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Inerrancy Part IV: Conclusion

September 30, 2013

I’ve spent the last three articles outlining what I believe are the major problems with inerrancy. In this article I wish to argue that really all three problems are part of the same problem.

The goal of inerrancy is a good one – it is meant to make us trust the Bible and read the Bible as an authoritative document. However inerrancy does this by pouring the Bible into a known mold and while that mold comes with the trappings of authority and trustworthiness that mold may not actually be the one the Bible is meant to be in. Indeed, by containing the Bible within the world of textbooks and instruction manuals, by focusing on technical errors rather than stories, we do not grant the Bible the power to reshape our lives but instead constrain it to our narrow and parochial worldview.

Take the story of the Tower of Babel which I wrote about here. For inerrancy the primary issue of that story is whether there was a tower of Babel and a single global language (or whether one could argue that the text never states that the language referenced was global even though that is implied). The story becomes one about the history of languages but (as I argued in my article about that story) this is not actually a very interesting or useful story. Instead, the useful and interesting story in the Tower of Babel is about empires and great works and God’s rejection of these works in favor of an Israel that does not look like a great nation at all. The story that changes you is one that effectively ignores all the concerns of the dedicated inerrantist.

As I pointed out in my last article binding the Bible to our notions of accuracy inevitably binds the Bible firmly to our world and our way of understanding. A Bible that is inerrant in some useful sense (as opposed to “without error but we have no clue what an error would really consist of”) is ultimately mundane. The issue is that inerrancy is itself a structure of philosophical modernism, a recasting of sacred texts in a manner prescribed by the Enlightenment and the great rationalizing project of modernism. If this structure and its grand project are misguided (and I think they are) casting the Bible in a format created by that structure prevents the Bible from telling us that we are wrong in this regard. We must read the Bible as it is (to the limited extent we are able to as humans) before we box it in. What kind of authority does the Bible claim for itself? What kind of teaching methods does the Bible use and what does this tell us about what the Bible values and aims to convey to us? If the Bible speaks to us and says, “I am a textbook,” then let it be a textbook. Personally I have a lot of experience with textbooks and if the Bible is trying to be a textbook it’s a pretty bizarre one.

Let me digress for a second. One of the main aims of inerrancy is to make us trust the Bible more. I think it actually fails at this pretty badly by making a number of things that one would otherwise overlook into dangerous challenges to the Bible’s error-free status but the aim is commendable. Can one trust a Bible that is not completely error-free? The answer is yes. I, for instance, believe that John the Evangelist has significantly rearranged the chronology of his gospel. However, I also trust that John is doing so to make a point that we will understand best if he tells us things out of order. I also assume that when John says things like “the next day” there may be a very different period of time between the events but that we are meant to understand their impact sequentially. Now you don’t have to agree with me about this but the fact that I am completely unbothered by this means that one can trust a Bible that is not error-free in the manner assumed by inerrancy. In fact we all trust people who are not error-free all the time. When a friend of mine tells me a story about something that happened last week I do not worry about whether the event was last week, two weeks ago, or a month ago unless the length of time is very specifically important to the story (e.g., “Last week I sent in my order, they said it was two-day delivery and I still haven’t seen anything from them”). I assume that the details of the story that give the story its shape are accurate and I care whether the impression of events that I gain from the story is correct. I would trust someone a lot less who was technically very accurate but who used omissions and out-of-context facts to create a false impression.

The Bible has authority. This includes the authority to break our preconceptions about the correct way to learn information from the Bible. If the Bible wishes to take me through a completely erroneous history of everything because the sequence of impressions that I will gain will lead me to properly understanding God and the world I’m fine with that. (I don’t think that’s what the Bible is doing but I wouldn’t have an issue with it.) If the Bible wishes to discuss many things in veiled metaphor and make me work hard to see the mystery beneath the words then I am fine with that. If the Bible wishes to lay out everything in plain language that any imbecile can understand completely without effort then I am seriously concerned because then the Bible has nothing earthshaking to say. Only a complex Bible can hold truths from beyond our world and if that means that I have to give up some technical jargon of errors to receive those truths then so be it. The Bible must hold great truths to be worth reading and I do not believe that such truths can come to us in a carefully-groomed textbook format. Perhaps more importantly I do not believe that I should dictate to the Bible that it must be written the way my time and culture finds most amenable for an authoritative document. In a very serious way inerrancy involves dictating to the Bible how it must be written.

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