Two different people can look at a potential error in scripture and come to different answers about whether it actually is an error. Why is this?
I think there are a few reasons. First, believers start from the position that the scripture is true and should be assumed to be true unless it is proven false. Non-believers start from the opposite position – the scripture is just a set of claims and needs to demonstrate its truth before it can be assumed (see burden of proof). As such both the believer and the non-believer ask different questions of the scripture each time a potential conflict is raised.
The faith-based approach to evaluating a potential error in scripture
A believer will typically wish to maintain his (or her) belief in spite of an apparent contradiction. He will assume the Bible is correct and that he should not stop believing unless it is disproved. When evaluating a potential belief this will usually lead him to a different conclusion about the error (than a non-believer will reach) because he will ask different questions:
- Is there any possible way to read it (alternate context, meaning, etc.) so that there might not be an error? If so, my faith tells me there’s probably no conflict so ignore this potential error in scripture. If not, move to 2.
- Is there any possible way that there might not be an error in the original language that I don’t understand? If so, my faith tells me there’s probably no conflict so ignore this potential error in scripture. If not, move to 3.
- Is there any possible way that there might not be an error in the original manuscripts (my denomination insists that the originals are without error)? If so, my faith tells me there’s probably no conflict so ignore this potential error in scripture. If not, move to 4.
- Is there any possible way that God could have intended it to read this way and still be sovereign (i.e. it probably doesn’t impact a core belief)? If so, my faith tells me to ignore this potential error in scripture. If not, I should probably decrease my confidence in the scripture and pray for more faith.
This line of reasoning demonstrates how one can start with a strong desired belief and maintain it despite what would otherwise be sufficient evidence against it. This is also why the doctrines of infallibility or inerrancy are so important to most believers. Many troubling conflicts are resolved at step 3 above. If that doctrine is abandoned, some issues may slip through and decrease the effectiveness of their faith.
The scientific approach to evaluating a potential error in scripture
If the person assessing the claim lacks faith in the scripture, or is choosing to be critical of their beliefs despite their faith, they might ask themselves the following questions.
- Am I absolutely certain that there is no error in what my Bible says? If so, move to 2. If not, I must accept that this may be an error and decrease my level of confidence in the scripture.
- Am I absolutely certain that there is no error in the original language (which I don’t speak fluently)? If so, move to 3. If not, I must accept that this may be an error and decrease my level of confidence in the scripture.
- Am I absolutely certain that there is no error in the original manuscripts? Remember, nobody living has seen them. If so, move to 4. If not, I must accept that this may be an error and decrease my level of confidence in the scripture.
- Can I honestly justify this level of absolute confidence that this is not an error to an objective non-believer, such that they would agree that my logic is sound and without bias? If not, some of my belief is coming from desire, so I must accept that this may be an error and decrease my level of confidence in the scripture.
This is the scientific/critical/objective method of assessing a potential error. You would need to assess the entire Bible this way to demonstrate that it is without fault. This would not prove it is divine, but it would make it a candidate for being divine. To be seen as scientifically or objectively divine it would need to provide enough evidence of claims that could only have come from a super-human intellect to justify belief that a super-human intellect is more likely than natural processes at work (and fallacies of the mind).
So what happened to me?
Pascal, you’ve written about the book of Romans. I’ve read Romans 1:17-32 many times. In truth, I once memorized all those verses and recited them regularly as a way to keep the warning ever-present in my heart. That section was special to me because it explained not only God’s wrath, but his righteousness, and also gave an extremely important warning about the slippery slope that leads to non-belief. According to my reading of verse 17, it doesn’t necessarily come overnight. It can be a slow process that begins when we simply fail to acknowledge God and give him glory and thanks. I was aware of this and I knew what to watch out for, so what happened? I may escape being the fool of Psalms 14:1 due to a technicality (I don’t believe there is no God), but I must be guilty of the foolishness mentioned in Romans 1:21-22.
In About Russell I mentioned my strong desire to fulfill 1 Peter 3:15. In Not an outsider I confessed my heart for God. In The Real Reason I Am Not A Christian I said it was the Bible that lead me to reject Christianity. But I had read the Bible before and believed it, so how could that be?
I started as a believer asking the faith-based questions above. Despite this, I found myself doubting the legitimacy of several parts of scripture but managed to maintain my faith. Eventually I had a hard time accepting that the Bible was infallible, due to the errors I was seeing. When I learned that the doctrine of infallibility only applied to the original manuscripts which nobody in probably thousands of years has seen, many of those potential errors could no longer be satisfied by step three above. This caused more problems to leak down to question 4, thus decreasing my faith. Eventually, despite my prayers, I no longer had enough faith to withstand the counter-evidence. Certainty that the Bible was true turned into a probability that the Bible was true. When my confidence in the Bible was shaken I let go of the presupposition that it was necessarily correct and began looking at scripture with the science-based questions. Once that happened, the whole thing crumbled rather quickly and never recovered.
Our starting point and approach make all the difference when assessing any potential errors in scripture. The recognition of these differences may serve us well as we begin discussing some of the problem verses, especially if we notice that we don’t come to the same conclusions.
Gentleness and respect,