God Is Inerrant and Infallible, The Bible is Neither


(Spectrumbot) #1

In a previous essay, I surmised that our veneration of the Bible, to the extent that we casually place it above God in our belief ranking, might reflect our supposition that scripture is inerrant and infallible. This is the thought this essay now explores.

The terms biblical infallibility (the Bible cannot contain errors) and inerrancy (the Bible contains no errors) are close cousins of the same idea, one that scriptural religions – Christian and Muslim fundamentalists most especially – prize and promote. While individual Christian apologists have posited an infallible and inerrant Bible for millennia, it is only recently – 1970s and early 1980s – that entire Christian denominations have advocated for this position, a phenomena that peaked with the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. This statement grew out of a conference attended by over 200 global evangelical/fundamentalist leaders who were reacting to modernism and its critique of biblical historicity, accuracy and literalness.

It was in this general setting that Adventists adopted, for the first time, the 27 Fundamental Beliefs (FB) at the 1980 General Conference session. We had 22 Fundamental Beliefs in our yearbooks and church manuals since 1961, but this was never approved by the church. The formal adoption of 27 FBs, which included an infallibility statement, was highly favored by the new incoming president, Neal Wilson. In retrospect, we see how this belief codification might have accelerated our bent towards creedal fundamentalism. JN Loughborough envisioned this snare and warned against it over a hundred years earlier, before we became an organized church. He couldn’t have been more prophetic:“The first step to apostasy is to get up a creed, telling us what we shall believe. The second is, to make that creed a test of fellowship. The third is try members by that creed. The fourth to denounce as heretics those who do not believe that creed. And fifth, to commence persecution against such.” (“Doings of the Battle Creek Conference, October 5 & 6, 1861” Review & Herald. 18(19): 148)

The central question is: Does the Bible contain errors? Or is it incapable of containing errors?

Of course the Bible contains errors, big and small, because its writers were human. Sometimes, the errors were "innocent," other times they were contrived, purposeful and made to fulfill an agenda. Anything that involves humans comes with a taint: and that includes products resulting from God’s use of human agents to reveal himself. Humans often hijack and distort God’s message. That’s how God in the Bible is made to promote genocide, regulate slavery and ban women from church leadership. But as Jesus’ ethic reveals, genocide, slavery and a host of other ungodly behaviors are inconsistent with God’s character. A good God does not endorse evil in one era and disavow it in another. And if this God promotes immorality, that is a bridge too far.

The process of biblical composition, compilation and canonization involved humans, who are incorrigibly prone to error, deceit and manipulation. Those involved in the writing and vetting of what became our Bible had a full complement of human frailties. And the 66 books they canonized, even granting the Holy Spirit’s involvement, showcase these imperfections. Is God inerrant and infallible? Yes. Inerrancy and Infallibility are baked-in suppositions about God. But we cannot extend these same attributes to anything fallible human intermediaries helped to produce. The only possible way in which the Bible could be error free is if God verbally inspired the writers. But this is a position we have consistently rejected.

Let's illustrate with two examples from the biblical record. All four gospels recount Jesus' last Passover meal with his disciples. They also reference their activities on the “preparation day.” But which day was the “preparation day"? Matthew and Luke agree with Mark that the Last Supper took place on Passover evening before his crucifixion and the preparation day was the day before. John, however, places the crucifixion on the “day of Preparation for the Passover” (19:14) thus making Jesus die just when the animal sacrifices were being offered.

But why would John alone make this move? As we may recall, one of John’s main emphases is the identification of Jesus as “the lamb of God.” (1:29) For John therefore, making Jesus die about the same time animals were being slaughtered throughout Israel in preparation for the Passover meal, was symbolic gold, and rearranging events to highlight his motif was a justifiable move.

Something similar, but on a grander scale happens in the two books of Chronicles. The chronicler’s account is supposed to parallel 1&2 Kings and 1&2 Samuel. Instead, the author’s goal seems excessively corrective of these books. He “corrects”everything, allowing nothing to escape his censuring eye. Here are a few examples.

1) Who was the inspiration behind David counting the Israelites? According to 2 Samuel (24:13), God was angry with Israel and motivated David to take the census. Not so, according to the Chronicler (2 Chron 21:1), who tied the inspiration to Satan.

