Why I Love My Wonderful Errant Bible

Sunday, July 20, 2014

This week's blog is a guest post by Stephen Fierbaugh:

By Stephen Fierbaugh

As I stood alone in the dark cinder-block guest house where my driver had just dropped me, I was more scared than I had ever been before. I was deep in Africa, and I knew that somewhere not far away there were militants who would kill me without a second thought. A few nights earlier, they showed up at a nearby school dormitory and told the girls to go home, get married and have babies. They had lined up the boys and slit their throats.

I was there to help locals translate the Bible into their own languages. It was the first time some of them had ever read anything in their own language. Our security depended upon the secrecy of the project, yet everyone in the area seemed to know all about us, even the mosque across the road. If only one of these people sold us out, we were all dead.

“Is this worth it?” I asked myself in the darkness. I was at a faith crisis, because a few months earlier, I had discovered that the Bible isn't inerrant. It's one thing to talk about martyrdom in Sunday school. It's another thing to be sweating in Africa worried that you're wasting your life on a lie.
Inerrancy and the Puzzle of Genesis

It started when my small group was studying Genesis. Someone asked, “So which day were plants created?” The first two chapters are two accounts of creation. Chapter one is general creation, while chapter two focuses on the creation of man. Genesis 1 says plants were created on the third day (1:11-13), and man on the sixth day (1:26-31). But Genesis 2 explicitly says that plants weren't created until after man was around to care for them (2:5-7). “Well, it looks like plants in general were created on the third day, but domesticated plants, 'of the field', were not created until after man.” That satisfied him and the discussion moved on.

Do you see what I did there? I superficially examined the passages in question, formed a reasonable hypothesis, and regarded it as a solution without any deep investigation of the text or other evidence to support it. This is a common method of exegesis with difficult passages.

A short while later, I encountered the same passages in my daily Bible study and decided to give them a deeper look. It turns out that my theory doesn't bear out. Chapter 1 clearly refers to all plants. In 2:5, “shrub of the field” actually refers to wild uncultivated plants, while the companion “plant of the field” refers to cultivated grains, so it is all-inclusive of plants in general.

In fact, after considerable study, I discovered that there isn't an easy explanation for the discrepancy in the timing of plant creation between Genesis 1 and 2. This disturbed me. I had always believed that the Bible was inerrant: absolutely true all the time in all ways. As the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, the conservative doctrinal statement on the topic, explains, the Bible is “of infallible divine authority in all matters upon which it touches.” and “without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God's acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God's saving grace in individual lives.” Article XIV affirms its “internal consistency”.

As a practical matter, this doctrine means that the Bible speaks with absolute authority because it is perfect and trustworthy. We can disagree over whether various passages are literal or figurative, or their meaning, but the text does not contain internal contradictions, nor is it contradicted by external science or archeology. It is the one source of absolute truth that we can depend on.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. As the astronauts in 2001: A Space Odyssey discovered about their “perfect” computer, HAL, a claim of perfection is destroyed by a single instance of imperfection. Where there's one mistake, there's likely to be more.

But I've studied the Bible my entire life, and I wasn't prepared to throw it overboard so easily. With deep prayer, I decided to investigate further. I turned to that fount of wisdom, the Internet. It turns out there are plenty of websites eager to provide lists of the contradictions in the Bible. I sat down to study them.

Most of the “contradictions” fall into three general groups. About a third are trivially dispensable. Whatever point they are making isn't coherent enough to understand, or has an explanation so self-evident within the text that it isn't worth further comment.

Another third are paradoxes or have simple explanations. The Bible is full of paradoxes, like grace vs works, or free will vs predestination, but they aren't contradictions. On the contrary, they are one of the many things that makes the Bible stand out among literature, and it hangs together thematically remarkably well because of them, not in spite of them. Likewise, there are plenty of “contradictions” which if taken without any context might appear bad, but really have fairly easy explanations.

Most of the remaining third are more difficult to reconcile. It took study, checking out commentaries or going back to the Greek and Hebrew. But eventually, most of them too turn out to have reasonable explanations. For instance, ancient authors didn't cite texts the way we do, they often arranged items thematically rather than in sequential order, and names are mangled as they are transliterated between languages. An example of this type of contradiction is whether there were one or two angels at the tomb, which varies across Matthew 28:1-2, Mark 16:1-5, Luke 24:1-6, and John 20:10-14. It looks bad until you seriously study it, and then it has reasonable explanations which don't strain credulity.

