Tag Archives: inerrancy

Coming to Terms

I have argued that the parameters that emerged over the Christian centuries, expressed in terms such as inspiration, authority, and word of God, are actually unscriptural and inhibit an articulation of the theological status and function of scripture.

–John Goldingay, in a review of Paul Achtemeier’s Inspiration and Authority: Nature and Function of Christian Scripture

The Bible never uses the term inerrant or infallible, and I doubt that any Biblical writer means “the canonical scriptures” when he says “the word of God.”   In my upbringing in Churchesgeneva bible of Christ, I was taught to “call Bible things by Bible names” and to be wary of traditional human interpretations.  Those are still my instincts, which is part of why I’m troubled by the insistence on framing the debate in terms that don’t appear in scripture.  Everything that the Bible says about scripture, I gladly affirm.  It’s useful for training in good works, it can make us wise for salvation, it points to Jesus.  If the debate centered on those propositions, a lot of what we fuss over would evaporate.

The traditional terms of the discussion have the unfortunate effect of stripping away all nuance.  If I don’t like the inerrancy doctrine, that doesn’t mean that I am proposing a theory of scriptural errancy.   I don’t want to poke holes in the Bible or comb through it to make a list of factual errors.  (Although it can be done, if you absolutely have to go down that road.)  I want to drop the idea of inerrancy altogether and take the Bible as it is, for what it is.  Framing our doctrine of the scriptures in terms of error (of the absence thereof) has shifted a bizarre amount of attention away from things like the resurrection and onto things like whether the four resurrection accounts can be harmonized.  I really don’t care whether they can or not. I just don’t. That’s not supposed to be the point. What I really want is to be spiritually formed by the four accounts without having to do some nit-picky modernist analysis of “what actually happened that morning.”  If God wanted us to have a harmony of the Bible, I suppose he could have given us one.  But he didn’t.

 

 

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My Assumptions About the Bible, Part 3: When the Author States his Method, that Counts Too

In full:

Any theory of Biblical inspiration needs to account for what the authors tell us about their own writing process.

You can learn a lot if you pay attention in the right places.  One of the most overt Biblical statements of authorial intent and process is in the prologue of Luke’s gospel:

1Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, 2just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. 3Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

This is a gold mine of information:

  1. there have been many written accounts of the work of Jesus by the time Luke sets out to write his
  2. the stories were first handed down (orally) by people who were eyewitnesses to them
  3. Luke himself was not an eyewitness, so he conducted a careful investigation
  4. it seemed good to him to write an orderly account
  5. the purpose of his writing is that Theophilus would know the certainty of what he had been taught.

Already, several popular theories are dead in the water.  Luke wasn’t some kind of flesh and bone pen, taken over by the hand of God, scribbling down the thoughts of the Holy Spirit.  I think you have to throw out verbal plenary inspiration, at least as a statement about the entire Bible, if you take Luke at his word.  And you have to get rid of that super-popular illustration that compares the four gospels to four witnesses at a car crash, claiming that their differences are merely matters of different perspective.  That doesn’t fit well, because Luke lets us know up front that he wasn’t a witness.   And he reason for writing is so pragmatic–“it seemed good to me.”  I know a lot of folks would prefer it if he said that “the Spirit led me to write this” or “God placed a burden on my heart” or whatever the new catch-phrase is for a vague and unverifiable holy prompting, but that’s not what we have.  Luke did a survey of the literature about Jesus, thought that it was generally inadequate (presumably confusing or erroneous) and set out to write a better one.

