Thursday, March 13, 2014

The Next Thing I Say Will Be True. The Last Thing I Said Was A Lie.


Evening was falling. There was a chill in the air. I was handing out candles to a group of university students. They had gathered to commemorate their fellow students who had been killed by a deranged gunman. Their loss, their fear, and their hope were palpable. I offered a candle to a young man standing at the edge of the crowd. He looked at my collar and said, "Pastor, I can't believe in God any more."

"I'm sorry," I said.

I should have said more. I should have said, "You can still light a candle" or "Please stay and talk with me after the service." I should have said something. But I was gobsmacked, at a loss for words.

The young man turned and walked away into the cold night.

The doctrine of inerrancy has long been my personal bugbear. An honest reading of the Scriptures undermines the idea that the Bible is without error or contradiction. Inerrancy, meant to provide a firm foundation for  faith, becomes a stumbling block to faith. Maintaining a doctrine of inerrancy in the face of the Bible's contradictions and outright errors of fact requires a huge amount of intellectual juggling and tap dancing. There are better, more honest, ways to read the Bible.

I've been thinking about inerrancy recently, at least partly because I've read a fascinating three-part series on Peter Enns's blog by Randy Hardman. In these blog posts Hardman describes his exodus out of inerrancy and Christian apologetics.

It seems to me that no one arrives at a doctrine of inerrancy by first reading the Bible. The teaching that the Bible contains no contradictions or errors of fact is based, rather, on certain philosophical presuppositions which then color one's reading of Scripture. I know the proof-texts cited to support the notion of inerrancy but, in my estimation, those texts only constitute proof if inerrancy is first assumed. The argument is circular.

The first assumption underlying the teaching of inerrancy is that the Bible is, in some way, directly inspired by God. The crassest form of this assumption is that God dictated the Bible to God's secretaries. A subtler and probably more common form of this idea has God telling the biblical writers what to write but allowing them to use their own words. The Christian Scriptures then become The Holy Bible, by God, as told to the Prophets, Evangelists, and Apostles. God is the Author; Moses et al are the (holy) Ghost Writers.

A second assumption is that God does not deceive.

Using these assumptions as premises the argument for inerrancy goes like this:

  • The Bible is the directly inspired word of God.
  • God does not lie.
  • Therefore, the Bible is true in all of its particulars. It contains no errors or contradictions, and is factual in its accounts of history.
 There are some presuppositions about the nature of truth involved in the conclusion to this tautology but it is outside of my scope to examine them here.

In my Year of Blogging Biblically series I am currently in the midst of the book of Ezekiel and have only recently finished Jeremiah. Both of those prophets say that God does, in fact, deceive. Jeremiah complains that the Lord has deceived him personally:

Why is my pain unceasing,
   my wound incurable,
   refusing to be healed?
Truly, you are to me like a deceitful brook,
   like waters that fail.
      (Jeremiah 15:18)

In Ezekiel the Lord, speaking through the prophet, admits to deceiving the idolators of Judah:

 Moreover, I gave them statutes that were not good and ordinances by which they could not live.
      (Ezekiel 20:25)

In short, God acted decptively. I recall also the Lord's actions in 1 Kings 22:22 (and its parallel in 2 Chronicles 18:21). In this incident, if the Lord is not directly deceptive then, at the least, the Lord is a participant in a conspiracy to deceive.

Then Micaiah said, ‘Therefore hear the word of the Lord: I saw the Lord sitting on his throne, with all the host of heaven standing beside him to the right and to the left of him. And the Lord said, “Who will entice Ahab, so that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?” Then one said one thing, and another said another, until a spirit came forward and stood before the Lord, saying, “I will entice him.” “How?” the Lord asked him. He replied, “I will go out and be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.” Then the Lord said, “You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do it.” So you see, the Lord has put a lying spirit in the mouth of all these your prophets; the Lord has decreed disaster for you.’ 

I suppose that one could justify the Lord's actions here and explain away God's duplicity. Doing so would, however, involve the kind of mental gymnastics that make the doctrine of inerrancy untenable.

So here is the problem for inerrantists. The Bible is supposed to be inerrant because God does not deceive, but the Bible depicts God as acting deceptively.

I am not saying that I believe God is a deceiver. I think that the Chronicler and the author of Kings believed God to be capable of deception. I think that Jeremiah and Ezekiel believed God to be capable of deception. Frankly, if I were sitting in Babylon, exiled from my home, if I had seen my city besieged, witnessed the horrors of warfare, famine, and disease, if I had seen mothers reduced to eating their own children, if I had lost my university friends to a deranged gunman, I too might believe that God could be a deceiver, untrustworthy, or even non-existence.

What is fascinating to me is the fact that Jeremiah and Ezekiel continued to trust in their Lord. They could have turned and walked away.

Quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version.

1 comment:

  1. As far as your introductory story does, losing faith often means a lot more than just losing faith. Many of us lost our communities, social network, and safety net all in one go. I was relatively lucky in that only a handful of friends stopped talked to me once I mentioned that I was having doubts, but I have friends who've lost their families, whose parents won't speak to them any more.

    I also have some friends who continue going to church and hide their atheism because they are afraid that they will be rejected by the most important community in their lives if they are honest about their (lack of) beliefs.

    It took tremendous courage for that young man to tell you his doubts. (That's not to say that he's an atheist - he may well have just been expressing distress at what happened and will return to belief later. Either way, being open about his feelings, even if just to refuse a candle, is a huge deal.)

    In case you would like feedback from someone who has been on the other side, the best thing you might do in that specific situation is to say that we light our candles to honour the person's memory, and that only has to do with God if the person lighting it feels that it does. In a broader sense, if someone comes to you admitting doubt, the single most meaningful thing you could say would simply be "that's okay, you are still welcome." Though, you seem like someone who would say - or at least wish to say - that anyway :)