Wednesday, April 22, 2009

The Question of Biblical Inerrancy: Comments Posted on Another Blog

Some days ago, a religion professor posted on his blog the following quote from one of my articles (the RDPulpit piece on same-sex marriage):

"[T]he doctrine of biblical inerrancy has the effect of inspiring its adherents to pay more attention to a text than to the neighbors they are called upon to love. Sometimes it even inspires them to plug up their ears with Bible verses, so that they can no longer hear the anguished cries of neighbors whose suffering is brought on by allegiance to the literal sense of those very texts."

The quote triggered a lively discussion on biblical inerrancy—as of this moment 85 comments and counting. After reading quickly through the highlights, I decided to post a comment of my own to provide some context for the quote. Since readers of this blog may be interested, here is what I wrote:

It's rewarding to see that a quote from me can stimulate such a lively discussion.

For even broader context than my RD article provides, it may help to locate the quote within my ongoing work on the nature of divine revelation. Some of that work is summarized in Chapter 8 of my book, Is God a Delusion? A Reply to Religion's Cultured Despisers, especially on pp. 175-177. But the full development of my ideas here has yet to be published.

The gist of it is this: a God whose essence is love would not choose, as His primary vehicle of revelation, a static text. We learn most about love through loving and being loved. And it is persons whom we can love, as well as who can love us. And so it is in persons and our relationships with persons that the divine nature is made most fully manifest.

Christianity affirms this when it maintains that God's most fundamental revelation in history was in the person of Jesus. And Jesus was, if nothing else, a model of agapic love. His core message was love. And He never wrote anything. Instead, He made disciples--persons--whom He sent out into the world.

In this context, a text that collects human testimony concerning divine revelation in history, especially one that reports on the life and teachings of Jesus, is going to be invaluable. But it will cease to be valuable if we come to pay more attention to this text than we do to our neighbors. Jesus Himself declared that He is present in the neighbor in need, and the community of the faithful is called "the body" of Christ, that is, the place where Christ is present, embodied, on Earth today. Not in a book. In persons.

When the biblical witness is treated as the proxy voice of persons who lived long ago, and we listen to the voices of those persons as we do the other members of the body of Christ, then the biblical witness becomes an invaluable partner in our efforts to understand what God is saying to us--that is, what God is communicating through the web of human relationships and the spirit of love that moves within that web.

But when the biblical witness is treated as inerrant in a way that no human being is inerrant, it trumps the voice of the neighbor and is used as a conversation-ender. It becomes an excuse not to listen to the lived experience of the neighbor. Or it becomes a measuring stick for deciding which neighbor should be listened to (their experience conforms with the biblical template) and which should be dismissed (because their experience does not conform).

And since compassionate listening is one of the most essential acts of neighbor love, it follows that a doctrine of biblical inerrancy is an impediment to such love.

Therefore, I conclude (contrary to what Craig argues here) that a God of love would not create an inerrant text.

As far as 2 Timothy 3:16 goes, let us recall that at the time this letter was written, "Scripture" referred to what Christians today call the Old Testament. The author of second Timothy says that these Hebrew writings are "God-breathed and...useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness."

Now we can ask two questions here. First, was the author of second Timothy right? Second, if he was, what does that imply about how we should approach these Old Testament Scriptures? Focusing only on the second question, we can reasonably ask what we have to believe about the Old Testament Scriptures in order to affirm that it is useful in the ways mentioned? And we can reasonably ask about the different possible senses of "God-breathed."

On both questions, Karen Armstrong's The Bible: A Biography offers a concise historical account of the numerous different answers through both Christian and Jewish history. There is, in short, not a single, incontrovertible interpretation.