When you compare the gospels against each other, it becomes clear that there is a literary relationship between Matthew, Mark and Luke.  Exact sentences are repeated, word-for-word, in two or sometimes all three of them.  Someone is incorporating parts of someone else’s previous writing.  Biblical scholars who try to sort out exactly who was reading which of the other gospels and what order they were written in call this the “synoptic problem.”  Most scholars set Mark as the first and earliest of the canonical gospels, with Matthew and Luke coming later, and using Mark as a primary source.  It’s likely that Mark’s gospel was one of the earlier accounts that Luke read, and Luke must have thought that it was the best of the bunch, because he uses much of its material.  On the other hand, he also thought it wasn’t quite right for his purposes, since he didn’t just copy it and send it on to Theophilus.  He wrote an expanded version with a special emphasis on showing Jesus as the fulfillment of what God had promised in the Old Testament.  (Read the first four chapters of Luke carefully, much of which is unique to his gospel, and you can see his desire to link Jesus to the Jewish tradition.)

Put all that together and we learn that it is okay for a Biblical writer to:

  1. do research
  2. quote other sources (sometimes without attribution)
  3. write because it seemed like a good idea (without special divine prompting)
  4. have specific purposes in mind when he writes (be conciously aware of his own authorial agenda)

That doesn’t seem very challenging or controversial to me, but you would never think those things were possible based on some popular theories about the Bible.  There is a lot of Luke’s own initiative and interest in his gospel, and he explains the production of it in simple human terms.  If you’ve ever become interested in a topic, read what was already written about it, and incorporated the best information into a new document you were writing that emphasized certain things that were especially important to you, then you’ve done exactly what Luke says he did to write the Gospel.  As the bumper sticker proclaims, “Luke said it; I believe it; that settles it.”

Here’s another passage that we need to account for in our theories of inspiration, 1 Corinthians 1:13-16:

13Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul? 14I am thankful that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15so no one can say that you were baptized into my name. 16(Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.) 17For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.

Now, I would never, ever want to claim that Paul’s memory is occasionally faulty and possibly erroneous, but unfortunately, Paul makes that claim himself.  Even though he is writing a document that will become holy scripture, the Holy Spirit has not intervened to give him perfect knowledge, even about his own ministry!  Paul simply can’t tell his readers with certainty how many people he baptized. So let’s add one more thing to the list.  It’s okay for a Biblical writer to

5.  show signs of faulty human memory.

Even if Paul hadn’t told us that clearly, we would have figured it out when he wrote this nine chapters later, in 1 Corinthians 10:

7Do not be idolaters, as some of them were; as it is written: “The people sat down to eat and drink and got up to indulge in pagan revelry.” 8We should not commit sexual immorality, as some of them did—and in one day twenty-three thousand of them died.

And then we looked it up in in Numbers 25 and read:

6 Then an Israelite man brought to his family a Midianite woman right before the eyes of Moses and the whole assembly of Israel while they were weeping at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. 7 When Phinehas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, saw this, he left the assembly, took a spear in his hand 8 and followed the Israelite into the tent. He drove the spear through both of them—through the Israelite and into the woman’s body. Then the plague against the Israelites was stopped; 9 but those who died in the plague numbered 24,000.

I look at this and think, “Ah, twenty-three thousand, twenty-four thousand, no big deal.  He was only a thousand off and it doesn’t change the point he was making.  So what if he can’t remember who he baptized for sure, and he mis-remembered the number who died in the plague?  Maybe he wrote 1 Corinthians when he was really sleep deprived.”  And I go on reading and studying, faith intact.  My faith depends on the perfection of Jesus, not of Paul.

That seems to be working out pretty well for me, but it is unacceptable to the folks over at Apologetics Press:

So how can we explain Paul’s statement in light of the information given in Numbers 25:9 (the probable “sister” passage to 1 Corinthians 10:8)? The answer lies in the fact that Paul stated that 23,000 fell “in one day,” while in Numbers 25 Moses wrote that the total number of those who died in the plague was 24,000. Moses never indicated how long it took for the 24,000 to die, but only stated that this was the number “who died in the plague.” Thus, the record in 1 Corinthians simply supplies us with more knowledge about what occurred in Numbers 25—23,000 of the 24,000 who died in the plague died “in one day.”

