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Friday, March 5, 2010

Only So Many Moves on the Chessboard

This is an old post from a previous blogging incarnation.
Francis Schaeffer once said that when it comes to the really big questions, there are really very few available answers. For example, when it comes to the question of whether or not there is a God, there are really only three possible answers: yes, no, and maybe.

Another such question is that of Biblical inerrancy. Does the Bible have errors in it? As far as I can tell, the available answers are yes, no, and maybe. The word "inerrant" doesn't really give you any other options or leave you any wiggle room. That is intentional; it is why that word came into common use.

You see, despite much blathering by some to the effect that inerrancy is a doctrine invented by evangelicals in the second half of the 20th century, the reality is that the concept that the Bible is without error has been around for a long, long time. It's just that they used to use the word "infallible." That is, it was said that Scripture is infallible, with the idea that error is a failure being part and parcel of that concept. To get a better grasp of this, think of what Catholics mean when they say that the Pope is infallible when he speaks ex cathedra: they mean that he is incapable of speaking error to the church. It would be ludicrous for the Catholic to say that he believes that an ex cathedra pronouncement is simultaneously incapable of failure (infallible) and mistaken (errant). In the same way, Scripture was said for centuries to be infallible with few--if any--having the cheek even to think that this might not mean that it was free from error.

Eventually, though, a new school of thought arose. Some people began to say that they thought the Bible had mistakes in it, but that they nevertheless thought it infallible in that it would never fail to accomplish its purpose. This presented some problems in that a person using this sort of language could now present himself as a believer in infallibility when the reality might be that he believed the Bible was littered with all sorts of errors.

Now, what's the natural response to that, once you become aware of what is going on? You try to clarify what you mean, at least on your end of the discussion. It seems that it was in this way that evangelicals came to use the "infallible and inerrant" phrase that is now the standard in so many statements of faith. It also had the effect of pinning people down--something that theological liberals generally hate with a purple passion. "Infallible" might leave you some wiggle room when trying to get on board at a seminary, pastorate, or local Christian school. "Inerrant" does not. Naturally, therefore, the term has been under ceaseless attack since it came into vogue, for there are plenty of people who would love to pastor your church or teach in your Christian school without having to lie when they sign that institution's statement of faith.

You might be asking, "Well, MOTW, why are your shorts in a twist about this?" It's because of its relationship to the doctrine of inspiration (Paul says that all Scripture is breathed out--inspired--by God; Peter says that no prophet spoke on his own, but that they were carried along by the Holy Spirit). Again, there are only so many viable answers, only so many moves on the chessboard. When you deny inerrancy, when you say that the Bible has mistakes in it, what are you saying about inspiration?

You are saying either that some or all of the Bible isn't really inspired by God, that is, that some or all of the Bible isn't really God's Word, or you are saying that God made mistakes in the Bible. Despite some very impressive rhetorical sleight-of-hand surrounding the issue, that really is what it comes down to.

Some of you are thinking, "But MOTW! The doctrine of inerrancy only applies to the autographs (original documents, for those of you who don't spend your lives immersed in such minutia) and we don't have those anymore." True enough. However, the objection is made with but one object: to suggest, imply, or say outright that the Bible as we have it today is so riddled with copyist errors that we cannot possibly know what the originals said. If that is your objection to inerrancy, I wish you would get your terms straight, for what is really going on is that you are arguing against textual reliability (the idea that the text has been accurately enough copied over the centuries for us to know what the originals said) and hoping to raise doubt concerning inerrancy in the minds of the unlearned and unwary. That is not fair; textual reliability and inerrancy are separate issues.

But even as regards the legitimacy of objections to textual reliability, I would say that archaeology and the science of textual criticism have made absolute hash of them. By the standards ordinarily applied to any ancient document, the text of the Bible has been established to an astonishing degree, far exceeding that of any other ancient document in the world. We are far more certain of the text of the Bible than we are of Caesar's writings or of Aristotle's, for example. Indeed, the text is so well established that I suspect that one reason inerrancy is so frequently attacked is that those who attack the Bible's textual reliability teeter on the edge of forfeiting their credibility entirely.

So, what move are you going to make? You know that the Bible is an accurate copy of the original documents. You know that the Bible claims to be breathed out by God Himself, in fact, to be the very word of God.

Will you say that the Bible isn't really the word of God, that all or parts of it are the work of mere men? Will you say that God wrote it but that He made some mistakes in doing so? Or will you say that the Bible really is the word of God and that He got it right?

Actually, I suppose that there is one more move available: you could just shrug your shoulders and say, "So what? So what if the Bible is infallible and inerrant? I'm not, so how can I honestly say that I know what it says?"

Well, I find your concern for honesty touching, but if you expect to seriously make the case that your human fallibility leaves you incapable of knowing what the Bible says but doesn't leave you incapable of knowing what the Oklahoma State Driver's Manual says, or what the directions on your box of instant oatmeal say, or what the Constitution of the United States says, or even what this little blog-post says, all I can say is, "Good luck with that one." You're gonna need it.

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