Dear Russell & Friends,
Today begins an attempt to reply to Russell’s reasons for not following Christ. The icon above is a Rembrandt circa 1659 entitled Jacob Wrestling with the Angel. It depicts the biblical story from Genesis 32. That story about Jacob’s life has always had meaning for me. God allows us to, even encourages us to wrestle with him. He did not create automatons and your intellect does matter. I have wrestled with many things in faith. Sometimes I win the match. Sometimes I lose. I always come out better for the struggle, and like Jacob, I still limp. Russell and I talked yesterday and agreed on a general format for going forward. I’ll try to reply to one reason each week. As the reasons unfold you’ll see that we could spend a year on each one or even an academic career. That is neither feasible nor desirable for our purposes. There are, however, scholars on both sides of the argument who have spent substantial time and effort in producing works for the interested and the curious. Whenever possible, lets lead each other to those works. Without further ado:
Reason 1: The Bible is neither inerrant nor infallible.
That was a great place to start. As I’ve mentioned before, I have four cornerstones for belief that are also stumbling blocks for the skeptic: supernatural, scripture, saints, and saviour. Russell started with scripture and began with the specific language of the churches that he and I grew up in.
Inerrancy is the doctrine that the Bible is without error or fault in all its teaching.
Infallibility is the belief that what the Bible says regarding matters of faith and Christian practice is wholly useful and true.
Some equate the two terms and some don’t There are subtle differences that the equators find irrelevant. One point of agreement, however, is that the belief in inerrancy and infallibility is not the same as the belief in biblical literalism.
What was Russell arguing and why was this a good place to start? He responded to a common American fundamentalist evangelical teaching – – something that we both grew up with. I wrestled with his first reason in several ways (and continue to do so):
- I studied inerrancy by reading a small book on my shelf then posted the reflections here. This document would certainly be representative of the church to which I’m going this morning and in fact of all the churches that I’ve attended since childhood.
- Russell replied with a detailed analysis of my thoughts and of the statement.
- I started reading again, primarily Bart Ehrman and N.T. Wright. Both are accomplished New Testament scholars who come to completely different conclusions. I’ve only read one Ehrman book, but I must read more. It is difficult for me because his attempts to constrain sarcasm sometimes seem half-hearted.
- I began to realize that my reading had in fact been narrow. What about the context of scripture in the landscape of sacred texts and world history? That’s when Russell introduced me to Audible books and I turned off NPR during the commute. The bookshelf page is an attempt to chronicle my reading with Russell and before him.
- I continued to run and think and sleep, realizing that so much happens in my subconscious before I have the thought accessible in the frontal lobe and available to write here.
- I realized that I might be fighting on the wrong hill. What exactly does scripture mean to me? Should I defend the terms inerrant or infallible? That’s what Russell was trying to get at with his very patient reply to me. I accepted the terms initially and was prepared to defend them. I had grown up with them. As I studied more, it appears that American protestants for the last two hundred years had grown up with them.
- I reconsidered. My experiment in defending the terms inerrant and infallible yielded a negative result. It did not increase my love for Christ or my love for others. It was not a sure and sufficient reason for my skeptical friend. The scientific method cherishes negative experiments. They teach you as much as the positive ones. However, there is a publication bias that over-represents the experiments which validate the initial hypothesis.
- Where do I stand now? Here is the best description of my regard for scripture:
16 All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 17 that the man of God may be complete,equipped for every good work. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 (ESV)
I was answering the wrong question, but it was the question posed by the fundamental American Christianity that Russell and I knew so well. What are the consequences of taking my stand on a different hill? I suppose that you could view this as a retreat. But, if I’m arguing the wrong thing in the wrong spirit, then I should retreat. This represents a healthier way of representing what scripture actually means in my life. That is why I’m going slowly through Romans. What is the consequence of arguing inerrancy or infallibility? Romans 1 can be about debating genealogies instead of about how Christ followers should treat gay people. I find the former approach less helpful and the latter more relevant and profitable.
So, what am I saying? I’m not going to marry myself to the terms inerrant or infallible. After a year of reflection I believe that I was wrong to do so. For the interested I’ll present a link to an interview with N.T. Wright in which he addresses his beliefs on Biblical inerrancy. I confess to being swayed by his scholarship and opinions. I confess that my confirmation bias kicks in much stronger when I read him as opposed to Ehrman. However, this is a change of mind for me and a difference in how I’ll approach the crucial subject of scripture.
The brief interview is here. In the comments section below the interview we learn by negative example what tone to avoid in our own dialogue. Your conversation is welcome here as Russell and I continue to wrestle with reasons.
Pascal – – 1:16
photo credit: Rembrandt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons