Friday, April 22, 2005


What exactly do we mean by biblical inerrancy? At what point do we say "This can't be metaphorical" or "This has to be exactly how it happened," before the whole thing collapses like a house of cards?

On the forum we've talked before about whether Jonah was an historical story, or just a parable, and I think only one guy said "Absolutely, it's historical." The rest of us hedged our bets and said, "Well, it could be, but it isn't necessarily." We've had similar talks regarding the manner of Creation and other such topics. The Jewish tradition is a big one for using stories to teach lessons, as evidenced by the frequent use of parables throughout the Bible. As I've heard it argued -- and I have no idea how accurate the claim is -- the insintence that all the stories in the Bible be interpreted literally is a phenomenon found only in the last couple hundred years, and not one that would have been espoused during biblical times.

"Lord of the Rings" also presents itself as factual, in a sense. If we had found it in a clay jar in a bog, we would have believed it to be a long-lost cycle of literature, particularly with its references to lost stories, transcriptions and so on. Who's to say the book of Jonah doesn't have an analogous origin?

Just because God can do something doesn't mean that he does. The story would be less fantastical if we had something else we could relate it to, such as another incident of someone being swallowed by a "great fish" and surviving the incident. Unfortunately, the only incident I'm aware of that was fabricated for a 19th-century sermon.

With many other biblical stories, such as the parting of the Red Sea, the Ten Plagues, and even the fire that consumed Elijah's water-soaked sacrifice, we have ideas based on observation and intepretation that give us some insight into how God may have worked his purposes. In the case of Jonah, we usually just have to shrug our shoulders and say, "Well, he's God, so he could do it."

But still, even in the more concrete events of the Bible, there's enough variation within the text that inerrancy can't mean completely accurate in every single freaking detail. The chronology of the gospels is nonexistent, for starters, even if we assume Jesus cleansed the Temple twice. One gospel has Jesus cursing the fig tree, and it withers immediately; another has him cursing the fig tree, and it's withered when they come back, about a week later.

Other details vary from gospel to gospel. How many angels were at the tomb? Who got there first? What did Jesus say right before he died? Did both thieves taunt Jesus, or just one? Did Judas buy a field and fall forward in it, or did he hang himself? How many demoniacs identified as Legion were lurking in the tombs when Jesus and his disciples crossed the Sea of Galilee? Why are there two lines of descent from David to Jesus? If memory serves, the Torah prescribes two different ways to prepare the same sacrifice, once in Leviticus and once in Deuteronomy, and each passage strictly forbids the other passage's technique. (And for that matter, did Moses really write all that Law *in advance* of the Israelites' entry into the Promised Land, or did Jeremiah or someone else just make that up years later when the book of the Law "was found"?

Now most of those aren't hard to harmonize, but it's not hard to find more, even without the skeptics gleefully jumping on every small detail, and not all the explanations we give are wholly satisfactory. To an extent, we can shrug our shoulders and say it's not important, because the ancient Hebrews told stories as a means of communicating Truth, and whether the stories were real often didn't enter into it. (I may be mistaken, but I believe our insistence on taking everything literally is a fairly recent development in hermeneutics; i.e, in the last couple hundred years.)

See, I'm just wondering where we stop and what our basis is for stopping there. If the myth time of Genesis 1-11 is meant to be a vehicle for truth and is not meant to be taken as literal history, then what reason do we have to believe that the Exodus really happened as described? And if Jonah is just a nice parable to remind the Israelites that God lives the Ninevites too, then what reason do we have to believe that Jesus actually rose from the dead and that the gospel isn't just another reassuring story? Once we begin playing with the canon like that, where do we stop?

Don't misunderstand. I'm not having a crisis of faith. I long ago accepted that I can answer many reasonable challenges to my faith, and that there are other challenges I have no idea how to respond to. It's not about who has the best argument, pro or con, since there's always somebody on the other side with a more intelligent argument. It's really about Jesus and who he is, and what the Cross represents.

But I'm wondering: Where do you draw the line at the old metaphorical interpretation or "It's not that important" reasoning?

The point of the text is more important than picayune nittygritty or even historical details. It really wouldn't bother me too much to find out that the titulus had the languages in a different order from the way they're listed in the gospels, for example, and it wouldn't really bother me to find out that the Earth is significantly older than Usher's 6,000-odd years.

BUT! At some point, the Truth of the story has to be borne out by the reality of the story. If, as some revisionist historians claim, there was no Exodus from Egypt, that the entire story is just a nationalist myth meant to comfort Israelites with a nice story that they were special and unique in all the world, that is a major blow to the faith, isn't it? If the role models of faith we're given in the Patriarchs or the prophets are manufactured just to convey a point about the importance of faith or to provide a demonstration of what faith ought to be, doesn't that render the lesson somewhat less legitimate?

All but the most ardent fundamentalists will agree that if anything stopped for Joshua it was the Earth's rotation, not the sun. But if even that didn't stop, well, then, doesn't that diminish the truth of the lesson that God was watching over Israel, somewhat?

At what point does the history stop being subordinate to the authoritative nature of the Bible? At Christ's life? (Note the discrepancies among the synoptics, and with the gospel of John.) And again, what about those dratted inconsistencies in Christ's genealogy? If he was descended from the king God had cut off ever having a successor on the throne, then doesn't that raise questions about the authoritative nature of the Bible, even on spiritual matters?

I never said I had all the answers, just a lot of questions.

Like I said somewhere else a while ago, I realized long ago that the truth of the gospel ultimately isn't going to be settled by argument. There are thousands of skeptics out there with arguments, many of which I can refute to my own satisfaction. Others, I can't, but I know people who can or I know how to find the answer myself.

What I can attest to is the transforming power of the Risen Christ, and what he's done in my life and the lives of those around me. If I'm following Christ the way he asks me to, others will be able to see it for themselves.

So I accept that I have doubts, that I have questions, and there are some things that just plain don't make sense right now. At the same time, God put a brain in my head for more than proper balance of the noggin, so I'm trying to figure out what those answers are. If I never figure them out, well, fair enough. My faith is past the point where a few vexing questions are going to unravel it.

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