In•er•ran•cy. (noun) 1. Lack of error, infallibility. In regard to the Bible, the belief that the Bible is free from error in matters of science as well as those of faith.
A topic that is regularly raised against my denomination is that we do not believe in Biblical inerrancy. What is my answer to that? The critics are right, most of us do not. The PC(USA) affirms the Holy Bible is inspired and that it is authoritative for us. In the words of Jack Stotts, who was seminary president of Austin Presbyterian Seminary when I went through, “the Bible is the charter document for the church.” That said, most Presbyterian ministers, elders, and members understand that the Bible is a library of books, written by a wide variety of authors, compiled and edited by others, and translated by more still who lived and understood the world given the context of their times.
Let me use an example to illustrate: In Genesis 1:7-8 it says,
“7 And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were
under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament
and it was so. 8 And God called the firmament Heaven. And there was
evening and there was morning, a second day. (ASV)
Some newer (and older) translations refer to the firmament as a vault. Ancient peoples looked up at the sky, saw that it was blue, and assumed that there was water up there. Why didn’t the water come down? Because God put a firmament/vault up there to hold the water back. Yet, science tells us no such device exists. Is it true that God created the earth? Absolutely. Did God create the atmospheric system that sends us rain? No doubt. Does it make sense to pray for rain? I think so. But did God install a “vault/firmament” in the sky to divide waters from the ground from waters in the sky? Only if you understand that creatively, not as a literal description of a device. And I won’t even go into the fact about the vault being “heaven.”
We could go through many items on this topic as we scan through the Bible. If you review the various lists of genealogies different names appear at times. If you track the life of Abraham, we are told that he tried to pass off his wife as just his sister (twice) and then Isaac did the exact same thing. Do we think that literally happened? We are told the story of Noah’s ark when all the species of life could not literally fit on one boat (more less be maintained by one family) or even that not all species would survive where Noah lived. We are told people lived sometimes up to nine hundred years. In the New Testament, did Jesus go to Egypt after he was born or back to Nazareth? Did Jesus cleanse the temple at the beginning of his ministry or toward the end? Which was the second temptation of Jesus in the wilderness? Who was at the foot of the cross? Who was at the empty tomb? It is easy to go on. If you try to approach the text as a literal/scientific description of events, you run across all kinds of problems. Atheists have a field day with all of this. But it is only a problem if you understand the Bible to be written really just by God and for people to really have no part in the process other than to write down dictation.
Does this weaken the Bible? Not at all! It means God inspired people in that day and time and God can do the same in our own. If we demand biologists, anthropologists, historians, and so many other fields of learning conform to the Bible (since it is without error) aren’t we just inviting people to step away from the Bible? God gave us minds, which God expects us to use.
Biblical innerancy also demands that the Biblical writers write things that they would never experience and out of context with their own lives. Take, for example, all of the Hebrew Bible prophecies we understand to be about Christ. I think they are about Christ. But if that is all those passages literally are about, God inspired people to write about someone they did not know, and never would know on this earth, and who would not influence anything in their lives. What if we prayed for deliverance and God answered, “I hear your prayer, and I’ll make sure I do something about it in your great-great—great—great grandson’s life.” Instead, couldn’t God answer prayers that mean something to both that person and could also mean something more to that great—great—great—great grandson?
Most of all, it means that we are held responsible when we pick up a Bible. We are responsible to learn of the time, conditions, knowledge, and norms in their world to discern what God may be saying to us about our world today. The Bible isn’t a simple rule book to be applied in any age. God didn’t just sit back in heaven in one period of time and say, “Well, I will put it all in the Bible, so I don’t need to inspire anyone anymore.” God wants us to seek him with all of our knowledge, learning, and understanding today (fully expecting us to have studied the Bible but not just leave it at that). God did interact people largely from 2000 B.C. to 100 A.D. and blessed us with Scripture to gain understanding on what God has done and what God expects of people. God is still in the process too as new Bibles are being translated into many languages around the globe for both current and future people of faith. But God is not dormant. He didn’t give us a book and walk away. The Bible isn’t God. It is a wonderful tool to give us insight into our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. It also tells us much about the human condition. But God expects us to live in the 21st century, not millennia ago.
This is why, in full confidence, we can say today that slavery is sinful, that women should vote (or for that matter that anyone should vote), that Christians from different churches should still work together, that God expects us to treat people who practice other religions (or no religion) equitably, and that we should take care of our planet — even though none of this is explicitly spelled out in the Bible.
For Presbyterians there is no book that reveals God to us like the Bible. It is unique. It is authoritative. It should be studied. It should be proclaimed. It is God’s written word to us and for us. Most of all, it was written (and complied, edited, and translated) by people not automatons. They weren’t tape recorders either. They were people who took God’s inspiration and applied it in their world.
And that is precisely what we are still called to do today. And we should go further, because we have the Bible!
What do you think?
Until next time,