Inerrancy of the Bible and Sarah Palin

The two possible meanings of the title of this post are intentional. It seems to me that the same tactics that Christians who believe in the Bible’s inerrancy use to deal with evidence to the contrary are the tactics being used to defend the inerrancy of Sarah Palin (and other politicians – Palin just provides one obvious recent example – and to do something similar with other subjects altogether).

What do inerrantists do when it seems that the Bible, or even Jesus himself, is wrong? Among the responses are: looking for ad hoc explanations, things that might have been meant even though they are less likely meanings of the words/phrase in question, and, when necessary, rewriting Wikipedia or positing historical events for which we have no evidence because the Bible – or the politician – must have been right.

I’d like to ask a question to those who take this approach: Where in the Bible are Christians called to defend the Bible’s reputation? Where do we find any evidence within the Bible itself of authors concerned to reconcile every contradiction or avoid any appearance of historical inaccuracy? In fact, it is precisely the failure of Biblical authors to provide such reconciliations that leaves inerrantists in the position of feeling they must do so. But if writing things that contradict what others wrote, and presenting things that appear to be historically, scientifically, or otherwise factually untrue, without explaining how the reality is different than the appearance, was good enough for the Bible’s authors, why isn’t it good enough for conservative Christians?

I suggested recently that one of the most fundamental elements of Christianity is repentance – acknowledging we were wrong and making efforts to be less wrong in the future. And one can see a faithful expression of this core Christian conviction in the history of Liberal Protestantism and its role in developing and embracing the tools of critical study of the Bible, and the integration of new scientific knowledge.

Admitting the Bible was wrong, admitting Jesus was wrong, when the evidence points in that direction, is not a denial of the Christian faith, but an expression of one of its most basic tenets: the fallibility of human beings and the resulting need to be open to correction.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath
  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath
  • david

    Where would you say Jesus was wrong? Eschatology?

  • david

    Where would you say Jesus was wrong? Eschatology?

  • Scott Bailey

    “Among the responses are:” You forgot re-stating the answer differently, and/or more loudly and angrier. Threatening eternal hellfire and damnation.

    • david

      Was that reply for me?

      • Scott Bailey

        No, I was quoting James above and then offering some more typical responses.

        In response to you: Jesus was wrong when he said, “Verily, the Cubs shall not have to wait more than ten years to win the Series again” when he was quoting himself from the KJV… or something like that!

  • Scott Bailey

    “Among the responses are:” You forgot re-stating the answer differently, and/or more loudly and angrier. Threatening eternal hellfire and damnation.

    • david

      Was that reply for me?

      • Scott Bailey

        No, I was quoting James above and then offering some more typical responses.

        In response to you: Jesus was wrong when he said, “Verily, the Cubs shall not have to wait more than ten years to win the Series again” when he was quoting himself from the KJV… or something like that!

  • Anonymous

    “Where do we find any evidence within the Bible itself of authors
    concerned to reconcile every contradiction or avoid any appearance of
    historical inaccuracy?”

    Where do we place Matthew’s tortured attempts to align every detail of Jesus’ life with scripture -such as his  conflation of Jeremiah and Zechariah in Matt 27:10?

  • Scott__F

    “Where do we find any evidence within the Bible itself of authors
    concerned to reconcile every contradiction or avoid any appearance of
    historical inaccuracy?”

    Where do we place Matthew’s tortured attempts to align every detail of Jesus’ life with scripture -such as his  conflation of Jeremiah and Zechariah in Matt 27:10?

  • http://www.facebook.com/joel.l.watts Joel L. Watts

    “Where in the Bible are Christians called to defend the Bible’s reputation”

    Exactly!

  • http://thechurchofjesuschrist.us/ Joel

    “Where in the Bible are Christians called to defend the Bible’s reputation”

    Exactly!

  • Scott Bailey

    “Where in the Bible are Christians called to defend the Bible’s reputation”

    3rd Corinthians. Come on guys!

  • Scott Bailey

    “Where in the Bible are Christians called to defend the Bible’s reputation”

    3rd Corinthians. Come on guys!

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @537c9a0c14e943d100fd88a60ca9594f:disqus , eschatology would indeed be an obvious place to start. 

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @537c9a0c14e943d100fd88a60ca9594f:disqus , eschatology would indeed be an obvious place to start. 

  • Howard Mazzaferro

    @jamesfmcgrath:disqus You said “Admitting the Bible was wrong, admitting Jesus was wrong, when the evidence points in that direction, is not a denial of the Christian faith”

    I have to ask, just what are you putting faith or trust in as a Christian. What do you hope to receive from trusting a bunch of fallible humans? I agree with fallible copyists and fallible interpretation, but a fallible Jesus? Doesn’t that negate the whole idea of a sinless man’s sacrifice to bring salvation. I mean what’s the point, to join a man made religion?

  • Howard Mazzaferro

    @jamesfmcgrath:disqus You said “Admitting the Bible was wrong, admitting Jesus was wrong, when the evidence points in that direction, is not a denial of the Christian faith”

    I have to ask, just what are you putting faith or trust in as a Christian. What do you hope to receive from trusting a bunch of fallible humans? I agree with fallible copyists and fallible interpretation, but a fallible Jesus? Doesn’t that negate the whole idea of a sinless man’s sacrifice to bring salvation. I mean what’s the point, to join a man made religion?

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    Well, I suspect that behind the “sinless sacrificed for the sinful” phrasing may lie the penal substitutionary view of the atonement, which I don’t share. I should repost some of my thoughts on that. But while there are a lot of aspects to your comment that it would be interesting to discuss, let me for not just quickly highlight something that may be relevant to this post’s topic. It sounds like, in your view, to be capable of being mistaken is to be sinful. I don’t know that one must or should adopt that equivalence, but I suspect that it may be a viewpoint that motivates many people’s strenuous attempts to avoid appearing to have been wrong. 

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    Well, I suspect that behind the “sinless sacrificed for the sinful” phrasing may lie the penal substitutionary view of the atonement, which I don’t share. I should repost some of my thoughts on that. But while there are a lot of aspects to your comment that it would be interesting to discuss, let me for not just quickly highlight something that may be relevant to this post’s topic. It sounds like, in your view, to be capable of being mistaken is to be sinful. I don’t know that one must or should adopt that equivalence, but I suspect that it may be a viewpoint that motivates many people’s strenuous attempts to avoid appearing to have been wrong. 

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @google-2e495af83153bef01b686a6c2268489d:disqus , in response to your final question, what’s the point of reading a human-made blog, or going to a human-made school, or doing human-made anything else? What if those are, in a sense, all we have? Or conversely, what if it is unnecessary to draw a dichotomy between God and that which humans make? 

    • Howard Mazzaferro

      @jamesfmcgrath:disqus There are various reasons to do what you have listed, Although, none of them provide a supernatural promise to bring about the end of sickness, death and violence. None of them promise a new earth where righteousness will dwell. See where I am going with this? :)

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @google-2e495af83153bef01b686a6c2268489d:disqus , in response to your final question, what’s the point of reading a human-made blog, or going to a human-made school, or doing human-made anything else? What if those are, in a sense, all we have? Or conversely, what if it is unnecessary to draw a dichotomy between God and that which humans make? 

    • Howard Mazzaferro

      @jamesfmcgrath:disqus There are various reasons to do what you have listed, Although, none of them provide a supernatural promise to bring about the end of sickness, death and violence. None of them promise a new earth where righteousness will dwell. See where I am going with this? :)

  • Howard Mazzaferro

    @James, I think there is plenty of evidence that mistakes are considered sin. The common Hebrew term translated “sin” is chattath, in Greek the usual word is hamartia. In both languages the verb forms (Heb., chata Gr., hamartano) mean “miss,” in the sense of missing or not reaching a goal, way, mark, or right point.

    The complete word study dictionary: 

    265. ἁμάρτημα hamártēma; gen. hamarté̄matos, neut. noun from hamartánō (264), to sin. Deed of disobedience to a divine law, a mistake, miss, error, transgression, sin
    Zodhiates, S. (2000, c1992, c1993). – The complete word study dictionary  : New Testament (electronic ed.) (G264). Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers.

    Did you see the word “mistake” in the dictionary above? And we have another completely different problem. What should we make of Jesus the Prophet?

    Deuteronomy 18:20-22 “But a prophet who presumes to speak in my name anything I have not commanded him to say, or a prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, must be put to death.” You may say to yourselves, “How can we know when a message has not been spoken by YHWH?” If what a prophet proclaims in the name of YHWH does not take place or come true, that is a message YHWH has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him.”

  • Howard Mazzaferro

    @James, I think there is plenty of evidence that mistakes are considered sin. The common Hebrew term translated “sin” is chattath, in Greek the usual word is hamartia. In both languages the verb forms (Heb., chata Gr., hamartano) mean “miss,” in the sense of missing or not reaching a goal, way, mark, or right point.

    The complete word study dictionary: 

    265. ἁμάρτημα hamártēma; gen. hamarté̄matos, neut. noun from hamartánō (264), to sin. Deed of disobedience to a divine law, a mistake, miss, error, transgression, sin
    Zodhiates, S. (2000, c1992, c1993). – The complete word study dictionary  : New Testament (electronic ed.) (G264). Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers.

    Did you see the word “mistake” in the dictionary above? And we have another completely different problem. What should we make of Jesus the Prophet?

