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Bronze-level articleProblems with biblical inerrancy

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For it is so written in

The Bible


Biblical inerrancy or Biblical literalism is (according to the authoritative position statements of modern Biblical inerrancy, the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy[1] and Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics[2], signed by most of the fundamentalist brass) the belief that:

Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God's acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God's saving grace in individual lives.[1]

Many Christian groups, such as the Catholic Church, hold that the Bible is inerrant in its spiritual and moral teachings, but can be inaccurate as far as history goes. In contrast to that position, Biblical literalists hold that the Bible reports true history from Genesis onward. The writers of the Chicago Statement went out of their way to bash evolution by saying:

WE AFFIRM that Genesis 1-11 is factual, as is the rest of the book.[2]

Now obviously there are a number of problems with this approach to Biblical exegesis, not only in terms of the interpretation not jibing with reality, but also with the internal consistency of the many books of the Bible.


[edit] Science

See the main article on this topic: Evidence against a recent creation

The first and most obvious problem with Biblical inerrancy is that science has utterly and completely falsified it. We now know that the earth is far older than 6,000 years and that the many species of life developed slowly through the mechanisms of evolution and that familiar spirits and wizards, which the Bible refers to as though they are real,[3] have no influence on the world.

However, since Biblical inerrantists have not gotten this memo and have sent out bands of so-called creation scientists to slap a pseudoscientific veneer on inerrancy on the Bible and impugn without grounds the integrity of actual scientists, we will say no more about the scientific falsifications.

Instead, we will focus on inconsistencies and contradictions within the Bible itself, as well as inconsistencies of the Biblical inerrantists' position with acknowledged Church history.

[edit] Inerrancy is not the historical position

The authority of Scripture is inescapably impaired if this total divine inerrancy is in any way limited or disregarded, or made relative to a view of truth contrary to the Bible's own.

WE AFFIRM that the doctrine of inerrancy has been integral to the Church's faith throughout its history.

WE DENY that inerrancy is a doctrine invented by scholastic Protestantism, or is a reactionary position postulated in response to negative higher criticism.[1]

Here is a piece of historical revisionism. Biblical literalists insist upon a literal interpretation of Genesis: "Genesis 1-11 is factual."[2] Yet a number of Church Fathers, including St. Augustine, are on record as not interpreting Genesis literally, and orthodox Christians were apparently free to disagree on the matter.[4] Had Biblical literalism been so "integral" to the Church in those early days, they would have branded those men as heretics, instead of commemorating them as Church Fathers and canonizing most of them. Not even the Reformers took the Bible in the most literal sense; certain Calvinist writers used an allegorical method of interpretation.[5]

[edit] The Bible's own position on Inerrancy

The Bible does not refer to itself as a unit, nor could it possibly do so, since its most recent books were written generations before church councils compiled the canon of scripture. The closest the Bible comes to self-referral and claims of inerrancy is, for example, 2 Timothy 3:16-17, which says "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work" (ESV). Note, first, that "Scripture" in this passage refers to, at most, the old Jewish canon, and second, that it says nothing of inerrancy or any similar concept. Going from "breathed out by God" to "without error in a single detail" is a logical leap made in relatively recent times. Should an omnipotent deity have wanted to establish a doctrine of inerrancy, the passage from 2 Timothy above could easily have indicated that "Scripture is inerrant and should be regarded as fully accurate in every historical detail", rather than making a general statement about its being "profitable" or "useful".

In addition, the phrase "word of God" in reference to the Bible is a recent and extra-biblical concept. "Word of God" appears in the Gospel of John and is meant to refer to God or Jesus, not to the Bible or any previously-compiled canon of scripture.

[edit] What is the Bible, anyway?

WE DENY that Church creeds, councils, or declarations have authority greater than or equal to the authority of the Bible.[1]

It is all very well to say, "The Bible is without error." But then comes the question, What is the Bible? The Biblical canon has been anything but fixed. As noted above, in the Apostolic Age there was really no Bible to speak of apart from the old Jewish canon; significant disputes over canonicity were not settled until a few centuries later, and they were not settled by "the Bible," but by ecumenical church councils.

Then at the Protestant Reformation, seven entire books not in the Hebrew Bible were cut from the canon. Martin Luther cut four more (Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation) mostly due to verses within them that contradicted his theological views.[6]

What, then, is the Bible? Were the Reformers right in cutting the deuterocanon? Was Luther right in his cuts? This seems to throw the whole concept of Biblical inerrancy into question by introducing a factor of fallible human judgment. If a book is erroneously included in the canon, literalists are material heretics; if a book is erroneously excluded, literalists are denying the inerrancy of a part of the Bible and hence the concept of Biblical inerrancy becomes useless.

The Catholics and Eastern Orthodox answer these questions thus: there is a concept of a "Holy Tradition" that is maintained within the church. Holy Tradition is put on par with the Bible in terms of authority, and the Biblical canon is part of that tradition.

However, the Biblical literalists have rejected this concept of tradition. As the Chicago Statement itself says, "The Church's part was to discern the canon God had created" -- and the Church, by the literalists' own admission, was perfectly capable of going wrong on this. In some sense, creating an errant Bible with inerrant contents.

[edit] The Holy Spirit fills the knowledge gaps?

WE AFFIRM that a person is not dependent for understanding of Scripture on the expertise of biblical scholars. WE DENY that a person should ignore the fruits of the technical study of Scripture by biblical scholars.[2]

Norman L. Geisler, one of the signatories of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics, expounds on the above position as follows, revealing it to have a political rather than a doctrinal basis, rather like the rationale behind the Conservative Bible Project (complete with scare quotes around experts): "One is not dependent on biblical 'experts' for his understanding of the basic truths of Scripture ... For if the understanding of the laity is contingent on the teaching of experts, then Protestant interpretive experts will have replaced the teaching magisterium of Catholic priests with a kind of teaching magisterium of Protestant scholars." With that in mind, there are at least two problems with this idea.

Firstly, if one looks at this from any sort of rational perspective, one can see that of course the layman needs the help of experts to understand the Bible; if one just picked up a copy of the Bible he found in the wilderness and read it cover-to-cover (something that few will do, and some cannot do) current doctrinal positions are the product of two millennia worth of theological thought, which the isolated Bible reader could not replicate in his own head, even allowing that most of that theology is based solely in the Bible. It is not: one must have at least some background in Western philosophy and the history of the times to do that properly.

Some Biblical literalists will respond to such criticisms by saying "HolySpiritDidIt": the Holy Spirit is said to fill the gaps to enable any person to understand the Bible. The Chicago Statement frames this as, "The Holy Spirit, Scripture's divine Author, both authenticates it to us by His inward witness and opens our minds to understand its meaning."[1] However, the Bible itself is the ultimate means of support for such claims, introducing an element of circularity: one still needs experts to tell him that "HolySpiritDidIt."

However, even if HolySpiritDidIt, there is a second problem with this position, at least with regard to the Old Testament: historically, nobody interpreted the Bible independently of a body of experts. Before Jesus's time, the Jews maintained much of their religious law in an oral tradition of commentaries that was only codified into the Talmud several centuries after Jesus's death as a response to the destruction of the Second Temple. In Jesus's time the "scribes and Pharisees" were responsible for debating and teaching the law to the people, and although Jesus denounced the hypocrisy of these experts, he acknowledged (Matthew 23:3) that they taught the law correctly. From the Apostolic Age up until the Protestant Reformation, similarly, in both Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy there were ecumenical councils to settle theological disputes and an idea of "Holy Tradition" in the church, independent of the Bible.

There is a third (albeit slightly weaker) point to be made: to suggest that the Holy Spirit is necessary to understand the bible seems to imply that the bible is not literally true after all. Instead, this would mean that the composite of what is in the bible and what the Holy Spirit makes you understand is literally true as a combined unit. But of course, since the Holy Spirit speaks to individuals (as opposed to a world wide broadcast), we are still left with what amounts to individual interpretation of the bible, or at the very least a homunculus fallacy.

[edit] Textual contradictions

WE DENY that it is proper to evaluate Scripture according to standards of truth and error that are alien to its usage or purpose. We further deny that inerrancy is negated by Biblical phenomena such as a lack of modern technical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, the reporting of falsehoods, the use of hyperbole and round numbers, the topical arrangement of material, variant selections of material in parallel accounts, or the use of free citations.[1]

In the Chicago Statement, as can be seen, the literalists repudiate a hyper-literalism that would have the Bible be errant because a word in it is spelled wrong or the writers do not have the attention to detail seen among archaeologists, lawyers, etc.

