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Thursday, April 26, 2007

Biblical Inerrancy Pt. 1

Many people assume that it is not possible, or at least kind of pointless, to discuss theological or "spiritual" issues with someone from a different religious tradition than your own. I think the assumption is that most people's religious beliefs are based on grounds not amenable to rational discussion and so unless you share the assumptions of the believer it is impossible to change her mind.

I find this argument largely unpersuasive. Most religious people I know do not consider themselves to be irrational in their religious beliefs. They often have a different conception of rationality, but there is still an underlying logic to their beliefs. Accepting the underlying compatibility of their beliefs with rationality makes it necessary for them to respond to arguments identifying inconsistencies in their beliefs. Thus, even if you do not accept a particular set of religious presuppositions it is still possible to criticize it for logical consistency. Besides, most theological beliefs are far removed from the sort of core assumptions that are the ones that have to accepted on the basis of faith.

In that spirit I want to ask some questions and make some points about the Christian doctrine of Inerrancy over the next few days. Now for many this might seem to be going after low hanging fruit, but as this doctrine is very common in both the Christian and Muslim religions I think it is important to address. While I am a secular atheist myself, I think that some of our religious traditions are important and influential ways of understanding the world, and as such deserving of respect. However, I also think that some of these traditions, or at least aspects of these traditions, have had and continue to have pernicious effects on modern society. I think the doctrine of Inerrancy is one such (at least in Christianity--I'm not as familiar with how it has influenced Muslim countries--although the fact that it usually accompanies fundamentalism makes me suspect it has had a negative effect there as well), and so will make some criticisms of this doctrine and propose some alternative ways of understanding the the main Christian concerns driving this issue.

I am sometimes surprised that non-Christians don't talk about this issue more than they do. After all, around 30% of all U.S. citizens believe "the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word." People will often refer to this belief, usually scornfully if they do not hold it, or with great fervor if they do, but rarely address the reasons why someone might accept it.

First, I want to narrow the issue. I am not interested at this point in addressing the general doctrine of the divine inspiration of the Bible. I take that as a core Christian belief that rejecting would largely result in rejecting Christianity generally. Rather, Inerrancy refers to a particular understanding of what it means to say that the Bible is divinely inspired. This understanding interpretes the doctrines of inspiration to involve two distinctive claims:

1) The Bible is completely without error, including on matters of fact about history, science, psychology, ethics, or most pertinently, theology and spirituality.
2) There is a determinate meaning to all Biblical texts that is accessible by an application of a "literal" reading of the text.*

Why would Christians believe these? Well, the first is easy to understand. God is supposed to be a perfect being. The Bible is a divinely inspired (or "god-breathed" from 1 Timothy 3:16) collection of books. Hence, the Bible should also be perfect. Something like, if God wrote a novel, it would be a perfect novel, if he wrote a scientific treatise, it would be completely without error, because anything with error is by definition able to be improved and so not completely perfect. Ostensibly if God is perfect then he should have the ability to inspire a perfect document, and since he loves all humans would be motivated to do so, and that is why we have the Bible. The acceptance of this argument is why believers in Inerrancy often understand attacks on the accuracy of the Bible as implicitly being attacks on the power or authority of God himself.

It is more difficult to understand the reasoning behind the second thesis. However, I think its roots lie in the Protestant doctrine of Sola Scriptura (Scripture alone). When the Protestant Reformers rejected the authority of either the Pope or the church fathers to make authoritative interpretations of Biblical texts they were left in a bit of a bind. On the one hand they were placing Scripture on an even higher pedestal than previously--it was viewed as the only divinely inspired and thus authoritative documents for Christian practice and doctrine. But they still had to restrain their more adventurous members from outlandishly heretical interpretations of Scripture. Since they could no longer appeal to the interpretation of their own church leaders as authoritative, what would be their response to someone who held heretical beliefs based on a different reading of Scripture? How would they adjudicate between differing interpretations?

It seems they could only do so if they could enforce the claim that a particular method of interpreting the Bible was correct, and furthermore a method austere enough that it could rule out alternative interpretations. With these goals in mind the attraction of emphasizing the literal interpretation of texts becomes obvious, as it allows you to cut down on more imaginative or fanciful interpretations as being illegitimate.

My guess, and this is primarily a guess, is that this reasoning is also why evangelical and fundamentalist Christians reject the claim that they represent only a relatively recent movement in Christianity. They see themselves as the continuing in the mainstream of the original Protestant thinkers by continuing to emphasize the unique authority of the Bible and claim that it is in fact the mainline liberal Protestant denominations that have diverged from their heritage.

Tomorrow I'll examine these arguments in greater depth to show why I think, even if you accept the core theological claim of divine inspiration, they are not convincing proofs of Biblical Inerrancy. After that I will present an argument or two demonstrating the superiority of alternative ways of understanding divine inspiration.

*However, the literal reading should be understood as only the default reading. Even the most dedicated Inerrantist acknowledges that the Biblical authors would often use literary devices such as metaphors and parables to make their points. The point is that we should only accept a metaphorical reading when there are textual markers that the author is intending a passage to be understood in a non-literal manner. This is why many Inerrantists prefer talk of the "plain meaning of the text," or the "intended meaning of the author" as being the authoritative hermeneutical method.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hey Sabina, having recently left the inerrantist camp I must say that your understanding of this issue is well put. I recently left Moody Bible Institute because I could no longer in good conscience agree that the Bible was without error.

One thing I find extremely shaky about claiming inerrancy is that most inerrantists, even when pressed with solid evidence, will not admit the Bible has an error. Instead they will simply shift their definition of inerrancy so that it is out of reach. When the kid gets big enough to reach the cookie jar - what do you do? You move it up a little higher. Eventually the cookie jar ends up so high that no one - not even the person who put it there - can reach it. At this point inerrancy becomes an unfalsifiable claim that is so ambiguous that its impossible to disagree. When I saw this I realized that I could no longer agree with the doctrine of inerrancy.