such things would be considered “wrong” to us. We also have different standards about factual accuracy, exact quotes, precise numbers, and chronological order. Them, not so much.

For example, we should not expect that the standards of exactness in quotation to which our age of the printing press and mass distribution is accustomed would have been present in the first century. We ought also to recognize that numbers were often used symbolically in ancient times, much more so than is true in our culture today. […]

Suppose a hypothetical case in which the bible reported a battle in which 9,476 men were involved. What then would be a correct (or infallible) report? Would 10,000 be accurate? 9,000? 9,500? 9,480? 9,475? Or would only 9,476 be a correct report? The answer is that it depends upon the purpose of the writing. […] This applies not only to the use of numbers, but also to such matters as the chronological order in historical narratives, which was occasionally modified in the gospels. Erickson 261-62

“Full” inerrancy sounds an awful lot like “limited” inerrancy, don’t it?

John Piper, in discussing how the synoptic gospels don’t present the Jesus stories in the same order, likewise points out how the ancients didn’t think this sort of thing mattered.

… 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 […] because it was not their basic intention to give a rigid chronology of Jesus’ ministry. […] Their intention was rather to give a faithful presentation of the essential features of Jesus’ 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’ miracle working is then bracketed together with the Sermon on 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.

Piper, “How are the Synoptics without error?”

So the bible has no errors… provided you’re not particular about accuracy. Again: Is this what people think “inerrancy” means when you claim you’re an inerrantist?

Proper inerrancy means the bible has no errors. Period. No caveats. Everything in the bible is absolutely accurate. When Genesis describes the sun going round the earth, Ge 19.23 that’s because it does, and Copernicus and every modern-day astronomer was wrong. When 2 Chronicles describes pi as equaling 3 instead of 3.1419, 2Co 4.2 that’s because it is, and every mathematician is likewise wrong. Science shmience. Trust the bible.

Erickson called this “absolute inerrancy.” And of course it’s absolute: That’s what “no errors” means. “No” is an absolute statement. “In-” is an absolute prefix. It doesn’t mean “no errors, as far as the ancients knew.” It doesn’t mean “no errors, but only in the originals.” It doesn’t mean “no errors about theology, but maybe errors of other kinds.” Inerrancy means no errors. It’s an absolute claim.

The dirty little secret in Christian scholarship is that no legitimate bible scholar believes in inerrancy. Pastors may. Laypeople will. They’ll think they have to, ’cause others insist it’s heresy not to. But scholars can’t—’cause we actually read our bibles. For some of us, our seminaries showed us where the errors are. If we studied Christian apologetics, some of us read skeptics’ lists of bible discrepancies. Heck, we wrote whole books on “bible difficulties” about ’em!

The reason any scholar, and many a pastor, claims to be inerrantist, is so they can keep their jobs. They don’t wanna get fired by absolutist college presidents, board members, pastors, and laypeople. They lack the guts to admit inerrancy isn’t orthodoxy, and can’t be proven by any honest examination of the bible.

A doctrine of men.

Inerrancy came out of the Fundamentalist movement in the early 20th century. Christians were understandably upset by skeptical scholars who were picking apart the bible, claiming all of it was mythology, and none of it was true. Or trustworthy. Or inspired. So they swung to other extreme.

They claim it’s because they have such great faith in the bible. And in God, and his son, and his apostles and prophets. But is inerrancy something Jesus or his apostles taught? Is it something they stated in the scriptures? No in both cases. Oh, they’ll claim that’s what Jesus meant by saying the scripture cannot be broken, Jn 10.35 KJV but u dýnatai lythínai i grafí/“the scripture can’t be loosed,” or interpreted loosely so we can evade their clear meaning—as some of their inerrantist explanations will do—is precisely what our Lord meant.

Infallibility is totally in the bible, but inerrancy isn’t. Nor is it in any of the historic Christian creeds and teachings. Early Christians considered the bible perfect, but inerrant isn’t perfection; that’s a whole other deal. And inerrancy was invented by Fundamentalists. They’re the source of this teaching. When Christians talk about their faith that the bible has no errors, we’re really talking about faith in them: We’re trusting the Fundamentalists to be correct about the bible.

Well my faith’s in God, not men. And Fundamentalists don’t define Christian orthodoxy, no matter how vigorously they insist they do. In fact, insisting on inerrancy injures Christianity and damages faith. Where people would ordinarily dismiss a minor inconsistency—who cares just how many angels were seen at Jesus’s tomb?—now we’re forced into a false dilemma: The stories must match. We have to dismiss parts of one story, and pad parts of another, and justify all these alterations, and prove the inconsistency isn’t there. That, or reject the bible and denounce Christianity and Christ.

And when we pretend an inconsistency isn’t there, we blind ourselves to the truth. Jesus is the truth, Jn 14.6 and blinding ourselves to it means we’re gonna stop growing in Christ. We’re gonna avoid the bible lest we find more inconsistencies, and be caught in further dilemmas.

Or worse, we’ll accept the false premise, “Throw it out if it’s not inerrant,” and quit Christ. But most Christians don’t go to either extreme. They simply become hypocrites who claim they’re inerrantist, yet aren’t, and undermine faith that way. These options all suck. I say ditch them all. Plus the inerrancy.

When you find occasional minor inconsistencies in the bible, do as you do when you find them in the encyclopedia: Note where they are, then work around them. Who was right about the number of Solomon’s horses: 1 Kings or 2 Chronicles? Pick a side and move on. Or figure, “What’s it matter?” and move on.

You’ll find these inconsistencies change none of the important facts: Who Jesus is, what God did, what God expects of us, how we can be saved. None of ’em get in the way of a growing relationship with Jesus. None of ’em hinder faith. In fact we’re driven to trust God more. Because we recognize while the bible isn’t perfect, God absolutely is.