Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Believe All The Bible Or None Of It? (2)

As explained in the introduction to this series, we are trying to help Benny understand and assess the idea that “you have to believe all of the Bible or none of it”. Currently both his atheist and Christian mates believe this idea and poor ol' Benny isn't quite sure what to make of it. Let's get stuck in and see if we can clear things up a little.

This idea that any error in the Bible would be disastrous (from a Christian perspective) is usually understood as relating to the doctrine of 'inerrancy'. What's that? Well put very briefly, it's the teaching that whatever the Bible affirms to be true is indeed so. Right away though, we need to dispel a popular misunderstanding. It is sometimes thought that Christians who treat the Bible this seriously are Christians who take the Bible 'literally' (indeed this understanding was emphasised in a recent Horizon programme on the relation between science and faith). But that really is a very bad way to understand inerrancy. I'm not sure if any Christian in history has ever taken everything in the Bible literally. To do that you'd have to think that when Psalm 18 says that God is a rock, then God really IS a rock, like he's granite or something. But of course, we understand that such a statement is meant metaphorically to describe God's trustworthiness and reliability. Inerrantists, if they are behaving properly (!), take the Bible to be making historical claims when the writing is in the mode of history, poetical claims when in the mode of poetry, apocalyptic claims when in the mode of apocalypse, and so on. Although inerrancy isn't a claim about which modes occur when (that's not the "job" of inerrancy), it is a claim that when the Bible is properly understood in regards to these different modes, its affirmations will prove true. For the interested reader, many of the implications of inerrancy are understood to be explicated by its proponents well-enough in the Chicago statement of Biblical inerrancy, a link to which I've posted at the end of this article.

So, if all the fuss and commotion Georgie and Jimbo are making really is to do with inerrancy, then we should understand the claim they are making to be the claim that if inerrancy falls, so does Christianity, or so does one's ability to intelligently believe it, or at least, it becomes very tricky to hang on to Christianity without it. So let's explore this question of whether inerrancy is a vital part of a healthy Christianity.

Note though, we won't be exploring whether inerrancy is actually true or not. That's a separate concern. I'm only interested here in seeing whether it crucially matters whether it's true or not. We can see that it is a distinct issue by comparing Jimbo and Georgie. Jimbo is an atheist who thinks that inerrancy is false; he thinks the Bible contains many mistakes. Georgie is a Christian who thinks inerrancy is true; she doesn't believe the Bible affirms anything erroneous. But despite their disagreement on whether inerrancy is true or not, both of them agree that inerrancy is important. Likewise, if things were different, they could continue to disagree on the truth of inerrancy, but both come to agree that, actually, it isn't a crucial component of Christianity after all. Questioning the truth of inerrancy is distinct from questioning its importance and it's only the latter we'll be doing.

Where does the necessity lay?

What exactly is it about inerrancy that might make it so vital? What is the problem in a Christian denying it? We can bat away one answer rather quickly. The problem can't lay in its necessity for salvation in Christian teaching.

Understand this: if the teaching of Christianity were that in order to receive from God the forgiveness of sin and entry into his community and kingdom, you had to believe that all elephants were pink, then the matter of whether elephants were in fact pink would be a pretty big deal (and indeed, given what we know about elephants, Christians would be in a tight spot). Likewise, if belief in inerrancy were a crucial requirement for salvation, then inerrancy would be a bit of a deal-breaker. But nowhere does the Bible itself present such a condition upon salvation. Nor should we expect it to since many early Christians believed the message about Jesus without being exposed to the written contents of the Bible, and before the Bible had even been completed.

As it happens, the view that inerrancy is essential for salvation is a very very extreme one found only amongst folks like Fred Phelps. So this isn't the sort of necessity people are getting at with the idea that you have to believe all the Bible or none of it. It was good to tackle the possibility of it, but we need to move to more plausible explanations.

Maybe the problem is that the falsehood of a particular teaching of the Bible would directly and logically entail the falsehood of the rest of them, in the same way that a gentleman's not being a bachelor would entail that he had not been single all his life, or that a shape's not having only three side entails that it's not a triangle: one necessitates the other.

The problem is that it is plainly false that all the affirmations of the Bible are deeply inter-connected in this way. After all, would the falsehood of the proposition, "Ahaziah became king when he was two" entail the falsehood of the proposition, "Jesus of Nazareth existed"? Is it not logically possible that Ahaziah became king, contrary to the Bible, when he was, say, sixty-three, and that Jesus lived? It surely is. There is no obvious connection between the two events. To link the two in such a way would be as absurd as saying, "if it is false that Caesar crossed the Rubicon, then it is also false that World War II happened, and vice versa." Clearly the truth or falsehood of one of those claims is an independent matter to the truth or falsehood of the other. But then it's possible that one Biblical affirmation, “Ahaziah became king when he was two” is false, but another, “Jesus of Nazareth existed”, is true. Evidently, the falsehood of one Biblical teaching doesn't entail the falsehood of the rest of them in this way.

Of course if certain Biblical teachings are in error, then Christianity is indeed in trouble. For instance, if it isn't true that God exists, then Christianity is done and dusted. No sort of worthwhile Christianity can be salvaged if God does not exist. But it's clear that just any old error couldn't have this effect. If the Bible is wrong about the age that Ahaziah came to power, but right about the existence of God, the fallen nature of humanity, the revelation of God in Jesus Christ, his atoning work on the cross, and his vindication and restoration of creation via his resurrection, then is Christianity false? I would think certainly not! The core narrative of Christianity remains.

So some significant errors would pose a problem for Christianity, but not just any error. As such, a person can believe in Christianity and disbelieve inerrancy, without so stumbling into a logical contradiction.

But there's still more to be said. It could be argued that while one minor error in the Bible wouldn't directly refute the important bits in the rest of it, it would do so indirectly. It might be that when some core Christian beliefs are unpacked, they actually commit Christians to inerrancy, such that denying it, even over a seemingly trivial error, places one at odds with these central convictions. We'll look at this next time. 

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Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy 

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