THE BIBLE: INERRANT, INFALLIBLE OR WHAT?

Friends,

If you follow this blog, you already know that I’m planning to share my personal theology here this summer. When I decided to do that, there were about a thousand different issues running through my head that I wanted to address.

But, then I stopped and thought about it. (I hate when that happens, sometimes; thinking things through frequently causes me to abandon what might have been some of my most glorious moments. Or, you know, the other thing, where I put my foot in my mouth, so there’s that.) This time, however, it was probably a good thing. I DO want to address a whole lot of those things, but I’m realizing that I first need to deal with something that underlies a lot of my theology.

I want to share my view of the Bible.

I like it. (Whew, that wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be.)

OK, there’s a LITTLE more to it than that. In fact, a thorough discussion of my (or anyone’s, for that matter) complete position on the Bible would take volumes. But, at the heart of it, before you can start sharing your theology as a Christian, you have to identify where you stand on the purpose and use of the textbook of Christian faith, the Bible.

And, the key issue here, according to many modern day theologians and commentators, is to identify where you stand on the question of whether the Bible is inerrant, infallible or what?

I don’t want to bore you with a lengthy discussion of what these terms mean and why they’re important. I don’t WANT to but, unless this is the first time you’ve read one of my “little” letters, you probably already know that I’m gonna.

Actually, I’ll try to keep it at the 10,000 foot level because, seriously, this could go on forever. There are a thousand different views on this issue, and each of those is parsed into about another thousand side conversations.

The key thing is to generally identify what people mean when they say the Bible is inerrant or infallible. I say generally, because this is kind of where the side conversations begin, but there are some basic categories.
The people that say the Bible is inerrant usually mean that some version of Scripture, or certain categories of versions, are completely without factual error. In a more definitive way, these people are also claiming that every story in Scripture is an actual historical occurrence that transpired exactly as described, unless that story was clearly identified as a parable or other illustrative tale.

In order to fully accept that, you have to believe that the earth was created in six 24 hour days, that Adam and Eve were historical creatures and that they were the only living humans in the beginning, that the sun actually stood still in the sky for Joshua, the waters of the Red Sea actually parted on command, there were guys who lived to be over 900 years old and that Jesus was born to a woman who was, in actual fact, a virgin. Please understand here, I’m not saying that you should not believe these things; I’m simply saying that to be an inerrancy believer, you have to accept all of these without exception, and even the most traditional Believer has to be able to understand from an intellectual point of view why there are people who do NOT accept all these things.

At the same time, you also have to be able to accept or explain away a whole list of specific assertions in Scripture that CAN be disproved. They’re mostly relatively insignificant things like measurements of things that are physically impossible (a diameter of a circle at 10 cubits with the circumference of the same circle is 30 cubits; that means pi is 3 instead of that 3.2??????? number you learned in school) or references to insects with 4 legs or rabbits that “chew their cud” (they don’t, in case you didn’t know; there are about a million atheists on the Internet that would like you to hear that from them). The problem is that you can’t be without factual error and then have “insignificant” errors.

Of course, you could claim that the Bible is inerrant in everything that matters, but that’s not what the inerrancy people are saying. And, once you accept the inerrancy claim, you lose your right to dispute the historical accuracy of any event. Maybe you don’t really want to dispute them, but maybe you should consider why you might like to retain that option (more on this later).

Now, among inerrancy believers there is a lot of dispute over WHICH Bible is inerrant. There are some that claim it’s in the King James Version, although most of them reject absolutely the Apocryphal books that were also part of the KJV. Others say that it’s the Textus Receptus, which is a group of Greek texts that form the translation basis for the KJV, the German Luther Bible and William Tyndale’s New Testament, as well of translations in other languages. There are even some that claim ALL translations are protected by God and are inerrant, although these folks selectively exclude versions provided by Jehovah’s Witnesses and other people they don’t like or with whom they disagree about a lot of stuff.

Naturally, the inerrancy folks have their own list of defenses, including arguments that basically boil down to “it’s true whether you like it or not,” a powerful argument from the local playground. Recently, the popular thing is to say that while many (most? all?) “modern” (some of these have been around a REALLY long time) translations may have errors but that inerrancy is really about the “autographic text” of Scripture, which is to say the original writing of the originals writers of these texts. That’s pretty convenient since none of us can actually go look at those texts, so we don’t know whether the original guy knew the actual value of pi and it’s just these other lummoxes that messed it up.

The other possibility is that the Bible is infallible, and that pretty much boils down to your definition of that term. At its most elementary level, infallibility means something CANNOT be wrong, and is therefore actually a stronger term that inerrancy. Basically, that would mean that even if it something in the Bible appeared to be wrong, its presence IN the Bible would render it NOT wrong. If someone believes the Bible to be both inerrant and infallible, that’s how they see it.

It’s kind of like saying that God cannot sin since sin is defined by what God commands or expects, so if God does it, it’s not sin, even if it might be for you or me. This is the basic concept that the Roman Catholic Church preserves for the Pope. They say that he’s infallible so if he says or does something it is, de facto, NOT wrong.

