Through A Glass, Darkly
November 22, 2005
By Ernest Partridge, The
Bible is the inerrant ... word of the living God. It is absolutely
infallible, without error in all matters pertaining to faith and
practice, as well as in areas such as geography, science, history,
etc." - Jerry Falwell
The Gallup organization reports that thirty-five percent of Americans
believe the Bible to be the "inerrant" word of God, while
another forty-eight percent believe it to be the "inspired"
word of God, but nonetheless "inerrant" if certain parts
are interpreted symbolically rather than literally. Similarly, The
Barna Group reports
that 61% of Americans believe that "the Bible is totally accurate
in all of its teachings." (More statements of Biblical "inerrancy"
Most of the industrialized world would be astonished, bewildered
and appalled upon reading such statistics, especially in view of
the fact that the United States has long been the world leader in
scientific research and technological development. Due to that leadership,
American universities and research institutions have been magnets,
drawing outstanding scientists, engineers and students from around
the world, many of whom have remained to further enhance the scientific,
technological and economic vigor of the United States. We have led
the world in Nobel Prizes and in the volume of scientific publications,
as we have exported our technologies throughout the civilized world.
There is no guarantee that this pre-eminence will continue.
Heretofore, American society has been, in a sense, schizoid. Educated
elites, with the support of enlightened commercial interests and
government subsidies, have flourished atop a mass culture that was
suspicious and dismissive of intellectual "eggheads," and stubbornly
attached to traditional "old time religion." And yet, the entire
national economy has benefited enormously from scientific research,
technological development and application, and public higher education,
facilitating the opportunity for gifted and enterprising young people
of modest means to join the elites - a Jeffersonian "natural aristocracy
of talent and virtue."
But now that order has been overturned, as the regressive right,
having enlisted the support of fundamentalist religion, finds that
this religious faction, hostile to science, now demands and receives
unprecedented influence in public policy.
Consequently, American leadership in science and technology may
now be in jeopardy as the theory of evolution is challenged in our
public schools, as (so-called) conservative students in our universities
are encouraged by the likes of Lynn Cheney and David Horowitz to
harass "liberal" professors, as cutting-edge biomedical
research is blunted by religious qualms about stem cells, and as
research funding for the National Science Foundation, the National
Academy of Sciences, the Environmental Protection Agency, and other
federal scientific agencies is being severely curtailed.
There is a great deal at stake here. And yet scientists, secular
scholars, and even liberal and moderate churches have been reluctant
to challenge the fundamentalists, holding that such pre-modern beliefs
should be respected as private and personal. Unfortunately, for
their part, the fundamentalists have not displayed reciprocal respect
and tolerance for contrary views about theology, scripture, or the
grounds of morality.
The fundamentalists take the issue of Biblical infallibility very
seriously. As one of their leading spokesmen, Rev. Jerry Falwell,
if Christians are "able to say out loud that the Bible is not
the inerrant word of God - that its inspiration is not really different
from that of the Bhagavad-Gita or Thoreau's Walden or Maya
Angelou's poems - then a great number of conservative and fundamentalist
idols begin to topple."
In this case, I agree completely with the good Reverend: challenge
"inerrancy," and those "idols" become vulnerable.
Which is precisely why I propose to criticize and refute the doctrine
of the infallibility of the Bible. Once that is accomplished, the
progressive will be better equipped to topple those conservative
and fundamentalist idols.
In this analysis, I propose an unusual approach: let us assume
that the Lord God, creator and ruler of the vast universe, dictated
eternal truths to the original authors of the 66 books of the Holy
Bible. As a secular philosopher, I don't believe this nonsense for
a moment. But even if we assume all this, then even so, I will argue
that the Bible that is in our hands today simply cannot be "infallible."
First of all, when the fundamentalists claim that the Bible is
"inerrant" – literally true from back to front – which
Bible are they talking about? If they mean the English translations,
then there is no point going back to original Hebrew, Aramaic, or
Greek texts to dig out the "correct meaning." It's there
in plain English. But to believe this, we must also a believe that
the Lord God guided the hands of King James' scholars through every
word. Or if not those scholars, then those who produced a "preferred"
translation of the Bible into English.
But which translation? If God won't tell us, then to the degree
that those many Bibles differ, to that degree they are "errant"
– subject to error.
However, since no one seems to claim that the translators of the
English language Bibles we now have in hand were elevated to the
status of holy prophets, we look to the sources, for the original
words and meanings. But again, which sources?
It gets worse. No one fully understands ancient languages. The
best experts on the meaning of ancient Hebrew or classical Greek
and Latin were those who spoke it and wrote it as their first languages
– and they are all dead, of course. (For that matter, "living"
natural languages are inherently vague and ambiguous to some degree
– but that's the subject of another essay).
So modern scholars do the best they can by reading ancient texts
as they try to get into the heads of those who wrote them. And,
of course, those scholars disagree with each other – even if one
or another of them entertains the colossal conceit that they are
reading, and understanding, the "inerrant word of God."
So who will tell which of these worthies really has a grip on
God's words. Is it just possible that none of them has that
Some fundamentalists avoid the translation problem by asserting
that while the original texts, the "autographs," were
free of error, "mistakes many have crept into the translated
version." (Swaggert, Straight Answers to Tough Questions,
p. 8). The Mormons' eighth Article of Faith concurs: "We believe
the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly..."
This is presumably the position taken by most Christians who believe
the Bible to be truly holy.
The kicker is that "translated correctly" bit. How does
one determine whether a translation is correct or not? On this,
God is silent. So when the preacher pounds his Bible and says "this
is the word of God!" (assuming, of course, it is translated correctly,
which we can't know for sure) he can not claim to be speaking God's
It comes to this: if there is no inerrant way to determine which
translation or interpretation of text is the one, singular, inerrant
Holy Truth of the Bible, then there is no inerrant Biblical truth.
Once you add the qualifier, "as far as it is translated correctly,"
you have given away the game.
Some logicians call this "the bottleneck problem," which
might as well be called "the weakest link in the chain problem."
Here's another example. According to Catholic doctrine, the Pope
speaks the infallible truth when he speaks "ex cathedra"
– from his office - on matters of faith and morals.
Let's assume he does so. (Of course I don't believe this, but
let's be hypothetical here). But do we know, infallibly, when the
Pope is speaking infallibly (ex cathedra)? If not, then nothing
the Pope says is infallible. The fallible ex cathedra criterion
is the weak link in the chain.
To return to our original, albeit extreme, assumption, let's suppose
that when the Pentateuch (the first five books) was written (presumably
in Mesopotamia during the Babylonian Captivity in the sixth century
BC) the Lord God himself was in the room dictating inerrant Holy
Truth to the scribes. He did so in a language half forgotten today,
and on a manuscript that is long lost. The chain of custody – copies
of copies, translations of translations – is long and replete with
uncounted weak links. This is also the case with New Testament texts.
Because the weak links in this chain of custody are fallible (errant),
so too is the received text that we have today – no matter how perfectly
and inerrantly true the original message might be.
In sum: even if we assume that the original "autographs"
of the books of the Bible were the 100% certified error-free Word
of God, the Bible that we have today and that we read from must
necessarily be errant – containing messages and meaning not intended
by the original authors.
In fact, I am personally unpersuaded by the doctrine of original
infallibility. According to my secular perspective, the unknown
authors of the books of the Bible wrote in the language and amidst
the culture of their times – a fact that is clearly indicated by
a scrupulous ("higher critical") examination of the received
texts. Those were pre-scientific times and tribal cultures. Thus
the Bible is scientifically worthless and, in the early texts, often
morally atrocious. Still, late in the Old Testament (the so-called
"minor prophets") and most assuredly in the four gospels
of the New Testament, we find inspired moral teaching.
If we free ourselves of the dogma that every word in the Bible
comes straight from the mouth of God, we will no longer feel obliged
to justify the genocides depicted in the early books of the Old
Testament, and might be even more outraged by the genocides taking
place today. We can accept the evidence of the sciences without
being distracted by ancient myths. No longer claiming to be in possession
of eternal truth, we can open our minds to new ideas and can be
tolerant of other faiths – or even of those with no faith. Free
of such fantasies as "the rapture," we can act with enlightened
determination to restore the earth's environment and to build a
just and compassionate society and world. The doctrine of inerrancy
is a crutch and a shackle, and for the sake of our intellectual
growth and moral well-being, we should be well rid of it.
That said, we can still acknowledge that The Bible is a valuable
legacy from the past, from which we can learn a great deal – if
we read it critically, informed by the knowledge and scholarship
that has accumulated since it was written over the span of several
But that's just my opinion – an opinion, I am told, that has earned
me an eternity of damnation.
Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in
the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He publishes
the website, The
Online Gadfly and co-edits the progressive website, The
Crisis Papers. He is at work on a book, Conscience of a Progressive,
which can be seen in-progress here.
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