Why I am Not an Inerrantist – Part Two
2. Inerrancy cannot be proven, only confessed.
I believe this to be an important observation regarding inerrancy, given that inerrancy is so often used as “proof” of the Bible’s divine origins. This might be true (heavy emphasis on the word “might”) if it were possible to prove that Scripture was inerrant, but this is simply not the case. Now let it be clear that I am not positing the Bible is void of any true material, merely that as a whole, Scripture cannot be proven to be inerrant.
Inerrantists are not unaware of this predicament. They know well that not every assertion made in the Bible has been proven. Their approach has often been to recognize biblical material, the veracity of which it is possible to prove, and on that basis they assert that all future inquiries into the veracity of the Bible will follow suit. This is largely Kenneth Kitchen’s approach in his book, The Reliability of the Old Testament. Now his book does not aim at proving the Bible is inerrant, merely that it is “reliable.” Thus, his earlier chapters focus on those areas of the Bible where we have the greatest archaeological support for the historical claims made by the Bible (i.e. lists of kings during the period of the divided monarchy), and concludes with those areas where their is the least amount of archeological data supporting the Bible’s historical reliability (i.e. the primeval history). On the basis of the former, Kitchen would have us trust the latter. But what Kitchen ultimately ends up writing is a book about the plausability of the Old Testament, based on the veracity of a few select texts.
As it pertains to inerrancy, the same can be said. If the Bible proves to be inerrant at one point, this does not guarantee that it will be inerrant throughout. This might help support that other passages are inerrant, particularly when there are few or no external means of concluding so, but it does not provide the empirical data necessary to conclude the whole of Scripture is inerrant. Indeed, there are many assertions made in Scripture that can never be proven. Consider for example Judges 21:12 where it is said that 400 young virgins were found in Jabesh-Gilead. This is an unprovable assertion. These women have long since died, and even if we were to find some of their remains today, it is doubtful they remained virgins seeing as they were given over to the male Benjaminites as wives. Now let me pose a question: How did Israel know these 400 virgins were virgins? Did they line all the women up and point to them one at a time, waiting for a voice from the sky to declare “virgin” or “not”? They certainly didn’t first identify these women by subjecting them to the test of virginity elsewhere discussed in the Bible (c.f. Deut 22:13-17). Moreover, we know today that such a test is not itself infallible. Perhaps there were cultural signs of their virginity, but this then assumes that none of them were lying. Perhaps these were 400 women believed to be virgins, though that is not what the text claims. And we could also inquire as to whether the number 400 is a round figure or a precise figure.
These are inquiries that we will never be capable of answering. It is admittedly an absurd example, but I think it helps to demonstrate the absurdity of claiming that the assertion in Judges 21:12 is inerrant. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t. Maybe there were really 407 virgins, not 400. Maybe 15 of the 400 women were raped by their fathers but still donned the cultural signs of a virgin. Does is really matter? I doubt it does, and I imagine there are some inerrantists who would agree. And for those that would agree, they would suggest a definition of inerrancy which would allow for this type of discrepancy (something I will address in a future post). My point here is to state that inerrancy, as it applies to Scripture as a whole, is a confession of faith and not an empirical observation.
Of course, I have yet to state why inerrancy, understood as a confession as opposed to an empirical observation, serves as a reason for why I am not an inerrantist. Simply put, I have yet to find a compelling reason to make this confession. I was not raised in a Christian tradition that greatly valued Christian tradition (with a few outstanding exceptions), so the fact that inerrancy is understood by some to be a central confession of a historically orthodox Christianity will not serve as a “compelling reason” for me. Of course, I recognize that Christian tradition cannot be avoided when it comes to thinking about Scripture (the issue of canon would be a perfect example of why), but for this confession, I would need something more substantial than Christian tradition. Since I see other factors working against this confession (see my previous post and posts to come), I am simply unwilling to make it.
Before I close out this post, let me reflect on how I began. Many Christians refer to inerrancy as empirical proof of the Bible’s divine origins. This is ridiculous and absurd! If we can recognize the confessional nature of the claim that Scripture is inerrant, than we should altogether cease speaking of the Bible’s inerrancy as a proof of God, Christianity, or the Bible’s divine origins. One final remark, I have avoided in this post discussing the “alleged” discrepancies of the Bible. I will address this in a future post.