Proving Christianity with inerrancy

In a discussion involving my rejection of inerrancy, a frequent commenter mentioned the inerrantist objection, “Without [our Bible] can we confidently walk up to a non-believer and ask him to believe our own personal faith in God without showing him something that he can see that points to that God?”

The first thing I’d like to note is that we can confidently show our non-inerrant (can anyone think of a better term than “errant”?) Bible as something that points to God. The Bible, if nothing else, points to God, but this obviously stops well shy of “proving” Him or anything about Him. But what the commenter is getting at is the inerrantist’s uneasiness with the fact that we have no official “last word” source text whose very existence will elicit compulsory belief from the doubter to whom it is presented. This is, in effect, what the inerrantist holds the Bible to be: you must believe because the Bible says so.

In actuality, I doubt very many reasonable people become Christians solely because they have been persuaded that the Bible is inerrant. They become convinced by what it says, and this may or may not suggest to them that the whole thing is absolute, crystalized divine perfection. We don’t need to be assured of inerrancy in order to make good use of a newspaper, but our confidence may be boosted by its consistent accuracy.

Telling an unbeliever, “Accept Christ as Lord, just as the Bible says,” is not itself dependent on inerrancy at all. Laying aside any questions about the value of proselytism, rejection of inerrancy itself does not undermine it in principle, although it does underscore the invalidity of one common tactic.  I think it no less likely (and more probable, in fact) that I might convince someone to adopt my faith if I told him that…

(1a) the Bible was written by ancient witnesses who believed Jesus was Lord, and that

(2a) I’ve found that to be true in my life and seen it at work in others’ lives

…than if I tried to convince him that…

(1b) the Bible is 100% perfect because it and I say it is,

(2b) Q.E.D., Jesus has been proved Lord.

(3b) Oh, and I’ve found that to be true in my life and seen it at work in others’ lives.

If they find one error in Scripture, or even just one difficulty without a plausible answer, they’ll be obligated by sound reasoning to declare (1b) unsatisfied and chuck (2b) without a second thought about (3b). In other words, when they ask, “Why should I believe your Bible?”, which puts a more significant strain on credulity? “Because it’s perfect, which proposition I accept because it says so about itself,” or “Because it works, and has yielded extraordinary results for believers and for society as a whole throughout the centuries”?

The inerrancy doctrine has been used more than anything else as a blunt object to decisively “prove” Christianity. But only the young or gullible come to accept Christianity based upon that. Too many Fundamentalists and evangelicals feel as though they have to prove the Bible’s perfection so that their faith will be “proved” as well. But we don’t need proof of its inerrancy; we need evidence of its usefulness and its reliability. Even if we don’t consider the Bible to be any more indicative of actual events in the times they describe than historians assume for the uninspired, non-inerrant, but sincere works of Josephus, Tacitus, or Julius Caesar, we still have something to reckon with.  And for all my rejection of inerrancy, I find it an unmotivated leap to also reject its adequacy for leading us to the formative and definitive stages of our faith’s history, from which starting point we and the Church throughout history have gone on to encounter the truth of God in Christ.

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  • Non-inerrant = Flawed, Steve? That’s the way I always refer to it, at least in contrast to inerrant.
    .-= Damian´s last blog ..So does Leviticus =-.

  • Non-inerrant = Flawed, Steve? That’s the way I always refer to it, at least in contrast to inerrant.
    .-= Damian´s last blog ..So does Leviticus =-.

  • Damian,
    I really appreciate the suggestion (and I implore you not to take the following as “jumping down your throat”), but I’m afraid “flawed” sounds a bit pejorative. The problem is that harping on why we think the Bible has errors as people like me are wont to do is so negative and actually a bit distracting from the main point. It’s really not surprising that people would think we should just chuck the Bible if we keep deconstructing it with our terminology (I am all too guilty of this). It’s like saying, “The apple is not clean,” which many people would construe as equivalent to “The apple is unsanitary,” when it might be closer to the truth to say “The apple has not been washed since being plucked from the tree.” The Bible is in an au naturel state, but it would require a lot more evidence than is available to argue that it has been contaminated from wallowing in manure.

    The heart of the matter is that framing things in the terms “errant” and “flawed” puts the focus on shortcomings as viewed from a modern presupposition; if we impose our expectations on the text, it will no doubt come up short. But my point is that any text must be approached and evaluated on its own terms, and that the Bible proceeds blithely oblivious to what we want to see in it. (I wrote a post on this a while back called “The unfairness of outsider analysis“.)

    Back to the original question of terminology, if “natural” didn’t have so many other meanings, it would be a perfect description of my view of the Bible as “errant” literature. “Naturel”, maybe? 🙂

  • Damian,
    I really appreciate the suggestion (and I implore you not to take the following as “jumping down your throat”), but I’m afraid “flawed” sounds a bit pejorative. The problem is that harping on why we think the Bible has errors as people like me are wont to do is so negative and actually a bit distracting from the main point. It’s really not surprising that people would think we should just chuck the Bible if we keep deconstructing it with our terminology (I am all too guilty of this). It’s like saying, “The apple is not clean,” which many people would construe as equivalent to “The apple is unsanitary,” when it might be closer to the truth to say “The apple has not been washed since being plucked from the tree.” The Bible is in an au naturel state, but it would require a lot more evidence than is available to argue that it has been contaminated from wallowing in manure.

