I Am Error

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?

Questions for Inerrancy (or for Inerrantists and Critics)

In the last couple weeks there have been a few posts about the inerrancy of the Bible. The posts were largely negative towards the term and they’ve made me think about inerrancy more than I usually do (which isn’t that hard to do). It made me wonder what is exactly meant by inerrancy when people talk about it.

Inerrancy is one of those things that if you pushed me on it, I’d agree to it. I’d agree to it because it seems like the right thing to agree to and because I believe that the Bible is true and inspired by God. If I’m honest though, I’m uncertain what you mean by inerrancy and if what I’m agreeing to is the same as what you think.

Since I don’t think about inerrancy all that often, I don’t have a ready made definition for it. This lack of a solid definition to work with led me to look at my copy of Christian Scripture by David S. Dockery. I flipped to the glossary and found inerrancy, and honestly I liked the definition I found. Here’s what Dockery gave as the definition for inerrancy, “The idea that when all the facts are known, the Bible (in its autographs, that is, the original writings), properly interpreted in light of the culture and the means of communication that had developed by the time of its composition, is completely true in all that it affirms, to the degree of precision intended by the author’s purpose, in all matters relating to God and His creation.”

Now this is a definition of inerrancy that I don’t mind. Let me break down why.

  • “When all the facts are known” is a pretty interesting way to start this out right? It seems to be assuming that we may not have all the facts right now, maybe even that we may not even have all the facts before the end. I think I can get on board with that.
  • “the Bible (in its autographs, that is, original writings)” is also important, but not one I really lose much sleep over. This means we’re dealing with texts that were not originally in English, Spanish, Latin, French, or any other modern language and that we don’t even have the original copies in their original language. It has been translated and copied and therefore we may lose some of the weight in the copying and translation. Personally I don’t know if we really lose that much, but it is an important thing to realize that the KJV isn’t what David, Jesus or the early church used.
  • “properly interpreted in light of the culture and the means of communication that had developed by the time of its composition.” This point and the next one are the huge ones for me. How are we interpreting the passage? Are we only trying to come at a passage from our cultural lens? Inerrancy, at least according to this definition, means understanding the culture and means of communication of a particular section or book of Scripture. It isn’t simply prooftexting so we can stamp “Christian” or “Biblical” to current trends or preferred ways of living. It’s about understanding the context of the time and the way such a truth is passed on (is it poetry, narrative, apocalyptic literature?). To put it simply we need to understand historical context and genres.
  • “is completely true in all that it affirms, to the degree of precision intended by the author’s purpose.” This is another big one. What was the purpose of a certain passage? Is the author’s purpose to give exact number or dates for every event? If not then does the purpose of the passage stay true even if numbers may be generalized or certain scenes are told with certain emphasis? These are questions we need to ask, we can so often hijack the purpose of a passage with little consideration for what the author’s or God’s purpose for including such a thing was.
  • “in all matters relating to God and His creation.” This is the only section I have a complaint with. I know why he added “His creation,” to this definition because the Bible is about God and about his interactions with His creation. This phrasing could make it seem like we could know all things about our creation simply by reading the Bible. I don’t think that is the intent of this statement, but I could see how it would be misused. Perhaps putting it as all matters relating to God in relationship to His creation might make it a bit better.

However, doing a quick search it would seem that most people do not take this view of inerrancy. This leads me to the questions I have about inerrancy, they are aimed both at those who affirm inerrancy or those who dislike inerrnacy. So here we go.

1. Does inerrancy equal infallible?

It doesn’t seem that Dockery’s definition equates the two. Infallible means that there are no errors in scripture at all. Everything is one hundred percent true down to the tiniest detail. If every date, census number, geographical reference isn’t one hundred percent accurate than to the critic the Bible falls faster than a house of cards.

To others it seems like if you don’t believe in infallibility than you are throwing away the authority of the Bible. If anything I see infallible purpose behind the Bible, but that’s as far as I’d probably go. Since I like Dockery’s definition it doesn’t seem to me that the two are the same, but from what I’ve seen some, and maybe even most, do equate the two. Anyone have any thoughts to add?

