May 17, 2011

The Bible and Code Words

A word that is often thrown around is the word "inerrant" when referring to Scripture. Often people ask "Do you believe that the Bible is inerrant?" At first glance this seems like a rather easy question, but it isn't always.

The problem is that the word has a history, and some people define it based off of that history, while others define it based off of how the word breaks down (and some define it both ways). When you break down the word, it simply means "without error or mistake". Well, I can easily say that the biblical authors and the Spirit who inspired those authors didn't make any mistakes. However, I don't like the term inerrant, and my reason is its history: what the term tends to mean by those who have used it in the past few decades.

The word came into usage because of certain debates which happened over the nature of the Bible within the 19th and 20th centuries. To make a long story short, part of the debate wasn't just whether or not the Scriptures have errors, but what actually constitutes an error. The term inerrant itself came to be identified with the camp that considered an error to anything which contradicted a perfectly literal understanding of the text.

Thus there are two kinds of people that tend to reject the term inerrancy: the liberal who rejects the reliability of Scripture, and the serious exegete who recognizes that the Scriptures are not modern texts and need to be understood within their own contexts first.

So what ends up happening is that in many places the word 'inerrant' becomes a codeword, and there are many who redefine it so that they can be in the the in-crowd. Can I affirm a document that uses the term 'inerrant'? Sure. I don't believe Scripture has errors. But I would never use that word to describe my belief by choice, and what many forget is that it is the idea that matters, not the word itself.


Christopher Bastedo said...

This is the reason I prefer the word infallible over inerrant. It covers both bases that you describe:
1 - believing in the perfection of the original message as written by the Holy Spirit through the Biblical authors.

2 - Recognizing the potential for imperfection in translation or transfer.

The second is most important. Specifically English is often an imperfect language for translation from Greek and Hebrew. This is also the case with other languages.

Kevin Jackson said...

You describe very well my feelings on the topic.

Anticipated Serendipity said...

"the liberal who rejects the reliability of Scripture"

please explain what you mean by this.

Jc_Freak: said...

Tara: I am using the term religously, not politically here. Originally (as in the turn of the last century), the left side of politics was know as being 'progressive'. The term 'liberal' was a religous term to describe an evangelical that sought to free themselves (hence the term) from the confines of theological tradition, including the reliability of Scripture. In this sense of the term, a liberal was one who saw the Bible as "irrelevant" to the surrounding culture, felt that if Christianity was really going to make a difference in the world, it needed to put some old ancient book like the Bible away some where. The word 'conservative' referred to the opposite of both of these positions. Since liberals were usually progressive, the two words became conflated.

In this post, I am using the term liberal only in the religious sense. I know it's obfuscating, but unfortunately, there is not another term for this.

Anticipated Serendipity said...

I haven't heard liberal be used that way religiously. Not that I'm questioning your knowledge on that or implying that you're incorrect. When I have heard people use the phrase "liberal Christian" they usually meant 1 of 2 things: 1) a Christian who has politically liberal ideals or 2) a Christian who steps away from the literal interpretation of the bible seeking to understand it's context and original translations.

Obviously the 1st one doesn't apply to this conversation, but what you called exegete is what I have always heard as liberal. Hence me asking the question :-D

Jc_Freak: said...

To be honest, understanding original context and language is seeking the literal interpretation of the Bible. Indeed, that would be an incorrect use the word liberal. I would say that a liberal Christian, in the sense that I mean, is someone who doesn't take the Bible literally, but it is in the sense that take everything figuratively. A good example, and this is playing to you of course, is that South Park episode when the priest tries to change Catholic dogma. At the end, Randy says, "Yeah. These are just stories." That's liberal view of Scripture. It is believing that we are not bound by what it says in terms of belief or practice: we only use it to find inspiration on our own view of who Christ is and what the world is like.

Anticipated Serendipity said...

ahhh (noise of understanding, not yelling in terror). Your definitions make more sense. I'm assuming the people I heard say liberal Christian in the way I described, probably meant it as progressive and in that context were comparing themselves to those who take the English translations literally and word-for-word. Thanks for the clarification.