2) Did Saul ever seek counsel from God? Samuel writes that Saul did, “but Yahweh did not answer him, either by dreams, or by Urim, or by prophets.” (1 Sam 28:6) But in 1 Chronicles (10:13), the chronicler contradicts Samuel, declaring that Saul “did not seek guidance from Yahweh. Therefore Yahweh killed him.”

3) On the number of Jesse’s sons, 1 Samuel lists eight, (17: 12). The chronicler disagrees (1Chron (2:13), countering with seven. Likewise, the Chronicler takes issue with the writer of Kings’ figures in a number of areas: Solomon’s foremen, 3,300 (1 Kings 5:16), 3,600 (2 Chron 2:2); Solomon’s overseers, 550 (1 Kings 9:23), 250 (2 Chron 8:10); talents of gold brought from Ophir to aid in temple building, 420 (1 King 9:28), 450 (2 Chron :18). This sort of thing populates the pages of the two Chronicles. Some blame this on copiers’ errors, which begs the question of why an infallible and inerrant document should be susceptible to such a problem.

But the overriding achievement of the chronicler is the deodorization of King David. In 1 Chronicles, David does no wrong. If David had faults – e.g. Abigail and Bathsheba – you would not find them in Chronicles. The narrator had access to the basic data about David, but he selected and discarded at will, to serve his purpose. The two Chronicles are probably the best refutation of biblical infallibility.

It is unwise to equate Scripture with God. The different depictions of God in scripture do not all add up to a full picture of God. The simple reason is that the vessels conveying these images and impressions are flawed. At times some of the things these writers make God say or do are immoral. It is difficult to square the God Jesus reveals to us with the one that demands that Sabbath breakers should be stoned to death. Or that Uzzah, who acts on instinct to prevent the Lord’s Ark from falling, should die. Jesus said of God, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” If we like Jesus’ characterization of God, chances are we recoil from some of the conceptions we had of God in the Old Testament. But if Jesus and his “father are one,” then the erroneous portrayal of God, which Jesus came to modify, is not a true depiction of God – leading to the suspicion that the canon contains inaccurate information about God.

Even when writers’ motives are above reproach, their writings do not elicit identical understandings or responses from their audience. Literary critics are familiar with this dynamic. Poets, less so than prose writers, cannot prescribe the meaning of their work. They own their pieces only in the sense that they put pen to paper and birthed some ideas which bear their names. But what their works mean, and what we make of them, fall outside the poets’ claims. Meanings belong to readers, who appropriate the poem through their variable experiences and give individual connotations to the same work. The poem doesn’t change, but the meaning does, because no two readers share the same influences.

Something similar happens in how adherents of scriptural religions relate to their sacred texts. We call it interpretation, or its other fancy name, hermeneutics. In all three Abrahamic religions, we approach our different texts, whether it’s the Hebrew Tanakh, the Christian Bible or the Muslim Koran, as individuals – and interpret the same materials individually, differently. The writings are the same, the expressions are the same. What is different are the humans who interact with the texts. Their differences are informed by a variety of factors, including culture, education and gender. If we are exposed to the same source material but end up with dramatically different, sometimes opposite understandings, how then could we argue that the source is infallible? In these “books” slavery is good and bad at different times. And through its pages this blight is countenanced and denounced by different writers. Limited polygamy is endorsed and practiced by virtually all the patriarchs but is circumscribed in the New Testament. Some would be killed by God for improper Sabbath observance and others allowed to violate the same with impunity. All these opposite moral portrayals couldn’t emanate from the same God.

A true God wouldn’t behave so ungodly. But humans could. And it is these human behaviors, often attributed to God by the same humans who serve as God’s prophets, priests and disciples, that are at issue. Any faults we find in God, when reading the Bible, tell us more about ourselves, about human agency, than about God. Humans are perfectly capable of indulging evil independent of God. But we drag God into the mix and have the effrontery to “defend” him for the indefensible things we “made” him do.

In the course of our 150 plus years as an organized church, we’ve arguably gone through three major episodes – 1888 (righteous by faith debates), 1980 (Glacier View and Des Ford) and the contemporary Women’s Ordination(WO) disputes. All three with schism potential. The most important commonality underlying these occurrences is a general desire for doctrinal and policy reassessment, usually spurred on by a younger generation with a broader and bolder view of Adventism, against stiff resistance from old establishment-types, whose vision is limited by landmarks that seem immutable.

