I like to study church websites. Maybe that’s weird. But I feel like I can learn quite a bit about a church based on what they choose to offer up for a first impression.
My favorite sites are the ones that offer staff bio pages. Fewer churches are doing that these days, and I suppose I understand the logic. They want to keep the emphasis on the assumed essentials (service times, directions, contact info), the programs (ways people can get help and get involved), and the children and student ministries (which are often the only reasons adults go to a church anyway).
But I like the staff bios.
Detailed bio pages that include where the pastor(s) and staff went to school, what they are reading, even what music/movies they like can tell me a lot about a church. It’s not a perfect system, but it matters to me whether or not a pastor went to Southern Baptist Theological Seminary or Duke Theological Seminary. Both are considered respectable institutions. But the way one undertakes the task of theology is pretty distinct from the other.
I also want to know who influences a pastor’s thinking. Is he reading John Piper or NT Wright as his (or, God-willing, her) “accessible” theologian? Inquiring minds want to know. My current church had me at “Peter Rollins”.
And if a pastor’s favorite music is country? Well then I know I’ve got the wrong church.
But there’s another reason I like staff bio pages so much. And that’s because more often than not, I learn almost nothing from a church’s “What we believe page”.
You see, I claimed in my last post that I reject the notion that the Bible is inerrant. And based on what I see on most church websites, it seems like these churches haven’t thought too hard about why they’d disagree with me.
According to the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy – from which most churches/denominations that espouse inerrancy draw their verbiage on the doctrine, biblical inerrancy, “applies only to the autographic text of Scripture, which in the providence of God can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy (Article X).
Here’s that same statement slightly reworded:
“The Bible is God’s Word to all people. It was written by human authors under the supernatural guidance of the Holy Spirit. Because it is inspired by God, it is truth and without error in the original manuscripts. Today we possess authoritative copies that serve as our supreme source of truth for Christian beliefs and living.”
I’d tell you which church website I got this from but there would be too many to list. That’s because most churches these days, across numerous denominations (though my experience is mostly in Baptist, Presbyterian, and non-denomination contexts), more or less uses some form of the above wording, which is adapted from the Chicago Statement.
Now, most of you might be shrugging your shoulders at this.
But notice the common thread in both of the above statements: Inerrancy only applies to the autographic text/original manuscripts.
So the claim is that scripture was without error when it was written down. But since we conveniently don’t have those copies, you’re going to just have to trust us that the manuscripts we do have are authoritative.
This sounds a lot like the claims of the LDS Church in defense of the Book of Mormon, a topic evangelical Christians are quite fond of poking fun at.
“But wait,” you might be saying, “we base our claims about the authority of the manuscripts we still have on the fact that there is almost unanimous agreement among those manuscripts.”
Okay, here’s where things get complicated. I actually think the hypothetical counter argument I presented above is more or less accurate. I do think we can have a great deal of confidence that the manuscripts we are working with closely resemble the original autographs. The truly grave error lies in what we assume about those autographs. And in the fact that no one, at any time, has ever had access to all of them.
You see, the books of the Bible, especially those in the Old Testament, were rarely compiled by a single author over a relatively unbroken period of time. Instead, the bible is a collection or library of books (a non-controversial statement), spanning a variety of genres (another safe claim), which themselves were edited and redacted over a period of time to synthesize a host of competing histories and traditions (Whoa, okay, now we’re getting a little bold).
I know you were probably taught in Sunday school that Moses wrote the Torah/Pentateuch (the first five books) and Joshua wrote the book of Joshua, and so on. And you maybe imagined them sitting at a (fairly modern looking) desk in their cool Exodus robes, writing down the exact details of their journey and conquests, their memory kept perfectly in tact by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.
But if we take the text seriously. I mean if we really study the Bible and the manuscripts that we actually have. If we respect the scriptures enough to let them speak for themselves. And if we take seriously everything we know historically and archeologically about the world from which these texts arose. Then we have to conclude that the Sunday school re-telling of how the Bible came to be is a fiction.
Rather, the Bible, especially the Old Testament, represents a host of simultaneously developed oral and written traditions that evolved over time as those telling and retelling them wrestled with their experience of not only the divine, but also the often hostile political and social environments that surrounded them.
Now, for those of you already halfway through writing your angry emails, let me be clear about something. Nothing of what I said above closes the door on scripture being inspired by God. I do think it’s important that we clarify what we mean by inspired (something I will do in time). I’m not confident that typical verbal plenary explanation will really cut it. But don’t hear me as saying that the Bible is purely a human text.
What I am saying, however, is that when church’s try to ground their affirmation of inerrancy in the original manuscripts, they need to clarify exactly what they are claiming. Because, at least in the sense that most Christian imagine, those manuscripts never existed.
And that means that Christians who want to hold to biblical inerrancy will need to start appealing to something else to overcome some of the Bible’s more glaring contradictions.
But to hear me defend that claim, you’re going to have to wait until the next post.
I realize that the easiest way to disagree with everything I just wrote is to simply say that I’m wrong about what I said, misinformed at best. After all, I didn’t do a whole lot of source citing or scholar quoting in this post.
And there’s a reason for that. The sources for my claims are many, and most of them are pretty dense. And I know that almost no one is going to take the time to read through a bunch of text books they don’t own or academic articles they don’t have access to in order to fact check me on everything I’ve said. Don’t roll your eyes at me, you know it’s true.
Instead, those who want to take the time to dig their heals in will try to find a single source or scholar whose work contradicts what I’ve said here. And they shouldn’t have to look hard. Those people exist.
So I decided to just punt on that dead end and tell my story instead. Convenient, I know.
But I don’t want to leave people entirely failing in the wind. So I’m going to provide some good introductory resources. I know most of you won’t read these either. But a few of you will and I assure you it will be worth it.
Some of these links actually go beyond what I’ve covered so far and touch on things that I’ll be getting to in subsequent posts. But if anything I’ve said has piqued your interest on this topic, then I’d encourage you to start reading ahead, so to speak.
First, I’d encourage you to read a few short posts by our old Follow Friday Friend, Peter Enns:
If you want more on inerrancy in particular, fellow blogger Wyatt Houtz has you covered in a 7 part (so far) series:
And if you really want to just dive right into the deep end, then check out this last site. It’s a (well worth it) trip:
But the best way to learn more about this topic is to join the discussion.
What scares you about what I’ve said?
What gets you excited?
What questions do you have? What pushback.
I got to where I am because I studied and read. And because I spent a lot of time thinking and yes, praying about it as well.
But I also got there in conversation with quite a few other people. The Bible was never meant to be something we read, study, and process alone. It was meant to be read aloud, heard, and contemplated in community.
So please, contemplate. Wrestle, comment, share. Let God inspire in the midst of the struggle.