I'm currently reading 'Across the Spectrum' by Greg Boyd and Paul Eddy. The book is an overview of 'Evangelical' belief on most of the primary areas of belief in the Church today. Basically, for each topic covered, the book aims to describe each of the beliefs and justifications for holding to those beliefs, as if that section was written by a proponent of that position. Its quite interesting stuff and not as 'text book' as it sounds. Its certainly food for thought.
But, of course, the reason I am reading it is to figure out what I believe, and my reasons for believing what I believe, and whether my beliefs are justifiable and reasonable. And, of course, to have a critical look at the beliefs of others expressed in this book.
There's a lot in here, so I'll split this discussion across several posts. Here I'll look at the first chapter...
Chapter 1: The Inspiration Debate
Position 1: Without error of any kind (inerrantist view)
Position 2: Infallible in matters of faith and practice (infallibilist view)
I suppose I was raised with the 'inerrantist' belief, but I think I must have slid into the other camp as a fairly young Christian, possibly the first time I ever considered the issues. To me, the 1st position seems a bit blinkered, it basically says that the bible is right on all matters and if reality appears to disagree, then it is reality that has it wrong. Or rather, our perception of reality (whether through scientific or historical study, etc.) must be wrong.
The basic thing I find to be wrong with this point of view is that it does not allow you to question your pre-suppositions. It takes 'the bible' as its starting point, never questioning how that particular combination of 66 books came to be, or indeed, how those individual books came to be written or compiled. So all books in there are equally valid, and any excluded books are not at all valid. And yet the books of Revelation, James and the pastorals only made it into the canon by the skin of their teeth. And what about the Shepherd of Hermas? It was only just excluded.
The position is defended by asserting that Jesus had a very high regard for 'Scripture' - this is certainly the case, but what was Jesus calling scripture? Certainly not any of the 27 books of the New Testament which hadn't even been written yet, possibly not even large chunks of what we now call the Old Testament. Jesus's quotes of scripture are fairly limited to Genesis, Exodus, Deuteronomy and a couple of prophets. There is good evidence that the 'canon' of the OT hadn't actually been settled upon by the time of Jesus, so we can't use this as evidence for a blanket acceptance of the 66 books we now have.
Also, the position tries to explain away some minor 'apparent errors' by blaming them on scribal and transmission errors. It is only the original manuscripts (which we don't have) that were inerrant, so what we are left with is a 'mostly inerrant' book. Hmmm. I'm not sure I can reconcile that. If God went to all the trouble of giving mankind a perfect book, why didn't he then take the trouble to make sure it was kept perfect. Surely he could have saved at least one copy for posterity?
But that's not to say that I hold to the infallibilist view either. This view has its problems too. Of course, given the nature of this book, these are discussed, but I'm still not left very satisfied. Here, at least, I think the inerrantist view is more defensible. The inerrantist view is internally consistent, if you accept the unquestionable presuppositions, the whole thing works. You have clear cut lines of guidance. Not so if you consider the bible to only be infallible with regard to matters of faith and practice. How does that work? Did God inspire part of the work and then, effectively, say to the authors "you fill in the blanks"? That's not very satisfying. What criteria do you have for deciding which bits are infallible and which aren't?
So what about me? What do I believe? Well, I guess if all of Evangelical Christianity falls into one or other of those positions, then I have fallen out of Evangelical Christianity.
What I find myself believing is that believers in God have honestly written what they believed to be right about their experiences of God and the way he dealt with his people. In some cases these writings have been taken by later believers and compiled into the documents we have, which may have been modified in relatively minor ways during transmission.
So what we have is a record of belief. It may contain factual errors, it may contain misunderstandings, but it also contains the honest beliefs of people like you and me, who encountered God in some way. This makes reading it both more interesting and more tricky as sometimes you have to read between the lines and search elsewhere for context that will make the meaning clear. There's an element of detective work in trying to piece things together.
God speaks through people. He has always spoken through people. None of them were perfect and some of them wrote things down. But don't worry, God can still speak to you through imperfect people, even the ones who wrote thousands of years ago.