It’s very easy to equate the creation-evolution debate amongst Christians with the inerrancy debate. Many assume that those who accept the theory of evolution will automatically reject inerrancy. But this is not the case. This confusion results from another incorrect equation–Biblical inerrancy with Biblical literalism.
Biblical literalism is itself a difficult concept to get ahold of. In popular usage, “taking it literally” is often equated with taking it seriously. But the most common form of Biblical literalism means taking the Biblical text as the most concrete form of literature possible. This is expressed, for example, by Tim LaHaye in chapter 11 of his book How to Study the Bible for Yourself as: “A good rule to follow is try to interpret each passage literally. If this is obviously not the case, then as a last resort try to find the spiritual or symbolical [sic] truth it is communicating.” What this means in practice is that a Biblical passage gets interpreted as a form of literature that can be taken literally.
Let’s take the book of Jonah, for example. To the literalist it appears to relate a series of events, and one can take it as a true story. Jonah did flee in a ship, get swallowed by a great fish, preach in Nineveh, and convert the entire population to the worship of Israel’s God. A non-literalist, on the other hand, can consider that the book might be a fictional story written to make a point. Thus it could express certain teachings, such as a willingness to show grace to foreigners, even if the actual events of the story did not happen.
To illustrate this from a modern perspective, consider the difference between a historical account of a battle, a historical novel based on the events of the same battle, and a romance set in the time period of the battle. The first intends to tell you what happened in the battle. It may be in error on various points, depending on the quality of the research and what information was available, but its point is to relate a series of events accurately. The historical novel, on the other hand, does not purport to report events strictly as they happened in the actual battle. It may invent actions for lead characters, or attribute historical actions to fictional characters in the novel. It might be intended to portray the feelings of soldiers involved, or even to give a picture of the events based on history, but with more of a personal feel than the available information permits. The romance, finally, may be authentic in terms of costumes, attitudes, places, and connections to historical events, but is much more loosely tied to actual history.
The Bible is a collection of literature of various types, and thus the interpreter is called upon to determine just what type of literature is involved with each reader. I cannot object strongly enough to LaHaye’s idea that you try to take it literally if at all possible. The first step is to ask what type of literature any particular passage is. If one interpreted a historical novel as though it was a work of history, then one might expect to find things like the home of the lead character in the place where the novel indicates the character lived. But one would be disappointed.
So how does this relate to inerrancy? Inerrancy itself means different things to different people. But the standard definition amongst theologians can be summarized as “the Bible is without error in what it intends to convey.” Now if you think about it a moment, “fiction” is not “error.” Rather, it is intentionally written as it is for a purpose. Thus if a Biblical writer chooses to express a message in the form of fiction, as is indubitably done in the parable of the trees (Judges 9:7-15), that is certainly not an error–it is the intent.
The assumption that a belief in inerrancy involves some sort of literalism thus results in some considerable confusion. In the area of origins, this involes assumptions regarding the interpretation of Genesis, especially chapters 1 & 2, assumptions that divide interpretations into two categories: 100% accurate narrative history vs an interesting ancient story that got it all wrong. In fact, most interpretations of Genesis fall somewhere between these extremes.
Amongst these options are some kind of symbolic meaning, usually associated with Old Earth creationism. In this case, Genesis generally presents creation in phases without getting picky about chronology or other details. Just how picky one can get will vary with the interpreter. Then there is my own interpretation which suggests that Genesis 1:1-2:4a is a form of liturgy, while Genesis 2:4b-25-4:26 is a form closely related to myth. These are designed to express the relationship of humanity to God in the context of an ancient near eastern culture, and their cosmology. A similar relationship can be expressed in a modern cosmology, something I think Dr. Richard Colling has accomplished in his book Random Designer; I blogged on the specific point here.
As I understand inerrancy, someone who accepts that doctrine could accept either of these two alternatives. In fact, I’ve discussed my position on evolution with a friend who does accept Biblical inerrancy, and he indicated that the difference between my view and his does not involve Biblical inerrancy. If he found me convincing on other grounds, his belief in inerrancy would not prevent him from accepting the conclusions I express about origins (in general, that is).
Why am I concerned about this, since I do not accept the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy? I would like debates to center on actual issues between those debating. The confusion between literalism, in the form of taking literature in as concrete a manner as possible, and inerrancy, as believing the text contains its intended message without error is unnecessary and unproductive.