Is there or ‘aint there mistakes the Bible?

Some people think that they must defend the Bible's various words, statements, and depictions as being compatible with what we today know, whether scientifically, historically, or in other terms, lest its entire message be put in doubt. But it just cannot be done, at least not without a far greater cost, and undermining the very goal of attempting to do so in the first place. If you have to twist the meaning of Scripture in order to claim that it is accurate, you are not in fact defending Scripture. And so it is better to be honest, and accept that what these authors had to say about God, they expressed in terms of their understanding of the world, their own limited human perspective, just as we do.

But here is the central point of this post: I do not understand why this is such a sticking point for some people. If God did not force correct grammar on these authors – something that some people are capable of even without a miraculous intervention – then why would anyone insist that he imposed correct science on them? Why would we think that God was concerned that the content of Paul's sentences had to be inerrant, when God apparently was not even concerned to make sure that Paul finished his sentences?

As Scott Lencke perhaps hinted in a recent post on his blog, what the would-be defenders of the Bible is something far worse than what they are trying to deny that the Biblical authors did. The Biblical authors reflect a pre-scientific view of things because they did not have available to them the information or modes of studying the world that we have. The modern-day young-earth creationists and other inerrantists, on the other hand, are being dishonest in relation to data, evidence and methods that are freely accessible to them. They either deliberately misrepresent things, or gullibly accept the claims of those who do so, without fact-checking their claims – which is no better.

And so they are trying to deny the fallibility of the Bible's human authors, and in the process, they themselves are actively and blatantly sinning.

The truth is that no one ought to consider young-earth creationism or inerrancy Christian viewpoints at all. (Indeed, it is only the ridiculously large number of adherents to these views that allows them to be mistaken for such, rather than relegated to the stubborn lunatic fringe with the flat earth society.) Even though their proponents set themselves up as Christianity's spokespeople and defenders, their views are blatantly and wilfully sinful, and thus inherently at odds with the most basic core of what Christianity is all about.

There is a quote attributed (rightly or wrongly) to Albert Einstein which I really like: “Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.” Christians concerned about the authority of the Bible should perhaps take to heart this modified version: “Make your view of Scripture as high as possible, but not higher.” Any view of the Bible, however much it sings the Bible's praises, if it does not actually fit what the Bible is, then it is a distortion of Scripture, and in no sense a defense or appropriate glorification of it.

It doesn't matter how glowing your words about the Bible are. If they pretend the Bible is something it shows itself to not be, then your words are lies, honoring neither the Bible nor God. And so, once again, any view fitting this description is not merely failing to articulate an appropriate Christian view of Scripture, but because of the dishonesty and distortion involved, should be judged to not in any meaningful sense be a Christian view of the Bible at all, however much it may use Christian-sounding language or say very nice (if at the same time very dishonest) things about the Bible.

 

  • Theophile

    But “modern science” denied there were such a thing as germs 100 years ago. Just like the senator that wanted to close the patent office 100 years back, because “every thing that could be invented, has been invented”. This is the problem with “modern science”, the vast illiterate electorate, “thinks” they are smarter about the science they worship, they are computer savvy because they can operate windows, they know all about a subject….because they watched a “Discovery” show on the subject…..
    The rate of nuclear decay has been shown NOT to be linear, as required for dating the “old” earth, and IS affected by other factors, and BTW a 6 day creation IS a consistent theme throughout the Bible, in fact the Remember the Sabbath commandment(of the 10 commandments) specifically points this out.

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

      Again, are you suggesting that therefore future science could undermine germ theory? Or are you agreeing that science as it now functions improves progressively?

      You sound like you are repeating misinformation you have heard about radiometric dating from creationist sources. I posted a useful infographic from BioLogos just a few days ago that may help you begin to learn about what mainstream science has to say on the topic. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/2012/07/how-we-know-the-earth-is-very-old.html

    • David Evans

      The rate of nuclear decay (which BTW is exponential not linear) is slightly affected by very extreme changes in the environment. To make the data consistent with YEC, the rate of decay would have to have been millions of times greater in the past. Uranium-bearing rocks would have melted or vaporized, there would have been radioactive volcanoes all over the place, we would all have died from cancer because of the radioactive potassium in our bodies….At a minimum, uranium ores would all shows signs of having been melted – so the lead and uranium would have separated out. Needless to say we don’t see any evidence of all this.

      • rmwilliamsjr

        what does it mean when someone thinks radioactive decay is a linear function when it is in fact exponential? at at very least it means he doesn’t understand the very basic things about radioactive dating, something he could have remedied with a bit of wikipedia reading, but thought it unnecessary to actually know anything about what he was criticizing.

        i think this is a big deal, Christians, given the commandment not to bear false witness, ought to be aware that truth telling and accuracy are qualities to be sought after, not subverted.

        telling a lie or half truth thinking it a service to God is nonsense.

    • John Small Berries

      “But ‘modern science’ denied there were such a thing as germs 100 years ago.”

