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Biblical Inerrancy: A Discussion
Comments by Maynard S. Clark - 5 December 1999
I think that there is a clear distinction - at a logical level - between "working definitions" and "dogmatic statements."
If I say that "I find" the Bible to be a reliable guide to living my life, that is different from saying that the Bible was received, error-free, and transmitted to us without error, to provide an infallible guide to all areas of individual life and public policy.
Now, I would RATHER use more "conservative" (family) values here, but that's not all that we're discussing.
We're asking whether there is EVIDENCE to warrant our making certain kinds of dogmatic statements about the Bible.
But first, who are we to make such statements?
If we appeal to "authority" (even though that's considered a logical fallacy), the question remains:
- who are we to CLAIM to know one way or the other about the Bible?
- Who here has studied the Bible enough to make such statements?
- Who here feels THAT much confidence in the Bible?
- Who here has that much worldly-wisdom to be able to make the reasonable judgment that the Bible really DOES stand up to all circumstances, and stands up well?
I say that such judgments are "judgments of the community," and that community has as part of its "confessional statement" (con = with + ferre + bearing = bearing this understanding together through time) the idea that the Bible, the Christian Sci\riptures, point us definitely in the right direction.
Dr. Steve Kaufman has another theology which respects the place and influence of the Bible, but not the Bible AS definitive for personal and social judgments, and feels a certain degree of freedom and autonomy from the texts whenever his own judgment moves him in other directions.
Some people who occasionally "dabble" in the Bible might be WAY OFF there - almost as dilettantes - who never crack open the Bible, and for whom the Bible is a mere curiosity, but not that important.
Others accept the judgments of the community that reveres the Bible, without feeling an individual need to dig deeply into the writings we have here before us, collected AS "the Bible." (the biblia - Gr. - "the books")
I think that there are TWO different approaches in questioning:
One is to try to pose the question as objectively and fairly as possible, but in as kind a way as possible, "Why should any of us be compelled intellectually (that's a philosophical compulsion, not an interpersonal coercion) to regard the Bible as both Divinely "inspired" and infallible as both given and received?" That's the approach that I have chosen.
Another and more popular approach is to ask a believer why s/he regards the Bible to be fundamentally true (however that is construed and presented) and what personal experiences led her or him to that discernment. That leaves the questioners lots of leeway and doesn't put them "on the spot," but it's hardly an egalitarian situation. Questions: "Do YOU believe in God?" "Why do YOU believe in God?" are different questions from "Is there God?" or "Is God knowable to anyone mundane and earthly?" and again, the more philosophical questions: "What of God may be known by mortal minds?"
Indeed there ARE churches where dialogues like this are typical sermonic material, but in all honesty, while I can really dig into such analyses, I don't think that the pulpit-to-pew scenario lends itself well to such orations, which, in my opinion, fit better in the college (or Sunday School) classroom.
The whole issue of "worship" gets tied into all this, I guess, since how do doubters "worship" that which they question?
(It was once said that, theologically, Unitarians worship the QUESTION MARK "?". That might not be so bad if they didn't try to draw socially and emotionally destructive conclusions from the presence of the question mark in their minds.)
However, to consider oneself to be definitively "Christian" may for some require more definition. Others demonstrate anger when our definitions shut them out. "What an unloving definition to tell me that I'm not a Christian when I've been attending church for x years and giving money and treating my neighbors right." But definitions do oblige us to discern whether or not they are "true," and if those definitions are BELIEVED, then, however sociable and collegial we are, they might define some people in "another camp."
"Would you consider yourself to be a Christian?" (YES or NO) "Under what understanding would you make that judgment?"
Now, some folks define Christian with respect to the Bible and others don't?
We all know some of those definitions, which might be derived from the Bible, but which do not oblige one to have any individual relationship with the Bible.
Christian = "nice person"
Christian = "someone I like"
Christian = "someone who believes in God"
Christian = "someone who believes in God and Jesus"
Christian = "someone who treats others people well"
Christian = "someone who follows the Golden Rule"
Christian = "someone with a wholesome faithful sexual ethic" Christian = "someone who wears a crucifix around the neck" (eyes) Christian = "someone who was baptized" (infant? adult?)
