The Absurdity of Inerrancy

The Absurdity of Inerrancy May 26, 2015

shutterstock_173726786Even on its own terms, an inerrant Bible is an absurdity.  I’ll explain what I mean in just a second.

First, not everyone feels obligated to give the Bible the benefit of the doubt. They will first look at the external evidence, and when they do they will find that major elements of the biblical narrative go astray from the facts as we know them. For them that’s enough to warn them away from believing that in the Bible we have a book that can’t go wrong. But religion is an exceedingly subjective enterprise, and as such there can be a complete disconnect between what the Bible says is true and what can be empirically observed.  You have to have faith, we are told. If the facts appear to contradict the Bible, we must simply have our facts wrong, or God is testing our faith, or whatever.

Because of this, it doesn’t matter to some people that the Bible gets the origins of the species wrong; they just keep reworking their reading of the text and tweaking their interpretation until it fits what modern science tells us is true. Voila! Now it’s not wrong anymore! We were just misreading it for all those centuries.  And it doesn’t matter that a worldwide flood is neither demonstrable nor possible the way it is described, they simply redefine that and say it was never meant to indicate a truly global event (never mind how the story itself actually portrays it).  It doesn’t even matter that history has failed to validate other key narrative elements like the Egyptian captivity, the mass exodus of over a million people, the 40-year wandering in the wilderness, or the Canaanite conquest. We are now supposed to interpret them metaphorically, or maybe read them as poetry (despite their clearly historical genre), or simply as exaggerations of much, much smaller events that surely must have happened, only now those real events are lost to us forever.

None of that is what I’m talking about today. I’m talking about taking the notion of the inerrancy of the Bible even on the terms they give us. If we apply even a small amount of critical thinking to the concept of biblical inerrancy (or infallibility, depending on how your particular tradition plays with those words), the whole thing falls apart even when using its own internal logic. This spurious idea is responsible for so many formidable social injustices that is has got to go. Living in the midst of a people who see this book as above reproach and then mistreat others based on its prejudices, this has become a priority for me.

Six Reasons Why the Bible Cannot Be Inerrant

1. Even your own theology should tell you that imperfect people can’t produce a perfect text.  One of the key doctrines of the Christian faith is that all people are “fallen,” messed up, broken, and needing salvation.  The Reformed doctrine in particular states things in the strongest of terms, saying that every aspect of human nature has been warped and marred by sin so that everything we set our hand to is going to be tainted by that fact.  If this belief were held with any logical consistency, it should follow that as long as human beings were involved in producing the Bible (News flash:  They were), it cannot be a flawless book. It is at least at some level a human creation, even if you believe that God inspired it.  That means that mistakes are inevitable, and human biases and cultural prejudices will inescapably be present.

2. Sola Scriptura is a logical impossibility. The Catholic and Orthodox churches have been preaching this for centuries, but the Protestants have never listened.  It sounds lovely to say that you will base your theology on “nothing but the Bible,” meaning that any and all church tradition must be subject to the scrutiny of the biblical text itself, but how would you even know which books of the Bible should be in that canon if it weren’t for church tradition?  Without large groups of people—about whom we know virtually nothing—telling us which books should be included, we would never have known not to include, say, the Gospel of Peter or the Shepherd of Hermas in the New Testament canon.  Why is the book of James (originally “Jacob,” by the way) considered perfect while those other books aren’t?  How can you tell?  And did you know that the founder of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther, tried to get the book of James removed from the canon, along with the books of Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation?  At some level there has to be a selection process in the first place, so what you have in the end is a thing that you yourself have created. Now you’re going to submit yourself to what you have made as an authority over all matters of faith and practice?  The logic of that doesn’t even work.

3. Jesus himself modeled disagreeing with the scriptures.  Jesus got into a lot of hot water for saying things like “You have heard it was said…but I say to you.”  He made a habit of quoting the Bible and then disagreeing with it.  As a Christian I was taught to see this as a privilege uniquely assigned to Jesus, but that only glosses over the fact that he’s still disagreeing with the Bible.  That’s kind of a big deal. Here’s a guy who is supposed to be a model for us in every way, and he’s sticking his neck out and flatly calling the Bible wrong, or at least outdated in one way or another.  He is suggesting there is a better way of thinking about things than what the scriptures of his day prescribed.  That’s pretty revolutionary, and to me it sounds a lot like what the liberals and progressives of Christianity are doing today.  He critically analyzed the ethical apparatus of his own religion and found it lacking, then he spoke up about it. That took a lot of nerve. When people do it today, they get the same kind of hatred that Jesus got from the guardians of orthodoxy in his day, less the concomitant Roman brutality.

