(Yesterday I posted the first part of this series, discussing why I don’t think that belief in biblical inspiration forces an Inerrantist View. I recommend reading that post first. This is part 2, why I don’t think biblical inerrancy fits well with the Bible itself. Tomorrow I’ll post part 3, the practical side of this whole issue. Enjoy!)
Now that I’ve explained (from a biblical standpoint) why I don’t think Scripture forces an Inerrantist View, I’d like to point out a few reasons (from a biblical standpoint) as to why I have difficulty accepting biblical inerrancy.
The first is that there are a number of inconsistencies and apparent contradictions in the Bible that simply cannot stand up to modern standards of historical accuracy. Take, for instance, the differing reports of King Solomon’s army. 1 Kings 4:26 clearly states that Solomon had 40 thousand stalls for his horses and chariots. But when the same report is given in 2 Chronicles 9:25, it claims that Solomon only had 4 thousand stalls for his horses and chariots. Was this a typo? Did someone get it wrong? Imagine being an U.S. military accountant today who made a clerical error to the amount of 36,000 war tanks.
Well, those are two different books written by two different authors, you might say. Consider then the creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2. In Genesis 1, God makes plants and animals (vv 11-12, 20-25) before he makes man on day six (v 26-27). However, in Genesis 2 God creates man first (v 7), and then creates plants (vv 8-9) and animals (v 19). Or, for an even more apparent contradiction, Proverbs 26:4 says, “Do not answer a fool according to his folly.” But then the very next verse (v 5) says, “Answer a fool according to his folly.” So, which is it? Should we answer a fool according to his folly or not?
Even the central event of all Scripture, the resurrection, isn’t safe from apparent contradictions. In Luke’s Gospel, the women come to the tomb only to find it empty. Two angels appear to them, telling them of the resurrection, and then the women leave to inform the apostles (24:1-10). However, in John’s Gospel, the women find the empty tomb and quickly tell the apostles. It isn’t until after they return with the apostles to the grave sight that one of the women, Mary Magdalene, meets the angels, this time with Jesus, and learns of the resurrection (Jn 20:1-18). So, did Mary (and the other women?) learn of the resurrection before or after they brought the apostles to the tomb?
Now, any good Christian apologist will tell you that we shouldn’t hold ancient texts to modern standards. Though we live in a literate culture with our emphasis on hyper-literalism and attention to details, biblical authors and their audiences lived in cultures that dealt primarily with oral traditions. They were storytellers as a culture, and a narrator had the freedom to reorder events and modify details to fit his particular context, audience, or to emphasize a point. The goal was not accuracy in the details, but to get the main point across in the most compelling way. The biblical audience would not have seen this as making false claims, but merely a part of their oral tradition. So long as the main idea was effectively communicated, the demands of accuracy (by ancient standards) were met – hence, despite discrepancies, it is true that Solomon had a large military at his disposal, God created all living creatures, we should be careful how we interact with foolish people, and Jesus did indeed rise from the dead.
This explanation, however, doesn’t work for those who hold the Inerrantist View. According to inerrancy every detail in the Bible must be 100% historically true. Because of this, inerrantists are forced to find other, (I think) less convincing explanations for these apparent contradictions.
But this isn’t where the difficulties for inerrantists ends when it comes to passages in Scripture … not even close. The Bible consists of a large number of scientific inaccuracies. For the sake of avoiding a debate over evolution, I’m going to try to distance myself from Genesis 1 and biblical genealogies as much as possible (as tempting as it is). Instead, I’ll simply provide a couple of examples from elsewhere in Scripture where the Bible makes claims that are simply untrue scientifically. Consider, for example, the statement in Leviticus 11:6 that “the rabbit … chews the cud” and for this reason God declared it “unclean” for the Hebrews to eat. Now, of course we know scientifically that rabbits don’t chew their cud. They don’t even have a cud to chew. And this is something that “the LORD said to Moses and Aaron” (v 1). Doesn’t God know how rabbits work? He created them after all.
