The Piety of Errant Scriptures

The Piety of Errant Scriptures January 5, 2009

The errancy/innerrancy debate in biblical theology is often framed in terms of levels of “belief” in the Bible. The errancy position holds that the Bible is not a perfect document that represents the direct word of God in every minor (and even some major) instance. It admits human involvement in the production and transmission of the text. In inerrancy position holds that the Bible is the perfect word of God. Though there are many different subtlties in the various versions of these two positions, they actually rest on the same set of assumptions.

I specified that this is a debate in “biblical theology” rather than biblical studies because there is an important difference. In scholarly biblical studies the errancy and inerrancy debate is not an issue. The reason is because biblical studies is not dependent on identifying the presence of God in the biblical narrative. Whether God is or is not behind the text is a question that is simply bracketed as irrelevant to the analysis of the history, meaning, ideology, and contextualization of the text.

The inerrancy view of scripture is supposed to preserve the reliability of God through the reliability of the text. The view that the scriptures are “errant” in some way is actually the other side of the pious coin. To say that the scriptural text is errant in some way is to preserve the reliability of God at the expense of the reliability of the biblical text. Both views suggest that God is unquestionably inerrant, even though they differ with respect to the reliability of the biblical text. Both views are theological positions that rest on the same foundation.

There is a third option, one that some versions of Mormon may uniquely be able to hold. In this view, the scriptures are both errant and fully inspired by God. This radical version of Mormon finitism suggests that God may in fact be errant himself as he progresses in knowledge. While most Mormons accept the theological assumptions of the errancy/inerrancy debate that God is inerrant, which dispute the reliability of the scriptures, this strand of Mormon theology rejects such an assumption and takes the scriptures as reliable, but God as unreliable.

It is a mistake to take any one of these positions as inherently more or less pious with respect to God or the Bible, since they are all staking out pious ground in different ways. In the pursuit of biblical studies, however, are all equally problematic, or does one more easily facilitate the bracketing that takes place in the evaluation of the Bible?

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