Troubling Passages

That leaves only a short list. A few passages really do have serious contradictions. They aren't amenable to simple reconciliations. The commentaries either ignore these passages, or spin incredibly unlikely explanations replete with suppositions or facts that simply aren't in evidence.

Some pastors suggest that contradictions are because translators made mistakes. I have a high view of the Forum of Bible Agencies International's (FOBAI) translation standards and Scripture quality, so simply suggesting that the NASB, NET, and NIV translators all made mistakes doesn't cut it. Part of a good (and honest) translation is reconciling parallel passages if the texts can support it, but leaving them different where they are, in fact, different in the Received Text.

In some cases, two parallel passages disagree on a simple number, and one or the other made a mistake. A simple and particularly clear example of this is 1 Kings 7:26 and 2 Chronicles 4:5. First Kings reads, “It was four fingers thick and its rim was like that of a cup shaped like a lily blossom. It could hold about 12,000 gallons” (NET). 2 Chronicles is identical except it says 18,000 gallons. Inerrancy requires perfection, and as trivial as this discrepancy is, it dooms it.

Chronicles is replete with this problem. For example, it completely mangles the account of David's warriors; compare 2nd Samuel 23:8-12 with 1 Chronicles 11:10-14. Or compare 2nd Samuel 24:24 with 1 Chronicles 21:24-25; did David pay 50 shekels of silver (20 ounces, about $375) or 600 pieces of gold (15 pounds, about $298,000) for the field?

I have a lot of empathy for scribes and translators who are working in difficult situations: hot, with poor light, and sometimes fearing for their lives. Chronicles' errors go on and on because the Chronicler, probably Ezra, was doing the best he could, but his sources in the ruins of Jerusalem were in poor shape. He simply made honest mistakes.

The best known of the problem passages are the genealogies in Matthew 1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-38. Entire books could be written (and have!) attempting to reconcile them. After King David, they agree only at the exile (Shealtiel and Zerubbabel). There are at least eight major contradictions in the genealogies, and most of them are complex with sub-problems. A simple list of the contradictions would be a lengthy article of its own. The biggest problems are actually between the genealogies and their Old Testament equivalents.

Explanations and Excuses

This has been a problem since the earliest days of the Church. Paul recognizes it in 1st Timothy 1:3-4 and warns “not to spread false teachings, nor to occupy themselves with myths and interminable genealogies. Such things promote useless speculations rather than God's redemptive plan that operates by faith” (NET). If we claim the Bible is inerrant, then we are forced to promote useless speculation to explain Matthew and Luke's genealogies. Likewise, we spread teachings that couldn't possibly pass a laugh test: Jesus becomes the product of an implausibly long line of unrecorded levirate marriages.

Article X of The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy provides the standard “out” for explaining all of these issues: Only the original autographs are inerrant. If we only had the original handwritten scrolls, we'd see that all these issues vanish. This has two fatal flaws.
The first is that Chicago's God is too small. It posits that God was powerful enough to create a perfect book, and cared enough to do so. But then He either wasn't powerful enough to preserve it, or simply didn't care enough.

The second is that it fails on the factual evidence. We may not have the actual handwritten autographs, but we have several orders of magnitude more early manuscripts than we do of any other ancient text. The New Testament that we have is substantially identical to the New Testament as it existed in the second century. Likewise, the Dead Sea scrolls show that our Old Testament is also as it existed in the time of Jesus. Indeed, some of the mistakes are so troubling because we have enough copies to have deep insight into their nature.


Sweating there in the dark in Africa, I thought about the Bible and wondered if it is worth dying to bring it to people groups who don't yet have it. I thought about the contradictions, and I thought about what the Bible has contributed to my life over the years. I thought about the tears, some of heartbreak and some of laughter. I thought about the intellectual basis for my faith.
I've read thousands of books. The Bible is unique. It is superlative in a way that words don't do justice. As literature, as history, as poetry, as moral instruction, as the story of how God relates to man, it stands apart. It touches my heart and soul in a way no other book does.
Men stop beating their wives when they read it. They stop living in fear of demons. They start caring about their children. We may not notice it as much in the U.S. because many biblical teachings have become our society's norms, but it is stark overseas. Jesus changes lives, and he does it through the Bible.

