THROUGH A GLASS, DARKLY
The Bible is the inerrant ... word of the living God. It is absolutely infallible, without error in all matters pertaining to faith and practice, as well as in areas such as geography, science, history, etc
The Gallup organization reports that thirty-five percent of Americans believe the Bible to be the “inerrant word of God," while another forty-eight percent believe it to be the “inspired” word of God, but nonetheless “inerrant” if certain parts are interpreted symbolically rather than literally. Similarly, The Barna Group reports that 61% of Americans believe that "the Bible is totally accurate in all of its teachings." (More statements of Biblical “inerrancy” here, here and here).
Most of the industrialized world would be astonished, bewildered and appalled upon reading such statistics, especially in view of the fact that the United States has long been the world leader in scientific research and technological development. Due to that leadership, American Universities and research institutions have been magnets, drawing outstanding scientists, engineers and students from around the world, many of whom have remained to further enhance the scientific, technological and economic vigor of the United States. We have led the world in Nobel Prizes and in the volume of scientific publications, as we have exported our technologies throughout the civilized world.
There is no guarantee that this pre-eminence will continue.
Heretofore, American society has been, in a sense, schizoid. Educated elites, with the support of enlightened commercial interests and government subsidies, have flourished atop a mass culture that was suspicious and dismissive of intellectual "eggheads," and stubbornly attached to traditional "old time religion." And yet, the entire national economy has benefited enormously from scientific research, technological development and application, and public higher education, facilitating the opportunity for gifted and enterprising young people of modest means to join the elites -- a Jeffersonian "natural aristocracy of talent and virtue."
But now that order has been overturned by the regressive right. It has done so with the enlisted support of a faction of religious fundamentalism that is hostile to science and that demands and receives unprecedented influence in public policy.
Consequently, American leadership in science and technology may now be in jeopardy as the theory of
evolution is challenged in our public schools, as (so-called)
“conservative” students in our universities are encouraged by the
likes of Lynn Cheney and David Horowitz to harass “liberal” professors, as
cutting-edge biomedical research is blunted by religious qualms about stem
cells, and as research funding for the National Science Foundation, the
National Academy of Sciences, the Environmental Protection Agency, and other
federal scientific agencies is being severely curtailed.
There is a great deal at stake here. And yet scientists, secular scholars, and even liberal and moderate churches have been reluctant to challenge the fundamentalists, holding that such pre-modern beliefs should be “respected” as “private” and “personal.” Unfortunately, for their part, the fundamentalists have not displayed reciprocal respect and tolerance for contrary views about theology, scripture, or the grounds of morality.
The fundamentalists take the issue of Biblical infallibility very seriously. As one of their leading spokesmen, Rev. Jerry Falwell warns, if Christians are “able to say out loud that the Bible is not the inerrant word of God--that its inspiration is not really different from that of the Bhagavad-Gita or Thoreau's Walden or Maya Angelou's poems--then a great number of conservative and fundamentalist idols begin to topple."
In this case, I agree completely with the good Reverend: challenge “inerrancy,” and those “idols” become vulnerable. Which is precisely why I propose to criticize and refute the doctrine of the infallibility of the Bible. Once that is accomplished, the progressive will be better equipped to topple those conservative and fundamentalist idols.
In this analysis, I propose an unusual approach: Let us assume that the Lord God, Creator and Ruler of the vast universe, dictated eternal truths to the original authors of the 66 books of The Holy Bible. As a secular philosopher, I don’t believe this nonsense for a moment. But even if we assume all this, then even so, I will argue that the Bible that is in our hands today simply cannot be “infallible.”
First of all, when the fundamentalists claim that the Bible is “inerrant” – literally true from back to front – which Bible are they talking about? If they mean the English translations, then there is no point going back to original Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek texts to dig out the “original meaning.” God's truth is before us in plain English. But to believe this, we must also a believe that The Lord God guided the hands of King James’ scholars, through every word. Or if not those scholars, then those who produced a “preferred” translation of the Bible into English.
But which translation? If God won’t tell us, then to the degree that those many Bibles differ, to that degree they are “errant” – subject to error.
However, since no one seems to claim that the translators of the English language Bibles we now have in hand were elevated to the status of holy prophets, we look to the sources, for the “original” words and meanings. But again, which sources?
It gets worse. No one fully understands ancient languages. The best experts on the meaning of ancient Hebrew or classical Greek and Latin were those who spoke it and wrote it as their first languages – and they are all dead, of course. (For that matter, “living” natural languages are inherently vague and ambiguous to some degree – but that’s the subject of another essay).
