Infallible vs. inerrant
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
claiming 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
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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