I realized I love my wonderful errant Bible. I believe it is worth the sweat, tears, and risks to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to read the book I love so much. I don't have to understand it all; I just have to give others the same chance to discover God in its pages.

I am on a journey, and not sure where God leads. Errancy in the Bible tells me that I need to be humble, allow for my imperfect understanding, and reject any “Christian” doctrine or social view which flies in the face of loving our God and loving our neighbor.

Stephen Fierbaugh has a Bachelors in Bible and a Masters in Intercultural Studies. He is active in Bible translation and has extensive experience in Africa. Stephen is the author of Surviving Celibacy.



At 10:50 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

This week's blog is a guest post by Stephen Fierbaugh. In it he discusses the issue of biblical inerrancy (the claim that the Bible is free from any contradiction or factual error). It's worth noting that the idea of inerrancy (free from error) is different from the idea of the Bible's infallibility (the claim that the Bible is trustworthy in its moral intent). The two are of course related in that when we find that the Bible has factual errors, no mater how trivial, this calls into question the Bible's flawless perfection and perfect consistency, and that can cause us to question its trustworthiness (i.e. its infallibility).

So let me start things off with a discussion question: If we find that the Bible does in fact have errors and inconsistency, how does that affect its trustworthiness as a moral guide? Or said differently, how would we need to read it differently knowing that it contains human error in places?

At 2:49 PM, Blogger kent said...

To me, inerrancy and infallibility are moot points. The problem with using the bible for formation of morality is that we all use different lenses with which to interpret it. Different lenses can and will lead to very different interpretational outcomes. I found this to be the case in my own studies. I would only see that which I wanted to see, according to my belief system, and when I couldn't make a verse/verses fit, I would ignore it/them. We all do this whether we are willing to admit it or not. In fact, our different interpretations have brought us to a place in which we cannot even agree on God's nature. We read the same book and come to different conclusions on who God is and how he relates to man.
The second, and ultimate, reason I don't see the bible as I used to is the fact that I see revelation as a heart thing and not a head thing. I see God's nature as love, and this is also the language of his revelation. The heart of a man is the sensory organ for love; not his head. So, I see God revealing himself to our hearts, and this results in a change of our head (I used to see it the other way around). Many of you, especially trained theologians, will feel very uneasy about being led by our hearts instead of our heads, but love is really not as subjective as one might think.
I don't expect to convince anyone. I would not have been convinced of this several years ago, but I have been convinced by love, and (sorry for the run on sentence) love has convinced me that my heart is a better interpreter than my mind.

At 6:58 PM, Blogger captjbeppler.blogspot.com said...

Very well said Derek. I have heard this view referred to as Bible ripping as if it denigrates Christian scriptures. Yet an honest study of the Word eventually forces one to deal with its imperfections which do, as you suggest, lead to the question its trustworthiness. Until your book I simply flinched and red past the doubts. Without a coherent rational to support the indwelling Holy Spirit's assurance that God is real and that He is in fact "love" I would have to describe my faith (though real and firm even then) as a form of make-believe. I simply refused not to believe. You see, I was stuck...God's Spirit within said "Amen" but my intellect said, "WHAT?". I thank God for your book. It filled in the missing rational for believing our outrageous God and His outrageous book. I no longer have to spin some pseudo-intellectual reason for my faith.
May God bless your ministry, ripening the saints, despite accusations of ripping the Bible.
PS I pray that one day I too will have the courage to use the the word errant when describing God's infallible Bible.

At 7:02 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've have a long-held view of the Bible as innerant, but not in a sense that I think many share..
I believe that the words in it are the ones that God wants us to be read and study.
This includes (possibly centrally) accurately recording humankind's early understandings and misunderstandings of God. A record of gradual understanding - one-step forward, two steps back.
Does this 'inspired record of a long debate' view make sense?
It requires the lenses of Love and Jesus' self-giving to find God within the statements attributed to Him.

At 12:50 PM, Blogger Nate Caminata said...

Love this article. Very in line with the emergent thought that you begin with the fact the bible didn't drop out of the sky; it is a collection of human experiences, both spoken and written, of our encounter with the divine. When you see it through the lense of humanity, only then can you see the inspired work of God.

Mind you, there are millions of individuals, past and present, that have never and will never have been exposed to these particular encounters of God, what we call the bible, yet know Him all the same (ironically, Ecclesiastes 3:11, Romans 1:20).

So maybe we start there. And consider, as the article above suggests, that it's about the journey.

