Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Is Everything Paul Says in his Epistles the Inspired and Inerrant Word of God?

It occurs to me (based on comments on my last post) that it's been a while since I've posted anything directly addressing the fundamentalist Christian belief that every word and sentence in the Bible is there through a direct act of divine inspiration, and as such inerrantly represents divine truth even if the application of it to human life seems to magnify suffering, alienate people from one another, inspire bitterness towards religion, etc.

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.

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 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.

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?


  1. i think it works well, but a good fundamentalist, i suppose, might say, very well, but paul never did that anywhere else. thus, everything else he said was inerrant from God. and neither did any other writer, so God has delivered us this message that if the writer says it's only him, then its only him, otherwise, its me (God) -- everywhere else.

    they may even say your argument strengthens their view since God has spoken through Paul and shows us when it's Him and when it's not. Everywhere, but one tiny spot, it's inerrant -- God.


    (i don't believe in the fundamentalist version of inerrency by the way)

  2. This is probably mainly prejudism on my part, but I've always sorta imagined that the poeple who read every word as inerrant are also the people who read the least in the Bible.

  3. Well, in fact this kind of qualification is not just found here - but throughout the entire Bible. Paul for example sometimes said things are true "for me."

    Far more ominously? Paul at times just admitted he was not yet "perfect," that his "knowledge" and "prophesy" were "imperfect," even as he was in the act of writing his half of the New Testament.

    In fact? The Bible warned hundreds of times about often even "false" things, in every aspect of religion, from A to Z: from "angels," to "anointing" and "apostles," through to "worship" (Rev. 13) and "zeal." Not just in other religions; but even in those who believe they are following a "Christ," and crying "Lord, Lord" to Jesus himself.

    As Dr. Woodbridge Goodman notes in his online rouch-draft book, on False Priests. In his series on the Science of God.

  4. Mo,

    The response you sketch out would work better, I think, if Paul had reversed the order of his parantheticals (if he'd specified that this was coming from him, and then said, "And now back to the Lord talking."). As it is, we have Paul writing and writing and then--abruptly, highlighting that what he is about to say now comes from the Lord. And then he says, in effect, "Now back to me talking."

    That seems to be the most natural way of reading it, and that way of reading it suggests that what Paul says has according to Paul himself the (finite/limited) authority of Paul UNLESS he specifies that something comes from the higher authority of the Lord. And note that Paul at no time in Corinthians say, "And now we're done with my teachings of fallible authority and are returning to inerrant divine revelation." Should we therefore assume that all the rest of 1 Corinthians has Paul's finite authority attached to it?

    Also, if this is the response that the fundamentalist gives, then the fundamentalist still has to acknowledge a chink in the armor, so to speak. Where there is one errant passage, there might be more. As soon as you open the door to there being in the Bible things that aren't inerrant, you can begin to ask whether there are OTHER ways that God has for identifying what shouldn't be treated as coming from God. Maybe there is a biblical hermeneutic that emerges from a holistic reading of the Bible that serves this role. Maybe Jesus' injunction to distinguish true and false prophets and prophesies "by their fruits" is a general instruction on how to approach biblical teachings.

    1. The latter, is my approach. First, I find that 1)not just Paul, but the whole Bible is full of warnings about "false" things in our holiest men; even in our Christian apostles. Even in their allegedly "infallible" "inspired" Holy-Spirit moments. (Since even spirits can be "false spirits," falsely posing as the Holy spirit, etc.).

      So in effect? The Bible is a self-deconstructive document; confessing its own inadequacy.

      But 2) if so, then how do we find the truth? my contention is that since "all have sinned," and "no one is good but God," not even our religious leaders, therefore? God wants us to "test everything" (1 Thess. 5.21), with real "science" (Dan. 1.4-15 KJE; 1 Kings 18.20-40). To find out which holy sayings are good and true, and which are false. By observing not their spiritual, but real,physical, "fruits," "works," "signs," "deeds," and "proofs."

  5. Hans,

    "I've always sorta imagined that the poeple who read every word as inerrant are also the people who read the least in the Bible."

    Although I think there is truth to this in general, there are inerrantists who are very well-versed in the content of the Bible. These same inerrantists have made it their mission of sorts to reconcile all the apparent contradictions and conflicts, often in strained ways. For example, the incompatible geneologies of Jesus are reconciled by saying that one is through Mary and the other through Joseph--even though both trace through Joseph. You need to introduce some rather strained moves to get around that one.

    And then, of course, you have the differences in the Gospels. These differences in the course of events in the Jesus narrative, which read as incompatible, are reconciled by telling a fourth story that incoroprates all the elements of the four Gospels. The result is an account of Jesus' life up to the discovery of the empty tomb that is radically different from any of the accounts that actually appear in the Bible. Bart Ehrman is very good at spelling out how such "reconciliations" do violence to the actual meaning of the Gospel writers. In the name of preserving inerrancy, Mark is not taken on his own terms, Luke isn't, Matthew isn't, John isn't.

