Thursday, July 04, 2013
As many of you know I've been hard at work on my next book which deals with the problem of violence in the Bible -- and in particular human violence done in the name of God -- and how we can confront and wrestle with that as followers of Jesus. I've been taking some time off from blogging and writing online in order to focus on the manuscript, but now I'm at a point where I think I can begin to share some of the ideas of the book and flesh them out with all of you.
I'd like to start with a series of posts which consider (or re-consider) the way most of us have learned to see the Bible. These are some pretty deep seated ideas so I want to approach them one step at a time. So with that in mind I'll be doing several posts with small thoughts that all build up to a bigger whole.
Let's begin with the idea of inerrancy. Inerrancy means that there are no errors in the Bible. The problem is, there are quite a few. So people who want to maintain biblical inerrancy need to do some immediate qualifications:
For example there are many scribal errors in the manuscripts. These are basically typos. So biblical inerrantists will claim that the original manuscripts are inerrant, even if the later manuscripts are not error free. The trouble is we do not have the original documents. We only have copies with scribal errors. So it kind of doesn't matter of there is a document without errors that no one has.
A common reaction to this is to say that the Bible is not inerrant, but it is infallible. That means that there may be little errors (typos) in it, but it is still infallible -- meaning it cannot fail or that it will not cause us to fall by misleading us. So we can trust the Bible to lead us in the right way.
The trouble with infallibility (which again means un-fail-ability) is that people cannot agree on the One Right Interpretation. Christian Smith calls this persistent interpretive pluralism. That means that some people interpret the Bible in ways that others insist is really really wrong. "That's heresy!" they say. Then the others answer back, "No, you are the ones who are completely wrong!" That happens constantly. So to say that the Bible can be trusted to lead us in the right way when we can't agree what that way is becomes meaningless. Hence the title of Smith's book The Bible Made Impossible.
The bottom line is that since we humans are not infallible (that is, we can be misled and fail) it really makes no sense to say that the Bible is infallible. The fact is, since at least some people can, and do, get it wrong (not you of course, I mean those other guys over there), we can't say "just follow this book and you will never go wrong" and then turn around and say "they got it wrong."
Now, the problem of biblical inerrrancy was just about a bunch of typos, then it really would not matter that much. Heck, I just spelled inerrancy wrong in that last sentence. Big deal. The real problem is that the idea of biblical inerrancy and infallibility goes hand and hand with the authoritarian claim that you should follow what the Bible says to do -- even when it seems really wrong and hurtful. So you will find people saying you should, for example, beat your children because this is what the Bible commands, and that you can't trust in your own conscience that tells you this is wrong, but need to instead trust in God's word. "Lean not on thine own understanding" you'll hear them say.
Now that is a very dangerous argument. It basically says "Don't question abuse, violence, and oppression. God said it, that settles it." This was how slavery was justified in the past. It's how a lot of oppression and violence is still justified today. So the problem is not just that infallibility is impossible, but that it promotes unthinking authoritarian violence. It teaches people to not be morally responsible adults, to shut off their minds and consciences. That's really dangerous.
What I notice about Jesus is that he was constantly questioning religious authority, especially when he saw that it was hurting people and shutting them out. So maybe in Jesus we have a model of how we should approach scripture too: Not with unquestioning obedience even when it seems hurtful, but instead by questioning in the name of compassion, challenging authority as an act of faithfulness.
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