Worthwhile Reads: The Bible, Inerrancy, and Interpretation

Worthwhile Reads: The Bible, Inerrancy, and Interpretation August 28, 2012

In case you’ve missed it, there has been some excellent discussion of the Bible, inerrancy, and doctrines like creationism on several patheos blogs over the past couple of weeks. I may post some of my thoughts in response at some point, but for the moment I thought I’d pull together some of the posts I’ve been enjoying and list them here, with excerpts.

One Text, Many Bibles, on Unreasonable Faith

This is exactly the type of historical criticism we give to the annals of the Assyrians or the court records of the Egyptians. If you’re going to pretend to be using the historical-critical method, you have to take this kind of analysis seriously.

Young-Earth Creationism Is a Cult, on Exploring Our Matrix

Although its proponents will at times pay lip service to the idea that acceptance of evolution is not a matter that affects one’s salvation, that is clearly just a PR device. Most of their propaganda and their speeches say otherwise, claiming that acceptance of evolution is the root of all kinds of evil, both spiritual and social, and trying to make people afraid of looking into more closely, for fear that the result will be that they will lose their faith and end up in hell.

In a recent conversation with another former young-earth creationist, I observed that it is no surprise that the proponents of young-earth creationism use fear in this manner.

Ken Ham’s Biblical Exegesis Is Just as Sound as His Science, on The Slacktivist

For decades I’ve been having this argument:

YOUNG-EARTH CREATIONIST: The Bible clearly says that God created the universe in six days, 6,000 years ago.

ME: No, actually, it doesn’t. [Insert everything I’ve ever written or said about the Bible for the past 25 years.]

YEC: Does too.

That argument was exhausting and depressing. But the new variation of it is even more so:

YEC: The Bible clearly says that God created the universe in six days, 6,000 years ago.

ME: No, actually, it doesn’t. [Insert everything I’ve ever written or said about the Bible for the past 25 years.]


ME: Wait … what are you doing here? And why on earth are you siding with him?

IA: I’ve apparently decided he’s the most knowledgeable, reliable and trustworthy interpreter of Christian orthodoxy and biblical scholarship.

ME: Him? He’s really not.

IA: I’ve read Answers in Genesis. I know all I need to know about what you Christians believe. And Ken Ham warned me against your seminary trickery …

Why Do Atheists Always Go After Ken Ham? on The Friendly Atheist

We go after Ham because, whether it’s right to take the Bible literally or not, more than 100,000,000 Americans already buy into that lie and he’s one of the ringleaders.

It’s the same reason atheists love to quote horrible Bible verses. It’s not because we think people should take random lines (in and out of context) from the Bible at face value; it’s because so many people already do.

This is also why I don’t find it useful to pay attention to what “sophisticated theologians” have to say. Most Christians aren’t paying attention to them, either, so why bother debating a version of Christianity so few people even know about?

St. Augustine Asks Hard Questions Atheists Don’t Ask, on God and the Machine

It’s fun to read or listen to super-duper-smart professional atheists (well, they think they’re smart) banging on about the book of Genesis. It’s a useful issue for them, because the primeval history in scripture is mysterious, complex, and rich in symbolism. So, naturally, Reason Warriors approach it with the childish literalism of a young-earth creationist. Perhaps this works for them because fundamentalism is ill-equipped to properly understand Genesis, which is why friends don’t let friends be fundamentalists.

Why Can’t You Be More Like Augustine? on Unreasonable Faith

I’m not sure McDonald [of God and the Machine] is interested in the author’s original message either. Like Augustine, he seems to be working under the standard Christian assumption that the texts will always have some meaning that is relevant to us today, even if they only provide questions that spark reflection. The historical-critical method accepts that a text was written by an author in a certain time for an audience that shared that time. It does not assume that a text must contain a meaning that is relevant to our time.

To me, the idea that every passage of the Bible must contain a meaning that is relevant to our lives seems self-centered. We’re not allowing the voices of the past to really speak for themselves. We’re muzzling them and supplying our own meaning to their words. As an archivist, I find that both irrational and unethical.

It is also special pleading. This is not something we’d do with the Roman histories, nor would Christians do this with the Quran or any other tradition’s holy text. Thus McDonald’s message to atheists, boiled down: to understand the Bible, you must stop being atheists and start being Christian. That, I’m afraid, is unacceptable.

Sooner or Later, You Have to Choose between the Bible and Inerrancy, on Exploring Our Matrix

A discussion I’ve been part of on Facebook illustrates something that I have said before on numerous occasions: ultimately, for those approaching the Bible as a sacred text, one has to choose between showing respect for the Bible above all, or giving ultimate authority to a doctrine of Biblical inerrancy.

This was illustrated in a discussion of the genealogies in Matthew and Luke. The two do not agree between David and Joseph. The most common approach to harmonizing them is to claim that one of them is Mary’s genealogy.

