This was written in response to a heated debate on seven magazine over Biblical inerrancy. I never published it because I didn’t have the time or energy for the arguments that would follow. It’s not academically watertight, and the kind of people who obsess over Biblical inerrancy like to pick holes in things.
God has always chosen to use human authors, and does not override their humanity or individuality, their cultural circumstances or points of view. In fact, the Bible shows how creatively God uses those particularities to make works both historically specific and everlastingly applicable – one thinks of Hosea’s failed marriage, or Jonah’s unwillingness to forgive Nineveh.
It is quite possible that occasional errors and inconsistencies bother God not at all. To my knowledge none of the disputed passages contain anything by which Christianity stands or falls. The resurrection is not in doubt, but the number of angels in the tomb is. Really, who cares? One could be forgiven for not counting correctly at the time.
What I find curious, and revealing, is the inerrantists’ belief that any error demolishes the whole work – that if one thing is wrong then everything might be wrong, nothing can be trusted, and our faith is shipwrecked. This isn’t an approach one ordinarily uses with regard to books, let alone spoken accounts. We do not abandon a book as worthless because of a few factual errors. We do not dismiss a story [or a sermon] as a pack of lies because the teller gets something wrong or the data out of order. Obviously there is a level of inaccuracy beyond which the tale, and the teller, are no longer trustworthy – but I’d contend that we’re a long way short of that in the Bible.
God probably expects us to take a broad view of the trustworthiness of his authors. After all he trusted them himself, and I suggest was not willing to crush their humanity in order to satisfy our demand for trivial facts. Our wish for inerrancy is a sign that we do not trust, that our faith is fragile and based on a book rather than a relationship with the One to whom that book points. It’s sad that many churches have doctrinal statements which begin with ‘we believe in the inerrancy of the Bible’, rather than ‘we believe in God’. God comes in second on the list. Such statements have more to do with the intra-church doctrinal battles of a century ago than the explanation of Christian belief to outsiders in today’s society.
To speak personally, I had a committed relationship with God before I knew much about the Bible. And that relationship is real enough for me not to be too shaken by revelations about this or that part of the Bible. If the Bible were proved to be entirely false I could only say that there’s something funny been going on around here. The Bible interprets the experience, but the experience happens beyond the book. The Bible has informed and shaped my relationship with God, and with the world. It’s proved to be endlessly relevant, challenging, and even entertaining. That it is inspired I doubt not at all. But what that has to do with inerrancy I don’t know. I’ve heard sermons that were inspired, but with errors. Inspiration means efficacy of communication, contact, God to me, a voice heard. Sometimes it comes through all the stronger for cracked containers, as St Paul might concur. So if the Bible itself is a cracked container for the voices of God, that would seem in tune with the divine economy.
So many of our most contentious disputes hinge on genre. For instance, creationism stands or falls by what kind of document early Genesis is – whether it’s factual description or something else. To assume – demand – that all narratives be factual is asking for trouble. I’m unhappy with a view of the Bible that will not allow to God the full range of methods available to human authors. I don’t see why it should be a problem, that parts of the Bible might be fiction. Fiction can tell a truth as well as fact – maybe better. No-one would take Jesus’ parables as anecdotes, as factual accounts of real situations. They are fictions. And yet no-one would deny their power, and no-one would call Jesus a liar or dismiss his teaching as impossible to believe for using fiction as a carrier. So why not other parts of the Bible?
Let’s retain a sense of proportion. Suggesting that parts of the Bible might be fictional is not saying that it all is. But we can’t treat the Bible as a single book, in a single literary genre, with a single standard of authenticity, and a single framework for interpretation. We are dealing with 66 documents – note that even in calling them ‘books’ we are bringing certain expectations about how they are to be read – documents written over a period of some 3000 years by many different authors with very different circumstances and intentions. The Bible is what you get when you say, J. Edgar Hoover style, “Bring me the file on God.” It is, frankly, miraculous that this disparate collection should hold together at all, let alone display such rich internal cross-linkages across gulfs of time and space.
The argument that a book inspired by God has to be word-perfect and consistent is itself working to an idea of ‘perfection’ that may not be God’s. In the end all we can say is that we meet God in these documents. They are the stories – the story – of God. That is why they were chosen to be the canon. And all the mistakes – well they’re very interesting, but they don’t stop the voice of God. Never have done.