North Western Winds

Contemplating it all from the great Pacific Northwest

Infallible vs. inerrant

with 18 comments

Fascinating post and comment at The Maverick Philosopher this week. Bill asked his readers to spell out exactly what is meant by the term ‘Biblical inerency’. This was the first comment, by R.L. Lovvorn:

I will attempt to explain the doctrine of inerrancy. It is
getting late though, so I apologize for any grammatical errors that I
am sure will appear in this post. With the exclusion of the Apocrypha
due to its highly debated status in the Christian Church, the Bible has
been claimed to be inerrant and/or infallible. Inerrancy is essentially
the doctrine that the Bible is truthful in all matters of faith,
science, history, etc. Infallibility is the doctrine that the Bible is
truthful in all matters necessary for salvation. It is then immediately
obvious that one can hold to the infallibility of the Bible without
clai
ming that it is inerrant. In the modern world inerrancy has become
closely associated with Christian Fundamentalism.

During the rise of Christianity there were essentially two schools
of thought: one from Alexandria and the other from Antioch. Antiochian
scholars held to a literal interpretation of scripture whereas those from Alexandria often interpreted certain passages allegorically.The debate has raged ever since between these two extremes. However, I think you will find it interesting to know that Augustine and Aquinas were certainly against the idea of inerrancy. This is made obvious byreading both of their commentaries on the creation story in Genesis.

As for your critique of Genesis: I do not remember the exact quote
and I do not own the text, but Hans Frei (1901 – 1988) once said that,
contrary to the ideas of Fundamentalists, the literal meaning of
scripture is best understood by comparison to a novelist who says, “I
meant what I said no matter if it happened or not.” An interpretation
of Genesis 1, then, could insist that the author was not attempting to
establish a philosophical/theological argument about the creation of
the cosmos; instead, he was confronting the idolatry of the tribes
around him (ex: “Your God is the Sun? Big deal, my God created the sun!
Your God controls the oceans? Big deal, my God created the ocean.). In
other words, sometimes the meaning is deeply buried in a story (e.g.,
the parables of Jesus, the story of Job, Noah’s Ark, etc.).

In short, I do not believe that you would be able to sign the
Doctrinal Affirmation. As far as I am aware, all “obscurantists” hold to
the view that the earth was created in six literal days, that
the flood really did cover the whole world, and that the apparent
discrepancies in the historical accounts do not really exist. But you
do not have to fret. Aquinas and Augustine would have also had to
reject signing such a declaration and they, arguably, built Western
Christian Theology.

Lovvorn has said what I have been thinking recently. The daily readings I have been doing have contained a lot of passages from the old testament prophets of late, and these have events in them that I find too incredible to read literally. I find it difficult to accept that Elijah was really “drawn up to heaven” but this does not mean that I hold the Bible, or even just this passage, as being without merit.

Since the Catholic readings give a passage from Jesus’ life virtually every day (I can’t think of an exception), those passages are rapidly becoming familiar to me and I can’t help but wonder what people who hold the Bible to be inerrant make of Jesus’ use of parables. Do they think that every parable he tells is based on something that he saw or heard about? Was there really a ‘good Samaritan’? Most tellingly of all – does it matter? Would we learn any less from the story if it had not really happened?

Stories like these work by analogy; they invite us to compare what they relate to something else and thereby glean some insight into the second thing. But what is this second thing? Sometimes it is an invitation to think about the nature of our existence and sometimes what it is to know by means of trust. Most often, however, the topic is about relationships: between ourselves and between ourselves and God. The second is primary and is used to shed light on the first. Indeed, the uniqueness of Judeao Christian culture lies in the way that its conception of God has shaped its conception of what it means to be a human in a human society.

The scandal of Judeao Christian culture is that it firmly argues that God can best be conceived as a person, with all of the interpersonal difficulties that go along with that. More, these difficulties can be overcome forever by trusting in inherent goodness of the other party. That is no small order but there is more: we must try to establish ourselves as beings as trustworthy as He; and we should conceive of others as beings undergoing the same struggle.