By this account, I am supposed to believe that Paul was supernaturally given special knowledge of the event beyond what was recorded in the scriptures.  He knew that 24,000 died in the plague, but he also knew that 23,000 died in the first day, and another 1,000 lingered on into day two.  Rather than just referring to the 24,000 total who died, Paul emphasized the number who died within 24 hours–the 23,000.

But what about the idea that Paul just had a little, inconsequential memory slip?  That was Peter Davids’ theory in Hard Sayings of the Bible, and he’s a pretty conservative writer.  But that’s a non-starter at Apologetics Press:

Unbelievable! Walter Kaiser, Peter Davids, Manfred Brauch, and F.F. Bruce pen an 800-page book in an attempt to answer numerous alleged Bible contradictions and to defend the integrity of the Bible, and yet Davids has the audacity to say that the apostle Paul “cited an example from memory and got a detail wrong.” Why in the world did Davids spend so much time (and space) answering various questions that skeptics frequently raise, and then conclude that the man who penned almost half of the New Testament books made mistakes in his writings?! He has concluded exactly what the infidels teach—Bible writers made mistakes. Furthermore, if Paul made one mistake in his writings, he easily could have blundered elsewhere. And if Paul made mistakes in other writings, how can we say that Peter, John, Isaiah, and others did not “slip up” occasionally? The fact is, if Paul, or any of these men, made mistakes in their writings, then they were not inspired by God (cf. 2 Timothy 3:16-17; 2 Peter 1:20-21), because God does not make mistakes (cf. Titus 1:2; Psalm 139:1-6). And if the Scriptures were not “given by inspiration of God,” then the Bible is not from God. And if the Bible is not from God, then the skeptic is right. But as we noted above, the skeptic is not right! First Corinthians 10:8 can be explained logically without assuming Paul’s writings are inaccurate….Paul did not “invent” facts about Old Testament stories. Neither did he have to rely on his own cognizance to remember particular numbers or names. The Holy Spirit revealed the Truth to him—all of it (cf. John 14:26; John 16:13). Just like the writers of the Old Testament, Paul was fully inspired by the Holy Spirit (cf. 2 Samuel 23:2; Acts 1:16; 2 Peter 1:20-21; 3:15-16; 2 Timothy 3:16-17).

“Neither did he have to rely on his own cognizance to remember particular numbers or names.”  Unless, of course, that name was “Stephanas.”  You can dance all around the Bible grabbing verses to try to make your case for inerrancy, but sooner or later you are going to have to deal with 1 Corinthians 1:16.  Paul says clearly that he is relying on “his own cognizance” to remember a name, and that his memory might not be accurate.  No carefully woven theories of inspiration, no syllogisms or dogmas get to trump the clear statement of the apostle.  You have to deal with what he says.

Who is the real Bible believer in this argument?  I believe what Luke says about his writing methods.  I believe what Paul says about his memory.  I honor their writings as scripture, and I accept their self-report.  If you believe in inerrancy, then you have to believe that Paul was literally correct and without error when he wrote that he couldn’t remember for sure who he baptized.  Which means his writing isn’t inerrant.  I have no doubt that someone has done a Rube Goldberg thought experiment to get out of that dilemma, but I sure don’t see how.

My plea: can’t we just accept what the Bible says?

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Why Does This Matter?

I’ll get back to a specific discussion of Genesis and Jonah before long, but let me zoom out for a minute and look at the big picture.  What’s the point of discussing the minutiae of details about historicity in Biblical texts?  Here’s why I think it’s important:

1)      Biblical inerrancy/literalism is an unnecessary barrier to faith. I started down this line of thought by noting that Sam Harris, author of Letter to a Christian Nation, an atheist polemic, wants to limit his readers’ option to atheism or fundamentalism.  At that point, all he has to do to lead them out of faith is create sufficient doubt about Biblical inerrancy—which, in my opinion, is devastatingly easy to do.  I don’t think it’s either gracious or smart to tell people who have noticed tensions in the Biblical text that they can’t be real Christians unless they cling to the doctrine of inerrancy.  That strategy is creating more new atheists than new evangelicals.  Same thing goes for literalism (a closely related proposition).  Tell a young person who is gifted at science that he or she must be a creationist (or worse, a young-Earth-creationist) in order to be a Christian, and chances are that person is walking away from faith forever.  Because we made something other than submission to the Lordship of Jesus a requirement for entrance.

