In “Can N.T. Wright save Paul the Apostle?” I identified an assumption that guides the way many Christians read the Bible. I called it MIS:
Moral inerrancy standard (MIS): While the human authors of scripture were fallen, morally errant beings, the process of inspiration protected the authors from writing down any morally errant sentences which would be included in the final canon of scripture.
Why do Christians hold MIS? I believe many hold it for unchecked assumptions about what “inspiration” must mean. Others hold it based on beliefs about what must follow from God being omnibenevolent, omniscient and omnipotent combined with the belief that God produced a revelation. But I was caught off guard by davidstarlingm’s rationale. This is what he wrote:
My position of MIS is the result of simple inductive reasoning. I don’t believe there are errors in Scripture because I haven’t found any, and because if there were any I probably would have found one by now. It is unlikely that a work of this nature could be so inerrant without supernatural involvement, and so the hypothesis of inerrant divine inspiration seems warranted.
So David concluded scripture must be inerrant simply because he hasn’t found any moral errors in scripture?
This surprises me because if I read other texts of the past that describe slavery in positive terms I demur. Although I might understand the historical circumstances behind the practice of slavery I would nonetheless find that those people were in error to propose that slavery is a morally justifiable way to build an economy and structure a society.
And if I read another text that advocated pelting disobedient children to death with rocks (Deut. 21:18-21), that too would have set off alarm bells. Again, while I might understand why, in a particular cultural time or place, people would have believed such a thing was moral, I would still say that they were in error to believe this. (Incidentally, had this law been enforced in twentieth century Canada I would have been stoned — in the biblical sense — ten or twelve times before my fifteenth birthday.)
And then there is that knotty problem of religiously motivated human sacrifice. It was a practice rife in the ancient near east including, as Susan Niditch has established, in some of the earliest texts of the Hebrew canon (See War in the Hebrew Bible: A Study in the Ethics of Violence, Oxford UP, 1993). But widespread though this may have been, I think it was wrong.
And then there is the herem killing of entire populations, including women, children, and infants (e,.g. 1 Sam. 15:3). Just as cannibalism was a widespread practice in the Pacific Theater in WW II so genocide was a common practice in the ANE, the biblical ANE. But it was also deeply morally errant.
There are other errors too which, if not in conflict with MIS, would conflict with a broader commitment to inerrancy of the human author. Leviticus 11:5-6 on cud chewing for instance. Or the belief in a hard “firmament” (raqiya) which God created to hold the waters in the heavens above the earth (Gen. 1:6; Ps. 19:1 …).
One could perhaps deny that all these problems in fact are errors based on a priori assumptions about the nature of inspiration or the end product of revelation. That is, by your assumptions they simply cannot be counted as errors. But then one would have to defend those assumptions.
And what about the attempt to defend the conclusion of moral inerrancy based on induction? Alas , such an inductive study which did not identify moral errors on multiple occasions would force me to ask what kind of moral understanding the person conducting the enquiry began with, because I suspect it would be very different from mine.