Normally questions of the Bible’s reliability as the Word of God rest on two assumptions: all scripture is God-breathed, and therefore because God is Truth, scripture contains no errors. Odds are you either give an emphatic “Yes!” to that statement, or you roll your eyes at it and chalk it up as a misguided assumption that a little bit of education can cure. But I believe that both positions can be true.
Andrew Wilson has a post over at The Gospel Coalition about inerrancy. I posted a few of my thoughts over there and decided to expand upon them here. To briefly summarize, Wilson takes the classic inerrancy position: the Bible is inerrant, and arguments against inerrancy make incorrect assumptions or interpretations about the text.
I began my response by pointing out that the Bible itself cannot be a proof of the Bible’s trustworthiness. That’s a circular argument. But I also took pains to say that, in spite of the holes one can poke into the inerrancy argument, when the chips are down, in spirit I still side with it. I recognize that inerrancy is an inherently illogical position. But I believe that the extra baggage that comes with inerrancy – especially the assumption that sinful humans managed to compose documents completely free of errors or incorrect beliefs- are inconsistent with our understanding of man’s nature.
The foundation of Christianity assumes that mankind is sinful, hence the need for Christ’s sacrifice. I embrace that assumption. But the traditional position has been that God guided sinners like Moses or the Apostles to create inerrant scripture. To me this violates the doctrine of sin.
For example, I have no problem believing that some missionary friends of mine are doing God’s work. They say that God called them to Montreal or Tanzania, and I trust them at their word. But that doesn’t mean that everything they do as missionaries is part of the divine message God wants them to deliver. They, like all of us, are full of the same sins you and I have, and those sins can gum up the message, so that message can be tainted by ego or just plain incorrect teachings.
I see scripture in the same light. I don’t think that Paul was any less prone to error than my missionary friends are. He even called himself the worst of sinners. So I think it’s quite possible that some of Paul’s teachings are flawed, and yet I also believe that God called on him to write his epistles, and for us to treasure them. Therefore, while at their core most of Paul’s epistles are inerrant Truth, I have no doubt that he let some of his shortcomings as a human being slip in, and therein lies the errors. So in spite of their imperfect condition, I believe that Paul’s teachings exist as God intended, and therefore we should treat them in much the same way as Wilson does, with the one important caveat: we can acknowledge that Paul may have gotten some things wrong.
For now, I’m not going to speculate on what those errors might be. I have my own suspicions of course, but I don’t wish to detract from my larger point. I believe in what I would call “limited inerrancy:” while the Bible exists as God intended it, its writers probably made a few doctrinal and factual errors along the way, mostly because it was composed by an ancient culture with a limited understanding of the world. In addition, throughout scripture its writers repeatedly confess God’s incomprehensible perfection. If you appoint imperfect sinners to make a valiant attempt at describing an incomprehensibly perfect Creator, then you’re going to fall short of perfection.
Let’s use the documentary hypothesis as an example. The documentary hypothesis claims that the first five books of the Bible were compiled from the writings of four radically different authors, some of whom possessed a polytheistic worldview. I believe that the documentary hypothesis is the most persuasive explanation as to how these books came to be. The traditional teaching that Moses was the sole author of the Pentateuch (i.e. the first five books) doesn’t hold up to modern scholarship.
For Christians who subscribe to inerrancy, this would be a deal breaker. If the documentary hypothesis were true, they say, then the reliability of the whole Bible collapses, making it little more than the ravings of an ancient people. But if God could inspire Moses to write divine scripture, then surely he could have inspired four anonymous authors to do the same, each without knowing how the end result would look.
In other words, each author captured important truths about God’s relationship to mankind, so God deemed each worthy of inclusion. The fact that some authors may have written under a mistaken belief in polytheism does not matter – what they wrote was divinely inspired and spoke truth about God.
Take the creation story as an example. The documentary hypothesis teaches us that there are actually two creation stories, the second one beginning at Genesis 2:4. Both were included because they spoke truth about God. The specific details – which are irreconcilable if one insists that they depict literal events – are less important than what they teach us about God’s nature and our relationship to God. These allegories do not need to be literally true to convey the spiritual lessons contained within them.
Now, that doesn’t mean that all ancient Hebrews understood them to be allegories, and it’s only the foolish fundamentalists who boxed them in and claimed them to be science lessons. I have no doubt that a majority of ancient Hebrews took them literally. They were, after all, a nomadic culture composed of illiterate craftsmen and sheep herders. But what mattered was that the common sheep herders arrived at the same place of understanding as the Rabbi who interpreted them allegorically. So the messy parts aren’t a bug; they’re a feature.