This post generated some responses, one of which was rooted in a misunderstanding I felt compelled to clear up. And so I posted the following follow up:

I wasn't going to post here again since I have so much else to do, but it's obvious I need to clarify a point. Craig quotes something I say and then comments on it in a way that he seems to think constitutes a refutation. Here's what he says:

".....But when the biblical witness is treated as inerrant in a way that no human being is inerrant, it trumps the voice of the neighbor and is used as a conversation-ender..... Ive never contended that humans are inerrant only that God is omniscient and omnipotent. and that His word is God-breathed and claims to be God-breathed."

I know that neither Craig nor any other biblical inerrantist maintains that humans are inerrant. That's my point. When a person takes a text to be inerrant, given that no human is taken to be inerrant, it follows that the person will pay more attention to the text (which is assumed to be inerrant) than the neighbor (who is assumed to be fallible).

This is what I think is dangerous. We learn how to love by getting on with the messy business of loving one another. And one of the most fundamental features of loving one another is really paying attention to one another. But why pay attention to fallible people when you think you've got an infallible book? Why listen to them when they share life experiences that are in tension with the most obvious meaning of the book? The tendency is to silence them by quoting chapter and verse: "It's says so here. It's never wrong. So you must be wrong. Now shut up."

The fruits of the doctrine of inerrancy are particularly vivid in the case of homosexuality: the anguished cries of gays and lesbians who are excluded from full participation in the life of the community are ignored in favor of Romans 1:26-27. For a vivid sense of how poisonous these fruits can be, the documentary For the Bible Tells Me So offers a dramatic example.


  1. This was my response to Dr Reitans last post on Exploring Your Matrix

    MY point is that by insisting that the Bible contains errors you are anthropomorphizing God. The God I know (and love) would not willingly allow errors to enter His sacred text and is powerful enough to ensure that this does not occur by communicating with (breathing into the minds of) the authors.

    Someone once asked a famous evangelist if God spoke to him in an audible voice and he replied that God speaks to him a lot louder than that.

  2. Rhology, I'd have to say that a quick glance at the blog post you linked reveals that you did not in fact interact with Dr. Reitan. You dismissed him as "just another liberal religion professor" without doing much careful inspection of who he was or what he had to say. Your attempt at refuting his arguments, actually didn't even take his arguments into account. I'm not saying his arguments are correct, and in fact, I'm a materialist and hardly have a dog in this fight. But by refusing to interact with him in favor of spouting your pet interpretation of scripture, you give anecdotal evidence in favor of his argument.

  3. So by insisting the Bible contains errors God becomes nothing more than another neighbor.

    As to 2 Timothy 3:16, not so fast. If all scripture is God breathed, then surely all that is God breathed is scripture. And further, all that is God breathed is useful for....
    So then you dont get to exclude the NT as sacred text.

    His core message was love.

    How can you know this? Maybe his core message is indifference. Maybe its self-actualization. How can you know anything of the life of Christ if the NT is to be excluded?

    Jesus Himself declared that He is present in the neighbor in need, and the community of the faithful is called "the body" of Christ, that is, the place where Christ is present, embodied, on Earth today. Not in a book. In persons.

    We are the body of Christ corporately, not individually.
    Also, God is present on Earth today in the form of the Holy Spirit.

    How can God be a God of love if he intentionally deceives us?

  4. When I glanced at Rhology’s post, I came away with an impression of it not unlike cheek’s. Craig, by contrast, is clearly trying to engage with the substance of my argument, and so I think he deserves a bit of my time and attention. As such, I’m devoting a post to trying to charitably lay out his key arguments and explain where and why I find them unconvincing. That post is coming up in just a few minutes.

  5. Craig's arguments in his comments assume the implications of inerrant scripture. Basically he takes the "effect" of an inerrant view of scripture (the view that god has given us a perfect revelation) and turns it into a "cause." (how could the god described in the bible NOT give us a perfect revelation?)

  6. Sir,

    I appreciate your willingness to engage with Craig's objections/arguments. While perhaps not agreeing with these comments I see they are constructed in a fair and generally respectful manner.

    I only wish the same could be said for all in this particualr 'skirmish'.

