Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Biblical Inspiration, Part 1 - The Error of Inerrancy

Most Christian churches teach a doctrine about the Bible that comes from outside the Bible itself. The Bible is variously described as the Word of God, the Inspired word of God, and similar terms. Many (most?) Evangelical and/or fundamentalist churches hold to a doctrine they call "Verbal and Plenary Inspiration," ("verbal:" the words are inspired, and "plenary:" all the words are inspired) which to many means that God directed the human writers of the Biblical texts to write the very words, grammar, etc. they used, so that the Biblical texts are "without error (inerrant) in their original writings" (a phrase found in many Evangelical statements of faith including the denomination I currently attend--here is an example).

There are, of course, widely divergent opinions even among those who claim to believe in Biblical inerrancy, as to exactly what they mean by the term. At the most rigid end are those who insist that every word and phrase in the Bible came directly from God, and must be literally true in the plain reading of it. At the other end are a number who develop a complex system of hermaneutics (fancy word for interpretation) that acknowledges that the Bible contains many forms of literature, including not only direct reporting, but also prophecy, apocalyptic (symbol-laden) writing, poetry, parable, and so on. This latter group may suggest that no Biblical passage is in error in what it says, though the immediate literal meaning may not be what it intended to say. One can debate whether this methodology really deserves to appropriate the "verbal and plenary inspiration" label (I think it's strained) but they still frequently make that claim.

Certainly, lots of Christians do not accept such rigid definitions of inerrancy. Some approach the Bible more devotionally than didactically; others interpret it all in terms of the culture of the times and/or try to adapt its message to our own culture and times. Among the more so-called "liberal" denominations there does not (to me) appear to be much of an issue with Biblical authority at all--if it doesn't seem right or reasonable, it must not be relevant today. It is not to this group that I speak.

But for those who consider Biblical authority important, I maintain that the doctrine of the Bible is still fundamentally flawed. Simply to apply the term "the Word of God" to the Biblical canon requires extra-Biblical authority, for nowhere in the entire text is there any evidence for that label. I have not yet had the time to research the historical use of the terminology, and I'd welcome comments with source material on this point, but I suspect that both the description of Biblical texts as "divinely inspired" and the label "Word of God" (not at all the same thing) come much later in church history--particularly as those words are now understood (more on Paul's use of "inspired" in another post).

There are numerous places within the Biblical record where certain messages are represented as God's word. Paramount of these are the recorded words of Jesus in the gospels. Close behind are the prophets in those instances where they state "Thus saith the Lord" or "the word of the Lord came to . . ." The apostle Paul himself clearly delineates places where he believes he has a word from the Lord vs. his own thoughts (see 1Cor. 7:10, 7:12, 7:25). Such delineation would be wholly unnecessary if the entire text were God's word.

I will get into specifics as to why I maintain the doctrines of inspiration and inerrancy are incorrect, in future posts. For now let's look at why our doctrine regarding the Bible matters. Bottom line there are three reasons:
  1. I maintain that if one is truly to respect Biblical authority, one must not assign doctrinal status to any proposition that cannot be derived exclusively from the Bible itself. In other words, if the Bible doesn't say itself that it's the Word of God, then we better not say it either. We must not go beyond what is written (1 Cor. 4:6).
  2. The reverence with which many people approach the written word of the Bible, at least in its most extreme form, comes dangerously close to idolatry. The Bible is not God; it is not a fourth person of the Trinity (we may discuss the trinity in a later post, but that's another subject). Many Evangelical statements of faith actually have the doctrine of the Bible as the first point on their list. . .even before a statement of belief in God himself. It may be paradoxical, but "no other gods before me" (Exodus 20:3) includes images, representations, even books of God himself, not just idols from other religions.
  3. Insisting on Biblical inerrancy provides the targets and the ammunition for numerous unnecessary fights and controversies within the church, and between the church and the world. Let's face it, much of the battle over creation vs. evolution would be a total non-issue if we weren't trying to defend Genesis. The raging debates between churches about millenialism are of no consequence unless one has to build a doctrine around two obscure phrases in Revelation. Requiring the belief in inerrancy produces lists of doctrines to which one must give assent, but it does nothing to advance the cause of behaving like a disciple of Jesus. It is at best a distraction; at worst it actually drives people from genuine faith.
I want to close by clarifying something I am categorically NOT saying. I am not trying to build a case against the authority of the Bible. In fact, I hope that future posts will demonstrate that I am actually advocating a HIGHER authority for what the Scriptures actually say about themselves, in contrast to what Christians conventionally teach about them. The Biblical canon is a faithful record of God's dealing with his people throughout history, and "our full and final authority for faith and practice." That should be enough, without assigning to the entire collection, a divinity that it never claims.

1 comment:

E. A. Harvey said...

Thanks for giving me the link to your post, Dan. This is a much more scholarly and detailed approach to my rant of a similar vein. ;-) Very good point that we shouldn't believe about the Bible something it doesn't even claim for itself.