2. Does inerrancy equal literalism?

This is related to the first, but I think that it is a little different. Do we think that to view the Bible as inerrant means that we have to take the Bible as completely literal? It seems like the answer is yes when we talk about the creation narrative or Revalation, but when we talk about Jesus’ sayings the answer is no. We know there really isn’t a plank sticking out of my eye, or that Jesus is calling us to cut off our hand, or that by hating someone we literally murder them. So it is easy for me to say that they aren’t equal it is about intent yet again. Some of these things may be meant literally, but I’m also open to the fact that they may not be. It seems to me that the important factor is more the purpose of the passage rather than taking everything completely literal. Again thoughts does inerrancy have to mean literalism?

3. Is the way we use inerrancy about loving God and learning about Him or about loving our traditions and interpretations?

This one may be a bit harder to answer. Sometimes it seems that people want to use inerrancy as a way of saying our interpretations are true and therefore directly from God. If you disagree with us then you’re disagreeing with God. Now I do think that in some cases that is valid, but in too many cases this is about secondary issues that have more than one way to view things. So is it truly about loving God or simply being comfortable with the “way we’ve always done it?”

On the other side I wonder if we sometimes reject inerrancy because we want to be able reject the portions that we don’t like? We get comfortable with modern society and look at the Biblical culture and content with suspicion, so we say the Bible can’t be right on that. I don’t know if this happens, but it’s something I’m tempted to do at times, so I figure others probably are too, and that some of those probably act on it too.

I mean honestly it’s hard to not let our culture and traditions influence how we read the Bible regardless of if we believe in inerrancy or not. I wouldn’t mind thoughts here as well. Have you used inerrancy to protect traditions and interpretations, have you shunned it for the same purposes? Get worried about doing it?

4. Do we use inerrancy to paint people unfairly?

Is inerrancy the key word to enter our “who’s in and who’s out” club? Do we consider anyone who doubts, questions, or rejects inerrancy as hating the Bible and not wanting to follow God? I’m sure there are people that this fits, but I also know that a lot of other have questions and doubts about inerrancy but still believe the Bible, look to the Bible for their knowledge of God, and want to follow God.

Inerrancy can also be used against those who believe it too. It can be used as a word that dismisses the validity of the position right from the gate too. It can be used as a brush to paint people as making an idol out of the Bible or being fundamentalists or judgmental. Again, yes some will be like that, but does that mean belief in inerrancy automatically makes you that way? I’m not so sure.

So feel free to answer any of these questions. You can answer all of them or just one. Comment on what you think of the questions. Anything you want to. As for my answers. Well it’s probably clear that I think the answer for the first two questions are no.

I’m not sure about the third one. I don’t really use inerrancy as a weapon and if anything I’d probably have more of a chance getting it used against me than using it. I’d probably say one area that I’m rethinking what I thought was the clear Biblical view is women in ministry leadership. Even then I’d never really thought that people who believed women could be pastors didn’t care about the Bible or believed that the Bible wasn’t true, I just disagreed with them, but that could very well be changing.

As for my fourth question. I’ve never really required anyone to show me their inerrancy card, but do get interested when people say they don’t believe in it. I probably have unfairly painted people who say they don’t believe it as just trying to get around certain troublesome parts at least in my mind. Granted, I think I’ve painted some people who would claim to believe in inerrancy as taking things a little too literal, or being a bit inconsistent in their literalness (if that’s even a word).

So this is where my thoughts on inerrancy landed me. To the glossary of Christian Scriptures and to these questions. Maybe I’ve misinterpreted Dockery’s definition, maybe his definition to some wouldn’t be inerrancy, but it’s what I’ve got for now. Any more thoughts are up to you at this point.

