The last few decades of Christianity has been featuring a lot of newness. New music, new churches, new styles, and new teachings. That’s why I might point out that there are some things – certain teachings, specifically – that even my grandparents have never heard of in their day … and they’ve been around for a lot longer than me. Of these new things, we can date the concept of ‘inerrancy’ back to 1978. At around that time, the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy was drafted. This is really the first time in a long, long time that a teaching isn’t centuries older than the people who believe in it, but rather, people are older than the teaching they believe in. Well, some of us anyway. Some of us grew up in the Inerrant-teaching church and never knew that there was a question as to whether or not the Bible was inerrant.
Inerrancy basically states that either “the Bible is without error in all it’s teaching” or “Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact.” Anticipating disagreement; the fine print tells us that even though we no longer have the original manuscripts, we can faithfully deduce what was in the original through our various manuscripts. And they don’t deny that the manuscripts themselves are flawless, they all contain small errors, transposed letters, transposed words, transposed verses, added words, delete words, translator bias, that sort of thing, but even so, our Bible has been preserved because the Bible says that God would preserve it and he says in his word that he doesn’t lie.
Even so, there’s one component that doesn’t get a lot of consideration: people. Even if somehow God saw to it that for every error a person made, another person was able to faithfully copy what the manuscript should have said, that it survived two thousand years, that the scholars who interpreted the manuscripts to English were able to understand ancient Greek and Hebrew and Latin and faithfully replicate every saying and idiom from a long-dead culture – there’s always one person who is never inerrant: the pastors that interpret Scripture to the average person and the average person who reads the text on his or her own.
We’ve all seen how once-great pastors, charismatic teachers, and passionate speakers interpret Scripture in such a way where they get a great many followers. Some of our greatest modern inventions of theology – seed-faith giving, prosperity gospel, healing teachings – all are the result of interpreting Scripture just so. And so have some of our worst ideas such as the shepherding movement and any number of other teachings that have been used to destroy people’s faith. It remains to be seen where inerrancy will fall on that spectrum.
Perhaps we need inerrancy because we’re a culture of figures and facts and statistics. The ancient world was probably okay with artistic license because meaning always took precedence over historical accuracy. Ancient historians, for example, were not above tweaking their accounts of what took place to fit their agenda or bias. A famous painter might opt to paint his patron’s family in the most flattering light possible, hiding their less-attractive features. To our ancient world counterparts, the stories in the Bible were more important than whether or not they were inerrant. It was more important that Jesus taught them to put the needs of others before themselves than it was when and where he said it.
The real problems comes into play with two different people who have two different interpretations both use the inerrancy card to support their claims as being the one true claim, spoken from the mouth of God through his holy and authoritative word. Decades ago, the question might have been: “Is it Biblical to own slaves?” or “Is it Biblical to support abolition?” After all, Biblically speaking, there are rules concerning the proper roles of master and slave. Even Paul refers to himself as God’s servant, a slave in chains for the sake of the gospel, and he even wrote to Philemon that he shouldn’t punish his run-away slave Onesimus whom he was sending back to him as a brother in Christ. It seems that the New Testament is far more pro-slavery than it is against the institution. But the abolitionists also used the Scriptures to point to the general emphasis on love, equity, justice – the spirit behind the letter of the law. Which brings us up to the question: Is the Bible without error in all that it teaches on slavery? By neither affirming nor condemning slavery, does the Bible continue to affirm nothing that is contrary to fact?
Even if the Bible is without error, the people that twist it, interpret it, bend it, mold it, and shape it to profit off of it, use it to control others, and who knows what else aren’t. I doubt the question of slavery was the first time that two opposing camps used the scripture to support their side and tear down the other side, and it’s safe to say that it won’t be the last. In such situations, both sides tend to accuse the other of not taking the Bible seriously, or not believing in it rightly, or being in error in their interpretations. There’s usually no question that no matter what they say and how wrong the other side is, the Bible is always right and so their interpretation must always be the right one.
That’s why the inerrancy card a shibboleth:
“The Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan leading to Ephraim, and whenever a survivor of Ephraim said, “Let me cross over,” the men of Gilead asked him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” If he replied, “No,” they said, “All right, say ‘Shibboleth.’” If he said, “Sibboleth,” because he could not pronounce the word correctly, they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand Ephraimites were killed at that time.” – Judges 12:5-6
Two years after the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy drafted the aforementioned document, the Southern Baptists launched the Conservative Resurgence (or Take-over from the losing side’s point-of-view.) It became the first hoop through which many were required to jump or asked to leave. It still is used as a foundation for all arguments; instead of starting with Jesus (apparently the foundation he laid isn’t enough of one on it’s own) the foundation is now that of the inerrancy (and sometimes authority and/or infallibility) of the Bible itself as the foundation upon the one that Jesus laid rests.
The thing is – I’ve always seen inerrancy used as a sort of trump card. “Oh, you don’t believe in inerrancy? You heretic you. You would probably throw out the baby with the bath water. I don’t you believe any of God’s Word.” Or: “What sorry excuse of a Christian dares to question the inerrancy of Scripture? How can I believe a word you say if you don’t believe every word that God says?” It’s the thought-stopping, debate-killing, catch-all phrase for “I’m right and you’re wrong and nothing you say will ever change my mind.” It’s almost as if ‘inerrancy’ is that bluff that you know wins you the game so long as nobody calls you out on your use of it.
For both sides, it takes a lot of faith. To believe that there are no errors and to believe that despite any problems with the text one can still be saved through faith in Jesus. I think that for the most part – modern believers don’t understand that ambiguity was par for the course in ancient religions. Not everyone knew what they were signing up for when they joined a cult, it was only when they were promoted up the ranks would they learn what they had signed up to believe. Contradiction wasn’t uncommon – stories about the Amazonian warriors showed them as capable women warriors who were usually victorious, but another culture would write about the Amazonians and they way they told it the Amazonians usually lost. As I said, the meaning of stories was usually far more important than the facts of a story and the Bible is quite a story.
The description in this movie is equally apt of the Bible:
The Grandson: A book?
Grandpa: That’s right. When I was your age, television was called books. And this is a special book. It was the book my father used to read to me when I was sick, and I used to read it to your father. And today I’m gonna read it to you.
The Grandson: Has it got any sports in it?
Grandpa: Are you kidding? Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles…
The Grandson: Doesn’t sound too bad. I’ll try to stay awake.
Grandpa: Oh, well, thank you very much, very nice of you. Your vote of confidence is overwhelming.
Looking at how the New Testament interprets the Old Testament, we can see that they weren’t always literalists:
Galatians 4 refers to Hagar and Sarah, as an analogy of two covenants. As such, some of the details of the story are erased.
Hebrews 11 talks about faith, and yet Barak was counted among the Judges whose faith was impressive though Deborah and Jael were more faithful than he.
Even when Jesus was speaking on the interpretation of the law, he wasn’t faulting the teachers for being literal, but lacking the ability to discern the spirit behind the laws. Which is the same exact problem that inerrancy makes possible – because it favors literal interpretation over figurative, facts and figures over meaning, dates and times over events.
As long as inerrancy is ruling on the throne, a lot of Jesus’ teachings are going to be less important than they would be otherwise. And that’s why the church has lost me. I get that the ancient believers didn’t believe in inerrancy – some lived their entire lives without an official Bible, some had access to a handful of letters but not the whole text of Scripture, and others couldn’t read it but had access to a translation. They all did the best they could with what they had – and that’s all we’re really tasked with.