Are there errors in the Bible? Don’t ask.

Imagine having a conversation with a man—it would be a man, I’m pretty sure—who wanted to “talk football” and whose only concern was with keeping the ball on the playing inerrancy 1field.  That might go like this.

Do you think they should kick a field goal?

Would that make the ball go out of bounds?

Yeah, unless it is blocked.

No, then.  No field goal.

Or how about this one?

It looks like they are going to be throwing crossing routes for the rest of this drive, win or lose.

That’s a good thing.

Why is it a good thing? They need to be throwing to the sidelines so the receiver can get out of bounds quickly and stop the clock.

I think they should keep the action in the center.  You know how I feel about going out of bounds.

O.K. there are two “conversations.”  They aren’t quite “about football,” but there is a game being shown while this conversation is going on.  Eventually, you will say in as polite a way as you can manage, “Why is it that the only question you care about is whether the ball is in bounds or not?”  Let’s say that he says, “Well…the game was meant to be played on the field, right?  So the first question, the one that has to be answered  before any other question are relevant is whether the ball in being kept on the field or not.”  At that point, you know that, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding,  you have not been having a conversation and until you can get him interested in another question, you will not have a conversation with him–at least not about football.

Then you will have to say, “I’ve got an idea.  Let’s ask a different question.”

A few years ago, I wrote a post called “The Gospel According to Gupta.”  You can see it here if the idea interests you.  It is about an Indian janitor in Steven Spielberg’s movie The Terminal who tells what happened when his friend Viktor Navorski faced down the manager of the airport, Frank Dixon in order to save the life of the father of a Russian man he didn’t know.  Gupta’s account is beautiful.  It is brief; it is exquisitely tailored to the audience; it raises the right question and answers it clearly.  Gupta’s answer is “true.”  It is not accurate, however, which brings us to our football friend.

inerrancy 2Many conservative Christians believe that the Bible is “inerrant.”  They believe, that is, that there are no mistakes in it.  There are hits and runs, of course, but no errors.  There are literatures of various kinds but the thing we really want to know is whether anything falsifiable is ever said and, if so, that it is shown, when investigated, to be accurate.  Not “true,” as in the Gupta story, but “accurate.”  Like our football friend, they are led by this notion to care a great deal about whether the ball ever goes out of bounds when other fans are wondering other things, such as, for instance, whether enough clock can be conserved in the last few minutes to get close enough to kick a field goal.

After a long life as a former conservative, I have to say that I am tired of the question.  No useful answer to it can be given and there are better questions to be asked.  When I argue that there are “errors” in the Bible, I am guilty of the same narrow focus as they are.  I have bought the premise—that the question of whether there are errors in the Bible is the right question—and all the shallow and pointless debates flow directly from the premise.

So here’s a question I think is better.  Let’s consider that scripture, which is “inspired,” i.e. God-breathed, has as its principal concern conveying to us the truth of the story.  You know, THE story.  Who God is; what God is like; what we are like in relationship to Him; what “the good life” looks like if it is a life meant to be in faithful relationship to a God who is like that.  That story.

So the story of creation tells us that God is the source of everything that is—not one of two sources, as was common in the creation myths of the time—and that the world is a good place.  It tells us what kind of relationship God had in mind for us, and what He did when we lusted after equality with Him and set up shop on our own.  Those cover some really important parts of the story of our own origins and none of them requires that a “day” of creation be defined as a certain number of hours or the availability of a serpent to tempt Eve or that “knowing they were naked” meant that there was something wrong with being naked.

If this story is “true,” it is true because it tells truths that we need to understand.  It doesn’t have anything to do with having “errors” in it.  If the story it tells doesn’t tell us anything we need to know then it is a bad story and being “accurate” about the order of the days of creation isn’t going to help it any.

So I don’t want to show that the notion of the error-free character of scripture is wrong.  That’s not even worth doing.  I want to reject the promise that inerrancy is a relevant virtue and get on to asking better questions.

Maybe just one example before I let this go.  How about this from Isaiah 40 and if you know the music Handel put to this you can just hum along.

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.

2 Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

3 The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

4 Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places [a] plain:

5 And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.

Was every valley actually exalted?  Were the mountains and hills made low?  Was the crooked made straight?  These are not the kind of statements about which we may say that they are factually true or untrue.  Isaiah absolutely froths with enthusiasm as he imagines the captive people of God in Babylon going “home” in a divinely expedited way.  And so should we all.


About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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