  7. To Pstyle

    Thank you for your kind and generous remarks. I look forward to engaging you in the future.

  8. The Question of Biblical Inerrancy: Comments Posted on Another BlogYes, let's look at the question of Inerrancy and Textual Criticism on another blog:

    "A contradiction involves a discrepancy between two or more passages. You can’t allege a contradiction unless the text is reliable. If the text is unreliable, then you’re in no position to say that these passages are ultimately discrepant. For all you know, the discrepancy might well be a scribal gloss.

    So a necessary precondition for imputing contradictions to scripture is the essential integrity of the text. If the transmission of the text is unreliable, then any contradiction you allege is vitiated by an unreliable witness to the original text.

    Therefore, the liberal has to choose between two mutually exclusive lines of attack. If he attacks the integrity of the text, then he forfeits the right to attack the inerrancy of the text–but if he attacks the inerrancy of the text, then he forfeits the right to attack the integrity of the text. One line of attack cancels out the other, and vice versa. You can pay on the way in, or you can pay on the way out, but either way, you have to pay up.

    Incidentally, a parallel conundrum is generated by critics who claim the meaning of Scripture is hopelessly uncertain since Christians disagree over the correct interpretation of Scripture. If you press this issue, then you disqualify yourself from imputing error to Scripture–for the imputation of error is only as good as your interpretation. So the unbeliever is in a quandary. He likes to attack the Bible from every conceivable angle, but in the process he is forming a circular firing squad. He makes himself the target of his own incoherent stratagems."

  9. Brilliant post Truth Unites. The argument continues at

  10. "Truth United",

    We must consider where the burden of proof lies. It lies WITH the claim of inerrancy.

  11. If there are errors, prove it. But dont expect me (personally) to respond to every inane allegation you make. I have made a cogent, concise and compelling a priori argument for inerrancy. To refute it you must do more than throw out a random accusation of errancy. btw the argument continues at
    A lot of interesting posts there to further the argument.

  12. While Rhology calls his attack of sarcastic insults with those whom he disagrees "interaction", other fundamentalists or inerrantists or whatever they are, join with the mythicists and skeptics in clammering for "proof" and "evidence" and resort to pointless rhetoric. Meanwhile the rational thinkers get on with meaningful discussion with honesty, love and compassion and exploration of plausible hypotheses... We might believe certain things but we are all ultimately agnostic despite the arrogant ignorance of some who claim to know it all.

  13. It strikes me that many who claim their Bible is inerrant must not have read that Bible with any care.

    If Paul is correct about when Jesus became the Son of God--i.e., at the resurrection--then Mark did not think of that claim as inerrant, since he put it at Jesus' baptism. Then Matthew clearly did not regard Mark's version as inerrant, since Matthew puts it at conception. Same for Luke. The Fourth Gospel, as is well known, rejects the views of Paul, Mark, Matthew, and Luke and places it prior to the creation of the universe.

    While there may be some doubts about Mark et. al. having access to Paul's writings, there is no grounds for doubt that Matthew and Luke had Mark's text before them--they quote extensively from it. They also change a lot of Mark's text too--presumably they thought Mark got a lot of stuff wrong.

    Some desperate defenders of inerrancy of the Bible have retreated to the weird position that what was inerrant were the "original monographs" of each of the books in the Bible. No one has ever seen all of these. Since they have, so far as any scholar can tell today, all disappeared centuries ago. So, they end up defending a position that is completely irrelevant to understanding any person's Bible, or anything about their understanding of God and his ways with mankind.

  14. Asinus,

    Then I would like to see you answer the questions I've posed to both Drs McGrath and Reitan and which neither have attempted to answer. Go for it!

    If Paul is correct about when Jesus became the Son of God--i.e., at the resurrection--then Mark did not think of that claim as inerrant, since he put it at Jesus' baptism."This is my beloved Son" does not mean "Jesus has now become My Son". This is sloppy.

    Matthew puts it at conceptionChapter and verse?