    Deuteronomy 18:20-22 “But a prophet who presumes to speak in my name anything I have not commanded him to say, or a prophet who speaks in the name of other gods, must be put to death.” You may say to yourselves, “How can we know when a message has not been spoken by YHWH?” If what a prophet proclaims in the name of YHWH does not take place or come true, that is a message YHWH has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him.”

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @google-2e495af83153bef01b686a6c2268489d:disqus  by Deuteronomy’s standard no prophet would be considered a true prophet. :-)

    Is your more substantive point that the word which corresponds to “sin” in Greek also overlaps with our English word “mistake”? I suspect that speakers of ancient Greek could distinguish, even if they did not use separate words for them, between getting a fact wrong and violating what they believed to be a divine command.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @google-2e495af83153bef01b686a6c2268489d:disqus  by Deuteronomy’s standard no prophet would be considered a true prophet. :-)

    Is your more substantive point that the word which corresponds to “sin” in Greek also overlaps with our English word “mistake”? I suspect that speakers of ancient Greek could distinguish, even if they did not use separate words for them, between getting a fact wrong and violating what they believed to be a divine command.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @google-2e495af83153bef01b686a6c2268489d:disqus ,  A lot of them promise such things. That is part of the problem. 

    • Howard Mazzaferro

      True, and in those cases, what do we do? We chuckle at the nutcase and move on. My question is, if you think those things are comparable to Bible/Christians why have you not moved on?

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @google-2e495af83153bef01b686a6c2268489d:disqus ,  A lot of them promise such things. That is part of the problem. 

    • Howard Mazzaferro

      True, and in those cases, what do we do? We chuckle at the nutcase and move on. My question is, if you think those things are comparable to Bible/Christians why have you not moved on?

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @google-2e495af83153bef01b686a6c2268489d:disqus , because I have discovered that I can find great value in, appreciate, and commit myself to both people and a religion which is not perfect. There’s a baby in that bathwater – and if you imagine it is baby Jesus, it makes the metaphor more poignant.  :-)

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @google-2e495af83153bef01b686a6c2268489d:disqus , because I have discovered that I can find great value in, appreciate, and commit myself to both people and a religion which is not perfect. There’s a baby in that bathwater – and if you imagine it is baby Jesus, it makes the metaphor more poignant.  :-)

  • Howard Mazzaferro

    @jamesfmcgrath:disqus I can accept that, but I’ll let you in on a little secret. I know all about the problems in the Bible that you take as evidence of human authors and mistakes. My take on the situation is that all of that was intended, so God could further test the faith of those who decided to dig deeper into God’s word. Because the divine themes and principles always remain no matter how many contradictions are pointed out.

  • Howard Mazzaferro

    @jamesfmcgrath:disqus I can accept that, but I’ll let you in on a little secret. I know all about the problems in the Bible that you take as evidence of human authors and mistakes. My take on the situation is that all of that was intended, so God could further test the faith of those who decided to dig deeper into God’s word. Because the divine themes and principles always remain no matter how many contradictions are pointed out.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @google-2e495af83153bef01b686a6c2268489d:disqus , or perhaps they are there to encourage people like me who desired certainty and absolutes to learn to live with uncertainty.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @google-2e495af83153bef01b686a6c2268489d:disqus , or perhaps they are there to encourage people like me who desired certainty and absolutes to learn to live with uncertainty.

  • Howard Mazzaferro

    @jamesfmcgrath:disqus That was not a complete sentence, how are you living with uncertainty?  If I say, I have learned to live with less money. What I mean by that is now I live with buying less stuff or having less things. Since the topic is the Bible, are you saying you learned to have faith based on uncertainty? How has the Bible’s uncertainty affected the way you live?

    Because a lot of strong beliefs are not based on certainty and absolutes. Have you ever jumped out a window on the 10th floor of a building? Have you personally witnessed someone doing it? Have you personally done the scientific research of someone jumping out the window? If none of the above are true, then your strong belief that such an act will seriously harm or kill you is based only on secondhand information. But you completely trust this information without any first hand knowledge, why? Because when you take all the available secondhand knowledge and evaluate it, it creates a coherent and believable set of circumstances that makes the possible outcome extremely plausible. So based on your knowledge and evidence, uncertainty can be just as influential as absolute facts.

  • Howard Mazzaferro

    @jamesfmcgrath:disqus That was not a complete sentence, how are you living with uncertainty?  If I say, I have learned to live with less money. What I mean by that is now I live with buying less stuff or having less things. Since the topic is the Bible, are you saying you learned to have faith based on uncertainty? How has the Bible’s uncertainty affected the way you live?

