In a previous essay, I surmised that our veneration of the Bible, to the extent that we casually place it above God in our belief ranking, might reflect our supposition that scripture is inerrant and infallible. This is the thought this essay now explores.
The terms biblical infallibility (the Bible cannot contain errors) and inerrancy (the Bible contains no errors) are close cousins of the same idea, one that scriptural religions – Christian and Muslim fundamentalists most especially – prize and promote. While individual Christian apologists have posited an infallible and inerrant Bible for millennia, it is only recently – 1970s and early 1980s – that entire Christian denominations have advocated for this position, a phenomena that peaked with the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. This statement grew out of a conference attended by over 200 global evangelical/fundamentalist leaders who were reacting to modernism and its critique of biblical historicity, accuracy, and literalness.
It was in this general setting that Adventists adopted, for the first time, the 27 Fundamental Beliefs (FB) at the 1980 General Conference session. We had 22 Fundamental Beliefs in our yearbooks and church manuals since 1961, but this was never approved by the church. The formal adoption of 27 FBs, which included an infallibility statement, was highly favored by the new incoming president, Neal Wilson. In retrospect, we see how this belief codification might have accelerated our bent towards creedal fundamentalism. J.N. Loughborough envisioned this snare and warned against it over a hundred years earlier, before we became an organized church. He couldn’t have been more prophetic: “The first step to apostasy is to get up a creed, telling us what we shall believe. The second is, to make that creed a test of fellowship. The third is try members by that creed. The fourth to denounce as heretics those who do not believe that creed. And fifth, to commence persecution against such.” (“Doings of the Battle Creek Conference, October 5 & 6, 1861” Review & Herald. 18(19): 148.)
The central question is: Does the Bible contain errors? Or is it incapable of containing errors?
Of course the Bible contains errors, big and small, because its writers were human. Sometimes, the errors were "innocent," other times they were contrived, purposeful, and made to fulfill an agenda. Anything that involves humans comes with a taint: and that includes products resulting from God’s use of human agents to reveal himself. Humans often hijack and distort God’s message. That’s how God in the Bible is made to promote genocide, regulate slavery, and ban women from church leadership. But as Jesus’ ethic reveals, genocide, slavery, and a host of other ungodly behaviors are inconsistent with God’s character. A good God does not endorse evil in one era and disavow it in another. And if this God promotes immorality, that is a bridge too far.
The process of biblical composition, compilation, and canonization involved humans, who are incorrigibly prone to error, deceit, and manipulation. Those involved in the writing and vetting of what became our Bible had a full complement of human frailties. And the 66 books they canonized, even granting the Holy Spirit’s involvement, showcase these imperfections. Is God inerrant and infallible? Yes. Inerrancy and Infallibility are baked-in suppositions about God. But we cannot extend these same attributes to anything fallible human intermediaries helped to produce. The only possible way in which the Bible could be error free is if God verbally inspired the writers. But this is a position we have consistently rejected.
Let's illustrate with two examples from the biblical record. All four gospels recount Jesus' last Passover meal with his disciples. They also reference their activities on the “preparation day.” But which day was the “preparation day"? Matthew and Luke agree with Mark that the Last Supper took place on Passover evening before his crucifixion and the preparation day was the day before. John, however, places the crucifixion on the “day of Preparation for the Passover” (19:14) thus making Jesus die just when the animal sacrifices were being offered.
But why would John alone make this move? As we may recall, one of John’s main emphases is the identification of Jesus as “the lamb of God” (1:29). For John, therefore, making Jesus die about the same time animals were being slaughtered throughout Israel in preparation for the Passover meal, was symbolic gold, and rearranging events to highlight his motif was a justifiable move.
Something similar, but on a grander scale happens in the two books of Chronicles. The chronicler’s account is supposed to parallel 1 & 2 Kings and 1 & 2 Samuel. Instead, the author’s goal seems excessively corrective of these books. He “corrects” everything, allowing nothing to escape his censuring eye. Here are a few examples.
1) Who was the inspiration behind David counting the Israelites? According to 2 Samuel (24:13), God was angry with Israel and motivated David to take the census. Not so, according to the Chronicler (2 Chronicles 21:1), who tied the inspiration to Satan.
2) Did Saul ever seek counsel from God? Samuel writes that Saul did, “but Yahweh did not answer him, either by dreams, or by Urim, or by prophets” (1 Samuel 28:6). But in 1 Chronicles (10:13), the chronicler contradicts Samuel, declaring that Saul “did not seek guidance from Yahweh. Therefore Yahweh killed him.”
3) On the number of Jesse’s sons, 1 Samuel lists eight, (17: 12). The chronicler disagrees (1 Chronicles 2:13), countering with seven. Likewise, the Chronicler takes issue with the writer of Kings’ figures in a number of areas: Solomon’s foremen, 3,300 (1 Kings 5:16), 3,600 (2 Chronicles 2:2); Solomon’s overseers, 550 (1 Kings 9:23), 250 (2 Chronicles 8:10); talents of gold brought from Ophir to aid in temple building, 420 (1 Kings 9:28), 450 (2 Chronicles 8:18). This sort of thing populates the pages of the two Chronicles. Some blame this on copiers’ errors, which begs the question of why an infallible and inerrant document should be susceptible to such a problem.
But the overriding achievement of the chronicler is the deodorization of King David. In 1 Chronicles, David does no wrong. If David had faults – e.g. Abigail and Bathsheba – you would not find them in Chronicles. The narrator had access to the basic data about David, but he selected and discarded at will, to serve his purpose. The two Chronicles are probably the best refutation of biblical infallibility.
