After my last post, on the difficulty I’ve had reconciling some apparently contradictory bible passages like First and Second Thessalonians, I received some helpful feedback on inspiration and inerrancy. After all, Jesus, as God, was omniscient; but as a fully human being, his knowledge was in some sense limited (see Mark 13:32, for example). Since the scriptures, like Jesus, testify about the divine but are also fully human books with human authors, maybe they can be authoritative, coming from God’s mind in some way and reliably revealing who he is, but still not necessarily 100% error free. To err is human, after all, and those sixty-six books are human books. Maybe strict inerrancy is too much to demand.
This feedback got me thinking. For one thing, it made me wonder why I had always so strongly equated inspiration (the bible comes from God) with inerrancy (the bible is completely without error in the original manuscripts), and why it was so hard for me to hold to the one without the other. As I mulled it over, I began to suss out the concatenation of propositions that made me such a hardcore inerrantist in my conservative days.
It comes down to this: when you look at what the bible says about God’s word and character, it seems like allowing for an error or two is more than God would be willing to stand for. If a human prophet (and one would assume scripture-writer in general, including the prophets, evangelists, and apostles) turned out to be wrong on any of his predictions, no matter how small the matter or finicky the point, he would be killed – which is fair because if anyone failed to listen to a minor point from a true prophet, he would likewise be in trouble, and perfect infallibility is apparently the only way to know for sure who’s really speaking for God (see Deuteronomy 18:15-22).
Or if a prophet reasonably misunderstands the spirit of God’s revelation to him, and at the behest of another true prophet, who’s lying at the time, does something so innocuous as staying to grab a bite to eat with said prophet before returning, God sends a lion to kill him (see 1 Kings 13). Just for not taking one minor point of the message quite as dogmatically and literally as he should have.
Or if ten of twelve spies are understandably a little doubtful about prophesied victory in light of their grasshopper-like fighting abilities against giants defending their own ancestral lands, God punishes them by killing off the whole generation in the wilderness (Numbers 13:25-33, Numbers 14:26-38).
Or if someone hears the specific prediction of a true but controversial and largely untrusted prophet and doubts it, God has him trampled to death while he’s saving everyone else from starvation (2 Kings 7). Just for reasonably doubting a predicted miracle.
Or if a Christian couple sells real estate and donates the bulk of it to the church, but fudges a little on the selling price in order to hold back a few bucks of what was, after all, their own property, God immediately kills them both (Acts 5:1-11).
I could keep going on, but that’s how seriously the biblical God views a writing prophet being a little bit wrong, or anyone else not believing the slightest detail of what a true writing prophet says or stretching the truth a little bit on their own. Apparently, God takes little errors very seriously.
Think about Jesus’ own perspective, since he’s the only God-Man we have to hear perspectives from, similar to how the bible is the only divine-human book we have to figure out how to understand. When he came to earth, his own understanding of the bible seems equally severe as God’s, as he expressed it through Moses, Elisha and so on. He issues stern warnings to anyone thinking about breaking the slightest commandment in the bible (Matthew 5:17-20). He argues huge doctrines from small grammatical points, casually mentioning as justification that “the scripture can’t be broken” (John 10:31-36). He castigates his followers for being slow to believe an apparently very detailed and nuanced (and not very intuitive) Christ-centered interpretation of all those scriptures (Luke 24:14-27). He accords the same weight of absolute truth to his own words (Luke 21:33). Obviously, he takes the bible that he had (basically, our Old Testament) with utmost seriousness. He seemed to think it inerrant to the smallest jot.
So that’s why, to me, if God is so concerned about his word that he’s willing to kill by rock or lion or plague for falsely speaking in his name or failing to believe very hard things rightly spoken in his name, then isn’t it to my mortal jeopardy to say, “Yes, God said this, it’s in the bible, but I think this particular point could be wrong”?
This sums up why it was so hard for me to waffle on inerrancy: as I’ve shown, God is so concerned about his word that you can’t break a jot or tittle of it. He insists that the scriptures can never be broken. He’s jealous for his reputation and won’t be called a liar (Number 23:19; Romans 3:4; 1 John 5:10; 1 Samuel 15:29; Psalm 89:35). He cannot lie (Hebrews 6:18; Titus 1:2). The more I mull these things over, the more it doesn’t feel like he’s giving me the option to deny the absolute inerrancy of the bible, if I consider the bible his word in any sense at all.
Nor was it ever just an ideological quibble or matter of semantics with me. I always thought of it this way: if my hope for eternity is based on the promises in his word; and if, to apprehend that blessed eternity, I have to believe some things that require extraordinary justification, like the virgin birth and the resurrection; then if there’s one chink in that foundational reason to believe, if there’s one lie or original error in the bible, it all seems to collapse. That means God is not who he says he is: unable to lie, speaking hard things to us through his prophets that can’t fail down to the smallest tittle. It’s hard not to see how it wouldn’t make him hypocritical to demand such harsh punishments for failing to believe difficult minor points or for stretching the truth on your own. More to the point, if you don’t trust him on any one little, inconsequential thing, how can you trust him on really hard things to believe, like the resurrection? And if you can’t trust him on the big things, what basis do we have left upon which to stake our hopes of eternal life? Without the bible, what evidence do we have that there even is an eternal life that Jesus has won for us? And if we would trust the bible generally, it seems so rabidly emphatic on believing the hard things and the jots and tittles that it’s hard for me to say, yes, I believe in heaven and hell and redemption, just not necessarily in absolute inerrancy. The bible itself just doesn’t seem to promote that mindset.
That’s why, to me, admitting to the first original error in the bible caused a massive shift in my perspectives. It’s why I’m still reeling from the shock. It’s why I set out on this journey into a vast, unknown ocean of possibilities. But now I’m feeling for a few safe landing places as I realize how much vaster that ocean really is than I had thought. In a way, I feel like a child who decided to swim from California to Australia, started paddling for a while, then paused, looked around, and exclaimed, “I’m not even to Easter Island yet!”
In other words, I feel like my journey is still just beginning. But I’m not yet daunted. And this whole exercise has led me to another related class of perceived contradictions that’s always befuddled me. But that’ll have to wait for next time.