Sunday, December 5, 2010

Thoughts on the inerrancy of Scripture

Saul Meets Samuel (artist unknown)

In “Another reason why sola scriptura is bad doctrine”, one could argue, I evaded a very sticky wicket. One could even accuse me of deliberate obfuscation.

Okay, grant that Christianity is not based on Scripture, that you can’t derive the authentic beliefs of the first Christians from Scripture alone, and that Scripture by itself is as likely to lead to errors as it is to truth. Still, if Scripture is the inerrant, indefectible Word of God—and postulating that God would not lie about Himself—then does that not require you, Mr. Layne, to believe that God commanded the total destruction of the Amalekites (1 Sam 15:2-3)? That He ordered homosexuals to be put to death (Lev 20:13)? Doesn’t that require you, Mr. Layne, to believe that rock badgers are ruminants because God said they chew the cud (Lev 11:5)? That the universe and everything in it was created in six days (Gen 1:1-2:1)? In sum, does this not require you, Mr. Layne, to believe everything the Bible says without reservation and qualification, no matter how silly or demonstrably counterfactual a statement might be, no matter how one text might contradict another?

Yes or no?

Some might argue that this isn’t a fair question. I respond: On the contrary, it’s a totally fair question, one that drives right to the heart of the issue.

You see, it’s all well and good for us to say Scripture is inerrant and indefectible, so long as we’re picking and choosing which parts of Scripture we draw our lessons and arguments from. But faced with other parts of Scripture—where did Cain’s wife come from (Gen 4:17)? It’s like Robinson Crusoe stripping naked, swimming out to his sunken ship, and putting stuff in his pockets—we try to mentally slink by, avoiding the eye of our mind’s Officer Barbrady, who stands guard over the offending lapse: “Okay, people, nothing to see here! Move along!”

In Sacred Scripture, God speaks to man in a human way. To interpret Scripture correctly, the reader must be attentive to what the human authors truly wanted to affirm, and to what God wanted to reveal to us by their words.
In order to discover the sacred authors’ intention, the reader must take into account the conditions of their time and culture, the literary genres in use at that time, and the modes of feeling, speaking and narrating then current. “For the fact is that truth is differently presented and expressed in the various types of historical writing, in prophetical and poetical texts, and in other forms of literary expression” (Dei Verbum 12 § 2).
But since Sacred Scripture is inspired, there is another and no less important principle of correct interpretation, without which Scripture would remain a dead letter. “Sacred Scripture must be read and interpreted in the light of the same Spirit by whom it was written” (DV 12 § 3).[1]

What this means is, we must first keep in mind that the individual books of the Bible were written through the agency of many men, over the course of many centuries, to be read by men who weren’t historians, scientists, moral philosophers or literary critics … at least not as those disciplines are practiced today. However, telling the tale of a nation or a person today is as much a matter of subjective interpretation as it was in the time of Thucydides; the major difference between the historical method of today and of 2,500 years ago is footnotes. It’s not enough that you relate facts; you must also show where you got them from.

Because many men were involved, who wrote at different times and with different emphases, it naturally follows that the picture of God will be slightly different. Not necessarily inconsistent, just different. For instance, we can wonder how God can order genocide and death to various sinners, yet still insist, “You shall not kill” (Ex 20:13, Dt 5:17). But the obvious answer is that a more appropriate translation for today would be, “You shall not murder.” Dealing death as part of war, or in self-defense, or as a punishment for crimes wasn’t ever considered to be “killing” in the sense intended by the Fifth Commandment.

The primary use of Scripture from the very beginning was moral and theological instruction, not education in history or astrophysics or Hebrew literature. To this end, it didn’t matter if the universe was completed in 144 hours or 20 billion years; the point of Genesis 1 is that God created the universe and everything in it. In the same way, it doesn’t really matter who besides Mary Magdalene was at the empty tomb on that first Easter Sunday … it matters that they saw the empty tomb and the messenger of the Lord.

