The Errancy of Infallibility*
*Inerrancy: exemption from error; Infallibility: incapable of error in defining doctrines touching faith or morals (Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed.)
Let me share part of a church mission statement that I came across recently; I’ll just read the parts that concern me: “Our love for God and for people compels us to preach the Gospel, which [our church] has faithfully declared in its entirety based upon the inerrant nature of the Scriptures, and on Jesus Christ crucified, risen and coming again. With the leading of the Holy Spirit we reach into the surrounding communities to provide a place for the unsaved to learn about and experience salvation through Christ’s death on the cross…[To strengthen every Christian in faith and maturity we teach the Scriptures and worship God].
As we evaluate the issues in the world and community today, particularly the political, social and moral decay that is prevalent, we are concerned about the multitudes of people who are headed for Hell because they do not know the Lord Jesus Christ as their personal Savior. (Italics mine)
Do you see any problems with those statements…specifically the ones in italics?
I must say that they definitely raise some red flags within me.
Whether latent or apparent, the attitude I read behind the words is one of a sort of religious arrogance, an underlying presumption of moral superiority.
There is a distinct sense that this congregation, in its elevated state of moral purview, is somehow separate and above the poor misguided masses of sinners who are surely sinking rapidly into the depths of moral decay leading to only one place: Hell.
I would love to ask a few questions of the people of that church, such as: How do you define what it means to “know the Lord Jesus Christ;” and how can you tell precisely know who is going to hell and who isn’t? That is, who is saved and who is unsaved? Secondly, exactly which inerrant Scriptures in their “entirety” are you preaching on? Genesis? Deuteronomy? Numbers? The Song of Solomon? The Gospels of Jesus Christ alone? How about the Epistles? And if so, then which epistles? Only those we can prove were actually written by Paul. And which parts of those letters do we include as inerrant? The parts about slaves remaining subservient to their masters? Or how about the parts about women sitting in the back of the temple with their heads covered and their mouths shut? If that is the case then the ultimate destination of Presbyterians is perhaps dubious.
The point being that, when I hear someone say, “I believe in the Inerrant Word of God,” I immediately wonder what that means to them. How, precisely, are they defining, “the Inerrant Word of God?” Unfortunately, it’s been my experience that, as often as not, it means that they have elevated their particular interpretation of Scripture to be Inerrant.
The Bible, in fact, represents sixty-six individual and very unique books, amalgamated into a collection (canonized by a protracted and contentious `committee’ process) which expresses a diverse variety of literary styles, forms, and functions that range from mythology of origins to documentation of strict legal codes; from romantic wedding sonnets to eye-witness reports of historical events; from public census records to private letters sent between colleagues; from liturgical prose to the agrarian parables of Jesus; from family genealogy to a very iconoclastic journal of revelatory ecstasy.
The reality is that, as we read Scripture, we all interpret what we are reading; that is the natural way human beings process volumes of information. Furthermore, as we interpret what we read, we also mentally edit it; emphasizing the parts we think relate to our lives, and de-emphasizing or even deleting those parts which seem less relevant to us.
If we did not engage in those processes of distillation and comprehension, we would likely be adhering to the same rigorous dietary restrictions as the ancient Hebrews (see Deuteronomy 14:3ff) and engaging in brutal forms of child discipline (Deuteronomy 21:18ff). If we took literally every word of Scripture as the Inerrant Word of God, we might even find ourselves bearing down upon the towns and cities of our enemies, slaying every man, woman and child, even as Joshua believed he was justified in doing, in the name of God.
Indeed, if we heeded all of the Apostle Paul’s exhortations (upon whose teachings much of Presbyterianism is founded), South Africa’s Apartheid might still be firmly in place and the American suffrage movement still pending.
Therefore, when somebody uses that idiosyncratic phrase “the Inerrancy of Scripture,” I want to ask them: “Which Scripture(s) have you specifically chosen to be infallible? What went into that choice and how does your personal experience and world view, perspective and prejudices, bias and bigotries influence your interpretation of that particular text?”
Those are the questions I ask myself every single week as I try to diligently, prayerfully – and hopefully humbly and faithfully – interpret Scripture for the purpose of preaching the good news of God’s love in Jesus Christ. They are the questions which, I believe, each of us should ask ourselves any time we open the Scriptures for the purpose of discerning God’s will in our lives.
Because, most certainly, how one answers those questions will largely dictate how they perceive their place and purpose in this world, their sense of personal discipleship, and their resultant behavior as representatives of their Christian faith.
