The Error of Inerrancy

Eric Reitan isn’t inerrant, but he’s pretty darn close.

Reitan is a philosophy professor at Oklahoma State University, and the author of Is God a Delusion? A Reply to Religion’s Cultured Despisers. He blogs at The Piety That Lies Between and is also a regular contributor to the progressive website Religion Dispatches.

Via Elizaphanian’s blog, I discovered this link to the most comprehensive and excellent discussion/refutation of Biblical inerrancy that I have ever seen. The post, on Butler University religion professor Dr. James F. McGrath’s blog Exploring Our Matrix (affiliated with the Christian Century), starts with a quote from one of Reitan’s articles at Religion Dispatches:

[T]he doctrine of biblical inerrancy has the effect of inspiring its adherents to pay more attention to a text than to the neighbors they are called upon to love. Sometimes it even inspires them to plug up their ears with Bible verses, so that they can no longer hear the anguished cries of neighbors whose suffering is brought on by allegiance to the literal sense of those very texts.

Reitan is thinking of the exclusion of GLBT Christians (his cousin Jake Reitan founded Soulforce’s “Equality Ride”), but not only of that issue. His argument, along with the lengthy debate in the comments, clearly spells out why inerrantist theories that pit compassion against obedience are a dangerous heresy that should concern all Christians. What we’re really fighting for, beyond GLBT rights, is freedom from the fears that keep us from drawing near to God. Fear of error stems from fear of committing sins, as if Jesus hadn’t told us that we are worthy right now to call God “Abba”, Father.

The real action on McGrath’s blog occurs in the extensive comments below the post, where he takes on the argument that pro-gay Christians and others who reject Biblical literalism are setting ourselves up as authorities over Scripture. A sample:

James F. McGrath said…
There were Christians on both sides of the debates about slavery. Just ask the Southern Baptists. That’s the reason they exist.

I am very familiar with the Chicago Declaration on Biblical Inerrancy. I simply agree with most Evangelicals outside of the United States in not subscribing to it. I don’t find the term “inerrancy” to mean anything like what it sounds like when defined with so many qualifications.

As for these matters being settled in “the Bible”, you are missing the point that Paul’s letter to the Galatians wasn’t Scripture when the debate between Peter and Paul was taking place. And so presumably in order to get the table of contents of Scripture as inerrant as well, you need to trust the church’s authority at least that far. I suppose the question is why stop there? How do you know that God has entrusted authority to the church only so far as to get a book and then withdrawn in in favor of the book?
April 13, 2009 4:54 PM

Rhology said…
Hello Dr McGrath,

I don’t see any rebuttal so far to my contention that you have set yourself up as an authority over the Bible, and that therefore there is really no good reason for you to read or take into acct any of it at all. I do think interaction with that point would really benefit our discussion here.

Yes, there were Christians on both sides. Yet, the impetus for abolition came from…Christians, not from some other group of different conviction. I should further think that it is obvious to any reasonable mind that the reason a group comes into existence is not necessarily the same reason for which it remains in existence. I don’t think the Anglican Church existS, NOW, just so that the King of England can satisfy his hot pants, after all.

I am glad and sad to hear that you are familiar with the Chicago Statement. Given the strange comments you’ve made that display an ignorance of proper hermeneutical process, I would commend it to your reading again, so that you won’t make the same mistakes an additional time.

True, Galatians wasn’t even written when the Paul/Peter event occurred. Yet Galatians is the only way we know about the event and its outcome TODAY, and that’s what matters. No one is claiming Sola Scriptura for the time before the Scriptura existed, after all.

I don’t trust any church’s “authority” for the Canon. Let me recommend James White’s _Scripture Alone_ for a better idea of what we mean when we discuss the Canon. It’s a popular-level book, but honestly I think it would fit where you are pretty well at this point. In a nutshell, we trust GOD to make His self-revelation known, gradually to the church as a whole, not to any one council or any one body or any one bishop. It is a testament to God’s way of doing it that knowledge of the Canon gradually became known and agreed upon across a wide geographic area despite the long distances and bad communication entailed in such dispersion.

April 14, 2009 9:02 AM

James F. McGrath said…

Rhology, I don’t believe I’ve “set myself up as an authority” over the Bible. I cannot extract myself from my physical human existence, my cultural, historical, and linguistic context, my Christian faith, and everything else that makes me who I am, and read the Bible without presuppositions, assumptions or influences. And so the claim to treat the Bible as one’s authority is a potentially perilous one, since Christians who clearly have no interest in literally following Luke 14:33 regularly quote other passages to clobber others for not doing “what the Bible says”.

Of course, one can bring in other passages to nullify this one, and while a subject like homosexuality will be met with “the Bible says…” the challenge to have no possessions will be met with “you can’t take that literally, and see here there were people with possessions, and…and…” But the truth of the matter is that, when conservative Christians choose to quote the Bible about homosexuality or some other issue, but ignore its teachings about wealth and social justice, and then object that “you cannot set yourself up as an authority over the Bible”, they are deceiving themselves and often others. The conservative viewpoint uses the Bible no less selectively than any other. It just has a more extensive apparatus in place to make it possible to pretend that isn’t what is going on.

I think I’ve written enough to keep the conversation going, and so we can leave the difficulties involved in claiming that an errant church put together a collection of precisely those writings which are inerrant for another time.
April 14, 2009 9:36 AM

Rhology said…

Hello Dr McGrath,

No one is asking you to read the Bible in a way impossible for a human to do – free from presupps, etc. But one either takes the text and its meaning as authoritative and defining, one rejects it altogether, or one picks and chooses. The text manifestly means sthg, much like your comment and books and blogposts manifestly mean specific things. You are having a discussion on biblical authority etc with me right now, rather than discussing cooking stew on the surface of Mars.

