Yes or no? It’s a yes or no question! Answer quickly.
Obviously this is a trap and a common philosophical problem. Yes or no is how one stops a discussion. Perhaps that is occasionally desirable if we only want facts but wherever the facts are vague, unknown, or subjective it creates a problem. Marissa was kind enough to point this out in one of our discussions today.
The question was asked, “Do you believe the Bible is inerrant?” Now this is a loaded question from the start because you and I know that anyone who asks this is preparing to make a value judgement on the eternal resting place of your immortal soul based on the next — single — word from your mouth.
It also contains two big, important, and varied words. I wouldn’t dare answer yes or no to a complex question and as far as questions go this one is impossible.
Define Bible. Define inerrant.
My own denomination, the Wesleyans, do curb their definition of Bible. No, they still state the Bible, being the modern accepted canonization in use in the church for 1600+ years, is inerrant but they’re careful to state “in the original language.” Bible in the context of inerrancy for Wesleyans therefore is the accepted canonization as the books were first written. This is probably wise as translation tends to introduce errors. It is also the position Muslims take. The Qur’an is only a holy document in the original Arabic.
Inerrant is simply defined as “free from error; infallible.” What is an error though? Is it a factual inaccuracy?
Consider the following statement, “Hitler was shot in a bunker below occupied Berlin, Germany on April 30th, 1945. His death is mourned by groups worldwide.”
That statement is completely factual. However, it is misleading. It fails to mention Hitler committed suicide or that Germany was occupied because of Hitler’s imperial expansion and wholesale slaughter. Finally, it spins him as a hero just because there are people out there as broken as he was.
The simplest, and most commonly used definition of inerrant, is that it is factually accurate. Well here we have an inerrant statement that is also wrong and misleading.
According to Random House dictionary as quoted on Dictionary.com, error means:
1. a deviation from accuracy or correctness; a mistake, as in action or speech: His speech contained several factual errors.
2. belief in something untrue; the holding of mistaken opinions.
3. the condition of believing what is not true: in error about the date.
4. a moral offense; wrongdoing; sin.
Definition one concerns factuality. Definitions two and three use the word “belief” — implying a larger set of thoughts and patterns when compared to the single statement noticed in the first definition. Definition four is especially hairy. This lesser used definition has nothing at all to do with truth and everything to do with right vs. wrong.
Remember that an error is anything that fits any one of these definitions. The question now is, which one is meant when we say the Bible is inerrant. This is where I will differ from many believers. Let me rank these definitions. In life, I wish to be found free of wrongdoing. I try to live “right.” I also try to avoid believing that which is not true. I don’t want to fall into bad thinking — but it does happen. I’m less concerned about definitions 2 and 3 than I am about definition 4.
I’m barely concerned about definition 1. I’m wrong all the time. I might even be wrong right now. If I find out and correct it I can avoid meeting definitions 2 and 3. Definition 4 simply requires my beliefs concerning what is right and what is wrong (definitions 2 and 3) to be correct.
Definition 1 also has a little caveat. It is perfectly possible for something to be good (definition 4) and correct in belief (definitions 2 and 3) but factually inaccurate. We call these “maxims” or “proverbs.” These things don’t describe an actual event or thing. I could say, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” There are no birds, no bushes, and I have no idea at all where one could trade a bird for monetary gain. However, the statement is true.
If we want to talk about the factual accuracy of the Bible, we have to account for the intention of the passage. Some passages are historical and others — Proverbs, the books of prophecy, Jesus’s parables — aren’t intended to be literal statements. Instead they are true and right, but not factual. Still, when we ask about inerrancy we are usually ignoring definition 2, 3, and 4 in favor of definition 1.
I, for one, am far more comfortable with taking definitions 2, 3, 4 and ignoring definition 1.