Relationships are all but invisible to positivists, but they most certainly are not nothing. The conception outlined above has had huge impacts on our civilization: family life, law, science, and so on. When we read about Jesus’ curing a “demoniac” we should not stamp our feet and say that this proves demojic possession exists as a fact, and neither should we say that this proves that the Bible is worthless. What we have is a text from a ancient culture, one who’s conception of the world is in some places very different from our own. They have used the mental imagery and words at hand. We do not need to be bound by that any more than we need to live in houses made of mud and straw. The meat of the story does not lie in demons’ helplessness before God, but in God’s modeling of how we should respond to the poor, mysterious, baffling Other. That part of the story has transcended the ages, as one would expect the Word of God would. Furthermore it is not a thesis that requires us to reject our own intelligence. If God is one and true, his gifts to us (our rational minds and the Bible) should not be things we are forced to choose from in an either / or fashion.

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Written by Curt

July 15, 2006 at 11:57 am

Posted in Catholicism

18 Responses

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  1. “I find it difficult to accept that Elijah was really “drawn up to heaven” but this does not mean that I hold the Bible, or even just this passage, as being without merit.”

    Isn’t God Himself the very author of possibility? If so, why would you find this so difficult to believe? If you believe that God is all powerful, created all things, raised His Son from the dead, will redeem our mortal bodies at the Last Day — if you believe all this, then taking up Elijah like that is a piece of cake.

    If you accept it’s possible for God to take up Elijah into heaven in a whirlwind, then surely you must have some evidence by which to be suspicious that this event actually took place.

    Jesse Gritter

    July 15, 2006 at 6:46 pm

  2. You’re right about God being the ground of existence Jesse, and I don’t rule out the possibility of Elijah’s story out of a sense that it could never be. But I have to weight that posssibility against other possibility and decide what I think is most probable.

    Based on my experience the probability of Elijah’s being taken up is very low but still higher than zero. Primitive people describing things in fantastic ways, on the other hand, is quite common. It does not mean that they are lying or wrong. It just means we have to dig a bit and see if we can understand what they are saying in a way that does not contradict another one of God’s gifts, that being the rational mind and many years of discoveries that it has turned up.

    northwesternwinds

    July 15, 2006 at 11:34 pm

  3. Thanks for your response. But your comments — when taken to their logical consequences — provide the very ground by which one can reject the historicity of Christianity.

    I personally don’t see any grounds upon which to proceed with a modicum of suspicion concerning to the Bible. I’ll not hide what I assume when I say that: I take the Bible to be God’s word (I think you know what I mean when I say that). That means that the function of my reasoning abilities is not to judge the Bible as to its veracity, but to seek to understand it in its linguistic, grammatical and historical context — Scripture interpreting Scripture, if you will.

    You write: “It just means we have to dig a bit and see if we can understand what they are saying in a way that does not contradict another one of God’s gifts, that being the rational mind and many years of discoveries that it has turned up.”

    Question: what if your mind disagrees with something God has revealed in the Bible? — for example, the taking up of Elijah into heaven? Epistemologically (and ethically and ontologically for that matter) wouldn’t you take God to be a higher authority than your own mind?

    You write: “Primitive people describing things in fantastic ways, on the other hand, is quite common.”

    But this comment avoids at least two facts: Skepticism about the miraculous is no new invention, and existed long before the enlightenment. Also, “primitve” thinking is also common today in this world in this age. Just consider all the crazy things people believe — even today in this post-enlightenment world.

    May I recommend an article? Read it only when you have time. See here.

    (Willing to continue interacting with you on this if you so desire).

    Cheers.
    – Jesse

    Jesse Gritter

    July 16, 2006 at 10:49 am

  4. I don’t mind the debate, esp. since I was the one that got it started. 😉

    I think we are in danger of being sidetracked by the issue of miracles however. The question of Elijah being raised up is not meant to scourn all of the miracles in the Bible, but rather to illustrate that Bible’s worth does not stand or fall on the issue of the various writers’ understanding of physical nature of the world. You’re debating a Catholic, after all, and that means I think a miracle takes place at every Mass (transubstantiaion of the host). Nor does questioning the literal sense of one such story mean that I question it in all of them. Paul himself wrote the the Christian faith hinged on one miracle and that was Christ himself rising from the dead.

    I read the link that you provided and don’t have any issues with it. This question is revealing, though, illustrating different ideas of what the Bible is: “Epistemologically (and ethically and ontologically for that matter) wouldn’t you take God to be a higher authority than your own mind?”

