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Inerrancy Part II: Good Answer, Bad Question

September 16, 2013
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In the last article I outlined the first issue with the term “inerrancy”; that it is not entirely clear what an error is.  Is summarizing a speech and recording it as the words of the speaker an error?  Is it an error to use anthropomorphic language about God?  What does it even look like to do error-checking on a Psalm?  In this article I’d like to move to the next problem, one based on the question that inerrancy answers.

Any statement can be rephrased as an answer to a question.  This is especially true of creedal statements which really do begin life as answers to questions.  “How do the Father and the Son relate?” “The Son is of one being with the Father.” “Does the Bible have errors?” “No, it’s inerrant.”  The problem with inerrancy is that question, “Does the Bible have errors?”  Now I’m well aware that for many people the answer to that question is an unhesitating “yes”.  Whatever you decide an error is they are convinced that the Bible has them in droves.  I’m not suggesting that this isn’t a problem, but notice that these people would generally reject my preferred formulation and insist that the Bible is not authoritative.  The problem with “Does the Bible have errors?” is, as I’ve just pointed out, that it’s unclear what errors are.  Asking the question, “Does the Bible have errors?” ignores this.  It presumes that errors are clear-cut and the relevant question is merely whether the Bible has any.

There are texts like this: instruction manuals (“plug the 12-volt DC transformer into slot B”) and scientific writing (“the object was deflected 32 degrees plus or minus 1.2 degrees during each transit”).  In these sorts of documents errors are clearly defined and easily recognized.  There is a format for writing these sorts of documents that defines what should be in them and what can or should be left out.  The Bible in contrast does not come with a style manual and defining errors can be exceptionally tricky unless they are truly egregious.

The issue here is that by making the answer to the question, “Does the Bible have errors?” central we’ve made the question itself central and we’ve imported (perhaps without being aware of it) the manner of reading in which errors would be easy to detect.  To put in another way the question itself asks use to look at the world in a specific and unhelpful manner.  Imagine that you are lifting a car with a crane and instead of asking, “Can all those parts hold the weight of the car once it is off the ground?” I ask, “Is that rope triple-ply nylon?”  Just by asking this I have suggested that as long as the rope is triple-ply nylon we will lift the car safely when in fact this is completely irrelevant.  By asking, “Does the Bible have errors?” I have suggested that this is the most important question and one which should be rapidly resolved.  Once we start reading the Bible like an instruction manual or textbook errors do indeed become clear-cut and this question seems much more answerable.  However, we start to lose a lot of other really important things.

One of the things that an error-checking mentality is most hostile to is narratives.  If what you really want is a completely error-free text than you don’t want things like narrative points impinging upon the dry facts.  You certainly don’t want things like editorial omissions or paraphrase entering the picture because these might create errors.  Two relatively simple examples should demonstrate this.

The first is the book of Job which I wrote about several months ago.  Error-checking works best if the book of Job is an instruction manual or a textbook.  If we approach Job as an instruction manual we will immediately run across a major problem: the instructions given in Job are in conflict.  In fact, the vast majority of the book is a debate and the conclusion of the debate is not an instruction that we could follow or error-check.  Instead, it’s a set of instructions very specifically for Job and his three friends.  So what if we approached Job as a textbook?  If we did the first long section of the book would be a debate in poetry about the causes of suffering between four individuals who died a very, very long time ago.  We could absolutely affirm that this debate actually happened just as described and not care about this fact at all.  Indeed, as far as I can tell that’s the standard evangelical approach to Job: if you are aware that some people say that Job is a fable you should refute that (that would be an error and so we must contradict it) but don’t read the book.  Essentially, it becomes important that Job is accurate to history but Job itself ceases to be important.  Obviously, I would prefer a view that made the importance of the book of Job central and let the historical cards fall where they may.  In fact, this is a central failing of inerrancy.  When someone asks, “Does the Bible have errors?” they aren’t asking that in a vacuum.  Instead they are asking it as part of a larger question: “Should I read the Bible?”  If the answer inerrancy gives to that larger question is “Don’t bother” then inerrancy has failed.

The second example is the binding of Isaac.  It’s one of the better-known Old Testament stories (at least 3% of evangelicals have heard of Isaac1) but it has enormous, glaring omissions.  For those of you not familiar with the story Abraham is instructed to take his son Isaac who he was promised by God up to a mountain and sacrifice him.  When Abraham does so he is stopped at the last moment and given a ram to sacrifice in Isaac’s place.  If you are primarily concerned about errors in the text there’s a glaring issue here: God elsewhere denounces human sacrifice but here He appears to order it before retracting that order.  The central event of the story becomes how we explain the story without lapsing into heresy.  However, there are a lot of other things going on in this story.  For one thing it is full of glaring omissions, mostly centered around Isaac.  When does Isaac really figure out that something is wrong?  Why doesn’t he run (or does he and the story omits Abraham tackling his son, whacking him in the head, and hog-tying him?)?  After all of this how does Isaac feel about Abraham?  How does Isaac feel about the deity that told his father to murder him and then saved him from his father’s knife?  These omissions are noticeable to just about anyone who really reads the story and tries to imagine it (“So Isaac gets off the altar and what, screams bloody murder, ‘Dad, you just tried to kill me!’?”).  However, it’s hard to figure out what to do with omissions without invoking narrator editing.  Did the narrator of this story just not know Isaac’s mental state (and isn’t this problematic for at least some views of inspiration?)?  Did the narrator know and not mention this (and is that an error?)?  The simplest solution is that we are being steered by the story to focus on Abraham who is the central character.  The story is about whether Abraham will follow God into a scary unknown.  However, steering the reader doesn’t sound like presenting the clear facts.  It sounds a bit squishy.  How much steering is allowable?  If the story steers us by omitting Isaac’s internal states how do we know it hasn’t crossed some other line by omitting something that might seriously change how we understand the story?

This (and the issue of Job) are questions about meaning.  These passages have a meaning that comes largely from their narrative structure.  To understand Job you have to understand Job’s pain when he wishes that the very day he was born would be blotted out.  To understand the binding of Isaac you need to clear aside a hundred tangled questions to see the story of Abraham unfold.  You don’t primarily need to understand these as history.  You don’t need to know where Job’s homeland of Uz is or where in history Abraham really fits.  You need to read and understand the stories and trust in them.

Trust is the key here.  All this business of error-checking is designed to make sure the stories are trustworthy.  However, we constantly tell each other stories that are trustworthy but nothing like a video of the events we are recounting.  We cut sections out, focus on others, and enhance the point of the story through this editing.  But, somehow, when we come to the Bible we don’t want someone’s story, we just want a big pile of facts to make our own stories with.  And this is perhaps the biggest problem with the question, “Does the Bible have errors?”  This question focuses on the Bible as a fact-pile and not on the real question, “Can the Bible be trusted?” which is really the question, “Can the narrator of the Biblical stories be trusted?”  That depends on what the narrator in question is really saying and that depends on reading stories as they were meant to be read.


[1] This is a facetious statistic.  At least 7% of evangelicals have heard of Isaac.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. November 6, 2013 6:42 pm

    Great points you’ve made here!

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  1. Inerrancy Part III: What We Cannot Speak Of | The Jawbone Of an Ass

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