For those of you uninitiated, church theologians throughout history have done their best to understand the Bible and create doctrinal statements for everybody to agree upon. After all, we have one God, so why should we have multiple definitions of who that God is?
The study of these varying topics is referred to as “systematic theology”. So if you pick up any books on systematic theology, you’ll read up on stuff like “the doctrine of Trinity” or “the doctrine of creation”. Most of these are things I personally find no fault with. Although, I will admit that doing my due diligence for this new part of my spiritual journey, I’m intentionally deconstructing and reconstructing them a la “Third Box thinking”. (See my other recent posts about Richard Rohr for a better understanding of what I’m talking about.)
That’s beside the point right now. What I want to talk about now is my favorite doctrine of them all: the doctrine of inerrancy.
Of course, I’m being totally sarcastic because, as the title of the post alludes to, this particular doctrine drives me up a wall.
So, what is inerrancy? Like the Merriam-Webster definition states at the top of the post, it describes something that is free from error. Makes sense, right?
Well, when it comes to Christian thinking, particularly biblical thinking, things get messy very quickly. Why? Inerrancy is a far more elastic definition than Christians want to admit.
Let’s start with the ultra-conservative, ultra-literal end of the inerrancy spectrum. At this end of the spectrum, these folks interpret inerrancy to mean that the Bible is true in 100% of its aspects. From empirical to historical to spiritual, the Bible is totally right, end of story.
Except… it isn’t.
Okay, before going further, let me say that most people who believe this are great people. I don’t want to tear them down, and I find much commonality with them from a faith perspective. You might actually be surprised how big this “pro-inerrancy” group is. Most Western churches totally buy into this idea, which is why you see things like the Creation Science Museum, many documentaries about how archaeological sites support biblical events, and more.
Getting back to the topic at hand, the Bible isn’t 100% “inerrant” in its historical and empirical facts. Even the Bible itself contains contradictions within its own pages.
Similar to the Gospel accounts of Jesus, there are multiple accounts of King David in the Old Testament. 1 & 2 Samuel and 1 & 2 Kings tell one rendition of that story, and 1 & 2 Chronicles tell a second rendition of David’s story. Check out these two passages below:
Then Satan stood against Israel and incited David to number Israel. So David said to Joab and the commanders of the army, “Go, number Israel, from Beersheba to Dan, and bring me a report, that I may know their number. ~ 1 Chronicles 21:1–2
Again the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel, and he incited David against them, saying, “Go, number Israel and Judah.” So the king said to Joab, the commander of the army, “Go through all the tribes of Israel, from Dan to Beersheba, and number the people, that I may know the number of the people.” ~ 2 Samuel 24:1–2
Notice the words that I bolded above. Here, we have two accounts of David taking a census of the nation of Israel. In one account, it is noted that Satan incites David to take the census, and in the other account, it notes that the Lord incites David to take the census.
You don’t get more opposite than God and Satan, right? It’s quite the contradiction!
What if I told you one of those accounts totally white-washed King David’s life where the other left in all the nitty gritty details?
We could analyze this example further, but we’ll stop there for now. But let me say this: that’s just one example. While archaeological sites have validated much of the Bible and its events, there are some that just cannot be reconciled the way the Bible literally states them.
Does this mean we should throw out the Bible?
For the folks on the conservative end of the spectrum, these things are like a big, brick wall: pull one brick and the whole wall comes crumbling down. I personally think that’s a bit dramatic and unwarranted, but I can relate to another one of their thoughts: if you start pulling one brick out, where do you draw the line and stop?
That’s a great question, and it’s a totally valid concern because you have folks like Richard Dawkins who do indeed take it to that “n’th” extreme and say “because this doesn’t line up, we should toss it all out.” Personally, I think this is also dramatic and represents the opposite end of the inerrancy spectrum.
So, what do I think about inerrancy then?
If I were to sum it up in a sentence, it would be this: the Bible is inerrant in the fact that these were real people living in real times and shared their stories in varying ways because they believe they had meaning and were important for future generations to remember.
Huh? I totally get if you’re scratching your heads on that one.
Let’s unpack that. I’m currently reading Ken Wilber’s book, A Brief History of Everything (which I am totally loving, btw), and he notes a spectrum of truth / validity claims. The spectrum is divided into four quadrants: two that have to do with exterior influences (“right hand”), and two that have to do with interior influences (“left hand”). Our Western, modern society spends a LOT of time on exterior influences: empiricism and rationality. Wilber isn’t saying those things are wrong or bad, but it tells only half the story.
In the same way, then, we don’t do enough “left hand” thinking when it comes to the Bible. These many, many people all had spiritual experiences they said aligned to God, and many, many people all had pretty similar stories about Jesus that paint a relatively clear picture about the character of God.
Are we to toss this “left hand” thinking out because “right hand” thinking doesn’t match 100% of the time? No, especially in light of the fact that the Bible has been validated in MANY empirical and rational facts it purports. It would be a totally different story if the Bible was topsy-turvy about its facts all over the place, but that’s not at all the case.
So let’s revisit that Merriam-Webster definition then: inerrancy means “exemption from error”. If you weight “left hand” thinking against “right hand” thinking about the Bible, then yes, it is totally “exempted from error”. God is revealed to these people in a relatively consistent way, and history / tradition / personal experience validates the Bible in a deeply meaningful and spiritual way. Sure, “right hand” thinking isn’t 100% validated, but I think that’s A-OK.
(If you take apart those “contradictions”, too, you’ll actually find that there was intention behind them. Like how the King David example above was probably an intentional white-washing of David, purposefully ignoring the facts that made David look not-so-good.)
I hope you find these words to be uplifting and unifying. For those of you on the “right hand” end of the spectrum who are worried about losing the meaning behind the Bible, I hope I put your thoughts to rest and give you a new way of thinking. For those of you on the “Richard Dawkins” end of the spectrum, I hope these thoughts re-open your mind to seeing, “Hey, maybe this Bible book isn’t so crazy after all.” I love the Lord and the Bible, and if there’s one thing this blog is all about, it’s about growing in deeper appreciation for what God has surrounded us with.