Through a glass, darkly
By Ernest Partridge
Journal Guest Writer
Nov 23, 2005, 21:14
The Bible is the inerrant . . . word of the living God.
It is absolutely infallible, without error in all matters pertaining to faith
and practice, as well as in areas such as geography, science, history, etc --
organization reports that 35 percent of Americans believe the Bible to be the "inerrant
word of God," while another 48 percent believe it to be the "inspired"
word of God, but nonetheless "inerrant" if certain parts are
interpreted symbolically rather than literally. Similarly, The
Barna Group reports that 61 percent of Americans believe that "the
Bible is totally accurate in all of its teachings." (More statements of
Biblical "inerrancy" here,
here and here).
Most of the
industrialized world would be astonished, bewildered and appalled upon reading
such statistics, especially in view of the fact that the United States has long
been the world leader in scientific research and technological development. Due
to that leadership, American Universities and research institutions have been
magnets, drawing outstanding scientists, engineers and students from around the
world, many of whom have remained to further enhance the scientific,
technological and economic vigor of the United States. We have led the world in
Nobel Prizes and in the volume of scientific publications, as we have exported
our technologies throughout the civilized world.
There is no
guarantee that this preeminence will continue.
American society has been, in a sense, schizoid. Educated elites, with the
support of enlightened commercial interests and government subsidies, have
flourished atop a mass culture that was suspicious and dismissive of
intellectual "eggheads," and stubbornly attached to traditional "old
time religion." And yet, the entire national economy has benefited
enormously from scientific research, technological development and application,
and public higher education, facilitating the opportunity for gifted and
enterprising young people of modest means to join the elites -- a Jeffersonian "natural
aristocracy of talent and virtue."
But now that order has
been overturned by the regressive right. It has done so with the enlisted
support of a faction of religious fundamentalism that is hostile to science and
that demands and receives unprecedented influence in public policy.
leadership in science and technology may now be in jeopardy as the theory of
evolution is challenged in our public schools, as (so-called) "conservative"
students in our universities are encouraged by the likes of Lynn Cheney and
David Horowitz to harass "liberal" professors, as cutting-edge biomedical
research is blunted by religious qualms about stem cells, and as research
funding for the National Science Foundation, the National Academy of Sciences,
the Environmental Protection Agency, and other federal scientific agencies is
being severely curtailed.
There is a great
deal at stake here. And yet scientists, secular scholars, and even liberal and
moderate churches have been reluctant to challenge the fundamentalists, holding
that such pre-modern beliefs should be "respected" as "private"
and "personal." Unfortunately, for their part, the fundamentalists
have not displayed reciprocal respect and tolerance for contrary views about
theology, scripture, or the grounds of morality.
take the issue of Biblical infallibility very seriously. As one of their
leading spokesmen, Rev. Jerry
Falwell warns, if Christians are "able to say out loud that the Bible
is not the inerrant word of God -- that its inspiration is not really different
from that of the Bhagavad-Gita or Thoreau's Walden or Maya Angelou's poems --
then a great number of conservative and fundamentalist idols begin to topple."
In this case, I
agree completely with the good reverend: challenge "inerrancy," and
those "idols" become vulnerable. Which is precisely why I propose to
criticize and refute the doctrine of the infallibility of the Bible. Once that
is accomplished, the progressive will be better equipped to topple those
conservative and fundamentalist idols.
In this analysis, I
propose an unusual approach: Let us assume that the Lord God, Creator and Ruler
of the vast universe, dictated eternal truths to the original authors of the 66
books of The Holy Bible. As a secular philosopher, I don�t believe this
nonsense for a moment. But even if we assume all this, then even so, I will
argue that the Bible that is in our hands today simply cannot be "infallible."
First of all, when
the fundamentalists claim that the Bible is "inerrant" -- literally
true from back to front -- which Bible are they talking about? If they mean the
English translations, then there is no point going back to original Hebrew,
Aramaic, or Greek texts to dig out the "original meaning." God's
truth is before us in plain English. But to believe this, we must also a
believe that The Lord God guided the hands of King James� scholars, through
every word. Or if not those scholars, then those who produced a "preferred"
translation of the Bible into English.
translation? If God won�t tell us, then to the degree that those many Bibles
differ, to that degree they are "errant" -- subject to error.
However, since no
one seems to claim that the translators of the English language Bibles we now
have in hand were elevated to the status of holy prophets, we look to the
sources, for the "original" words and meanings. But again, which
It gets worse. No
one fully understands ancient languages. The best experts on the meaning of
ancient Hebrew and Aramic or classical Greek and Latin were those who spoke it
and wrote it as their first languages -- and they are all dead, of course. (For
that matter, "living" natural languages are inherently vague and
ambiguous to some degree -- but that�s the subject of another essay).
