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Inerrancy Part I: The Error with Errors

September 9, 2013
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Inerrancy is not a term I am particularly fond of. In fact, it’s problematic enough that basically every article on reading the Bible that I’ve written until now has been laying the groundwork for this article in which I will explain why inerrancy is an unhelpful word. Now, some of you will probably be thinking, “I knew it, he’s probably a communist too.” Some of you will probably just be deeply confused since I clearly love the Bible enough to sink a lot of time into reading parts of it most people don’t bother with. The problem I have with inerrancy isn’t the way it claims that Scripture is useful and good – I regard Scripture as authoritative in matters of both doctrine and praxis. Instead, it’s that inerrancy is both unhelpfully vague and an answer to the wrong question.

Let’s leave the issue of the question inerrancy answers for the next article. In this article I’d like to focus on the problem of vagueness. Inerrancy means, simply enough, that the Bible does not have errors. The problem with this is that it is not at all clear what an error is.

Let’s take a simple case. In Luke 10 Jesus tells us about a man who goes from Jerusalem to Jericho and is attacked by robbers on the way and is eventually rescued by an ethnic enemy. It’s the familiar story of the good Samaritan. Is it necessary that there actually was a man who went from Jerusalem to Jericho, was attacked by robbers, was passed by by a priest and a Levite, and was then rescued by a Samaritan? If these events did not happen is the Bible in error? I pick this parable partly because Jesus does not introduce it with caveats such as “the Kingdom of heaven is like” but simply says, “There was a man….” I suspect that very few would insist that every parable must have actually occurred for the Bible to avoid error (although I’ve met at least one such person).

Let’s take another example. During the last week of Jesus’ ministry before the crucifixion all four Gospels record only a single meal. If Jesus ate more than once in that final week in Jerusalem is the Bible in error? This matter of omission is tricky. If a speech is cut short is that an error? If you read the Sermon on the Mount extremely slowly you might manage to make it fill twenty minutes. Did Jesus only speak for a handful of minutes? If not does it matter how the cuts occurred? For instance, if the cuts were made by simply removing 90% of the speech is that better or worse than paraphrasing 100% of the speech into a shorter talk? What about the different Gospels? Some of the things that show up in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew appear as their own speeches in Luke. Is it erroneous if Matthew lumps several speeches together or if Luke splits them? Is it erroneous if Jesus just repeated himself and Matthew and Luke both skipped at least one of those instances?

This is where I begin to have real problems with inerrancy. I’ve seen people completely thrown by these questions. I’ve seen people seriously challenge the authority of the Bible with these questions. I’ve seen people invent huge and elaborate stories about how Jesus said roughly the same thing three different times in slightly different ways in different circumstances and that Matthew, Mark, and Luke each recorded a different instance. All of this is based on a particular straightforward reading of inerrancy. And all of these things are simply stupid.

As far as I’m concerned none of the potential errors I’ve listed are real errors. The text is making a point. If the point is in error the text is in error. If the point is correct the rest doesn’t matter. When we talk about shortening speeches, for instance, I think one can legitimately shorten speeches both by cutting them and by paraphrasing them. However, one could do either of those in an illegitimate manner, too. We all know how someone’s quote can be cut to make them say the opposite of what they meant or how a speech can be paraphrased without some critical material. Whether or not there is error relates to whether or not the point is correct.

Let’s go further afield. What if there never was a Sermon on the Mount like Matthew records? What if, instead, Luke has it right where all of those points are made but most of them are made individually in different contexts? This wouldn’t bother me much. So Matthew decides to draw our attention to how these ideas fit together by bundling them into one big speech that more or less begins Jesus’ ministry in Matthew. As long as those points and the larger point made by binding all the little points together are true I’m not too concerned with whether Matthew played fast and loose with chronology. In fact, I already know that Matthew, and Mark, and Luke, and obviously John give us only a small slice of Jesus’ ministry. Three years in detail, even skipping things that aren’t teaching or miracles, could easily take longer to write out than all the gospels combined (as the gospel of John itself notes in the last verse). The gospels are already in some sense synopses of Jesus’ ministry. If one of them also creates a synopsis speech is that a worse problem? Not to me, at least. But it would be a huge, catastrophic deal for inerrancy. It would be an obvious error.

This is why I think the question of authority is more important than the question of error. What is an error? I think it’s rather obvious that a good synopsis of a speech isn’t a real error and that it’s not even a meaningful error to glom two speeches into one to save space (or, conversely, to separate two ideas out of one speech to draw attention to the ideas) as long as this is done to help those of us who didn’t listen to Jesus preach for three years grasp his message more accurately in the short space we have. However, if we were to change a single word in the Bible to make it reverse the meaning of what was being said that would be a meaningful error (as in, for instance, the infamously misprinted “Adulterer’s Bible” in which the sixth commandment read “Thou shalt commit adultery”). These evaluations rest not on the notion of error so much as the point of the text. The point of the text is important because the text is authoritative. If the text teaches the same thing it remains authoritative. If it changes what it teaches then suddenly we have a problem even if the technical level of error (a single word) remains small.

Let’s take another example. What does it mean for a poetic Psalm to be inerrant? Either it means some weirdly literalistic thing where every poetic metaphor isn’t metaphor at all (e.g., the Psalmist’s enemies really were lions, Psalm 22:13) or we need to listen to the Psalm and ask what it means. What’s the point? Does it tell us that God is awesome and powerful? That He saves? That it is sometimes hard when we must wait for His salvation? That one can be both miserable and faithful? If so we must ask whether these things are true. If they are then the Bible is without error. If they are not then the Bible would err in a really meaningful way – a way where treating it as authoritative would lead you astray.

This is the first problem with inerrancy: to say “the Bible is without error” we need to define what an error is and there are a lot of ways to define that. Certainly someone who says that the Bible is without error exists to one side of some hypothetical limit but the statement does not place someone very exactly. Look at the examples I’ve just given and see how many different positions one could take and yet claim that the Bible is without error. Moreover, some of these positions aren’t very close to another. One inerrantist could decry another for allowing errors (defined differently) in the Bible. Functionally, inerrancy is attempting to make my preferred formulation, that the Bible is authoritative, stricter and simpler by locking down the mechanism by which the Bible is authoritative. However, the lock doesn’t actually work very well and its simplicity ends up being a cover for the same complexity we have always faced. Why not simply stick with “the Bible is authoritative for Christian faith and praxis”?

There’s actually a second problem with inerrancy, a somewhat less clearly-defined problem, that I will tackle in the next article.

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