Monday, September 13, 2010

Inerrancy or Inherency?

One topic that invariably arises in almost every class I teach is whether or not I think the Bible is inerrant. Students who hear me lecture sooner or later figure out that I do not hold to inerrancy. For those of you not familiar with this term it is used by many Evangelicals to claim that the Bible is free from error. When I tell them "No, I don't hold to a belief in inerrancy" the next question is usually "So are you saying there are mistakes in the Bible?"

I think this is the wrong question. The problem with this approach is that it often wants the Bible to lineup with 21st century expectations. It fails to take into account the fact that the Bible was not written with us in mind and that authors were writing and working within their own historical and cultural context. This means that sometimes they did some very creative things with history that would simply not wash in our time. I will not start listing examples or reasons why I don't hold to inerrancy since this is a well worn argument. The more one studies the Bible the more you realize just how unsupportable of a claim it is. When we hold to inerrancy we end up making the Bible fit into our perceptions of what we think the Bible should be rather than standing back and discovering what it really is.

One thing that I always find bemusing is the qualification that almost everyone uses when talking about inerrancy. They state that their adherence to inerrancy is valid only in relation to the autographs. The problem with this, of course, is that we do not have any of the original documents of the Bible. Not even one! So if inerrancy only applies to them, why are we talking about something we don't have?

Defenders of inerrancy will accuse me of oversimplifying the subject, and they are right. But my purpose is not to enter in a prolonged argument.

Recently I ran across an article by Walter Brueggeman in which he discusses Biblical Authority. Rather than inerrancy, Brueggeman discusses inherency. Here is what he says.

The Bible is inherently the live word of God, revealing the character and will of God and empowering us for an alternative life in the world. While I believe in the indeterminacy of the text to some large extent, I know that finally the Bible is forceful and consistent in its main theological claim. It expresses the conviction that the God who created the world in love redeems the world in suffering and will consummate the world in joyous well being.

I like this. I think it allows us to recognize the Bible for what it is while still acknowledging that, for some of us, it is the word of God.

As I have said earlier, the Bible is complex and does not always fit our view of what it should be. But at the same time I have acknowledged time and again that what I find in the pages of the scripture are the words of life. The Bible is a mystery to me. It puzzles me, angers me, encourages me and guides me. The more I study it the more I realize how little of it I understand. And while at times I may find parts of it to be unhistorical or even contradictory, I also believe that it is inherently the Word of God. I don't mean that God spoke the words. But I do mean that God speaks to me though the Bible, sometimes in spite of it. That is the mystery and wonder of the Bible. That God somehow speaks to us through what is often a very human book. In spite of everything I know about the Bible it is also inherently the Word of God.


  1. Anyone who studies the bible with any depth and honesty knows that there are mistakes and contradictions and competing strains of belief in the "bible." The mystery is why anybody who knows all that would still cling to it as "the Word of God."

    If God really wanted to speak to people through a book, it would not have been too difficult for him to be a little more consistent and factually correct.

    While I can appreciate the way you don't try to paper over the contradictions in the bible, in the end the question your students ask is entirely appropriate. A

    re there mistakes in the bible? Yes. What does it mean? It's just a set of writings like any other set of writings. It is given authority not because of anything inherently qualititative about it, but because of tradition that is continued by irrational ideas such as that "god speaks to me" through it.


  2. bondboy,

    How do you define mistake? Quite often what we define as "mistakes" is a matter of author's intent. For instance, differences between the gospels are better attributed to the author's intent rather than a mistake since the author probably knew exactly what he was doing.

    There are differences between history and the Bible. But I am not sure if I would define it as a mistake since the authors were not necessarily trying to do history the way we think about it.

    You are right about the authority of the Bible only being derived from those who give it such. But that is what makes me a person of faith.

  3. I love the approach of the ancient rabbis who believed that every word in the Torah was there for a reason. At times this required them to turn and turn the Scriptures to find the eternally relevant truth. Nonetheless, they knew something of value was always there. It seems to me they didn't hold to innerancy but they deeply believed it was the Word of God.

