What Is The Bible? A Question Inerrancy Can’t Answer
By Pete Enns
I deeply respect Scripture, but I am not an inerrantist. I have several reasons for this, but it comes down to two things:
- The Bible as a whole (rather than a prooftext or two) doesn’t support inerrancy.
- The history of Jewish and Christian interpretation of the Bible doesn’t support inerrancy.
I write quite a bit about the first point (see some blog posts here). Some might say “too much” but you’re not the boss of me. Jesus is and just this morning he told me personally that I need to keep writing about it.
The bottom line here is that the Bible is too diverse and contradictory for “inerrancy” to hold any explanatory power. To “hold on” to the term would mean either (1) ignoring the the biblical data, or (2) qualifying the term “inerrancy” beyond recognition.
Neither posture contributes to spiritual growth, but stifles it.
Some choose to take one or both of these approaches, thinking that too much is at stake if we “let go” of inerrancy. My response is that wishing it to be a central doctrine doesn’t make it so, if in fact the Bible you are protecting doesn’t support the theory.
On the second point, the history of Jewish and Christian interpretation of the Bible is so diverse, that to expect to mine through all that and find beneath all the chaos an inerrant Bible seems rather nonsensical to me—unless one’s version of Christianity entails the belief that your tradition has gotten the Bible entirely right and others that disagree are wrong and need to be corrected. This leads to religious wars or at least rumbles at church softball games.
Jewish and Christian interpretation of the Bible evinces diachronic and synchronic diversity, meaning diversity through time and diversity at any one time.
The presence of these diversities is simply a fact. You can look it up.
A deep problem with inerrancy is that it presumes (or works best with) the notion that the Bible “properly” understood will yield one and only one authoritative meaning.
But the Bible is famously fraught with ambiguities, tensions, and contradictions that are part of the character of Scripture, and the result of either intentional internal debates by the authors or the natural by-product of diverse authors writing at diverse times under diverse circumstances and for diverse reasons. Add to that the great distance between a book whose beginnings go back about 3000 years—as far removed back in time for us as the year 5000 is from us ahead.
Simply put, the phenomenon of a Scripture that is diverse and the inevitably diverse history of interpretation of such a diverse text do not sit well with the insistence that God would only produce an inerrant text.
The question remains, then, “What is the Bible?“
Good question, but I don’t always like the way it’s posed: “Well, Enns, now that you’ve taken inerrancy away from us, what are we supposed to think of the Bible now, huh? HUH?!”
That way of phrasing things assumes the normalcy of an inerrantist paradigm.
Another bad way of asking the question is, “So, I suppose that makes you an ‘errantist.’”
No, no, and no. That too presumes the normalcy of inerrancy—that discussions of the nature of the Bible center on whether or not there are errors, and everyone falls on one side of the divide or the other.
What is the Bible? There are many other ways of thinking about the Bible. What is needed here is to broaden one’s field of vision.
My own answer to “What is the Bible?”, at least at this moment in my life, includes but is not limited to the following:
In the Bible, we read of encounters with God by ancient peoples, in their times and places, asking their questions, and expressed in language and ideas familiar to them. Those encounters with God were, I believe, genuine, authentic, and real. . . . All of us on a journey of faith encounter God from our point of view. . . we meet God as people defined by our moment in the human drama, products of who, where, and when we are. We ask our questions of God and encounter God in our time and place in language and ideas familiar to us, just like the ancient pilgrims of faith who gave us the Bible. . . . This Bible, which preserves ancient journeys of faith, models for us our own journeys. We recognize something of ourselves in the struggles, joys, triumphs, confusions, and despairs expressed by the biblical writers. ~ The Bible Tells Me So, pp. 23-24
No answer will be perfect, and I think it is wise to be willing to hold our definitions loosely (as I try to). But my point here is simple that an “inerrantist model” of the Bible creates unnecessary conflict with with how the Bible behaves and how it has been read for a very, very long time.
And there are other, faithful, ways of answering the question, “What is the Bible?”