In all three examples, the older vanguard saw no need for change because existing belief sets were self-sufficient, incontrovertible, infallible. The irony is that, while the WO debate is yet to play itself out, we know that in the two earlier incidents the old guard positions appeared to prevail in their immediate contexts, but would ultimately be set aside. So now, either through neglect or conscious choices, Adventists have largely abandoned the old idea that righteousness is attainable through obedience to the law, in favor of Jones and Waggoner’s formulation that it is only possible by faith in Jesus. Similarly, over the almost forty years since Glacier View, the church has quietly, unofficially, adopted many of Dr Ford's views. Our Investigative Judgement doctrine is still on the books but there seems to be a conspiratorial agreement by most in not teaching it. And it is not accidental that both Glacier View and resistance to WO were fostered by leaders who subscribe to some form of single option solution toward dissent.

Belief in biblical inerrancy/infallibility almost always leads to a rigid mindset and application. If the Bible cannot contain error, then there must be only one correct way of understanding its teaching. If that is so then that correct way must be deduced, catalogued and enforced. So we go from a seemingly benign process of cobbling beliefs together that, given adequate time and proper nourishment, led to Des Ford and Glacier View. Glacier View and its sad history happened because Adventist men of goodwill felt or were trapped by the notion that there is only one acceptable way of understanding scripture. Dr. Ford’s Apotelesmatic Principle (AP), which allowed for repeated application and different interpretation of prophecy, could not be considered because the idea evokes too much latitude, too much uncertainty. The AP veered from orthodoxy and the safety of certainty into uncharted murky waters, making church leadership uncomfortable. The church had a settled view of scripture and deviation from that understanding could not be condoned. But why? Because only the established method and resultant interpretation is valid. This is a viewpoint that grows out of the biblical infallibility construct.

Whether as constitutional originalists, or biblical inerrantists who believe that biblical ethics are transferable to future generations in its entirety, fundamentalists generally attempt to freeze time to a perceived golden era where things were perfect – and are not above co-opting the ghosts of the founding fathers or God himself, to their cause. So they find absolute terms like "infallibility" and "inerrancy" irresistible. Still, one wonders if the real reason might not hinge on the perception that absolutes provide cover and example for human behavior. In other words, since the Bible is infallible, when leaders derive doctrines from its pages, those doctrines by extension become infallible. But since we worship God, not his affirmations, shouldn’t God have primacy in all we do and say? That his word contains errors shouldn’t come as a surprise since fallible humans were intermediary co-creators of this word.

Matthew Quartey is a transplanted Ghanaian who now lives in and calls the Adventist ghetto of Berrien Springs, Michigan, home.

Previous Spectrum columns by Matthew Quartey can be found at: http://spectrummagazine.org/author/matthew-quartey.

Image Credit: Unsplash.com

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/9559

(Thomas J Zwemer) #2

Thank you sir!!!


(Gillian Ford) #3

Just saying Matthew, that the apotelesmatic principle did not originate with Des. He first read it in Moses Stuart, who sourced it from a German scholar. Also, George McCready Price used the term and nobody turned a hair.


#4

Gill,
Thanks for the source of the concept. It has helped me in dealing with understanding prophesy and repetitious use of scripture within the Bible. The use of the idea re. Daniel 8 does not seem far fetched since Jesus attended the Festival of Lights, as an historical event, when he was here. Nor does His doing that weaken later prophetic use by early SDA’s.


(Stephen Terry) #5

Evangelism, as we have practiced it, depends upon biblical inerrancy. It is in fact the major premise, often taken for granted, upon which the logic of conversion is based. i.e. 1) The Bible is inerrant, 2) these conclusions we are presenting are based upon proof texts from the Bible that we have strung together, 3) therefore, by definition, the conclusions are themselves inerrant. So, dear penitent, are you going to go against what is clearly the truth? Educated minds see the problems with this syllogism. However, agendas often have little to do with education or logic. Without such premises and conclusions our evangelistic model falls apart, apologists notwithstanding.