At 8:06 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Let me see if I can give us some perspective: The question raised by the post is

"What are the implications for the inspiration of Scripture when we find that the Bible has factual errors and inconsistencies?"

The answer I think has been argued well by Peter Enns in his book Inspiration and Incarnation. To sum up his book's conclusion: we worship a God revealed in the crucified Christ. We see that crucified one and declare "Jesus is Lord." This is the preaching of the cross. It is what Paul says he is "not ashamed of" even though it was a "scandal" and "foolishness" to say that God could be part of our mortal world. The church councils further declared that Jesus is not just human or just divine, but "100% God and "100% man" as it is often summed up. That is, they reject the idea that Jesus was just divine and free from the corruption of mortal flesh. They insisted that no, Jesus was fully human and fully divine.

Given that this is our accepted understanding of God reveled in Christ, it really should not be hard for us to accept that the Bible also is "fully human and fully divine" and that as a result of that human aspect it has some typos and mistakes. As I think we all (hopefully) have experienced, God can still speak to us through that imperfect book, and on top of that speak to us who are also human and flawed and imperfect.

I think that "incarnation" perspective successfully solves the problems of an errant Bible. The Bible is a human and divine document, just as our Lord is fully human and fully divine. We might have expected that God would be different, but Christ shows us that this expectation is misguided. Likewise we might have expected a typo-free Bible, but that is not what we in fact have. This incarnation perspective fits in what Stephen was saying above about approaching Scripture with a sense of humility, allowing for imperfection. Allowing for God to meet us in that imperfection is indeed beautiful. So I think it's exactly right to say we have a "beautiful errant Bible" just as God sees us as beautiful and imperfect. Understanding that is at the heart of understanding grace.

Now all of that said, the question that remains (and which is not answered by the incarnation perspective outlined above) is the problem of the fallibility of the Bible: That is the places where the Bible seems to endorse what we would call evil and moral atrocity, for example where it promotes humans committing genocide or slavery or polygamy. That's a more difficult problem.

At 8:54 AM, Blogger captjbeppler.blogspot.com said...

In my mind Jonah's dilemma highlights the remaining question you mentioned. God told Jonah He was going to do something He clearly prefer not doing it at all. That lack of concern about His reputation and willingness to have His character misrepresented doesn't seem to bother Him but it really disturbs me.
Oh darn! I might have to rely on the indwelling Holy Spirit to determine the Truth.

At 5:11 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Haven’t read Inspiration and Incarnation but I have read The Evolution of Adam – my understanding is that The Evolution of Adam contains basically the same ideas but focused specifically on evolution/Adam.

This sounds like something that you’d see in the “aha moment” series that they’re doing on Pete Enns blog. The stories there are very similar to this one. And like this one, it’s pretty clear that people don’t always lose their faith over inerrancy (some do) – although it can lead to a faith crisis (not an understatement to call it a crisis) and requires a change in thinking. There’s no way to go back. But I’m often left wondering how they didn’t lose their faith though, because I struggle to understand how you can have one (infallibility) without the other (inerrancy). Genre/incarnational/cultural context is one thing (seems like you could drive a truck thru that inerrancy loophole to the point that you wonder what the term really means), but things like Chronicles vs Samuel are different. They both can’t be right, best to just be honest about it. It doesn’t do anyone any favors to do otherwise, and it can destroy faith when it’s discovered.

The incarnational analogy does make sense, but it leaves you wondering what you can actually rely on as truth. As far as the incarnational analogy I think the question is, is this just ways of attempting to keep infallibility intact by explaining away errant history and cosmology (so that we don’t question those things that can’t be proven – theology, eschatology, morality, the canon itself, etc). Is this a way of explaining away errors? Or are these (incarnational, genre, ANE context, etc.) fundamental aspects of what the “inspired” text is – which might lead us to redefine inerrancy and infallibility?

Along those lines, you said that infallibility relates to spots where the Bible “seems to endorse what we would call evil and moral atrocity.” It doesn’t really apply to just those things though.

At 12:32 AM, Anonymous Derek said...

I think that ultimately what we will find is that not only is the Bible errant (it contains some typos), but that it is also fallible in that people can and do read the Bible and use it to justify things that are morally horrific. We might then say "you are reading it wrong!" but then it is possible for people to read the Bible in such a way that they do use it to justify doing evil in God's name. It is this functionally fallible in that having the book alone is by no means a guarantee that we will be safe. In fact the Pharisees read and followed the Bible meticulously and messed up royally.

