Errant Notions Part Three: The Self-Authorizing Book

Third in a series of posts examining common arguments and assumptions regarding “biblical inerrancy,” the belief that the Bible is without error in its every claim.

These next two posts will explore what are probably the most popular arguments for inerrancy today, namely that the Bible is inerrant because it claims to be (this post), and more emphatically because Jesus said that it is (next post). These assertions are closely related but I think they deserve to be treated separately. Distinguishing the perceived authority of the Bible from that of Jesus is a helpful and fruitful maneuver and most relevant to my goals in this series and this blog in general.

Because It Says So

Before we can explore what the Bible may or may not say in reference to its own inerrancy, there are some questions to ask and clarifications to be made. As with most of the arguments we’re considering, there are technical considerations that eventually give way to the more subjective and spiritual questions at the heart of this debate. The first question we need to ask is how any text, let alone the Bible, can be said to authorize itself. If someone asks, “how can I know that this book is reliable and free of error?,” how satisfying is the answer “because it says so”? Texts can make all manner of claims, but the claims themselves cannot constitute authorization. This type of self-authorization is not legitimate in law, science, or philosophy, so why should the Bible be any different? Without verification from an external authority or, better yet, personal experience, how can any book convince us that it is not only good, not only true, but correct in its every affirmation?

What “The Bible” Can Say About Itself

This forces the bigger question of exactly how “the Bible” might be said to make such a strange claim in the first place. The scare quotes aren’t meant to belittle or disrespect, but to highlight the problem we have whenever we claim to represent what “the Bible” says on a given topic. The Bible is a diverse and multivocal library of texts; some are conversant, some represent conflicting points of view, some are surely unknown to others, and all are absolutely unaware of their place in the context of a future canon. How can any single passage be said to address the inerrancy of every other passage in the whole collection, even those of other times, places, authors and communities?

It is germane at this point to examine the popular passages frequently used to make the appeal for inerrancy. I will divide these into two groups: passages which use an approximation of the phrase “word of God,” and those which directly address the topic of written texts.

a. “Word of God” Passages

In many Christian traditions, especially those which emphasize a doctrine of inerrancy, the phrase “word of God” has become synonymous with “the Bible.” This is usually bound up with the notion of God as the true author of all canonized scripture, with no human voice or opinion strong enough to obscure the divine truth. As a result, any passage that uses this phrase (or anything like it) can and tends to be treated as a reference to the whole Bible and its inerrancy. But while the phrase does indeed appear in the Bible (unlike other doctrinal catchphrases like “the fall,” “original sin,” or “trinity”), we will observe that it never refers to the full collection of canonized texts we know as “the Bible,” and that it usually has something to do with the personal decrees and purposes of God. A few examples will illustrate this:

Psalm 12:6 – “The words of YHWH are flawless, like refined silver…”

In this Psalm, attributed to David, the poet laments the absence of “godly” and “faithful” leaders to care for the poor and disenfranchised in Israel, until YHWH announces in verse 5 that He will “now arise” and answer the cries of the needy. The “words of YHWH” in verse 6 refers to this promise to care for the poor. There is nothing here about written texts, just an artistic juxtaposition of human failure and divine faithfulness.

Proverbs 30:5-6 – “Every word of God proves true…; Do not add to his words lest he rebuke you and you be found a liar.”

Taken as an isolated statement and out of context, this might sound like a warning not to alter the infallible words of scripture. However, reading the full passage, we discover a text in the Hebrew wisdom tradition that is not concerned with written words or books, but with human integrity. God’s “word” is not a text but His wisdom and provision. Those who “add to” those words are greedy ones who seek more than what God provides, who chase riches, lie, and mistreat the weak. The human author of the text beseeches God to save him from these people and their folly.

Isaiah 55:11 – “…so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose…”

This is our first example that presents God as the speaker, and this passage is ubiquitous in inerrancy culture as a pronouncement of the unflappable power of the Bible. In context, however, it’s not about the Bible at all, it’s about the end of exile and Israel’s return to her homeland. The “word” that goes out from God’s mouth is the promise that rescue and restoration are at hand, and that this particular historical nightmare is finally coming to an end.

b. Passages About Scripture

Other selections deal explicitly with issues of texts as sacred scripture. These actually do concern the authority of the text, though the major contention continues to be the breadth of that authority. Can any Bible passage be construed as referring to the authority of the whole canon? These are the two most likely candidates:

2 Timothy 3:16 – “All scripture is breathed by God, and it is useful for teaching, for rebuke, for improvement, for training in righteousness…”

In Paul’s second letter to a young pastor named Timothy (authorship is disputed, though not by most inerrantists), the apostle gives advice to his protégé on dealing with his troubled congregation. In this verse, Paul reminds Timothy that scripture should always play a role in his teaching and ministry. He declares that scripture is “breathed by God,” which is the closest we’ve come to the idea of God as an author, or at least an inspirer, of written texts. But a question persists: to which texts does “all scripture” refer?

It might refer to any of the Hebrew Scriptures, or just to the Torah, or to some unknown configuration of early Christian texts. We know that it cannot refer to the New Testament, which would not be fully written, collected, or canonized for at least another century. It’s also worth noting an alternate but valid translation of this verse which reads, “all scripture THAT is breathed by God is useful for teaching…,” which is even more ambiguous. In any case, this passage concerns the inspiration and value of some unspecified collection of sacred texts, not the inerrancy of every word in our Bible.

Revelation 22:18-19 – “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.”

Since it lands on the final page of our canonized Bibles, it’s been easy to assume that this warning applies to the whole collection. It’s pretty clear at face value, of course, that the author is referring specifically to the prophecies contained in the latter chapters of this book, and that his concern is the integrity of the prophecy, not the inerrancy of the text. At the same time, textual scholars shine additional light on something else that may be going on here. Authors and scribes of ancient texts would often include warnings to plagiarizers and forgers not to mess with the contents of a scroll. This might well be a warning to other writers or pastors not to co-opt or alter this prophecy for their own purposes.

Humble Texts, Infallible God

These texts make strong claims, some about their own value, most about the character and goodness of God. What none of them do is assert or establish the inerrancy of the entire library in which they will one day be collected. No single text in the canon was ever equipped or positioned to do such a thing. The value of these ancient works is not their own inherent integrity, but their inspired witness to divine faithfulness. The texts of the Bible testify to the goodness and infallibility of God, not the other way around.

Here’s a reminder that my criticism of the inerrancy doctrine in no way constitutes an attack on the Bible. Quite the contrary, it is the claims of inerrancy which mischaracterize the Bible and sabotage an honest and fruitful reading of scripture. By imposing false uniformity and foregone infallibility upon the books of the Bible, we actually damage the witness of the individual components of the Bible and thwart opportunities for authentic learning and genuine revelation. The authors of biblical texts would surely be disheartened to know that the onus of glory and power had been transposed from God to their books.