(Phillip Brantley) #6

The Bible is not problematic because it was written by human authors. The human authors were divinely inspired. The Bible is problematic, because it is a text. A Bible personally written by God would not be any better than the Bible we read today, because such a Bible would still be a text. To understand why the Bible, or any other text, is problematic is to understand hermeneutics.

What are the inherent problems with texts?

  1. Linguistic problems–The study of linguistics establishes that words are not capable of accurately mirroring thoughts. A common blunder of readers who do not understand linguistics, a subsidiary discipline of hermeneutics, is to exaggerate the capability of words to function as determinants of meaning. Because language is a human construct, linguistic problems are as omnipresent in anything God might personally write as they are in anything that we might write.
  2. Historical character of knowledge–Because God has inserted Himself in our time and space, anything He might write would be historically conditioned. In other words, His thoughts would not be the sole cause of what He might write. Another proximate cause would be the historical context. Similarly, the thoughts of the Bible’s authors are not the sole cause of what they have written but merely one proximate cause. The Bible is historically conditioned. We can never know with a high level of accuracy the meaning of the biblical text, because we know very little about this ancient text’s historical context.
  3. Historiography–The Bible is a representation of the past. There are many various historiographical approaches to representing the past. If you do not understand a biblical author’s historiographical approach, you cannot understand with a high degree of accuracy the meaning of what he or she has written.
  4. Structures of knowledge–Is the Bible like a tree or like crabgrass? The Bible is like both. Most readers are arborescent in their thinking. Failure to be rhizomatic in one’s thinking can result in errors in interpretation.
  5. Law–most readers of the Bible, particularly SDAs, are legal formalists and highly Platonist in their thinking about God’s law. Consequently, biblical law, the dos and the don’ts as it were, are often misinterpreted and misunderstood.

Gadamer likened thought and word to the Father and the Incarnate Son, respectively. If he had been more imaginative, he would have likened the hermeneutist to the Holy Spirit. Thought is insufficient unless it is expressed in word. Word is insufficient, is gibberish, if it is not anchored in thought. Word and thought are insufficient if they are not correctly interpreted and understood. One needs the Holy Spirit, one needs an understanding of hermeneutics, in order to correctly interpret and understand the Bible. We should not blame the Bible or the human authors who wrote it for our shortcomings in interpreting and understanding it.


(Stephen Terry) #7

While I understand and appreciate your perspective, your statement that “language is a human construct” might be meaningless to someone who championed biblical inerrancy. I can see them responding with two different points right off. 1) If language is a human construct, was Adam created incapable of communication? and 2) If language is a human construct, who instantaneously created all the languages at the Tower of Babel?

I understand that much of this biblical narrative is metaphorically pregnant with far deeper meanings than a literal approach to the text might allow. But I also understand that some see a holiness in that facile literalness that gives them place and purpose in life, even if it may be indefensible over time. When faced with that realization, I sometimes need a Sancho Panza to remind me that windmills can never really be defeated, no matter how well defined my assault. It only remains for me to decide how much effort I really wish to expend on such encounters, given that probable outcome.


(Phillip Brantley) #8

Inerrancy advocates reject the study of linguistics. It drives them crazy. Linguistics falsifies inerrancy.

By saying that language is a human construct, I am saying that the meaning of words is conventional rather than of divine origin and arbitrary rather than bearing a natural relation to what the word signifies (except for the rare instances of onomatopoeia). Obviously, God created language and our ability to communicate, but synchronic systems of language are a human and societal creation.


(antony nyathi) #9

In John, somewhere in the book of John, it says God spoke from heaven and different people heard different things. Some heard but thought an Angel spoke, others (like John) said it was God, others only heard thunder… so even when God himself speaks we understand differently. The Bible is a story, stories are very malleable. Two people watch a movie and come away with different meanings because of a whole bunch of different reasons. Those who enjoy the movie become friends and compare notes. And it’s on conversation that they get closer to each other and more likely the author. So I think it’s by reading, enjoying and talking without judgement that we grow and glow.

i find helping people read the Bible and enjoy it a challenge but one worth persuing. While Christians talk about the Bible very few actually have read it all and I think it comes from not treating it as a story. If we treat as a story then we will deal with the impact it has on us in healthier ways, but for now I think as community we are locked into the doctrinal mode. We are fashion police at a party. Lots of attention is used up, but the actual party is actually enjoyed by those occupied by better thoughts.