So modern scholars do the best they can by reading ancient texts as they try to “get into the heads” of those who wrote them. And, of course, those scholars disagree with each other – even if one or another of them entertains the colossal conceit that they are reading, and understanding, the “inerrant word of God.”
So who will tell which of these worthies really has a grip on “God’s Words.” Is it just possible that none of them has that grip? If not, or if there is no way to determine which scholar "really understands" what God meant in the holy writ, then the Bible is errant.
Some fundamentalists avoid the translation problem by asserting that while the original texts, the “autographs,” were free of error, “mistakes many have crept into the translated version.” (Swaggert, Straight Answers to Tough Questions, p. 8). The Mormons’ eighth “Article of Faith” concurs: “We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly...” This is presumably the position taken by most Christians who believe the Bible to be truly “Holy.”
The kicker is that “translated correctly” bit. How does one determine whether a translation is “correct” or not? On this question, God is silent. So when the preacher pounds his Bible and says "this is the word of God! (assuming, of course, it is translated correctly, which we can't know for sure)" he can not claim to be speaking God's “inerrant” truth.
It comes to this: If there is no “inerrant” way to determine which translation or interpretation of text is the one, singular, “inerrant” Holy Truth of the Bible, then there is no “inerrant” Biblical truth. Once you add the qualifier, “as far as it is translated correctly,” you have given away the game.
Some logicians call this “the bottleneck problem,” which might as well be called “the weakest link in the chain problem.”
Here’s another example. According to Catholic doctrine, the Pope speaks “the infallible truth” when he speaks “ex cathedra” – from his “office” -- on matters of faith and morals.
Let’s assume he does so. (Of course I don’t believe this, but let’s be hypothetical here). But do we know, infallibly, when the Pope is speaking infallibly (ex cathedra)? If not, then nothing the Pope says is infallible. The “fallible” ex cathedra criterion is the weak link in the chain.
To return to our original albeit extreme assumption, let’s suppose that when the Pentateuch (the first five books) was written (presumably in Mesopotamia during the Babylonian Captivity in the sixth century BC) The Lord God Himself was in the room dictating inerrant Holy Truth to the scribes. He did so in a language half forgotten today, and on a manuscript that is long lost. The “chain of custody” – copies of copies, translations of translations – is long and replete with uncounted “weak links.” This is also the case with New Testament texts, none of which were written by an individual personally acquainted with Jesus of Nazareth (although the author of the Book of Mark, the earliest gospel, is believed by many to have been the "secretary" of the disciple Peter).
Because the “weak links” in this “chain of custody” are fallible (“errant”), so too is the received text that we have today – no matter how perfectly and “inerrantly” true the original message might be.
In sum: even if we assume that the original “autographs” of the books of the Bible were the 100% certified error-free “Word of God,” the Bible that we have today and that we read from must necessarily be “errant” – containing messages and meaning not intended by the original authors.
In fact, I am personally unpersuaded by the doctrine of original infallibility. According to my secular perspective, the unknown authors of the books of the Bible wrote in the language and amidst the culture of their times – a fact that is clearly indicated by a scrupulous (“higher critical”) examination of the received texts. Those were pre-scientific times and tribal cultures. Thus the Bible is scientifically worthless and, in the early texts, often morally atrocious. Still, late in the Old Testament (the so-called “minor prophets”) and most assuredly in the four gospels of the New Testament, we find inspired moral teaching.
If we free ourselves of the dogma that every word in the Bible comes straight from the mouth of God, we will no longer feel obliged to justify the genocides depicted in the early books of the Old Testament, and might be even more outraged by the genocides taking place today. We can accept the evidence of the sciences without being distracted by ancient myths. No longer claiming to be in possession of eternal truth, we can open our minds to new ideas and can be tolerant of other faiths – or even of those with no faith. Free of such fantasies as “the rapture,” we can act with enlightened determination to restore the earth’s environment and to build a just and compassionate society and world. The doctrine of “inerrancy” is a crutch and a shackle, and for the sake of our intellectual growth, moral well-being and domestic tranquility, we should be well rid of it. (See my "One Nation, Under God, Divisible).
That said, we can still acknowledge that The Bible is a valuable legacy from the past, from which we can learn a great deal – if we read it critically, informed by the knowledge and scholarship that has accumulated since it was written over the span of several centuries.
But that’s just my opinion – an opinion, I am told, that has earned me an eternity of damnation.
Copyright 2005 by Ernest Partridge
Conscience of a Progressive: A book in progress.
Partridge's Scholarly Publications. (The Online Gadfly)
Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers".