I sometimes tell a story about the things God did in my life during a youth mission trip in 2006.
I use times and numbers––”We got to the airport at 7:10… There were 18 youth and 9 adults.” I use those numbers because they give important definition to the story, and because they’re the details of the story, as best I remember. But I’m honestly not certain about them. There may have been 19 youth and 10 adults, and we may have gotten to the airport at 7:15. I don’t remember anymore.
You can listen to my story in two ways. You can appreciate it for what it is––a true narrative account about some important things I experienced. Or you can hone in on all the details and start digging through historical records to see if what I said is true. And if you discover that there were 2 more adults there than I said, you can toss the whole story out as a falsification.
This illustrates the first problem with biblical inerrancy.
You may have heard people say that the original documents are free from mistakes. The “Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy” says, “inerrant signifies the quality of being free from all falsehood or mistake.” For the inerrantists, any factual error––geographical, historical, scientific––makes the whole thing null and void.
First of all, I just don’t think that’s true, as my story above illustrates.
More importantly, I think it leads us down all sorts of rabbit trails. Rather than focusing on the main point of the scriptural account, we end up trying to reconcile the 24,000 who died in Numbers 25:9 with the 23,000 listed for the same event in 1 Corinthians 10:8.
What would happen if I told my story about the great things God did in my life through that 2006 youth mission trip, and the person listening instantly set out to examine the accuracy of each detail? It would be rather upsetting to me. They gave their primary interest to details that were only intended to be support, and they missed the real point of the story.
A focus on inerrancy misses the point of Scripture. It gets us hung up on the minor details, which––I think––may occasionally include some factual errors. Factual errors that may go all the way back to the original writing.
The second problem
Let’s assume those factual errors don’t go back to the originals. That’s the line we hear frequently. “The original manuscripts were inerrant. They were corrupted somewhere in transmission.” And inerrantists take that as some sort of comfort.
It should be the exact opposite. It should be sheer horror to them.
If you claim that the originals were inerrant, but they have since been distorted, then what are you left with?!? Nothing but a distorted, untrustworthy current set of manuscripts. How do you decide just how distorted they have become, if all you can say is that the originals were right, but we no longer have them?
For those who find it so important that the Bible be without error, what could undermine their faith more than the knowledge that a flawless Bible is no longer available to them? And now what’s true and what’s not is just a guessing game. Perhaps an educated guessing game, but let’s face it: if we knew what the originals said, we wouldn’t be having this conversation in the first place.
The third problem
Because the genre of my 2006 mission trip story is literal-historical, it’s still important that this was an historical event, not just a fable.
In other words, if you went back and found out that no such trip ever took place, it would damage my credibility.
To their credit, the authors of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy say that they pay attention to genre. This is why they don’t take the parables to be actual historical accounts––they were told as parables, not historical accounts.
Sadly, the same authors don’t seem to really mean it. Here’s what they say about the creation and flood accounts:
We deny that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science. We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.
The problem: Scripture’s teachings on creation and the flood aren’t written as literal history! They’re written as epic accounts that comment on the nature of God, humanity, and all of creation.
Why do those who hold to biblical inerrancy insist that these early epics are literal history, while they have no problem acknowledging that Jesus’ parables weren’t historical accounts?
Do the efforts to prove the historicity of the creation accounts amount to the same thing as setting out to prove the historicity of the prodigal son? I think so. They’re unhappy and unnecessary adventures. More importantly, though, they miss the real point. What if we spent all of our time trying to prove that the prodigal son really existed and missed the larger point conveyed in that parable? What a shame that would be!
[See “What if I don’t believe the Bible?” for more.]
A different way to regard Scripture
Let me propose something that has surely been proposed before. (If you know, please let me know who has proposed it. I’d love to see more.) Just as Christ came as the Word of God incarnate––100% God, 100% man––might we understand the inspiration and transmission of Scripture as 100% of God and 100% of man?
I believe Jesus came as the perfect Son of God. Sinless and blameless. A perfect representation of God in the flesh. I also believe he had real human will, thoughts, temptations. And I believe he dealt with some of the same weaknesses of being human that we all deal with. I bet Jesus occasionally stubbed his toe.
The person who accepts Christ as fully God but not fully man probably couldn’t accept a Christ who stubs his toe. It would seem undignified, somehow less than perfect. But the great wonder of the incarnation is that the One who is eternal and almighty came into our time and took on human weakness!
I believe the same regarding Scripture. I believe its inspiration and transmission are somehow 100% of God, 100% of man. In that, I believe it’s a perfect representation of God, without fault. And yet, I believe it was written by humans. I don’t think they wrote it in some trance-like state that was really just a straight bypass from God to paper. I believe the writing and transmission of Scripture really involved humans. And because of that, I believe it’s possible––in fact, demonstrated––that an occasional geographical or historical error may have occurred. The equivalents of stubbed toes, or of simple human forgetfulness, as my story at top illustrates.
In all, I think we can hold the Bible in the highest of esteem––as something both 100% inspired by God and protected by God in its transmission to us today (might we go so far as to even include its translation??)––and yet something with lots of human fingerprints on it, which will inevitably result in some stubbed toes along the way. But none that affect Scripture’s perfect representation of God and the faith he calls us to.
There’s an easy theological term for this, too: Biblical infallibility.
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Next week: The beginning of a Lent series on the capital vices––Lust is a thief