One of the central claims about the Bible for a large number of Christians is that the Bible is inerrant and infallible. Affirming these two doctrines functions as a litmus text in many denominations and churches, and they are foundational for the conservative/evangelical faith. In a recent sermon focused on seeing the Bible through a Progressive Christian lens I made the point that I don’t think the Bible is either inerrant or infallible. The response was passionate, and led to all sorts of comments and questions about why I am throwing out the Bible, don’t believe the Bible, or trying to get rid of the Bible. I’m not doing any of those things. I think inerrancy is actually a low view of scripture, because it ultimately seeks to fit the Bible into what we wish it was, instead of hearing it in all its uncomfortable challenge. In this post I want to explore the meaning of inerrancy and infallibility, and then ask what happens to the Bible when it’s not part of the matrix through which we understand scripture.
First, what do inerrancy and infallibility mean? Simply put, when applied to the Bible, these words mean that the Bible is without error and incapable of being wrong. The definitive statement on inerrancy came in autumn of 1978. A group of three hundred Evangelical leaders gathered in Chicago, Illinois to draft what became known as the “Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.” A short statement found before the multiple articles of the document summarizes the position set forth: “Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God’s acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God’s saving grace in individual lives.”
According to the crafters of the Chicago Statement, “The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety is the Word of God written and it is therefore inerrant in the autographs.” I remember growing up in a Southern Baptist Church and reading something similar in our statement of beliefs. I always just assumed that somebody somewhere had access to these autographs (meaning the original copies of the texts). Someone had to have access to the very first copy of Mark, right? The copy on which the Markan author put pen to papyri? To my surprise, the answer was no.
The oldest text is a fragment, not a complete manuscript, of the Gospel of John that is believed to be from the first half of the second century, the 100s. That’s not a complete Bible, or even a complete book. It’s tiny fragment. The earliest copies of entire books date from the 200s, while the first complete copy of the entire New Testament, the “Codex Sinaiticus” is dated to the late fourth century. So, does it even matter if the original autographs were inerrant?
Further, does an inerrant text matter without an inerrant interpreter? We all approach the Bible with a lens, a worldview, that significantly impacts how we understand the meaning of a text. There is no place of objectivity from which we read and interpret the Bible. While we often say, “The Bible says…,” the reality is the Bible doesn’t say anything. The Bible reads, we make it say through the act of interpretation. We can’t just tell anyone what the Bible says, free of our opinion or interpretation.
Here’s an example: For most of my life I have read the parables of Jesus with a couple of assumptions. I didn’t invent these assumptions, it’s how I had always heard the parables interpreted. The first assumption was that God was represented by the rich and powerful character in the story. God is the wealthy landowner who went on a journey or the owner of the vineyard, who punishes the disappointing and disobedient servants. Said servants represent the unfaithful and the wicked, those who don’t respond to God in the “right way.” That way of approaching these stories is grounded in a specific assumption that power, wealth, and retributive justice are good, thus qualities the God would affirm. However, what if we conducted an experiment and intentionally approached these stories with a new lens. What if the next time we read a story from the Gospels, especially a parable, we don’t assume that God is represented by the rich and powerful person in the story? Instead, what if we imagine that Jesus is identified with the person punished, excluded, and condemned? How might that transform our interpretations of those stories. Becoming aware of our lenses and how our worldview has impacted our readings of the text can open us to hearing these stories differently. I often say, as a white, straight, cisgendered, American male, I bring a lot of baggage to texts written by a marginalized and oppressed people. Becoming aware of those lenses that we bring to the text is vital if we want to hear the voices of the biblical authors in all their complexity and fullness.
Then, there’s the problem of translations and translators. I mentioned before that inerrancy is grounded in a belief that the original autographs of the biblical texts were inerrant and infallible, and that we don’t have access anything close to those original manuscripts. Most Christians can’t read Greek, the language in which the New Testament was written, which means vast numbers of Christians depend on translators and translations. It’s important to understand that translations are interpretations. This is true because 1) people just aren’t capable of the kind of objectivity it would take to “just translate,” and 2) language doesn’t afford us that possibility. There are times when there aren’t exact equivalencies between Greek and English. In other instances, a particular word may have nuance that would determine what it means, and that ultimately causes translators to make a decision. Those decisions aren’t just taken from the ether, but they are filtered through education, experience, discussion, and, yes, opinion and worldview.