When we read Scripture with that spirit of confessional humility and studious discernment, we might come to the same conclusion the late great Marcus Borg came to, who said (paraphrased), “[Most of] the Bible is true. And some of it actually happened.”
“The Bible is a human product,” wrote Borg, “it tells us how our religious ancestors saw things, not how God sees things.”
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” [Isaiah 55:8,9]
In other words, to make the assent that Scripture was divinely inspired is one thing; to suggest that it was written without human error, contextual influence, or cultural bias is quite another.
While most of my beliefs stand in stark contrast to Tom Harpur’s theological conclusions, his point is well taken when he writes: “The most devastating blow religion has suffered over past centuries and still endures right now, is an ignorant literalism towards its sacred books or Bibles. The different sages who wrote the ancient scriptures never dreamed that the great myths, allegories, legends, dramas, metaphors and parables in which the old wisdom has come to them would ever be taken as literal fact or history.”
Harpur goes on to say that this literal approach is “not the property of the far right but it stealthily permeates the thinking of even the most literal-minded churches.”
To which Marcus Borg offers, perhaps, a more palatable Christian apologetic: “But Christian illiteracy is only the first part of the crisis. Even more seriously, even for those who think they speak “Christian” fluently, the faith itself is often misunderstood and distorted by many to whom it is seemingly very familiar. They think they are speaking the language as it has always been understood, but what they meant by the words and concepts is so different from what these things have meant historically, that they would have trouble communicating with the very authors of the past they honor” (Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning…”, HarperOne).
Such literal interpretation seems to be a growing trend in America. Fundamentalism is on the rise. Unfortunately, however, I believe it all too often represents taking the path of least resistance. Declaring one’s belief without enduring the struggle of doubt and uncertainty. Asserting a black and white version of truth while ignoring the stubborn ambient gray reality of the world. Affirming a thin personal faith that is void of any profound acknowledgment of life’s stark daily ambiguities.
I think it’s instructive to note that the first recorded use of the word inerrancy in the English language was in 1652 in the field of astronomy, not religion. Specifically it was used to describe the stars, which were perceived as being “fixed” in the heavens (inerrant), in contrast with the planets, which were obviously wandering…or “errant”.
Then in the 18th century, when British theologians first began borrowing the term to describe Scripture, they based it upon those Newtonian notions of mathematical perfection: that an absolute understanding of the Bible could be rather mechanically and accurately reasoned out. That each individual letter, in fact, even vowel points (which were actually added to the ancient Hebrew texts centuries later by scribes) were considered unswervingly divinely inspired, and each a vital aspect of the `equation’. Even the placement of punctuation was viewed as part of the inspired truth; even though the original versions written in Greek had no punctuation at all.
For 18th century Presbyterians, Thomas Reid of Princeton University took that particular task upon himself. And when he was challenged by his opponents on the validity of his inerrant interpretation, he simply dismissed the criticism by countering his misguided challengers saying that his “senses were never deceptive and validated for him by an intuition that gave [him] certainty.” Talk about religious arrogance!
Thomas Reid’s certitude was directly threatened at the outbreak of the Civil War, when Presbyterians split into two separate camps. The Northern branch appealed to one part of Scripture (specifically Rom. 13) to argue obedience to the government; while Southern Presbyterians appealed to other verses (such as Colossians 3:22), along with the absence of any specific literal statement of condemnation in Scripture against slavery.
I’ve heard it said many times, “One can use Scripture to bolster any argument.” Undoubtedly, that is true. However, a more authentic comprehension of the Bible, I believe, is born of profound commitment to studying its texts, along with a pervasive willingness to wrestle with one’s own demons. Therefore, in any – and in every – case, one needs to maintain a great deal of self-awareness, and spiritual permeability, regarding one’s own evolution in understanding the meanings and hard-won truths of Scripture.
Thus, the primary ingredient for sound interpretation is humility, not certitude.
Jesus tells a parable about two men who go into the Temple to engage in the same religious activity: to pray. One, a Pharisee, standing off by himself, emphasizes the distance he perceives between himself and others. The other, a tax collector, also standing off by himself, not even daring to look up to heaven, emphasizes the distance he senses between himself and his God.
The Pharisee boasts in prayer of his piety in comparison to those around him. The tax collector, not comparing himself to others, but beating his breast as a sign of repentance, asks only for God’s mercy. The Pharisee begins his prayer like a psalm of thanksgiving, offering thanks for his own accomplishments rather than God’s saving activity in his life. The tax collector uses, not the form, but the content of the psalms, acknowledging his great and constant need before God. (Willimon)
Jesus tells this parable to His listeners and then asks, “How do you interpret this story? Who went down from the Temple justified in his worship?”
