Saturday, July 25, 2015
I reject the doctrine of biblical infallibility. There. I said it. The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that this doctrine does a lot of harm, and no good at all. I mean, I can see the appeal of affirming the infallibility of Scripture. It sounds like the right thing to say. It's what church people want to hear you say. I can see how it would be appealing to think that I had a clear source of truth that I could turn to, knowing that it is always right, even when it seems wrong. But my experience shows me that this does not work.
Before I continue, let me provide a brief definition of infallibility so we are all on the same page. Infallibility says that when Scripture says something is moral and good, we can trust that it is. This is different from inerrancy which claims that the Bible does not contain any errors. The Bible may have the name of king wrong, or a scientific fact mixed up, or a typo, but the claim of infallibility is that you can nevertheless trust it in matters of faith, salvation, and morality.
That would sound really reasonable, but it just does not work. The most obvious examples of this are the horrifically immoral things we find endorsed in the Old Testament. Consider the appallingly immoral things we see ISIS doing now -- mass slaughtering of men, women and children, taking women as sex slaves, driving people from their homes, fleeing for their lives -- all of this can also be found in the Old Testament endorsed as God's will.
But we don't need to go to genocide to see this. We see it on a more subtle scale when pastors shame and ostracize people in the name of "church discipline" based on Paul's teaching in Corinthians. This leads conservative pastors like Mark Driscoll to kick people out of church for disagreeing with him, telling their congregation to not associate with them at all, cutting them off from friends and community. It similarly leads pastors like John MacArthur to counsel parents to disown their gay kids.
The reason this happens is authoritarian unquestioning obedience. On its own merit the above is rather obviously terrible advice. It immediately raises red flags of "wow, that seems really cruel and harsh" and it is. The only reason it is followed is because of an appeal to authority, not to merit. The problem comes because we are taught that it is bad to question the Bible. The Bible says we should do this, and so if we question it, we are doubting God Almighty. The Bible is infallible. So parents who love their kids do something deeply hurtful to them because they are trusting that authority.
The result is that instead of helping us to be more moral, this blind trust in a book (or in some authoritarian guy's interpretation of it) leads us to stop thinking morally, to not listen to our conscience screaming at us "Hey, this feels really wrong, be careful here!"
A slippery slope: "If one thing is wrong, it all is"
One common argument is that if we question one thing about the Bible, then we will question all of it, and it will all come undone like a thread you pull on that unravels the whole sweater.
Consider that this is not true anywhere else in life. If you say one wrong thing, this does not mean everything you say is wrong. If you don't like one song by a band, this does not mean all their songs are bad. The reason this would apply to the Bible is only of we were assuming that we should be able to unquestioningly trust everything and anything it says as good moral advice to be blindly followed. Then it is true that if you cannot blindly trust one thing in the Bible that you cannot blindly trust anything in the Bible.
That's true, you can't. You need to discern, to think morally as you read. If there is a slippery slope here, it is a slippery slope away from an authoritarian fundamentalist way of reading the Bible characterized by unquestioning obedience. That is, once we begin to ask questions motivated by compassion we will move away from an immoral authoritarian way of reading, and towards a moral way of reading. Yes, that's right, to read the Bible in an authoritarian unquestioning way is to read it immorally. It directly leads to hurting people, and hardening one's heart. So I hope I can jump on a slippery slope away from that.
Picking and choosing (and why it's a moral imperative)
Another common argument I hear is the idea of picking and choosing-- as if this were something bad. Yes I pick and choose. You should, too. That's what morally responsible adults do. That's called discernment. This is not the same as cherry-picking. Cherry-picking does not mean picking the good cherries and leaving the rotten ones. That would be smart. Who wants to eat rotten cherries? Cherry-picking means misrepresenting the evidence to make it look like everything is nice, covering up the bad stuff. Cherry-picking is another way of saying whitewashing. Liberal Christians do that when they act as if the Bible were only about inclusion and compassion and caring for the poor, and obscure the fact that while the Bible indeed does contain all these good messages, it also has some pretty awful stuff as well that they would not endorse. These bad (read: immoral) parts of the Bible are not simply a matter of misinterpretation on our part (that happens, too of course). There really are some parts of the Bible that are just bad and wrong even when you know the original languages and understand the cultural context. Because of this reality, we need to have a way of reading that allows us to differentiate between the truly good and inspiring parts, and the immoral and bad parts. The key here is not learning exegesis (which is just the science of identifying what it being said), but learning to read morally. Unfortunately this is something that is largely neglected if not outright ignored in seminary where future pastors are trained. That's a real problem.
Is Jesus the infallible Word of God?
This is something I have claimed. But it's important to be clear what this means. People often object that everything we know about Jesus we know from the Bible, so how can we say Jesus is infallible if the Bible is not?
If we were wanting to claim that the words of Jesus in the Bible were infallible, then this would be a valid point. We might be tempted to think that we could just "read the red letters" of Jesus and this would solve all of our problems. However this is not true. We also need to engage our moral brains as we read the words of Jesus. There is a long history of people using the teachings of Jesus to promote bad things like counseling women to remain in a physically abusive marriage as a way of "suffering for Christ." Now, I do not think for a moment that this is what Jesus intended at all with his teaching on non-resistance, but it underscores the point that if we do not discern, if we practice the way of unquestioning obedience -- even with the teaching of Jesus -- that this will inevitably lead to hurtful applications, because we can only follow something right if we understand it. Otherwise we will, because of our lack of understanding, turn something good into something bad. Faithfulness is not possible without understanding.
So saying that Jesus is the infallible Word of God cannot mean that we can unquestioningly and unthinkingly follow the words of Jesus in the Bible. That is immoral. Jesus wants us to learn to be moral like he was, and that involves learning to question authority in the name of compassion like he did. The goal is to have the mind of Christ, not to mindlessly follow Christ's words. That's the difference between being a disciple and being a drone.
What affirming that Jesus is the infallible Word of God does mean is that we recognize that there is something about who Jesus was, and his way, that captures the heart of who God is, who we are meant to be, and what goodness and love look like. So we follow in that way, we struggle and stumble and question and seek to grow in the way of Jesus, to grow in our understanding to see and think about ourselves and others like Jesus did, to have our actions be characterized by Christlikeness.
This involves opening our hearts in faith and trust, but it does not involve shutting off our brains and conscience, but rather just the opposite. It means fully engaging our hearts and minds to the way of Jesus -- not as something we can capture and possess, but as a goal we humbly seek. The Bible can be a vehicle used by the Spirit to lead us into that. Scripture serves a servant function here leading us to a living Christ who wants us to become more human, more moral, more thoughtful, not less.
For all these reasons, I reject the doctrine of the infallibility of Scripture. From what I can see, this doctrine is all too often used to promote unquestioning obedience. That way of reading is immoral and hurts people. When this doctrine does not lead to this, it seems to function as a rather meaningless affirmation that serves no purpose other than sounding like the right thing to say, the thing that church people want to hear you say. I really cannot see a plus side to affirming infallibility. That is, I do not see how anything good or worthwhile or important is lost by tossing it overboard. So I affirm the infallibility of the living Christ who is the eternal absolute Word of God, and reject the infallibility of a book. I want to let that book lead me to Jesus, not replace him.