A prime example is the choice by the translators of the Revised Standard Version, in 1946, to translate certain Greek words as “homosexual” in lists of vices condemned by biblical authors. That was the first time the word homosexual was included in the Bible, and current translations have continued this unfortunate mistranslation in various ways, revealing a clear bias that must be corrected.
The point: Translations are interpretations, and translators aren’t inerrant or infallible.
Finally, there’s the problem of locating the proof of inerrancy and infallibility. When people make this claim, they often cite, wait for it, the Bible itself as the source to bolster their position. Using the Bible to prove that the Bible is inerrant and infallible reminds me of two things: First, I had a great uncle who lived in Florida. When he would come visit us in West Virginia he would often tell a story that led one to respond, “Really?” Like, is that even possibly true? That kind of “Really?” He would always respond, “If you don’t believe me, ask me.” That’s like the Bible claiming inerrancy for the Bible.
Second, this meme is just perfect.
The idea that the Bible could even make such a claim reveals a lack of understanding of how we got the Bible. Last week I talked about the Bible as not a book, but a library of texts produced over a period of a thousand years. The point being, there was no Bible to make such a claim about before the canonization process. The Hebrew Bible is made up of three sections, and they achieved sacred status at different times: The Law by 400 BCE, the Prophets by 200 BCE, and the Writings by 100 CE (meaning after Jesus time!). The New Testament canon was still fluid in the fifth century, and even today not all Christians have the same number of texts in their Bibles. All that to say, the Bible can’t make such a claim as inerrancy because the Bible isn’t a book, it’s a library that evolved over time.
Here’s the thing, I would much rather talk about what the Bible is or could be for Christians. When we can move beyond the mental gymnastics required to ‘prove’ inerrancy, we can begin to ask the more interesting question: What is the Bible? I’d like to share a few thoughts, briefly.
The Bible was produced by human beings, in response to their experiences of God and the world, in the context of an oppressed and marginalized community. The Bible, when taken as a whole, reflects our spiritual ancestor’s growth, struggles, faithfulness, unfaithfulness, and the questions with which they wrestled. The importance of this for me is that in engaging the Bible we don’t just see what they did and rest on their laurels. The path has been marked, roughly at times, but it is ours to walk and to continuing clearing for future generations.
Yes, I believe the Bible is inspired and inspiring. I also believe that in the pages of the Bible we can hear the Word of God, at times, filtered through the words and experiences of the prophets and the communities that produced them. We can also hear words that do not reflect the character of God. God has never and will never need to kill things to make us acceptable. God has never commanded a genocide or willed violence. God has always been out in front of us, generation by generation, calling and inviting us forward. Like Abraham, who left both the physical and spiritual geography he’d always known, to follow an invitation extended by Mystery, we too are called to follow this God into new places and experiences. Like Moses removing his shoes and taking up the mantle of liberator, we are called to see the Holy all around us and to work for the liberation and flourishing of all human beings. Like the first Christians, convinced that Jesus had called them and empowered them, we are invited to create communities of radical generosity and hospitality.
For me, seeing how far our ancestors came, while also realizing how far they had to go, inspires and convicts me. We must continue the work of responding to God and the world as faithfully as we can, knowing that we will leave this life and enter that ‘great cloud of witnesses’ with much left unfinished for future generations to take up.
For me, the Bible doesn’t lose anything when we move beyond inerrancy. It actually leaves the realm of two dimensions and becomes a hi-def 4K experience. When we can embrace our spiritual ancestors in all of their brilliance and in all of their limitations, when we are comfortable with the truth that they were products of a time and place, and yet they often found ways to transcend those limitations and break new and transformative ground, then we can begin to see our role in this ever unfolding story.
Perhaps the reason we resist letting go of inerrancy and infallibility is because what we lose in the process is certainty. Certainty has been the drug of choice for so long in the Christian faith, and it’s difficult to move away from the momentary comfort that it can afford. Yet, the good news is that when we come to terms with the reality that certainty is an illusion, even an idol, we can enter into and participate in the Mystery that God is. Then we are free to wrestle, doubt, trust, and add our own pages to the story. Then we are free to love and value the Bible for what it is, not what we’d like it to be.
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