    God did not write the Bible directly, however – he used men to achieve his ends. If we were to treat the Bible as if it were written directly by God’s hand we would be on a path to treat it more like the Muslims treat the Koran, ie. one author, text dropped from space, etc. Then it might make sense for it to be be only available in the original languages, and for the issue of context to drop away.

    But the Bible is not like that. It has many authors, was written in many langauges over thousands of years. Then it was collected by other men. Its’ origins assure this book begs for interpretation, and sifting – and that is no accident. In this context, wrestling with the text isn’t placing my mind over God’s. The question, ‘What does it mean that God chose to use that person, at that time, to write this text, which I am reading right now?” isn’t disrespectful. I think that degree of scrutiny is an act of honesty and love.

    That act of collecting the Bible stories is too easily overlooked. The stories in the collection had to be read and interpreted before the book could be assembled, and that means that in that act canonization, scripture could not have be used to interpret scripture. If the councils that gave us the book could use their God guided and created minds to do so, then we can hope and trust that we can also be so guided, using all the tools at our disposal.

    northwesternwinds

    July 16, 2006 at 2:49 pm

  5. Thank-you for your thoughtful response.

    I focused on Elijah’s ascension and more broadly the issue of miracles since I believed that one’s view of these things necessarily assumes one’s position with respect to the authority, infallibility, inerrancy, etc. of the Bible. I’m sure
    you’ve read or heard someone say before that they don’t believe the miracles of the Bible took place because the Bible is [insert negative criticism of the Bible].

    As for God using men to write the Bible, I’m well aware. My own understanding of the inspiration of Scripture is referred to in my circles as “organic” inspiration, and has been articulated by such theologians as John Calvin, Francis Turretin, Herman Bavinck and many more (and is consistent with the Biblical writers themselves, I would argue). I take it that the Church’s recognition of the canonical books was, if you will, a Spirit-inspired, reflexive response to the authentic Biblical books. I utterly reject the notion that the Church fathers were required to stand as judge over Scripture to determine which books were inspired and which ones weren’t. For in so doing, among a whole host of other problems, Christianity becomes nothing but another man-made religion. I take it that the Biblical books which the early Church canonized were those which the Church collectively already knew to be the word of God, as handed down to them from the Apostles, and that they did so in part to protect the Church from pseudonymous and other false writings. In the final analysis, we can truly say with certainty that what the Bibles says is the word of the Lord (as Jesus did, for example, when tempted by the Devil in the wilderness). To have that kind of a child-like trust in the Bible is by no means to have a child-like intellect.

    You wrote: “Its origins assure this book begs for interpretation, and sifting – and that is no accident. In this context, wrestling with the text isn’t placing my mind over God’s. The question, ‘What does it mean that God chose to use that person, at that time, to write this text, which I am reading right now?’ isn’t disrespectful. I think that degree of scrutiny is an act of honesty and love.”

    I couldn’t agree more. In fact, as a Calvinist, I could also utter these words. But I suppose the difference between you and me is that I believe reason to be a ministerial rather than a magisterial tool. In other words, the utilization of my intellect with respect to the Bible is to seek to understand it proceeding on the assumption that what it says is true, rather than using my intellect to judge whether its truth claims are true. Atheists do the latter.

    The Bible confronts us with this claim: “And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven” (2 Kings 2:11). If you want to reject that this happened, you’d need to make the Bible out to be something other than what it claims to be. If you want to say that this is “metaphorical” or whatever then you’d need some way of knowing that, otherwise you’re being arbitrary. No
    other passage in the Bible treats this as something other than an actual historical event. (In fact, you may want to consider the similarities between Jesus’ and Elijah’s ascensions, and how these two events provide meaning for one another,
    which, when you understand, makes the historicity of Elijah’s ascension no mere trivial dispute).

    Ah. I have to run.

    Regards.
    – Jesse

    Jesse Gritter

    July 16, 2006 at 9:14 pm

  6. Thanks Jesse. I’m enjoying your comments – it’s great to hear what other people think.

    Given the substantial agreements we seem to have, the sticking point would seem to be this. I think the author’s of a given work could be passing on faith and values to times and places that they cannot have imagined. To times and places that you and I cannot imagine, and it may be a great risk to insist that the literal and the moral skeleton of the story are one and the same. This can act as a signifigant barrier to getting someone to open up the book and make the time and effort to hear it out.

