This is not carefully considered reasoning. It's an attempt to get my ideas into order.
It contains a number of passing references to things I've seen, heard, thought etc. You should not expect to understand all of it; it's not really written for anyone except me. It's provided here because some people might be interested to know how I think. :-)
- Do I *know* that the Bible is inerrant? How could I know?
- By direct revelation. Simple: I don't.
- By logical deduction. It's not an analytic statement: so, no.
- By being told by an authority already admitted to be inerrant. I know of no such authority. Jesus doesn't claim inerrancy for the Scriptures (but see later). The Bible sort of seems to, but circular arguments aren't much good (again, see later). The only other semi-plausible authority is the RCC, but that is plainly not inerrant.
- [Weaker sense of "know"] By extensive empirical testing: if it always seems to get things right then it's reliable. If I approach things without an assumption of reliability for the Bible, it doesn't do all that well prima facie: the creation story seems dodgy (even inconsistent); the Gospels have minor inconsistencies; and so on. The OT seems to contain serious ethical howlers. (As a Christian, I may in the end have to conclude that the error is mine. Approaching this from the skeptical point of view, trying to decide on the reliability of the Bible, the apparent errors make it less plausible that the Bible is inerrant.)
- Argument that God would not deceive his people. But he allows plenty of people to be atheists, Hindus etc; within the Church there is much doctrinal variation; this argument cannot lead to the conclusion that the Bible tells us everything accurately without thereby being condemned, surely?
These certainly don't amount to anything like proof. In the absence of revelation, I must make up my mind on the basis of the evidence (which may certainly include authority).
- What weaker evidence is there?
- If I trust St Paul at all (which I do), then when he says "all scripture is inspired etc" that has some weight. St Peter appears to class Paul's writings with Scripture (or does he?)
- Many of the people whose closeness to God I most respect have a very high view of Scripture.
- Most importantly: Jesus seems to have a very high view indeed of the OT. If I take the NT as somehow more reliable than the OT, that gives it a high claim.
These are all strong arguments for something. Deciding exactly what will have to wait.
- Evidence against.
- Actual contradictions. I must get hold of one of those lists. Obviously, any explicit contradiction would explode any claim of absolute inerrancy. I suspect most of them can be got round; but at what cost? I just don't know until I've looked them up.
- Ethical blunders in the OT, if that's what they are. For instance, the idea that God demanded the slaughter of women and children; the imprecatory bits of the Psalms; Lot's offer of his daughters. Are there corresponding blunders in the NT? (Fig tree?) What's the right attitude to "blunders", anyway? Should I conclude that it's I who am at fault, and try to accept the goodness of infanticide? If so, what do I mean by saying that God is good?
- Factual errors. For instance, the opening of Genesis is presumably wrong. (Can I really say that? There are a lot of creationists about.)
Of these, (1) probably speaks only against a rather narrow notion of reliability, but does so with great force (if there are any actual contradictions). (2) is vaguer but broader; but doesn't seem to have any force against the NT. (3) is intermediate.
Recently I've been looking for contradictions and factual errors, and haven't had much luck. Significant?
- Origin of the canon.
- I don't know where it came from. Informally more or less decided before the Councils?
- How did they decide? What if they reached a decision on wrong grounds (e.g. Hebrews as a Pauline work)? -- God can work in all sorts of strange ways.
- "Those who are inwardly taught by the Spirit acquiesce implicitly in Scripture". I still don't know just what he meant, but it comes across as blackmail: if you don't agree with me you aren't a proper Christian.
- But perhaps if I don't agree then I'm not a proper Christian. I've often wondered whether my total lack of dramatic experience of God is evidence of something badly wrong: perhaps my attitude to the Bible is also such evidence, or perhaps it's a cause, or an effect.
- How can I know? I'm *not* taught by the Spirit that the Bible is reliable (or else I'm very good at ignoring the Spirit). Is it therefore right for me to insist on evidence?
- My natural inclinations.
