A few months ago, I posted a blog about inerrancy. In that post I said that I don’t typically think too much about inerrancy. This is still true, but since I’ve started reading more blogs, the topic of inerrancy seems to come up pretty often. This leads me to thinking about the topic more than I ever have. I still don’t always know what people mean when they throw the word around, at least in the specifics and the questions I put forward in my previous post. That said I’m probably closer to someone who believes in inerrancy than one who doesn’t, but I’m not necessarily just here to rehash that post. So if you want to go read that and come back, if you don’t, well press on.
You see in all of our talk about the inerrancy of the Bible, some people assume that if the Bible is inerrant than we can just pick up the Bible, read it, and present its thoughts inerrently. This is a bit of a troublesome idea to me. How do we know that our interpretation of a particular passage is really what the Bible is trying to say?
That’s the funny thing about inerrancy, there are a lot of people that believe in it, but who aren’t in agreement on every aspect of theology. I’m okay with that reality, but the reality also hits on a bigger issue. Believing in inerrancy doesn’t mean that people won’t disagree about how to interpret the Bible.
We spend a lot of time and effort defending or deconstructing inerrancy that we miss the error we bring to the text every time we open the Bible. What if I’m the error? What if when I open the Bible there is a very real chance that I won’t take the passage as it was meant to be taken? What if you’ll do the same? How should this affect our attitudes about and understanding of the Bible?
Are We The Error?
To put it simply, I’d say yes. We’re a little less than two-thousand years removed from the time of the most recent book of the Bible. Two thousand years is a lot of years and the way we view the world is more than a little different. Throw in the fact that we’re reading a work that was originally in different languages and we’re left with some distance between the original listeners and readers and us. Insurmountable distance? I don’t think so, but few of us are going to be able to open up to the Book of Leviticus and fully understand everything that is in that book right, because there is a lot of difference between life then and life now.
Even if we study life back then, and can form intelligent thoughts about the content of such a book, there is still a chance that we’re missing things or that we’re incorrect in our conclusions. Let me give an example. The clean/unclean food lists. To us today, this looks completely foreign and even silly. The concept of being unclean is foreign, and why certain foods make you unclean is uncertain at best. That doesn’t stop people from trying to guess why certain animals were considered unclean. One of the popular ones I’ve heard is that it was for health reasons. It seems that this is a bit spotty though, plus you have to ask if medical treatment during the time of Jesus and the Apostles was that much better for these animals to suddenly be declared clean.
Another reason I’ve heard is that it was because these animals were associated with pagan rituals, but again this doesn’t seem to explain everything, because the bull was considered clean but was the animal closely associated with Baal worship. That would seem to undermine this theory a bit. Others say that these restrictions are completely arbitrary and are basically just to make Israel unique and see if they would be willing to follow God on these restrictions. Another theory was developed by Mary Douglas who believed that animals were designated unclean when they didn’t fit into a symbolic category. For example animals that had a cloven hoof and chewed their cud were clean, but animals who only did one of these, like pigs, were considered unclean because they didn’t fit into this category.
Can we see the problem when we tackle verses like this? Here we have four different ideas of what they mean, but what is the truth? It could be one of these theories, maybe it isn’t any of them, or it could be some combination of reasons. Now for the idea of unclean animals this isn’t all too relevant to us, since the New Testament abolishes the concept of unclean animals, but it does serve as an example of difficult interpretation.
Now, I realize that not knowing the reason behind why this is in the Bible may not be construed as an error on our part. We know that there were unclean animals and what most of them were, shouldn’t that be enough? To this, I’d say that I’ve heard presentations that pick a reason for these animals being unclean and proceed to use that reason to prove the inerrancy of the Bible. So if that interpretation is wrong does that make the Bible not true? I don’t necessarily think so, but if you put all your eggs in that basket you may think differently.
This distance from issues like this can make us read the Bible from our point of reference, which isn’t necessarily the point of reference held by those who it was originally intended for. Not to say that it doesn’t speak to us, wasn’t intended for us, or that it isn’t relevant to us, but there can be some legwork involved. Trying to understand things like creation, wars of the Bible, rituals, slavery, sexuality, and gender issues can be a difficult thing to do looking backwards. We have a lot of assumptions both of what should be according to 21st century standards and simplistic understandings of what it was like back then that get in the way.
Humbly Doing the Best We Can
What does this mean though? Do we just throw up our hands and say that we can’t ultimately know anything about God and the Bible? Do we just toss out portions of Scripture that we don’t like or understand easily? Do we tightly hold onto our interpretation and believe that our interpretation is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?
None of these ideas are very appealing to me. It isn’t necessarily hard to find people who have chosen one of these options, but I don’t really find that any of them are for me. I do believe that we can know about God and the Bible, even if that knowledge will never be 100% complete. I’m not a huge fan of tossing out portions of Scripture because it doesn’t match my construction of God, mainly because I’m aware that my construction may be faulty. Tightly holding onto a particular interpretation no matter what doesn’t seem helpful either, because again it could largely be a construction that I’m, at least partially, incorrect about.
I want to move forward with eyes wide open. To know that my interpretation of the Bible and my thoughts about God will never be perfect. To move forward with humility and acknowledging, hopefully every step of the way, that I may be wrong. This doesn’t mean that I won’t form opinions or ideas, but I hope to hold them humbly. It also doesn’t mean that I’ll be easily persuaded by every thought that is different than mine, but I hope to listen. I want to understand that I am full of error and that you are full of error no matter if we think the Bible is or not.
I know I want to be right, particularly about matters regarding God and my faith, but the truth is I’m probably not right on everything. I may not even be right about most things. I have a feeling that’s the way a lot of people feel. We want to be right on these matters. Even though we want to be right, we need a humility that says, we may not be right. Grace to embrace those who don’t agree with us, and love that allows us to listen and fellowship with them anyhow.
I want to try to understand the Bible and the God who is revealed through it as best as I can. Even though I want to do my best, I want to be able to keep humility in view. I need to know that I won’t fully understand Him, but I hope to know Him better and understand Him better, like the friend that you learn more about and understand better with time.
Really this fact that we will never be without error is my biggest concern when the trump card of inerrancy gets put into play. By using it, we’re more often saying that our interpretation is inerrant than anything else. Although, honestly, I think that there are some who argue against inerrancy with that same logic. It is the belief that my understanding is superior and if that doesn’t jive very well with what the Bible says, the Bible must be misguided, outdated, or just plain wrong. However, if we recognize the propensity for error in ourselves shouldn’t that lead us to a place of humility and maybe even unity despite our disagreements. I know that’s probably naive, but I also know that we’re on this journey together and that nobody has everything figured out. It may be a naive thought, but who is to say that naive thoughts are always the incorrect thoughts?
So what do you think about this? Have you ever thought about this dynamic in relation to inerrancy/truthfulness of Scripture? Did you catch the video game reference in the title? Did you ever think that a video game reference could be the title of a theological reflection?