an inerrant bible
I have been muddling through the issue of biblical inerrancy recently, reading some articles and listening to some lectures. I do not find it surprising that people believe in the inerrancy of the bible, people hold beliefs like that at many different levels, and I held to some form of that belief myself at one time. But I am intrigued by the systems of biblical inerrancy contrived by theologians and they way they hold to these systems as essential elements of their faith. The more I study the issue of biblical inerrancy and the different ways people of faith read the bible, the more these systems of biblical inerrancy seem contrived and untenable. I want to better understand why highly intelligent and well educated theologians hold to these theories.
While the thelogians provide support for their theories and go to great lengths to harmonize “appearant contradictions” and defend their reading of the bible, at the end they typically include a profession that ultimately they believe the Holy Spirit provides them with an “inner witness” attesting to the inerrancy of the bible. Which is well and good perhaps, but then why the desire to create and defend a comprehensive doctrine of biblical inerrancy?
The justification for the belief seems to come down not so much to the evidence they find for it but to a need they feel for it to exist, a need to believe that God must communicate clearly with people, hence the inerrant bible. Of course there needs to be a correlary assumption that the bible indeed speaks clearly, and also that we need the bible to speak clearly about God in the first place. I suspect that perceived need is related in a large degree to the belief that we will go to Hell if we don’t believe the right things. If God will send us to Hell for believing things incorrectly, then it goes to reason he would choose to communicate that clearly. But of course the belief that we will go to Hell for believing the wrong things comes from the bible itself in the first place… It becomes such a hopelessly circular set of arguments, spirals within spirals within spirals.
As is often the case, arguments that exist to defend something hoped for rather than something evidenced tend to fall short logically and factually. I have heard it asked, “Wouldn’t you want to be confident the contents of the bible are inerrant?” My answer is certainly yes, but unfortunately wishing for something does not make it demonstrably true. As with so many things in life, the reality is often more complicated and messier than we would desire. Black and white perspectives may be more comfortable, but that doesn’t always make them more truthful. If anything, wishing for something hard enough has the result of clouding our ability to see things clearly and rationally.
Reading some of these theologian’s arguments sounds to me at times like reading the writings of a Lord of the Rings afficionado arguing a point about the role of Hobbits in the history of Middle Earth, or something like that. In a way the theologian and the Tolkein afficionado are in similar positions, arguing for the reality of something only evidenced by human writings. Sure you can argue for logical consistency within the created system of doctrines, but that is not an indication of whether or not the created system is real or imaginary. And the further the theologian goes to support their doctrine, the more they sound as though they are defending something imaginary. Even if the imagined things were true there would not be an indication they were. And unfortunately belief in biblical inerrancy requires not only faith in the supernatural, but also a rejection of evidence from the material world we live in. At that point the belief is at best unevidenced, and at worst imaginary.
A few sources:
The Inerrancy of Scripture, Wayne Grudem (audio lecture)
Fundamentalism and the Word of God, J.I. Packer (book)
The Authority of Scripture, Mark Dever (brief transcript of talk)
The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable?”, F.F. Bruce (book)