Rethinking the authority of Scripture #1 - why infallibility leads to violence

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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At 9:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow! Infallibility is irrelevant for a book read and interpreted by fallible people. That's important!

At 9:24 AM, Blogger Brent said...

Derek I am so glad you are working on this IMMENSE topic of Inerrancy and how we read the Bible. I too have been wrestling with the traditional views I was taught. I grew up in a Fundamental church. Throughout the years I have engaged many people that use the Bible as the 4th person of the Trinity. In fact, they have to check the Bible first in order to know God. So rather that Presence trumping Scripture...Scripture trumps Presence. I have asked the question if it is legal to know God outside of Judaism? Is it legal to read the Scripture from the lens that it is the Hebrew story of their journey and struggle with God? While we can hold the Scriptures as sacred can we read them as the writers interpretation from their current understanding of God. So when the Sriptures say, "Go into the Promise Land I will give you..." and the Hebrew decides to go take it by violence...can we interpret that as the Hebrew thought God was violent and so used the name of God to support their worldview rather than read it as God's worldview? When the scripture says "God said..." do we read that as REALLY what God said or is that what the Hebrew writer interpreted God to say? I know that this view has the potential to undermine the authority of Scripture in the minds of people but I ask...does it really or does it give us a clearer picture of the Scripture seen as Story and it being a progressive one? Thanks for the opportunity to add our thoughts to the conversation.

At 9:36 AM, Blogger Brent said...

Another way to say this could be...As we progress in our understanding and perspective of God, let's not put a darker image of God over a clearer one. Jesus was a clearer image of God to us than the one Moses had but even Jesus is a floor not a ceiling of our picture of God.

At 3:31 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

So glad you're writing on this, Derek. I, too, am working on a book on this subject as well. I believe more and more people will be headed in this direction. Keep it up, bro.

Have you seen my video challenging inerrancy?

At 9:54 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

Just watched your vid. Great stuff! We're totally on the same page, especially in regard to the motivation behind the questions. Looking forward to your book! If you ever make it up to Northern Cal we should hang out. Just shoot me an email.

At 9:57 AM, Anonymous Derek said...


Yes, I love what your saying. Your summary in the second comment is really quite profound. "Jesus was a clearer image of God to us than the one Moses had but even Jesus is a floor not a ceiling of our picture of God." That last part about seeing Jesus as a "floor" is especially challenging, but it's sooooo right on. Jesus himself said he was our "foundation" that we build on.

At 10:57 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Looking forward to your book as well. You're doing great things, bro. Times are changing. And I'll definitely hit you up to chill if I'm ever up in Nor Cal.

At 7:05 AM, Blogger wake, o sleeper said...

i think that we need to be careful with our descriptions of jesus, here. i think i understand what you want to say, brent (and derek), but to call jesus 'a floor' or even 'a step' is not quite right.
jesus is not a landmark on the road of revelation. jesus was the full revelation of god to us. god was revealed completely and totally to us.
if jesus is the floor, then he is also the ceiling and the walls and the windows and the door and the furniture and...

At 2:15 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Wake o Sleeper,

I can understand the desire to present Jesus as the "floor and the ceiling" as it sounds like we are honoring him in doing this. What I am concerned with however is that we do more than simply giving lip service and platitudes to Jesus, and instead have a perspective that is practical and results in Jesus-shaped lives. While saying that "Jesus is my everything" may make a good love song, I think it ultimately does not result in a theology that leads us to really follow Jesus well.

For example, if Jesus is the ultimate revelation, the final word, we need to ask what that means practically. Does it mean for example that the New Testament gives us the final word on all things? Because the NT says that we should be nice to our slaves, but does not say we should outlaw slavery. So when you and I think it is wrong to own slaves today, are we going beyond that "ceiling" set by the NT? That is, are we being unfaithful to the NT witness?

If it really is a "ceiling" then we are indeed being unfaithful and need to go get some slaves. But I want to instead propose that we need to see the NT as a floor or foundation to start at and that faithfulness to Jesus means continuing in that same direction upwards that he began. That's why Jesus says "you will do greater things"

Now, we can discuss the best way to express all this, but simply to say that "Jesus is the floor and ceiling" is going to get us painted into a corner when we try to use that to actaully practically follow the way of Jesus today. I don't think that this is what Jesus would want us to do.

At 2:55 AM, Blogger Aceofspades said...

Nice one Derek. Glad to have you blogging again :)

At 1:24 PM, Blogger Samurai said...

When people say "inerrancy" or "infallibility" my suspicion is that they are probably advocating for a literal interpretation of scripture. The assumption is of course that literal = truth because if not literal, then we're on a slippery slope to interpretive anarchy. Or so the story goes.

At 1:26 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Everyone go research Universal reconciliation thoroughly, before concluding anything, THEN decide what you must do with eternal hell fire prattling othodoxy. see me universalatonement in a goo gle search eon and eonian do not mean eternal and everlasting, but are NOUNS: AGE and AGE-LASTING. If people go straight to Eternal Hell and burn, what of REV. 20:13-14?

At 11:27 AM, Blogger Steve Finnell said...


In 1955 James Warren Jones founded the "People's Temple" (purportedly a Christian congregation)in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Jonestown , Guyana November 18, 1978. Jim Jones and 900 of his followers committed mass suicide. Jim Jones had previously proclaimed to his people that they did not need the Bible. He told them all they needed was him. He then ripped the Bible and threw it to the ground.

The authority for the "Peoples Temple" was the tradition set by the church, Jim Jones was the church authority. Had the followers of Jim Jones accepted the Bible, and the Bible alone as their authority, there would not have been a mass suicide. The spiritual suicide came first.

Following man-made tradition can lead to spiritual suicide.

1 Timothy 4:1-3 But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons, 2 by means of the hypocrisy of liars seared in their own conscience as with a branding iron, 3 men who forbid marriage and advocate abstaining from foods which God has created to be gratefully shared in by those who believe and know the truth.

Jim Jones was a liar when he told his congregation they did not need the Bible. Are men telling the truth when they says church tradition is the final authority for faith and practice? Do men teach truth when they assert that new books of revelation are from God and they supersede the authority of the Bible.

Do church catechisms, creed books, statements of faith, so-call books of new revelation from God, and other books written by men, annul, displace, supplant or supersede the authority of the Bible?

Mark 7:7-8 'But in vain do they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the precepts of men. 8 Neglecting the commandments of God, you hold to the traditions of men."

Those who deny that God's word is found in the Bible and the Bible alone have a tendency to invent their own doctrines.

2 Timothy 3:16 All Scripture is inspired by God....

Was Jim Jones inspired by God when he said his followers did not need the Bible? There are those who claim church catechisms are the evolution of God's word, are they inspired by God? When men announce that their new books of revelation annul or supplant the Bible, are they inspired my God? If you honestly believe that creed books should be the authority of your church congregation, are you being inspired by God?


(All Scripture quotes from: NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE)

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At 8:52 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


The implication you are making here is that if people don't follow the Bible they will commit mass suicide. If that were true then a whole lot of people would be doing that. Since they are not, the connection you are making just does not make any logical sense. It's like saying "Jim Jones wore shoes. Therefore shoes cause mass suicide." It's a classic logical fallacy.


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