Lazy Errancy

Yesterday I inserted myself into a conversation between Lisa Robinson and Scott Lencke on Twitter concerning apparent contradictions/discrepancies in the Bible and the doctrine of inerrancy. It’s a hefty subject and Twitter doesn’t afford one the space to say all that they’d like, so I’m gonna share one my issues with the way discussions like this are generally carried out.

Scott’s main point of contention was that the Bible is a “library” in that it is a collection of books, so we shouldn’t be surprised or bothered when we find contradictions. Each author has his own thing to say and his own way of saying it. Scott says that he’s happy with contradictions/tensions because it means that he doesn’t have to “try & reconcile everything. [He] can freely, but not blindly, accept Scripture.”

That sounds nice and open and honest (I’ll leave the “blindly” part alone, which sounded a little condescending), but it also strikes me as a bit lazy, which I’ll explain below, and also somewhat humanistic in the sense that it focuses on the many human authors and doesn’t account for the one divine author. When I jumped into the conversation my point was that talking about contradictions in Scripture takes their existence for granted. Lisa brought up Article XIV of the Chicago Statement:

We affirm the unity and internal consistency of Scripture.

We deny that alleged errors and discrepancies that have not yet been resolved vitiate the truth claims of the Bible.

Scott said he didn’t like this point, presumably because it starts with the presupposition of inerrancy, and then seeks to reconcile apparent contradictions and discrepancies according to the understanding that Scripture is the word of God, and since God cannot err, neither can his word. But taking apparent contradictions as actual contradictions without at least trying to reconcile the discrepancies is to operate according to the same basic kind of presupposition, namely that Scripture is the words of different men, and since men can and do disagree, so can their words.

I don’t really care if one holds to inerrancy or not; but I’d like to see either position argued for. Simply assuming the existence of actual contradictions because some things seem contradictory is lazy. Not trying to reconcile apparent contradictions because the Bible has a bunch of human authors who can disagree if they want is lazy too. Take the time to see if there is a way to reconcile the problem and then draw your conclusion. If there’s  not then what have you lost? If there is then you’ve gained all the more.

B”H

9 thoughts on “Lazy Errancy

  1. I think many who argue against inerrancy at one time did try to reconcile apparent contradictions and eventually found that they no longer could. Harmonization can only go so far and then it’s starts to strain credibility. How far should one go to try and reconcile apparent contradiction or theological diversity in the Bible? How little or big does a contradiction have to be to put a crack the doctrine of inerrancy?
    On the flip side, should the inerrantist do whatever they can to try to disprove the doctrine of inerrancy? Like a scientist trying to look for evidence to help disprove their theory?

  2. I’m constantly amazed at statements like the one in the above comment that suggests that one’s inability to reconcile apparent inconsistencies must honestly end in the conclusion that the Bible is errant rather than finding fault within the individual’s own limitations to reconcile them. Perhaps one feels as though he is straining texts because he has a limited capacity for understanding those texts, not because the texts themselves fail to function as a coherent whole. Speaking as one who has often seen people give up the doctrine due to some “contradiction” that I found to be woefully unconvincing, I would tend to doubt the interpreter before I ever doubted the interpreted.

  3. Nate: Good to know I’m not alone.

    Bryan: But that raises the question (that Hodge brings up) of whether or not the problem is with the text or interpreter. So people found that they couldn’t reconcile apparent contradictions and discrepancies. Does that mean that nobody can? Questions of credibility and how far one should go to resolve problems are ultimately subjective. What you or I may find incredible others might find completely credible. What we think goes too far others may feel goes just far enough.

    Also, I don’t think contradictions can be measured in terms of their size, by which I assume you mean the impact they’d have if they exist (e.g., a little contradiction would be Jesus delivering the Beatitudes on a mountain versus a plain, and a big contradiction would be Jesus having been resurrected versus not having been resurrected – not that that’s actually in the Bible), since I think the ultimate impact has to do with what we can say about God if we believe Scripture to be the word of God.

    The mere presence of a genuine contradiction that has no hope of being reconciled would be enough to put a crack in the doctrine of inerrancy. I think the appearance of contradictions and discrepancy keeps the inerrantist from having to do all they can to disprove inerrancy. They’re constantly working with what appears to be items that disprove the doctrine.

    Hodge: I’m with you on that. I went through a period where I denied inerrancy because I found certain ways of resolving the issues to be unconvincing and I was too lazy to look for other answers. It was easier to just throw my hands up and say that the Scriptures had tiny errors that didn’t much matter and go on suggesting that the Bible was generally trustworthy overall.

  4. Nick,
    From what you said in your post and in the first paragraph of your comments to me I would sum up what you’re saying as the following (please correct me where you think I’ve gotten you wrong):

    1. People give up on the doctrine of inerrancy because of apparent contradictions.
    2. Often those people didn’t try hard enough to resolve those contradictions before abandoning inerrancy.
    3. People should try harder to reconcile apparent contradictions rather than abandoning inerrancy because:
    a. An apparent contradiction might not actually be one but may instead be a misinterpretation by the reader.
    b. It’s possible that someone else can reconcile the contradiction
    4. But the question of what makes an interpretation accurate or the reconciliation of an apparent contradiction a good one (not too much of a stretch) is up to each individual to decide because that is ultimately subjective.

    With #4 you seem to concede that the person who gives up on inerrancy is justified in thinking that they went far enough in trying to find answers to apparent contradictions even if they didn’t go as far as you would have because the question of how far is subjective. That seems to undercut your main point in the post (that people should try harder) because they might not have gone far to you but to them they went really far (unless you’re saying how far you would go is the standard which I don’t think you would say).

