Monday, October 06, 2008

Biblical Inerrency Revisited

In my post entitled " Things that make me a heretic..." I stated that "I don't need the Bible to be inerrant or infallible." I'd like to say a bit more about the whole "inerrancy" thing. The trouble with words is that people can use the same word but have vastly different definitions of what the word means. It's important to define terms. When I say "inerrancy" I think of the definition given in the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy, which was written in 1978 and is generally considered the rubric for Evangelical inerrantists.

You can read the entire Chicago Statement here.

The Chicago Statement contains 19 "articles" or points. Here is the article which I consider to be the crux of the statement:

Article XII.

We affirm that Scripture in its entirety is inerrant, being free from all falsehood, fraud, or deceit.

We deny that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science. We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.

Of course it is quite easy to find discrepancies and errors in the Bible, particularly in the historical and scientific realms. This does not render the Bible unreliable or uninspired or suspect or flawed. It does, however, point out that our expectations about the Bible might be flawed. The Bible does not claim inerrancy for itself. The closest we come is Paul's statement in 2 Tim. 3:16–17 that, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” There is a big difference between profitable and inerrant.

The Biblical texts were written by pre-scientific people. They did not know what we now know about cosmology, physics, biology, astronomy, etc. They did not have reliable means of communication or fact-checking. Why then would we expect the texts that they wrote to be accurate on such matters? To hold such an expectation is to completely miss the point of what scripture is for and about. It is about a revelation of God to (and through) an ancient people.

Here's one example of a point of errancy: The ancient Hebrews, like the Egyptians and Babylonians of that time, believed that the earth was flat. Scripture reflects this belief. One should expect that scripture reflects this belief, since scripture was written from the viewpoint of these people. That does not make the scriptures any less inspired, or "profitable". It does not make the revelation of God to (and through) these people any less true. (Here's an interesting and detailed article about the flat-earth beliefs of the ancient Hebrews.)

"But," some would protest, "if the Bible is in error about scientific matters, how can it be trusted on theological matters?" An analogy I often use is this: Are you familiar with the story of the boy who cried wolf? It is a story that has been around for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years. Is the story true? That all depends on what you mean by "true". If you mean "Does the story convey an historical event that actually occurred?", then the answer would have to be "Nobody knows". But if you mean "Does the story convey truth?", then the answer is absolutely "Yes." In fact, it is because of the truth that the story conveys that it has endured through times and cultures. Likewise the Bible.

Chris Tilling wrote an excellent series of blogs on the topic of Biblical Inerrancy a couple of years ago. His writings on the matter are insightful and thought-provoking. The comments and discussions that follow each blog are fantastic.

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

One last point I want to make on the topic: If all of one's stock is in the Bible as the revelation of God to mankind, with little or no revelation beyond that, then the felt need to protect the Bible from any form of aspersion is more acute. Such an emphasis on the Bible as the sole source of revelation about God can (and often does) twist into bibliolatry. Steve Falkenberg defines what he calls "the heresy of Bibliolatry" here. What I've experienced is that we can drink directly from the same fountain of revelation and inspiration that the Bible came from. It is the same Lord and God, the same Spirit. We have direct access to hear the voice of God. The caveat is that we must be wary about our own vulnerability to self-delusion and Satanic deception. Our two bulwarks against stumbling off into revelatory error are scripture and community.

The Bible stands as our plumbline. The Bible is often referred to as the "Canon of Scripture". The word "canon" comes from the Greek word kanon, which was a measuring line or a rule or a model. Because of the trustworthiness of the revelation of God that the Bible contains, we measure any direct revelation we receive by the Canon of Scripture and reject anything that comes to us which is contrary. What the Bible reveals to us is that God is love, is gracious, is all-powerful, is kind, is faithful, is patient, is merciful, is self-giving and unselfish, and that God hates how we hurt ourselves and each other. Any supposed revelation from God that does not reflect God's character--that is unloving, unkind, graceless, merciless, oppressive, exploitative, self-aggrandizing, exclusionary--is to be considered highly suspect. The greatest revelation of who God is and what God is like is the person of Jesus Christ. This is why the Gospels are so valuable: They give us a eyewitness accounts of what Jesus was like and what He taught. We know that we are truly hearing directly from God when what we hear is consistent with who Jesus was (and is) and what Jesus taught.

Of course, just saying the Bible is our measure ("The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.") is not enough. The Bible is a collection of historical documents in addition to being God-inspired texts. As such, the responsibility is upon us to correctly interpret the scriptures by being proficient in the languages, cultures, world-views and religious ideas from which the scriptures came. To untether the Bible from it's historical/grammatical/cultural contexts is fly into the wild, wind-blown skies of subjectivism, error and heresy. That's how cults get started.

When we are a part of a God-listening community, we can submit any revelation we have received to the discernment of our community. We serve as checks and balances to one-another. When we err, our brothers and sisters gently restore us to the truth. It is very telling that every cult was started by and revolved around a single charismatic individual who claimed to receive revelations from God which were not to be questioned by his or her followers.

So revelation, whether contained in scripture or received directly, carries with it danger and responsibility. In order to avoid the danger we must accept the responsibility to be diligent, humble, equipped (as in, educated), submitted--not to a leader--but to a supportive, discerning community, and willing to take the risk of faith. This is all much more nuanced and challenging than a simplistic appeal to Biblical inerrancy, but things of value in life tend to be challenging.


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