Infallibility & Inerrancy

Infallibility & Inerrancy:  Do Words Have Meaning?  Who Decides?

This is an addendum to my evaluation of two Statements of Faith in August 2013.  As is often the case with theological discussion, one must be careful to define the terms one is using, and to be aware of the definitions others are using.  One of my bishops observed that it seems I made a mistake in assuming the dictionary definitions of two particular words were being used, when it is much more likely their theological definitions were intended.  Now I believe these represent fairly minor points in the respective documents, however I do wish address this point for two reasons.

  • First, I think it may be a useful illustration of how important it is to be aware of the meaning of the specific words.
  • Second, it underscores how easily we can fall into the trap of assuming we know what another person means to say, only later discovering we may have been mistaken.

The following are representative of the definitions I found in online dictionary listings:

Infallible (Merriam-Webster.com)
1 : incapable of error : unerring [an infallible memory]
2 : not liable to mislead, deceive, or disappoint : certain [an infallible remedy]
3 : incapable of error in defining doctrines touching faith or morals
Inerrancy (Merriam-Webster.com)
: exemption from error : infallibility [the question of biblical inerrancy]

Inerrant (Merriam-Webster.com)
: free from error

Merriam-Webster defines these words quite closely, in fact, one of the definitions of inerrancy is infallibility.  I suspect this is the root of my assumed meanings conveyed by these words, as I expressed in the previous evaluations in August of 2013.

However, upon reading the definitions more closely, one might discern that inerrant is a more limited term.  A text may be determined to be free from error, but one may think of this as a technical description of the competency of the editing, publishing, and printing processes.  A key point is that inerrancy may not speak to the truthful, or even the factual, quality of the premises which the document asserts.

Regarding inerrancy, Wikipedia offers the following….

  • (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biblical_inerrancy)
  • Biblical inerrancy is the doctrine that the Bible, in its original manuscripts, is accurate and totally free from error of any kind; that “Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact”.[1] Some equate inerrancy with infallibility; others do not. [2][3]

The obvious problem with this proposition is the “original manuscripts” no longer exists.  So logically the argument is of no use as any kind of proof.  But this is a different argument, and not the one I wish to pursue in this addendum.  A greater difficulty is this definition is already slipping into the realm of infallibility, which is a highly subjective measure.

But it appears we are in good company with regard to being confused over this question’s fine points.  In the Roman Catholic Church this question has been debated in Vatican II, and the decades since;  without resolution as near as I am able to determine.  The following is a short quote from an interview with Roman Catholic Cardinal Francis George:

  • The question, finally, is what kind of confidence can those who hear the Word of God proclaimed from scripture have that it’s the truth? Fundamentalists would say that it’s all literally true, so we have every reason to be confident. But that ignores what exegesis has done for us in the last 200 years, identifying the different forms of literature in the Bible, the contexts of the communities in which it was written, and all the rest.
  • You’ve still got the problem, however, of the affirmation in faith that inspiration and inerrancy go together, so that what is inspired is also inerrant. At the same time, you have to discover what inerrancy means when you’re not reading a newspaper, but you’re reading poetry, or a myth of some sort, or a fable or a parable. We can make that distinction more easily in the New Testament, when Jesus is speaking in parables. It’s harder sometimes for us to make those distinctions in the Old Testament.
  • http://catholicism.org/biblical-inerrancy-revisited-but-not-revised.html

Please note the Cardinal’s observation that we must distinguish the type of prose we are reading.  This is critical.  Reading a newspaper speaks to a different kind of truth than does poetry and parable.  I have tried to make this point in some of my past writings.  I have found the late Prof. Ron Miller expresses this better than anyone else I have yet heard (most likely in his “Unpacking the Parables” talk, given to the Theosophical Society).

Elsewhere in the short except of Cardinal George’s interview, he states that one view of the understanding of biblical inerrancy is that the bible speaks to our salvation:  it is our salvation which is ultimately held to be inerrant;  not the literary forms of expression;  not the authors understanding of geology nor of astrophysics.  I find this very easy to believe.  On the feet-on-the-ground perspective, it is obvious to me that our understanding of science and the nature of the universe has evolved over the centuries, and it is unreasonable to try to force a mind of the 1st century to fit the molds we have developed in the 20th century.