Or consider Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 13:31-32 regarding the mustard seed. He compares the kingdom of heaven to a mustard seed, which he says, “is smaller than all other seeds” (v 32). Now, scientifically we know that the mustard seed is not smaller than all other seeds. That mantle belongs to certain epiphytic orchid seeds. So, apparently from a scientific standpoint, Jesus was wrong. The infallibilist would explain this by appealing to the fact that Jesus was human and therefore subject to the limitations of his more primitive culture. They didn’t know of any seeds smaller than the mustard seed, which is admittedly very small. So, while Jesus may have been inaccurate scientifically, the point of his teaching is nevertheless solid. This explanation, however, is not available to the inerrantist since they insist that Scripture must be 100% scientifically accurate. It is contrary to the Inerrantist View to allow that the Gospel writer might have been wrong in this, much less that Jesus, who was also fully God, could be wrong.
But, we have yet to discuss what I believe is the most compelling biblical argument against the Inerrantist View, and that is how they treat the ancient Hebrew cosmology. You see, inerrantists will point to such places in the Bible as the creation account in Genesis 1 (sorry, I couldn’t help myself) and the genealogies (Gen 5, 11:10-32; Mt 1:1-17; Lk 3:23-38), and insist that they are 100% scientifically/historically accurate. And if you try to say that the days of creation represent long periods of time or that Adam and Eve are symbolic characters, they will call you out on it by mentioning that this is not how the ancient Israelites would have understood it. And you know what? They’re right. Ancient Israelites had certain beliefs about the world (their cosmology), and those beliefs included the idea that the earth was created in six days and, therefore, that the world is much younger than modern science would claim. So yes, inerrantists are on the same page as ancient people when it comes to their beliefs about the age of the earth.
The problem that comes from this is two-fold – Firstly, just because ancient Hebrews held to certain cosmological beliefs does not mean that we have to hold those beliefs also. Like I pointed out above, there are a number of things that ancient people believed that don’t mesh with what we know scientifically today. And secondly, inerrantists are overlooking much of the rest of ancient Hebrew cosmology. Not only did biblical people believe that the earth was created in six days and that it was only thousands of years old (as opposed to billions), but they also believed that the sky was a hardened dome (Job 37:18), which rests on giant pillars (1 Sam 2:8; Ps 75:3), separating the seawaters below from waters above the sky (Gen 1:7). They believed that there are windows in the hardened sky that let rainwater through (Gen 7:11), and that the sun, moon, and stars reside within the dome of the sky (Gen 1:14-17). They believed that the throne room of God rested on beams holding it among the waters above the sky (Ps 104:2-3, 5-6), and that from here God shakes the pillars of the earth (Job 9:6; 26:11), makes wind by blowing (Ps 107:25), makes thunder with His voice, and (like Zeus and other pagan deities) throws hailstones, coals of fire, and lightning bolts (Ps 18:12-14). Today we simply chalk all of this up to poetic imagery, but we forget that these weren’t just clever illustrations for the ancient people – this was what they actually thought the world was like. However, although these were the “scientific” beliefs of the ancient Hebrews, I know of no inerrantist or young-earth creationist who would insist that these things are scientifically accurate.
Let’s take another step further into ancient Hebrew cosmology. Early Hebrews, along with other people of the ancient Near East, believed that the earth was surrounded by hostile mythological waters which God wages war against (Job 38:6-11; Ps 29:3-4, 10; 77:16; Ps 104:7, 9; Prov 8:27-29; Nahum 1:4; Hab 3:12-13, 15), as well as cosmic monsters and sea dragons (Ps 74:13-14; Jer 51:34; Ezek 29:3; 32:2) with names such as Leviathan (Job 41:18-21, 26-27; Isa 27:1) and Rahab (Job 9:13; 26:12-13; Ps 87:4; 89:9-10; Isa 30:7; 51:9). To be sure, these passages teach infallible truths about spiritual warfare and Yahweh’s conflict against evil. Nevertheless, the notion of hostile waters surrounding the earth, cosmic monsters, and sea dragons is scientifically false. My guess is that even the most hardened of inerrantists would shy away from trying to argue that modern people should believe in sea monsters.
So let’s be consistent with our biblical interpretation. In my observation, inerrantists have this odd habit of insisting on biblical inerrancy while falling back on infallibilist explanations when they can’t come up with an answer for something. All I’m saying is that if we are going to insist that certain parts of ancient Hebrew cosmology are scientifically accurate, let’s go ahead and insist that all of these beliefs are scientifically accurate. Realistically, though, just because biblical people believed something about the world is not itself enough reason for modern Christians to believe it. The truth is that there was a time that the church took a firm stance on believing in the ancient Hebrew cosmology … and it led to one of the most embarrassing and devastating mistakes in church history.
But we’ll discuss that next time.