Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Because I Said So

As stated in an earlier post, i have issues with the position (held by some Christians, but not all) of absolute biblical inerrancy. I won't restate my earlier disclaimers in their entirety, but i will sum them up in case you are too lazy/stupid/both to go back and read them:

Disclaimer 1: I like the Bible and find it to be greatly important in my life. I am not trying to be disrespectful of the Bible, Christians, or faith.

Disclaimer 2: I am not a Bible scholar, i have no degrees in theology/religion/philosophy/scripture/etc. I've just been studying the Bible as an amateur for 21 years, and have spent at least four hours a week nearly every week of my life in church.

I'll start by reiterating my earlier complaint: we ("we" shall hereinafter refer to "Christians") believe that the Bible is inerrant because the Bible says that it is inerrant.

Setting aside the fact that this is a pointless circular argument, let's actually examine the Biblical claims of inerrancy.

They don't exist.

Sure, there are passages that point to the reliability of Scripture, but they are both few and misleading. For example, this passage in Psalms:

     The words of the LORD are pure words,
          Like silver tried in a furnace of the earth,
          Purified seven times.
               Psalm 12:6

This passage comes from the Psalms, which are a bunch of poems in the Bible. For those of you who have never heard of poetic license, click on the link and then go yell at a teacher. For those of you who know what i'm talking about, let's all remember that "pure" and "inerrant" are not necessarily the same thing, that the Psalms are full of soaring hyperbole, and that there is some debate about which parts of the Bible can be considered the Word of God and which parts are (important, valid, but not quite divinely spoken) commentaries.

Next, we'll look at 2 Timothy 3:16-17:

"All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work."

2 Timothy is part of the New Testament. At the time when Paul wrote this letter to Timothy, the "Scripture" consisted of the Old Testament (and possibly the Apocrypha, the legitimacy of which has been widely debated in the Christian Church). So did Paul mean that only the Old Testament was "given by inspiration of God", or did he also mean to include the letter that he was writing to his friend? Much of the New Testament, in fact, is made up of letters. Imagine if, two thousand years after you died, people were debating over which of your emails they should use to guide their lives. Sure, Paul was divinely inspired in many ways, and he had a lot of good stuff to say, but he's also the guy who said that women should not be allowed to speak in public and that they should keep their heads covered at all times. I'm not saying that we should throw out everything he ever wrote just because he made a few bad calls. I am saying that we can't take everything he said at face value, because he was only a man and all people make mistakes from time to time. That's where discernment and the Holy Spirit come in.

So let's spend some time talking about what the Bible looks like, as a document. Parts of it claim to be (again, the Bible itself is making the claim) more or less direct transcriptions of what God actually said we should do and believe. Assuming that the transcriptionist got every word perfectly, that was still many thousands of years ago. Parts of the Bible have been lost. It only exists now because for many, many, many centuries it was copied out by hand over and over. It has been translated again and again and again. Not all of the versions that we have now are actually translated from the original texts. And it was written in a very different cultural context from ours. Even if we could all agree on the correct translation of a particular word, the connotations of that word may well be wildly different here and now than they were there and then.

Again, i am not saying that we should throw out the whole Bible just because some words might not mean what we think they mean. I'm saying that we should spend less time and energy obsessing over exact words. If exact words were that important, don't you think that God would have designed language in such a way as to reduce all this confusion and controversy? If exact words were that important, don't you think that God would give everyone a decoder ring as soon as they became a Christian? If exact words were that important, don't you think we could simply read the Bible and understand it and have no need to attend church services, read commentaries or apologetics, form Bible studies or discipleship groups with one another, or even pray?

The Bible is great, but it can't replace fellowship, discussion, debate, or prayer. We need one another, and we need the Holy Spirit. The Bible simply gives us a starting point for the conversation.