    In fact, one of the “progresssive, reality based” bloggers has linked this post to make the point that the very fact we’re talking about the Bible is de facto proof that we are the punchline in his little stand up routine. This knee jerk prejudice is disappointing because the point of the post was saying that it’s OK to read the book without a whole hearted initial commitment. The very act of wrestling with the questions raised is a worthwhile task, in both a scholarly and – if and when that commitment comes – also in a salvic sense.

    Your point about Elijah as a precursor to Christ (and Mary in my faith tradition) being lifted up is noted and is a point in your favor, I think. Finally, when I wrote that the councils that canonized the Bible had to judge the merits of the books I do mean that they were Spirit guided. I tend to take it for granted that faith and reason are interwined and this does confuse people at times.

    Cheers.

    northwesternwinds

    July 16, 2006 at 10:06 pm

  7. Thanks guys for an interesting read. What you said about different authors, different times, different places, and different circumestances those are wonderful points. One of the unspoken miracles of the Bible is that fact alone. Written in such a way that without inspiration from God, or God breathed writing, it would be a complete mess of contradictions. It is written in such a powerful way to reveal the thoughts and intents of the readers heart.

    Jesse said it very well. “the utilization of my intellect with respect to the Bible is to seek to understand it proceeding on the assumption that what it says is true, rather than using my intellect to judge whether its truth claims are true.” Scripture was written for the seeker minded. Someone who is hungry for truth and needing God.

    cs

    July 17, 2006 at 11:34 am

  8. It’s quite possible that “drawn up to heaven” can mean taken up into the sky. The word “heaven” is often used that way.

    Darren M. Cary

    July 22, 2006 at 12:20 pm

  9. […] Recent Comments Darren M. Cary on Infallible vs. inerrantJohnny-Dee on The second time is differentPeter on The second time is differentthe forester on The second time is differentnorthwesternwinds on The second time is different […]

  10. A very informative and respectful discourse, thank you.

    J+

    Jordan Stratford

    July 28, 2006 at 6:42 pm

  11. Glad to see you found the new home, J.

    northwesternwinds

    July 28, 2006 at 8:04 pm

  12. You make some errors regarding how you define “inerrant”. For instance, begging whether or not the parables are literal events, proper (i.e. educated, rigorous) inerrantists don’t deny literary elements or figures of speech in scripture: in fact Protestants have condemned overliteralism and misattribution of passages’ intents for as long as I know (the example that immediately comes to mind is the contention against the overliteralism of original and later pseudofundamentalist dispensationalist thinkers, which continues today for them reading what is literal-evidentally so-as figurative, and what is figurative as literal).

    Your other error is considering events impossible just because you find them “too incredible”; how about resurrection? OT and NT? Now if in your opinion such was too fantastic then you would be, by the NT’s declaration, an antichrist not only for denying Christ’s, but the coming one; or how about Jesus meeting Moses and Elijah on the Mount?

    These passages clearly intend for their force to be taken literally by their own literary cues and contexts; the Bible contains events that are supernatural, and which are presented unapologetically, so don’t mistake your own judgment with being finally declarative of what is and is not: an error too many people make; our own presuppositions aren’t to be first imposed and then conclusions drawn, but rather they are to be drawn from scripture, then amended from it as necessary, that is if we’re Christians.

    What is strangely disturbing about your little post here is how unbelieving it is: the NT speaking of “demoniac” in Jewish terms, and that culture and context, is firmly against your modernistic re-imposition of current biases onto an ancient text that we don’t have to suppose the text means what it clearly indicates it contends; your total disregard of God’s own characterization of Himself as personable and conceivable as not only a person, but three, (at least insofar as He reveals Himself both abstractly and through the use of antrhopomorphisms) is something of reading another god into the Bible and harboring that “it” in your own imagination.

    No offense, but I think you should be honest with yourself and stop pretending you are a believer; despite inconsistencies between practices, declarations, dogma, creed, official docs, etc. both Catholics and Protestants both affirm the Bible as true and uphold it as final arbiter (even if in practice they don’t always evidence what they profess–such as Catholicism then claiming the tradition is equal or greater, the same going for “ex cathedra”; or Protestant groups holding-out from full accountability to the Bible in their effort to reform and conform to it–and by Protestant I mean those groups that are still believing rather than just unsure of what to do with their unbelief while having charge of the leftover institutions from believing times).

