It seems safe to say that most Christians — whether Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, Anabaptist, or something else entirely — believe they are generally correct in their doctrinal views. Otherwise, why would they have them? This is not necessarily a bad thing, since there is nothing wrong with loosely holding onto beliefs we find credible. However, many of these folks — mainly Protestants who affirm an inerrant Bible — are not simply convinced about their beliefs, but are certain they are correct. Which makes those who differ wrong. Dead wrong.
In this piece, while I am not going to put forth a particular way to approach Scripture (I’ve done that here, here, and here), I am going to be a bit of a rabble-rouser and simply problematize things for folks who consider themselves inerrantists. After all, the first step to solving a problem is to admit there is one. And Houston, inerrancy has and is a problem.
Problem I: Jesus Takes a Back Seat to Scripture
If we begin our theological pilgrimage (as Karl Barth might call it) with an inerrant Bible, then we aren’t beginning with Jesus. And if we fail to start with Jesus, instead opting to start with a certain view of the book — or rather, books — that testify about him, how can we ever know the way in which Jesus himself approached his Scriptures? Is it enough to say that “because he quotes from Scripture, he therefore affirms it all?” Well, that would be highly irresponsible of us, as it assumes far too much and fails to lead us in asking some crucial questions, such as: How did he interpret Scripture? Did he follow a certain pattern? What did he even consider “Scripture?”
Furthermore, if we begin with the view that everything said in the Bible — even all the whacky stuff — testifies to the true nature of God, then we would be more than hard-pressed in saying, as Paul did, that Jesus is the fullness of God in bodily form (Col 2:9). In other words, with inerrancy, any theological truths that Jesus reveals become papered over by the whole of Scripture, instead of the whole of Scripture being read through the lens of the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ.
This seems bass-ackwards!
Problem II: Sociological Problems Abound
When every jot and tittle of Scripture is assumed to be inerrant, real world problems arise. Turn your attention to John 9. In this story, Jesus and his disciples come across a societal outcast who was born blind. The disciples ask “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” But why do they assume this?
Well, this thinking comes straight from Deuteronomy 5 and 28. The Bible is clear:
- Deut 5:9: You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and fourth generation of those who reject me.
- Deut 28:18: Cursed shall be the fruit of your womb.
- Deut 28:22: The Lord will afflict you with consumption, fever, inflammation.
- Deut 28:27: The Lord will afflict you with the boils of Egypt; with ulcers, scurvy, and itch, of which you cannot be healed.
- Deut 28:37: You shall become an object of horror.
Needless to say, when we take for granted that everything in Scripture is from God himself, we certainly run the risk of looking around at those in need and concluding that they are cursed — just like Job’s “friends” did all throughout the book of Job. And just like many of the folks did in Jesus’ day. Sadly, and since we are living post-Jesus, ironically, we still do this today.
Problem III: You Can’t Shed Your Subjectivity
No matter what objective truths are out there, we can never approach them objectively ourselves. We are always in first-person mode, bringing our own subjectivity to the table. Even if the Bible were written by God and contained zero historical, anthropological, psychological, or theological errors, we would still never be able to approach it objectively. We will always bring our presuppositions to our interpretation.
For one example of what I’m talking about, let’s think about Paul’s phrase pistis Christou. Is it the “faithfulness of Christ” or “faith in Christ” that saves us? Some scholars affirm the former, others the latter. What are we non-scholars to say? It makes a difference, because if it is the faithfulness of Christ that “reconciles the world to God,” then salvation is, first and foremost, an act of God. If, on the other hand, it is our faith in Christ that saves us, then salvation is, first and foremost, offered by God, but actualized by our faith. Our answer likely depends upon a whole host of factors, including any assumptions and presuppositions we may currently have.Piggybacking on this, what is the “correct” biblical way of thinking about our “belief” in Jesus? As the Lord says in John’s Gospel, he is “the way” to the Father (John 14:6). But how are we to interpret this? As Michael Machuga points out in our book, A Journey with Two Mystics, this can mean a whole host of things. First, it could mean we simply must acknowledge that Jesus exists, that he is who he says he is — sort of like believing in Santa Claus. Or, it could mean believing that his way of living — his ethics, politics, and philosophy — is our model for living. And third, it could mean believing he accomplished what he set out to accomplish, namely, that he indeed conquered death and was victorious over sin and the devil.
At the end of the day, all these issues (and many more) are open for interpretation, whether we call our Bible inerrant or not.
Problem IV: Which Bible Are We Even Talking About?
When we make the claim that “the Bible is inerrant,” which canon are we referring to? Is it only the 66 book Protestant Bible? Or should we add some deuterocanonical books? Why? Why not? How would it change things if, for example, we had 1 Enoch in our canon (Jude probably did)? That instead of the Bible being 66 books, it was 80? Or 81, as the Ethiopian Orthodox Church suggests?
Furthermore, are only the original manuscripts (which we don’t have) inerrant or did the translations also stand the test of time? All of them? Even the ones that contradict each other? Even the ones with missing verses (the NIV doesn’t include John 5:4, Acts 8:37, and a few others)?
Problem V: The Bible Never Makes this Claim
The Bible simply never makes the claim that it is inerrant. (And even if it did, the logic would be entirely circular. And it still wouldn’t address our fourth problem.) Sure, there is that funky verse in 2 Timothy, but using it as some proof-text for inerrancy seems rather dubious.
First, there is no “is” in the Greek text. The writer simply begins the sentence with “Pasa graphe theopneustos kai,” which literally translates to “Every writing God-breathed and.” So, translators have to make a decision. Should it read: “All Scripture is inspired by God…” or “Every Scripture inspired by God is…” or “Every writing God-breathed is…” or something else entirely? Our answer makes a lot of difference here.
Second, given that the writer of 2 Timothy could not have possessed what we moderns call “the Bible,” one would have to conclude that what they meant by “Scripture/writing” was in relation to the Hebrew Scriptures. Forcing our canon of Scripture back into this text is anachronistic and fallacious.
All that said, even if we take what we call “the Bible” and determine it is all “God-breathed,” that hardly means it is inerrant (or infallible for that matter). Heck, the Bible clearly states that humanity is “God-breathed” — God breathes the ruach into the adama to create a living nefesh — but no one I know is clamoring on about how humanity is inerrant. Far from it, in fact! And I would agree with them.
If you don’t happen to see the same problems with inerrancy that I do, then that is understandable. These are just the issues I was confronted with that forced me, after 25 years of living the Evangelical lifestyle, into the desert of deconstruction. Sure, when I “came out the other side,” Jesus was there, with the Scriptures in-hand, so that I could sit at his feet. But I didn’t always know this, so I empathize with those who think I am trying to “take away their Bibles.” I am not — I am just verbalizing the problems I, and others, have faced in our journey out of inerrancy. Do with it as you see fit.
Image via Unsplash.
About Matthew Distefano
Matthew Distefano is the author of All Set Free: How God is Revealed in Jesus and Why That is Really Good News, From the Blood of Abel: Humanity’s Root Causes of Violence and the Bible’s Theological-Anthropological Solution and the newly-released A Journey with Two Mystics: Conversations between a Girardian and a Wattsian. He is also a Regular Contributor for The Raven ReView and ProgressiveChristianity.org. You can find him on his website, Facebook, and Twitter.