    They also change a lot of Mark's text too--presumably they thought Mark got a lot of stuff wrong.Or they had different sources IN ADDITION TO Mark's and Mark's memory, and they wanted to emphasise different details. Did you have one good example in mind? Of an OBVIOUS contradiction?

    Some desperate defenders of inerrancy of the Bible have retreated to the weird position that what was inerrant were the "original monographs" of each of the books in the Bible.You are pretty ignorant, I'm sorry to say. Let me suggest you get out more.
    The reason that we think the original autographs are inerrant is b/c there are obvious copyist errors and other transmission-based errors that have crept into the thousands of manuscript copies we have, over time. But those are responsible for only SOME of the apparent contradictions. Most of the others are due to the critic's failure to read the context.

    Overall, poor showing, Asinus. Your grasp of the issue does not equal your aggressiveness.


  15. Let me offer a few comments on the questions raised (or counter assertions) about my earlier entry.

    Check out Mt.1:18, Lk. 1:35; Jn.1:1-2. Then notice the incompatible genealogies, birth stories, and early life stories in Mt. & Lk.

    For inconsistent stories examine carefully the resurrection accounts. Who came to the tomb first? How many beings of what sort were seen there? Did the message about an empty tomb get immediately conveyed to the disciples? Was Jesus touchable afterwards? These do not simple get at "added details".

    For further incompatible fetures, simply take individual stories, copy down each detail offered in each gospel separately and then compare the results. It is an eye opener!

    With respect to the non-existent "original monographs" your response ignored the argument and appealed to ignorance.

    Your ignorant shut-in.

  16. Asinus,

    You do realise that one of those genealogies is from Mary and one from Joseph, right?

    -birth stories, early life stories
    How are they incompatible? Just take all the events - they ALL happened.
    You start off with the desire to find errors, and you find them b/c you want to. It's not impressive as someone who's looking for the truth, like me.

    -resurrection accts differ
    So, you're admitting you've never consulted a standard harmonisation on such things, eh?
    I should think that, if you want to argue, you need at least some elementary knowledge of what you're talking about.
    And yes, obviously Jesus was touchable afterwards; that doesn't mean He wanted the women to touch Him right away. Sheesh.

    Thanks for reinforcing my conclusion that the other side has little to offer.


  17. Sometimes offering a charitable interpretation is a decided challenge.

    I previously mentioned "incompatible genealogies" of Jesus. Rh replied that "You do realise that one of those genealogies is from Mary and one from Joseph, right?"

    Apparently Rh meant to say that one of the genealogies mentions Mary and the other does not. That is true. Nevertheless, both genealogies trace Jesus' lineage through Joseph, giving his father, his grandfather, etc.

    I realize that reading genealogies is not very exciting reading unless they happen to have a real connection to you and/or your family. But after doing genealogies for a few years, you begin to look for certain sorts of things, and for the absence of certain sorts of things.

    One of the things to be on the look out for are gaps, or skipped generations. Another is different claimed parents for one and the same person. That is frequently tied to trying to trace the family through competing lines of descent.

    When one applies these ignorant, shut-in skills to the genealogies in Matthew and Luke, one first actually reads them. Then one begins to chart out the lines of descent (or assent)--since one gives the "father of," and the other gives the "son of" sequence.

    Now just try to trace out the descendants of David in the two genealogies. In one it goes from David to Solomon to Rehoboam to Abijah to Asoph, et. al. The other
    it goes from David to Nathan to Mattatha to Menna to Melea, et. al.

    Then there is the problem of Matthew's alleged father of Uzziah, i.e., Joram. According to the literature in Kings and Chronicles, there are a number of generations between Joram and Uzziah. Luke dodged the whole group entirely, it seems.

    It seems that the term "incompatible genealogies" is a charitable term for the mess involved in trying to fit these genealogies together.

    Rh apparently was too occupied with important things to try to work through the other problems I raised.

  18. what a great comment board... everyone is treated with respect for what they believe in...