Here are the final two Christian principles for interpreting the Bible. Part 1 of this series is here.
Principle #5: Begin with the assumption that the Bible is infallible and inerrant.
Here are two excerpts from the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, a joint project of more than 200 evangelical leaders:
We affirm that canonical Scripture should always be interpreted on the basis that it is infallible and inerrant.
We deny that alleged errors and discrepancies that have not yet been resolved vitiate the truth claims of the Bible.
There is no interest here in following evidence. You don’t need to make a reasoned argument if you’re simply going to declare this as a faith position. “The Bible is manmade” has been ruled out, not because the evidence points elsewhere but simply as fiat.
What’s the point of scholarship in this environment? This is intellectual in the same way that discussing comic book superheroes is intellectual. Sure, much mental energy can be spent on the project and interesting ideas can come from it, but in the end it’s just pretend. Neither is built on reality. Neither is guided by evidence. A Christian conclusion becomes just one stake in the field of Dogma. Without any empirical evidence to ground this view, other Christians will simply put their stakes where they please.
Principle 6: Avoid claims built on uncertain grounds
I agree that the manuscript tradition should be reliable, but keep in mind how difficult it is to know what the originals said. Scholars do a good job deciding which of two variant traditions is the older one. What they don’t do well is deciding between two traditions when they only have copies of one (more). We have a centuries-long dark ages before the earliest codices of the fourth century—who knows how many hundreds or thousands of changes were made that we don’t know of?
Don’t build a doctrine upon a single verse or an uncertain textual reading. We should not erect an entire teaching or system of doctrine upon a verse in isolation from its context, or which has dubious textual support. Christian doctrine should be built upon passages which exist in the original manuscripts and can be confirmed through the science of textual criticism.
The principle argues that we not build anything substantial on a verse that is an outlier. That sounds sensible until we consider that this conflict—the general consensus versus the outlier—means that there’s a contradiction in the Bible. Principle #4 declares that contradictions don’t exist, but of course that’s a declaration built on nothing.
The second problem is that one of the most important Christian doctrines, the Trinity, violates this principle. There are a few verses that speak of the three persons separately in one sentence (for example, “Make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit” from Matthew 28:19), but this is a long way from the elaborate Trinitarian handwaving in the Athanasian Creed of around 500 CE. This final principle is the only one that makes sense, and it tells us that there’s scant evidence for Paul or Jesus having a Trinitarian concept of God.
I wonder why Christians don’t apply these generous principles to other religions’ holy books.
and least deservedly respected Rorschach Test.
You can look at it and see whatever you want.
And everybody does.
— Richard S. Russell
(This is an update of a post that originally appeared 2/17/16.)
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