    To extend the symphony metaphor I used in the original post, we might say that these reconcilers take a four part contrapuntal harmony and rather letting each one sound out its melody in harmonic juxtaposition with the other three, the reconciler tries to fuse all three together into a single tune without harmony by taking the first bar of the first violin part, followed by the first bar of the second violin part, followed by the first bar of the viola part and then cello part, followed by the second bar of the first violin part, etc. The resultant piece of music is no longer the original symphony, and (probably) produces a melody with none of the beauty of the originals.

  6. Where I say "telling a fourth story" above, I meant to say "telling a fifth story".

  7. Thanks for this post. It's a continual struggle for me to figure out what to make of the Bible. I am continually challenged by what I read in it, and the first half of your post was particularly inspiring.

  8. Hi Eric

    Not surprisingly, treating the bible as a text written by people, with all their attendant weaknesses, who were trying to capture through their writing something of what they have taken for a divine experience, makes goods sense to me. And, examining our own cutlurally filtered response to the same text becomes potentially enlightening.

    It seems to me, and this is where I get lost in this type of debate, that any sensible critical response to the text requires a prior commitment to the nature of the central character. Are we talking here about somebody with a true and unique connection with the divine, or just a tremendously interesting thinker?

    Does it therefore follow, perhaps, that the Christian reader does have to make the assumption that, on the matter of the most startling claim contained withn the text, the writers got it right, and they were indeed dealing with something more than just a fellow human? If so (and it may well be that many Christians do see Jesus as just a normal chap, and I apologise if I'm therefore misrepresenting these people) isn't this also committing to a sort of inerrancy, by counting one clearly possible interpretation out from the start?


  9. Bernard,

    It's important to distinguish between the view that an authority (a person or text or group) DIDN'T get something wrong and the view that the authority COULDN'T have gotten it wrong. "Inerrancy" is often invoked to express the latter. That is, to attribute inerrancy in this sense is to attribute the existence of some sort of guarantor of accuracy within a certain domain. Hence, while the Pope is not inerrant overall, the Catholic Church thinks there is a guarantor of accuracy that comes into play when he makes pronouncements ex cathedra (one Catholic friend once explained to me that if a Pope intended to make a pronouncement ex cathedra which was false, he'd fail in the attempt because God would ensure that something would interfere before he got the chance to act on the intention).

    In another sense of inerrancy, the term is intended to attach the highest possible credibility to an authority AS A WHOLE. The whole is such that there are no errors.

    It seems to me quite possible to think that the biblical authors got it right when they attributed to Jesus a distinctive relation to the divine while denying that they COULDN'T have gotten it wrong AND denying that the Bible AS A WHOLE has the highest possible credibility (namely, perfect credibility). So I'm not sure what SENSE of "inerrancy" is at work in your comment/question.

  10. Hi Eric

    Yes, I was unclear, I suspect because the point I'm after is unclear to me. I suppose I'm attempting to apply the debating principle you evoke in your next post to the way you respond to anonymous here.

    The first step, to argue, well it may well be the bible is not as simple as God's word to us, using the obvious supports (contradictory passages, changing meanings over time, translation choices, the inherent ambiguity of language etc) seems valid enough.

    But what if it's not that anonymous hasn't considered these alternatives, as implied, but rather they have considered and rejected them? They still believe, despite the difficulties presented, that inerrancy remains the best bet.

    If this is the case, perhaps it's very similar to the person who, presented with the possibility that the bible is entirely consistent with a reality that has as its central figure a normal historical human, fictionalised through the act of imaginative biography, chooses to acknowledge the possibility, and the problems it poses for the divine case, but then decides to stick with the divine explanation anyway.

    So, I 'm suggesting it may be unfair to provide the rebuttal you do, in that it may be a misrepresentation, despite the fact that the moral implications of the anonymous case strike us both as repugnant.

    I'm not sure if this is any clearer.


  11. George MacDonald, 1866:

    The Bible is to me the most precious thing in the world, because it tells me [Christ's] story; and what good men thought about him who knew him and accepted him. But the common theory of the inspiration of the words, instead of the breathing of God’s truth into the hearts and souls of those who wrote it, and who then did their best with it, is degrading and evil; and they who hold it are in danger of worshipping the letter instead of living in the Spirit, of being idolaters of the Bible instead of disciples of Jesus.

    It is Jesus who is the Revelation of God, not the Bible; that is but a means to a mighty eternal end. The book is indeed sent us by God, but it nowhere claims to be his very word. If it were — and it would be no irreverence to say it — it would have been a good deal better written. Yet even its errors and blunders do not touch the truth, and are the merest trifles — dear as the little spot of earth on the whiteness of the snowdrop. Jesus alone is The Word of God.

  12. The above quote is not from any of his books, but from a personal letter written to an unknown lady in 1866. It is recorded on page 373in the biography written by his son Greville: George MacDonald and his Wife.

    It is still available from amazon and I would recommend anyone interested in the theology of MacDonald to get a copy. It contains numerous of his letters in which he elaborates on his theology and it has many jewels found nowhere else.