The Piety of Errant Scriptures

The errancy/innerrancy debate in biblical theology is often framed in terms of levels of “belief” in the Bible. The errancy position holds that the Bible is not a perfect document that represents the direct word of God in every minor (and even some major) instance. It admits human involvement in the production and transmission of the text. In inerrancy position holds that the Bible is the perfect word of God. Though there are many different subtlties in the various versions of these two positions, they actually rest on the same set of assumptions.

I specified that this is a debate in “biblical theology” rather than biblical studies because there is an important difference. In scholarly biblical studies the errancy and inerrancy debate is not an issue. The reason is because biblical studies is not dependent on identifying the presence of God in the biblical narrative. Whether God is or is not behind the text is a question that is simply bracketed as irrelevant to the analysis of the history, meaning, ideology, and contextualization of the text.

The inerrancy view of scripture is supposed to preserve the reliability of God through the reliability of the text. The view that the scriptures are “errant” in some way is actually the other side of the pious coin. To say that the scriptural text is errant in some way is to preserve the reliability of God at the expense of the reliability of the biblical text. Both views suggest that God is unquestionably inerrant, even though they differ with respect to the reliability of the biblical text. Both views are theological positions that rest on the same foundation.

There is a third option, one that some versions of Mormon may uniquely be able to hold. In this view, the scriptures are both errant and fully inspired by God. This radical version of Mormon finitism suggests that God may in fact be errant himself as he progresses in knowledge. While most Mormons accept the theological assumptions of the errancy/inerrancy debate that God is inerrant, which dispute the reliability of the scriptures, this strand of Mormon theology rejects such an assumption and takes the scriptures as reliable, but God as unreliable.

It is a mistake to take any one of these positions as inherently more or less pious with respect to God or the Bible, since they are all staking out pious ground in different ways. In the pursuit of biblical studies, however, are all equally problematic, or does one more easily facilitate the bracketing that takes place in the evaluation of the Bible?

27 Replies to “The Piety of Errant Scriptures”

  1. No, I don’t think that all are equally problematic.

    And secondly, I can’t easily facilitate bracketing. That is why I can’t take some scholars too seriously. Either they don’t like the God of the Bible (Ehrmann), or even worse they don’t take God seriously.

  2. I don’t think that it matters, as biblical studies (as I understand it) has nothing to do with God. Because we can all agree that God wasn’t writing the Bible himself, he becomes an incidental character in biblical studies.

    And in reference to Todd’s comment, who actually does like the God of the Bible (old testament, anyway)? He’s petty, jealous, and mean, and all he seems to be interested in is smiting people. To be frank (and a bit blasphemous), I always felt ashamed and dishonest trying to find good in the OT God. I would have to engage in the same kinds of mental gymnastics that a battered spouse would. Loving Gods don’t smite.

  3. I tend to agree that biblical studies is not so much about God as it is about the people, places, and situations which surround the text, as well as its literary characteristics and value.

    But having said that, it would be naïve to suppose that biblical studies can operate completely independent of theology or that it really didn’t matter what theological conclusions one came to. Furthermore, those who blithely deny any theological bias in their biblical studies are fooling themselves, in my view. I’m not saying that objective, sound methodologies are impossible—indeed, many with firm theological convictions transcend their own theology—but rather that theology can never really be factored out of the equation.

    Take, for example, Nate W. (aka Mr. Marcion). Immediately after denying that Biblical Studies has anything to do with God, he then turns around and finds the OT God inconsistent with the God he would rather believe in. Apparently, for him, discipline and chastisement (albeit harsh) has no place in love, or rather perhaps that he knows more about love than does the OT God. He chooses to ignore the many places in the OT where God blesses, protects, exhalts, forgives, guides, and warns. I’m not saying Nate W. is wrong, but merely that he is ignoring evidence from the OT to make the OT fit his own theological views.

    To be fair, I don’t think Nate W. was making any kind of scholarly conclusion, just asserting his own perspective of the OT God.

  4. TT:

    I am having a little trouble with what you are calling radical Mormon finitism, and how an ‘errant’ God fits into what can be called Mormonism. Maybe it is to radical for me to accept as legit.

    I wrote a post once based on BH Roberts take on the “omni’s” of God here which I can grasp well enough for me. But does a finite God that is not philosopically absolute in all of the omni’s necessarily mean errant? And how does one maintain God as an adaquate object of worship once we accept an errant God? It seems to me such radicals have gone to far.

  5. “the God of the Bible…(is) petty, jealous, mean, and all he seems interested in is smiting people”

    I would rephrase that as saying that the scribes, who wrote about events hundreds of years after they happened, chose to describe God as only interested in smiting people. These writers, who were often being oppressed or in exile at the time, loved to describe the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob as the baddest god on the block, able to whoop up on any people or god standing in his way. They didn’t deny the existence of other gods (“thou shall have no OTHER gods before Me”), but they felt – as demonstrated by Moses and Aaron’s serpent gobbling up the Egyptian gods serpents – that “the Lord is a man of war (Exodus 15:3) who will kill off every first-born child in Egypt and order complete genocide in the land of Canaan in order to give his chosen people what they want. Fortunately, archaeology in the “holy land” seems to point out that most of the mass distruction spoken of in Joshua was mere fanciful bravado.

  6. The third option just doesn’t seem plausible to me, although I appreciate it’s creativity!

    I think most Mormons are able to at least entertain the thought that God progresses in knowledge or power, but it seems that God long ago(billions of years?) would have far surpassed the level of knowledge required to write a book like the bible.

  7. Todd,
    I am not sure, but I think I disagree with your generalizations.

    I agree that taking the Bible serious leads to some serious problems.

    I agree that it is naive to assume there is some neutral theological position. Todd’s comments illustrate how even the claim to be neutral theologically is a theological position that some people are not going to be comfortable with.

    It sounds like you are taking the errancy position, which is as good as anything for explaining aspects of ancient religion that we find problematic in modernity.

    Eric and James,
    I think that the issue of an errant God is employed to explain things like much of Genesis, where God is bargaining with Abraham over Sodom, or where he wipes out all humans in the flood and sort of apologizes and promises not to do it again. For more contemporary examples, I think people point to polygamy and blacks in the priesthood as examples where God may have gotten it wrong. Such a view credits God with direct leadership of the church, rather than human intervention or misunderstanding, but suggest that God’s choices may be problematic.
    I think you’re right to raise the question of worshipworthiness for such a God, but in the end I am not sure that it is that big of a problem. I (mostly) follow my fallible earthly leaders, so I am not sure there is much of a difference in follow a fallible heavenly leader. Besides, to whom should we go? Who else has the words of eternal life?

    Jacob J,

  8. TT, “Besides, to whom should we go? Who else has the words of eternal life?” Exactly.

    You ask in the post if all are “equally problematic” in biblical studies, but I must have missed what the “problem” is. If biblical studies can ignore even the existence of God, what difference does it make whether he is errant or not? Or are you asking which theological position creates fewer personal conflicts for the student? (Since I am a biologist, I will draw an analogy between different theological views of the creation and studying human evolution—it’d be pretty hard to be simultaneously an evolutionary biologist and a young earth creationist.)

  9. TT, I think you and LarryCo got exactly what I was saying–I don’t believe that God is as he is portrayed in the OT. But of course, my decision to believe that means that I’m creating God as I want him to be. Of course, I have no problem with that, as I think it is inevitable.

    As to your theory, I think it is a legitimate (although subversive) way of reading the Bible. God seems to evolve and grow quite a bit through the story of the Bible–rather than that being blamed on cultural changes, why not read it as God changing? I guess the question with such an approach is what we could learn from it. I’ll leave that to you…

  10. Coming from a non-absolutist perspective, the idea that God is errant enough to account for the more problematic aspects of the scriptural record seems rather perverse, in the sense that it entails the assumption that we have superior moral judgment to that of God a handful of millennia ago. A being that incompetent could hardly be deserving of the title at all.

    It is worth mentioning, by the way, that “finitist” and “absolutist” are not mutually exclusive categories. Infinity allows for many possibilities in between.

  11. I certainly fall into the scriptural errancy camp since the inerrant position frankly seems rife with problems. While on one hand I like the idea that God can progress and change there is a very dangerous risk in an inerrant God. Im not sure I want to follow God since he is the most powerful guy on the block and gives us great perks.

    At some point shouldnt it matter whether God is good?

  12. Dane: Who says the head god is infallible? After all, wouldn’t there be another head god over him?

    I’ve a growing suspicion that the antithesis between fallibility and infallibility, as we mortals understand it, might be inadequate to describe God and his eternal progression.