      Untrue. Germ theory was pretty well established and accepted by the late nineteenth century.

      But even if it were true, that’s the strength of science, not its weakness: when new data come to light, hypotheses and even theories are modified to take it into account, or discarded entirely if they cannot be made to reconcile with the data.

      That is the mature approach to knowledge – as opposed to Creationists’ closing their eyes, sticking their fingers in their ears, and pretending that the mountains of evidence which contradict their worldview simply aren’t there.

  • Brant

    Your point aboutbthe grammar of the Bible reminds me of Nietzsche’s oft-quoted aphorism: “It is a curious thing that God learned Greek when he wished to turn author–and that he did not learn it better.”

  • Kevin Nicholson

    Hi

    You keep saying that your view of the bible is not to be inherent and that we live on a planet that is billions of years old ( or you infer that) but you give no evidence of why you believe this, If we believe that the Bible is inspired by God as the scriptures say don’t you think that it would be without error (inherent) and that God if he so desired could in fact create in days literal days as the texts seems to say.The bible is either true or it isn’t. ( or we just tear the bits out we have trouble understanding as yet)

    God Bless Kevin

    • rmwilliamsjr

      re:
      The bible is either true or it isn’t.

      why? The Bible is a collection of writings, why must the collection as a whole have any particular qualities? you say the Bible says it is inspired, no, a book Timothy says the Scriptures as Timothy knows them are God-breathed, which at most says something about the Hebrew scrolls but nothing about the Greek NT which didn’t exist yet.

      nowhere in your English Bible does it claim to be inerrant, in fact, nowhere does it even list the books to include or exclude, the problem of the canon. simply because you hold an English book in your hand doesn’t make it a single work with an inspired table of contents.

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

      Kevin, thank you so much for illustrating the point of this post. If someone writes “inherent” when they mean “inerrant” it confuses things and detracts from the accuracy of their communication, for instance.

      You seem like you must be new to this blog, if you think I have left the actual lies and deceptions of the young-earth creationists unaddressed. My blogging on this topic goes back many years. Please have a look at what I’ve written previously on the topic, either by searching the blog or using another search engine.

  • http://norwegianshooter.blogspot.com Mark Erickson

    “the most basic core of what Christianity is all about.” What is that? And if someone disagrees with you, are they blatantly sinning?

  • Nancy R.

    This was a great post – you’ve pointed out something that is too often ignored: that young earth creationism is a misunderstanding of the Bible as well as of science.

  • Charles

    Surely you recognize the difference between grammar and truth claims. Linguistic studies have shown that “correct” grammar is a bit of a slippery concept. Grammatical rules are often arbitrary. In fact, rules broken often enough become the new rule. Truth claims do not tend to operate that way. Furthermore, truth can be communicated inerrantly through incorrect grammar. For example, “My name ain’t rightly Abraham Lincoln.” This statement might be poor English, but it is surely inerrant for anyone whose name is not Abraham Lincoln.

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

      That’s a fair point. But if I were to say that there ain’t nothing wrong with using bad grammar, it would illustrate where things start to get a bit trickier – double negatives, while in our own language we would probably not misundstand them, technically do change the meaning of the sentence. When Paul fails to finish his sentences, it does indeed obscure his meaning. And while it might not matter because Job is a work of poetic fiction, there are lots of places where we do not know what the text means, and so any talk of its inerrancy or errancy becomes effectively meaningless.

      So I agree that the analogy I used is imperfect. But I also think that the basic point still works. Why should Christians claim that God made the Bible perfectly accurate, when he didn’t event make it perfectly clear, something much easier to accomplish, and something without which the communication of the accurate information is potentially undermined?

      • charles

        You make an interesting point, but Ithink you actually support what I am arguing. you acknowledge that your analogy is imperfect (and i agree) but you still bellieve that it communicates a true point!

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

          Since you yourself suggested that imperfect grammar and imprecise formulations of human language can communicate truth, I do not understand what the problem is, unless you are backtracking on your original point.

          • Charles

            I am certainly not backtracking. Perhaps I wasn’t clear. What I am suggesting is that you are assuming that you can make a truth claim using an imperfect analogy on the one hand, but are unwilling to grant the author’s of Scripture the same opportunity on the other. I am arguing that your are being inconsistent and that this inconsistency undermines the very point you are seeking to make.

            Furthermore, what I am asserting is this. That truth can, and often is, communicated through “incorrect” grammar. I have given an example above. Truth can also be communicated through other “errors” as well. For example, suppose I were to write on Facebook, “This had been a long day.” No problem. But, suppose I wrote, “This has been a llloooonnnggg day. My spellcheck tells me that the spelling is wrong, but in fact this error might more accurately reflect my true experience (assuming I had such a day) than the “correct” sentence.

            I might add that falsehood or nonsense can be communicated by “correct” grammar.” Take Chomsky’s well-known example, “Colorless green ideas sleep furiously.” Chomsky’s sentence is grammatically correct but meaningless. Or take my previous example. Take the statement, “My name is Abraham Lincoln.” This is grammatically correct but would be false if my name were not in fact Abraham Lincoln.