But, stay with me here, because that’s not how infallibility is actually applied to the Bible by those who see the Bible as infallible INSTEAD of inerrant. D. K. McKim, in the Westminster dictionary of theological terms, defines infallibility this way. It is the “belief that the Bible is completely trustworthy as a guide to salvation and the life of faith and will not fail to accomplish its purpose. Some equate ‘inerrancy’ and ‘infallibility’; others do not.”

Now, it’s important to recognize that careless use of any of these terms will lead people to think you believe things you do not. If you believe in both inerrancy and infallibility, it’ll mean one thing. If you believe in infallibility but NOT inerrancy of Scripture, and understand what that can be construed to mean, it’s another thing, altogether.

So, after all that explanation, what do I believe?

Well, I’m an ordained elder in the Church of the Nazarene. Let’s see what THEY believe, from the Articles of Faith in their Manual.

IV. The Holy Scriptures

We believe in the plenary inspiration of the Holy Scriptures, by which we understand the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments, given by divine inspiration, inerrantly revealing the will of God concerning us in all things necessary to our salvation, so that whatever is not contained therein is not to be enjoined as an article of faith.

Now, pay close attention here; this is actually pretty cute.

While the words infallibility and infallible never appear in this Article of Faith, it is, in fact, pretty much a textbook definition of the idea of the infallibility of Scripture, along the lines I identified earlier. And, And, AND, get this, while it NEVER comes close to falling into the inerrancy camp, it manages to use the word, inerrantly.

The guy that wrote this was a genius. If you’re a Nazarene who thinks you believe in inerrancy, you could read this and think it reflects your view, if you don’t, you know, take a lot of time to think about it, or if you really don’t know what you think you believe in, which I find most people don’t.

And, if you believe in the infallibility of Scripture, well, you’re in agreement with the defined position of the Church of the Nazarene on this issue, which may or may not be a good thing to you. I really don’t care.

But, it works out pretty well for me, because I happen to BE an infallibility guy when it comes to the Bible, so I don’t have any conflict with my denomination on this issue.

So, I believe in the infallibility of Scripture.

Well, with an explanation. (HAH! You thought we were about done. You must be new here.)

As far as this single issue goes, that’s really it. The truth here, though, is that many people who accept infallibility rather than inerrancy do so because of the numerous “insignificant” areas we saw earlier. They’re not interested in a fancy scholarly manipulation of the reasons why these “apparent” errors might have snuck their way into the various versions of Scripture they prefer to use. It’s good enough to them to see this as a way to identify what they might see as the correct use of Scripture.

And, insofar as that goes, they’re correct, in my view. We really do need to see the Bible that has come down to us through centuries of Christian belief in terms of its actual purpose. When I teach this, and I often do, it sounds something like this.
The Bible is not a book of science. It may contain references to many things in the natural, and thus scientific, world, but explaining these things in a scientific way is not its purpose. It is, therefore, inappropriate to use it when trying to make determinations of truth, or fact, in the realm of scientific discovery.

For example, the Bible has a Creation narrative, but it does not exist to tell us the scientific truth of how the earth, sun, moon, stars, land, ocean, plants, animals or man, or anything else, came into existence. To use the Bible to dispute evolution, or any other scientific theory, is to use it inappropriately. That was not its intended purpose.

You may believe whatever you wish about those scientific theories, but you should never try to cite the Bible as your proof of your belief, because the Bible is not a book of science.

Incidentally, and I guess parenthetically, I’d say something very similar to scientists who believe their theories and would then try to say that there is no God, as a result. Belief in God is a spiritual matter, and not subject to the various proofs and methods of the scientific realm. They would as wrong to try to “prove” any such theory as laymen would be to try to use the Bible to “prove” a scientific opinion. If the Biblical Creation narrative is trying to tell us something about creation itself, it does so in the first four words of the modern translations, “In the beginning, God….” Everything after that is a reference to what we subsequently see, not an explanation.

The Bible is not a book of history. There is a tremendous amount of reference to actual history contained in it, but it is not there to provide an accurate historical record. Names, apparent timing references, relationships, and even successions of kings and rulers have been effectively proved to have been in error (this is a bunch of those “insignificant” errors mentioned but not cited earlier), but it is not a cause for undue concern (except, of course, to our inerrancy friends) because the Bible is not a book of history.

The Bible is not a book of literature or poetry, even though some of the most beautiful literature and poetry in the history of mankind are found there. It’s perfectly OK to use readings from the Bible in weddings and other settings for their beauty, as long as we remember that this beauty is not the purpose of the Bible. We know that it is taught as mere literature in many places, and we do not contest or try to oppose or control that, but as followers of Jesus, we know that there is a greater purpose.

The Bible IS a book of spiritual principles. It is provided to us as what Dr. Michael Lodahl has called the “story of God” so that we can know and understand Him, insofar as we are able to do so. It is provided to us to be a guide to Christian living, not so much as an answer to every conceivable question, but as a direction for the principles of the life of a follower of Jesus.

So, a belief in the infallibility of Scripture certainly allows us to see the Bible in the light of its intended use.

