Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Infallibility

Biblical, not papal/ecclesiastical, by the way.

It's an issue which circulated in University Christian circles from time to time, and it's around at UoC at the moment. My recollection from my time at Uni was that it tended to excite former public schoolboys, usually in brown cords and brogues, resulting in them talking intensely about infallibility, whether so-and-so was 'sound', and debating whether certain doctrines or church practises were truly biblical (usually pronounced something like 'bublical'). Although my home church was evangelical, it wasn't terminology I had ever come across before.

One reason it comes up is that a variety of Christian organisations require people to sign up to this, along with a number of other doctrines in order to hold office, or to play an active part. One of these is UCCF, to which many university christian unions are affiliated. I remember signing up in about 1982 in order to be one of our College CU reps for the University CU without really thinking it through. Since then I've become uneasy about signing up to anything, but what does the infallibility word actually mean?

For many Christians around the world, it implies literal historical accuracy. In other words it would require people to be creationists, etc. That's certainly not the standpoint of UCCF or some other organisations that use the term, but it might be assumed. So the concept itself is prone to interpretation. Some use inerrancy to draw a distinction, speaking of the text as originally given.

That throws up all kinds of questions in itself:
  • we don't have the 'original' text, only copies of copies of copies.
  • some Biblical books were written through a process in stages. At what stage did this infallibility appear? Is Mark more authoritative than Matthew when they give slightly varying accounts of the same events in the life of Jesus?
  • most people read translations, which inevitably introduce the possibility of error or the influence of the interpretive views of the translator. (Hence in Islam the Qur'an has to be read in Arabic and textual accuracy is vital. Any translation is described as an interpretation.)
I think the key question for all Christians who want to afford the Bible authority (and I'd count myself in that group) is what sort of authority does it have? It seems to me that many Christians get engaged in futile debates about side issues, such as authorship or the precise historical value, because they fear sliding down a slippery slope into a liberal, relativist, 'anything goes' nightmare. The problem with that mentality is that if you lose the argument, you lose it all.

It's worth noting that the Bible doesn't explicitly claim infallibility for itself. In fact, it can't because none of the authors would have known the full collection of books which would become the Bible. The 'Canon' or authoritative list wasn't finalised until later. It does frequently talk about God's word, it refers to Scripture as inspired, and appreciated God's law. Extending those statements to infallibility or inerrancy is a deduction, based on a prior assumption.

Even if it were infallible/inerrant (as understood by those who advocate the word) there remains the question of interpretation. All of thesehave circulated in the evangelical circles I have inhabited for years:
  • Should women lead/preach?
  • Are the gifts of the Holy Spirit available now, or did they expire in the apostolic age?
  • Should we baptise infants?
  • Are we predestined, or do we have free choice?
  • What is the correct account of the origins of the universe?*
People on both sides of each of these questions could sign up to infallibility, so where does it get us, other than define the parameters of the debate? Personally I prefer thinking of the Bible, Scripture in a more narrative way. As 'Canon' the Church recognised the authority of those texts the ones which shape who we are, and reading, struggling and engaging is central to the Christian life - individual and communal.

Not everything the Bible does or gives can be reduced into logical and propositional terms. As Debbie (the reverend missus) said the other day, in what sense is a poem infallible? Poetry isn't just about the words on the page, but the experience of reading it. How else could we give space, let alone status to texts as offensive as Psalm 137:8-9? As a piece of poetry about despair, I can understand it, and defend it against Richard Dawkins. Not sure what it's doing there otherwise...

No doubt this will run and run, but there's what's at the top of my brain (I know it's been much debated for the last 27 years of my life) so comments and contributions most welcome!

* my own views are 1) yes, 2) available now, 3) yes, 4) free choice, 5) a chronology according to science, but a divine cause.

1 comment:

Matthew McMurray said...

The conversation is going on at the moment in my Introduction to Christian Theology lectures. Last week, we were discussing what shapes our theology. An ordinand from Ridley Hall said that he saw it as a tree with Scripture as the roots, tradition as the trunk and reason and experience as the branches. I said that I would prefer Scripture and Tradition to be the other way around (surprised?). Another of their ordinands challenged me, and I merely pointed out that there was a long oral tradition before anything was written down, so the stories have been filtered through tradition anyway, and at least always interpreted through tradition. I then managed to diffuse the situation by saying that it was a very emotive issue. (He had previously told me that he had considered Oak Hill.)

That isn't, for me, to completely reject any notion of Scriptural authority but I don't believe that it is the ultimate authority if that makes sense.