Unfulfilled Expectations: The Relationship Between Inerrancy and Unbelief
"When you find out this thing called THE truth, may not be true - boom - that did a number on me!"
Dave, former believer, atheist activist.
In the previous post I said that the majority of deconversion narratives can be divided into those who deconverted for emotional reasons and those who deconverted for cognitive reasons. Under the cognitive category I said that one of the big reasons people lose their faith is because of the Bible itself. I offered four sub reasons why folks often cite the Bible as a catalyst for deconversion. The first of those was inerrancy, the belief that the Bible contains no errors of any kind whatsoever.
It might be hard for believers to understand how reading the Bible could push people away from God. Shouldn’t reading the word of God bring people closer God rather than farther away? It depends. “On what” you ask? On the expectations people bring to the Bible. Start off with wrong assumptions about the Bible, read it carefully and critically and you have a recipe for a major crisis of faith. As Peter Enns says “The problem isn’t the Bible. The problem is coming to the Bible with expectations it’s not set up to bear.” In my discussions with people who have lost their faith I have found Enns’ statement to be true.
After listening to and reading lots of deconversion stories it became apparent that one of the expectations deconverts had of the Bible which (in their eyes) it could not meet was that it was inerrant. This isn’t at all surprising given the fact that they all had left churches that were situated somewhere on the continuum between fundamentalist and conservative evangelical. In the environments in which their faith was shaped belief in inerrancy was a fundamental of the faith, right up there with the Trinity and the resurrection. In fact, if they were to have any confidence that their belief in the Trinity and the resurrection were true the Bible had to be inerrant. If it wasn’t, how could they believe anything in the Bible? The reasoning behind such a drastic conclusion is as follows:
The Bible is inspired by God.
God cannot make a mistake
Therefore if the Bible has an error of any kind it cannot be inspired by God.
It follows then if there is even one single error in the Bible it cannot be inspired by God. If it’s not inspired by God then it is not the word of God. Let’s call the above argument “The single error argument” I used to believe the “single error argument.” I don’t anymore. But what I believe about inerrancy isn’t the point of this post. So what is the point?
The point is that the way inerrancy is often taught (or perhaps caught) can significantly set a person up for a crisis of faith which may result in their loss of faith. All it takes is for them to find one apparent contradiction in the Bible and the jig is up! Anyone who reads just the first two chapters of the Bible is already faced with a good candidate. Keep reading and the candidates increase! It doesn’t take long for the reflective reader to begin to feel the tension between the single error argument and how the Bible actually behaves. The problem is not with the Bible, or even the doctrine of inerrancy per se. The doctrine of inerrancy is certainly defensible and reveals a high view of scripture. The problem is with a very naïve view of inerrancy that makes the authority of the Bible rest solely upon it. Unfortunately, a naïve view of inerrancy is what most believers have. I don’t mean that in a condescending manner, in fact it’s about the only view they could have given the nature of the doctrine.
The doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture is complex. When one investigates the doctrine it becomes apparent that what inerrancy actually means is so nuanced it is dangerously close to dying the death of a thousand qualifications. The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy has 19 articles which attempt to delineate the doctrine. The combined force of the 19 articles is such that actually proving an error is nearly impossible. And when all is said and done inerrancy only applies to the originals, which we don’t have.
What we do have is a highly reliable copy of the originals but which does have discrepancies and contradictions. Even the most conservative evangelical scholars like Gleason Archer and Norman Geisler recognize that the text we have today includes at the very least scribal errors. For instance, 1 Kings 4:26 says that Solomon had 40,000 stalls for his horses but 2 Chronicles 9:25 says he had only 4000. Geisler’s solution is to confidently assert “This is undoubtedly a copyist error.” Probably, but it’s still a contradiction in the Bible. The inerrant, no mistakes Bible.
Of course the response to this is to say that the error is only in the copy we have but not in the original and its only the originals that are inerrant. But this is unhelpful for two reasons. First, because the average person (high school / college student) who has been told that the Bible is without error have never been schooled in the intricacies of the doctrine. All they know is the single error argument “the Bible is inspired by God, God cannot make a mistake, therefore the Bible is without error.” Then they find out there are errors in the text they have in their hands. Cue crisis of faith.
The second reason is that claiming inerrancy only applies to the originals is an unfalisfiable claim. It can never be tested by actually investigating whether the originals are without error because we don’t have them. So while I understand the theological value of holding that the originals were inerrant it is a faith commitment that cannot be proven or disproven. The copies we have today have errors in them. Were these errors in the originals? In some cases it is clear they were not. In others its not so clear. In faith we may believe they were not, but that is based on a theological assumption of what inspiration entails not on an inductive investigation of the Bible.