There are also parts of the Bible that are written by people, and do not in any way claim to be transcripts of anything that God has said. The authors were men of God (i'm not being sexist by saying "men" instead of people, because as far as i am aware there are no books of the Bible written by women), who walked closely with Him. Many of them had actually known Jesus personally and wrote stories of his life and teachings. Of course, these stories were written a few years after his death and resurrection and came entirely from their memories, without even the benefit of a backlog of Facebook photo albums and status updates to help them sort out the details. Still, there's a lot of legitimacy to saying, "Jesus said this," if you were actually in the room when the conversation happened. Even if you can't quite repeat it verbatim, we can pretty much trust you to get the gist of it. And as long as we can all agree that exact words aren't that important, the gist is all we really need.

But as i mentioned above, a lot of the New Testament is letters. While the authors of these letters (mostly Paul) were holy and righteous men of God, as well as being intelligent, wise, and well-educated, they were human, and they were writing what they thought. Some thoughts don't wear well with time, don't travel well to other cultures, and don't translate easily. Furthermore, Paul was writing to churches that he knew. He was not posting a Facebook note or blog update to all Christians everywhere. He was saying, "Hey guys, I'm the one who started your church, I've hung out with you a lot, I know the area where you live, I know the leaders in your church, I know the demographics of your congregation, and you just wrote me a letter to ask for my opinion on some specific issues. So here it is." He was not writing for all Christians everywhere, but to specific Christians whose situations he understood intimately.

Let's say you have two friends, Julie and Cindy. They are both in long-distance relationships. Julie and her boyfriend, Tim, have been dating for three years. They have talked about getting married, but now Tim has a new job that will keep him far away indefinitely. It has been hard for them to keep their relationship strong over long distance, but they have made it work. They love each other and are committed to the relationship, but Julie is nervous about moving away from everything she knows in order to marry the love of her life. She'll do it, and she knows that she'll be happy in that choice, but she's still nervous and a little sad about it. Cindy, on the other hand, met her boyfriend Mike online. They have been "dating" for three months, despite the fact that they have never met in person. Now Mike is saying that he doesn't want to move away from his home, and that Cindy should move to where he is if they want to stay together. Would you give the same advice to these two women? (If so, remind me not to become friends with you.)

Some of the things that you say to Cindy will apply to Julie, and vice versa. Some relationship advice is general enough and good enough that it applies to every situation. And some of the things you say to them will apply to friends who are in similar, though not identical, situations. But you can't just put together one manual of relationship advice and expect it to answer every situation every time (though many have tried). And if that won't work for human relationships, why would we expect it to work for divine ones?

Above all else, we must remember that God is not an architect trying to design a building (although there are a lot of great spiritual metaphors involving that idea. But every metaphor breaks down at some point). He did not intend the Bible to be a blueprint, or an instructional manual for building IKEA furniture or using a kitchen appliance. God wants to have a relationship with each and every one of us. We are all different, which means that each of us will have a different relationship with Him. It also means that we will all have to do different things to make that relationship work. There is some relationship advice that is good enough and general enough to work for everyone, and there are some similar relationships that will benefit from similar advice. But at the end of the day, there is no perfect formula for everyone to follow.

The Bible says a lot of things about itself. I have no problem trusting those things, even though i don't like circular arguments. But the Bible doesn't say that it is inerrant. It doesn't say that it is the one and only tool for living a holy and perfect life. In fact, Jesus gave lots of instructions for things like being a good example, loving people, prayer (Jesus Himself, who actually was God, spent a lot of time in prayer. Talk about being a good example), searching for truth and understanding (and blessings), and a host of other tools for living a holy and perfect life. Go ahead and check out the Gospels. Jesus was not short of concrete information. He also said that he had come not to abolish the law, but to fulfill it, and told us to heed and remember His words, and to share them with others. I'm pretty comfortable interpreting that as an instruction to read the Bible and pay attention to what it says.

In closing, i'll quote Paul, who in spite of a few weak places here and there in his writings, i still respect and admire and am glad to learn from: Test all things; hold fast (to) what is good.

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