Much more intriguing to me is the conversation surrounding the inerrancy of salvation.  I have to assume that Cardinal George is speaking from the dominate position of the Roman Catholic Church, and not that of the early Church Fathers, such as Clement and especially Origen, who spoke of Universal Salvation.  Personally, I find the early understanding to be much more sensible;  but I must also admit, it is also a better fit to some of my formative spiritual understandings, which may bias my evaluation.  However, I still think the question of Universal Salvation withstands serious and objective investigation.  (Those interested in pursuing this line of thought should consider reading Dr. J. W. Hanson’s book “Universalism:  The Prevailing Doctrine Of The Christian Church During Its First Five Hundred Years.”)

Another view Cardinal George shares is the understanding that inerrancy means the central teachings of the biblical authors which were inspired by God are inerrant, whereas the cultural influences surrounding them (“zeitgeist, the understanding of the world at the time”) are not inerrant.  Here, while I agree with the proposition in theory, there are remaining difficulties, which I find renders this an untenable position to maintain:  it presumes we are able to discern that which God wishes to become Inspired;  it presumes God as Active Agent, periodically “invading” the world;  and I read this as merging with the definition of infallible, whereas I would prefer to define these terms separately, as I find this offers a more practical, rational use of language and cognitive tools.  (This is already a difficult conversation to pin down in detail.  Therefore, we should attempt to refine our definition, as opposed to diffuse our definition, of key terms.)

The arguments about God, God’s Inspiration, and “invasion” into the world are critical points.  These will be discussed later.  For now, I wish to set them to the side, and simply observe they are not required, and not highly useful, in defining our terms inerrant and infallible;  nor are they very useful in discerning the differences between these two terms.  So I set them aside for the time being, not because they are unimportant, but because I do not find them useful in refining the definitions of inerrancy and infallibility.

Regarding infallibility, Wikipedia offers….

  • (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biblical_infallibility)
  • Biblical infallibility is the belief that what the Bible says regarding matters of faith and Christian practice is wholly useful and true. It is the “belief that the Bible is completely trustworthy as a guide to salvation and the life of faith and will not fail to accomplish its purpose. Some equate ‘inerrancy’ and ‘infallibility’; others do not.”[1]

I also wish to offer additional views discussing the subject of biblical infallibility.  Should readers wish to peruse these sources, I believe they will find a deeper appreciation for the lack of clarity surround the questions of biblical inerrancy and biblical infallibility.  Efforts to closely define these terms is difficult.  Agreeing upon how they are best employed in aiding our understanding of sacred scripture, has yet to occur.

  • http://catholicism.org/apologetics-infallibility.html
  • This web page covers a lot of ground, including the doctrine of papal infallibility (which I have no intention of discussing at this time), not all of which pertains to our current discussion.  But it does offer a broad view of a number of points of divisiveness surrounding the topics of inerrancy and infallibility.
  • http://catholicism.org/vatican-ii-some-clarity-please.html
  • This web page presents an interesting summary of a debate between two distinguished Roman Catholics, who none-the-less draw opposite conclusions in their close readings of a particular Vatican II document (I believe it was “Dei Verbum” (Latin for “Word of God”)).
  • http://www.biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/bets/infallibility_lewis.pdf
  • This PDF document offers an objective discussion of meaning and language.  Across pages two and three there is a table with the heading: AN ANALYSIS OF MEANING AND LANGUAGE.  I found their comparison between meaning and language informative.  It appears to me that among their points, meaning is divorced from written text.  This is a point I have heard before, and to which I agree.  Words are just comprised of symbols written by one person to later be interpreted by another person.  A thoughtful author attempts to convey their intended meaning as clearly as possible.  However, the words they use (and images, if included in the document) must be interpreted in the mind of the person reading the document.  And we all bring our own life experiences to our reading;  to our understanding of the world;  to our understanding of words.  There is an unavoidable barrier between one human mind and another.  (The gulf between the human mind and the Divine Mind is greater still!)

