Bad arguments for Biblical inerrancy

I attend a PCA church. Many would call it “conservative.” Though it’s not in any membership vows, the church leadership believes the Bible is the inerrant and infallible Word of God.

This particular issue has been on my mind for a few years, now. Mostly because despite the centrality of Biblical inerrancy to the entire denomination, I’ve never heard a good argument for it. Some take it on faith, which is fine. But most of these will also level some bad argument or other as to why the Bible is inerrant.

Here are some of those bad arguments, plus my responses.

ARGUMENT: The Bible says it is inerrant and infallible.

RESPONSE: No it doesn’t. That is an inference based on a number of specific verses that do not refer to the 66 books of the Protestant Bible, except insofar as you embrace the idea of inerrancy (and completeness) already. It begs the question.

ARGUMENT: The Bible is God’s Word. God cannot lie. Therefore the Bible must contain no lies.

RESPONSE: This begs the question. Also, must God’s Word be inerrant? What is our standard or reference for God’s Word?

ARGUMENT: Without inerrancy, how would we know what of the Bible to believe? How can we trust any of it if some of it might be in error? What is our trustworthy guide for faith?

RESPONSE: This presumes we need some inerrant guide in order to find God (or to know anything, for that matter).

ARGUMENT: If you don’t believe the Bible is inerrant, you’re making yourself the standard of truth. You are deciding what parts of it are true and false, based on your own personal preferences. You are making yourself God.

RESPONSE: This does not address the question of whether the Bible is inerrant. And what have we but our own reasons when deciding whether some claim is trustworthy? Choosing to believe the Bible is inerrant is also a matter of personal preference.

ARGUMENT: The Bible, across thousands of years of criticism, has never been proven wrong.

RESPONSE: This begs the question, as those who canonized the Scriptures did not include books with obvious error, just as the Reformers redrew some lines around the canon in the middle of the last millennium.

RESPONSE: Biblical authors make many claims that cannot possibly be disproven. They also makes claims that we know today are wrong, but for which we’ve simply updated our interpretation (i.e. David’s insinuation that the sun moves around the earth).

RESPONSE: The Bible does contain obvious inconsistencies. The sign over Jesus’ head on the cross, for example, has three different phrases across three different books. By some standards of inerrancy, this should most definitely be an “error.”

ARGUMENT: God wouldn’t allow us to have been mistaken for so long.

RESPONSE: Is the same true for other Christian traditions that you believe have been in error for a thousand years?

ARGUMENT: The Bible is what God gave us. Why would it be wrong?

RESPONSE: Who says God gave us the Bible?

RESPONSE: Then why would there be scribal errors? Why is that allowed?

The bottom line is that I don’t think inerrancy (and infallibility) is something to believe, then check off so one can move forward. Or that it is somehow a prerequisite for faith. I think that working this out is what it means to grow in faith.

I don’t know of any gross errors in the Scriptures. I generally believe what I read therein. But mostly I simply grow from my reading of them—it’s not, for me, a matter of believing or not believing. My own reason and convictions are so fickle, I can’t honestly say I’m sure that I believe the same things from one moment to the next. But I like reading the Scriptures, and I don’t care whether they are inerrant or infallible.

DBH on the God of Nothing-but-will

A passage for the ages from DBH.

If all that occurs, in the minutest detail and in the entirety of its design, is only the expression of one infinite volition that makes no real room within its transcendent determinations for other, secondary, subsidiary but free agencies (and so for some element of chance and absurdity), then the world is both arbitrary and necessary, both meaningful in every part and meaningless in its totality, an expression of pure power and nothing else.

Even if the purpose of such a world is to prepare creatures to know the majesty and justice of God, that majesty and justice are, in a very real sense, fictions of his will, impressed upon creatures by means both good and evil, merciful and cruel, radiant and monstrous—some are created for eternal bliss and others for eternal torment, and all for the sake of the divine drama of perfect and irresistible might.

Such a God, at the end of the day, is nothing but will, and so nothing but an infinite event; and the only adoration that such a God can evoke is an almost perfect coincidence of faith and nihilism.

David Bentley Hart

God’s plan is not simply the total sum of everything that happens, no matter what it is — the “infinite equation” that leaves nothing behind. There’s a very clear point at which this explanation becomes meaningless. Indeed, it ceases to explain anything at all.

To say that everything is part of God’s plan, without any deeper mystery of created freedom, is to assert nothing but that the world is what it is. That there is no distinction between the will of God and the simple totality of the universe.

Sarah Coakley on how religions compare

Here’s a good interview of Sarah Coakley on how religions compare (or ought to compare) to one another.

Here’s a quote from the video that I think summarizes her main point:

If you simply look at those clashes as extrinsic doctrinal incompatibilities, then you’re not really getting to the heart of the issue. You have to probe more deeply than that. You have to look at the practices, attitudes, and lives that are attending these kinds of propositional assents.

