^This essay has been previously published in ACCT Review (Apr 2023 Issue) available at the Asian Centre for Creative Theology.
Many believe that religious scripture is infallible, inerrant, and authoritative. That is one view and certainly a legitimate one, a matter of individual and communal prerogative. There can be various shades of meaning with respect to terms like “infallibility,” “inerrancy,” and “authority.”
Here, I focus on the Bible as religious scripture. At risk of oversimplification, I would defer to Wikipedia for the definition of these terms:
Biblical infallibility is the belief that what the Bible says regarding matters of faith and Christian practice is wholly useful and true. It is the "belief that the Bible is completely trustworthy as a guide to salvation and the life of faith and will not fail to accomplish its purpose.
Biblical inerrancy is the belief that the Bible "is without error or fault in all its teaching"; or, at least, that "Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact". Some equate inerrancy with biblical infallibility; others do not.
Biblical literalism or biblicism is a term used differently by different authors concerning biblical interpretation. It can equate to the dictionary definition of literalism: "adherence to the exact letter or the literal sense", where literal means "in accordance with, involving, or being the primary or strict meaning of the word or words; not figurative or metaphorical."*
As seen from above, it is quite safe to assume that inerrancy, infallibility, literalism, and thus the undisputed authority of the Bible would commonly go together. I will limit my discussion to Protestant Evangelical Christianity’s view of biblical inerrancy. Here, I use the capital "E" for Evangelicals to refer to the Anglophonic and dominant group of mainly white male cisgender heterosexual evangelicals who have set boundary markers on what is acceptable or unacceptable Christian frames and memes of thinking and practice vis-a-vis itself, other religions, and culture at large over the last 60 years or so.** Again, from Wikipedia:
Evangelicals generally affirm that the Bible, and the Bible alone, is inspired by God and is the final authority on matters of faith and practice. However, there is an ongoing debate between two primary factions:
1. The inerrant view - the Bible is absolutely inerrant on all matters that it affirms.
2. The infallible view - while the Bible is infallible in that it does not fail believers when trusted to do what God inspired it to do, it is not absolutely inerrant in all matters it affirms, especially in some of its tangential scientific and historical statements.
I do not accept such a view. There was a brief period when I did. But not anymore.
Before I encountered the Lord in a life-changing moment, I had never accepted the view of scriptural inerrancy. This was because as a Buddhist, inerrancy was never the Buddhist way of viewing religious texts. Also, as a skeptical intellectual, I was never persuaded by the religiously dogmatic assertion of scriptural inerrancy, which I saw as blindly and dangerously lacking in logical coherence and evidential basis. But all that changed after my faith encounter with Jesus. From that time on, I felt I had to shift my belief system to accept the view of biblical inerrancy in order to be part of the faith community. It worked for a while, sort of. But before too long, the contradictions and tensions of evangelical Christian faith would boil over. The blatant mismatch between rhetoric and reality, doctrine and behaviour, of the church communities I was part of made inroads into my beliefs around the church and its attachment to biblical inerrancy. The logical and moral contradictions of belief in biblical inerrancy, temporarily repressed, resurfaced to elicit more rigorous examination of my beliefs. Thus began a process of ongoing investigation and critical inquiry that eventually led me out of the suffocating cage of unnecessary and unconvincing beliefs around biblical inerrancy. I am surprised at myself for endorsing these beliefs in the first place.
Let me reflect on why I reject the notion of biblical inerrancy.
First, the claim to inerrancy is an exceptional claim to epistemic infallibility. It is a claim with an impossible burden of proof. Short of blind leap of faith, I see no other way of accepting such a claim. This is not satisfactory, intellectually and ethically. Intellectually because a leap of faith short-circuits the reasoning process at its incipience, and places the onus on one to either take it or leave it. This shows both intellectual disrespect and arrogance. Ethically because a leap of faith demands submission to all the moral and religious dictates of scripture without question or critical examination. This opens the broad way to questionable, if not erroneous, standards of ethics and morality in the absence of proper check-and-balance. It might even lead to outright exploitation and abuse, with dire consequences for human and planetary suffering.
Secondly, the claim to inerrancy presupposes an omnipotent, omniscient, all-loving God who controls the process of revelation, reception, documentation, translation, interpretation, and application. Even if we allow only for sovereign control over revelation, with all other aspects of the scriptural canonization process left to chance or human vagaries, we end up with the same problem— why are there so many scriptural corpora in the world across different cultures, with multiple textual declensions and variants, with each corpus or text read and interpreted in myriad and often conflicting ways? If God has only sovereign control over scriptural revelation but not over all the other aspects of the process, one can legitimately question “why?” Why permit so much variance and confusion to prevail, with disastrous consequences for humanity’s litany of religious-based conflict and war? If God does have total control over every aspect of the process, why is it that we see so much conflict, suffering, angst, confusion, disagreement, infighting, and enemy-making in the arena of scriptural tradition alone? Let alone the real-life perplexity and despair, quarrels and warfare between religious groups that do not see eye to eye with each other stemming from contradictory or different scriptural reading and interpretation? With regards to the Bible, the complex history of deciding which book to include in the canon, which theology is sound or which heretical, which church father or theologian is to be ostracized or which promoted, which grouping of people is to be marginalized (if not excommunicated and worse, executed) and which elevated, all involves human political machinations and choices that are less than edifying and noble. This begs the question of why and how an omnipotent, omniscient, and all-loving God would permit or orchestrate such a state of affairs.
Thirdly, if biblical inerrancy is indeed the case, then why does not God ensure that there is only one univocal set of scriptures that fully contain His Word, devoid of any competing religious scripture (from a plethora of non-Christian religions) and disallowing any variant reading and interpretation of the Bible, throughout history and culture? Why not go all the way to sovereignly ensure only one religious scripture — the Bible alone — and one correct interpretation among all peoples across space and time, across all cultures throughout human history? Why the manifold variance and diversity? And unavoidable doubt and confusion, often degenerating into conflict and affliction, amidst such plurality? Better still, why not do away with scripture altogether and simply ensure inerrant inner revelation — and thus universal salvation irrespective of the vagaries of free will — that is homogenous across space and time for all peoples of the world? If so, why not go the whole hog and simply guarantee a divinely perfect creation in the first place with no room for sin, fall, punitive judgment, redemption and revelatory scripture in the first place? The whole biblical narrative, despite theological apologetics to the contrary, sounds to me riddled with redundancies, convolutions, punitive harshness, moral questionability, and unnecessary suffering simply and solely for the utmost glory of God. Frankly, I do not find this apologetic or theodicy persuasive, let alone convincing.
Fourthly, where in the Bible does it assert itself as inerrant? In other words, where do we find the Bible making its claim of inerrancy for itself? Some have identified verses like 2 Peter 1:21 and 2 Timothy 3:16 as the Bible’s self-claim to inerrancy. But do these verse actually self-claim inerrancy? Or are they to be read differently, in light of a more modest claim to divine inspiration but not necessarily inerrancy? If the Bible does not assert such a claim, then why should we? That said, even if the Bible does claim inerrancy for itself, why should anyone accept and believe such a claim? Is this not a circular argument? Put syllogistically, the argument looks like this:
1. The Bible is the inerrant and sole Word of God.
2. Why? Because the Bible is breathed by God.
3. Why? Because the Bible is the Word of God.
The logical fallacy of circular reasoning in the syllogism above is plain for all to see. Yet, many Bible literalists adopt just such an argument. For me, the fallacy is obvious and the argument for biblical inerrancy and literalism self-destructs. It reduces to an argument from a leap of blind faith. And this is not a reliable or solid foundation upon which to base the entirety of one’s life, both for now and ostensibly for eternity. Granted that all forms of ultimate authority are in the final analysis self-validating, there is still a difference between the circularity of belief in a self-claiming text and that of a self-validating immediacy of direct experience. In the case of self-validating experience, there is a fresh naked encounter with the reality of how things are, in the moment, stripped of the baggage of preconceptions and imaginings. One can question how fool-proof this self-validating experience is, but the truth of the matter is this: it is the best we can do as conscious human beings seeking epistemic certainty.
Finally, I refute the evangelical claim that the Bible alone is inspired by God. This sounds like a presumptuous, exclusionary, and ill-informed claim to me. As a scholar of religious studies, I take great interest in the variety of religious texts from the plurality of the world’s spiritual traditions. With mindful unprejudiced reading of these texts, it is not hard to draw the conclusion, however tentative, that there is truth and wisdom in many, if not, all of them. Hardly any one of these texts can claim monopoly on religious truth, even as we see many shared commonalities amidst real differences between different corpora of religious texts. Notwithstanding mutual inter-influences and inter-borrowings, there is simply no justification for the totalistic claim that one religion contains the absolute truth while all others are either incomplete, or distorted, or false, or worse, demonically-inspired.
From within a paradigm of biblical hospitality, it is eminently possible to construct a theology of religions that does not belittle or condemn other religious texts and traditions. Such a hospitable constructive theology would resonate and align better with the ethos of Christ. It is thus possible to see God by His Spirit working in and across plural cultures of the world, inseminating and disseminating His Word in a variety of corpora of texts. One can examine and debate on whether all textual corpora are equal in their sufficiency of teachings, accuracy of insights, directness of vision, and completeness of revelation. But that is entirely different from a case of extolling one scripture at the demeaning expense of all others. The plurality of translations, readings, and interpretations are not designed to confuse and obfuscate, but merely to express the manifold creativity of God in His infinite being and becoming. While God can be revealed through scripture, God cannot be boxed in by scripture and by constricted theological or religious mindsets derived from afflictive states of mind.
For me, the Word has become flesh, The Word has dwelt amongst us. The Word is now risen and exalted at Father’s right hand. We are to hear the living Word. Scripture is but a pale facsimile of the living Word, if at all. The Bible is scripture intimating the living Word in the Old Testamental books (among problematic passages); revealing the living Word in the New Testamental gospels; and elaborating on the living Word in the New Testamental letters of Paul and others. The Bible is inspired by God but not necessarily complete, perfect, infallible, inerrant, and to be read literally to the smallest minutiae. The Bible, a politically-produced textual canon amongst other things, documents and shows Jesus the Christ like no other scripture of the world. But it would be a mistake, as far as I am concerned, to fetishize and fixate on the Bible as the one and only inerrant truth that dominates and tramples over all other scriptures of the world, usually in a spirit of presumptuous belligerence and monopolistic one-upmanship. To me, that would be utterly un-Christlike. Others are free to disagree. For even if the Bible contains the one and only direct and complete picture of Jesus Christ, there is no good reason to demean and demonize all other scriptural canons of the world without prior examination in a spirit of honest inquiry and fair treatment.
I am aware that my arguments in this essay may render me a “rebel” or a “non-“ in the context of Christian faith community. But that is not my concern. I share these reflections in a spirit of self-honesty and truthfulness to my conscience. If others reject me for that, it is not my problem. In the final analysis, we simply have to let God or the law of karma or whatever we conceive of as ultimately true be my witness.
** I thank my friend Prof. Daniel Low for pointing out the differentiation between fundamentalist Evangelicals and liberal evangelicals, and the fact of the former setting dogmatic and practical boundary markers for the church over the last 60 years. To me, that fact is tragic.