Update (1/15/09): For those in the habit of reading posts and skipping comments, I want to note that there is an important and substantial exchange of comments between Peter Kirk (Gentle Wisdom), Jeremy Pierce (Parableman), and myself that helps clarify this issue substantially.
In my first post in this series, I made the following comment in response to a quote:
While I certainly agree that the Bible is not inerrant, the rest simply does not follow. A simplistic idea of how one gets from scriptural text to doctrinal belief is posited and then discarded. An idea of the word of God that may or may not be correct (or more importantly held or not held by a community) is assumed and then dismissed.
In that quote I kind of dismiss inerrancy from consideration and focus on the idea that one can automatically dismiss the Bible as God’s word because one has dismissed inerrancy. I will continue to make the second point–inerrancy isn’t necessary to regarding the Bible as God’s word–but I need to comment further on inerrancy.
In my experience most people think that a belief in Biblical inerrancy is a critical dividing line, and that is one is asked what difference inerrancy makes, one should answer (misusing Paul in Romans 3:2): Much in every way!
But inerrancy is something that is easy to misunderstand, and perhaps almost impossible to both understand and express in a way that is acceptable to everyone. Someone is going to claim misrepresentation somewhere, even if one uses an official statement such as the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. I’m not going to work through this statement right now, but suffice it to say for the moment that I reject inerrancy, even as defined in the Chicago Statement.
But there are many different ways of defining inerrancy, and nobody really owns the term so as to control its meaning. Should one use the more academic definition? Or perhaps the most popular view is correct.
In conversation, I usually find that folks would like to define inerrancy simply as “the Bible doesn’t have any mistakes in it.” That’s pretty simple and straightforward. But does it work? When someone nuances this position, they are often accused of some kind of weasel-wording in order to pretend that clear errors don’t actually exist.
In fact, however, because of the complexity of the topic and the number of different claims that are made, one almost certainly must add some nuance to the definition in order to make any sense.
The first question is simply what Bible one is referring to. Is this a particular translation? The KJV-Only advocates would claim that the KJV is without error, and they don’t accept a claim to believe in inerrancy from those who don’t make the claim of that particular translation. They will ask, “What is your final authority? Where is an inerrant document that I can get my hands on?” So at a minimum, one must specify precisely what Bible is inerrant.
One can choose between many translations, the Bible in its source languages, some particular manuscript in the source languages, or the autographs. Each of these has interesting implications. There are few claims of inerrancy for translations in general, certainly not from anyone familiar with the process of translation. The “inerrant translation” idea is almost exclusively the product of the KJV-Only movement.
Inerrancy in the original languages sounds good to those without acquaintance with the manuscripts, but quickly falls afoul of the facts of a variety of manuscripts, each with differences in the text. Thus you will only rarely find a simple claim to inerrancy in the original languages apart from some specific claim about which text outside of popular discussion. I do get this question from lay members in churches fairly frequently. Academics of whatever theological persuasion, however, know better.
This leads to two options: 1) inerrancy of a particular text, usually asserted of the Byzantine or of the majority text, and 2) inerrancy of the autographs. Since inerrancy of a particular text also provides difficulties, such as differences in the manuscripts within that tradition, such a claim is again only rarely made, or generally nuanced so as to mean “nearly 100% accurate” which amounts logically to the second claim: Inerrancy of the autographs.
With this there is the problem that we simply do not have the autographs. Nonetheless, for definition purposes, we have a precise text at a precise point of time, even if we can’t lay hands on the precise text. Opponents of the doctrine of inerrancy, including me, wonder just how important it can be to assert that an inaccessible text has a particular attribute. But that is beside the point for my discussion here.
I hope you can see why someone who asserts inerrancy must provide some further data. When they say, “Inerrancy of the autographs” they aren’t tap dancing. They’re just getting to the point of being precise enough so that someone can understand and discuss their claim.
But now we get to just what one would call an error. Here is where opponents of inerrancy outside the field of Biblical studies can get extremely impatient. What’s an error? Well, it’s a mistake! PI is 3.0 (1 Kings 7:23)? It’s a mistake! Seven literal 24 hour days? It didn’t happen. It’s a mistake!
