Sat 19 May 2012
(6 Comments) | Post by Scott Haile under inspiration of scripture, Uncategorized
My friend Andy replied to the last post with a link to an extensive study he took up last year on judgment and the afterlife in the Gospels. It’s thoughtful and well-written, and you can find it here.
Andy then asked,
Did you ever struggle with the issues of inerrancy and internal consistency in the Bible? Does any of this bother you? How do you handle it?
Usually I focus here more on ancient texts and current interprations than I do on my own experience. But at the risk of being self-indulgent, I’d like to tell my story here. Much of it is very common.
The summer before my senior year of high school (1996), my church youth group did a devotional reading of the book Experiencing God, by Henry Blackaby. Part of Blackaby’s approach to spirituality is that Christians should look for where God is already working, and go join that work. The idea is that we should not rely on our own abilities, but rather on the power of God.
If I remember correctly, Blackaby said that as Christians we should see things in our lives that only God could do. When I read that, suddenly something snapped in my mind, as I realized that I couldn’t think of anything in my life that only God could do.
Now, I need to clarify: I believe that God has made a good world, and that I played no role in creating myself, or in creating most of the things I enjoy. I believe that whatever good traits I may have, they are overwhelmingly dependent on factors I didn’t control: my family, my church communities, my genetics. These are all gifts that God has given me, and I have not remotely used them as faithfully as God has called me to.
So I’m not saying that I thought I deserved all the personal credit for good things I had done. But that summer, I suddenly realized that I couldn’t prove that God was directly responsible for the good in my life. Supposing that God had created the world and left it alone, I could still easily imagine having learned honesty from my parents, or having learned service from the people at church, or having had spiritual experiences based simply on emotions.
I was suddenly desperate for proof that God works in the world, not just in a broad sense, but in specific ways in people’s lives. I wanted to point at something that I could logically prove that only God could do. However, this world provides alternate explanations for everything imaginable. Faith could lead me (rightly, I believe) to see any number of things as the work of God, but there was no way to prove in any irrefutable sense that they could only be the work of God.
Could the Bible be the solution?
Being a member of a Church of Christ, the Bible was readily available as the obvious solution to the question. After all, it’s full of stories of things only God could do.
But could I know that those stories were true? It was the same predicament as before: faith could lead me to accept that God had done the things in the Bible, but words on a page don’t have to be factual. I needed the Bible to be supernaturally perfect (as I had always been taught that it was) so that I could have a solid hook to hang my faith on.
I tried reading about the “Bible codes,” which tided me over for a bit. (Then someone showed how you can similarly find coded predictions in Moby Dick.) At church we watched videos of Ron Wyatt’s impressive archaeological discoveries of Noah’s ark, Sodom and Gomorrah, and other Biblical places. (To say that Wyatt’s findings are questionable is something of an understatement.)
Then it was time for college, and as a freshman Bible major I was hoping my classes could “prove” the Bible to me. But while the profs at ACU supported us in our spiritual growth, they were rightly unwilling to sidestep questions like the Synoptic Problem and suggestions that Paul didn’t write some of the letters ascribed to him. I still had the same choice as before: I could accept on faith that the Bible was from God, but studying the Bible itself couldn’t prove that the Bible had to be from God.
The false alternatives
In all this, I thought that I had only two choices, reflected also in the perspective of Phillip C. commenting on my previous post: either every word in the Bible was accurate, or it wasn’t really the word of God. It was an all-or-nothing proposition.
It’s easy enough to find defenses of particular passages in the Bible, but as I studied I found that the questions were far more complicated than I had imagined. Defending the inerrancy of the Bible is not simply a matter of small discrepancies, but also questions of canon, translation, literary genre, manuscript transmission, and even theology. In a sense, my posts in this blog over the years are dedicated toward showing just how complex these questions are.
More and more, inerrancy started to look to me like an overly simple solution to a complex problem. This isn’t to say that the arguments in its favor are simple––indeed very smart people have made very well-informed arguments in favor of inerrancy. The problem is, in my experience, smart people can explain literally anything. Both sides of the argument have explanations; the question is, which explanations ring true?
Inerrancy tries to start with the character of God, arguing that a perfect God would communicate only with complete accuracy. That’s a fine supposition, but in the end inerrancy protects God’s honesty, but leaves him with a whole slew of other problems. We’re left with a God who states things unclearly; who inspires Scriptures word-for-word but then doesn’t make sure that all their actual words survive to the present day; and who makes the world look really old even though it isn’t. While the starting point (God being accurate) is appealing, all these other implications pile up until they make the whole idea untenable.
A third way
A lot of my discussion here has been negative, because a lot of my journey was spent moving away from a view of the faith that I no longer think is right. However, the false alternative discussed above can be sidestepped if we imagine that this complex problem has a complex solution rather than a simple one.
Scripture is inspired because it proclaims the good news of Christ, and because God speaks to us through Scripture. God inspired Scripture to use fiction and poetry and allegory and rhetoric along with more direct historical facts, all to lead us to Christ. God also reveals himself in the church, in history, in tradition, and even in the work of professional theologians.
I still have some of the same doubts I had in high school, and I still can’t prove God. What has changed most is that I no longer think that “proving” God––or proving the inerrancy of Scripture––is a goal of the Christian life. I still take up those questions here on the blog because I’m part of a church that finds them important, and so I’ll probably always wrestle with my identity as part of that church.
But turning against the inerrancy of Scripture doesn’t keep us from knowing the Gospel. Christians have always been pretty clear about the key tenets of the faith, such as what we find in the Apostle’s Creed. Obviously the story of the Bible is at the core of the faith as well, though sometimes what Scripture has to say isn’t to be taken at face value.
While knowledge is important, it is not the entirety of the Christian faith. Those who are baptized into Christ are united to the person of Christ, and we receive the Holy Spirit. Membership in Christ is not something to simply be defined by perfect doctrine––it is something that happens as a fact through faith and baptism.
(No doubt someone will point out places in Scripture that suggest we must arrive at a perfect doctrine to be saved; in response, I can only point again to the places where Scriptures is unclear or seemingly contradictory about important points of doctrine.)
As churches, we have different practices, some commanded in Scripture and others devised in other ways. The resulting lack of unity is tragic, but “believing the Bible” is not a viable way to conclude which practices are right, nor does the content of the New Testament suggest that God intended the Bible to tell us what all our church practices should be. I’m confident that some practices and traditions are better than others, and ultimately God will judge us by his standards.
But even if we don’t know for sure that we’re right about everything, we can still walk with confidence as members of the body of Christ. The Christian church existed for decades before most of the Bible was written, and it existed for centuries before everyone agreed which books belonged in the Bible. It remains for us to live, love, and worship in faith, and leave room for God to sort out the rest.(6 Comments)