    The heart of the matter is that framing things in the terms “errant” and “flawed” puts the focus on shortcomings as viewed from a modern presupposition; if we impose our expectations on the text, it will no doubt come up short. But my point is that any text must be approached and evaluated on its own terms, and that the Bible proceeds blithely oblivious to what we want to see in it. (I wrote a post on this a while back called “The unfairness of outsider analysis“.)

    Back to the original question of terminology, if “natural” didn’t have so many other meanings, it would be a perfect description of my view of the Bible as “errant” literature. “Naturel”, maybe? 🙂

  • Hi Steve, great, well-thought out post.

    1) Any adjective for the Bible which rejects inerrancy would only be reactionary, misleading, and unnecessary. Someone once upon a time thought it wise to attach “inerrant” to “Bible”, even though, of course, the Bible makes no such claim. So I’ll just stick to “Bible” or maybe “Journal of Faith”.

    2) I question your statement that inerrancy is used to inspire belief more than anything else. Seems to me the primary functions of inerrancy have to do with a) control, on the part of church leaders, and b) fear, on the part of ordinary Christians.
    .-= Cliff Martin´s last blog ..Genesis 2-3 … Literally? =-.

  • Hi Steve, great, well-thought out post.

    1) Any adjective for the Bible which rejects inerrancy would only be reactionary, misleading, and unnecessary. Someone once upon a time thought it wise to attach “inerrant” to “Bible”, even though, of course, the Bible makes no such claim. So I’ll just stick to “Bible” or maybe “Journal of Faith”.

    2) I question your statement that inerrancy is used to inspire belief more than anything else. Seems to me the primary functions of inerrancy have to do with a) control, on the part of church leaders, and b) fear, on the part of ordinary Christians.
    .-= Cliff Martin´s last blog ..Genesis 2-3 … Literally? =-.

  • Thanks, Cliff.

    Perhaps I’m not quite as cynical (or have had different experiences), but I’d hesitate to say that “control” is a primary function; not to say that it isn’t exploited with some regularity, but I certainly wouldn’t say this is usually done intentionally.

    I think your point about fear is actually just another angle of my comment about belief, in that fear is a motivation for trying to prove the Bible inerrant. I’ll wager that inerrantists are generally afraid of what their faith might look like without an inerrant Bible, and this motivates their adoption of the doctrine.

  • Thanks, Cliff.

    Perhaps I’m not quite as cynical (or have had different experiences), but I’d hesitate to say that “control” is a primary function; not to say that it isn’t exploited with some regularity, but I certainly wouldn’t say this is usually done intentionally.

    I think your point about fear is actually just another angle of my comment about belief, in that fear is a motivation for trying to prove the Bible inerrant. I’ll wager that inerrantists are generally afraid of what their faith might look like without an inerrant Bible, and this motivates their adoption of the doctrine.

  • Steve,

    I understand what you mean; I think Cliff makes a good point that it might be best to simply make the point that you believe in an adjectiveless bible, rather than an inerrant one.

    Perhaps you could phrase it as a Bible that is a product of both God and man?
    .-= Damian´s last blog ..So does Leviticus =-.

  • Steve,

    I understand what you mean; I think Cliff makes a good point that it might be best to simply make the point that you believe in an adjectiveless bible, rather than an inerrant one.

    Perhaps you could phrase it as a Bible that is a product of both God and man?
    .-= Damian´s last blog ..So does Leviticus =-.

  • I have very much enjoyed these last few posts. Thanks continuing to present these ideas!

    ~Luke
    .-= Luke Holzmann´s last blog ..Pulled Away =-.

  • I have very much enjoyed these last few posts. Thanks continuing to present these ideas!

    ~Luke
    .-= Luke Holzmann´s last blog ..Pulled Away =-.

  • The issue with campaigns for leaving things “adjectiveless” in order to claim originality is complex, but ultimately not helpful rhetorically, IMHO.

    It’s similar to the evolution issue, where people like Ken Miller insist on “adjectiveless” evolution in combatting creationism. To me, it depends upon the audience: while talking strictly to scientists, it makes complete sense, but situating the acceptance of evolution within the context of the ensuing theological conversations seems to call for something like “theistic evolution” or “evolutionary creation” in contradistinction to atheistic evolution.

    The primary issue for me is that precise terminology really helps frame the entire discussion, such that “biblical” isn’t as helpfully descriptive of the distinctiveness of our view as it could be.

  • And thanks for reading, Luke!

  • The issue with campaigns for leaving things “adjectiveless” in order to claim originality is complex, but ultimately not helpful rhetorically, IMHO.

    It’s similar to the evolution issue, where people like Ken Miller insist on “adjectiveless” evolution in combatting creationism. To me, it depends upon the audience: while talking strictly to scientists, it makes complete sense, but situating the acceptance of evolution within the context of the ensuing theological conversations seems to call for something like “theistic evolution” or “evolutionary creation” in contradistinction to atheistic evolution.