The above discussions, while interesting, for the most part take a different line of questioning than I intend to engage in at this time.  Let’s begin by returning to the Merriam-Webster definitions, and from there transition to a discussion about our means of discernment.

Infallible (Merriam-Webster.com)
1 : incapable of error : unerring [an infallible memory]
2 : not liable to mislead, deceive, or disappoint : certain [an infallible remedy]
3 : incapable of error in defining doctrines touching faith or morals

Inerrancy (Merriam-Webster.com)
: exemption from error : infallibility [the question of biblical inerrancy]

Inerrant (Merriam-Webster.com)
: free from error

In my opinion the differences as defined by Merriam-Webster in meaning are subtle, and of only minor significance in the scope of my evaluations of the previous Statements of Faith (see August 2013).  But as we have seen above, if we begin to parse out the relative meanings of these words as defined by various theological sources, we find greater differences emerge.

I see much of this as the result of failing to distinguish between qualitative and quantitative interpretations.  Most basically:  a qualitative measure is subjective, and a measure of quality;  a quantitative measure is objective, and a measure of quantity.

For example, how I feel about the color blue is subjective and qualitative, whereas the measurement of the frequency of its wavelength in nanometer is objective and quantitative.  The first requires I make a subjective judgement regarding “quality” of the color;  the second only requires a properly designed and calibrated machine to measure the “quantity” of light.  Each of us may find the shade of blue chosen evokes different feelings;  but each of us must come to realize the measurement of a meter is always the same, and that our feelings regarding the measure of a meter in no way effects its length.

A silly example perhaps, but I think instructive in helping us recognize two very different methods of biblical interpretation.  And should we confuse one for the other, or fail to recognize there are multiple methods of “measuring” sacred scripture, we are doomed to failure before we have begun our efforts.

My opinion is inerrancy is an objective measure, and therefore quantifiable.  It is a measure of the words employed in the text, and in the accuracy in duplicating a text.  If we wish to instead discuss the *meaning* of the words employed in the text, we have then entered into the realm of the subjective and qualitative;  such discernment falls within the definition of the word infallible, but not inerrant.

The question of “inerrant” we may dismiss immediately, because we may demonstrate there are factual and logical errors to be found in the texts of the Hebrew bible and Christian New Testament.  This has been discussed in my previous evaluations of the respective Statements of Faith, so I will not spend much time with it here.  I will however mention a few points for consideration:

  • We may observe that where there are multiple copies of manuscripts (hand-written books) no two have been found to be entirely identical (small fragments excepted).
  • This is not to say that all hand-written copies of sacred texts are wildly different from one to the other.  Most errors, or differences, are quite minor and easily detected.  Poor spelling is the most common “error” but given that the dictionary had not yet been invented, we can forgive such minor differences.
  • Larger differences include skipping lines, or omitting words, or citing quotations from scripture improperly (and in some cases, in correcting previous errors of this type), or in mistakenly incorporating an earlier margin note into the body of the text.
  • So we find that some of these differences are quite minor.  Some differences are more significant, but still readily detectable, provided one has a sufficient number of additional manuscripts for comparison.  However, in no way can one state the body of work is “inerrant.”  For this to be true, all manuscripts must be identical.

“Infallible” is a more resilient term because it may simultaneously distance itself from “inerrancy” while pairing itself to what one subjectively considers to be the proper spiritual or moral interpretation of the text.  And this is a qualitative judgement, frequently claimed by virtue of one having been granted Divine Inspiration.  “Because God told me” is clearly a less objective measure than pointing to a printed text and claiming that the reproduction of the document is without error.

My problem with this line of argument is the word “infallible” becomes increasingly slippery.  This seems to my mind to be shifting the question to an ever-receding point.  And I want to answer the question of whether and to what degree do we entertain sacred scripture is literally true?  Metaphorically true?  Allegorically true?

If one grants that the bible is not inerrant (my apologies for the double negative), but that it remains infallible, what is the scope of this claim?