One example of where errancy and fallibility come together is a discrepancy between Samuel and Chronicles. In one we read that the Lord told David to take a census. David does and then God becomes furious at David for that evil act and kills 70k people. In the other book it says instead "No, that was not God, that was the devil who told him to do that. That's why God got so mad and wiped out all those guys."

There is a pretty huge difference between saying God did something and saying Satan did. What we have here is not just a mistake or inconsistency. This is an intentional disagreement in how to view this. The one book is correcting what it finds in the first since the author saw this as immoral for God to command something and then be angry about it. We see these conflicting perspectives all through the Old Testament. We read one perspective and then along comes another author who disagrees and offers a counter-witness. The counter witness is always making a moral claim, a claim that the other story is wrong. Because of that, the issue is not just about errancy (inconsistencies) but about fallibility (conflicting understandings of what is good and moral and what is wrong and evil).

The fact is, we do not have a Bible with one single perspective on what is good and right, but rather a record of multiple conflicting views on this. That pretty much knocks the idea of infallibility out of the water. So we need to find another way of dealing with the reality of what the Bible is.

At 12:01 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Right, that’s not just a random meaningless discrepancy. It’s theologically significant. You get two different pictures – a God who’d command something and then punish people for it (seems very calvinist) or a God who wouldn’t do that because that would be wrong. I can imagine that this would create a slippery slope even for the original readers. “Wait, it’s possible that God didn’t actually say that? Now that I think about it, how was this “command” actually received? It was the devil and we couldn’t tell the difference? But that scripture has to be right or why should we believe any of it!”

If there are infallibility issues here, where else are there infallibility issues? Can we be certain that any of it is reliable? How does a person keep from sliding down the slippery slope?

I’m coming from a conservative background – one where inerrancy/infallibility wasn’t talked about but was quite obviously bearing all of the weight in a house of cards. Wiggle it even a little bit and the whole thing comes crashing down. That’s where I am right now. So I’m asking these questions honestly & appreciate all the dialogue that I can get.

At 7:27 AM, Blogger sfierbaugh said...

I too come from a conservative background. My wife sent me a link to Enns' "Aha" series right before this was published, and I realized I had written my own "Aha" story. Now I'm trying to come up with a reasonable theology of Inspiration. I haven't even begun to tackle infallibility yet.

Derek's "fully divine/fully human" is a beautiful vision which points towards a doctrine of Inspiration which may allow for both the glory of God and the "Whoops" of an Ezra trying to read illegible 70 year old manuscripts. I see both in the Bible.

God meets us where we are and encourages us to walk closer to Christ. He met the Biblical authors where they were, and led them further along a trail towards loving their neighbor as themselves. They weren't ready to accept "free your slaves", so in the hardness of their hearts, God gives them something they could accept, "be nice to slaves".

Today, we're a lot further down that trail towards Christ. "be nice to slaves" is barbaric today (unless your slaves are outsourced out-of-site, out-of-mind to Foxconn...). That means we have learned from the Bible; it has accomplished its purpose in this regard.

We are closer to Christ and ready for the "free your slaves" message. But perhaps not close enough to Christ yet for "stop outsourcing your slavery". But our children may be.


At 2:39 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Thanks for the thoughts and for sharing your story.

If all we’re talking about in terms of “inerrancy” is a whoops from 70 year old manuscripts that’s one thing. I just don’t see that as significant in and of itself. It would seem to demonstrate that the Bible didn’t drop out of the sky or assemble itself – it was written by people. And from that standpoint it is significant and naturally leads to other questions like infallibility. In my mind switching “God” out for “Satan” in Chronicles vs Samuel is of a different category though. It would appear to be more than a scribal error – it would seem to be a theological difference.

Honest question - is there a difference between there being “conflicting understandings of what is good and moral (Derek’s post)” and the idea of progressive revelation? It sounds like what you’re talking about is progressive revelation – that if we properly understood the context of these commands that we’d see that it was a step forward even though to us it looks barbaric. In that sense the OT doesn’t provide timeless moral truths but provides us with a trajectory that culminates in “love your neighbor”. I think that even an infallible text allows for this. I don’t think that “fallible” is necessary the right term for this.

But I think the question of inerrancy (whether in irrelevant scribal error or something more significant) leads to questions about infallibility in a way that goes beyond moral issues. Why wouldn’t fallibility apply to more abstract theology issues? For example, Thessalonians 2:11 – “God sends them a strong delusion, so that they may believe what is false.” For a statement like this to be true, it would require some extra level of Spirit given knowledge. It isn’t a function of morality or progressive revelation. Since the text is written by people but it wasn’t dictated/God didn’t magically take over their brains (as evidenced by scribal or other errors like Samuel/Chronicles), how exactly are we to know that this truly is an infallible statement?

At 2:59 PM, Blogger sfierbaugh said...

The problem with infallibility is that so many good Christians can't agree on theology. However, even the most disparate groups tend to agree on the basics of the Gospel message and the Apostles' Creed.

1st Corinthians 3:11 says that Christ is our foundation, not Scripture. I believe that the solution lies in Jesus' answer to the question, “Teacher, which commandment is the greatest?” Jesus replied, “'Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.' [Deuteronomy 6:5] This is the first and greatest commandment. The second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' [Leviticus 19:18] All the law and the prophets depend on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40 NET)

I take Jesus' words at face value. These two commands summarize the rest of the Bible. Any interpretation, doctrine, theology, or exegesis which I come up with that violates either of them is wrong. They are the true Golden Rule by which everything else I think I know about the Bible should be judged.

At 5:57 PM, Blogger kent said...

The idea of God walking mankind out of our moral shortcomings and unfruitful religious practices incrementally seems to work against love and truth. Whether it's morals or religious practices, many believe that God has accommodated to where the people are, allowing or even instructing them to do such practices, in order to lead them away from doing such things down the road. For instance, God told the Israelites to make animal sacrifices to himself (because they were already doing this anyway) in order to eventually teach the people that this is not what he wanted.
By telling the people to make sacrifices, did God not present himself to the people as someone who he was not. He allowed them (at least several generations) to believe that he was like the other gods even if he was a new and improved version. Does love work this way? Would God have allowed generations to misunderstand his heart by commanding practices that kept them from knowing the truth (God didn't want sacrifices; God never wanted people to enslave others) which could have easily been revealed from the start?

At 7:02 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

In some senses I like the idea of progressive revelation in that it recognizes how we are growing to better understand God. The difficulty I see with it is when we assume that God is intentionally giving us a lesser/wrong view. As Kent says, this is morally problematic because it would mean that God is commanding people to do really bad stuff (like commit genocide or infanticide).

So here's my radical idea: What if they were just wrong? After all, you and I have been wrong about things. So why couldn't they have been wrong? They were writing in a time before Christ (BC as we call it). So would that lead us to expect that their view would understandably be less that Christ-like at times? Doesn't Paul say (the Paul who wrote most of the NT) "We see through a glass darkly"? So if Paul's view of God is imperfect like this (and he specifically says "we know in part" there) then wouldn't the OT folks be all the more so?

Now, the difficulty here is that if we want the Bible to be a "here is the way it is, just accept it, don't question it" kind of book then the idea that they may have been wrong about things, about moral things, about important big things (like don't kill people in God's name, don't have slaves, etc.) then we can't read the Bible in that "unquestioning" kind of way. So the idea of infalliblity in that sense falls apart.

But here's the thing: Infallibility is simply functionally untenable. Christian Smith wrote a book about this called "The Bible Made Impossible" but really it should be called "Biblicism Made Impossible" because the book's main claim is that we all do not agree on what the Bible says. So you have conservative evangelicals who think the Bible clearly says you need to speak in tongues to have the Holy Spirit, and you have other conservative evangelicals who think the Bible clearly says that this is wrong and demonic. There are tons of examples like that were folks hold to the "plain teaching of Scripture" but can't agree at all on what that "plain teaching" is and in fact deeply disagree to the point of calling each other "heretics" and splitting off into new sects/denominations. So to put it succinctly: the problem with infallibility is that we humans are fallible. Even if the Bible was infallible, we humans can and do get it wrong. So the idea of "just follow this and you can't go wrong" just does not work. Lot's of people go wrong.

So what do we do? I think Stephen gets it exactly right when he says above that we need to focus on love as the tellos of Scripture. I would add that doing that will necessarily involve our thinking through stuff, wrestling with it, working it out. So we need to read Scripture in a way that helps us to think morally, rather than in a way that stops moral questioning.