2)      These texts are read better when assigned to the correct genre. Take the creation accounts for example.  A lot of ink is spilled trying to defend the proposition that Genesis is an accurate telling of the origins of the world, and I still see people claiming that what Genesis teaches is in harmony with modern scientific understandings.  That doesn’t hold up, to put it mildly.  I don’t think you are going to find a reputable astronomer who seriously believes that the very first thing to appear in the entire universe was the planet Earth.  But that’s the picture in Genesis.  No stars until day four, just Earth, floating alone in the void of space.  Scratch that—the Biblical picture is that Earth is immovably built atop the foundations that God laid (Job 38:4, Psalm 18:15, 82:5, 103:25, 105:5, and other texts).  I have yet to have a young-earth creationist give me a satisfying answer as to why Genesis 1 is literal history, but the many references to God laying the foundations of the immovable earth are not.

So, back to the point: one thing I hope we all can agree on, regardless of our view of the scriptures, is that there was no such thing as a secular evolutionist when Genesis 1 was written.  And yet a lot of the same people who teach the basic interpretive principle that “the text means what it meant to the original readers” completely throw that out the window when it comes to Genesis, and turn it into an anti-evolutionist polemic—one of the things it couldn’t possibly have intended to be.  Some very devout Christians have been reading this text for decades without ever asking the basic questions, “but what did this mean way back then?  What did the first audience think was important about Genesis 1?  How did it challenge existing ideologies?”  We have a hard time getting to those questions because the theory of Biblical inerrancy overwhelms our study with the agenda to defend the literality of these texts, which, ironically, makes it less likely that we’ll ever get to real theology at work in Genesis.  This unnecessary agenda diverts us to questions like “Did humans and dinosaurs co-exist?” “Has the speed of light changed?”  “Did the Flood change the global climate?” and all manner of diversions from letting the text spiritually form us.  But that’s where you inevitably wind up if you take a mythic poem and insist on defending it as a scientifically accurate text.  It stops being scripture and becomes the starting point for endless argument.

It’s really incredible the change that happens in Christian formation when you say, “Let’s set aside our modern scientific questions and try to hear what the text said to readers in the ancient world.”

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“You Have Heard of the Perseverance of Job”

So says the epistle of James, chapter five, verse eleven: “You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy.” (NIV) The Greek word here translated perseverance is hypomone, and appears in such passages as Lk 8:15; 21:19; Ro 2:7; 5:3; 8:25; 15:4; 2Co 6:4; 1Ti 6:11; 2Ti 3:10; Heb 12:1; Jas 1:3-4; 2Pe 1:6; Rev 2:2, 19; Gal 5:23, where it is variously translated as “patience,” “perseverance” and “endurance.” Notice that it appears earlier in the book of James, two occurances near each other at the opening of the book.  Those occurrences are our best clues as to what James means when he uses the term later.  James writes (NIV):

Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. 4 Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

To James, hypomone is more than just surviving tragedy, more than just pushing through.  It’s a certain kind of faith-filled acceptance that leads to spiritual maturation, an unshakable inner peace that means the disciple has no need for anything else–his great faith has brought him contentment even in trial.

“You’ve heard,” says James, “that Job had this quality.”