Posts that got me thinking about this in the first place:

The Bible Isn’t Perfect and It Says So Itself by Zack Hunt

In All Things Necessary To Our Salvation by Zack Hunt (It’s a follow up post)

Why I Hate the Word “Inerrancy” by Ed Cyzewski






Final Thoughts on How to Read the Bible Book by Book

How to Read the Bible Book by BookI’ll admit, I’ve been terrible at reading lately. After moving at the end of last year I was able to finish off a couple books that I had already started, but after getting those finished I really dropped off on the reading. Trying to get our new apartment organized, the holiday season of Thanksgiving-Christmas, and the birth of our daughter Anastasia at the beginning of the year all conspired to reduce my reading to nil. Recently, I’ve been trying to make a comeback and get back into reading a little more often. Of course most of the books I’m currently reading are older, because I’m trying to cull the herd from all the books I accumulated during undergraduate and graduate school and want to reread them a bit slower. Anyhow, to get to the point, I’ve finally finished another book, How to Read the Bible Book by Book by Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart and will give my thoughts on it.

The point of this book is to help people understand how to read each book of the Bible. This is usually done by giving the context of the book, some tips or knowledge they think might help with the reading of the book, and then some general summaries of various sections of each book. It does a good job of showing how each book is unique, but also at fitting it into the larger narrative of the Bible.

I’ll be honest, it isn’t the most enjoyable book to read cover to cover. This seems more like an aid to read at the same time that you are studying the Scriptures on your own time. This may sound like a negative, but I’m pretty sure that this was the intention of the book so don’t take it that way.

Personally, I liked the book. Sure I’ve heard a lot of the information before in classes, but there were a few times where the insight of the book gave me something new that I hadn’t heard or noticed before. One example of this was on the book of Ruth. They talked about how while in the book of Ruth the people documented follow the law of Moses well, this isn’t done in some stiff manner. It doesn’t display a stiff following of the law, but rather an internalization of the law that seems quite natural. I hadn’t realize that before, and so often we seem to focus on Old Testament law in a very stiff and awkward way that this insight helped shift that a bit. There were other insights, but I’ll leave it at that.

Even though I said I liked the book, there was a question that occurred to me part way through it that I’m not sure I have a great answer for. Who is this book for? While true that this is an introduction book, this is not exactly beginners level reading. It uses theological jargon and terminology in a way that those unfamiliar may have a hard time following it. So it seems like it could be tough for some people to get into completely on their own if they are unfamiliar with some of the terminology. Sure there is a minor glossary in the back, but it isn’t that big, and I don’t know how much it would help.

On the other end of the spectrum, someone like me who has years of education on theology and the Bible would probably rely more on commentaries or books that are more focused on specific topics or at least focused on one particular book of the Bible. While How to Read the Bible Book by Book may provide some good general insights and big picture issues we shouldn’t forget, it just isn’t specific enough to study a particular verse with. This would make it a tough sell to those who have more advanced needs.

So who is a book like this for? That’s the question that I’m not sure I have a solid answer for. In all honesty this seems to be a book produced with the introductory Bible student in mind. Someone who has enough knowledge that they want to pursue a degree in Biblical Studies or Christian Ministry, but may still have use for a book that is more introductory level. For those not in college, I’d say that this book is aimed at people who have knowledge and familiarity with theological terms, but may still need some basic framework on the flow of the Bible and how to read certain troublesome books.

So what is my bottom line on this book? It could be a useful resource if you’re not wanting to go out and invest in commentaries, but are able to understand or willing to learn some of the jargon and terms used in the book. It is more of a book to be used as a reference guide than it is to be read straight through, at least in my opinion. It is a book that has limitations to its usefulness, but at the same time if you’re in the target audience for the book it will be useful. It feels like How to Read the Bible Book by Book is more of a springboard than a foundation. You’ll use this book and gain information, but it is a book meant to propel you to a place where you won’t need this book as much rather than to be a foundational book you return to again and again.

Coming From the Outside In

Have you ever entered a situation that is already in progress and you have to sort out what is going on? At first it can be pretty difficult. There may be terms used that you don’t understand, assertions that are established that you don’t understand the reasoning behind, and even worse is that often people are progressing in that situation while you’re still trying to get a grasp. In many ways this is my experience with the church.