It is unwise to equate Scripture with God. The different depictions of God in scripture do not all add up to a full picture of God. The simple reason is that the vessels conveying these images and impressions are flawed. At times some of the things these writers make God say or do are immoral. It is difficult to square the God Jesus reveals to us with the one that demands that Sabbath breakers should be stoned to death. Or that Uzzah, who acts on instinct to prevent the Lord’s Ark from falling, should die. Jesus said of God, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” If we like Jesus’ characterization of God, chances are we recoil from some of the conceptions we had of God in the Old Testament. But if Jesus and his “father are one,” then the erroneous portrayal of God, which Jesus came to modify, is not a true depiction of God – leading to the suspicion that the canon contains inaccurate information about God.
Even when writers’ motives are above reproach, their writings do not elicit identical understandings or responses from their audience. Literary critics are familiar with this dynamic. Poets, less so than prose writers, cannot prescribe the meaning of their work. They own their pieces only in the sense that they put pen to paper and birthed some ideas which bear their names. But what their works mean, and what we make of them, fall outside the poets’ claims. Meanings belong to readers, who appropriate the poem through their variable experiences and give individual connotations to the same work. The poem doesn’t change, but the meaning does, because no two readers share the same influences.
Something similar happens in how adherents of scriptural religions relate to their sacred texts. We call it interpretation, or its other fancy name, hermeneutics. In all three Abrahamic religions, we approach our different texts, whether it’s the Hebrew Tanakh, the Christian Bible, or the Muslim Koran, as individuals – and interpret the same materials individually, differently. The writings are the same, the expressions are the same. What is different are the humans who interact with the texts. Their differences are informed by a variety of factors, including culture, education, and gender. If we are exposed to the same source material but end up with dramatically different, sometimes opposite understandings, how then could we argue that the source is infallible? In these “books” slavery is good and bad at different times. And through its pages this blight is countenanced and denounced by different writers. Limited polygamy is endorsed and practiced by virtually all the patriarchs but is circumscribed in the New Testament. Some would be killed by God for improper Sabbath observance and others allowed to violate the same with impunity. All these opposite moral portrayals couldn’t emanate from the same God.
A true God wouldn’t behave so ungodly. But humans could. And it is these human behaviors, often attributed to God by the same humans who serve as God’s prophets, priests, and disciples, that are at issue. Any faults we find in God, when reading the Bible, tell us more about ourselves, about human agency, than about God. Humans are perfectly capable of indulging evil independent of God. But we drag God into the mix and have the effrontery to “defend” him for the indefensible things we “made” him do.
In the course of our 150 plus years as an organized church, we’ve arguably gone through three major episodes – 1888 (righteous by faith debates), 1980 (Glacier View and Des Ford) and the contemporary Women’s Ordination (WO) disputes. All three with schism potential. The most important commonality underlying these occurrences is a general desire for doctrinal and policy reassessment, usually spurred on by a younger generation with a broader and bolder view of Adventism, against stiff resistance from old establishment-types, whose vision is limited by landmarks that seem immutable.
In all three examples, the older vanguard saw no need for change because existing belief sets were self-sufficient, incontrovertible, infallible. The irony is that, while the WO debate is yet to play itself out, we know that in the two earlier incidents the old guard positions appeared to prevail in their immediate contexts, but would ultimately be set aside. So now, either through neglect or conscious choices, Adventists have largely abandoned the old idea that righteousness is attainable through obedience to the law, in favor of Jones and Waggoner’s formulation that it is only possible by faith in Jesus. Similarly, over the almost forty years since Glacier View, the church has quietly, unofficially, adopted many of Dr. Ford's views. Our Investigative Judgement doctrine is still on the books but there seems to be a conspiratorial agreement by most in not teaching it. And it is not accidental that both Glacier View and resistance to WO were fostered by leaders who subscribe to some form of single option solution toward dissent.
Belief in biblical inerrancy/infallibility almost always leads to a rigid mindset and application. If the Bible cannot contain error, then there must be only one correct way of understanding its teaching. If that is so then that correct way must be deduced, catalogued, and enforced. So we go from a seemingly benign process of cobbling beliefs together that, given adequate time and proper nourishment, led to Des Ford and Glacier View. Glacier View and its sad history happened because Adventist men of goodwill felt or were trapped by the notion that there is only one acceptable way of understanding scripture. Dr. Ford’s Apotelesmatic Principle (AP), which allowed for repeated application and different interpretation of prophecy, could not be considered because the idea evokes too much latitude, too much uncertainty. The AP veered from orthodoxy and the safety of certainty into uncharted murky waters, making church leadership uncomfortable. The church had a settled view of scripture and deviation from that understanding could not be condoned. But why? Because only the established method and resultant interpretation is valid. This is a viewpoint that grows out of the biblical infallibility construct.
Whether as constitutional originalists, or biblical inerrantists who believe that biblical ethics are transferable to future generations in its entirety, fundamentalists generally attempt to freeze time to a perceived golden era where things were perfect – and are not above co-opting the ghosts of the founding fathers or God himself, to their cause. So they find absolute terms like "infallibility" and "inerrancy" irresistible. Still, one wonders if the real reason might not hinge on the perception that absolutes provide cover and example for human behavior. In other words, since the Bible is infallible, when leaders derive doctrines from its pages, those doctrines by extension become infallible. But since we worship God, not his affirmations, shouldn’t God have primacy in all we do and say? That his word contains errors shouldn’t come as a surprise since fallible humans were intermediary co-creators of this word.
Matthew Quartey is a transplanted Ghanaian who now lives in and calls the Adventist ghetto of Berrien Springs, Michigan, home.
Previous Spectrum columns by Matthew Quartey can be found at: http://spectrummagazine.org/author/matthew-quartey.
Image Credit: Unsplash.com
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