You have already said explicitly that there are teachings of the Bible that you reject, and that means you think you know better (or else you’re a complete idiot, and I don’t think you’re an idiot). If you know better, then you are setting yourself up higher than the Bible. The Bible says do this or that, you say no. It’s as simple as that. I’m just wondering why you bother listening to the rest of it, or better yet, why you would cite it for any moral authority for some other question. Why not just cite yourself, since you know better?

Why follow Luke 14:33, and why cite it? Are you saying I *should* follow it? Why?

You said:
one can bring in other passages to nullify this one

This is another example of your poor understanding of biblical hermeneutics. It is the job of the exegete who takes the entirety of the Bible seriously to understand what a given psg is saying and then to understand it in light of its immediate and wider context. Seriously, this is elementary information. One does not “nullify” a text with another. One can harmonise, one can illumine, etc.
Your misunderstanding about what Luke 14:33 actually *does* mean is at the heart of your mistake here, but your wider unwillingness to take the Bible seriously is the root of the problem rather than a single symptom. Did Jesus give up EVERYthing He had? No. Did Jesus command His disciples to take with them a couple of swords just before Gethsemane? Yes. What does all this mean? Whatever it means, it doesn’t mean what you said it means. The teachings are not in conflict – they are both/and, and the false dilemma you are proposing is just that – false.

There is, however, no alternative psg on the topic of homosexuality that would serve to “nullify”, as you put it, the condemnation of homosexuality in 1 Cor 6, Romans 1, etc. Unless you have one in mind…

And it’s fine with me to leave the church/Canon discussion where it is. I appreciate the time you put into our discussion here.

April 14, 2009 10:50 AM

James F. McGrath said…

Thanks, Rhology, for your reply. The reason I don’t think it is possible to avoid “sitting in judgment on the Bible” is that the Bible is quite plainly factually inaccurate on some matters, such as whether thinking takes place in the brain or in the heart. Does that affect Paul’s overarching point when he uses such language? Not really. We can still grasp his language metaphorically, but that doesn’t change the fact that in Paul’s time it was taken literally, and he does not anywhere indicate that he meant as a metaphor what his contemporaries understood literally. The same may be said of other details in the Bible: the “firmament” that holds up the waters above, for instance.

I’ve also posted before about the need to “read the Bible ethically”, since that has come up in our conversation.

If the Bible cannot consistently be taken literally when its plain sense indicates we ought to, then we have no choice but to either reject the whole thing or to seek a core message and underlying principles that can be translated or mediated in some way into our own time, culture and worldview. But requiring that modern readers of the Bible accept an ancient worldview in its entirety in order to accept the Christian faith. Some act of translation is required, and if we cannot bypass the question of what to do with Luke’s depiction of the ascension in the context of our current astronomical knowledge (for example), then we have no choice but to make a judgment about the Bible, too. Even those who attempt to maintain some form of literalism make the same judgment – they simply choose to reject modern science because of what they understand the text to say. But that’s different from the ancient authors and readers who simply had this cosmology as an assumption, not something that involved a leap of faith.

In short, I don’t think we can accept the whole package as it comes to us, nor do I think anyone successfully does so today, even if they claim otherwise. And if we say that we can find a way of interpreting the message, interpretation involves judgment on our part – about what is central and what is simply cultural, and about how to re-express what we believe is central today….

Further down the page, I was particularly struck by this lengthy comment from Reitan himself:

For even broader context than my RD article provides, it may help to locate the quote within my ongoing work on the nature of divine revelation. Some of that work is summarized in Chapter 8 of my book, IS GOD A DELUSION? A REPLY TO RELIGION’S CULTURED DESPISERS, especially on pp. 175-177. But the full development of my ideas here has yet to be published.

The gist of it is this: a God whose essence is love would not choose, as His primary vehicle of revelation, a static text. We learn most about love through loving and being loved. And it is PERSONS whom we can love, as well as who can love us. And so it is in persons and our relationships with persons that the divine nature is made most fully manifest.

Christianity affirms this when it maintains that God’s most fundamental revelation in history was in the PERSON of Jesus. And Jesus was, if nothing else, a model of agapic love. His core message was love. And He never wrote anything. Instead, He made disciples–PERSONS–whom He sent out into the world.

In this context, a text that collects human testimony concerning divine revelation in history, especially one that reports on the life and teachings of Jesus, is going to be invaluable. But it will cease to be valuable if we come to pay more attention to this text than we do to our neighbors. Jesus Himself declared that He is present in the neighbor in need, and the community of the faithful is called “the body” of Christ, that is, the place where Christ is present, embodied, on Earth today. Not in a book. In persons.

When the biblical witness is treated as the proxy voice of persons who lived long ago, and we listen to the voices of those persons as we do the other members of the body of Christ, then the biblical witness becomes an invaluable partner in our efforts to understand what God is saying to us–that is, what God is communicating through the web of human relationships and the spirit of love that moves within that web.

But when the biblical witness is treated as inerrant in a way that no human being is inerrant, it trumps the voice of the neighbor and is used as a conversation-ender. It becomes an excuse not to listen to the lived experience of the neighbor. Or it becomes a measuring stick for deciding which neighbor should be listened to (their experience conforms with the biblical template) and which should be dismissed (because their experience does not conform).

And since compassionate listening is one of the most essential acts of neighbor love, it follows that a doctrine of biblical inerrancy is an impediment to such love.

Therefore, I conclude (contrary to what Craig argues here) that a God of love would NOT create an inerrant text.

Reitan expands on these points in an ongoing on “authority without inerrancy” on his blog: here, and here. This earlier post responds directly to the discussion on McGrath’s blog. Tolle, lege!