(Patrick Travis) #10

Matthew,
It seems to me that you have framed your article in a way that creates a few present popular topics in a way that is a " strawman." I suggest Davidson was correct in the SDA sphere of theologians to describe two main types of interpretation. The Historical Critical and the Historical Biblical methods. The methods are indeed different as are their suppositions. Historical critical has the premise of rejecting the supernatural for complete human explanations. Conservative Christians accept more a Historical Biblical Gramatical literary…" approach of interpretation that indeed does believe in the miraculous. Higher criticism of Wellhausen and also the Late date of Daniel are conservative Christians main but not only objections to the “higher critical” approach. J.I Packer, Bruce Waltke, Nicole and Stott are among " a Conservative" biblical authority view.


You can’t simply confine your arguments against the interpretive ideas of the present ruling thought of the SDA church and pass that off as the “Conservative Christian” norm. After all they need in practice the extra biblical interpretation of EGW on many views.

I would suggest to you that there are conservative “Biblical Authority” Christians who believe in the Chicago Statement that are both Christian Egalitarians and opposed slavery. For you/one to take these issues as an argument against conservative christian interpretation, simply is not fair, straightforward or honest. To often people caught up in issues will buy the whole enchilada based on framing and interpretation.
I suggest you have a careful study of the Chicago Statement to see what it actually says and present a true representation point by point and why you disagree with it with an example.
That way there can perhaps be progress in the area of hermeneutics.


(Tim Teichman) #11

Never a truer word written.


(Patrick Travis) #12

Des’ biblical view and hermeneutic approach were in the realm of “theological conservatism.” Des did not hold to “liberal theology.” That message is to both Clifford Goldstein and those here that are trying to link WO and glacier view. Each issue needs to be discussed on It’s own merit.
The mixing of apples and oranges and the failure to see that some areas of correlation does not equal causation creates a witches brew.
@timteichman


(Tim Teichman) #13

I don’t know what your post means and so I don’t really have a way to evaluate your assertion.

Why did you reply to me and then add my name to the post? I don’t understand.


(Patrick Travis) #14

Once before to some posters I returned to them and then they said they either didn’t get it or understand what I meant since it was a long way from the original post.
Basically glacier view issues and WO are two separate theological issues. One can be a theological conservative and support both.


(Andrew) #15

A very important point that is not oft thought of. God is bigger than his message, delivered via flawed individuals as best He could.

Having included other faith traditions in this thesis it seems a little lacking in not drawing the distinction between Christianity and Islam. Obviously there are Christian fundamentalists, many SDA’s, but unlike Muslims, they do not advocate that God dictated the Bible.

This has had disastrous consequences for Islam compared with centuries of Biblical critique and analysis.

The authors points are all valid but even amongst the most literalist of Christians, I can’t recall hardly a soul who doesn’t acknowledge that there are inconsistencies at the least. And they are still alive to discuss the fact.


(Sam Matthews) #16

This author raises a wonderful point that places God, and our understanding of God, above Scripture and rightfully disconnects Him or Her from the text. Well done.


(Tim Teichman) #17

Oh. OK, well I wouldn’t really have any idea.


#18

I agree. I believe that many things attributed to God in the Bible having nothing to do with God’s doing although the writer gives God the credit. Isreal’s enemies die, and the writer chalks this up to God. This is why it is important to come to the scriptures with humility and not arrogance. Sometimes our arrogance and certainty as a church scares me. We need more humility and less thinking we understand it all while ignoring obvious contradictions as pointed out in the article.


(Steve Mga) #19

Two [2] books I would recommend reading are

  1. “Making Sense of the Bible - discovering the power of Scripture
    Today,” by Adam Hamilton [HarperOne, 2014]
  2. “Sins of the Bible,” by John Stott, [2008].

Inerrant and Infallible are Fundamental groups take on the Bible and
believe that God DICTATED EVERY WORD.


(Robert Lindbeck) #20

Difficult issue to fight when many new translations interpret 2 Tim 3:16 as “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” NIV. The KJV and NKJV put it as " All Scripture is given by inspiration of God". As long as you have a broad definition of inspiration, it allows for error, inconsistencies, mistranslations etc…