They also go on to state that the Bible contains some "hyperbole and round numbers," perhaps taking a swipe at people who cite 1 Kings 7:23-26 as saying that \pi = 3. However, this obviously does not apply to temporal measurements (passage of years, people's ages), since they also claim that Genesis records a creation of exactly six days of exactly 24 hours. And, as it happens, there are inconsistencies in some temporal measurements, which are discussed further below.

But beyond such piddling errors, there are a number of real or perceived textual contradictions in the Bible, especially if one is trying to interpret it literally. Although those who read the Bible with no knowledge of it often find more contradictions than are actually in the text, there are many contradictions that are openly acknowledged as such by knowledgeable Bible scholars. In this section we discuss a selection of these contradictions.

[edit] Creation

There are two separate accounts of creation, one in the first chapter of Genesis and one in the second chapter. Many Bible scholars (in particular those applying the historical-critical exegetical method) freely accept that these two accounts of creation, if read literally, are inconsistent with each other because they were written by different people. According to the documentary hypothesis, which tried to trace how the Bible formed, Genesis 1 came from the "priestly source" (an Aaronic priest writing ca. 500 B.C.), while Genesis 2 came from the "Yahwist source" (scriptures concerning a precursor to the Jewish God from the land of Judah, written ca. 900 B.C.).

On the other hand, according to Biblical literalists, both chapters were written by Moses on instructions from God. Since they are both held to be literally true, they must be consistent in all particulars, though they are not.

[edit] Which came first: Adam or the vegetation?

In Genesis 1, God forms the vegetation on the third day (verse 11) and Adam on the sixth (verse 27).   In Genesis 2, God makes Adam (verse 7) at a time when there is no vegetation (verse 5).

Creationists, such as Tekton Ministry,[7] have responded to that one with some rather extreme quibbling, saying that God made all non-agricultural plants on the third day and the agricultural ones later, "and that makes sense of the verses following, where God specifically plants the garden of Eden and places man to tend to it." However, this falls somewhat on its face, for reasons shown below.

[edit] Which came first: Adam or the animals?

In Genesis 1, God makes the land animals (verse 24) before he makes Adam.   In Genesis 2, God makes the land animals (verse 19) after he makes Adam.

[edit] Grammatical quibbling

Attempts have been made to reconcile the inconsistency involving the animals through the use of grammatical quibbling (so much for not worrying about "irregularities of grammar"!).

This can be done because the inconsistency is dependent on wording that does not appear in all versions of the Bible. Most versions render Genesis 2:8 and 2:19 in a simple past tense, indicating that the vegetation and animals came after Adam:[7] the King James Version gives verse 8 as "And the LORD God planted a garden..." and verse 19 as "And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast..."

The New International Version does not follow this convention, however, instead using the pluperfect tense, indicating that the vegetation and animals came before Adam: verse 8 is "Now the LORD God had planted a garden..." and verse 19 is "Now the LORD God had formed out of the ground..."

But while switching to the pluperfect tense eliminates the inconsistency involving the animals, it also eliminates the possibility of the "agricultural" distinction resolving the inconsistency involving the vegetation.

So this particular grammatical argument cannot produce a consistent creation account in either case, and it is the only argument that Tekton was able to come up with. This is probably why the Tekton refutation includes an escape hatch, saying that any contradiction "is intentional -- serving a rhetorical or polemical purpose -- and therefore, of no consequence for any supposition of inerrancy."

[edit] Inconsistent genealogies

The two genealogies of Jesus presented in Matthew 1 and Luke 3 are inconsistent, both with each other and with another genealogical record in Genesis 11.

Many of the inconsistencies can be explained by the intentional practice of leaving out selected generations so as to present the genealogies in a certain poetic form (e.g., the three groups of 14 in Matthew's genealogy). However, there are two more blatant contradictions with weaker explanations, at least to the Biblical literalist.[8]

[edit] David to Joseph

Matthew's genealogy has Joseph descended from King David through King Solomon, and from thence to a man named Jacob. On the other hand Luke's has Joseph descended from David along a radically different line, through another son, Nathan, from thence to a man named Eli.

Two explanations for this are:

  • Either Jacob or Eli was Joseph's stepfather instead of his father.
  • Eli was Joseph's father-in-law, and Luke's genealogy represents the human ancestry of Jesus while Matthew's represents the ancestry of Joseph.

Although either explanation does resolve the contradiction, it does present a problem for literalists who speak of the "clarity of Scripture."

[edit] Cainan, son of Arphaxad

There is an inconsistency between Luke's genealogy and the Genesis account three generations below Noah. The Genesis account has it (Genesis 11:12) that Noah's grandson, Arphaxad, had a son named Shelah. However, Luke's genealogy has it that Shelah is the grandson of Arphaxad and the son of Cainan.

There is a very simple explanation for this, viz., that Luke derived his genealogy from the Septuagint, the contemporary Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. The Septuagint also contains the name of Cainan in Genesis 11, which is believed to have been slipped into the text to try and make the Deluge seem to have occurred earlier than it did.[4]

However, this also poses a problem for Biblical literalists. If the Septuagint was dodgy, that was no problem, since it was not an original manuscript. But since the Gospel of Luke contains the Septuagint's error in its original manuscript, it cannot be hand-waved away.

Answers in Genesis is rather desperate about it, apparently, as they searched all the way back to 1809 to find a source that tries to pin the inconsistency on an unlikely "copyist error" that was later concealed by historical revisionism on the Septuagint, thus absolving the original manuscript from error.[9] However, the Old Catholic Encyclopedia, written a century later, maintains that the error was in the Septuagint in Luke's time.[4]

[edit] Faith vs. works

The following are Biblical contradictions cited by Martin Luther in his attempts to justify cutting four books of the New Testament out of the canon.[6]

"But wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? Was not Abraham our father justified by works, when he had offered Isaac his son upon the altar?" -- James 2:20-21   Rest of the New Testament, according to Luther; in particular Romans 4:1-2: "What shall we say then that Abraham our father, as pertaining to the flesh, hath found? For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God."
"So speak ye, and so do, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty?" -- James 2:12   Utterances of St. Paul calling the Mosaic Law one of slavery (Galatians 3:23), wrath (Romans 4:15), death (Romans 8:2), and sin (ibid.).

[edit] Women allowed to prophesy, or not?

There is an inconsistency of sorts called out by John Calvin in a commentary on 1 Corinthians 11:[10]

"But every woman that prayeth or prophesieth with her head uncovered dishonoureth her head: for that is even all one as if she were shaven." -- 1 Corinthians 11:5   "But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man: but to be in silence." -- 1 Timothy 2:12

1 Timothy 2:12 prohibits women from any sort of religious teaching, but 1 Corinthians 11:5 implies that women are allowed to make prophecies -- and a prophet was counted among the highest religious teachers in those days -- although they cannot do it without a hat on.

Calvin acknowledges this implication, but says it is unintentional and that "the Apostle, by here condemning [prophesying without a hat], does not commend [prophesying with a hat]." This passes the strictest logical muster, but again conflicts with the literalists' idea of "clarity of scripture," especially since people's honor appears to hang in the balance.

[edit] Possibility of different interpretations

WE AFFIRM that the text of Scripture is to be interpreted by grammatico-historical exegesis, taking account of its literary forms and devices, and that Scripture is to interpret Scripture.[1] WE AFFIRM that the meaning expressed in each biblical text is single, definite and fixed.[2]

In line with Biblical literalists' political objection to the idea that experts are needed to interpret the Bible, they hold that the Bible has only one correct interpretation and that this interpretation is self-evident. Contrast this view with the more flexible methodology of higher criticism, which seeks to understand scripture within the historical context of its original meaning to the author and recipients, rather than treating scripture as divinely inspired and incapable of error. Where literalists treat scripture as revelation, scholars employing higher criticism aim to treat it as an historical document.

The Bible itself disagrees with any rigid approach to interpreting it according to some "self-evident" literal meaning.

Genesis 16-17 relates the story of a love-triangle between Abraham, his wife Sarah, and her handmaiden Hagar. Sarah appears to be sterile, and tells Abraham to have a child with Hagar, which he does. Some years later, God makes a covenant with Abraham in exchange for, among other things, a child with Sarah.

In Galatians 4, St. Paul assigns an entirely new allegorical or figurative interpretation to this story to go along with the literal one: Hagar's son Ishmael represents non-Christians in bondage to the Mosaic Law, while Sarah's son Isaac represents Christians freed from the law by the new covenant. So according to the Bible itself, at least some parts of it can be interpreted in non-self-evident ways unintended by their original authors.

Fr. John Whiteford, an evangelical who converted to Eastern Orthodoxy, had this to say about the idea that "Scripture is to interpret Scripture":

Protestants who are willing to honestly assess the current state of the Protestant world, must ask themselves why, if Protestantism and its foundational teaching of Sola Scriptura are of God, has it resulted in over twenty-thousand differing groups that can't agree on basic aspects of what the Bible says, or what it even means to be a Christian? Why (if the Bible is sufficient apart from Holy Tradition) can a Baptist, a Jehovah's Witness, a Charismatic, and a Methodist all claim to believe what the Bible says and yet no two of them agree what it is that the Bible says?[11]

[edit] Some Bible passages are not meant to be taken literally; which ones?

As a special case of the above problem with interpretations, there is a problem with deciding what verses were meant to be taken literally and which verses were not. The Chicago Statement acknowledges that many parts of the Bible are not intended to be taken literally: "A parable, for example, should not be treated like a chronicle, nor should poetry be interpreted as though it were a straightforward narrative."[2]

But what is to be read straight and what is to be read as a poem, allegory, etc.? Literalists (e.g., Philip J. Rayment of A Storehouse of Knowledge[12][13]) claim that it is "clear" or "obvious" what is meant to be taken literally and what is not; in the Chicago Statement this is expressed as support for "genre criticism," or systematic attempts to determine which verses belong to which literary genres.

Unfortunately for the people who claim "clarity" or "obviousness," while genre criticism has shed some light on the matter, there is vast disagreement about what is literal and what is not. An example is the Book of Revelation: while most Christians, including some literalists, view Revelation as being obviously allegorical and using "apocalyptic symbolism,"[12] other literalists propagate New World Order conspiracy theories in which they claim that the Antichrist will soon be introducing a cashless economy, in which people will have to pay for things via an implant that will take the form of "a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads" (Revelation 13:16).

The problem of delineating the metaphorical parts of scripture from the literal ones applies to most any religion with its own scripture, and the tendency on the part of apologists toward moving the goalposts when faced with this problem was notably parodied by Zach Weiner of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal. Though he does not unambiguously reference a specific religion, he does encapsulate the issue nicely.

[edit] What was at one time obviously literal became obviously figurative

Take the year AD 1500 as a rough division line. Before that date, no one suggested that references to the fixity of the Earth and the motion of the Sun were figurative. Everybody thought that the Sun went around the Earth daily, just as the Bible says. After a somewhat tumultuous transition period, during which those who thought that it just might be figurative language in the Bible were often in trouble for suggesting that, it turns out that just about everybody -- except for modern geocentrists -- agrees that the Earth is a planet, and that the Biblical language is, after all, not literal. It may indeed have been intended as figurative, but it is difficult to maintain that it is "clear" or "obvious" if everybody, for 2000 years or more (from the first Biblical readers in 500 BC or earlier up to AD 1500, not to mention today's modern geocentrists), thought it was literal.

[edit] Necessary for salvation?

The Chicago Statement admits that belief in Biblical inerrancy should not be elevated to the level of a creed: "WE DENY that such confession [of Biblical inerrancy] is necessary for salvation."[1]

However, the statement also apparently contradicts itself by strongly implying that those who do not confess it are not saved: "The following Statement affirms this inerrancy of Scripture afresh, making clear our understanding of it and warning against its denial. We are persuaded that to deny it is to set aside the witness of Jesus Christ and of the Holy Spirit and to refuse that submission to the claims of God's own Word which marks true Christian faith."[1] Biblical literalists have made clear, both in words and actions, that they have no problem with the idea that those who reject literalism are going to hell, and that any admission they make otherwise is lip-service to orthodoxy that they do not actually accept.

[edit] External links

[edit] Footnotes

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