In the fundamentalist church I grew up in– and I have no idea if this is a common stance, but in the area I grew up in, this was– what I was taught about inerrancy strays quite a bit from the more common conservative evangelical understandings of the term. I was taught that the Bible is inerrant– that it is wholly, totally, and completely without error. Any error. Factual, literal, scientific, historic, grammatical. It had no form of error whatsoever. I was taught that everything written in the Bible was factually, literally true, and that it was recorded so that the “plain meaning” was accessible to all people of all times of all nations.
So, my sophomore year in college when I found out that the Gospel of Mark contained numerous grammatical errors, I was shaken. I approached one of my college professors during an open period where we “could ask him anything,” and his response was some nonsensical bullshit about Koiné Greek. I realize now that he wasn’t allowed to answer a question like that one honestly because he could have lost his job, but at the time I was frustrated and upset. It was the first domino to fall in what eventually became a 3-year period when I just didn’t care about God or Christianity.
I also somehow unconsciously absorbed that the Bible’s “inerrancy” made it impervious to deconstructionism– so, in graduate school, when a professor assigned my literary theory class the task of deconstructing Genesis chapter three, it rattled me all over again. Even when I didn’t particularly care one way or the other if God existed or Christianity was true, there was still a basic set of “facts” that I “knew,”– and having those beliefs destroyed during the course of a homework assignment that took me ten minutes . . . it was devastating.
And then, this summer, I started re-imagining what it would be like if I understood the Bible principally as a book that fits within the constraints of literary structures and genres. What if Genesis chapters 1 and 2 are really mythological? What if they aren’t factually, literally true, like St. Augustine believed? Does the Bible have to be literally true? And I decided no, no it doesn’t. Metaphor, poetry, allegory, parable, myth . . . they are all literary forms that human beings have used for centuries in order to communicate larger, almost inexpressible, truths. And while that was a huge adjustment for me, it only resulted in expanding my understanding of Scripture in beautiful, meaningful ways.
But . . . back in April, I made a rather specific claim about inerrancy when I first started trying to figure out what it means. I said that “a proper, balanced, and nuanced view of inerrancy is one of the essentials of faith that I hold to.” What I meant at the time that inerrancy has a place in Christianity, but that it has to be held in tension with the fact that the Bible was recorded by fallible men (and possibly women, as some scholars suggest that Hebrews was written by Priscilla and her husband). That it is important to approach the Bible as a human book first, and a divine book second.
Now, though . . . I honestly have no idea what I think.
The only thing– the only thing— that I know about the Bible was that it was written by human beings– deeply flawed people. It was written by people in the Bronze and Iron Ages. It was written by patriarchal, sexist, misogynist, racist men– in both the Old and New Testaments. They were people who were very much a product of their culture, a culture that was largely based on warmongering and violence. The writers of the Old Testament were primarily focused on recording their history– how it developed from a nomadic tribal culture, to a city-state, to a nation, to eventually a conquered people. The “books” of the New Testament were largely personal, private letters– letters sent to specific churches, to individual men.
I don’t know when these books and letters were written. I don’t know who, specifically, wrote many of them.
I don’t know what it means for the Bible to be a divine book, for it to be inspired. I don’t know what to think about how God may have been involved in the writing and preservation of the canon. We know we’re missing whole books, whole letters– like two of the letters Paul wrote to Corinth. Why do we have the letters we have, and not the others? Was that just some mischance of history? Was it because God was personally involved in preserving what he wanted future generations to read? And, if so, why did he step in and keep a few pieces of paper intact but let thousands upon thousands of his children be gassed and incinerated at Auschwitz?
And if the biblical canon is this complicated, and messy, what does that mean for us on a daily, practical level? I have the middle class luxury of being a stay-at-home wife who has the time and energy to research these blasted things. Most people simply don’t have that ability. It doesn’t make them incompetent, it means that they don’t have the resources I do. I have a master’s level education in literature– I have a lot of the necessary tools to understand literary structures, genre, narrative theory, the interplay between author-text-reader, and most people just don’t have that. I don’t even have a seminary degree, with 4-6 years of training in theology and Church history, or a strong background in Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Latin.
So what does it mean for the church that the Bible is ancient literature, that it follows forms and patterns that we have no understanding of, that it belongs to a culture that we have absolutely no connection to whatsoever?
I don’t know.
All I know, right now, is that I’m trying to figure these things out. But where I am, right now, is that I if can’t get to a point where it makes consistent, logical, rational sense to accept the Bible as divine . . . that if I can’t arrive at a means for discerning the difference between what misogynistic men recorded and what God intended to be communicated . . . well, the Bible as infallible, as divine, as inspired– it isn’t necessary for my faith. I don’t believe that God exists because the Bible tells me so. I can read the Gospels as examples of ancient Greek biography and learn something about Jesus without having to believe that the Bible is inerrant.
I don’t have to end up on the other side of this a Christian.
It’s taken me since April to really come to terms with that. It doesn’t mean that I’m comfortable with the idea, or that this is the result that I want, because it isn’t. I’d really, really like to be able to stay a Christian. It doesn’t meant that I’d stop believing in God or Jesus. But, I have to be open to the idea that the Bible isn’t anything other than rather unique piece of ancient history. And if it turns out that’s all it is, then… well, that’s ok.