Huh?  Does that strike anyone else as a bit odd?  Maybe more than a bit?  For all his wonderful qualities, Job doesn’t demonstrate the kind of faithful acceptance that James seems to be encouraging here.  In fact, if Job did that, there wouldn’t really be much of a book there.  I mean, sure, he comes across this way in the opening prose framework (1:21, 2:9) but then you have 39 chapters of Job demanding answers, complaining, railing against the injustice of his plight.  He starts by cursing the day of his birth:

“Why did I not die at birth,
come forth from the womb and expire?
Why were there knees to receive me,
or breasts for me to suck? (Job 3:11-12)

It doesn’t seem right that James would point to the person who said these words as an example of the kind of attitude that faithful people should have under adversity.  And it’s not like he’s shining with contentment and the peace that passes understanding by the end of his monologues.  Not even close:

My inward parts are in turmoil, and are never still;
days of affliction come to meet me.
I go about in sunless gloom;
I stand up in the assembly and cry for help.
I am a brother of jackals,
and a companion of ostriches.
My skin turns black and falls from me,
and my bones burn with heat.
My lyre is turned to mourning,
and my pipe to the voice of those who weep. (Job 30:27-31)

This seems doubly odd when you do have some genuinely impressive examples of faithful perseverance in hardship, like Joseph or Daniel.  Why not point to one of them rather than Job, the classic existential struggler of the Hebrew Bible.  Have you ever wondered what James is up to here?  It’s almost like he’s not thinking of the Job we know at all, as though there were some other Job on his mind, one who was known for, above all things, patient accept of trial.  A Job like this one:

1 And when Satan saw that he could not put me to despair, he went and asked my body of the Lord in order to inflict plague on me, for the Evil one could not bear my patience. 2 Then the Lord delivered me into his hands to use my body as he wanted, but he gave him no power over my soul. 3. And he came to me as I was sitting on my throne still mourning over my children. 4 And he resembled a great hurricane and turned over my throne and threw me upon the ground. 5 And I continued lying on the floor for three hours. and he smote me with a hard plague from the top of my head to the toes of my feet. 6 And I left the city in great terror and woe and sat down upon a dunghill my body being worm-eaten. 7 And I wet the earth with the moistness of my sore body, for matter flowed off my body, and many worms covered it. 8 And when a single worm crept off my body, I put it back saying: “Remain on the spot where thou hast been placed until He who hath sent thee will order thee elsewhere.” 9 Thus I endured for seven years, sitting on a dung-hill outside of the city while being plague-stricken.

What’s that?  It’s the opening of chapter five of The Testament of Job, a Jewish work that dates somewhere around 1BC-1AD, and tells a story roughly similar to canonical Job, if you subtract all of Job’s complaining and add in a ridiculously exaggerated level of patience and acceptance over a long amount of time.  If you are reading about extreme patience from someone named Job with whom a late first century Jewish audience would be familiar, chances are it’s from the Testament of Job, not bitter, flailing canonical Job.

But wait, for that to be possible the New Testament would have to be willing to allude to non-canonical Jewish literature.  And that can’t happen, can it?

But when the archangel Michael contended with the devil and disputed about the body of Moses, he did not dare to bring a condemnation of slander against him, but said, “The Lord rebuke you!” (Jude 9, referencing 1 Enoch)

Oh.  Right.

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Side Note: Regarding Adam, Job and Jonah

The three sections of the Old Testament that are most widely considered to be generally parabolic or mythopoetic rather than largely historical are Genesis 1-11, the book of Job and the book of Jonah.

Let’s take Genesis 1-11 first:

Lucas Cranach's <i>Adam and Eve</i>

Lucas Cranach's Adam and Eve

There’s a pretty clear break between Genesis 11 and 12 as we move out of primordial epic into the lives of the patriarchs.  We’re done with talking snakes, magic trees and flaming swords, and into something that isn’t straight history but definitely seems to be based on historical persons.  There is a groundedness to Abraham that isn’t present earlier.  The rest of the Old Testament seems to acknowledge this break as well:  there are forty-two references to Abraham after the book of Genesis, but only one definite reference to Adam (1 Chron 1:1).  Noah fares little better, with a total of three references (1 Chron 1:3-4; Isa 54:9; Ezek 14:14-20).  The stories of the patriarchs shaped the religious life of Israel far more than the primordial history did.  Even more striking, there are 121 Old Testament references to Moses that come after the Pentateuch.  While the patriarchs continue to be referenced, it is the exodus event that serves as the foundational narrative for Israelite society.