    And I hope you don’t see this as a post of some idiotic late-coming jerk, but someone who actually gives a dang enough to lay things bare, and be consistent. Honestly, though, evaluate yourself please, for your own good, and that against Scripture.

    John

    September 21, 2008 at 12:27 pm

  13. I’m very late in reading your comment John, and your disagreement is fine as far it goes (we agree to disagree), but towards the end it goes off the rails.

    I have no idea where this was gleaned:

    “your total disregard of God’s own characterization of Himself as personable and conceivable as not only a person, but three, (at least insofar as He reveals Himself both abstractly and through the use of antrhopomorphisms) is something of reading another god into the Bible and harboring that “it” in your own imagination.”

    I didn’t write that because I don’t believe it.

    Curt

    December 17, 2008 at 9:07 am

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    Jann Cashett

    September 23, 2012 at 1:39 pm

  16. Augustine of Hippo (354 A.D. – 430 A.D.) in numerous places attributes the origin of Scripture to all-mighty God. He states variously:

    “Both Testaments have been written by the one God.” (Augustine of Hippo)
    “Let them know that everything, both in the Old as well as the New Testament was written by the Holy Spirit.” (Augustine of Hippo)
    Now Augustine of Hippo was the first to take the idealization of inspiration and apply the militant ideology of inerrancy to it. In The Trinity Augustine suggest that it was God who inspired and ordained the Scriptures and that the author wrote under the influence of divine inspiration. And that even though man wrote the letters, God is the one who dictated the words. (However, there is some speculation that Augustine perceived and interpreted the inspiration differently than some modern scholars.) Nonetheless, based on his writings most scholars do infer that he did believe in so form of inerrancy, however it may be Augustine versions of inerrancy is closer to infallibility. Augustine proposed a threefold explanation of alleged errors or contradictions in the received Scriptures.

    That it was because you had encountered a manuscript error,
    The translator of your text had engaged in a faulty translation,
    The reader had simply misunderstood what Scripture was saying. (And without the Holy spirit to guide you, it is impossible understand.)
    Augustine did distinguish between a literal interpretation of scripture and a figurative interpretation of scripture. And that One’s misunderstanding of the Divine Scriptures could come from a lack of understanding, deciphering, and distinguishing between a literal and figurative interpretation. Augustine did not believe in biblical literalism, but his belief was closer to infallible, that the bible could not wrong. For example, in dealing with the two stories of creation in Genesis, he interpreted the first chapter in a figurative sense, and the second in a literal sense, rather than give the perception to an unbeliever that the Word of God could possibly be errant. Augustine in his writings says: “If anyone wishes to interpret in a literal sense everything written in this book, that is to understand it only according to the letter of the text, and in doing this he avoids blasphemy and explains everything in agreement with the Catholic faith, not only is he not to be discouraged, but he should be considered an outstanding interpreter worthy of great praise…” (The Literal Meaning of Genesis)

    Augustine affirmed in his own personal writings & letters that there are no errors in the sacred Scriptures. Augustine in a letter to Jerome, explored it in this matter:

    that only the Holy Scripture is considered inerrant.

    Scripture has never erred.

    I have learned to hold only the Holy Scripture inerrant

    “I confess to your Charity that I have learned to yield this respect and honor only to the canonical books of Scripture: of these alone do I most firmly believe that the authors were completely free from error.” (St. Augustine of Hippo, Evangelical Self-Identity and the Doctrine of Biblical Inerrancy Prepared By John D. Woodbridge)

    Now Augustine did acknowledge that there were difficult passages to explain and understand.

    Augustine suggested…“for there are some passages which are not understood in their proper force, or are understood with great difficulty, at whatever length, however clearly, or with whatever eloquence the speaker may expound them: these should never be brought before the people at all, or only on rare occasions when there is some urgent reason.” (St. Augustine, On Christian Doctrine Translated By Rev. Prof. J. F. Shaw, pg. 138)

    Now to the skeptic, this may imply that he knew of immoral or contradictory things in the bible and choose to avoid them. And this is one reason, why the issue of inerrancy may have never come up, because contradictory or questionable scriptures were never brought up in sermons.

    http://bittersweetend.wordpress.com/2012/06/06/the-history-of-inerrancy/

    M. Rodriguez

    September 28, 2012 at 11:04 am

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