Errant statements in an inerrant book
Last week I received the following comment/question from Bryan:
I’m a former Christian fundamentalist who abandoned Christianity for agnosticism/atheism when I found biblical inerrancy to be untenable (i.e the findings of evolution, biblical criticism, etc). But for some Christians, like you (and Thom Stark, whose book I’ve just finished) this doesn’t seem to be a problem. I haven’t been able to find any statements from you or Stark regarding the following question, so I figured I’d just ask: why, or how can I rationally believe in Christ in the possibility of eternal life if the Bible can’t be trusted? Why am I not justified in jettisoning the whole Bible? Why should I believe any of it?
There are many issues here. We’ll start dealing with them in this post. And our first task shall be to say some things about inerrancy.
Bryan is certainly correct that I reject some definitions of biblical inerrancy and consequently I don’t see the rejection of those definitions of the concept as problematic. For example, in the past I have expressed my rejection of what I call the “moral inerrancy standard”:
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.
In my view, certain statements in the imprecatory psalms serve as defeaters to the MIS. Consider Psalm 37:13:
the Lord laughs at the wicked,
for he knows their day is coming.
I believe this claim is factually incorrect. God does not laugh at the wicked (literally or metaphorically). I take this view because I interpret a passage like Psalm 37:13 in light of other passages like Ezekiel 18:32:
For I take no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Sovereign Lord. Repent and live!
Now what gives me the right to interpret the Psalmist’s statement in light of Ezekiel’s statement? There are two factors here. To begin with, I read the Bible under the operative assumption that a superintending (divine) intelligence has brought these disparate writings together into a canonical whole. That means that I am committed to resolving the tension between prima facie contradictory statements. Like pieces of a puzzle, they fit together into some greater unity. And making them fit doesn’t commit me to making them both come out as true. So when I read that God laughs at the punishment of the wicked (where laughter = pleasure) and then read that he doesn’t take pleasure (and presumably doesn’t laugh) at the punishment of the wicked, I have to choose which text I’m going to listen to. These two disparate voices have to be reconciled in the canonical whole.
To be sure, I could try to argue that reconciliation works out in terms of making them both come out true. Perhaps one could argue that God laughs in one sense but not another, and thus God takes pleasure in one sense but not another. A superficial conflict disappears on closer inspection and thus the Psalmist and Ezekiel are both right. I’m open to resolutions of this sort in principle. After all, there definitely is a proper satisfaction when the wicked are brought to justice. But I object to the assumption that a Christian is obliged to make them both come out true somehow. Who says? Where is the MIS to be found in the Bible? I also object to this specific resolution because the Psalmist’s image of laughter at impending judgment appears to go well beyond a proper satisfaction. And the Psalmist offers us many other images that are equally disconcerting, including Psalm 58:10:
The righteous will be glad when they are avenged,
when they dip their feet in the blood of the wicked.
So I don’t think there is much hope in reconciling the voice of the Psalmist in these moments with the depiction of God in Ezekiel 18:32. But then why side with the voice of Ezekiel and his depiction of God rather than the Psalmist and his depiction?
This brings me to the second factor. I read scripture in the light of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. If I want to know who God is I look to Jesus. And while Jesus certainly found the above-noted proper satisfaction at the punishment of the wicked, he doesn’t have the Psalmist’s glee. When it came to his reflection on the wickedness of the Israelites who had long killed God’s holy prophets Jesus instead lamented:
“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.” (Luke 13:34)
And in those moments when he was being crucified he looked down at his tormenters not in anger, and not with any joy, but with concern for them:
“Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23;34)
Consequently, emboldened by the witness of Jesus I side with Ezekiel rather than the Psalmist on this issue. And that means that at those moments when the Psalmist states that God takes a personal pleasure in the destruction of the wicked I say he is wrong. And when he takes his own personal pleasure in the destruction of the wicked again I say he is wrong.
And so I don’t think that a passage like Psalm 37:13 is inerrant in the sense that it makes a factually correct assertion about God.
However, this doesn’t mean I’ve given up on “biblical inerrancy”. Remember, I believe that God superintended the writing of this entire book and he included everything in it for a reason. To think that the only reason God might have included propositional statements in the Bible is because those propositional statements correctly state some fact about the world is blushingly reductionistic. But to give up on that reductionistic conception of inerrancy is not to give up on inerrancy per se.
My view is that the Bible is functionally inerrant in the sense that every speech act belongs where it does within the canonical whole. The value of this position over the mere description understanding of inerrancy is two-fold. First, the description view of inerrancy limits the doctrine to descriptive statements (because only descriptive statements make factual claims about the world). By contrast, functional inerrancy extends to every question, every command, every linguistic utterance of every kind.
Second, this view recognizes that scripture works at multiple levels. It works not just to convey information. It also works to transform us, to challenge us, to surprise us and confront us. It works when it conveys the truth of God’s mercy and compassion in Ezekiel 18:32. But it also works as it invites us to be honest about our own rage at our enemies when we hear the Psalmist’s anger in Psalm 37:13 and 58:10.
However, we are now on the threshold of a big problem. If I am correct then why aren’t things more obvious? To go back to the spirit of Bryan’s question: if this book is the roadmap to the transformed life then why do these kinds of disputes between myself and other interpreters (e.g. the MIS inerrantists) exist in the first place?