On Inerrancy and Literal Interpretation.

A while ago, I wrote a review on Five View on Biblical Inerrancy, which is a book I cannot recommend enough. It had been on my list for quite some time, and I just never got around to it. I really wish I had read it earlier, because the mainstream Evangelical framework for reading the Bible is shaped by Inerrancy far more than you may think. It isn’t even really just inerrancy, but instead, the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy. The issue with this statement is that it isn’t as natural as it appears to be, and doesn’t just defend the Bible, it pushes a very specific hermeneutic framework and interpretation. Specifically, what some call ‘literalistic’ or ‘literalism’. This is the overly literal view of scripture, that is taking it ‘literally’ even when the text may not call for it. 

That was the defensive cry I heard most of my Christian life, ‘I take the Bible literally.’ It was supposed to be a short, definitive statement about your Biblical beliefs. I certainly took the statement seriously, but it wasn’t until I was probably 30 that a pastor asked me, ‘how do you take poetry literally?’. Depending on how you count it, between a quarter and a third (or even more) of the Bible is poetry. I had never really thought about that; and of course, most of the poetry is in the Old Testament, which is usually skimmed or skipped by Evangelicals. 

It seems that the fight over ‘literal’ mostly comes as a response to the overwhelming evidence of the fact that the universe is billions of years old and that evolution is true. Some defenders of the Chicago statement, which is Mohler in the book, point out that the statement says, ‘rightly interpreted,’ which gives room for different interpretations of chapters/verses such as Genesis 1. However, it goes on to say that science cannot overturn scripture. I can’t think of a clearer signal to say, you must interpret Gen 1 (please don’t ask about Gen 2, which doesn’t match creation order of Gen 1) as straight literal than that. Mohler can act like a politician and point to the statement, but when see a book/article/podcast/video with something like this in the title- ‘are science and the Bible in conflict?’, you know exactly what they are talking about. So, embedded in the statement is the interpretive framework. For good reason, Mohler’s article was criticized by all the other authors for arguing inerrancy of his interpretation. 

But he wasn’t really wrong, in a sense, as he is only conveying the message of the statement. The issue for us today, is how the statement was used and pushed and trickled down to all of us in the pews, because it tied a particular view to inerrancy, and inerrancy was view as protecting the Bible, and even more so, God himself. As Mohler points out, when the Bible speaks, God speaks. This is absolutely true, I believe this, as do most Christians, but you can see through the simple flow of thought, that if you don’t interpret passages a certain way, then you don’t believe in God. It looks something like this: a particular interpretation – that interpretation as implied by the Statement – inerrancy as a concept – the writers who were inspired by God – God Himself speaking – the goodness, omnipotence, etc of God; so that a particular interpretation equals belief in God. I don’t know if this was the original intent of the authors of the statement or just how it ended up being abused. 

The damage of literalism cannot be overstated. It is something I really wish people cared more about, unfortunately, it often seems that people have to leave the Evangelical work entirely, before they can say much about it. Or maybe they left because of it, and then write about it. The biggest problem, is it really is fear based. Fear is a pretty big motivator for most people, but it appears to be the easiest way to get Evangelicals to move on something. We’ve seen this in politics, with devastating effect, for decades, but rapidly accelerated over the past five or so years. We see it in the attack on public school and education in general. But our fear for the Bible and God is not necessary. We can’t protect them, nor need we to do so. When we try, we end up putting them in small boxes of protection that leads us to weak faith. 

Fighting for a particular view of inerrancy comes from the fear that if one thing is ‘wrong’ then the whole Bible is wrong, and we need to throw it out. To me, that is an incredible weak faith. There seems to be a fear that if you admit that ancient writers believed the world was covered in a dome, that we have to abandon the resurrection. As if we should only believe God if the Bible is written and read like a factual report coming in from the AP wire. To not admit the different (non-modern) views of the authors, or that scribes could err seems ridiculous. Especially, when we know there are essentially typos (actually, transcription) errors in our manuscripts. Look at 1 Thessalonians 1:7 for example, about half say infant, the other half says gentle; clearly one of them is an error (though it really doesn’t change much, see my study notes here). Other prominent examples included the longer ending of Mark or the extra few lines of the Lord’s Prayer, both of which have since been thrown out in most translations.

That brings us to the ‘autograph’ argument, which says the Bible is inerrant in the original documents. It is used in some ways as an argument against in perceived errors or contradictions. We can just wave them away and say that out there, in some unknown (and unfindable) document rest the fix to all that ails. It, again, is just a reach for the hope that God must have, at some point, given us a perfect (in our modern sense) document. We know that it is not perfect, and even if we were given something that was, you would still have to question why God would allow it to become ‘corrupted’. Right? This is another error in thought that comes from literalism, that the book was just handed to us and God isn’t really involved anymore and allowed issues to happen so that we, in some senses, most not really know what is happening now. Alternatively, isn’t it possible that God used imperfect people, who existed in a world different than our own, but then actually intervened in the millenia so that we have a Bible today that pretty well reflects the original writing?