  13. Also, although some have claimed that the 3rd option isn’t viable, it would explain why God is often referred to as “repenting” of various threats and actions in the OT. But then, Brother Joseph changed most of these to the people repenting in his translation.

  14. TT, as always, great work and thanks for continually bringing a bit of scholarship to the masses.

    If it’s not too big of a distraction, I wonder since I don’t seem to know Bible scholars rather many well-meaning Protestants who sometimes try to beat me up with an inerrant Bible, is this a world view that is worth disrupting? What is the most productive, gracious approach?

  15. TT, I particularly like the extension to modern Church leadership you propose in #8. So if I’ve got it right, the inerrant position is that Church leaders are always doing the (inerrant) will of God. The errant position is that Church leaders misunderstand the (inerrant) will of God and don’t implement it exactly correctly. Your third way would be to consider Church leaders may understand God’s will perfectly, but God errs.

    This is a blindingly stupid question, I’m sure, but is there any reason in this third way to believe that in addition to God erring, that the Bible / Church leaders might not also err?

    Jacob J, #7, I’m glad to see you liked this post. When I saw it, I thought you and Geoff J might like it.

  16. larryco: The word “repent” has senses that do not imply culpability. I don’t think one can read more than “caused to regret” or “changed one’s mind” in KJV uses of “repented” or “repent” without further context.

  17. I have been thinking about your third option. Isnt the third option just the natural result of believing in inerrancy? Its seems to me that if we believe in inerrant texts we will be forced to conclude, absent major mental gymnastics, that God is not consistent and changing. We can either engage in some marcionite heresy and say its not God in the OT or label the text and/or God errant.

    I think that reason will lead us to abandon inerrancy in the text and we are then left with either labeling God or the text errant. If the text is labeled errant we can still preserve some notion that God is inerrant or different than the text portrays which I think is supported by Christ’s approach to the OT and his statements about what God is actually like.

    If we choose to label God errant then we are in turn labeling the text errant for it seems an errant God implies an errant text.

  18. Kade,
    I think that you ask a tough question that deserves a good response. To be honest, I am not going to be able to give it to you since I have very little experience in the situations you are facing. Ultimately, errancy or inerrancy are theological assumptions that don’t really have anything to do with what the text actually says. They become lenses for seeing the text. Ideally, there is a mutually informing relationship between the text and its lens, but often that is more sophisticated than most readers (regardless of their assumptions) are capable of.

    Ziff, I think you do a good job of summarizing the options. I also think that you are right that there is no reason to assume that church leaders don’t err, especially if God does, in the third option.

    Yes, it is a type of inerrancy, but all three options are types of inerrancy to some extent. For instance, options 1 and 2 assume that God is inerrant.
    I am not sure that it follows that the text is errant if God is errant, depending on what one means by “errant.” in one sense, the text can be a perfectly accurate description of an errant God. In another sense, this accurate description may contain errant truths.

  19. It seems to me that option 1 really isnt viable. The text itself paints a God so inconsistent morally and even doctrinally that Im not sure how we can rationally believe option 1.

    If we believe in God it seems our only solution is to option 2 or 3 and Im not sure the God of option 3 is someone we can really trust.

  20. TT, You say: “The errancy position holds that the Bible is not a perfect document that represents the direct word of God in every minor (and even some major) instance”.

    And then regarding the third option: “This radical version of Mormon finitism suggests that God may in fact be errant himself. In this view, the scriptures are both errant and fully inspired by God”.

    Needless to say, the only way to avoid a contradiction in the last sentence quoted is to conclude that you are using “errant” and its cognates in three different senses, the first relative to the fidelity of the text, the second relative to the infallibility of God, and the third relative to the infallibility of the text.

    That raises five consistent possibilities, adapting your numbering:

    1a. Text inerrant, text infallible, God infallible
    1b. Text inerrant, text fallible, God infallible
    2a. Text errant, text fallible, God infallible
    2b. Text errant, text fallible, God fallible
    3a. Text inerrant, text fallible, God fallible

    The virtue of 2b over 3a, of course, is that it allows the rather more likely conclusion that the problems of the text are largely due to the errors of mortals rather than God, which seems a first order requirement for “God” to be “God” rather than “reckless absentee administrator” in the first place.

  21. If the point is to absolve God of any errors that men have made, the most obvious position to do this is to say that God never revealed himself to man at all.

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