Do you mean the Bible is inerrant, or that you are inerrant?

Do you mean the Bible is inerrant, or that you are inerrant? October 22, 2012

I recently came upon the following quote attributed to Fred Clark of The Slacktivist:

Text: “We claim that we are treating the Bible with great respect as the final arbiter of all things. What we are really doing is making our interpretation of the Bible the final arbiter of all things. Therefore what we are ultimately arguing is that WE are the final arbiter of all things. Our assertion, in other words, is not really that the Bible is inerrant and infallible, but that we are.”

Evangelicals and fundamentalists are not like Catholics. There is no one leader setting down doctrine and no accepted catechism of beliefs. Instead, evangelicals and fundamentalists insist that the Bible is the final authority in all things, and that all they are doing is following the Bible. The trouble is that not only do evangelicals and fundamentalists disagree with other faith traditions on how to interpret the Bible, they also disagree among themselves. In other words, while they all agree that the Bible is the final authority in all things, they do not and cannot agree on what the Bible means. This is why when the United States’ earliest public schools were founded they included Bible reading, but did not allow teachers to make any explanation at all of what was read – after all, every denomination agreed that the Bible was the inerrant word of God, but they could not agree on how to interpret it.

And this is where Fred’s quote comes in. Evangelicals and fundamentalists claim that they are simply following the Bible and holding it to be inerrant, but because there is disagreement on what the Bible actually says, Fred suggests that what they are really doing is holding their own interpretations as inerrant. And in doing that, they are holding themselves as inerrant.

There are two contributing factors that help convince evangelicals and fundamentalists that their interpretations are inerrant. First, they will claim that they are not “interpreting” the Bible at all, but simply accepting what it says at face value. This seems to make sense until you realize that that’s often not actually what they’re doing, and that besides, those claiming that they are simply accepting the Bible at face value inevitably contradict each other. Second, they will also claim that they are indwelt by the Holy Spirit, which helps them interpret the Bible and guides them to the correct understanding. Once again, this makes sense on some level until you realize that they all claim this and yet often contradict each other.

I ran into a lot of this with my own family when I began questioning some of their beliefs. At the time, mind you, I didn’t question the inerrancy and inspiration of the Bible. I simply questioned their understanding and interpretation of the Bible. But it didn’t matter. To them, I had questioned not simply their understanding of the Bible but the Bible itself. At the time, I wanted to ask “do you mean that the Bible is inerrant, or that you are inerrant?” But because my parents were convinced that their interpretation of the Bible was right and every other one was wrong, they would likely not have admitted the distinction. And of course, both they and I claimed to be listening to and following the lead of the Holy Spirit.

While many/most evangelicals and fundamentalists go to churches that belong to specific denominations and therefore embrace specific creeds or lists of beliefs, I grew up in a nondenominational megachurch. Basically, this meant that the senior pastor’s interpretation of the Bible was what went for the rest of the church. There are thousands of churches like this across the country, whether they are strictly nondenominational or nominally belong to a denomination, where the senior pastor (or only pastor, in the cases of small churches) sets the doctrine with his own personal interpretation of the Bible. Interestingly, replacing a senior pastor can be a very trying time for a nondenominational, more so than for churches that belong to denominations, because it’s so important for the church that the new pastor believe the same things the former pastor did.

For many in homeschooling families influenced by the Quiverfull and Christian Patriarchy movements, it’s less about what the pastor believes than about what their father beliefs. Some families even form “home churches,” making the supremacy of the father/pastor’s interpretation of the Bible completely obvious. In my case, we grew up knowing that even though we went to said nondenominational megachurch, we as a family disagreed with the theology and practice on several points. Why? Because dad disagreed.

Yet this very function of evangelicalism and fundamentalism that grants so much theological power to individual pastors or fathers also serves as a tool to be used in resistance. When I began questioning my father’s interpretation of the Bible, I used my own developing interpretation of that same book to buttress and support my arguments. Of course, doing so didn’t mean my father accepted my interpretations as valid. He didn’t. It meant, however, that I could use the Bible as a tool of resistance and that questioning my father’s beliefs did not necessarily have to mean giving up my faith entirely.

And here is where we get to the sticky point. What does all this tell us? Do all Christians who believe the Bible is inerrant in effect fancy themselves inerrant? The only way to get around the problem would be to arrive at the True and Correct Interpretation of the Bible. And there are Christian scholars who do study the history of the Bible, its cultural context, and the original languages in which it was written. There are Christian scholars who engage in higher criticism of the Bible, examining it as a text. Is it possible, then, to arrive at an objectively “true” and “correct” interpretation of the Bible?

The trouble I kept running into is that there are verses and passages that are downright contradictory. Whatever view you take, you’re going to have to explain some other passage away. You point to the verses about female submission to support complementarianism (i.e. patriarchy)? Okay, but what about instances of female leadership in the Bible? You have to explain those away. You point to instances of female leadership in the Bible to support egalitarianism? Okay, but what about the verses about female submission? You’re going to have to explain those away.

At this point it honestly appears to me that people find what they want to find in the Bible. You believe that women should be stay-at-home moms and homemakers? There’s an interpretation of the Bible just right for you. You believe that women should be able to get jobs alongside men, and that childcare should be shared between men and women? There’s an interpretation of the Bible just right for you, too! Personally, this is a huge part of why the Bible appears to me to be no more than a man-made book.

Note: After writing yesterday’s post I read an exchange between Chris Hallquist and James McGrath regarding this very quote by Fred Clark. Tomorrow I will respond to their posts with some additional thoughts.

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