On a side note…

This isn’t really part of the sequence I’m working on, but it is related to the overall topic. Lately I’ve been kind of challenged by some folks over what I believe (or, more precisely, don’t seem to believe). I’m trying to avoid an inquisition, but the basic issue seems to come down to interpretation of Scripture. So a few thoughts on Bible and interpretation seem to be in order.

Many Christians, and practically all evangelicals, regard their position vis a vis the Bible to be the real litmus test of authentic Christian faith. Sure, Jesus is important. But on any issue, whether its what we think of Jesus, or of ethics, or of science, or anything else, when the rubber meets the road, it comes down to “well, what does the BIBLE say?”

And this is where things get dicey. Often the straight up, literal answer can only be “Nothing.” The Bible doesn’t talk about abortion. It has little to say about homosexuality. It has nothing to contribute, positively or negatively, to evolution. It certainly is completely unhelpful in determining what translation we should read. And so on. Most of us realize this, which is good, but we are then forced into the realm of interpretation; even though the Bible doesn’t talk about the scientific theory of evolution, it does provide a story about how the universe was created, and so it’s possible to line these two things up (so the thinking goes), and then start labeling people as “in” or “out” based on their opinion of Cretaceous fossil remains. “Real Christians” don’t believe in evolution; they believe in the Bible’s creation story. In rejecting the evidence of science, we are also rejecting interpretation(s) of the Bible that we do not share.

Whether we realize it or not, we all bring to the interpretive table a certain perspective on the Biblical text. Evangelicals like to use words like “Bible-believing,” a pop version of the more technical theological concepts “inerrancy” and “infallibility.” Another important theological label in the “bible believing” understanding is the Bible’s homogeneity, the notion that the Bible uniformly speaks with one voice on every subject.

Last year I taught Logic at a local college, and we spent a considerable amount of time working with the distinction between inductive and deductive logic. For those who aren’t familiar with this, deductive logic works by applying a known general truth or idea to specific situations or experiences. It is known to be generally true, for example, that cats enjoy catching mice and birds. Armed with this knowledge, then, we can predict that if we put a cat in a room with mice, the cat is most likely going to at least try to catch a few. Or take the example of a GPS device: we know going in that the GPS is going to get us where we want to go, and so when it tells us to turn left, even if we think we should perhaps go straight, it will still get us to our destination.

Inductive logic works the other way around. In inductive thinking, we work from the specific to the general. In the example of cats from above, let’s assume that we don’t, in fact, know that cats are good mousers. But if we watch our cat catch mice every day, and then we hear from our neighbor that her cat catches 6 mice every evening, and then my mother calls me and tells me that her cat caught three this morning, we can make a general conclusion that “based on all this evidence, cats are good mousers.”

Now, where am I going with this? In general, Christians who believe in Biblical inerrancy are approaching the Bible deductively. The general truth here is God is all-powerful and perfect, and so if he were to write a book, it would also be completely authoritative, reliable, and, of course, perfect, meaning free from errors, inconsistencies, discrepancies, and the like. Usually Christians will then turn to 2 Timothy 3.16 (often in the King James, which is more poetically powerful than more modern translations, at least on this point) to prove the point: “All scripture is given by God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for inauguration in righteousness.”

I feel obligated to point out here, that this verse doesn’t really mean what people think it means. All the writer is saying here is that the Hebrew Bible / Old Testament should continue to be read as scripture by the church. Secondly the word translated as “inspired” or “god breathed” (theopneustos) simply refers to Scripture’s ultimate origins and has nothing to do with God writing or dictating the texts of the OT. Finally, there are almost 90 direct quotations of the Hebrew Bible in the entire Pauline collection, and Paul is notorious for rewording, adjusting, and otherwise “fixing” his quotes from the Old Testament to suit his arguments. So which would be “god-breathed scripture?” Paul’s wording of it, quoting from the Greek translation of the Bible, or the Hebrew text? It certainly does NOT include what we know as the New Testament, because a) there WAS no New Testament; b) the letters of Paul and pseudoPaul were not “scripture” and c) the Gospels hadn’t even been written yet.

The deductive approach is attractive for its simplicity, but as I taught my logic students, there are no simple answers because there are no simple questions. This is especially true with the Bible, a book written over nearly a thousand year period by many writers from different societies dealing with different experiences and crises. It simply will not do to recite “God said it, I believe it, that settles it.” But the simplicity of the deductive logic behind inerrancy overpowers the problems it presents to the point that when I engage with those who hold to it, I am told that “you’re making it way too difficult” or “you’re just being too academic. Just give me a simple direct response.” For interrantists, if you have to explain why you don’t subscribe to the inerrancy of scripture, you’re too academic, apparently.

The simplicity of the deductive, inerrant approach though is also what causes all the trouble. Obviously, on purely deductive logical ground, if there are reasons to believe that the Bible is not, in fact, “perfect,” “inerrant,” or what have you, those who defend this position will immediately accuse you of not believing in a perfect sovereign God. But the fact is that there are problems. How many times did Jesus clear out the Temple, and when did he do it? John records it at the beginning of Jesus’ career, while the synoptics place it near the end. In order to protect inerrancy, it must have happened twice. (Not likely.) Another classic case here is the Last Supper; John places it the day before the others.

At the end of the day, the logic is circular, and the conclusions are already written into the premises of inerrancy. Contrary evidence, errors, and inconsistencies in the text are ruled out before even a word of it is read.

The other approach, however, helps a great deal. An Inductive approach to the Bible starts with the texts themselves and lets THEM teach us about the rest of the Bible and its Author/s. Only through thorough reading of individual texts can we formulate opinions about the entire Bible and about the God and the Christ it presents. An inductive approach doesn’t presuppose a result to which the Bible must conform, and it certainly isn’t intimidated by inconsistencies, factual errors, unscientific presentation of the origins of the cosmos, and so forth.

And that’s all I have to say about that. For now, at least.

 

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