    Because a lot of strong beliefs are not based on certainty and absolutes. Have you ever jumped out a window on the 10th floor of a building? Have you personally witnessed someone doing it? Have you personally done the scientific research of someone jumping out the window? If none of the above are true, then your strong belief that such an act will seriously harm or kill you is based only on secondhand information. But you completely trust this information without any first hand knowledge, why? Because when you take all the available secondhand knowledge and evaluate it, it creates a coherent and believable set of circumstances that makes the possible outcome extremely plausible. So based on your knowledge and evidence, uncertainty can be just as influential as absolute facts.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @google-2e495af83153bef01b686a6c2268489d:disqus , I once thought that I could assume that there was one Biblical or Christian answer to questions about God, the afterlife, and so on. I do not view things that way. I find that I have had to embrace uncertainty with regard to a great many things which I once “took on faith.” A major part of the change has to do with realizing that the Bible presents “faith” as trust in God, not the claim to “know” or feel certain about things which the available evidence doesn’t provide a basis for certainty/confidence of that sort.

  • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

    @google-2e495af83153bef01b686a6c2268489d:disqus , I once thought that I could assume that there was one Biblical or Christian answer to questions about God, the afterlife, and so on. I do not view things that way. I find that I have had to embrace uncertainty with regard to a great many things which I once “took on faith.” A major part of the change has to do with realizing that the Bible presents “faith” as trust in God, not the claim to “know” or feel certain about things which the available evidence doesn’t provide a basis for certainty/confidence of that sort.

  • Howard Mazzaferro

    Hence, the petition for posts on other fields of biblical study as this inspired/faith thing is not working out as well as I had hoped. :-)

    On those other topics, I am more than happy to speculate and explore the human involvement. But my faith will not allow me to speculate on the inspiration of the Bible.

  • Howard Mazzaferro

    Hence, the petition for posts on other fields of biblical study as this inspired/faith thing is not working out as well as I had hoped. :-)

    On those other topics, I am more than happy to speculate and explore the human involvement. But my faith will not allow me to speculate on the inspiration of the Bible.

  • http://twitter.com/drcheard Chris Heard

    I’d like to ask a question to those who take this approach: Where in the Bible are Christians called to defend the Bible’s reputation? Where do we find any evidence within the Bible itself of authors concerned to reconcile every contradiction or avoid any appearance of historical inaccuracy? In fact, it is precisely the failure of Biblical authors to provide such reconciliations that leaves inerrantists in the position of feeling they must do so. But if writing things that contradict what others wrote, and presenting things that appear to be historically, scientifically, or otherwise factually untrue, without explaining how the reality is different than the appearance, was good enough for the Bible’s authors, why isn’t it good enough for conservative Christians?

    Something along these lines is what I’m getting at when I say, from time to time, that “biblicists aren’t biblicistic enough.” Inerrancy, infallibility, even biblicism itself—these are constructs that believers have built up around the Bible to meet their own epistemological needs, not teachings that actually derive from what the biblical authors themselves wrote or evidenced about their own writing activity.

  • http://twitter.com/drcheard Chris Heard

    I’d like to ask a question to those who take this approach: Where in the Bible are Christians called to defend the Bible’s reputation? Where do we find any evidence within the Bible itself of authors concerned to reconcile every contradiction or avoid any appearance of historical inaccuracy? In fact, it is precisely the failure of Biblical authors to provide such reconciliations that leaves inerrantists in the position of feeling they must do so. But if writing things that contradict what others wrote, and presenting things that appear to be historically, scientifically, or otherwise factually untrue, without explaining how the reality is different than the appearance, was good enough for the Bible’s authors, why isn’t it good enough for conservative Christians?

    Something along these lines is what I’m getting at when I say, from time to time, that “biblicists aren’t biblicistic enough.” Inerrancy, infallibility, even biblicism itself—these are constructs that believers have built up around the Bible to meet their own epistemological needs, not teachings that actually derive from what the biblical authors themselves wrote or evidenced about their own writing activity.

  • Kmanion

    We would have no faith if it weren’t for uncertainty. If we were certain of God and have proved His existence, then it would not require us to repent to God and admit that He is the Lord of our lives, in order to follow Him. With repence, comes the ability to have faith in a Being that requires our submission and admittance that we cannot live this life fully without Him. By admitting this, we say that God knows best, and honestly we don’t need to know all the answers because there is no way we can know everything, we trust God in the times that there are errors. We are bound by time and space, God is not.

    Also, because of statements throughout the Bible stating that nothing is to be changed about the Bible and that God is immutable and never changes His mind, means that I will never admit that God or Jesus were ever wrong, because I’m trusting and having faith that they weren’t.

    Though, we do not need to defend the Bible like a politician, which some people do. God is big enough to stand up for Himself. People will see God’s true love and message through the Christians who are truly living for Him.

    (-this is from my Christian perspective of your post and replies. I think you do make some valid points and have challenged me as well!)