Does this apply to every single verse? Every sentence?  Are all sentences describing the same event equally infallible?  My belief is this puts too fine a point on the measure of “infallibility.”  If we do so, we witness a precise, functional meaning of infallibility slipping from our grasp.

Beyond this, how do we resolve irresolvable and incompatible differences between texts?

For example, did Jesus die on the day of preparation for Passover, or on Passover day itself?  He only died once, so it must be one or the other;  Jesus cannot have died twice, on consecutive days.  How do we explain this from the perspective that each gospel is infallible?

I find the best answer to this kind of question is to recognize that each author wished to emphasize a different point.  The four gospels are each different in certain respects exactly because each author was trying to highlight a different understanding of what the life and ministry of Jesus meant to them.  This is why it is useful to better understand the context in which each book or letter was written:  written by whom?  to what audience?  for what purpose?

Seen from this perspective we realize that sacred scripture may be objectively incompatible, yet subjectively coherent.  The measure of infallibility has eluded our grasp yet again.

Might holy scripture be infallible, yet errant?

To my eye, to say that the bible is infallible, yet subject to error (not inerrant), is to say that while specific facts may be found to be in error, or that technical errors, omissions, and contradictions take place in the text, when it comes to critical matters of theology, the truth being related is infallible.

I feel this is the strongest claim one may make for sacred scripture.  But will this position survive scrutiny?

Obviously, this leaves as an ongoing question, of what specifically are these “critical” matter of theology.  Whether the bible is infallible on specific points of theology one must examine each point.  And this is a complex process, even limiting the scope of the theology to the Hebrew bible and New Testament, let alone if one extends the scope to underlying truths common to all religions.

This is also deeply steeped in subjective judgements regarding the content of the scriptures.  I have very little faith that people will be able to agree on the details of such subjective, yet to many of them highly emotionally charged beliefs.  I see no hope for consensus in determining exactly what words would be used in printing any single “infallible” edition of the bible.

And to do so in modern English is an impossible task.  There are too many choices that must be made when interpreting the oldest and best (least errant) Greek manuscripts.

So where does this leave us?  For my part, the best I believe I can honestly offer is that holy scripture offers us inspiration.  I’ll leave this important word hanging until I address the topic of mysticism, for they are closely related.

Is sacred scripture infallible or not?

I do agree that scripture may be argued to be infallible.  However  -and this is a giant however!-  in no way do I believe we are capable of arriving at a consensus as to what this actually means once we begin discussing the text in a close, critical reading.  Sacred scripture is infallible only in theory;  but not in any practical sense which we may objectively put to use.  The degree of personal interpretation required in digesting holy, sacred scripture pushes any such consensus beyond our mortal reach;  therefore, infallibility is always a subjective standard.

  • As an aside, for the purposes of this discussion I read no significant difference between the words holy and sacred.  Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary defines, in part, these terms as follows:

Holy
1:  exalted or worthy of complete devotion as one perfect in goodness and righteousness
2:  divine [for the Lord our God is holy — Psalms 99:9 (Authorized Version)]
3:  devoted entirely to the deity or the work of the deity [a holy temple] [holy prophets]
4a :  having a divine quality [holy love]
4b :  venerated as or as if sacred [holy scripture] [a holy relic]

Sacred
1a :  dedicated or set apart for the service or worship of a deity [a tree sacred to the gods]
1b :  devoted exclusively to one service or use (as of a person or purpose) [a fund sacred to charity]
2a :  worthy of religious veneration :  holy
2b :  entitled to reverence and respect
3:  of or relating to religion :  not secular or profane [sacred music]

More to the heart of the matter, why should we think the bible (or any sacred scripture, for that matter) is inerrant or infallible in the first place?  I think it is important to consider this question mindfully.  The root of such questions is the critical -yet often unstated- question of exactly who wrote the Hebrew Bible and the Christian New Testament…

  • God or human beings?

If one believes God wrote the scriptures (which requires resolving the large problem of defining exactly what that means) *then* we may be able to sensibly ask whether or not the scriptures are inerrant and/or infallible.  (But if they fail either of these tests, we must ask:  How?  Why?  Does such a failing devalue the entire body of work?  If so, to what degree?)