However, the question of the women at the tomb is a good example of how different perspectives leads to different details: “Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told this to the apostles” (Lk 24:10). Given first-century Judean culture, it makes sense that many women would have gone to anoint the body. An everyday facet of Judean life, the Jewish evangelists took it for granted that their audiences would know this; only the Gentile from Macedonia thought the detail worth mentioning. Joanna, Salome and Mary the mother of James were therefore all with her, along with other unnamed women. Mary Magdalene is mentioned by all the evangelists because she was an especially memorable early disciple; the other women with her … not so much.

We’re also mistaken if we think that, because the primary purpose of Scripture wasn’t history, the history it relates can therefore be written off. In Those Terrible Middle Ages! Debunking the Myths, French medieval scholar Régine Pernoud argues that much of our ignorance and misconceptions of the Middle Ages is  due to the post-Reformation adoption of neo-classicism, which viewed the Greco-Roman period as the acme of civilization and the following millennium as a descent into savage barbarism, as the preferred interpretation of Western history. Theologians Scott Hahn, Benjamin Wiker and Jonathan Witt have noted how much atheism and humanism are indebted to classic materialist reductionism, especially as articulated by Epicurus.[2] It’s not hard to see the pernicious influence of neo-classicism working not only forward from the deposition of Romulus Augustus by Odoacer in AD 476 but backwards from the invasion of Judea by Pompey the Great in 63 BC.

While parts of the Old Testament histories show that they’re transcribed and redacted oral history, you can see a definite change in other areas. A recent archaeological dig established that the Hebrews had a written language as early as the Davidic kingdom (ca. 1000 BC); and 1 Kings 4:4 tells us that Solomon had a court recorder, named Jehoshaphat the son of Ahilud. At times, the narrative flow of Kings and Chronicles gets bogged down in lists of names, possessions and materiel. Letters, decrees and reports start to crop up in the narrative; the writer of Ezra quotes letters and decrees as a modern-day historian cites other primary sources.

Far from being illiterate yokels, then, the Jews of the dual kingdom era were seemingly inveterate, even obsessive, record-keepers. And after the Babylonian exile, Jewish literature started branching out into different areas, including wisdom literature (Proverbs, Wisdom, Sirach), poems (Song of Solomon), biographies and even book-length parables (Job, Jonah, Tobit). The prophets step out of history and speak to us directly. Lacunae and fragments in the books we have show that the Old Testament is not the sum and extent of Jewish literature. By the time of Christ’s ministry, the Jews were the most literate society in a Roman Empire where only one in ten people could read. The idea that the first-century Christians were unlettered bumpkins, and that the New Testament had to wait on Christianity’s adoption by the civilized Greeks to be written, is simply hogwash.

I can see how calling a rock beaver a ruminant could be laughable. I can see how it would be damaging if God had used the authors as human Dictaphones (there’s a reference that dates me!). But such visible errors of fact are few and far between. Enough of the Bible has been verified by the archaeological and historical records that, where countervailing evidence is absent, I can trust what it says. More to the point, though, where countervailing evidence is absent, I’m not justified in using a philosophical predisposition to reject what it says.

So no, I’m not required to believe every single detail of the Bible without question or qualm. However, I have to be very, very careful what I choose to overlook and why I overlook it—for the sake of my soul. For those things, I rely on the collected wisdom of the Church rather than my own limited resources.

The Bible isn’t perfect because it was written through the agency of men. But it gives us as much of a true picture of God as humans can comprehend, given that we’re mortal, material creatures trying to understand the Transcendent. That’s why we believe it to be inerrant and indefectible.

[1] Catechism of the Catholic Church 109-111.
[2] See Wiker and Witt, A Meaningful World, and Hahn and Wiker, Answering the New Atheism: Dismantling Dawkins’ Case Against God. The Yiddish word for “unbeliever” or “atheist” is apikoros (pronounced “eh-pee-KOY-riss”), which is derived from Epicurus.