At 7:07 AM, Blogger sfierbaugh said...

Derek has nailed it. It goes back to the worldview of the writers' time & culture.

I like the concept of God as Father. I am the father of my son. I love him dearly. When he asks me, "Where do babies come from?", the answer that I give him is very different at 5 years old than at 15 years old. Neither is untrue, but they are substantially different, rather than being just a slightly dumbed down version.

At 9:13 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

My own “aha” moment came as a result of having a baby and the subsequent desire to be honest, truthful and gracious about my faith. This forced me readdress some things that I had dealt with by ignoring them and hoping they would go away or resolve themselves – this is literally like 10 years. I remember when I first came across a note in the Bible that said that “the earliest manuscripts don’t have this verse”. I was like “what”? That was one of the first in a long line of questions that I tried to stuff away, but for the sake of truth and honesty I no longer can. The two things that have really affected me lately are science type things (as addressed in some of Pete Enns work) and the Bible, one of those Bible issues being the pervasive interpretive pluralism that I began to recognize in nearly everywhere within Christianity even before Smith’s book was able to name it for me. I haven’t read the book, but I’ve followed some discussions on it so am familiar with some of the issues that it raises. It’s really a big, big issue – functionally untenable is a good way to put it. I’ve agonized over why Christians, theoretically given the same Spirit that will guide them into all truth, seem to disagree about a great many things and are brutally unkind about it. I think Smith converted to Catholicism – if that’s true he obviously saw it as a huge issue that inherently couldn’t be properly addressed within Protestantism.

Here’s the way that I see it though. The end result may be the same, but there’s a difference between an 1) infallible text/fallible interpretation and 2)fallible fext/fallible interpretation. At least in the 1st one people agree on the starting point, just not where you go from there. In the 2nd one there is no starting point. The end point might be the same either way, but not necessarily. There are things that are pretty clear – like forgive, love your neighbor, etc. – but on what grounds can we rely on those as true if the text isn’t “infallible”?

In terms of incarnational/accommodation/progressive revelation, yeah there are definitely challenges. It makes sense that there can only be “communication” with God where people are at, not where they are not. So in that sense, there has to be a human side to any communication and it seems reasonable to think that there would have to be baby steps or society would collapse. But from a biblical standpoint, there’s the challenge of figuring out what’s “incarnational” / unique to the writer, and what isn’t. And this isn’t just an OT phenomenon that can be used to explain away violence, it’s NT too. There is plenty of violence there.

So I don’t think that the writers being wrong about certain things is out of the question, but it doesn’t really make anything clearer. Rather than endlessly trying to figure out cultural context or how to interpret the “incarnational” side of things in an infallible text, you’re left trying to figure out what’s true and what isn’t.

At 9:17 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Even the focus on love – that sounds straight forward but it isn’t. That’s based on Jesus words to love God and love your neighbor – as recorded in scripture. If the Bible isn’t infallible, how are we to rely on these words as accurate? If the answer is that these are recorded words (as opposed to abstract ideas like “election”) and that they are trustworthy because God’s Spirit supernaturally helped the writers to remember what was said (or had someone else supernaturally remember who then told the writers so that they could record it), I’d just ask why the writers couldn’t remember exactly how many angels there were at the tomb or exactly what was written above the cross?

Also, what does it mean to love your neighbor? I’m not trying to do a “who is my neighbor” type of thing here – but here’s an example. I think that the reason that we’re asked to love, forgive, etc is grounded in the character of God – it’s who God is, so our freedom, our life, our salvation is found in being that way. So if God is loving, is it reasonable to be able to see that love in everything God does? For example, there’s the story in Acts where that couple steals money and drops dead instantly because God smites them. Is that loving, is that a fallible story, or is there a side to God’s character that isn’t loving? There are probably ways to answer that question in regards to this specific passage, but there are enough of these (particularly when it comes to hell & God’s judgment) that I wonder if we have to redefine love so much that it loses any kind of powerful meaning (much like “inerrancy” – it dies the death of a thousand qualifications). I mean, the violence is there in the Bible and not in just the OT. Some suggest that God tells us what good is and what it means to be loving and demands that we behave that way under threat of hell, but that since God himself is under no such standard he can do whatever he wants. I have a real problem with that. But again, if the text is fallible then why bother even talking about it?