But if the scriptures were written by human beings, I do not think the question is even sensible.  The problem is this:  only perfect human beings (or those who have perfect knowledge, even if “limited” to the subject of the Divine, of all things), can write an inerrant or infallible book of sacred scriptures.  And no person is perfect.

And one must remember we are not speaking of one perfect person, we are speaking of a long chain of such perfected persons over thousands of years of human history.  This just seem completely implausible to me;  completely beyond credibility.  Ludicrous, to be brutally honest.  Especially given we have a perfectly reasonable and logical alternative model.

I packed a lot into the previous three paragraphs.

Perhaps a way of making my thoughts more clear is to ask what mind composed our sacred scriptures?  Is sacred scripture a product of a Divine Mind or of a human mind?  I believe this is at the core of the question with which I am struggling in this blog, and which lies at the heart of determining if sacred scripture may be inerrant or infallible.

What if God is the author of sacred scripture?

Does this offer a better solution to the questions of inerrancy and infallibility?  Clearly not in any literal sense.  What of the error?  What of the contradictions?  Once again, the question of inerrancy is a non-starter.  I believe, in and of itself, this precludes any chance that “God wrote the bible.”

What of infallibility?  If God did not literally “write” the bibles (Hebrew and New Testament) did God “inspire” them?  Did God inspire these scriptures in such a manner as to install infallibility into the writing -and copying and editing- of these scriptures?

We have returned to very slippery ground.

But I’ll add another perspective to the question.  For the sake of argument, let us grant that God *has* provided, through human devices, the perfectly inspired, infallible set of texts.  Even if this is true….

  • human beings are unable to discern it!

Why?  Because we do not possess the Mind of God.  While I do believe we may be inspired to greater degrees of clarity and understanding, and while I do believe epiphanies take place,  our comprehension is limited by the nature of our humanity.  God must speak to us in terms which we are capable of understanding.  And our human limitations leave us short of grasping perfection – and almost everyone who makes this argument also asserts God, by definition, is perfect.

What of apprehension?  If our comprehension is too limited to grasp the Mind of God, then perhaps we may perfectly intuit God’s Message?  I do suspect this is one of our best means of experiencing the Divine in the fullest degree of which we are able.  But I do not believe this offers complete or perfect connection with the Divine.  To say we may be able to maximize our human experience of the Divine, is not to say a human may experience the maximum degree of all that is Divine.

Expressed another way, to say we may be able to completely fill our senses and perception with that which is Divine, to become totally immersed in the Divine, in no way means that we have experienced the totality of that which is Divine.

This concept may be more obvious when presented as an image:  imagine a small circle and an extremely large circle;  you and I are the small circle;  that which is Divine is the extremely large circle;  even if we reside entirely within the Divine, there is much more of the Divine than we occupy.  We are simply too small.

I do believe there is an overlap between the human and Divine.  I even believe there is a Divine Spark within each of us (which we may either nurture or ignore).  But the entirety of the Divine is incapable of being contained within that which is human.  I believe this is why the Hebrew scriptures say we cannot see the Face of God – to do so would be to metaphorically burst us into flames, reducing us to ash!

And this leads us to the “perfectly reasonable and logical alternative model” which I believe provides us an answer to these, and many other, theological questions:

  • Quite simply, the bible is *not* a Top-Down document.
  • The bible is a Bottom-Up document.

The bible is not God speaking to us.  It is a bunch of human beings working out an increasingly refined understanding of the Divine, over a period of thousands of years.  Instead of revealing God to us, the bible reveals our human perception of God.  And these are two very different things!

Furthermore, this is an evolving perception.  It does include inspired insights as to the nature of the Divine, but it also includes some horrifically human-centric ideas which show how we have objectified and brutalized one another in the past.  (And, sadly, as we continue to do to this day.)

That we humans wrote the bible, and not God, I find a great relief!