I’m not sure if I’ve ever said it here, but I did not come from a religious family. The only member of my family that I knew for certain was religious was my great-grandmother who was Catholic and I was scared of her, so she wasn’t much of a influence on my faith. I remember asking my parent’s about why we celebrated holidays like Easter, and while it was known to be religious in nature nobody really knew what it was about.

So when I came to faith in my late teens, I had to enter a church for the first time. I was nervous and the image of churches I had in my mind was a hive of judgmental, hypocritical people. Thankfully, that was not the first impression I wound up getting of the the church I went to. Granted the type of person I was even before coming to faith would have been hard to judge too much against. I was the nice guy, the one who hated to get into trouble, and the one that teachers adored and subsequently compared my brothers to (sorry about that guys).

However, I was still coming from the outside in, and it became apparent fast that I didn’t necessarily understand all that was going on. I got the hang of things pretty fast, but during the first couple of years I hadn’t really questioned much of what I was taught. I was simply absorbing, figuring out this new world and getting some sort of foundation to even begin to compare to. I enjoyed the direction of my pastor and his wife who I often consider my spiritual parents in many ways.

Over time though, I ran into Christians who believed different things about certain topics. I had both of my foundations as a person and as a young Christian to begin wondering about some of these topics. I heard how some talked about drinking as if it were a sin, yet that ran counter to my reading of the Bible and of how most of my family treated alcohol. I heard of opinions about gambling, rock music, dancing, and other things being sinful or evil, and wondered where the understanding of these things came from. Yet these topics were unimportant enough to me at the time to ask anyone about, I mean these weren’t all necessarily opinions of my home church, I had simply run into these opinions.

It wasn’t until I started dating Kristen, the woman who would become my wife, that I started asking these questions. You see, unlike me she was an insider. Her parents and grandparents are all Christians, she went to a Christian High School, and she was intelligent so clearly she’d have the understanding I lacked as an outsider. So she became the one I asked questions to:

“Where does it say that drinking is a sin in the Bible? I see that drunkenness is, is there something I’m missing?”

“Why is gambling wrong?”

“Why is dancing wrong?”

“Why are certain styles of music evil?”

I wish I could say that she knew the answers to these questions, but most of the time she didn’t. I still don’t know the Biblical arguments against a number of these, and I’m not sure if there really are. I have arguments against certain kinds of behaviors in these categories, but often to brush aside things like gambling or dancing as sin wholesale doesn’t interest me too much. Even after all the questions I asked her while dating , my curiosity is still there, and she is still my sounding board. Due to this, she tends to cringe when I utter, “Can I ask you a question?” She never knows if it will be about what she wants for dinner, or if the church underestimates the danger of pride.

Despite being a Christian for about 13 years, having an undergraduate degree in Christian Ministry, and having my Masters of Divinity, I still feel a bit of an outsider. I love questions, and tend to ask questions about the various viewpoints Christians espouse. Some of the views are ones I’ve already mentioned, others are based on how we baptize, how we view creation, what theory we hold to about the end of the world, or other issues like this. They aren’t necessarily all questions about challenging authority, but more often wondering if there is only one way to view these issues and what people do about those with alternative views. I know big theological terms, but would rather talk in ways that people will understand than toss a bunch of jargon at them, not that I don’t think they are useful sometimes, but often I think churches use a lot more jargon than we think.

So after all this time I still feel like a bit of an outsider, and in part I’m okay with that. In part I don’t want to forget what it was like to be a new believer walking into a church for the first time. I want to think about how what we say in church will sound like to a new believer or a non-believer. I don’t do this perfectly, but I don’t want to stop trying. I also want to be careful of pride. When we think we, or the group we’re affiliated with, has all the answers, pride can be so dangerous. We can treat those who believe different than use pretty terribly. Again not something that I do perfectly, but I’d rather ask questions and try to understand than simply dismiss a thought. Maybe these things don’t make me as much of an outsider as I think, but sometimes it certainly feels like it.