Saturday, 6 November 2010

Biblical Inerrancy Part 2

Some further thoughts on the Chicago Statement on Biblical InerrancyFour years after the original Chicago Statement, the same group of conservative theologians had a follow-up summit and issued a second statement, the Chicago Statement on Biblical HermeneuticsThis statement aimed to clarify some of the content of the original, and to explain a little more carefully how the participants meant the bible to be interpreted.

Once again, the core of the statement is a series of affirmations and denials and each would be worthy of some comment.  I'd just like to highlight a couple.  Firstly from Article VI

WE AFFIRM that the Bible expresses God's truth in propositional statements, and we declare that biblical truth is both objective and absolute. We further affirm that a statement is true if it represents matters as they actually are, but is an error if it misrepresents the facts.

WE DENY that, while Scripture is able to make us wise unto salvation, biblical truth should be defined in terms of this function. We further deny that error should be defined as that which wilfully deceives.

In other words, everything in the Bible is literally true, not only in relation to the purposes of its authors, but in relation to everything it says.

Then there's this, from Article XVII

WE AFFIRM the unity, harmony and consistency of Scripture and declare that it is its own best interpreter.

WE DENY that Scripture may be interpreted in such a way as to suggest that one passage corrects or militates against another.

That is to say, there are no contradictions in the Bible.  This, of course, follows logically from the idea that everything in the Bible is literally correct, because two contradictory statements can't both be correct.

These two statements highlight a core difficulty with the Chicago Statement's idea of inerrancy.  It asks us to believe that every detail in the Bible is literally and factually correct.  This means that the Bible must be internally consistent in every detail.  Yet you don't have to read particularly carefully to notice that this is not actually the case. 

Take for instance the accounts of Jesus' resurrection, surely a or even the pivotal story in the Bible.  To quote Bart Ehrmann from Peter, Paul and Mary Magdalene:

In John's Gospel, for example, when Mary Magdalene arrives at the tomb she finds that the stone has already been rolled away, and she runs off to tell two of the disciples (John 20:1).  In Matthew's version, however, Mary and another woman named Mary arrive at the tomb and watch as an angel descends from heaven and rolls the stone away and sits on it.  They are terrified, but the angel reassures them, urging them to see that Jesus' body is not there and to go tell the disciples (Matt, 28:1-2).  In Mark's account they don't see an angel roll away the stone: they come to the tomb, find it open, and enter to see a young man sitting inside the tomb (not an angel on top of the stone that he has just rolled away, as in Matthew), who tells them that Jesus has been raised and that they are to tell the others (Mark 16:4-5). 

And so it goes on, through the accounts of who saw what, where, and when.  The details of the stories vary, and in ways that can't simply be harmonised.  Some accounts have an angel on the stone, some a young man inside the tomb, some two men.  In some accounts the woman are to tell the disciples to wait for Jesus in Jerusalem, in others to go to Galilee.  In some the women tell the men what they have seen, in others they don't. 

Speaking for myself, these differences don't bother me much.  There are different versions of the story, the details vary, but the central message is the same in all of them - the tomb is empty.  Yet this type of thinking is precisely what the Chicago summit wanted to combat.

WE DENY that, while Scripture is able to make us wise unto salvation, biblical truth should be defined in terms of this function.

In other words, it's not enough that I accept the core message that Jesus left the tomb, which is the only part of this story that is important to my faith.  I must also accept that all the details of these stories are literally true.   This can only be achieved with huge mental contortions because the bar is so high.  For instance, I have to somehow harmonise a story which says the women saw an angel roll away the stone, with one that says they arrived to find it already rolled away.  How am I to do that?  How am I to reconcile the literal truth of the Disciples being both sent to Galilee, and told to stay in Jerusalem? 

That's why the idea of inerrancy is such bad apologetics.  By hooking faith in God's perfection to faith in the absolute perfection of the Biblical text, it asks believers to believe nonsense.  It asks us to leave our brains at the church door.  Or, as an alternative, to throw out the baby with the bathwater and give up faith altogether.  They thought they were defending the bible, but actually they were backing themselves and their followers into a corner.

1 comment:

Andrew said...

"They thought they were defending the bible, but actually they were backing themselves and their followers into a corner."

Bingo... I have so many Christian friends who get mad at me over my non-innerant position. But you hit it perfectly, in their position to defend the bible they end up setting up folks to reject scripture altogether.