We need not ponder why “God” desires to slaughter entire ethnic groups, or pours out a flood in an effort to wipe out nearly all of humanity (to say nothing of the rest life teeming on the planet).  Instead we are able to appreciate the slow advance of human compassion and our growing spiritual maturity over the course of thousands of years.  Ever-so-slowly we are learning to leave behind the tribal god, who hates everyone we hate.

We are creatures of intellect.  Our ability to reason is that which has raised us above all other animals on this planet.  But intellect has its limits.  Intellect can be cold and devoid of love or compassion.  Intellect is a tool – an important and wonderful tool, in fact.  But this tool is not the spiritual imperative which drives us to develop and use that tool.

Beyond simple survival of the fittest, we discover a drive for spiritual enlightenment.

To be made in the image of God means that we have the ability to reason logically and to behave rationally.  But we are also creatures of the heart.  To be made in the image of God also means that we possess emotional and spiritual aspects which are every bit as important as our rational abilities – perhaps more so.  It is these qualities of the heart which we desperately need to develop.

We like to believe we have very effectively put on the Mind of God.  We have libraries filled with books of theology, comprised of many religious traditions.  Yet we cannot live in peace with one another.  Love for that which is Other remains largely beyond our reach.

We need to focus on living in the Heart of God.  We need to learn that where hatred and murder reside, God does not.  Where we are to find God, we will find tolerance, acceptance, and love for self and others.  I like to think that many of us are learning to live in our heart, and beginning to discovery therein resides God.  Ever-so-slowly we are moving toward embracing God as a unifying source of empathy, compassion, and love.

Love is the measure of the Divine.

But how might we get there?  Or at least get started heading in the right direction?  For me, this is where Inspiration enters the picture.  We are all “inside jobs” and God is to be found within our hearts.  God is not the whirlwind bearing down upon Job, or the column of fire destroying our (tribal) enemies.  God is made manifest through each of us, flowing into the world through how we choose to live our lives.

This is what the great mystic spiritual traditions tell us.  And each religion offers its internal, mystical connection with the Divine.  They tell us we find God within our own hearts, and we are the vehicles through which God chooses to become manifest in the world.  

Why?  I suspect it is because we are operating under an imperative to to become More.  We are drawn to the Divine because we sense we may enter into common union with something which is greater than ourselves, and our small human existence.  What draws us toward it, is what some call the Inspiration of the Divine.

In Christian terminology this is the Holy Spirit.  This may be thought of as the “energy” or Active Agent of the Divine in the world.  But for whatever reason, it enters into the world through each of us.  Our active participation is required.  We each have been granted free will.  In many small ways each day we are invited to choose between love and hate.

I am reminded of a well known Native American story.  A youngster has had a falling out with a friend, and is feeling conflicting emotions as a result.  On one hand they want vengeance and retribution for perceived wrongs done to them.  On the other hand, they do love their friend, and want to wish them well and enjoy their company in the future.  Their grandfather explains this is an internal battle we each face our entire lives.  We each have two wolves living within us.  One seeks to harm others.  One seeks to love others.  One will only bring us pain and loss.  The other joy and love.  Considering this, the youngster earnestly looks to their grandfather and asks, “Which wolf will win this battle?”  Grandfather answers, “The one we feed.”

In what way have these 5,000-words brought us any closer to answering the questions surrounding inerrancy and infallibility?

Asking if sacred scripture is either inerrant or infallible is to miss the larger point.  The text is literally neither.  It is certainly not inerrant, because it contains errors.  Nor are we able to determine that it is infallible, because we are unable to agree upon what this means.

At best, sacred scripture offers us instruction and inspiration.  At best, we are each “inside jobs.”  We each must take a long, deep look into our own hearts, seeking Divine Inspiration, apprehending what we may, so that we might learn to express ever-greater portions of the Divine through how we choose to live our lives, and in how we choose to interact with others.

God does not “invade” the world from the sky, like Zeus hurling lightning bolts.  The Presence of the Shadow of God enters into the world subtly;  through our ability to love those who hate us;  by our loving others as if they were ourselves;  by loving ourselves as if we were living expressions of the Divine acting in this world.

“Why?”  This is a Divine Mystery.

Erik+

Advertisements


%d bloggers like this: