The idea (in its original Protestant articulation called the Doctrine of Plenary Verbal Inspiration) is that although God worked through human authors, they wrote precisely what he wanted them to write, thereby guaranteeing that what they had to say contained no mistakes. An this is taken to be so certain, such a given, any evidence to the effect that certain proof texts bear "bad fruits" when treated as inerrant truth is dismissed summarily. Jesus' injunction to distinguish between true and false prophets by their fruits is regarded as inapplicable to the teachings of any author whose work has made it into the biblical cannon.
I don't want to retread old ground here, but it occurs to me that there is a line of argument--a kind of "confutation" of this fundamentalist view--that I haven't shared on this blog. I'm not sure how convincing it ultimately is, but it's easy to lay out and, I think, worth considering. By a "confutation" I mean an argument that challenges a view on its own terms--that seeks to show that if you take the view seriously, you have to accept things that undermine the view.
Before laying out this possible confutation, let me quickly point out, for those who may not be used to thinking about the Bible in these terms, that there are a diversity of positions one can adopt concerning the Bible's relationship to divine revelation and its authority for Christians. Far too often, a false dilemma is presented according to which there are only two options with respect to the Bible: either (a) treat the Bible from cover to cover as the inerrant word of God, or (b) throw out the whole thing, regarding it as nothing more than a collection of superstitious writings by ancient peoples who knew next to nothing and surely weren't inspired by God, since there is no God. We might call (a) the fundamentalist Christian theory about the Bible and (b) the fundamentalist atheist theory.
These are not the only theories that you could have. You might, for example, believe that the biblical authors were endeavoring to report their own experience of God at work in their lives, or their community's experience of God at work among them. You might think that these authors were moved by profound revelations of the divine moving in their lives (or were trying to give voice the the collective revelatory experiences of their community)--but also believe that these authors were limited by their cultural and historical contexts, by their filters of prejudice and ignorance.
You might, in other words, treat these writings as a seminal collection of "testimonies" to God and his work. No evangelical Christian I know treats the witness testimonies of members of their congregation in terms of the sharp either/or that options (a) and (b) provide. If someone stands up in church and shares a moving story of how God has been at work in their lives, do evangelicals say, "Either we must treat this testimony as inerrant, or we must throw out the whole thing as rubbish?" Of course not. Nor do we treat our most trusted and admired pastors as inerrant, no matter how much we respect and attend to their sermons.
Likewise, one possible way of thinking about Scripture is along these lines: inspiring and inspired, but not inerrant. And you might treat the Scriptures as more than this, even without embracing inerrancy, because you might believe that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. You might, for example, believe that even if the human authors were fallible, where several are gathered together God becomes present in a transformative way (a way He wouldn't be when one focuses in narrowly on what one author has to say while ignoring the broader context).
After all, many voices in conversation can serve as a mutual corrective, exposing the errors of some by bringing to the fore the most resonant truths. A police officer who wants to know what happened at the scene of a crime will appreciate the presence of many witnesses--and if he interviews enough of them he will become pretty darned confident about at least some core facts even though he treats no witness as inerrant.
What is true about facts and events may be even more true about persons. If four people tell you about someone they all know, and their portraits of this person don't always match up--one describes the person as serene and in control during a moment of crisis, the other as fiery and anguished during that same moment--their collective witness might nevertheless give us a more accurate portrait than we'd get if we listened to any one of them. In fact, sometimes when you hear enough stories about someone, from enough different people so as to get past the individual perceptual prejudices, the subject of the stories becomes multi-dimensional, coming alive for you in a way that wouldn't happen with just a single narrative.
You might think that Scripture not only does something like this in relation to the person of Jesus, but does so in a way that facilitates a genuine relational encounter--that the Bible is a "means of grace" in much the way that the sacrament of holy communion is treated by many Christians as a means of coming into relational contact with God. And here's the thing about the sacrament: the bread could be stale, the wine sour, the minister who speaks the words of institution rather rough around the edges. It doesn't mean the sacrament can't be a transformative experience in which God's presence is deeply felt.
In the greatest symphonies, there is something that emerges that is greater than the parts. In fact, as a violinist I know that even in the best orchestras, individual musicians sometimes miss a run or play a high note off-key. Some people fake their way through a section because they haven't managed to practice it. But despite the individual errors here and there, the performance as whole can be magnificent. But you won't appreciate the whole if you focus narrowly on one note being played slightly flat by the basoon.
The point of all of this is that a confutation of the fundamentalist view of the Bible, even if successful, doesn't entail that you must throw your copy of the Bible in the trash or cease to treat it is as a profound vehicle for building a relationship with God. This black-and-white either/or approach serves the interests of fundamentalists of various stripes, but it doesn't necessarily serve the interest of truth.
So with that preface, here's the confutational argument. According to the fundamentalist Christian, when Paul writes something in the epistles, he's serving as a channel through which God communicates His revelation to humanity. God is speaking to us through Paul's pen--and God is doing it consistently. Everything Paul says has the character of a divine revelation.
And yet, in 1 Corinthians 7:10-12, Paul says the following:
To the married I give this command (not I, but the Lord): A wife must not separate from her husband. But if she does, she must remain unmarried or else be reconciled to her husband. And a husband must not divorce his wife.This is incomplete because what I'm interested in here isn't the content of the teachings about divorce, but rather about the distinction Paul makes in his paranthetical remarks. He is distinguishing between what he takes to be commanded by the Lord and what he takes to be his own injunctions. He distinguishes between what is coming from the Lord (perhaps he has heard various reports that Jesus himself issued a prohibition on divorce) and what is he is exhorting the community to do on his own authority.
To the rest I say this (I, not the Lord): If any brother has a wife who is not a believer and she is willing to live with him, he must not divorce her...
This seems to suggest that Paul does not take himself to be doing what fundamentalist Christians claim that he was actually doing. Now, I suppose fundamentalists could say that God could work through Paul in this way even without Paul's knowledge. God could inspire every word Paul wrote, guaranteeing its inerrancy, even if Paul didn't himself realize that this is what was happening.
But if so, why didn't God keep Paul from erroneously distinguishing between his own exhortations and those that come from a higher authority--a divine one? Why does Paul set two sets of commands apart, indicating one as having a divine source in the Lord and the other as coming from Paul ("I, not the Lord")? If Paul is wrong to make this distinction, then Paul's letters aren't inerrant. If he's right to make this distinction, then the fundamentalist view of the Bible is mistaken.
Now I can imagine one rebuttal, that goes as follows: Paul was not saying that the second set of injunctions didn't come from God. He was simply distinguishing between injunctions that had been explicitly voiced by Jesus while Jesus was alive, and injunctions that Paul was now issuing. But that is consistent with both injunctions having their origin in God's will.
Now this move is possible, but it strains the natural reading of the passage. Why make a distinction of this sort if, as funamentalists maintain, Paul's injunctions have the same divine mandate, the same link to God's authority, that Paul took Jesus' words to have? The distinction becomes trivial on that assumption. It becomes a distinction not worth making. There is meaning not only in the direct sense of words, but in what is said and when. If you rush into my office and ask me urgently for a fire extinguisher, you'd have reason to complain about my deceptiveness were I to direct you to one three flights down if I knew there to be one right around the corner. There is something called "conversational implication." In this context, my directing you to a particular fire extinguisher conversationally implies that the one I'm directing you to is the nearest one. If this isn't true, I've deceived you.
You make a distinction because you think it matters. Paul thought the distinction between his own exhortations and those of the Lord mattered. This is conversationally implied by the text. If fundamentalists are right about the Bible, then this implication of the text is false. Paul was misled and expressed his false belief by treating his own pronouncements as relevantly different in authority from the pronouncements of Jesus.
Or maybe Paul wasn't misled. Perhaps the distinction he makes here is sound. In that case, we shouldn't treat everything Paul says as if it came directly from God. Either way, it seems that the extreme fundamentalist approach to Scripture has to go--although I don't think this undermines "high" views of Scripture more broadly.
So what do others think? Does this argument work, or am I missing something?