More On Inerrancy, Because Monday

My original post on Rescuing the Bible From Inerrancy has been read about a thousand times, and while it generated only a single comment here on the blog, there were Facebook comments and shares with more comments, a few emails, and (best of all) several real-life conversations. The feedback was mixed; some Christian friends were uncomfortable with what felt like an attack on the bible, and some non-Christian friends wondered what the big deal was anyway.

The feedback from Christians was the most interesting, and it came in two distinct flavors. Retorts from conservatives/evangelicals basically said, “No, you don’t understand – the bible IS inerrant because it HAS to be!” which only illustrates my point, I think. Agree to disagree. But the most helpful pushback was actually from like-minded Christian friends who said, “We basically agree, but why stress errancy? Why undermine people’s faith in the bible based on a technicality?” While I think my post did touch on this, it’s a valid question and worth revisiting.

My point was never about the technical errancy of the bible. In rejecting the modernist category of “inerrancy,” I’m also implicitly rejecting its counterpart “errancy.” I’m suggesting that these are not the most helpful terms when it comes to describing what the bible actually is, a collection of ancient documents. If I wave my hand and declare them to be “inerrant,” I’m fooling myself and stacking the deck against intellectual honesty. If I quarantine them as “errant,” I’m still playing into the notion of factual veracity as the primary gauge of a document’s value. What does it mean for a poem to be “inerrant”? For the self-defining stories of a community to be labeled “errant”? How do those labels help us engage with the actual content of the bible?

And this is the crux of the issue for me: it’s all about our POSTURE as we engage with the text. Are we open to an encounter with the weird and the unexpected? The disturbing? The divine? Or have we made up our mind ahead of time that it’s all somehow magically perfect, a database of categorized truths ready to be observed, memorized and enforced? Inerrancy is like an immunization against the crags and surprises in the text. It puts the text on a shelf so high we can’t see the fingerprints all over it. It turns the volume of our own doctrines and interpretations up so high that neither the text’s authors nor God Himself can cut through the noise and say anything new.

Here’s an obvious and practical example of the problem as I see it:

  • The bible says (or rather, the authors of Exodus 21 write, citing the law) “If there is harm, you shall repay life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.”
  • But Jesus of Nazareth (in Matthew Chapter 5) says, “You have heard it was said, ‘eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’ But I say to you, do not resist one who is evil. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn him the other also.”

Two “biblical” principles: violent retaliation and nonviolent confrontation. They are, on the surface, at odds with one another. So which of the two is “inerrant”? Which one is an “infallible doctrinal truth” and the “foundation of our faith”?

Now, you can point out that talion (“eye for eye”) was actually a progressive (read “less violent”) ethic in its ancient context, and that seems to be the case. So when Jesus proclaims the godly ideal of nonviolence, we might receive it as a more pure and evolved but consistent version of the old principle. Maybe. Maybe not. We’d need to wrestle with it for a while. Meanwhile, it took our subjective evaluation and historically-informed interpretation to get us even this far. And once we’ve acknowledged the possibility of an evolution of ideas among the various conversant perspectives in the bible, inerrancy as a presupposition becomes at best unhelpful and at worst a hindrance.

We may insist that the principles and ideas we extract from this subjective process are “trustworthy” and even “infallible,” but the only way to prove them out as such is the same way we encountered them in the first place: open and honest encounters with other humans. You can’t just declare it to be true and go back to bed, you have to live it out for the rest of your life. “Truth” apart from relational experience is just an abstraction. Many “bible believers” throughout history have lived “eye for eye” as “inerrant truth” and spilled a great deal of blood. Jesus himself lived “turn the other cheek” to its perilous extremity.

I believe that God can and does speak through scripture. I believe we can encounter Him in its pages in authentic and spectacular ways. I believe that the bible is precious and crazy and human and divine and ancient and alive. I trust in it, even as I often toil to make sense of it, and I think you should too. But it does no good to engage it with our brains tied behind our backs.