    You also said:
    “I think the appearance of contradictions and discrepancy keeps the inerrantist from having to do all they can to disprove inerrancy. They’re constantly working with what appears to be items that disprove the doctrine.”

    You seem to be saying that the inerrantist doesn’t have to try and disprove inerrancy because they are constantly having to deal with challenges to inerrancy? Is that what you’re saying? A person who comes up with a theory doesn’t have to try and disprove their theory because people are already doing that for them? All they have to do is try to defeat the challenges?

  5. Bryan: Okay, here goes:

    1. Some people give up on it for that reason, I guess. Others never held to it in the first place for that reason. But inerrancy, I think, is just a foil for the bigger theological issue, namely one’s view on God’s ability (or lack thereof) to err (cf. 2nd par. of my first comment to you). If God has truly inspired the Scriptures, and there are actual errors (as originally inspired), then what does that say about God?

    2. Quite possible. But I’m more concerned with not trying at all than I am with how hard one has tried. Note that in the post I said:

    But taking apparent contradictions as actual contradictions without at least trying to reconcile the discrepancies is to operate according to the same basic kind of presupposition, namely that Scripture is the words of different men, and since men can and do disagree, so can their words.

    3. Again, the interpreter’s presupposition about the authorship of Scripture should guide what they believe about this issue. So for folks who believe the Scriptures to have been given by inspiration of God then:
    a. Yes.
    b. Yes.

    4. No, not really. You mentioned strained credibility and asked how far one should go, but how do we quantify that? At what point is credibility strained? How do we measure the lengths anyone has, can, or will go to solve the problem?

    Accuracy isn’t subjective (at least not in some pomo ‘the text means whatever I think it means’ sense). But a person who has no facility with Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek; no knowledge of textual criticism; isn’t familiar with ancient historiography; etc., etc. might see an apparent contradiction and give up where the person who has all of those tools at their disposal does not. Is the person who lacks those tools in a good position to tell the person who has them that their solution to the apparent problem lacks credibility or goes too far? I wouldn’t think so. But they might say it anyway and feel justified.

    But again, my main point is about authorial presuppositions (i.e., divine author, human authors, or both?) and at least attempting to see if the apparent contradiction has a fix. I’d contend that anyone holding to divine authorship should ask what kind of God it is that makes (= inspires) mistakes.

    And lastly, I wouldn’t word it the way you have (since it’s less about people trying to disprove them and more about the challenges being in the text itself), but sure, that works. Defeating challenges is good enough. I suppose you could work it in the opposite direction and try to prove actual contradictions, then when you find the task impossible, rest assured in your belief. But you asked a “should” question and I see no good reason why an inerrantist “should” approach the subject like that.

  6. Nick,
    Thanks for clarifying.

    I see where you are coming from and I understand the question of what does it say about God if a scripture he inspires can err. It’s a fair question and many who give up on inerrancy yet still see the Bible as the word of God and authoritative for the church still struggle with that and try to come to grips with that question (there are a lot of books on that topic). Abandoning inerrancy isn’t always an easy decision or one that is done lightly or to escape from the Bible’s authority. Sure some do but as I said, many who abandon it were very committed inerrantists before and didn’t do it lightly.

    “Accuracy isn’t subjective (at least not in some pomo ‘the text means whatever I think it means’ sense). But a person who has no facility with Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek; no knowledge of textual criticism; isn’t familiar with ancient historiography; etc., etc. might see an apparent contradiction and give up where the person who has all of those tools at their disposal does not. Is the person who lacks those tools in a good position to tell the person who has them that their solution to the apparent problem lacks credibility or goes too far? I wouldn’t think so. But they might say it anyway and feel justified. ”

    True but it cuts both ways as the person who lacks that same knowledge yet holds that there are no contradictions, even though experts in the Bible and theology disagree with them, is in the same boat. There are experts on the Bible and theology on both sides (which has more?) and they disagree. So what then? Should the non experts never disagree with the experts ? (I’m sure many Christians wouldn’t feel that way when it comes to a topic like evolution.) What does it say about the Bible if only experts can truly understand it (even though they disagree too)?

    I do think the question of what it means for the Bible to be inspired yet be the way it is (very human) is a fascinating subject.

  7. Bryan: Fair point about it cutting both ways. In general I think the Bible is pretty clear. The message certainly is. But when we get to those tough spots it takes some work. I’m advocating putting the work in instead of just giving up and saying, “Meh, so what if there are contradictions?” That’s all.

  8. Good post, Nick. The Bible’s self-attestation and the testimony of Jesus Christ are vital to inerrancy. Our presuppositions should line up with the Bible asserts and Jesus plainly said. People often object to “proof-texting,” but I am going to add some passages anyway:

    “And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth” (Ephesians 1:13)

    “When you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus” (Ephesians 4:21)

    “the faith and love that spring from the hope stored up for you in heaven and about which you have already heard in the true message of the gospel”(Colossians 1:5)

    “Every word of God is flawless” (Proverbs 30:5)

    “Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth” (John 17:17)

    For those who assert that Jesus, in His incarnation and because of cultural influences, could be mistaken on things like inerrancy: Jesus plainly said He got His message directly from God the Father.

    “But he who sent me is reliable, and what I have heard from him I tell the world.” (John 8:26b)

    “For I did not speak of my own accord, but the Father who sent me commanded me what to say and how to say it.” (John 12:49)

    “I gave them the words you gave me and they accepted them.” (John 17:8a)

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