Christian = "someone who attends church"
Christian = "someone who attends church regularly"
Christian = "someone who attends church regularly and takes communion"
Christian = "someone who goes to church and confession regularly and takes communion"
Christian = "someone who follows the Ten Commandments from the Bible"
Christian = "someone who believes that Jesus was a good man" Christian = "someone who is a church member" (what kind? these days?)
Christian = "someone who is brought up as a Christian / christian" and so forth and so on, et cetera, et cetera, ad infinitum, blah, blah, blah.
Then there are the definitions:
Christian = "one who has accepted Jesus Christ as personal Savior" Christian = "one who has accepted Jesus Christ as personal Lord and Savior"
Christian = "one who has been transformed from the inside out by the redemptive working of the Triune God, and whose life evidences that supernatural work within and without."
Christian = "one who believes that the Bible is the infallible Word of God"
Christian = "one who believes that the Bible is the infallible Word of God and lives one's life through constantly interpreting that Word to personal life and decision making."
Those seem to be very different definitions, and we can probably find some of the objections to any of them, from certain quarters.
But if it's all a question of individual belief, IS the Bible INFALLIBLE, without error, IN THE ORIGINAL WRITINGS (and do we have reasonable copies of those original writings, since it seems pretty certain to current scholars that we don't have the originals anywhere. The question of Biblical reliability seems to be JUST AS IMPORTANT a question as Biblical infallibility, and does give the objective scholars some working area for looking squarely at what data we (they) DO have and what would be needed to accommodate certain kinds of statements?
In other words, if I have 85=90% of the data that I WOULD need for a certain kind of dogmatic statement of belief, what is the status of that missing 10-15% material?
But if we cannot know that, and there never will be that, MUST we presume that it "exists historically" (it was there once, but it isn't now there), or what?
And when we discuss "reliability," "reliability" for what? For what is the Bible being used?
1 - preaching material - OK - it's pretty good
2 - understanding the life of the early church - OK - it's pretty good 3 - moral guidance for living life - OK - it's pretty good (not everyone agrees)
4 - learning what the Hebrew people (Jews) through about God - OK - it's pretty good
5 - a rich treasure house of early Hebrew learning and wisdom - OK - it's pretty good
6 - Finding God, or learning how God works in finding us - Well, that's the area of dispute since we have nothing to compare it with EXCEPT our own experiences and the experiences of believers (contemporary - personal testimonies; past times - hymns & writings left to us)
When we COMPARE the Bible with the teachings and data of the sciences, we MUST rely on a "heuristic" or "hermeneutical" community to (a) know the Bible and (b) compare the scientific work with the Bible. That's a work of the community. THEY tell us (or "inform us") whether or not the Bible is reliable IN THOSE AREAS. If we have enough knowledge to do the comparison, we become capable of assuming that kind of role for the "believing community." Otherwise it falls to "particular expertise."
So, once again, are we EVER in a position to make the judgment that the Bible is TOTALLY, ABSOLUTELY INFALLIBLE? (Personally, honestly, frankly, I think not. But we do that, anyway. Why? Hybris, perhaps, or just "denial" of the complex realities that are involved, but many folks do it, and psychologists and counselors could watch that happen in hearing them out.
I'd wager that pastors, psychologists, and Christian workers throughout the millennia have watched the psyche of the believer and have their own individual assessments of what is taking place, and learned to confer with one another to compare notes on their role in "caring for souls" and "shepherding the believers."
If one RELIES ON THE BIBLE, that's a stance and a position. Perhaps that's why we often ask the believers why THEY believe that the Bible is infallible. And whether or not the Bible is factually infallible, the ability to make individual judgments on what one KNOWS about the Bible can become a powerful statement on the Bible's reliability in that individual's life, and the qualities that person's life give to the world and history.
Your Comments are Welcome:
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