Much more important than a kind of pluralism is how grown up we are as religious people. How deeply we have imbibed our own traditions.

That doesn’t just mean by being fanatical. It meany by how much we have actually absorbed and been transformed by the tradition that we’ve inherited.

Now once we’ve begun to look at the relationship between religious traditions in those two different ways—not as slabs of differentiated religion, nor as simply a matter of competing propositional forms of assent—then you’ve got a terrain that is much more interesting and, you might say, more complicated.

Sarah Coakley

To summarize, religions aren’t just sets of propositions. To compare one religion to another based on the veracity of the underlying propositions (about the nature and definition of God, God’s action in the world, etc.) says something, but not everything, about the religions being considered.

DBH on Religion

I transcribed the below from this video. I like this. It’s a different way of thinking about religion and God—one I find more compatible with my common observations of things.

“I never take any religion as a closed system of propositions, every one of which is true, or true in the same way. I think of all religions as cultural artifacts that express truths, or fail to express them, in ways determined as much by cultural history as by anything else.

It’s not the case, by the way, that after you move away from the basic affirmation that God is the basic absolute that you immediately run into irreconcilable differences. There are all sorts of realms of experience — devotional experience, mystical experience — and other affirmations about moral life where you find commonality of experience and concept.

But we’re talking about the human experience of the infinite source of all that is. There’s no way that could be reducible to a single set of internally consistent propositions that exclude all other approaches. These approaches are going to be mythological, spiritual, philosophical, ethical. They’re going to contradict each other in some details and affirm one another in others. Among the traditions that are serious traditions — not the kind of religion you might make up in order to sell a product — they can all converge upon the same truths, with all the fallibility that every human approach to truth exhibits. In the same way that different schools in the sciences are going to diverge from one another.

Ideally, at some point, there is a theoretical breakthrough that will reconcile the differences, or show that one theoretical path was sterile. In a sense, that’s true also of religious experience, but it’s not going to be in the realm of empirical investigations.

But yes, many religions can be true, in the sense that they are speaking of the truth in the best way the cultural traditions to which they belong allows them to do so, while at the same time differing from one another on specific affirmations which may be right or wrong.”

Some quotes I live by

I’ve had these quotes posted on my Facebook profile for a long time. Some of them for more than 10 years.

The state of wisdom is when man has no longer any concern about understanding truths and goods, but about willing and living them; for this is to be wise.

Emanuel Swedenborg

Every voluntary mortification of the egocentricity which is ‘contrary to nature’ is a dynamic destruction of death and a triumph for the life of the person.

Christos Yannaras

Fire and water do not mix, neither can you mix judgment of others with the desire to repent. If a man commits a sin before you at the very moment of his death, pass no judgment, because the judgment of God is hidden from men. It has happened that men have sinned greatly in the open but have done greater deeds in secret, so that those who would disparage them have been fooled, with smoke instead of sunlight in their eyes.

St. John Climacus

A man who is wrathful with us is a sick man; we must apply a plaster to his heart – love; we must treat him kindly, speak to him gently, lovingly. And if there is not deeply-rooted malice against us within him, but only a temporary fit of anger, you will see how his heart, or his malice, will melt away through your kindness and love – how good will conquer evil. A Christian must always be kind, gracious, and wise in order to conquer evil by good.

St. John of Kronstadt

Truth be told, there is no remotely plausible reason–apart from a preference for our own presuppositions over those of other peoples–why the convictions of an African polyglot and philosopher, whose pastoral and social labors oblige him to be engaged immediately in the concrete reality of hundreds of lives, should command less rational assent from us than the small, unproven, doctrinaire certitudes of persons who spend their lives in supermarkets and before television screens and immured in the sterile, hallucinatory seclusion of their own private studies.

David Bentley Hart

Seek not the favor of the multitude; it is seldom got by honest and lawful means. But seek the testimony of few; and number not voices, but weigh them.

Immanuel Kant

Christians need to abandon talk about ‘redeeming the culture’, ‘advancing the kingdom’, and ‘changing the world’. Such talk carries too much weight, implying conquest and domination. If there is a possibility for human flourishing in our world, it does not begin when we win the culture wars but when God’s word of love becomes flesh in us, reaching every sphere of social life. When faithful presence existed in church history, it manifested itself in the creation of hospitals and the flourishing of art, the best scholarship, the most profound and world-changing kind of service and care – again, not only for the household of faith but for everyone. Faithful presence isn’t new; it’s just something we need to recover.

James Davison Hunter

What distinguishes civilized man from a barbarian must be acquired by every individual anew.

Ludwig von Mises

It is an act of love, not aggression, to bring another to see and affirm deep truths about God and human destiny.

R.R. Reno