Assuming a Spherical Bible

Assuming a Spherical Bible December 10, 2011

The blog had a post on not assuming a spherical Jesus, which inspired me to explore the same analogy with the Bible, leading me to draw this cartoon.

The original post begins with the tendency of theoretical physicists to posit an “ideal” state that doesn’t correspond to any actual reality but makes calculations possible. There is a very real sense in which those who claim the Bible is inerrant do the same. They posit what the Bible must be and then work as hard as they can to get the Bible to conform to their presuppositions, their pre-existing doctrine about Scripture.

The Bible then becomes a liability to them at the same time as an authority. Instead of focusing on living the life of faith, inerrantists are forced to be constantly on the defensive, as they desperately try to fend off critics who insist that the Bible is a square peg that they will never get to fit into the round hole of their doctrine of inerrancy.

How does one avoid this? Simple. Don’t begin by assuming a “spherical Bible.” The assumption that spheres and circles are the most perfect shapes actually kept people from figuring out what the solar system looks like for longer than necessary. Everyone who worked with spheres and circles had to make ad hoc additions to get the data to fit. It was only by departing from such assumptions about perfect shapes and allowing for elliptical orbits that we ended up with our current, much improved understanding.

Don’t define in advance what the Bible “must” be. Let not only what the Bible says, but what it is, what is shows itself to be, to lead you to a view of the Bible that is based on the evidence, rather than a view that seeks to dictate to the Bible what it must be.

If it helps, imagine the Bible crying out in pain every time you seek to shoehorn or crowbar it into your pre-existing doctrine of Scripture.

Or just Google “Procrustes”…

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  • aar9n

    I remember reading “Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties” by Glen Archer, and him telling his readers that they must already believe beforehand that a solution exists to the problem (of a contradiction or inaccuracy). Even as an innerrantist at the time (or I may have been a softer “infallibist” I can’t remember) I can remember thinking that was silly.

  • Hi Dr McGrath, your link to is broken.

    • I think it is working now. Thanks for letting me know there was a problem. I definitely don’t want people to miss the cartoon in the original post!

  • cameronhorsburgh

    The big difference between the way scientists and inerrantists treat their spheres is that scientists are well aware of the deficiencies of their models and hope their work inside the sphere will lead them to a far better sphere design. Mapping out the inconsistencies of the sphere is an integral part of the scientific tradition.

    Inerrantists assume (and insist) the sphere is fine, but we’re not able to fully appreciate the roundness.

  • Trying to settle the argument of inerrancy seems a waste of good time.  What people want and need to know is, “Can I find the word of God when I read the Bible, and, if so, how?”  Maybe you could re-direct your attention in that more positive direction.

  • Scott__F

    Isn’t this the way much of theology is practiced?

    -Assuming that God is all loving then God must also be sending everyone to heaven.
    -Assuming that God has universal and complete sovereignty then God must have predestined those who will be saved.
    -Assuming that only a spotless women could bear God’s son then Mary must have been perpetually a virgin and was born of a sexless pregnancy. (actual claim from my Sunday school this week)
    -Assuming that the gospels cold not be wrong about the imminence of Kingdom of God then the coming of the kingdom must be the creation of the church.

    These are all cases of working backwards in order to protect the conclusion.  I would throw in the Trinity as well as an example of a “logical necessity” created to prevent the larger edifice from collapsing from within.

    The trick to science is that the failure of spherical orbits to match observed reality (eventually) forced astronomers to think outside the box.  In theology, the tendency seems to be to deal with unpleasant conclusions by chosing a different conclusion from which to work backward.