  4. Rather than quibble over the definition of a "mistake," let us use your construction, that the bible is not free from error. You know what I am talking about: the implacable discrepancies in the stories in the Hebrew bible and NT, the misrepresentations of history, the evolving views of the authors over time, etc.

    Given all that, which you seem to accept to some degreee, why would you give the bible authority? We don't have "faith" in Greek or Roman or Egyptian myths because we know they aren't literal, and the actions of the people and divine beings they depict didn't really happen, so why should we have so much faith in ancient Hebrew myths?

    I hope that doesn't sound snide, but it is a real question. I had faith until I studied the bible closely, precisely because I thought there was a core of truth. I was not a fundamentalist, but I became unable to answer the questions satisfactorily.


  5. You misunderstand me. I never said the Bible is free from error nor did I intend to make it seem that way. My question was first about how we define "mistake" which is often based on a view of history in the 21st century.Trust me, I am very aware of the Bible's limitations and the way that events it portrays do not always line up with history and archaeology.

    You are right about Greek and Roman myths. This is something that all people of faith should struggle with.

    I can only say that for me faith is about realizing I don't have all of the answers. I also realize that Bible does not either. For me the Bible is a record of humanity's interaction with and struggle to know the divine. I certainly do not think it is perfect! And unlike the Greek and Roman myths I do think there is a historical core to much of what we find in the Bible. That history is sometimes used creatively, but that was fine for the ancients. The Jewish and Christian writers of the Bible were not the only ones massaging the information. I acknowledge that and yet I still choose faith.

  6. Bondboy,

    You bring up a good question concerning faith. I have not been able to spend much time into this perspective, but it is an idea that I am developing. First, a categorical error exists in thinking that faith should be derived from or focused toward a text or myth. I would refer to the thought of two scholars concerning the points that I am attempting to make: N.T. Wright, and Alvin Plantinga. When you say that we don't put faith in Greek or Roman myths, you are correct. I would go so far to say that the Hebrew or Greek Bibles are also not the object of our faith. As Wright would argue, the Bible is only authoritative because God is authoritative. Plantinga has convincingly argued for the existence of God as a basic belief; that is, a belief that can be accepted without any proof, just as I can believe that I exist without any proof. In this case, Scripture--the faith texts of ancient Jews and Christians--is not what causes me to have faith, nor is it the main focus of my faith. God is the object of my faith; and it is reasonable and appropriate to believe that God exists. How does this, then, relate to Scripture. Well, the Hebrew and Greek Bibles, with all of the "errors" and historical inadequacies, support the faith that I have in God. Certainly I derive significant understanding of God and develop many of my conceptions of God from Scripture; but an understanding of Scripture such as this does not result in losing faith when Scripture is critically studied and doesn't come out "perfect."

    This conversation could go much further, but I will end at this point for sake of time and space.

  7. Almost all Christian doctrines are based on the New Testament of the Bible. But, how do Christians know that these 27 books are the inerrant, inspired words of God, as Christians tell us?

    Answer: A bunch of fallible, scientifically illiterate Churchmen in the second, third, and fourth centuries said so! That's it!

    When and where did God say that a bunch of old Churchmen have the authority to determine what is and what is not his Word? When and where did God say that Saul/Paul of Tarsus was speaking on his behalf? Or the writers of the Gospels? Or James? Or Peter? Or any other writer of the New Testament? Even if the apostles themselves had voted unanimously for the 27 books of the current New Testament to be designated as the "Word of God", that still would not prove that God had authorized them to do so. We have no evidence that the Eleven achieved a state of perfection and omniscience on Pentecost. They, like every other human being, were fallible. So where is the evidence that God left a list of what should and what should not be considered his Word in a new testament?

    Answer: No where!

    We have no evidence from the Bible or anywhere else that God gave Christians a list of what is and what is not his Word! Christians have created an "inerrant, inspired, you-are-damned-to-Hell-if-you-don't-believe-it" Holy Book based solely on the opinions of men living almost 2,000 years ago.

    Bombshell: Christians have zero evidence that proves the New Testament of the Bible to be the Word of God; the inerrant message of the Creator of the Universe to mankind. Zero!