So modern scholars
do the best they can by reading ancient texts as they try to "get into the
heads" of those who wrote them. And, of course, those scholars disagree
with each other -- even if one or another of them entertains the colossal
conceit that they are reading, and understanding, the "inerrant word of
So who will tell
which of these worthies really has a grip on "God�s Words." Is it
just possible that none of them has that grip?
fundamentalists avoid the translation problem by asserting that while the
original texts, the "autographs," were free of error, "mistakes
many have crept into the translated version." (Swaggert, Straight
Answers to Tough Questions, p. 8). The Mormons� eighth "Article of
Faith" concurs: "We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as
it is translated correctly . . ." This is presumably the position taken by
most Christians who believe the Bible to be truly "Holy."
The kicker is that "translated
correctly" bit. How does one determine whether a translation is "correct"
or not? On this question, God is silent. So when the preacher pounds his Bible
and says "this is the word of God!" (assuming, of course, it
is translated correctly, which we can't know for sure)" he cannot claim to
be speaking God's "inerrant" truth.
It comes to this:
If there is no "inerrant" way to determine which translation or
interpretation of text is the one, singular, "inerrant" Holy Truth of
the Bible, then there is no "inerrant" Biblical truth. Once you add
the qualifier, "as far as it is translated correctly," you have given
away the game.
Some logicians call
this "the bottleneck problem," which might as well be called "the
weakest link in the chain problem."
example. According to Catholic doctrine, the Pope speaks "the infallible
truth" when he speaks "ex cathedra" -- from his "office"
-- on matters of faith and morals.
Let�s assume he
does so. (Of course I don�t believe this, but let�s be hypothetical here). But
do we know, infallibly, when the Pope is speaking infallibly (ex cathedra)? If
not, then nothing the Pope says is infallible. The "fallible" ex
cathedra criterion is the weak link in the chain.
To return to our
original albeit extreme assumption, let�s suppose that when the Pentateuch (the
first five books) was written (presumably in Mesopotamia during the Babylonian
Captivity in the sixth century BC) The Lord God Himself was in the room
dictating inerrant Holy Truth to the scribes. He did so in a language half
forgotten today, and on a manuscript that is long lost. The "chain of
custody" -- copies of copies, translations of translations -- is long and
replete with uncounted "weak links." This is also the case with New
Because the "weak
links" in this "chain of custody" are fallible ("errant"),
so too is the received text that we have today -- no matter how perfectly and "inerrantly"
true the original message might be.
In sum: even if we
assume that the original "autographs" of the books of the Bible were
the 100 percent certified error-free "Word of God," the Bible that we
have today and that we read from must necessarily be "errant" --
containing messages and meaning not intended by the original authors.
In fact, I am
personally unpersuaded by the doctrine of original infallibility. According to my
secular perspective, the unknown authors of the books of the Bible wrote in the
language and amidst the culture of their times -- a fact that is clearly
indicated by a scrupulous ("higher critical") examination of the
received texts. Those were pre-scientific times and tribal cultures. Thus the
Bible is scientifically worthless and, in the early texts, often morally
atrocious. Still, late in the Old Testament (the so-called "minor prophets")
and most assuredly in the four gospels of the New Testament, we find inspired
If we free
ourselves of the dogma that every word in the Bible comes straight from the
mouth of God, we will no longer feel obliged to justify the genocides depicted
in the early books of the Old Testament, and might be even more outraged by the
genocides taking place today. We can accept the evidence of the sciences
without being distracted by ancient myths. No longer claiming to be in
possession of eternal truth, we can open our minds to new ideas and can be
tolerant of other faiths -- or even of those with no faith. Free of such
fantasies as "the rapture," we can act with enlightened determination
to restore the earth�s environment and to build a just and compassionate
society and world. The doctrine of "inerrancy" is a crutch and a
shackle, and for the sake of our intellectual growth, moral well-being and
domestic tranquility, we should be well rid of it. (See my "One Nation, Under God,
That said, we can
still acknowledge that The Bible is a valuable legacy from the past, from which
we can learn a great deal -- if we read it critically, informed by the
knowledge and scholarship that has accumulated since it was written over the
span of several centuries.
But that�s just my
opinion -- an opinion, I am told, that has earned me an eternity of damnation.
Copyright � 2005 by Ernest Partridge
Ernest Partridge, a co-editor of The
Crisis Papers, is a philosopher with a specialty in moral philosophy
(ethics) and environmental ethics. He has taught at several campuses of the
University of California and at the University of Colorado. Partridge has
published over sixty refereed and invited scholarly papers, and is the editor
of "Responsibilities to Future Generations" (Prometheus, 1981). Most
recently, he has contributed numerous articles to progressive websites. He is
the editor and sole writer of the website, The
Online Gadfly. He resides in the San Bernardino mountains,
east of Los Angeles.
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