Case Study – Inerrancy
Bees in Our Theological Bonnets: A Case Study of the Christian Doctrine of Inerrancy
A young lady named Sheryl has a problem. She finds herself in an academic environment with information flying about like bees in the springtime. Recently, Sheryl has been stung by a bee, and her bee has come in the form of a sticky theological conundrum. One of Sheryl’s professors has been teaching her that the Bible contains errors, yet this professor also claims that the Bible is authoritative, the final word, for daily Christian living. Christians find that many of their foundational beliefs rest within the pages of their holy Bible. Since the Bible is so foundational for Christian belief systems, the Bible is under close scrutiny by many interested individuals and groups. A key debate rages surrounding the doctrine of inerrancy. The Orthodox view of this doctrine claims that the Bible is the plenary, authoritative, and inspired word of God, being the perfect words of a perfect God. Sheryl does not understand how her professor reconciles his belief in errancy with his belief in the authority of the Bible as God’s words to people. Sheryl is not alone in her dilemma, and her situation makes way for a detailed discussion of both sides of the argument. A closer look at the arguments against inerrancy and the rationale supporting inerrancy will help to create an informed view for Sheryl and others who struggle to correlate conflicting messages from errantists and inerrantists.
Errantists claim that the Bible “contains internal contradictions and discrepancies” (Williams 53) that necessarily show the flaws behind the doctrinal position of inerrancy. This claim about the lack of internal coherency in the Bible assumes that the rational belief in inerrancy requires the absolute corroboration of scientific, mathematic, literary, and historical evidence within the Bible itself. Then, the errantist position assumes that if the Bible is internally self-contradictory that the argument for inerrancy becomes null and void. The general layout of an errantist argument then is to highlight the internal conflicts contained within the Bible by making examples of specific passages that demonstrate error. The conclusion then, indeed a persuasive conclusion, is that the doctrine of inerrancy is an a priori construct wherein a man-made idea is forced upon a divine document (71). This would mean that theologians constructed the doctrine of inerrancy before finding sufficient internal scriptural evidence. The errantist position then pushes for a more open view, a redefinition, of the tenets of viewing the Bible as the inspired, plenary, and authoritative words of God. The final claim creates a new “platform for admitting a very human Bible,” meaning a Bible that contains internal errors and contradictions, that is still “authoritative as a witness to God’s revelation in Christ” (73).
However convincing the errantist’s position is, the position argues against two specific views of inerrancy. Specifically, the above errancy argument casts a shadow of doubt upon the extreme fundamentalist’s view of inerrancy. The extreme fundamentalist’s view of the doctrine of inerrancy requires a kind of hyper-defensive stance, necessitating a “harmonizing hermeneutic” (Williams 67) that goes to the extreme of explaining errors using seemingly sub-rational methods. Additionally, the errantist argues that the conservative inerrantist position of “suspended judgment” is equally irrational (Moreland 77). While sub-rational methods might be used in some cases of harmonizing hermeneutics, the position of inerrancy, whether harmonizing or suspended, remains defensible from a rational standpoint.
If a rational position that supports inerrancy in the least accommodates suspended judgment, then belief in inerrancy would be rational. A basis for validating inerrancy is based upon a discussion of the nature of rationality. If a standard that sets the criteria for rationality is established then a person can use that standard to prove the rationality of inerrancy. J.P. Moreland discusses this approach in “The Rationality of Belief in Inerrancy.” His system of rationality is based upon the idea that a person can know a priori a case as more certain than other cases as a reflection of the innate and rational ability humans have to perform the function of knowing. Since humans must be able to know certain things, Moreland uses two technical phrases to explain the rationality of believing. These two phrases are the “presumption of favor” (79) and the “noetic structure” (82). Moreland argues that holding a rational belief requires at least a minimal presumption of favor, or obvious benefit to belief, than no presumption of favor. This idea is tied closely to the paradigm of the noetic structure. The noetic structure is a conceptual model for a belief system wherein a set of beliefs are interconnected like a spider web. The web of beliefs expresses a hierarchy since certain beliefs have a more structurally important role than others in holding the web together. The more “ingressed,” or critically important, a belief is, the more presumed favor that belief retains since changing a key belief would entail restructuring the entire web. The belief in inerrancy is deeply ingressed in several key Christian doctrines. Therefore, according to current noetic structures for most Orthodox Christians, the inerrancy of scripture is a rational belief.
The debate comes to a head when, like Sheryl’s professor, many hold to errancy as well as the authority of Biblical scripture. Authoritative errantists are a seemingly self-contradictory anomaly. However, one may employ the rational strategy of the inerrantist to reconcile such a view. The noetic structure of this view has a different core structure than a strict inerrantist. Authoritative errantists redefine the core issue at stake. Whereas a strict inerrantist holds that the inerrancy of the Bible reflects a perfect God, an authoritative errantist holds that errors in the Bible have no bearing upon the perfection of God. For the authoritative errantists, the key issue is not God’s character, since they believe that the Bible authoritatively reveals God’s character as the standard of righteousness and love and Christ as the ultimate revelation of God’s character (Williams 73). The key issue lies in the idea that the Bible was passed through erring human hands and cannot possibly be technically perfect; however, this idea is supported by the belief that the Bible Christians have today is exactly the Bible God meant them to have, “warts and all” (72), for even if Christians had a perfect collection of God’s words to people, the flawed nature of humanity would prevent correct interpretation just as it does today.
The debate over inerrancy involves a wide spectrum of issues that really seem to be heart issues more than rational issues in the end. From every angle, the debate reflects the problems of human character as revealed by the problems readers of Biblical scripture have discerning God’s character. The extreme inerrantist approaches the doctrine as the lifeboat for the rest of her/his beliefs about God, for God’s perfect character must be taught by a perfect text. This view supports a fearful heart attitude since one must work so anxiously and depend upon inerrancy so much that one does not depend enough upon God. However, the other end of the spectrum holds to the belief that the Bible contains internal as well as external errors. This can lead to a boastful attitude wherein the advocates of that position may begin to think of themselves as there own authority. The authoritative errantist seems to strike a balance between what a person rationally knows as well as the limits of human perspective, but this group too may fall victim to an attitude of apathy since epistemically since they seem to have stepped outside of the debate by redirecting the focus of errance/inerrance from the perfection of scripture to the acceptability of flaws and the authority God has to reveal Himself however He wants. For students like Sheryl, knowledge of the different types of arguments for each viewpoint as well as what is theologically and emotionally at stake hopefully creates an opportunity for Sheryl to talk again with he professor. Knowing that inerrancy is rational may support her in her journey towards finding the answer for herself as well maintaining unity in the Body of Christ by maintaining a peaceful and understanding relationship between her and her professor.