Browsing Tag

textual criticism


I don't know what I think about the Bible


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.


definitions and a history lesson, part four


I left off my breakdown of Christian fundamentalism with a brief explanation of the Protestant orthodox views regarding inspiration and inerrancy. Hopefully I was clear, because what we’re about to get into is complicated territory. If anything I say seems unclear, unfair, or misleading, please feel free to point it out in the comments.

After the introduction of anti-supernaturalism into critiques of the Bible in the form of German higher criticism (as well as other issues), fundamentalists reacted by proclaiming the teaching of inerrancy to be a basic, fundamental doctrine of Christianity. On its face, I don’t disagree. A proper, balanced, and nuanced view of inerrancy is one of the essentials of faith that I hold to. I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary in order for someone to believe in Jesus, but I think it does become more important in a Christian faith journey. Important, but not necessary. That, I think, is a crucial distinction.

However, that is where fundamentalism and I part ways– and depending on the particular brand of fundamentalism, some might not even consider me to be a true believer after a statement like that one. If they’re being nice, they might refer to me as a “liberal” (a label I would bear with pride). For me, inerrancy is intellectually consistent. I can generally hold with most of the statements regarding inerrancy made in the Chicago Statement of 1979, especially this one:

“We deny that it is proper to evaluate Scripture according to standards of truth and error that are alien to its usage or purpose. We further deny that inerrancy is negated by biblical phenomena such as a lack of modern technical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, reporting of falsehoods, or the use of hyperbole and round numbers . . . “

What the Chicago Statement does in this section is recognize the human component of Scripture. They talk about “observational descriptions” and they also recognize that keeping in mind the context of usage and purpose is extremely important to a proper understanding of inerrancy (and, more practically, hermeneutics). However, if this is not what you think inerrancy means, that’s not a bar to orthodox Protestant beliefs. There’s a range inside of Protestant orthodoxy, and it’s healthy and productive to be willing to engage with different points of view, even on this issue. I don’t personally identify with the Progressive movement theologically, but I can appreciate what they bring to the table, and how listening to their point of view enriches my own.

However, fundamentalists . . . don’t agree. There’s no “acceptable range.” There’s no productive discussion, there’s no other permissible view. There’s the fundamentalist understanding of inerrancy, which they consider as absolutely foundational to every other element of Christianity. They believe that without inerrancy, Christianity falls. Fundamentalists like Charles Ryrie complained that the Chicago Statement was not rigorous enough. He called for an understanding of inerrancy that included “unlimited inspiration,” and he goes one step forward:

“Some are willing to acknowledge that the concepts of the Bible are inspired but not the words. Supposedly this allows for an authoritative conceptual message to have been given, but using words that can in some instances be erroneous. The obvious fallacy in this view is this: how are concepts expressed? Through words. Change the words and you have changed the concepts. You cannot separate the two. In order for concepts to be inspired, it is imperative that the words that express them be also.”

To be fair, Ryrie goes on to describe mechanical dictation (the view of inerrancy where God gave the actual words to the writers) as a “caricature” of inerrancy, but he somehow fails to see that he just made an argument for mechanical dictation. He doesn’t seem to believe that the writers of the Bible were little more than stenographers, but he also believes that the words themselves cannot be changed, or inerrancy falls.

I have a Master’s degree in English, and I’m an editor– the study of words, communication, understanding, clarity, etc., are my business. And if there’s one thing I can tell you after grading hundreds of English 101 papers, is that our language is quite capable of expressing the same exact idea through different words. This actually has a name– it’s called “redundancy,” at least when a writer says the same exact thing a dozen different ways.

However, Ryrie’s idea is a visceral reaction against post-modernism. Jacques Derrida used the word différance to describe the “space between words.” As Derrida explained it, this “space” removes the ability of language to communicate any idea accurately– there is always a breakdown between the idea as it exists in the writer and how the reader ultimately understands the words the writer used to express that idea.

So, just like the first fundamentalists reacted against German higher criticism, fundamentalists like Charles Ryrie are reacting against post-modernism. Just like fundamentalists had to defend the Bible from anti-supernaturalism, now they have to defend the Bible from a post-modern understanding of différance. This reaction, as far as I can tell, always leads to a philosophical defense of mechanical dictation, whether or not the defender is aware of such a defense. Mechanical dictation, as an approach to inerrancy, is not a view typically accepted inside Protestant orthodoxy. But, it results from a fear that a post-modernist understanding of language will interfere in the ability of a reader to understand the “truths of the Bible.”

This is a problem for fundamentalists, because, by definition, fundamentalists believe that understanding and applying a universal understanding of Scripture is not just possible, but necessary. They adhere to what they believe are universal, essential, foundational truths regarding the Bible.

This is why, I believe, fundamentalism is a problem. I don’t think it always was– historically speaking, I agree with many of the elements found in The Fundamentals or concepts that were discussed in early 20th century conferences. However, because fundamentalism has continued reacting against new philosophies that they perceive as a “threat” to Christianity, they have become progressively more unyielding. Inerrancy can’t just mean “that Scripture is true in all that it teaches.”

Unfortunately, fundamentalism didn’t really stop at “unlimited inspiration”– today, they also adhere to biblical literalism. Because God didn’t just inspire the concepts, he also inspired the very words themselves, exactly how they appear, the only way to read and understand the Bible is by reading it literally. This is also coupled with the fundamentalist teaching regarding preservation.

Preservation, simply put, is the idea that God, in his sovereignty, kept the Bible intact and unaltered (with the exceptions of things like scribal error, misspellings, inaccurate renderings of numbers, etc). I tend to agree with this view, mostly because of things like the Dead Sea Scrolls– which weren’t discovered until 1946-56, and with Isaiah being dated at sometime at around 135-200 B.C. The Dead Sea Scrolls present compelling evidence for the integrity of the transmission, since the modern copy of the Old Testament (based on the Masoretic texts) barely differed at all.

However, fundamentalists take an extreme stance regarding preservation that affects their teachings in two major ways: first, they believe that everything that existed in the text as of 1611 also existed in the autographa, and that because God preserved His Word for us today, it is a living document that can be applied, literally, to modern practice.

The first teaching results in either a complete dismissal of the science of textual criticism or a fear and distrust of it. This is why many fundamentalists (but not all) are KJV-only, or Textus Receptus-only supporters. Many fundamentalists point to statements like “some of the earliest manuscripts do not include 16:9-20” concerning the finish to the Gospel of Mark, and decry that statement as heresy. The honest study of textual critics and historians have, for the majority, concluded that Mark 16:9-20 were added later. There are some scholars who disagree, but, I’ve read most of that research back in my KJV-only days, and I would describe it as “shabby research.” However, the teaching of preservation according to fundamentalists means that additions and deletions are not possible. Because, according to this teaching, if you can begin to suspect that anything in the Bible was not completely preserved, then the entire Bible falls into shadow. This is a result of the kind of false dichotomies and binaries that fundamentalists set up in their faith system. Many of these binaries are a result of over-simplification; having a faith system that integrates doubt, nuance, and complexity, is foreign to most of them.

The second result of preservation is a heresy known as biblical docetism. In a nut shell, they believe that God Preserved His Word for Us Today, and this results in frequently ignoring the intent of the human author, the historical context in which it was written, or how the original audience would have perceived it. These elements of hermeneutics don’t seem to matter, because the Bible is a divine book, divinely inspired, and divinely preserved. Along with biblical docetism, this frequently results, in more extreme fringes of fundamentalism, in a harsh patriocentric understanding of complementarian and hetero-normative gendered behavior, Dominionism (that God’s promises to the Israelites applies to modern America), and has been used to defend chattel slavery, sexism, classism, and racism.

This is why I moved away from fundamentalism and accepted Protestant orthodoxy and non-denominationalism. Fundamentalism started as something I could agree with, but it has morphed into a collection of beliefs that are rigid and unbending, and that demand total adherence and complete intellectual “certainty.”