            My point is this, your critique of inerrancy based on grammatical correctness or not is simply unsustainable.

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

              I wonder if you are not blurring together truth and inerrancy. I have no problem with the idea that truth can be communicated through imperfect language, whether in the Bible or elsewhere. But to claim inerrancy, including agreement with science not yet available to the authors, this involves poositing God overriding the minds of the human authors. Those who maintain Scriptural inerrancy talk about the Bible’s perfection as a reflection of its divine author. It is that claim which seems to me not to sit well with the fact that even the mode of expression of these authors and their clarity often leaves something to be desired.

              • Charles

                Actually, I am taking on your central point:

                “But here is the central point of this post: I do not understand why this
                is such a sticking point for some people. If God did not force correct
                grammar on these authors – something that some people are capable of
                even without a miraculous intervention – then why would anyone insist
                that he imposed correct science on them?”

                I am only taking on your first point. Whether the Bible is inerrant, or as I prefer to say true, is another issue altogether.

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

                  I disagree that it is a separate issue altogether. It is the desire to have the Bible be inerrant that drives the attempt to have it teach correct science (and to argue against science when there is no way to harmonize the two).

                  • Charles

                    Really? Even you have separated the issues. Note the en dashes in the portion I quoted above. You are using the case of grammar to make a case about science. If these are not separate then there would be no analogy. A self-referential analogy is an contradiction in terms. Furthermore. as you know, the power of analogies is in their similarities. If the analogy is flawed then it calls into question the comparison. When I suggest that whether the Bible is inerrant is another issue altogether, I mean that the deficiencies of your analogy means that the the evaluation of inerrancy must be made on other grounds.

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

                      In my last comment I said that inerrancy and young-earth creationism are intertwined to at least some extent, not that grammar is. I think that once again you have misunderstood what I wrote.

                    • Charles

                      If that is the case, then your post is mis-titled and you need to reword the following statement from your original post (I have included the entire paragraph lest I be accused of being selective).

                      “But here is the central point of this post: I do not understand why this
                      is such a sticking point for some people. If God did not force correct
                      grammar on these authors – something that some people are capable of even without a miraculous intervention – then why would anyone insist
                      that he imposed correct science on them? Why would we think that God was concerned that the content of Paul’s sentences had to be inerrant, when God apparently was not even concerned to make sure that Paul finished his sentences?”

                      Note your words “central point” and “correct grammar” and nary a word about young-earth creationism nor its tie to inerrancy. You only make that link later. I suggest that link is questionable since your original analogy concerning grammar is flawed.

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

                      Surely it is obvious that young-earth creationists are among those who claim that God miraculously caused the authors of the Bible to write in a scientifically accurate way ahead of their time. They do it by reinterpreting e dome in Genesis 1 and denying modern geology, biology and genetics. Others do it by seeing in the days of Genesis vast epochs. But most of these otherwise varied approaches are aimed at having the Bible be right about science, rather than accepting that it simply reflects an ancient cosmology that we no longer can or do.

                    • Charles

                      But you have not really addressed the points I have raised above. My critique has been related to how you are making the argument, an approach that I have endeavored to show is unsustainable. If you read through all of my responses, I have not addressed young-earth creationists/ism at all, except in the immediately preceding reply to show that your “central point” paragraph does not even reference young-earth creationists/ism!

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

                      I have seen you critique what you thought I said/meant, but now that I have clarified what you misunderstood, do you have a critique to offer of what I actually said and meant? Or is this comment your way of saying that you are going to ignore the subsequent discussion and insist that you offered an insightful critique from the outset?

  • Gary

    I usually hear inerrant (no errors) and infallible (trustworthy) used together when talking about doctrine. Infallible traditionally implied trustworthy, from what I have read. Clearly, there are errors in the bible, so it can’t be inerrant. Clearly, if the bible were “trustworthy”, in a universal sense (that is, to more than one person); by definition, there would not be a multitude of different denominations, churches, interpretations, etc. There would be only one. Anyway, my misc ramblings. The main point of irritation to me is when a church includes in their doctrine statements, “we accept that the bible is the inerrant and infallible word of God”. By stating this, it implies that anyone with a different opinion – “need not apply” for membership, go away, rejected, we don’t want your kind here. Two other points of irritation for me, When a church adds the tag line, “as far as it is translated correctly”, or “the original document” is inerrant, this effectively means nothing. Since who determines the correct translation? And how on earth do you find the original documents. Might as well add another doctrine statement that I do not like. I do not like a church (I know of at least one), that requires you believe in dispensationalism, to be a member. You usually see these things on the churches web sites, by clicking “what we believe”. Seems as though, if a church were really following Jesus, they should have one, and only one, doctrine statement, “we believe in Jesus as our savior”. Beyond that, everything else is rather non-trustworthy.


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