Inerrancy vs. Infallibility

This is the fourth of a series of posts on inspiration, inerrancy, and hermeneutics.

In the discussion of the mode of the Bible’s inspiration I pointed out that the Bible is a compilation of literary contributions empowered by God and intended to thoroughly equip His people for every good work. My main point could be summarized that God authorized the Scriptures, but was not the author of them.

An admittedly limited analogy of this point draws a parallel between the Bible and the King James Version of the Bible. King James commissioned it, and it is therefore known by his name, although the translators and not he carried out his intentions. In reading the KJV we are realizing one of the ultimate purposes King James had for it. One of the chief purposes for the Bible’s commissioning was for our instruction, and we fulfill that goal when we allow ourselves to be taught by those men He commissioned to write it. One of the limitations of this analogy is the observation that God had a lot more to do with the Bible’s content than King James did with the Authorized Version: specifically, we discussed how God invaded the literature to deliver specific messages through His prophets. Even in these instances, however, the actual sentences and structure with which they framed these messages constituted their own works of literature.

Each of these literary contributions must be approached on its own terms, and never held to the preferred standards of the day and culture in which it is interpreted. Currently, the two standards that are the default for many Christians today are the standards of plain reading and scientific inerrancy (this term is discussed below). This view says that God constructed the Bible so that the most obvious reading is the intended one so that no one, even (some say especially) the least educated would be deprived of the truth, which is always presented in a way that precisely mirrors all relevant historical and scientific facts. Any part meant to be understood using anything besides a literal interpretation is plainly explicit. This approach might be understandable if the “plain” interpretation were consistent across the board, but things that are plain to some are not plain to others: for example, when does Jesus say that His parables are fictional? It is sometimes hotly debated whether the story of the rich man and Lazarus is history or a parable, due to the fact that he actually names a character rather than referring to him obliquely as “a certain man”. Someone from a remote culture with an animistic background might find comfort in a literal reading of Psalm 91:4, where God’s pinions are promised to cover the believer. When does Revelation say that the dragon or the vials or the Lamb are symbolic of other things? Obviously, even the most adamant “plain reading” advocates are making judgments on genre and style in their “plain reading”. This standard is “plainly” inadequate. How about the standard of scientific inerrancy?

I chose to call it scientific inerrancy because the term inerrancy by itself means different things to different people. Literalists and those who in every practical sense disagree that the Bible is literature use inerrant to mean “perfectly scientifically and historically accurate,” but only because they are expecting practically every story in the Bible to have been written as scientific history. I think the issue of inerrancy is related instead to the discussion of how well the Bible accomplishes what it was written for. The Genesis Creation/Flood/Babel accounts were written to dispel and replace the theologically errant mythology in the world at the time – and they do so, brilliantly and completely successfully, “setting the record straight” not with our current values of historiography but by replacing, genre-for-genre, the pagan myths with theologically-sound and God-approved myths. The Gospels, as another example, were written to tell the history of God being made flesh to dwell among us and redeem us, and are composed of lots of different historical testimonies strung together, and they accomplish what they were written for. Hence by a loose (and more etymological) definition, the Bible does not “err”.

Nevertheless, when two separate factions disagree on the definition of a word, communication is usually stymied. For that reason, I often accept the inerrantists’ definition of errant as “containing factual errors”. Accepting that, in their terms at least, the Bible is errant, I turn around and insist that it is infallible. The term infallible is suitable to describe my understanding based on its original meaning of “not deceiving”. The authors had no intent to deceive, so what errors they transmitted through the text were errors in their own conceptions, not because God deceived them. Scripture is infallible in that its authors honestly sought to convey the message of God.

Most inerrantists assert that God did not allow any of the misconceptions of the original authors and audience to be represented in the Bible. But this proves to be their undoing: if I can show you one instance in which the writers’ misconceptions about the world bled through to the pages of Scripture, inerrancy falls away. Either God purged the Bible of its writers’ misconceptions on peripheral matters, or He did not.

In fact we find more than one instance, especially in their views of science. John Walton notes in his excellent commentary on Genesis that if the Israelites did not believe what their contemporaries believed, “it could only be because God had revealed a different reality that transcended [their contemporaries’] old-world science. If God did not reveal realities such as the earth’s being spherical or the earth’s rotation and revolution around the sun, the Israelites would have had no means to arrive at those conclusions.” When someone points out the fact that Joshua caused the sun to stand still, inerrantists will most often say that the Israelites actually knew better, but were using the same expression that we use (“phenomenological language”), aware as we are that it is the earth that revolves around the sun. In other words, they must assert that God revealed to the original audience, outside of Scripture, a reality that made it clear that the notion of the sun standing was only metaphorical, and then God allowed that knowledge to perish throughout the following centuries so that His own followers (such as Luther and the Church of Rome), mistaking the “plain reading”, would insist that there was no metaphor involved and that the earth was indeed the center of the universe. Walton then gives a few examples of other misconceptions common to their Ancient Near Eastern neighbors that are detectable in Scripture:

When the elders of Israel have their encounter with the God of Israel in Exodus 24, he is portrayed as standing in heaven on a pavement of sapphire (v. 10), exactly like that portrayed in Mesopotamian cosmology. The movements of the celestial bodies and the understanding of weather are described in terms similar to that in the rest of the Near East. Windows of heaven are not replaced with low-pressure systems and jet streams.

