5. Inerrancy construes the Bible as a mere repository of truth.
Inerrancy is hardly ever about error. I believe that the core concern of the inerrantist movement is that of truth. Error only enters the discussion insofar as it is assumed to be antithetical to truth. Thus, for many, the mere presence of error in Scripture suggests that Scripture’s truth is in question. This assumption itself is worth questioning. Could not error be a medium through which truth is communicated? All of this really boils down to my previous post where I discussed the problem of actually finding a standard against which biblical error/truth could be measured. Let us assume that science is a standard against which we should measure the Bible. Is there any question that the ancient Israelites were erroneous regarding the nature of the cosmos (flat earth, solid dome sky, earth surrounded by cosmic sea)? And yet, have they not been successful at using that erroneous cosmological worldview to communicate what is certainly the more important truth, that of God’s own activity and presence within the cosmos? Nevertheless, short of a definitive standard for truth or error, we will forever be debating what actually constitutes error, and thus incapable of ever really addressing the real issue of biblical truth–what I would like to do now.
I am not one who would deny that the abstract concept ‘truth’ actually exists, and that it is a meaningful concept in relation to the biblical text. Just because a concept is notoriously difficult to define and nail down does not mean that concept doesn’t exist. The significant question, as I understand it, is What is the nature of Scripture’s association with truth? I am afraid that inerrantists construe this relationship too simply, as though Scripture is merely a repository of truth or truths. Thus, one need only open the pages of the bible and one will find truth scattered throughout the pages. Maybe. But then again, the Bible gives naysayers and skeptics plenty of room to plead their case on the pages of the Bible, the book of Job being a classic example. It cannot be as simple as opening the Bible, reading something, and knowing that what you just read was error-free (thus true), because the Bible testifies that it isn’t so (Job 42:7).
When the Bible is understood as merely a repository of truth or truths, the significant question arises as to what one is to make of conflicting truths. I believe one of the most liberating things about not being an inerrantist is giving up the false notion that the Bible doesn’t contain contradictions. The problem with the problem of contradictions in the Bible is that contradictions are the warp and woof of Christianity. Paul’s glorified reading of Abraham as the model of Christian faith demonstrates this well. “In hope, he believed against hope . . .” (Rom 4:18). People don’t rise from the dead. If this were not true, Christianity would ultimately be rendered meaningless. And yet, Christianity simultaneously declares as true that Jesus has indeed risen from the dead. In hope, we believe against hope. Contradictions in the Bible are an extension of our faith. The reflect the way we live and what we we experience in life (see this video, particularly 33:50-the end). Thus, I believe it is natural to see the Bible contain and entertain contradictions. In this vein, Scripture is often described as dialogical. I believe that this is, at present, the best way we know how to approach the truth of Scripture.
Scripture’s truth is not a collection of true assertions but a dialogue of voices asserting, counter-asserting, refuting, and defending what is true. The truth is not in any one voice, but in the world that emerges from the many voices through whom God has chosen to equip and direct us. Inerrancy does not allow us to conceive the full vision of this world because it demands that we deny much of how this world is expressed. It defines truth, and understands our capacity for grasping it, in ways that are significantly problematic. Earlier last year, Chris Tilling wrote an exceptional post entitled Negotiating Tensions In the Bible in which he made this observation: “Truth is a multifaceted complex beast, not easily domesticated, tamed or boxed.” To quote Wayne Meeks in a lecture he gave in 2007 at Abilene Christian University, “The next time you hear someone say, ‘The Bible clearly teaches…’, please say to yourself, if not to the speaker, ‘no it doesn’t.’ The Apostle Paul knew the Bible better than any of us and he said, ‘now I know only in part.’ If the Bible ‘teaches’, it does so only through a mirror darkly until the end of time” (HT: Ben Griffith). And should either of these two quotes bother you, or should you find yourself strongly in disagreement, please consider viewing this TED video where the presenter demonstrates and concludes that “only through uncertainty is there potential for understanding.”
In the end, it really all boils down to something David Kerr said in a recent post: “Those who read the Bible in a way it was not intended by its author do more violence to the spirit and intent of the Scriptures.” Simply put, I don’t think the human authors or the divine author ever intended us to read Scripture with the baggage of inerrancy. And that is why I am not an inerrantist.