- It seems clear that a Christian must regard the Bible as of very great importance. It documents the relations of God with his people, and the events of his most dramatic interaction yet: so even if we decide that it's highly unreliable, it's the best we have.
- I don't see any reason to regard it as highly unreliable. Textually it's very well preserved (perhaps not so well as the Qu'ran, but better than just about anything else of comparable age -- right?) and the history seems pretty sound from external evidence. Plus, the authors are all people strongly convinced that a lie is a great sin before the Lord (I think).
- What of inspiration? I'm inclined (but perhaps for purely sentimental reasons) to accept 2 Tim 3:16-17 as being right in some sense. What sense? Perhaps it can mean "The whole of Scripture", meaning that there is (say) no book with no message for us. Perhaps the inspiration works with a fairly large granularity. I think we need an interlude on the nature of inspiration.
- The nature of inspiration.
- Provisionally take 2 Tim 3:16-17 as true. What can we conclude?
- I think we can conclude that inspiration is consistent with some factual error, but I need to check my suspicion of factual errors.
- It must mean *something*, unless the NEB translation is right. (Check this possibility.)
- It must be a matter of God imparting some sort of knowledge, or understanding, or feeling, or need to write. I don't see that any of those meanings can be ruled out, though they may be vague.
- Would I say that something was "God-breathed" if it was just that God prompted it to be written, given the purely human ideas of the writer? It's like the sculptor who chips away everything that doesn't look like a tiger: selecting can be as effective as writing, given enough material to work with.
- What if God's input was to stir certain feelings in the writer? Somehow this does seem much too vague and fuzzy. But there are precise emotions as well as vague ones (T S Eliot), so perhaps this is not a fair reaction.
- At the very least, in some sense God must have intended it all to be written. Perhaps not sentence-by-sentence.
- Imagine this: God reveals his greatness to someone who believes also in other gods. The someone writes down: God is the greatest of all gods, a king above all kings. He rules over the council of the gods, and passes judgement upon them all. -- Could this be inspired? I think it could, and we can accept it without accepting that there actually are other gods, still less that they have a council.
- But this is dangerous. With this conception one can just throw away almost anything one doesn't like, saying that the *real* point lies elsewhere. I must proceed with the utmost caution.
- That something is dangerous does not imply that it is wrong.
- My natural inclinations, again. continued from 6.
- If something is known from other sources to be false, we can assume that it was not in any important sense part of the inpiration, and therefore that we must look elsewhere. This, again, is dangerous.
- How to decide when something is "known to be false"? What happens if it's not known to be anything, but it just "feels wrong"?
- I think I need to trust myself less. But is surrendering to a more literal reading of Scripture necessarily better? Is it the same as trusting God more? Some would say yes; it seems to me that that's begging the question.
- I must read with an open heart and mind, being prepared to be proved wrong not only in my intellectual ideas but in my moral judgements. But some moral firmness is surely needed, since otherwise there is danger of an idea of God as nasty Eastern despot.
- Can a whole book be "wrong"?
- Certainly there is nothing to stop a whole book being a work of fiction.
- But to take it as such without evidence that its intended audience would have so read it would be very foolish.
- If it's not explicitly advertised as fiction? Look at the style, perhaps. Poetic forms might be thought more proper to myth and folk-tale? Careful of cultural differences: poetic forms were considered proper to sacred retellings of history etc, and to prophecy (considered as the living word of the Lord).
- If a book, taken literally, contradicts what's known from the rest of the Bible then we must seek some other explanation. For instance, I think Ecclesiastes is a case of this; perhaps much of Job.
- I maintain my horror at the idea that (say) James is an example of what not to believe. But why is this less plausible than that the same is true of Ecclesiastes? I need to think about this.
What I need to think about, or check out:
- Jesus's attitude to the OT. Read all the passages, and make notes.
- Exact strength of the circular (helical?) argument.
- Contradictions and factual errors in the Bible.
- Exact meaning of 2 Timothy 3:16.
- Exactly what Peter says about Paul's writings being "scriptures".