So let’s ask another question. It says in Judges 9:8 that “The trees once went out to anoint a king over them . . .” So did the trees “go out”? (Remember, this isn’t Narnia!) Did they anoint a king? Is it a mistake? Well, such a passage can be true on a couple of levels, including whether the words were spoken by the person quoted. If you quote a liar lying, is it a lie on your part? But of course the real point in this passage is that it is a parable, and you are not intended to believe that the trees actually did this.
I chose that obvious passage that nobody would take literally, because one popular idea of inerrancy is essentially equivalent to “the Bible is all literally true.” Even “literally true” is problematic, because I have heard it interpreted to mean that the Bible is pretty much all literal (everyone has their exceptions) on the one hand, to someone who told me that “taking the Bible literally” meant “taking it as it is intended” so that he would take a passage figuratively, while claiming to take the entire Bible literally. Personally, I think he was using the very common equation of “literally” with “true” and “figuratively” with “not-so-much true.”
There’s a very popular variant of this is to take the Bible literally at any point at which it can be taken literally. Tim LaHaye in his not-so-good book How to Study the Bible for Yourself, p. 160, says:
. . . A good rule to follow is to 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 truth it is communicating.
Obviously he followed this principle in producing his interpretations of Revelation. I don’t have his book at hand, but I believe Dr. David Jeremiah recommended attempting literal interpretation first in the book of Revelation (Escape the Coming Night). Though I cannot recall for certain that he explicitly recommends it, I know that he practices it.
Where this view of inerrancy can be best tested, however, is in passages that might easily be taken either way. These would, in my view, include Genesis 1-2, where one might quite justifiably argue various positions on the original intent, or passages that may be read as fiction or not, such as Jonah or Job. Many mainline students of scriptures would be surprised at how many people find the issue of Ruth, Jonah, Esther, or Job as fiction controversial. For some, however, having a story like that, which is not actually presented as a parable or illustration, not be true would violate their view of inerrancy.
One of the best very short definitions of an academic notion of Biblical inerrancy is this: The Bible is without error in what it intends to convey. The problem with any short definition is that it lacks some details and nuance, but this one covers quite a lot of ground. For example, if Jonah is fiction and intended to convey certain theological truths rather than a narrative history of a certain person in a certain period, that doesn’t violate inerrancy. I have seen this stretched quite far, to the argument that one can accept inerrancy and date the book of Daniel in the 2nd century.
This argument was made by Ernest Lucas in his commentary on Daniel from the Apolos Old Testament Commentary series. He doesn’t take sides himself, but he argues that one can use either dating for Daniel and still accept the doctrine of inerrancy. This would involve understanding a great deal of prediction as history, a great deal of the story as fictional, along with the whole setting for the writing of the material. Is it possible? Indeed, most scholars believe that the setting, the story, and the predictions are all fictional, except for a very small portion that would be contemporary with, or in the immediate future of, the writer. In general, however, these same scholars don’t claim to believe in inerrancy.
I would add one more way in which one might state that the Bible is without error–by claiming that the Bible is precisely the way God wanted it, i.e. that if there is an apparent or even real error of fact, it’s in there because God wants it there. This would be hard even for me to disagree with, but I think it is so far from what anyone would hear me saying if I said “I accept inerrancy” that it would be lying for me to make the claim.
So just how does Biblical inerrancy impact interpretation, which is, after all, the topic of this series? Well, actually, as you can see, the type of inerrancy which Ernest Lucas seems to espouse doesn’t really eliminate any possible interpretation that I might claim myself. I think that it does force one to be a bit disingenuous regarding the author’s intent.
For example, if the writer of Daniel lived in the 2nd century BCE, wrote pseudonymously, invented an author and narrative or (more likely) borrowed it from folk tales, produced lengthy prophecies of the future but which weren’t really about the future, was the author lying in order to make his final prediction more convincing, or was he following literary conventions of his time? In other words, did he intend people to realize that what he wrote was largely fictional? One can debate this, but I’m afraid I would tend to support the idea that the “predictions” were developed to give weight to the rest of the book, and they would only give weight if people believed they had been written much earlier and had been fulfilled.
But in terms of Genesis 1 & 2, there is next to nothing that I would claim in interpreting this passage that could not be claimed by someone who accepts inerrancy. In other words, inerrancy and the theory of evolution need not stand opposed, provided one accepts certain literary categories for the writings in question.
Unless I get side-tracked again, which I probably will, I’m going to write on the Bible and scientific statements for my next post in this series.