Getting by without infallibility

An exaggerated or inaccurate view of Scripture is not a high view of Scripture, it is just a wrong view of Scripture. A high view of Scripture takes the Bible seriously, while also taking its historical context and the humanity of its authors seriously. A high view of Scripture is held by those who actually read Scripture, seek to understand why the human authors wrote what they did, and how they convey God’s timeless will for us today. A high view of Scripture includes not only reading the Bible, but seeking to live its timeless messages, which are discerned in the light of Jesus Christ, who is the definitive Word of God.

That’s from an interview with UMC mega-church pastor Adam Hamilton. (Yes, we mainliners have mega-churches too.)

It’s become a bit of a truism that any adequate Christian view of the Bible has to acknowledge both its human and divine character. What a lot of people worry about, though, is this: if you admit that the Bible contains some errors, even about peripheral matters, then how do you know it isn’t wrong about the major stuff?

The short answer, I think, is you don’t know. But underlying this worry is a questionable model of how God acts, and one which the Bible itself seems to contradict.

What do I mean? Well, people sometimes talk about the inspiration of the Bible in a way that suggests God overrode the freedom of the authors (and presumably editors and compilers) to ensure that not one jot or tittle of the text was wrong. Even though most proponents of such a theory would deny that’s what’s happening, it’s hard to see how “inerrancy” could work any other way. Human beings are finite, limited, prone to error, and sinful; for God to inspire them to write without error would seem to require, essentially, annulling their finitude.

But is this consistent with how the Bible itself presents the relationship between God and humans? Consider the apostles. They all responded to Jesus, who Christians confess is the incarnate Word of God. Presumably this response was elicited, at some level, by God’s Spirit (since Christians generally deny that someone can turn to God without the action of the Spirit). But this didn’t prevent the apostles from erring–sometimes grievously–about what Jesus was saying to them.

If Jesus himself didn’t (couldn’t?) compel an “inerrant” response from the apostles (not to mention from the religious leaders and Roman authorities), does this tell us something about how inspiration works? At the very least, it suggests that there are cases where God allows human beings to err, even though God would presumably prefer they make a different kind of response.

So, unless we have good reasons for thinking that the composition of the Bible occurred under the influence of an entirely different kind of inspiration, isn’t it reasonable to think that the biblical authors could also have been prone to error in what they wrote?

What becomes of faith then? It would be in trouble if we thought that faith is based on a prior belief in the inerrancy or infallibility of the Bible. But why should this be the case? And on what independent grounds could we come to the conclusion that the Bible is infallible in the first place?

What I believe, and what I think many other Christians believe, is that the Bible presents a broadly reliable portrait of Jesus and that the New Testament (along with the Old Testament) provides the authoritative context for interpreting the meaning of Jesus.

But I don’t believe this because of some prior theory about the Bible’s inspiration. I believe it based on my experience (and the experiences of others) as part of the Christian community. There’s an irreducible degree of circularity here, but it needn’t (I think) be of the vicious variety. We trust the Bible because our encounter with Jesus–in the pages of Scripture, in the sacraments, in prayer, in Christian community–has changed us. Yes, we could be wrong. But that’s an unavoidable risk for creatures such as us.

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7 thoughts on “Getting by without infallibility

  1. Very interesting post.

    “…isn’t it reasonable to think that the biblical authors could also have been prone to error in what they wrote?”

    I’m comfortable with this line of thought, but what if we transplanted the question into a Muslim—even a moderate Muslim—context? Would the discussion even go so far as to an admission that the Koran is (at least partially) the product of flawed human hands and hearts? It’s an unfortunate hermeneutical hurdle.

    1. Good question, but I don’t know enough about Muslim theology to begin to venture an answer. Christians often contrast their understanding of Scripture’s inspiration with Muslims’ view of the Koran, but it may be that Islam has its own internal resources for dealing with this.

  2. I get stuck in that circular thing … my belief in Jesus is based on my experience of him, and that experience is shaped by the bits in the NT that I’ve decided were trustworthy, but the reason I think those parts are trustworthy is because they agree with my experience.

  3. I think one good check here is belonging to a Christian community. We test our experience with that of others (not to mention that of those who’ve lived before us). Methodists have this notion (paralleled in other traditions) of the “quadrilateral”: what we believe should be tested by Scripture, tradition, reason and experience. That can help avoid an individualist subjectivism.

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