I grew up in a Pentecostal fundagelical church where we prided ourselves on taking Scripture seriously. That meant, among other things, a commitment to literal interpretation. From a literal six days of creation to a literal thousand year millennium, we took Scripture in what we believed to be the natural sense. And that meant reading it, ahem, like a newspaper.
Literal interpretation aside, if there was one doctrine that demonstrated our commitment to Scripture, it was biblical inerrancy. We thought of the Bible as a repository of propositions describing God and our relationship with him. And inerrancy promised that every one of those propositions was a fact. Since we imagined doctrine to consist of simple deduction from the Bible, inerrancy thereby provided confidence in the facts of Christian doctrine from creation to new creation.
Our bold and clear doctrine of inerrancy contrasted with the weak and woolly liberal descriptions of biblical authority. More than once I heard my fellow fundagelical Christians joke that trying to get a liberal clear on the inspiration and authority of the Bible was about as easy as nailing Jell-O to a wall.
That’s the way I used to see things. However, today I view matters very differently. Indeed, it now seems to me that if any view of Scripture is liable to the charge of Jell-O nailed to the wall, it is – ironically enough – that of inerrancy itself. Indeed, once we begin asking some basic questions we soon find the doctrine dissolving before our eyes.
Do we read the Bible in the original languages?
We should begin by underscoring the fact that inerrancy has been regularly invoked as a way to secure confidence in the authority of scriptural revelation. But there is a rather glaring problem with this notion, one that I never really considered growing up: translation.
You see, very few Christians are able to read the Bible in the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek languages. On the contrary, we almost inevitably read the Bible in translation. And as the saying goes, much is lost in translation.
Indeed, there is an old Rabbinic saying that he who translates is a liar and he who paraphrases is a blasphemer. The point is not that translation is altogether impossible but rather that perfect translation is impossible. And that means that every translation is, to some degree, a compromise which either loses some meaning from the source language or adds some meaning from the receptor language … or both.
That’s one reason that we are well served by using a variety of translations: the NIV, the NRSV, the ESV, the Message, and so on. But while many translations are useful, the fact remains that no translation is inerrant. And if our only Bible is a translated one, then we don’t have access to an inerrant Bible, period.
Do we have the autographa?
If translation were the only obstacle to achieving inerrancy, then you might think that an inerrant Bible is still within our grasp, at least in principle. All we need to do is to learn Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek to get to the original inerrant Bible. Not easy of course, but at least possible.
The problem, as I soon discovered, is that we don’t have the original copies of the biblical documents (what scholars call the autographa). Instead, all we have are copies of copies (of copies). To be sure, given the thousands of manuscripts in the early church, we can reconstruct the original form of the New Testament documents with a high degree of confidence. (Alas, the Hebrew Scriptures are a very different, and more complicated, matter.)
But make no mistake: reconstructing the original forms of the texts with a high degree of confidence is not the same as having the inerrant originals. The fact remains that we only have the errant copies of the originals.
When we consider that both our translations and the extant manuscripts in the original languages are errant, it becomes clear that inerrancy is now twice removed.
Do all books of the Bible trace back to an original (inerrant) autograph?
It gets worse. Let’s return to the notion of an inerrant autograph. We may have no trouble conceiving such a thing in the case of a text like Paul’s brief letter to Philemon. But many other biblical books have a very complex history of development. A text like Genesis or Isaiah was likely formed over decades if not centuries; sections of text were written, revised, and gradually edited together by one or more redactors until they resulted in the books we have now.
Consequently, in the case of many books of the Bible, the very notion of an autograph – an original form of the text – may not make much sense. And with a long, fluid, and complex compositional history from the first jots and tittles written on some papyrus down to the extant manuscripts we have today, there is no single original autograph. In short, the doctrine of inerrancy begins to look like a benighted category error.
What good is an inerrant text in the hands of an errant reader?
Finally, we come to what may be the most disconcerting and yet baldly undeniable fact of all: we are fallible readers.
As a case in point, at the beginning of this article I noted that as a fundagelical I learned to interpret the Bible literally straight from the six days of creation to the thousand year millennium. In university I majored in English literature and during that time I quickly realized that this is a terribly naïve way to read texts. The first step in interpretation involves the question of literary genre. And the Bible is no different in this regard. It is a complex library of texts written in a variety of genres and if we don’t begin by heeding the text and its context, we will be prone to some embarrassingly bad misreading.
To put it bluntly, what good is an inerrant text in the hands of highly errant readers?
Still Hazy after All These Years
Growing up, I believed that inerrancy was an essential doctrine for protecting Scripture’s authority, for under-girding confidence in doctrine, and for demarcating the boundaries of evangelical conviction.
It now seems to me that I was mistaken on all counts. The doctrine of inerrancy — at least as it is popularly understood — does nothing for the protection of doctrine which is not already secured by plenary inspiration. It turns out that its promise of maximal certainty is a chimera when considered in the light of human fallibility. And when it comes to guarding the boundaries of an orthodox commitment to Scripture, one might call the focus on inerrancy misguided at best.
How ironic that a doctrine long touted for its ability to secure boundaries and offer clarity and confidence should still be so hazy after all these years.
* * *
For more on my journey out of a fundagelical view of the Bible, read my book What’s So Confusing About Grace?