Saturday, 17 March 2012

Believe All The Bible Or None Of It? (6)

We're at the end of the series that begun here. I've been arguing that there is no theologically compelling reason for thinking that you have to believe all of the Bible or none of it. Still, it being theologically open for Christians to disbelieve non-crucial parts of the Bible doesn't make it so that every Christian will necessarily have rationally or spiritually sound motivations for taking that opening. Indeed I think there are positively terrible reasons for rejecting inerrancy that can be spiritually disastrous for a Christian (which we'll get into further down). So why did I even open this can of worms?

I'm willing to bet that there are a few Christian readers who have been a little concerned about the fact that I've put so much effort into arguing that the Bible might (and only might, I remind you) contain errors of some sort. It perhaps sounds like I'm out simply to justify an entrance into the road of theological liberalism, wherein God's message isn't taken seriously and as much of the Christian worldview is surrendered to contemporary secular wisdom as possible. Well I very much hope that's not what I'm doing. Here's the good that I can see in approaching this topic:

First of all, I think that what I'm saying is true. I think that the Christian should take it as as theologically plausible that there are non-crucial errors in the Bible. And if that's true then there's no point in running away from it. The facts remain no matter how spiritually indignant we may feel about them.

But also, if it's true that God could have allowed errors into the Bible then it's potentially destructive for us to deny that. What if Benny, through serious and honest study, comes to believe that the Bible has erred, such that he just cannot bring himself to believe inerrancy? If you tell Benny that he cannot properly believe Christianity without holding inerrancy, then you'll basically be telling him that he needs to abandon his faith, even if God did allow an error in! How dangerous for us to rule that out the possibility of error if that's a possible way God may have done things; we could potentially wreck a fellow Christian's faith.

Even if it doesn't destroy someone's faith, the idea that you have to believe all of the Bible or none of it puts unnecessary stress on the believer who is intellectually engaging in their faith. I have often been told that when it comes to apologetics (the defence of the faith), you need to concentrate on the essential matters like the resurrection of Jesus and the existence of God. And I agree. But if you have to believe all of the Bible or none of it, then EVERY point in the Bible is EQUALLY crucial for the faith. It doesn't make sense to pick apologetic priorities if Christianity would be as equally falsified from a mistake with Ahaziah's reign as it would be if the resurrection were bogus. On this view, the truth of Christianity is up for grabs on every single debate, such that if you were to concede even a small bit of ground, Christianity would be done for. I myself have felt the burden of believing that a single error, in any part of the Bible, would bring Christianity down. So if you think it makes sense that there can indeed be apologetic priorities (and it seems to me that the Bible supports such a view), then you should also concede the point that errors in the Bible wouldn't end Christianity.

And there is a flip side to this too. Promoting the view that you have to believe all of the Bible or none of it makes it easy for lazy sceptics to give Christians grief for their faith, or for them to feel like they've done a good enough job debunking it. If every point in the Bible is equally crucial then the sceptic can bring up something petty like Ahaziah's reign and claim to have put the smack-down on Christianity, without ever having done any serious thinking on the resurrection, or arguments for God's existence etc.. Christians who likewise believe the equal importance of every Biblical teaching are easy prey for this more disingenuous breed of sceptic, who can control the flow of debate by bringing up any smattering of trivial points; all the while, the matters at the heart of the Christian faith aren't being discussed. This is all the more tragic if a real peek into the central stuff would have brought about an increased openness in the debater.

In fact we potentially place barriers in the way of those seeking God if we say that the Bible's truth in all matters must be accepted if Christianity is true, or if it is to be sensibly believed. If, through honest and serious study, the seeker has found non-trivial error in the Bible, but is still open to its central claims, then we could discourage them by claiming that Christianity doesn't allow for even minor errors.

Not only are there good reasons for taking the view I've defending, it also isn't one that's found only amongst theologically liberal Christians (if that's important). Through this series I have myself pointed to three competent apologists of conservative Christianity - all inerrantists - who don't believe in the strict necessity of inerrancy: J.P. Holding, William Lane Craig, and Glenn Miller. Craig is one of the top names in Christian apologetics, and JP and Miller are some of the cream of the crop when it comes to wholly internet-based apologetics. This is not a fringe position that I'm advocating.

So by my lights it is wholly appropriate to raise this topic and show that inerrancy isn't the crux of Christianity. I really hope that it's been helpful to people, though I appreciate that it may have raised previously unconsidered questions (but then what's wrong with that?)

Of course as mentioned above, I don't deny that Christians could have poor motivations for rejecting inerrancy, such as a dislike of tough Biblical teachings, or a desire to accommodate the trends of secular culture, or through laziness and a failure to treat objections to the Bible with the required depth and appreciation of the complexities involved (such as considerations over the translation of the original languages, textual variants, and the social/literary/theological contexts at work etc.). To drop inerrancy for any of these reasons would be for the Christian to adopt an attitude of disregard for God, placing oneself carelessly in a position of judge over him. To continue in this attitude would wreak havoc on one's spiritual life.

Certainly these are spiritual pitfalls one could fall into. But, if God has allowed error into the Bible, why should we rule out the possibility of a Christian coming to that conclusion out of honest, serious, and prayerful study? Benny would be wrong to just drop inerrancy at Jimbo's word on the matter, but if, after an appropriate time of careful reflection the problem seems intractable, should he not be able to drop inerrancy and have the support of his Christian friends? It seems to me that he should. Moreover, treating him as having gone spiritually astray might serve to push Benny away from the faith (“why do they insist on misdiagnosing my intellectual honesty as a moral defect?”)

We can say, then, that the expression “you have to believe all of the Bible or none of it” is useful in as much as it's taken non-literally as a sort of proverb about the wisdom of taking Scripture seriously. But when approached more straightforwardly, there is not much to commend it. In fact it is itself attended by spiritual dangers. It can put unnecessary intellectual stress on Christians and burdens on seekers. Although Christians should treat the Bible seriously, it should be recognised that the person of Christ is the true centre of Christian commitment from which all other doctrines submit.

That's the end of this series. And by the way, here's an answer to the Ahaziah problem.

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