* to encourage a reasoned awareness of how our beliefs impact the way we interact with the world around us
* to foster intelligent and open dialogue
* to inspire a sense of spirituality that has real meaning in day-to-day life

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Why the Concept of Scriptural Inerrancy Is a Matter of Faith and Not Evidence

There are those who believe that the Bible is true, and there are those who believe that the Bible is not true. Among these groups, there are a number of refinements that can be made. Sometimes beliefs form out of an opinion regarding one specific aspect of scriptural content. Some may think that the miracle stories are far-fetched, or that the creation story is not to be taken literally, but they think the historical and geographic record is more or less based on fact. Incidentally, this is the camp where I usually place myself. Some who claim that the Bible is true mean more or less the same thing, except that they probably believe in the divinity of Jesus and the validity of the resurrection. In fact, many times when people say that the Bible is true or not true, they are really expressing their belief about one very specific event in the Bible: the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.

Many Christians understand that this is a matter of faith. One cannot prove much about even the existence of Jesus, since there is so little trustworthy information about him outside of the scripture. If something is a matter of faith, then by definition it must be believed without concrete proof, and many people of faith understand this. It causes some problems when believers insist that other people believe the same things they do, at which point having convincing evidence makes a bit more of a difference.

Thus the “truth” of the Bible enters a prominent place in the discussion. Some people determined that if the Bible was accepted as absolutely true, then there should be no question about the existence, divinity, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus, nor should there be any doubt about the need for salvation and the gift of grace. Likewise, if any part of the Bible is seen as fantastical or outright falsehood, then the value of the passion story is potentially jeopardized. It is as if faith needs at least some supporting facts for some people. Thus, every time an archaeologist makes a discovery that coincides with a Biblical account of geography, some of these proponents of scriptural inerrancy claim, “See, the Bible is true! Every last bit of it.”

There are some problems with the concept of scriptural inerrancy, and the biggest problem is the absolutism of the idea. If one part of a story is factually accurate, one cannot assume that the entire tale is factually accurate. Suppose I told you that there is a Recognized Bank building on the corner of Willow Avenue and Market Street, and on the 12th floor of that bank building, there is a law office. In that law office, there works a secretary who is a vampire, and she keeps blood packets in the break room. With just my story to go on, you might think, “There’s no such thing as vampires, this story can’t possibly be true.” But, when you drive past the corner of Willow Avenue and Market Street and see the big Recognized Bank building, do you then suddenly believe the whole thing? Do you accept that there is a vampire working in a law office on the 12th floor of that building, just because you have verified one aspect of my story?

You wouldn’t have to accept it as true, of course. You could look into the matter. You could go to the 12th floor and see if there was a law office there. You could examine the secretary. You could investigate the break room. If any part of my story is false, it doesn’t erase the fact that the building is exactly where I claimed it to be. It is completely plausible that one fact in my story checks out and another detail turns out to be false. So proving one fact that was recorded in the Bible only proves that one specific fact. It does nothing to prove any other scriptural claim.

“Ah,” some might say, “but we have verified the trustworthiness of the writer. If he is right about one fact, why should we doubt the rest of what he wrote?” (Yes, I think some people may have slept right through the vampire secretary example.) Which scriptural writer are we to trust, exactly? The biblical canon was composed over a number of generations by a number of different people, and the decision about what to include or leave out of the Bible was made hundreds of years later by a completely different group of men (at the Council of Trent in the 16th century). There is no one writer for us to trust, even if it made sense to think that a person’s story is more trustworthy because they placed it in San Diego rather than Gotham City. Sure, San Diego exists, but that doesn’t mean that every story placed in San Diego is true.

Aside from the historical accuracy argument, there are really no other logical principles on which scriptural inerrancy is based. Some would say that the Bible claims to be true, and therefore it must be, because God cannot lie. This entirely self-referential argument cannot be accepted as evidence to anyone seeking any kind of proof. One cannot verify the accuracy of a written document simply by virtue of an author’s claim. In fact, every so often, a new book catches everyone’s attention because of the revealing “insider” details it contains, and everyone is equally disappointed to learn that the author made up most of the story. Anyone who needs the Bible to be infallible or inerrant in order for their faith to be bolstered would surely understand the problem of a self-referential justification.

Claiming the Bible to be absolutely and completely true based on church history and tradition isn’t any better. This is really just a self-referential argument by proxy. It would be like your friend telling you about the vampire secretary and claiming that it was true because he heard from a trustworthy source. You may trust your friend, and your friend may trust the story’s source, but if there is no way to check a source other than blind trust, then we are talking about faith, not provability.

The only claim that makes any sense with regard to Biblical inerrancy is one that does not attempt to convince anyone else. There is nothing wrong with a believer who claims, “I believe that the Bible is completely true.” If personal experience and reason have led an individual to a statement of faith—belief in something which cannot be proven—that is a matter of personal choice. No one else need accept that belief in order for it to have value, and no archeological discovery can strengthen or weaken a determined belief. Only the individual can determine the criteria by which to accept or reject the validity of spiritual writings, and those criteria don’t need to have the same meaning for anyone else.

Ultimately, a belief in scriptural inerrancy is entirely a matter of faith. If one actually looks closely enough at scriptures, one is confronted with some inconsistencies. While this may not bother someone looking for the spiritual truth underlying the words, when someone needs for the text to be completely accurate, it presents a problem. On the matter of spiritual truth, one must also deal with how to interpret what is written. One must be discerning to know when people claim to speak biblical truth that they are not actually conveying a personal interpretation. There is no “one truth” of the Bible, no absolutely correct way to interpret what is written on its pages. If it were so, then Christians would be united under one banner instead of bickering back and forth among and within various denominations and factions.

My perspective in writing this sequence of scriptural interpretations is not to prove or disprove anything, although I will state clearly that I do not believe that the Bible is entirely accurate or trustworthy. I approach it with a skeptical lens, to be sure, and at the same time I want to see what is spiritually valid and appropriate for our time. The Bible provides a spiritual jumping off point, because it is familiar to me and to so many other people. What I write is what I see as truth, in the hopes that I will inspire other people to think for themselves and discover or claim a deeper truth for their lives, even if their truth is different from mine.

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