I mention this in part to point out that that the internal evidence in the Bible suggests that the earliest stories weren’t given nearly the “weight” in Israelite tradition that modern conservatives assign to them.  If you grew up in a fundamentalist or conservative evangelical context, you probably heard countless proclamations that the creation narrative is the foundation of our faith, and that everything stands or falls with the way that we interpret the creation week, Adam and Eve, and the flood.  Yet the scriptures treat Exodus as the primary story, with the patriarchal accounts as prequel, and 1-11 as prequel to that.  It’s not that they are disregarded–not at all–but it’s Moses who is the big deal in Jewish thought, not Adam.  They simply didn’t have as much riding on whether Adam was historical as we seem to.

When it comes to Job, I think it’s pretty clear why many people, even quite conservative scholars, treat it as ahistorical.  With the exception of the prose framework (chapters 1 and 2, and 41:7-17), the whole book is written in long dramatic monologues with a highly stylized a poetic sensibility.  No one really talks that way–sitting around taking turns doing spontaneous soliloquies.  It could be that it is a drama based on a historical event (like Shakespeare’s histories) but there’s certainly no compelling reason to assume so.  Within the larger canonical context, it strikes me as a story that was intentionally designed to counter a legalistic reading of Deuteronomy that insists that tragedy is always the result of sin.  Job is set up as the perfect foil: “So there was the man who was super righteous!  Really, really righteous!  God himself said he was the most righteous man on the whole earth!  And then tragedy happened!  Really, really awful tragedy!  The worst tragedy you’ve ever heard of!  And he had these three friends who tried to interpret it within their theological framework.  But they were all wrong!  Here’s what they said….” When you have a text with dramatic/poetic form and an extreme situation that is perfectly designed to raise theological questions, I think it’s a bit of a stretch to say that this is intended to be historical.

And then there’s Jonah.  A lot of folks consider Jonah a fable because of the part where he is swallowed by a great fish.  I see their point, but that’s not the issue for me.  I’m not really interested in spending a lot of time in a debate about miracles.  The more salient point, I think, is that Jonah, similar to Job, seems to be another story designed expressly to challenge bad theology.  Jonah is an extremely unsympathetic character.  He whines, he rebels, he gets upset when the Ninevites repent:

But this was very displeasing to Jonah, and he became angry. 2 He prayed to the Lord and said, “O Lord! Is not this what I said while I was still in my own country? That is why I fled to Tarshish at the beginning; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing. 3 And now, O Lord, please take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live.” (Jonah 4:1-3)

The kicker is when God withers a shade bush, exposing Jonah to the sun, and Jonah again gets angry.

Then the Lord said, “You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. 11 And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?” (Jonah 4:10-11)

This is another story that intends to undermine self-serving religion.  A Hebrew prophet is acting like a whiny infant because God is being gracious and loving! He wants God to be harsh and vindictive with his enemies, but continually gracious to him and his friends.  He even quotes the great faith confession of Exodus 32:4 disapprovingly.  Again, this strikes me as a parable to raise pertinent theological questions–and to expose a self-serving theology as base and infantile.  Read Jonah against the backdrop of the other minor prophets, and it’s an obvious outlier.  I think the parabolic nature of the story is obvious in the greater context.

My friends who insist on the historicity of these three texts have a quick rejoinder, one that to them seems insurmountable.  Adam, Noah, Job and Jonah are all mentioned in the New Testament.  Because the New Testament writers (and Jesus himself!) reference them, they must therefore be taken to be historical accounts.  I’ll address that in a future post.

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