The Bible and Perfection: When Modern and Ancient Collide
Last week I spent a lot of time talking about the problems with the teaching that the Bible, and especially our English translations, has no mistakes, errors, or issues. I described just a few of the inherent flaws in saying that an ancient book written in ancient languages a couple thousand years ago can be perfect today.
In that first post, the way I used the word perfect was intended to imply it has multiple meanings. Precise definitions are very important in any conversation, but they are essential in conversations about God. This is why, when I competed in college debate, we started every round by defining key terms in the topic. Without agreeing on what words mean, we will not be able to understand one another or compare and contrast our ideas. You could mean “true” when you say perfect, but I might hear “modern, scientific, Martha-Stewart-photo-shoot perfect.”
The turning point in my wrestling with the origin, nature, and truth of the Bible hinged on the precise definition of the words used to describe it. I was actually in a conversation with my husband and our pastor about the Bible when I first saw it. They were using words differently than I was. I finally asked, “What do you mean by inerrant and infallible?” [Yep, asking dumb questions… that everyone else is thinking but afraid to say aloud… is one of my spiritual gifts. Any former classmate of mine can attest to this fact. You’re welcome.]
Rather than answer my question directly, our pastor recommended that I read the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. It was drafted in the 1970s by a large group of people representing many different Protestant denominations who desired to clearly state and defend a broad Protestant consensus on the Bible.
(I highly recommend that if you have questions about the Bible, you read the statement. Make sure that you read a copy that includes the exposition section – it explains in detail what they mean in each of the main statements, including definitions of all the pertinent words and what they do NOT mean.)
I spent a couple of months poring over the Chicago Statement, reading, re-reading, marking, and digesting what it said. My husband found my color-coded highlighters, copious notes all over the margins, and underlines and exclamation points amusing (in an endearing way, right, honey?).
In no particular order, here are my a few of my most significant discoveries.
1. Inerrant Does Not Mean Error-Free
According to the statement, “inerrant” means “the quality of being free from all falsehood or mistake. Inerrancy safeguards the truth that Holy Scripture is entirely true and trustworthy in all its assertions.” At first I read that and thought, “Oh great. All its assertions sounds like more of the same.” But as I read the exposition, I saw how nuanced this definition really is. It explains, “Scripture is inerrant, not in the sense of being absolutely precise by modern standards, but in the sense of making good its claims and achieving that measure of focused truth at which its authors aimed.”
I appreciate that the statement, while standing firm on the truth that apparent inconsistencies don’t nullify the trustworthiness of the Bible, also does not advocate ignoring or minimizing them. It reads, “Apparent inconsistencies should not be ignored” but also, “the authority of Scripture is in no way jeopardized by the fact that the copies we possess are not entirely error-free.”
I understand this to say that the basic principles taught in the Bible, things like ethics and grace, law and mercy, are true and trustworthy, even if the details of a narration or letter or poem vary from our particular traditions and customs regarding facts and storytelling (chronology, citation, etc). That is something I can embrace.
2. Infallible Does Not Mean Perfect
The statement defines “infallible” as “the quality of neither misleading nor being misled. Infallibility safeguards in categorical terms the truth that Holy Scripture is a sure, safe and reliable rule and guide in all matters. Now, I have concerns about the way some people take the phrase “all matters” and try to find prooftexts, often out of context, to use in every single matter of life.
I understand the concept of infallibility to refer to trajectory, direction, principles, and guidelines rather than about perfection in every detail. It’s about informing the wisdom with which we approach all matters of life, not about specific prescriptions for each matter. (Incidentally, this changes how I perceive Catholic teaching about the Pope, though that is still an incredibly high standard to apply to a human being.) Infallibility means that the Bible will not steer you wrong.
Do you see how these definitions change the way we understand statements like “The Bible is inerrant and infallible”? For me, it has reassured me that I can acknowledge the things I see in the Bible as part of its character. It is a book written by real people who received the message from God (in one of Christianity’s great mysteries) and who were allowed to write it into their context and culture… and none of this takes away from the Bible as God’s Word to me today.
It was such a relief to discover that the all-or-nothing modern standard of perfectionism, as defined by 20th century fundamentalists isn’t the only understanding of the Bible available. I can follow Jesus and believe the Bible to be God’s Word with authority to speak into how I live my life and still acknowledge certain facts about it at the same time.
Come back tomorrow for the second part of this post, and two more discoveries about the inerrancy of the Bible.