Of course, the other issue is that some ‘errors’ aren’t really errors, or conflicts.  Is the Bible in error or in conflict with science the world was created in a literal, 24 hour, six day sequence? No, because, that isn’t what the Bible is trying to say in Genesis 1. But that is really the problem with literalism, we’ve put ourselves into a tiny box that leads to odd interpretations or readings or understandings of part of the Bible. The sub-title of one Enns’ books points to the problem well: Our obsession with defending the Bible has left us unable to read it. I want to talk about a few specifics, then probably wrap up.

I was thinking about this yesterday while listening to a sermon on Proverbs at my church service. He points out what Proverbs is (are), that they are wisdom, not promises. That was probably a shock to some people, but as he rightly pointed out, how many children have been ‘raised as they should go’, but left the ‘path’? I know people in the fundamentalist world that have this transactional view of God, if I do X, God should do Y. However, if we read the Bible as a collection of different genres (still, all inspired by God, that is not something I doubt/reject) with different purposes, we might not need a preacher to explain that wisdom poetry is not a literal, transactional promise. However, this is the clear consequence of  ‘taking the Bible literally’. 

I’ve said/written much on Genesis and the age of the Earth/evolution question over the last few months, which I won’t repeat here, you can go watch this video and/or read the notes underneath. I will point out that the overly literal (again, in our modern western version) has had two negative impacts. One is that people will just leave the church altogether, they go to college or read a book and see the fact of evolution and then throughout the whole Bible, because that is the weak faith with which they’ve been conditioned. Second, they reject science in some whole disciplines. Of course, all of us believers reject some level of science, but we have a name for that – miracles. Science says you can’t be born of a virgin, yeah, we know, thank God for the Incarnation. Science says you can’t be resurrected, again, yeah, that is why it is a big deal that Christ did come back to life. That’s not what I’m talking about here, it is the rejection of whole disciplines (biology, geology, etc.). Unfortunately, it is another step in that line that causes so many issues, not just rejection, but conflict. Seeing the ‘other side’ as against you, or evil. Evolution is a lie and only told by atheistic scientist out to get you and even worse, your children. Which inexplicably leads us to reject other forms of science (or be susceptible to conspiracy theories related to them) such as climate change or (currently) pandemics/vaccines. 

Interestingly, one oddity from literalism, is that it actually reduces belief in the miraculous. This isn’t always the case, but it pops up now and then, where someone will want to defend a point by explaining how it can happen naturally, to show that it could be ‘literal’, but in a way that downplays God’s involvement. I’ll give two types of examples. One is Jonah and the what? Fish? Or was it a whale? It has to be a whale, right, because you couldn’t live inside a fish. I find this to be a strange line of thought. Of course you can’t live in a fish, but also, a plant can’t grow up in a few hours that is big enough to give a man shade, not can it shrivel enough to no longer provide shade from a worm ‘attack’ in a few hours. Jonah says all these things happened, I take it be actual events with God’s intervention. Another example is natural but literal ways that things like the 10 plagues could have happened (blood in the river caused all the frogs to leave then they died and had swarms of bugs) or the walls of Jericho falling (could it have been some sonic acoustic weapon from the horns?). 

We see instances like this in a way with Revelation, especially the ‘Left Behind’/Dispensational view. Remember, we have to take the Bible literally, so when it says hornets attacked, then they must have, it can’t be apocalyptic imagery, it must be literal, so clearly, those are fighter jets. Wait, what? Is it literal or no? Yes, it is literal, things are attacking, by John didn’t really know (erred?) what he was seeing, they are jets or attack helicopters. 

Some of those last few are amusing, but the worst is when we just straight up change the text. Two quick examples, the mustard seed and one wife. Jesus says the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds. Well, it isn’t. If the Bible must be ‘without error’ in a modern literalist sense then we have a problem. The solution, well, learn to read the Bible in historical context, right? No, our translations will just add ‘of your’ to the text. Paul tells Timothy an elder should be a man of one wife, but we don’t want context and to ackwonwled that polygamy existed, so…let’s just change that to be ‘married’ or ‘faithful to his wife’, neither of which is what the text says. I said two, but also, go read Acts and Paul’s conversion stories, most translation change hear to understand in the last instance; again, despite the actual text. We are literally (in the actual sense) adding words to the Bible to protect the … Bible? We should probably take literally what Revelation says about adding or taking away from the book. 

This ended up being a lot more about the problem of literalism than inerrancy, I should probably change my title. However, the two (in the modern, American, evangelical context) have become nearly synonymous. Unfortunately, the word inerrancy has become nearly meaningless. People use it to mean too many things, or too narrow a thing (literalism) that discussions have almost become worthless. Often this causes people to jump around, redefine it, or use other words like inspired or authoritative. Some treat those words as synonymous, and we go around the circle again. I had no idea this issue came pretty much all from the Chicago Statement. It has greatly influenced my life, in mostly negative ways, where I feel like after years of thinking I knew the Bible pretty well, I’m having to actually study and learn basics in my 30’s. Add all this up, and I don’t think I can call myself an inerrantist. The word inerrancy is too lied to a hermeneutic (let alone a political ideology) that I don’t fully support and often find problematic. Maybe that puts me on the outside of current evangelical thought, but I think I’ll stick with inspired. As Bird points out in the book, this is the word use both by the Westminster and London Baptist confessions. 

 

 

One thought on “On Inerrancy and Literal Interpretation.

  1. Pingback: Book Review: God’s Word Alone | Monday Morning Theologian

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