I realise I’ve already written quite a few posts about biblical inerrancy. I was going to apologise for writing yet more on the subject, but in the end I will offer no apology, for this simple reason: it seems to me that how we view scripture is the single most influential factor in how we view God and his relationship to the world. Every conversation I participate in about God or the Christian life very quickly circles back to how we interpret scripture. Hence, if we get this wrong, our whole view of God is likely to be skewed. It’s that important.
Simply put, I believe that scriptural inerrancy is a myth. I don’t use the word myth to be edgy or to court controversy; I use it because I believe that, if you are honestly willing to think seriously about the issue, you will realise that there is no intellectually credible way to believe that the Bible is strictly inerrant. Or, for that matter, to believe that it needs to be.
I won’t really be saying anything new in this post; all I’ll be doing is reiterating and summarising arguments I’ve read elsewhere and which, for me at least, are convincing.
First, a quick definition. What I mean by scriptural or biblical inerrancy is the belief that everything in the Bible, no matter how theologically or morally problematic, is true, and that all parts of the Bible are equally authoritative. This is taken as axiomatic by many evangelical Christians.
Having established that definition, the first question is, when we speak of scriptural inerrancy, which texts of scripture are we referring to? The fact is that we have no original texts to consult. Even if there once existed authoritative original texts for each book of the Bible, by now they are long lost. What we do have is multiple versions of various texts, with greater or lesser degrees of concordance between those versions.
It’s true that we do have some Hebrew and Greek texts at our disposal today, but these are not originals. They are copies, or copies of copies, or copies of copies of copies (you get the idea). And this is primarily how the differences between texts crept in: when someone copied an original text, they would sometimes make mistakes, such as missing out letters or words, or mistaking them for other letters or words. These types of mistakes are usually known as transcription errors. And when someone later made a copy of a copy that already contained such errors… well, as you can imagine, the potential for errors to multiply was significant.
So, even if we were to accept – hypothetically, you understand – that there might once have been an inerrant biblical text, all the layers upon layers of transcription errors down the centuries would ensure that it was no longer inerrant.
In fact, we need to go back further still and remind ourselves that much of what is in our present day Bible originated in oral traditions – stories that were passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth and not written down until much later. Here again, even if the “original” versions of such stories had been inerrant, what about later oral versions? And what about the versions that finally came to be written down? Who’s to say how closely they may or may not have conformed to the original versions?
So much for the original texts.
But there’s more. Even if we somehow had perfectly preserved, inerrant Hebrew and Greek texts for every book in the Bible, there’s another crucial step that has to take place before you and I can read them: translation. Now, as a professional translator, I can tell you that all translation involves interpretation. No matter how objective I try to be when I translate a document, there are interpretive choices I simply have to make that will in some way colour the final result and its effect upon its readers. And if this is true when translating contemporary documents from one modern language to another, how much more true is it when translating documents written in an ancient language and aimed at people who lived in an ancient culture worlds apart from our own? Thus, even if a modern day translator were able to work from a hypothetical inerrant original Hebrew or Greek text, she would of necessity introduce her own interpretive bias into her translation, and any previous state of inerrancy would be lost.
At this point, I should also throw in the question of which Bible we’re talking about anyway. The Protestant Bible isn’t the same as the Roman Catholic Bible, and the Eastern Orthodox Bible contains books that aren’t in either the Protestant or the Roman Catholic Bible. So if the Bible is inerrant, precisely which Bible is that?
So far, we’ve established that even if there had somehow been original inerrant scriptural texts, there would have been multiple steps in the chain from their original point of authorship to today that would inevitably have led to their inerrancy being diluted, polluted and lost.
But there’s one more very good reason why the notion of inerrancy is a myth.
Even if somehow, beyond all logic and reason, you could hold in your hands a Bible that was guaranteed to be absolutely unaltered from the original text of scripture, as soon as you read it, it would cease to be inerrant. How so? Well, you and I are all of us errant interpreters of scripture (and, in fact, of everything we read). We each impose our own understanding upon scripture, shaped by our social, cultural, religious and economic background, our personality, our innate tastes and preferences, and so on. If this were not so, every Christian would interpret the Bible in the same way, which we clearly don’t.
So then, even if we somehow had an inerrant Bible at our disposal, the doctrine of inerrancy would fall at the final hurdle: there would be no inerrant interpreter to properly understand it. The church would quickly fracture and divide into squabbling factions, each of which believed it lay claim to the one true interpretation of scripture. (Wait… that sounds kind of familiar, doesn’t it?)
I think I’ve shown a number of very obvious, practical reasons why the notion of an inerrant Bible makes no sense. I have no doubt that some will say that to believe in the inerrancy of scripture in spite of these reasons is an act of faith that pleases God. I might have more sympathy for that view if the Bible itself somewhere claimed to be inerrant (it doesn’t), and if there were no better, more faithful way to view the Bible while maintaining the integrity of the faith (there is). Stay tuned: more in a couple of days.
[ Image: le vent le cri ]