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Inerrancy Part III: What We Cannot Speak Of

September 23, 2013
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Inerrancy has a number of issues. The first is that it is hard to define an error. The second is that focusing on errors causes us to read the Bible with a particular focus that doesn’t seem to be the Bible’s own focus. (Specifically, our modern ideas of how authoritative texts work are probably post-Enlightenment at best.) The third problem is that anything that we can describe without error is fundamentally mundane.

I can describe the door of my office to you without error. It is made of wood and metal, things I am familiar with. It has a doorknob of a style both you and I have seen before. It is so easy to describe my door without error because it is just like thousands of other doors. You’ve seen a door like mine before – a door with a brass doorknob and a small knob-lock on one side, white with six slightly inset panels to prevent its texture from being overly boring. I can describe a narwhal to you even if you’ve never heard of one before. It’s a whale (small by whale standards), covered in small grey spots on a lighter background, and the males have a twisted horn (really an oddly-placed tooth) coming out of their forehead. It’s remarkably unicorn-like. Again, your familiarity with these elements (gray, spots, horns, whales) is what lets us communicate. If these descriptions gave you erroneous impressions then we could correct them by referencing things you already know about. Now explain how federal interest rates influence bond markets to a hunter-gatherer.

The difficulty here is not one with vocabulary or any such easily-rectified thing. If I say that the morphology of the Platyhelminthes is dorso-ventrally flattened you can look these words up and find that they all describe things you are familiar with. The problem that one faces is with concepts. For someone who has never used currency at all the intense levels of abstraction required to think about banks and global markets is just too much. It’s like going from addition to calculus without anything in between. One could explain global currency markets to a hunter-gatherer without error in a very technical sense – your explanation could be entirely correct even though what would actually be communicated would be very bizarre. Now try to explain those same markets to a hamster. The hamster not only lacks the knowledge to make sense of the concepts but also the mind required to comprehend them. Herein lies the problem: a Bible that never communicated anything erroneous to human beings would be a Bible that never communicated anything beyond human comprehension.

I believe that the gulf between God and myself is much greater than the gulf between myself and a hamster. Unlike a hamster I can talk about beings whose thoughts are so far beyond my own; but just like the hamster I cannot comprehend them. Instead I can use words rooted in my own inadequacy to describe what is beyond my limits. Any language you can name is created by humans and so every language of which you can think is bound by human limits. We only have words for human concepts. This is true even if you went and invented a word for a concept that was beyond human limits. Let’s say that this word is ‘karglark”. What does it mean? Well, to a human it just means “this thing which we can’t understand”. It doesn’t actually mean the concept that it supposedly describes to any actual human because no human can grasp the concept. Instead, we must replace it with a human concept – in this case the human concept of a thing not understood.

We can circle the incomprehensible and even spiral in on it but we can never express it properly. The bonds that bind us are in the minds that receive language and we can’t escape that. I can say that God is glorious but I don’t comprehend what that actually means. Instead my mind replaces this phrase with something I do understand and that thing is at best a shadow of what is real. God is like a really cool person? (Vaguely true.) God would impress me a lot if I properly understood him? (True but that’s a description of me not God.) God is like a king? (Sure, but I live in a democracy so I don’t really get kings except by analogy anyway.) I can try to picture God’s glory but the best I can do is a fancy throne, a dais, and a glow. I can understand that these are all wrong but I can’t ever describe what really is right – it is beyond me. The best I can describe without error is what God isn’t – a thing I understand.

This is the problem with error-searching in the Bible. If the Bible is a book written on my own level then it can be without error in some practical way. It also wouldn’t be worth my time and attention any more than any number of other books. If the Bible is really divine knowledge, a gateway into a new way that I have never glimpsed before, then the Bible is not error-free in any practical sense. Even with my best reading I will still come away from the Bible with erroneous impressions because my impressions will be human. A Bible that was usefully inerrant would be merely human. A Bible that spoke authoritatively need not be – authorities can say things that are technically wrong or incomplete but steer you towards better answers. In my basic biology classes there are half a dozen concepts that I describe and then say, “But not really – the reality is a lot more complex but this will do for now.” The entire Bible effectively comes with such a warning.

The follow-up on this is not to know about God but to get to know God Himself. That is where true knowledge can come from.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Antonio permalink
    September 24, 2013 4:45 pm

    Intriguing.

    A separate issue is that of the potential for errors in translation. Still, I am grateful for the reminder about the proper approach to reading the Bible.

    • Eric permalink
      September 25, 2013 8:15 pm

      I’m somewhat less concerned about errors in translation because one can always deal with them by changing the translation. It seems harder to change reading styles.

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