Wednesday, May 04, 2011

A Look at Inerrancy

For some time I have pondered the what many in Christian churches refer to as the the doctrine of Inerrancy: this is the idea that the Bible, the canon of scripture as we know it throughout Christianity, has no errors in it and is all fully and %100... true.

I'd like to steer the conversation, right from the get-go, away from questions of what one might mean by true, as that is a different, though related subject.

For some time I have looked at the apparent contradictions in the Bible and briefly (probably too briefly) assessed the varying views on what is really going on in the writings of Paul, the apostles, and the gospel narrators, plus the breadth of literature found in the Hebrew Scriptures, and I have to confess that I at last find myself baffled by the idea of "Inerrancy."

This is not to say that I cannot understand the desire for systematic theology to be able to meld together words and passages into succinct ideas that form an interlocking structure of truth that we can rely on and rest comfortably in. I do. I really understand that. I know the seductiveness that a promise of complete solidity and reliability carries. But we have somehow staked our claim on ideas that we haven't fully explored, and I find that disconcerting.

In recent weeks, many in the church have been intent on the conversation raised by Rob Bell and probably enhanced by John Piper concerning the nature of the afterlife: heaven, hell, God's judgment, God's love, etc. Many come to this conversation with assumptions about the words of the Bible that may or may not be... Biblical? More importantly, they may not line up with the intentions of Jesus or of the apostles or of, dare I say, God (don't nit-pick and call me out on redundancy). So I'd like to lay out some of the important issues regarding this doctrine of Inerrancy.

1) Let's take a look, briefly, at the formation of the Bible itself as canon (more specifically, the NT). After Jesus ascended and the apostles spread the word (or the gospel, as they knew it), there were a couple hundred years or more of, more or less, stories and teachings being handed around. These stories include written accounts, possibly as early as 40 years after Jesus, as well as oral traditions. In this space of time, (between Jesus and about 300 AD), church leaders began to not only compile these stories into collections, but to interpret them and to expound on the nature of God's work on earth through Christ and by extension through the church. It was not until the time of Constantine that a group of church leaders got together and decided which of these stories and letters were going to be part of the "canon." Until that time, there were a couple of versions of canonical work proposed by various leaders, and there were a lot of strains of early Christianity, often debating and espousing their own interpretations of the "truth." Finally in this council, the bishops of the church decided what was in and what was out, not only in terms of canon, but in terms of acceptable interpretations.
(please keep in mind that I am not thoroughly researching this at the time, so my facts may not be authoritative, though they are the best I can do as I dredge them up from my memory, and I believe the gist of it all is at the very least pertinent, if not %100 reliable, which ironically relates to my views about scripture).

2) From this brief history, we can conclude a couple of things which I find pertinent. First, if you believe in the canon of scripture as it stands and in its authority over Christian life and teaching, then you are putting your trust, not only in the words of the bible, but in the decisions of the council that compiled the canon. If you are going to put your trust in this council, you might want to confirm that you believe in the integrity of the men who were there and the intent with which is was called and carried out (I am not arguing that anyone should lean one way or another on those issues). The question of whether or not God wanted a cohesive dogma and a definitive canon of writings to help define that dogma is rarely questioned by most Christians that I know. Clearly most of the bishops at the time (remember, already a couple hundred years after Christ) believed this was necessary, but then a lot had changed in the Roman culture and in the church over time. Paul may have had a keen interest in "sound doctrine," but did God? We take these questions for granted, because we are told not to question the validity of Sola Scriptura, the sole authority of scripture. Well, if you believe that the Biblical canon cannot be questioned, then you your answer to these questions will support that view, which is of course a logical fallacy.

3) People often criticize those who want to pick and choose. One looks at the biblical texts and says I like this and this and this, but ignores a host of teachings and stories that don't fit in with their world view. At the same time, we often find that "extrabiblical" teachings are met with great skepticism, merely on the basis of authority. In our dogmatic adherence to Sola Scriptura, we have outlawed any persistence on the part of reason or conscience. If one has a plight of conscience aimed at a particular doctrine in a given christian denomination, then he had better look to the Bible and either show that his misgivings are based in it or re-interpret the words to mean something else than the others understand it to mean. This, of course, gives rise to whole heap of nonsense, but also forces different strains of theology to reinforce their dogma with more and more and more biblical "evidence" and to search for reasons to stick to their own interpretations. Often this pursuit is biased and results in self-delusion, and it causes the secular world to shake its head in disgust. There are some, of course, who thoroughly research their interpretations with an open mind, ready to accept what the biblical writers are trying to say based on rigorous research, study, and thought, but these often get lost in the mire of pop theology and it is difficult to decipher which is which. Are the people espousing this unorthodox view being honest in their criticism of the norm, or are the bombastic arguments in favor of tradition really honest attempts to defend what is actually a very thoroughly studied and decisively answered topic? Sometimes, maybe both are true, and often neither is.

4) Given the state we are in, of which the above paragraph is merely a glimpse, one must wonder about efficacy of a book that causes so much dissension and confusion. If such a book is "inerrant" or not, what difference does it make. Suppose such a doctrine is true, and we now have a perfect book, full of words that are absolutely true and artfully and purposely formed by the hand of God to deliver to his people a reliable and succinct manual for life and godliness. If such perfection is seen through an imperfect lens (humankind), then we really aren't receiving a perfect image, are we? If our interpretations distort the text so drastically, in so many different ways, then what is the point of having the original be so cleverly perfect? It's like when a math teacher gives his students a problem far beyond their understanding as something to aspire to, but the problem itself has little value to the students, other than inspiring them to think harder and study more rigorously. In this analogy, scripture doesn't really tell us anything or deliver "sound doctrine," but merely encourages us to try and figure it out ourselves with a various clues thrown into the mix. Perhaps this is actually a good view of what the Bible is, but that's not the doctrine or the purpose of the doctrine of Inerrancy. It's a utilitarian view of the Bible.

So what do I believe about scripture. Well, I believe God has used it in my life to guide me in the right direction to encourage me to rebuke me, to train me in righteousness - things that Paul writes about the Hebrew scriptures. In other words, it is God-breathed. Is it authoritative? Is it complete? Is it inerrant? I fear the answers to these questions might be less useful than we think. But lets think about it? Where would we be if we didn't believe in the authority of the Bible? We'd have a whole bunch of varying views on what it means to live with and follow Christ. We'd have rival schools of thought debating theological points on the basis of their own personal preferences. We'd have anyone and their mother picking and choosing what they believe about Jesus and about God's kingdom and his work in the world. We'd have a disorganized society of confused believers where strife abounds and where numbers continued to dwindle across much of the world. We'd have people following God based on their emotions and we'd have all kinds of wild, ridiculous theories about the afterlife and the meaning of life and the nature of Jesus and the teachings of the apostles.

In short, we would have exactly what we have today - perhaps with a grain more humility in our own judgments.

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