But, for me, there’s a little more. This goes back to that earlier comment I made about retaining the right to view the stories of Scripture as not all being literal, historical events. I know this is where a lot of my friends begin to get a little uncomfortable.
If I talk about the Creation narrative when I’m teaching, I usually say something like “…it doesn’t matter whether you see this narrative as an historical event, as an illustrative tale or as something in between like an exemplar of one such story among many, the principles of the story remain just as valid.”

Now, that’s what I say when I’m teaching or preaching, and I do it for a very specific purpose. I really do see the Bible as a book of spiritual principles, and therefore I only try to teach the principles involved. I’m not interested in convincing anyone of the historicity of Adam and Eve. Did they actually exist? Were they really the only ones who did exist, at the time? Or, is it possible that they did exist but were only an example drawn out to make the point? Or, is it possible that they were a story of the creation drawn from the mind of an inspired writer to make the point of creation and relationship with God that God Himself was inspiring that writer to make?

It requires an open mind and intellect to understand that any of these could be the truth. It requires an equally open mind and intellect to understand that people living today, like you and me, can only DECIDE to believe one or another possibility since there’s no actual, factual way for us to determine which, if any, is true. There’s no video tape here. There’s not even a document that traces back to that time. In fact, our best understanding of the first writing down of this story came much, much, much later in time, and was almost certainly drawn from oral traditions of the story having been repeated across literal centuries. Having passed from generation to generation, it would be impossible to accurately assign the truth of this story.

Yes, you can make a faith determination to believe the story as a literal, historical event, but you will not KNOW it to be true, but will rather BELIEVE it to be true. I am NOT telling you not to do that.

But, having witnessed 60 years of Believers getting all pumped up about every discovery from antiquity that appeared to “prove” the historicity of the Garden of Eden, or the Flood, or the Tower of Babel, it’s finally occurred to me that NONE of this matters. If God needed us to see these things in order to believe, they’d be plainly set before us. With my whole heart I believe that He could do that, and He has not.

Ours is a faith relationship with Him, not a proof relationship. And, for me, that’s completely tied to my view of the Bible.

Now, before you run off to your pastor and tell him that there’s a pastor in Fremont and San Francisco, CA in the Church of the Nazarene that told you that none of the stories in the Bible actually occurred, slow down. That’s not what you heard me say. What I’m saying is that my faith is not based on such things

And, while I, like you, can never really KNOW such things, I do have things I’ve chosen to believe.

First, I believe that whatever occurred in the creation of this universe in which we live, it was done at the hand of God. He is the Source of every good gift and the Creator of life. And, I don’t care how He did it, or really about anyone’s opinion about that.

Second, concerning good old Adam and Eve, I don’t know whether they actually lived, but my inclination is to believe that such people did exist and their story was brought to us as an EXAMPLE of their time. I believe that humans did get to experience the completely innocent relationship with Almighty God that He originally intended and to which he desires for us to someday return, right here on this very created earth.

I have NO idea how many of them there were and exactly how they came to be, but I do believe that at some point in the process, they rebelled against God and chose to “know” life and death, and He stepped back and let them do so, because that’s the way He created us, with a free will.

Was there a tree, a fruit and a serpent? I don’t have a clue, but I suspect that’s an illustrative tale provided to us to convey the idea of the self serving actions of disobedience, and I also strongly suspect that it was not the actions of a single poor woman that did the damage. We decided to make things as they are as a group of people, and that’s how evil came into a world where God did not intend it to be.

The story of the fall of man also tells us that first Eve, and then Adam chose to disobey. I think there’s something important in that story and I do NOT think it’s the “smoking gun” that proves men are stronger than women when it comes to temptation. I do believe that it gives us a clear indication of how the disastrous choices of some became the downfall of all. When one, or some, had made the choice of disobedience, the fall story makes it clear that the rest, Adam in the story, chose to accept the consequences of those choices with their mates. The story is told in such a way that it explains the consequences for all of us.
In fact, the story of Adam’s choice to join with Eve follows the earlier words read in so many weddings from Genesis 2.

The man said,
“ This is now bone of my bones,
And flesh of my flesh;
She shall be called Woman,
Because she was taken out of Man.”
For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh.
Genesis 2:23-24 NASB

It was clear from the narrative introduction of bonding relationships that humans would choose to bond with other humans, leaving their family homes to do so, and that’s exactly what Adam does in the story, leaving his “Father” to remain with his wife.

My view of the Creation narrative, and this is ALL ONLY my opinion about it, is a further logical extension of my view of Scripture as infallible rather than inerrant, and it is only one example.

I am not bound to a literal view of these Scriptural teachings and stories, but I AM bound to the truth of the principles they teach. At no point will I be tempted to wonder how I would have done it differently from Adam, since he was a man and I’m a different man. His story, even if he was an actual historical figure, is related to me to “get the point” of how this sin business began and to help me understand that it was not, and IS NOT, God’s will for our lives.

There are a million other details to which this all leads and I want to share with you some of it. Please continue reading with me, and ask God to rightly divide the Word of truth in your life.

Next time I share with you, I want to take a look at the next logical step in this, addressing what many refer to as the “slippery slope” of failing to stick with traditional teachings about Scripture.

Always praying for you,

Your Older Brother,

Pastor Joe

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