Infallibility, inerrancy, and revelation… many Christians subscribe to variations of these doctrines and may even see them as requirements of the faith. I recall past conversations in which fellow Christians and I were discussing new believers who believed in Jesus but just weren’t sure about accepting the Bible wholesale. To be a True Christian, one had to accept a particular set of doctrines which really weren’t up for debate. Until then, you fell into this other category of Baby Christian or even non-Christian. Among the requirements for True Christianity was believing that the Bible was the directly revealed Word of God, infallible and inerrant in its original texts.
Now this sounds great and pious, and I would love it if this were the case, because it would make things really easy. What’s the answer to [fill in the blank]? Let’s see what God says! This is the notion behind Biblical counseling, wherein we view the Bible as a series of prescriptions for our individual ailments called “sin.” The question we must ask, though, is whether or not this is a good way of thinking about the Bible. If we should destroy these doctrines, then we will come to a place of uncertainty. What would we do at that point? How would we go about being Christian?
The most troublesome part of the doctrines in question is revelation, because it entails the other two doctrines. If God directly revealed the text of the Bible, then the Bible must be infallible and inerrant, because God does not lie, nor does he make mistakes. But the idea of revelation says some very strange things about the Biblical authors. Essentially, it invents this special epistemological state in which the authors of the Bible suddenly receive a burst of pure knowledge, and they transcribe this knowledge onto the scrolls which we would later collect into the Bible.
This supposes that all social prejudices and limitations of knowledge disappeared long enough for the authors to write down what God had revealed. Further, it supposes that whatever God revealed was not so terribly offensive to the people who ultimately received it that they were willing to listen. Judging from the violent reactions to the abolition of American slavery, though, I can only imagine what would have happened if this had occurred long ago. I can only imagine how the people would have responded if the women stood up for themselves as persons, even amid a revelation from God. Yet if God revealed the scriptures, then His word should transcend culture to reveal what is right.
So here’s the test: do the teachings of the Bible reflect those of contemporary cultures? If the answer is unilaterally “no,” then we can say that it would have been extremely improbable that anyone wrote the Bible of his/her own free will. If the answer is yes, such as if the Bible were to reflect the myths of the area, if it advocated tribalism and patriarchy, the taking of slaves, the poor treatment of women, racial superiority as a justification for war, etc., then we should say that it is extremely likely that the authors wrote very much out of their own preferences and personal moral judgments.
The way I frame this test obviously indicates where I side on this. The former Christian apologist in me would have screamed, “But the Old Testament law was for the ritual purity of Israel, and we don’t have to pay attention to that, anymore!” Oh really, self? In what way is taking women as sex prisoners — but in some cases only the virgins — a part of ritual purity? In what way is this ever okay?
I am not trying to convey a modernist sentiment suggesting that we here in current times are so much less of moral monsters than those in ancient times. They acted in accordance with what they understood just as we do, today — we just know more, at least in many regards. What I am saying, though, is that if God really wrote the Bible, God would object to such practices. What we find, instead, is that in addition to some truly wonderful material, the Bible also contains misogyny, slavery, homophobia, and all the sorts of backward practices which we should expect to find in the writings of a culture living in the Near East.
I can’t offer a solid, consistent replacement for how we look at the Bible, but I find that the resulting confusion gives us a previously-inaccessible authenticity. With clear-cut guidelines of how to live our lives, which values are the right ones, etc., we would just say, “Here, do this. Be this way.” In fact, this is what happens in some circles. Consequently, there is no struggle for capital-J Justice, because Justice is this thing right here, this thing which we can point to instead of striving to attain. Thus the pursuit of Justice is a matter of conquest rather than internal contemplation. Certainty precludes us from making meaningful decisions and exercising our freedom of will. Love would have clear-cut definitions, and choosing to love would have little moral meaning, because the right decision would just be so obvious.
It is not that I think there are no answers to these ultimate existential problems, but certainty of their solutions demolishes meaning to life itself. With this in mind, we should read the Bible differently, not looking to it for all the right answers but instead recognizing that the Biblical authors were struggling to understand what is True and Just and Loving in the same way that we are, today.