4. Paul disagreed with Jesus. Paul almost never quoted Jesus at all, which in itself is a fascinating fact.  One could be forgiven for concluding that Paul was either largely unfamiliar with the actual teachings of Jesus, or perhaps that for whatever reason he wasn’t all that interested in rehearsing any of it.  He seemed fixated on other things. He never quoted any parables, or repeated any sayings. He almost never mentions a single action or miracle of Jesus from his entire ministry besides the resurrection itself.  He mentions the Christian repurposing of the Passover meal and quotes Jesus in the process because that was a part of the tradition he inherited.  But other than that, he hardly ever relays anything Jesus actually taught…

Except in two places where Paul actually disagrees with him.  In one place, he argues that in spite of the fact that Jesus said ministers should be able to make a living from their ministry, it is better for them to have non-ministry jobs so that they themselves can supply their own financial needs and not be dependent on their congregations. That was a direct contradiction to the tradition of Jesus.  In another place he ventures well beyond what Jesus said about divorce and offers his own opinion about the matter, offering an additional reason for divorce beyond what Jesus allowed.  That took a lot of nerve, and it suggests that even the writers of the New Testament weren’t thinking the same way about scriptural authority as do people today who swear by the authority of those very people.  Which leads me to the next point…

5. Paul admitted some of what he wrote was just his opinion.  This presents a fascinating problem.  How can you hold as sacrosanct and infallible the words of a man who even admits himself that some of what he is telling you is just his opinion?  For example, Paul recommended that people should choose the single life over marriage because in his mind family life is a distraction from the things of God.  So much for focusing on the family.  Paul didn’t care much for family entanglements (neither did Jesus, evidently), and he wasn’t afraid to let people know it.  He admitted he didn’t “have a word from the Lord” about the matter, but notice the intellectual pretzel you have to put yourself through to treat as infallible the words of a man who is himself admitting that not everything he says is worthy of such absolute devotion.

6. The apostles disagreed with each other. It always baffled me that we would ascribe inerrancy to the writings of men who vehemently disagreed with each other on multiple occasions.  If you go back and reconstruct the story, James and Paul bitterly argued over how to handle the inclusion of Gentiles into the church. As best as I can tell, despite the attempt by the author of the book of Acts to gloss over the animosity between them, James and Paul never really came to an agreement about the relationship between the Christian message and the Mosaic law. Even decades after they tried to hash out their differences, representatives of the church in Jerusalem continued to circulate among Paul’s church plants in order to try to convince them to get circumcised and eat kosher. We also get a snapshot of his disagreement with James when we read both of them in separate letters teaching opposite things from the very same story (see each of them explain what made Abraham righteous here and here). Paul even tells a story of having to openly chastise Peter for not thinking correctly about this, causing quite a scene in one of their churches.  The only way you could possibly see the Bible as an infallible book is if you completely gloss over the many ways in which they didn’t even agree with each other.

There are many other problems I could name.  The stories are so full of contradictions that you can’t even take one version as true without automatically invalidating two or three other versions in some way or another.   And that’s just within the New Testament. Whole libraries could be filled with pointing out the disagreements between the Old and New Testaments, but most Christians have a justification for that so they won’t hear any of it even if I were to try to spell out why these can’t just be explained away by “progressive revelation.”

We don’t even really know who wrote most of the books of the Bible. We have traditions ascribing authorship to various people, but that’s super sketchy, to be honest.  The gospels themselves don’t even really tell us who wrote them. The names at the top of the page weren’t in the original text, and some of the names don’t even make sense when you think about it.  Who is “Mark” and why is Matthew’s gospel clearly copying the text of Mark’s gospel word-for-word despite the fact that Matthew was one of “the twelve?”  If church tradition can be trusted, Mark was just a random kid who may or may not have been subtly slipped into the story (something about a kid running off naked after someone grabbed at him to arrest him). Again, super sketchy, but what if we took that at face value?  Why would Matthew’s gospel need to copy Mark’s?  That doesn’t even make sense, but clearly that’s what happened.  I could go on like this all day, but I’ve already said enough.

Why This Matters to Me

Not all Christians were raised to believe the Bible is free from error. Thankfully, large swaths of Christendom view the Bible as just one source of information among many, and they don’t feel compelled to use the same tortured interpretational gymnastics to preserve a belief in its perfection. But far too many churches still hold to this, and they are still supplying senators and congressmen and governors and judges and district attorneys who shape national policy in my country.  This is a problem.

Furthermore, some element of implicitly trusting the Bible undergirds every type of Christianity that can still honestly claim the label.  Even if you ask the Christians who don’t teach the inerrancy doctrine, they still believe you can’t question things like the virgin birth (which is likely based on a mistranslation anyway) or the miracles of Jesus or the authority of Paul, who never even knew Jesus.  So much of the Christian faith relies on trusting sources that seem held together with little more than a wish and a prayer. In many cases (like the exodus and the Canaanite conquest), they have even been invalidated by history.

And yet in my country we have laws being written based on the testimonies of these texts.  Whole states have passed amendments to their constitutions outlawing same-sex marriage because this book tells them those relationships are invalid.  What?  Why are we still doing this?  And why are we voting into office men who don’t even accept basic principles of biology, geology, immunology, and astronomy, and who believe we don’t have to preserve our planet’s natural resources because they believe Jesus is coming soon and he’s gonna start all over again?

I can’t even have a normal conversation with my own friends and family about why I’m an atheist because the Bible tells them there’s no such thing as an atheist.  Paul brazenly asserted that even the polytheists of his day were closet Abrahamic monotheists deep down inside.  How he could assert that is beyond me, but I’m telling you he had no idea what he was talking about.  But my words mean nothing to people because they believe they have a book that cannot be wrong.

So you see why this doctrine matters to me. It impacts me in my daily life, and it’s got to go.  It leads people to believe things that don’t make any sense, things about which they should know better. They are often intelligent, well educated people and yet when it comes to this book, they throw all good sense out the window.  The compartmentalization is maddening.  All I know to do is to address it directly. Even on its own terms, this teaching just doesn’t make any sense.


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