Another fact to consider is that the authors of the various books of Scripture were subject to the same human prejudices and frailties, agendas and influences which plague contemporary readers today. This is well documented within the writings themselves.
One does not have to read long in Paul’s letters to discern his personal struggle with pride. Many theologians propose that such pride was the “thorn in the flesh” Paul confesses about in 2 Corinthians 12:7; albeit after several paragraphs of boasting. He calls his enigmatic weakness “a messenger of Satan. . .to keep me from being too elated.”
But Paul is just one example of the vast human vulnerability found in the authors of Scripture. Similar – or even greater – examples of such fallibility can be found in Solomon, King David, Moses, as well as in any and all of the prophets. Pervasive qualities of humanness which can scarcely help but obfuscate the words written and taint the glorious aspirations behind them.
Indeed, when one stops to reflect a moment, the overarching theme of the Bible itself is the faithfulness of God over and against the waywardness of God’s people. And I would suggest that that waywardness manifests itself not only in the character of God’s people, but in their writings (and attempts at interpretation) as well.
But the imperfect Apostle Paul goes on to say something that I believe is very revealing, and perhaps most instructive to us, with regard to all this.
Three times Paul sought the Lord about this matter of the `thorn in his flesh,’ until finally the Spirit of Christ responded to his despair, saying, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” [2 Cor. 12:8 & 9]
His power. Our weakness.
Words well-remembered by those who would presume to know what is the perfect will of God, as they finger the thorn in their own flesh.
So, let me, in all humility therefore, share with you what I believe; and then each of you can come to your own conclusions regarding interpretation of Scripture.
It may actually surprise you to know at this point that I do, in fact, believe that the Word of God is Infallible and Inerrant. Furthermore, I believe it possible for that Word to be revealed in and through the pages of Holy Scripture.
However, I also believe that every human attempt at either recording or interpreting God’s Holy Word is fraught with the vulnerabilities, frailties, prejudices and egocentricities of those striving to understand that Word, and therefore subject to a great deal of ‘wandering’ and, ultimately, highly fallible.
“For now we see in a mirror, dimly,” as 1 Corinthians 13:12 points out. Only when we are `face to face’ with the Living God will we know the whole Truth. Christians believe that that Truth is reflected fully solely in the face of One Person: Jesus Christ.
John’s Gospel begins, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God, and the Word was God [1:1]…And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” [1:14]
And then, referring to himself, Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.” [Matt. 5:17]
Even God testifies to the supremacy of Jesus regarding God’s Truth in the story of the transfiguration, commanding the disciples from above, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” [Matt. 17:5b; Mk. 9:7; Lk. 9:35].
Christ came to fulfill, perfect, resolve and even remedy both law and prophecy. That central truth of our faith is born witness to in the annals of Scripture and confirmed by God’s own spoken Testimony. Only through the gift of his Holy Spirit, with his guidance and by his grace, can we come to a greater understanding of that Holy Word.
Therefore, to posit one’s own interpretation, or that of another person, as somehow perfectly accurate, particularly in its entirety, thereby supplanting all other interpretations, is to essentially place oneself on the same level as God’s own Word; which is made whole and perfect and living uniquely and singularly in the person of Jesus Christ. And to presume to elevate one’s own understanding or interpretation of God’s Word as inerrant seems tantamount to an attempt to dethrone the One who truly is Lord and Savior of us all; Word made Flesh; Fulfillment of the Law and Prophets Incarnate.
Such is the Truth which calls God’s people together out of the world to form a community that humbly seeks to live faithfully in the world by steadfast discernment of God’s Living, Breathing, Responsive Word of love, reconciliation, and hope. Therefore, let every faith community continually challenge its own understandings of God’s Word, as they gather each week around the reading of Scripture and proclaim the Gospel message that, together, we might more closely reflect God’s love in Christ for the world.
“But the Spirit of God, bearing witness by and with the Scriptures in the heart of man, is alone able to fully persuade it that they are the very word of God,” as the Church’s Confession of 1967 stipulates, which then later adds, “The Scriptures, given under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, are nevertheless the words of men, conditioned by the language, thought forms, and literary fashions of the places and times at which they were written. They reflect views of life, history, and the cosmos which were then current. The church, therefore, has an obligation to approach the Scriptures with literary and historical understanding. [For just] As God has spoken his word in diverse cultural situations, the church is confident that he will continue to speak through the Scriptures in a changing world and in every form of human culture.” [The Book of Confessions]