Randall Rauser takes on the "literal where possible" method of interpretation and gives four reasons that such a method doesn't work. It whittles down "the metaphor-laden nature of language," does not define the meaning of "where possible," ignores the question of genre in literature, and has no actual support in scripture, says Rauser.
As it happens, I have my own "top ten" list of reasons inerrancy (i.e. literalism) doesn't work:
(1) If every verse of the Bible is “perfect,” and since there can be no gradations of “perfection”—there is no such thing as one perfect thing being “more perfect” than another perfect thing—then all the verses of the Bible are equally “perfect.”
If every verse is perfect, however, that would make Leviticus 3: 16 equal in perfection to John 3: 16. It is doubtful that many people would rank Leviticus 3: 16 (“…all fat is the Lord’s…”) with God so loving the world that he gave his only Son.
All verses of the Bible were not created equal—nor entire books, for that matter. Some parts of the Bible are clearly more central and more important than others. Some passages are like hiking in the rare air of mountaintops. Others are like walking on the plain. Still others, like quicksand.
That is not to say that “walking on the plain” passages have no value. They do. They are scripture and they are there for a reason. The “quicksand” passages have their place too—an important place—but these passages are not the ones that makes us exult in the Christian faith. John 3: 16 does this. “All fat is the Lord’s” does not.
(2) Secondly, the Bible itself does not support “inerrancy.” There is no passage which says so. Yes, 2 Timothy 3: 16 does indeed say that “all scripture is God-breathed” or “inspired by God.”
The problem is that “inspired” or “God-breathed,” while indeed a “high” view, is not the same thing as “inerrant.” Most every Christian tradition believes the Bible to be “inspired,” which means, as 2 Timothy 3: 16 says, that scripture is “God-breathed,” that it has its origin in God, and that God’s life-infusing, breath infusing Spirit comes to us through its message.
The second Timothy passage goes on to say that scripture is “useful” for certain things, i.e. “teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness,” but not, please note, as a textbook of history or science.
(3) Third, if the Bible is fact upon fact, all of which are crystal clear, then why is it that fundamentalists don’t even agree with each other? You have Calvinistic fundamentalists, and Arminian fundamentalists, and even the occasional Catholic fundamentalist, each one with a certain view of the so-called dispensation, or the so-called rapture, or this or that.
If the Bible is crystal clear fact upon crystal clear fact, then why don’t all fundamentalists agree? Why don’t even some of them agree? (There are some 26,000 “Bible-believing” denominations in North America alone.)
(4) Fourth, the language of “inerrantists” is laden with words like “evidence” and “proof.” Which is curious—curious because great emphasis is placed on extra-biblical evidence to support the biblical account. Archaeology, history, and other disciplines may be cited to show that the biblical event could have actually happened exactly as written.
Then, a jump is made. All this is said to support—indeed, prove—the “truth” of the Bible. Faced with this “proof,” the person can do nothing other than submit to it, or reject it. (A popular book in evangelical circles is titled Evidence Which Demands a Verdict.)
This would equate “faith” with losing an argument, which is not how faith works in my experience. Faith is not “beliefs about Christ” but rather “trusting in Christ,” which is quite another thing. Faith is not an intellectual assent to certain propositions. Faith is radical trust in God, a response of the entire person, not merely the person’s mind or intellect. Faith comes by revelation, not reason, and through Biblical witness, not Biblical “proof.”
(5) Fifth, “inerrantists” confuse the message with the messenger. Put another way, if Sports Illustrated magazine has a cover story on San Francisco Giants pitcher, Tim Lincecum, that doesn’t mean that Sports Illustrated is Tim Lincecum.
As Luther put it, Christ is the Word of God, and the Bible is the manger that lifts him up. The manger, however, should not be confused with the child.
(6) Sixth, an “inerrant” Bible is untraditional. The word wasn’t even used prior to the 19th century. There is nothing about an inerrant Bible in the classical statements of the Christian faith, the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, and no church body had an inerrant Bible as part of its statement of faith until the 19th century.
Yes, one can find many quotations from the early and medieval church that affirm the truth of the Bible. The authors of these quotations, however, would likely not support the entire package of beliefs represented by modern fundamentalism.
One of my fundamentalist friends recently found a quote from Luther—“scripture cannot err”—which he all but waved in my face. I don’t doubt that Luther believed just that, but he certainly did not mean it in the sense that modern fundamentalists mean it. Luther thought that two whole books—James and Revelation—shouldn’t even be in the Bible. No fundamentalist could ever advocate removing two “perfect” books.
(7) Seventh, fundamentalists start with a highly ideological point of view, and tend to interpret the Bible so that it meshes with their ideology, which is the supposed “historical perfection” of the Bible.
Take the book of Genesis, for example. It assumes a view of the universe with the earth in the center. Moreover, it assumes a worldwide flood which covered the entire earth Adam and Eve really were the first human beings, according to “inerrantist” interpretation, and they really lived in a garden where they chatted with God, “in the cool of evening,” on a regular basis. It assumes that the earth is young, and that snakes could talk.
The scientific evidence is overwhelming that the earth is really billions of years old. Implicitly granting that science has a point, some conservative and evangelical dogmaticians now call themselves “old earth creationist,” meaning that they believe that, yes, the world is old, and that the “days” referred to in Genesis 1 are not really 24 hours days, but really mean eras or epochs. (Hodge and Warfield, the founders of modern fundamentalism, adopted this position.)
Genesis 1 is “inerrant,” in other words, until we get into a position where something has to give, which is when we switch to symbol and metaphor. They are apparently quite comfortable with moving back and forth between a literal and non-literal reading so long as it makes the Bible come out “right”—meaning, supportive of the conservative position.
(8) Eighth, it is patently obvious that belief in “inerrancy” is not necessary to be a Christian. The foremost Christian apologist of the 20th century, C.S. Lewis, did not believe in scriptural inerrancy. Moreover, for the first 1500 years of Christian history, hardly anyone could read anything, let alone the Bible. Even if the scriptures are “inerrant,” how much difference would that make to anybody if they couldn’t read them in the first place?
(9) Ninth, the question is raised: how does one receive revelation from God? Inerrantists say that God speaks in truthful propositions. God speaks certain truth statements to humanity which certain appointed intermediaries wrote down and passed on to us. Since these words come from God, they are perfect.
If every verse of the Bible is perfect, then it would make some sense to use the Bible as a “rule book” or an “instruction book,” straight from God, which tells you what to do, or more likely, what not to do. You look in a Concordance for every reference to, say, “smoking,” and then look up what the Bible says—the rule, in other words—regarding smoking.
To me, that is not how we receive revelation. God is not revealed so much through “truth propositions” uttered to intermediaries long ago. God is, rather, constantly revealing himself everywhere, every second of every day, through God’s actions in our lives and in our world. God “upholds the universe with his word of power,” says Hebrews 1.
The entire universe is here, this second, because God is, this second, creating it. The entire universe is God’s theater of action. Most of the time, we miss what God is doing in the world, but sometimes we don’t. Sometimes, God breaks through into our awareness and even we frail mortals can catch a glimpse.
(10) Tenth, one of the biggest problems with inerrancy is that it gives too much support to hierarchical authority. The Bible is a complex book. Sometimes it seems contradictory. Sometimes it seems abstruse and esoteric. Sometimes it seems conflicted. Fundamentalist interpreters claim to understand it all, which gives the interpreters themselves an aura of inerrancy.