I suppose that that's one of the THE biggest stumbling blocks for me and it is indirectly an issue of infallibility. Why does God appear to appear to act so differently than Jesus in the Bible particularly in terms of violence (when Jesus is supposed to reveal God) and differently that what He asks us to be? Don't mean to hijack the post w/ unrelated questions.

At 9:37 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

And sorry for the long posts. I appreciate the dialogue.

At 12:21 PM, Blogger kent said...

To Mike, Derek, and others including myself... we need to be led by our hearts more and our heads less. Love can be subjective to the mind, but not the heart. In my first post, I suggested that revelation was to the heart which convinces the head. What we do as humans is just the opposite. We take in information, process and categorize it with the mind, and then attempt to change our hearts by conforming our behavior to our "new" paradigms. I wonder if we weren't created to be heart-based beings, and the "Fall" describes our transition to mind-based beings. I'm not sure how to transition back except to allow our hearts greater influence within our daily circumstances. If there is a God, and if his nature is love, it seems to follow that his desire would be to have us experience his love. Can this be proven? I would answer yes and no. To the mind, no, but to the heart, yes.

At 5:08 PM, Anonymous Derek said...

Great conversation everyone. I decided to respond to Mike and Kent's recent comments in a new blog post here since it did not fit as a comment. Check it out: http://www.therebelgod.com/2014/07/for-bible-tells-me-so-how-christians.html

At 6:00 AM, Blogger Nate Caminata said...

This is a great conversation to follow. I'm in the midst of working through much of this myself, so the commentary has been stimulating (I find myself copy/pasting and emailing those bits to myself for future reference).

I do want to point out something in Mike's latest contribution: not to nitpick, but the text never states God smote Ananias and Sapphira. Maybe it's semantics, given the context of this discussion, but felt it worthwhile to point this out.

Also: I think the direction suggested by Stephen that, ultimately, it comes down to Christ's own interpretation of scripture (not to mention his only actual "command" - John 13:34) of love gets us halfway there. But it wasn't just Christ's words. It was his actions; he set an example, well before he made it to the Cross (which could never be mistaken as anything other than the most profound example of love).

In that regard, we can only interpret Christ's teachings as the embodiment of love. Not necessarily with our heads, but our hearts.

At 9:40 AM, Blogger ofgrace said...

It may come as no surprise to you here that these issues have been wrestled with before in the Church. The Fathers in the first several centuries came to much different conclusions than the typical modern inerrantist does. Catholics and Eastern Orthodox have, consequently, not had to deal with these issues in quite the same way as many modern Protestants. They have always understood that the apostolic tradition of interpretation of the Scripture is key-- that the Holy Spirit is given to the Church as a whole (not merely to individual believers, as individuals) and that the Holy Spirit made fully manifest in the lives of the Saints (their purity, humility and love) is the key to the Scriptures' correct interpretation.

St Augustine writes on the literal vs. allegorical interpretation of Scripture:

" . . . We must point out the method for discovering if an expression is proper or figurative. . . . Anything in the divine writings that cannot be referred to good, honest morals or to the truth of faith, you must know is said figuratively. Good honest morals belong to loving God and one's neighbor: As for hope, that lies in each person's own conscience, to the extent that you perceive yourself to be making progress in the love of God and neighbor, and in the knowledge of them [see 1 Timothy 1:5]. . . .

"Any harsh and even cruel word or deed attributed to God or his saints that is found in the holy Scriptures has to do with the destruction of the human kingdom of wrong desires. If the word or deed is clear; it should not be treated as figurative and related to something else. . . .

"If the [biblical] expression is a prescriptive one, and either forbids wickedness or wrongdoing, or endorses selflessness or kindness, it is not figurative. But if a passage seems to endorse wickedness or wrongdoing or to forbid selflessness or kindness, it is figurative."

From On Christian Teaching; Green, De doctrina christiana, modified--excerpted in my comment from a more extended quote in , Ed. by D.H. Williams, Pub. by Baker Academic

At 9:44 AM, Blogger ofgrace said...

Sorry, that last paragraph should have ended:

. . . from a more extended quote in Tradition, Scripture, and Interpretation, Ed. by D. H. Williams, Pub. by Baker Academic

I'm not sure how the title of the work I was using got deleted.

At 5:25 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

"They have always understood that the apostolic tradition of interpretation of the Scripture is key-- that the Holy Spirit is given to the Church as a whole (not merely to individual believers, as individuals)"

Really good stuff.


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