When people who have accepted the “single error argument” come across what appears to be an error they can experience major theological vertigo. A new “single error argument” may replace the old “single error argument.” The new one is:
If the Bible has even one error it can’t be the word of God.
The Bible does have at least one error.
Therefore, the Bible can’t be the word of God.
In my opinion there are two options for dealing with the doctrine of inerrancy if we want to avoid setting up believers for a crisis of faith. First, if one is committed to the doctrine then they must articulate it accurately. It is not enough to say “the Bible is inerrant.” The concept of inerrancy must be given a robust definition that clearly explains what constitutes an error.
If we are going to pass on a belief in inerrancy it needs to be the nuanced, sophisticated version outlined in the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy because anything short of that is a disservice to those we teach. Simply affirming that the Bible is inerrant without explaining what “inerrant” means is a recipe for disaster. If one just compares the gospels they will discover numerous discrepancies and supposed “contradictions.” Unless folks understand what the doctrine of inerrancy considers an actual error they will be tormented by the differences.
The second approach is to stop using talk of inerrancy altogether. This isn’t as radical as it may sound. Nor does it mean that one acknowledges errors in Scripture. The connotation that inerrancy carries with it regardless of how it is articulated may make it a liability. Instead a wiser approach may be to claim that the Bible is trustworthy in all that it teaches. Even if there are errors in the copies that doesn’t mean that its message isn’t trustworthy. It simply does not follow that if the originals had an error in them that we have no reason to trust what the Bible says when it tells us Jesus rose from the dead. If we found an error in a story in a copy of USA Today we wouldn’t say “well, I guess I can’t believe anything in here anymore.”
Likewise with the Bible. What if the discrepancy between the 1 Kings and 2 Chronicles accounts was in the original? That shouldn’t cause us to throw the Bible out the window unless we are committed to the “single error argument.” But the “single error argument” is based on unstated assumptions about inspiration that may need to be questioned. At best, finding an error in the text of the originals should only lead to revaluating what we think inspiration requires of the Bible, but not to throwing out the Bible.
When we come to the Bible with expectations that it was never meant to bear we will find our faith in crisis. One of those expectations is that it will be without error of any kind. Another is that the Bible should conform to our understanding of inspiration. Having those expectations unmet by the Bible can be devastating. However, instead of throwing away our confidence in the Bible as the word of God, we should rethink our expectations of it.
Many folks who lose their faith attribute it to the fact that the Bible had errors in it. If so it could not be the word of God. That being the case they either had to ignore what they discovered about the Bible and try to keep believing despite the fact that Bible did not live up to their expectations or stop believing in the Bible. Believing something you don’t find to be the truth is pretty difficult. Many can’t. Perhaps if they had a more robust view of what inerrancy means rather than “the single error argument” they could have authentically done so. Or if they had formed their understanding of inspiration by inductively looking at the Bible rather than assuming what inspiration must entail they could have done so.
Unfortunately many uncritically accept the “single error argument” which is an expectation that the Bible was never set up to bear.
On a personal note: I do not deny inerrancy. On the contrary I affirm it with proper qualifications. I agree with Clark Pinnock who says:
“Inerrancy is not, to be quite frank, an ideal term to say what needs to be said. This is chiefly because it connotes in many people’s minds a modern, scientific precision that the Bible does not display."
I tend to agree with Scot McKnight who cashes out the doctrine this way:
"I have for years said the first and leading word for Scripture needs to be truth. I stand by it and it puts the entire inerrancy discussion into a larger context.... The word we ought to be fastening onto is the word truth. The Bible is true and God calls us to listen and to learn and to live what God speaks to us from the true Word of God. This posture of listen-to-the-truth before the Bible does not determine a hermeneutic but invites us to listen until we discern the hermeneutic needed for the various texts...My contention is fairly simple and straightforward: we ought to let all the evidence determine what a text is actually saying and doing and not our assumptive readings. Which means no term other than “true” ought to shape our hermeneutic. The word “true” is bigger than the word “inerrant.” In fact, “true” is the emperor of all biblical hermeneutics. The term “inerrancy” too often usurps the word “true” and the Bible loses...A biblical view of inerrancy demotes it under the word true, all as part of God’s choice to communicate efficiently and sufficiently. When the word “true” governs the game it’s a brand new, healthy game."