    The primary issue for me is that precise terminology really helps frame the entire discussion, such that “biblical” isn’t as helpfully descriptive of the distinctiveness of our view as it could be.

  • And thanks for reading, Luke!

  • Steve, that’s why I suggested ‘bible as product of both God and man’, but it’s awfully wordy 😛 . The difficulty is that most descriptors of non-inerrancy imply non-divinity, which is not the implication that you want.
    .-= Damian´s last blog ..Naming the Nameless =-.

  • Steve, that’s why I suggested ‘bible as product of both God and man’, but it’s awfully wordy 😛 . The difficulty is that most descriptors of non-inerrancy imply non-divinity, which is not the implication that you want.
    .-= Damian´s last blog ..Naming the Nameless =-.

  • Yeah, not quite snappy enough. 😀

    And by the way — congratulations on posting the 1,500th comment! 🙂

  • Yeah, not quite snappy enough. 😀

    And by the way — congratulations on posting the 1,500th comment! 🙂

  • Yeah,
    Like being a “nonsmoker” when I am just a “breather”.
    Of course, in that sense, the appellations and misnomers wars are in the favor of “believes” and “theists”.
    And isn’t it a matter of historical provenance that Christians are an ancient claimholder on the term “atheist”?

    On a tangent,
    One of the polemical shifts I have noted is the once accepted consensus that all mankind was, by nature, created religious and innately prone to worship, is now opposed by an argument for the secular as exempt, excusable from the religious impetus. This is something on a backburner inquiry among my other current pots of puzzlements, but something that will impact my rants on secular humanism and public religication (cult of schoolism) as problematic to the establishment clause.

    And back to labels and appellations,
    I refer you to some mainstream work that is apparently confirming my thoughts on the nature of our system of “day prison for kids”.
    From the site: “End the War on Freedom” —
    “Why Don’t Students Like School?” Well, Duhhhh…

    Submitted by Bill St. Clair on Thu, 2009-11-12 05:34.
    Peter Gray at Psychology Today(link) – School is prison. Even worse than prison in many ways. [lew(link)]

    Quote:
    But I think it is time that we say it out loud. School is prison.

    If you think school is not prison, please explain the difference.

    The only difference I can think of is that to get into prison you have to commit a crime, but they put you in school just because of your age. In other respects school and prison are the same. In both places you are stripped of your freedom and dignity. You are told exactly what you must do, and you are punished for failing to comply. Actually, in school you must spend more time doing exactly what you are told to do than is true in adult prisons, so in that sense school is worse than prison.

    If this keeps up, I may be more apt at copy and paste instead of composing my own rhetoric.

    Wind

    ……………….

  • Yeah,
    Like being a “nonsmoker” when I am just a “breather”.
    Of course, in that sense, the appellations and misnomers wars are in the favor of “believes” and “theists”.
    And isn’t it a matter of historical provenance that Christians are an ancient claimholder on the term “atheist”?

    On a tangent,
    One of the polemical shifts I have noted is the once accepted consensus that all mankind was, by nature, created religious and innately prone to worship, is now opposed by an argument for the secular as exempt, excusable from the religious impetus. This is something on a backburner inquiry among my other current pots of puzzlements, but something that will impact my rants on secular humanism and public religication (cult of schoolism) as problematic to the establishment clause.

    And back to labels and appellations,
    I refer you to some mainstream work that is apparently confirming my thoughts on the nature of our system of “day prison for kids”.
    From the site: “End the War on Freedom” —
    “Why Don’t Students Like School?” Well, Duhhhh…

    Submitted by Bill St. Clair on Thu, 2009-11-12 05:34.
    Peter Gray at Psychology Today(link) – School is prison. Even worse than prison in many ways. [lew(link)]

    Quote:
    But I think it is time that we say it out loud. School is prison.

    If you think school is not prison, please explain the difference.

    The only difference I can think of is that to get into prison you have to commit a crime, but they put you in school just because of your age. In other respects school and prison are the same. In both places you are stripped of your freedom and dignity. You are told exactly what you must do, and you are punished for failing to comply. Actually, in school you must spend more time doing exactly what you are told to do than is true in adult prisons, so in that sense school is worse than prison.

    If this keeps up, I may be more apt at copy and paste instead of composing my own rhetoric.

    Wind

    ……………….

  • I doubt very many reasonable people become Christians solely because they have been persuaded that the Bible is inerrant.

    I certainly agree.
    Most reasonable people becomes Christians because their parents were Christians. But what do you think the main reason that adults convert? Maybe lovers (spouses) or to raise children are the top two. What would you say the top 4 are? Then again, the reason someone gives and the actual reason are difficult to sort out in research.

  • I doubt very many reasonable people become Christians solely because they have been persuaded that the Bible is inerrant.

    I certainly agree.
    Most reasonable people becomes Christians because their parents were Christians. But what do you think the main reason that adults convert? Maybe lovers (spouses) or to raise children are the top two. What would you say the top 4 are? Then again, the reason someone gives and the actual reason are difficult to sort out in research.