They were also very naive about the human body: the Israelites thought that the control board was in the organs of the torso, and often used the Hebrew words for both the heart and the intestines to refer to the seat of emotion and thought. In fact, there is not even a recorded word for “brain” in Hebrew – they had no idea what all that gray gunk was used for! This was a common scientific error of the day: the Egyptians preserved the internal organs they thought were important in canopic jars for use in the afterlife; they pulled the brains out of the cranium through the nose and threw it all away. This misunderstanding persisted into NT times, because the Greeks, too, thought the heart and the bowels to be the organs of emotion and thought. We, having a corrected view of anatomy, now use the terms “heart” and “gut feeling” as more or less metaphorical terms. But for them, this was their worldview – no metaphors intended by the authors or perceived by the original audience.

As for inaccuracies as such, there are cogent examples of that as well. There are a number of contradictions within and between various books. For example, compare the story of David buying the threshing floor from Araunah/Ornan the Jebusite in 2 Samuel 24:18-25 and 1 Chronicles 21:18-27; in 2 Samuel, David pays 50 shekels of silver for the oxen, the wood, and the site, but he pays 600 shekels of silver for the oxen, the wood, the site, and also wheat in the 1 Chronicles version. Maybe the first account just didn’t mention the wheat – but was 550 shekels worth of wheat not worthy of our attention? Of course, most of the numerical contradictions are explained away by inerrantists as scribal errors from what was originally an inerrant account (although no one seems to be able to explain how 50 could get mixed up with 600 in that way). But if inerrancy is such an important issue to God, it is no less problematic that He allowed these discrepancies to creep in early enough that the vast majority of people who have read the accounts have not been able to benefit from them in their pristine, inerrant state. Other contradictions are (often legitimately) explained by very interesting means, such as the observation that some of the discrepancies between reign years had to do with differing ways of reckoning a king’s reign: Judah counted the accession year of a king towards his total number of years reigning, while Israel (at least originally), like the Babylonians and Assyrians, did not. However, do not miss the fact that the fundamentalists who champion this resolution do so by discarding their other principle of taking the “plain reading”. We must actually research the contemporaneous cultures, or at least analyze the text thoroughly with a calculator and a keen imagination, to figure out what the authors meant.

What about the New Testament? Again, if the definition of “error” is “anything that does not precisely mirror reality”, then even the NT is undeniably “erroneous”! One has only to compare the wording of the Synoptics to see that they had variant accounts of the same events. For instance, the story of Jesus blessing the children matches up quite nicely in Matthew 19:14, Mark 10:14, and Luke 18:16 except that in Matthew’s version Jesus says “Kingdom of Heaven”, while the others read “Kingdom of God”. Now stop: which did He say? We have two different versions of the same event in history, and because we are all good modernists, we believe in absolute truth and inexorable reality and realize that He could only have said one of those things during the occasion referenced. So no, the Gospel writers did not perfectly capture every detail of the reality they witnessed. That was a risk God was willing to take when He chose men as His vessels.

So here is the inerrantists’ dilemma. If the Bible as a whole was intended to be taken as a pure, solid chunk of absolute truth, we should be able to scrutinize every word and idea contained therein and find nothing that is as blatantly factually inaccurate as the things we have mentioned (and those examples are by no means the only ones). The fundamentalists have a point: why would God allow them to put in misconceptions if He intended the Bible to be used for all the various things that inerrantists try to use it for? The answer is that God did not intend the Bible to be used for all the things they try to use it for…

[] I am, of course, using the term “scientific” to mean “empirical, demonstrable using the scientific method,” not in the more specialized sense of the “hard sciences” (e.g. chemistry, biology, etc.).

[] To err originally meant “to stray, wander”, a sense recoverable in the term knights errant, which naturally meant “roving knights” rather than “scientifically disprovable knights”.

[] This article by Robert J. Schadewald, the late authority on Christian geocentrism, has a very good overview of the Israelites’ views on cosmology as seen in the Bible.

[] John H. Walton, Genesis, from the NIV Application Commentary Series, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001, pp. 87.

[] Ibid, p. 88.

[] Ibid.

[] Although the basis for the ancients’ misunderstanding is readily recoverable: there are actual physical sensations that accompany emotions, such as a rapid heartbeat, indigestion, or queasiness.

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