Friday, February 8, 2013

Inspired Does Not Mean Without Error

In response to a recent letter saying the Bible has no errors, please consider the following.  Saint Paul wrote, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.”
Notice there is no mention of “inerrancy” or “without error”. The key word is “useful”, a far softer and more humble word than “inerrant” or even “infallible”.  

The other key word used by Paul is “God-breathed”, sometimes translated “inspired”. This word is important because it gives scripture an authority and uniqueness beyond ordinary writings and books. Still, there is nothing in the word “God-breathed” or “inspired” that implies complete freedom from error. 

In fact, the same idea of “God-breathed” occurs in Genesis 3 when God created the first man and woman.  Clearly, their “inspired” creation did not include complete freedom from error.  No humans are free from error, but we are all “God-breathed”.

To go further, Jesus himself challenged the idea of inerrancy in several places. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus repeats several times, “You have heard it said…but I say to you…”  When he said, “You have heard it said,” he is quoting the Old Testament scriptures. When he then says, “but I say to you”, he corrects the older teaching of scripture, replacing it with new truth. Obviously, Jesus did not view the “Bible” he used - our Old Testament - as complete and without error.

An inerrant Bible does not guarantee truth.  It did not prevent the Bible from being used to justify slavery and witch burning.  An inerrant Bible would also require an inerrant interpretation, which would also require an inerrant interpreter, and so on and so on.  

The Bible is composed of 66 books (73 if you’re Catholic or Anglican), written by 40 different authors, over a period of 1500 years, representing various cultures and at least 3 different languages. To interpret every verse (over 30,000 in all) in a way that never contradicts any other verse would require extremely sophisticated and highly implausible linguistic and theological gymnastics. Those who claim to do this end up disagreeing among themselves.

Admitting the Bible may contain error or imperfection does not, in any way, take away from its value or inspiration. Millions of lives, from Saint Augustine to Saint Francis to Martin Luther, just to name a few, have been miraculously changed by reading portions of scripture. The absence or presence of error was irrelevant and had no bearing whatsoever on God’s ability to use the Bible in that way. In fact, it demonstrates the power of God to use imperfection, which should give us all hope.

While I believe the Bible contains errors and contradictions, I also believe it to be “God’s inspired word”.  It is a living document, and it continues to speak to me in very personal and powerful ways.  It also contains extremely valuable truths and stories about life and God that help us find peace and fulfillment as human beings.

Alan Shope

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