But that is not what the text says. Both the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke explicitly say that they are giving Joseph’s genealogy.

And so this provides a nice test case for my point about the incompatibility of inerrancy and giving one’s ultimate respect to the Bible. If one is committed above all else to a doctrine of Biblical inerrancy, then you will be forced not just in this particular instance, but time and time again, to sacrifice what the Bible actually says in order to harmonize texts. Those two Gospels can say explicitly and unambiguously that they are giving Joseph’s genealogy. But you will deny that they mean what they say, in order to insist that both are right – even though, ironically, you are in fact saying that one of them, taken at face value, is wrong. And so with the very sword you picked up to try to defend your doctrine of the Bible, you do damage to the Bible, cutting off anything that is a threat to your doctrine.

Inerrancy Is Not a Victimless Crime, on The Slacktivist

The doctrine of “inerrancy” is often referred to as a “high view of scripture.” It is not.

It’s a low-down dirty trick to play on the Bible and on anyone who tries to read it. Inerrancy is not a victimless crime. It chases some people away from the Bible and prevents others from reading it intelligently.

I respect that this idea comes from a place of respect, but that is not where it leads. It leads to a profound disrespect for the Bible, and for those who seek to read it honestly. And, ultimately, it always shifts from being a claim about the Bible itself to being a claim about the person making that claim. After all, what good is an inerrant, infallible text without an inerrant, infallible reader, exponent and enforcer?

Culture Warriors Produce a New, Improved Bible, on The Slacktivist

This solves a great dilemma for culture warriors. They really wish the Bible spent more time talking about the things they’re obsessed with, but the actual Bible is a terrible disappointment on this score. Yeah, it’s got a handful of clobber verses on homosexuality and drunkenness, but not nearly as many as they wish were in there.

And when it comes to condemning abortion or secular rock music, the Bible is silent and therefore pretty much useless.

So what’s a righteous culture warrior to do? What else? They just have to add new stories to the Bible — “issue-based” culture-war stories that teach the lessons the Bibleought to have taught if it hadn’t been such a disappointment in its original form.

And then, to make sure that no one treats these new, added sections as less meaningful, they stress that these additions are “absolute truth.”

Having Your Bible and Criticizing It Too, on Unreasonable Faith

So not only is Thomas McDonald accusing us of being less sophisticated than a fifth-century theologian, nowFred Clark and James McGrath are both comparing us to Ken Ham. These last two are like a Progressive Evangelical tag-team, hitting us from both sides as McDonald distracts the referee. I was just shaking off Clark’s gorilla slam when they both hit me with their “Bultmann Bomb” and left me flat on the canvas, demythologized.

The Liberal approach is to try and save Scripture from itself. No longer believing in the cryptic interpretations of the sages or the wild allegorical readings of the early and medieval Christians, Liberals attempt to use historical interpretation while still finding meanings that are relevant to the modern world.

The result is what Kugel calls “apologetics light,” and it is frequently very silly. Take the story of Noah as an example. We now know that the flood story was taken from a Mesopotamian legend. Even some of the original wording is still retained (God “smelled the pleasing odor”). Modest changes were made so that the story would appeal to its new audience, and apparently these changes are enough to make Liberal Christians go into raptures.

Should we be surprised by the fact that the editors replaced Gods with God? No, it would be amazing if they hadn’t. The cause of the flood has been changed from human overcrowding and noise to human wickedness, but is that thin reed really enough to support all the theology that has been placed on it?

The more historical you are in your approach to the Bible, the less relevant it seems. It’s possible that you can’t have your Bible and criticise it too.

Four Ancient Assumptions about Biblical Interpretation, on Unreasonable Faith

After the past couple of posts about biblical interpretation, I thought it would be good to post James L. Kugel’s “Four Assumptions.” These are the assumptions that were held by most biblical interpreters from sometime in the Second Temple period until the Reformation.

As I mentioned previously, modern Fundamentalists have shed the first assumption but kept the rest. This has led to all sorts of problems. Arguing that the surface or literal meaning of the text is always relevant and never contradictory requires great skill in sophistry. Often times I see Fundamentalists slipping in the first assumption without realizing it, by arguing that the “apparent meaning” and the “real meaning” of the text are different.

Do Young Earth Creationists Deny That God Spoke Creation into Existence, or Creation out of Nothing? on Exploring Our Matrix

For speech – literal speech – to be transmitted, there has to be a medium to carry it. That’s why “in space, no one can hear you scream.” On Earth, the atmosphere transmits sound.

So in order for God to have created through speaking, there must have been an already-existing atmosphere or other medium to carry the sound. And if one posits that, then one denies creation out of nothing, which young-earth creationists typically affirm. And that’s without getting into a discussion about divine vocal cords.


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