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The problem of infallibility

January 21, 2012

“If the Bible is given by God as an infallible text to reveal correct beliefs, practices, and morals, then why is it that the Christians to whom it has been given cannot read it and come to agreement about what it teaches?”

Interesting question, isn’t it?  I had it thrown at me this week (In a slightly rougher wording) by a nice, but somewhat hostile, unbeliever.  It is an honest question too and it requires an honest answer.  Our insistence on Biblical infallibility and the fact that it often brings us into conflict when we tell people something they don’t want to hear is always a problem.  So how do we respond? 

It starts, I think, by admitting that seemingly intelligent and sincere Christians can differ.  There is no reason for us to get in a huff that this was pointed out.  All too often Christian responses are like the old line “God said it, and I believe it, and that settles it.”  Trust me, that isn’t going to work.  After that, since the question frequently comes up when another Christian is cited as believing something different than us, simply saying “he is wrong” is not helpful.

Admit too that there are a lot of astounding things in the Bible.  Frankly, if it wasn’t astounding why would I care about the God displayed there?  So when dealing with things like the virgin birth, the parting of the Red Sea and the resurrection we simply take them at face value.  We can discuss them, cite reasons we believe them, and engage others on them but, in the end, we believe them and there is no way to force others to do the same.  The main issue is when Christians have come to different, even opposite, conclusions on issues.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot so let me run a theory by you and tell me what you think.  Some years ago a man asked me “Do you support the Biblical position on mustaches?”  It made me blink.  It seems the earnest fellow had found several verses that he was sure supported his belief that we shouldn’t have them.  But he called his belief “Biblical” and nobody wants to be against anything Biblical.

Even well-known Christians tend to do such things.  Rick Warren, the pastor and author, has apparently decided to lose a lot of weight.  So he and others are touting “The Daniel Plan” for weight loss.  Frankly I didn’t know that the Daniel of the Bible had a weight loss plan and I suspect Daniel didn’t either.  It is a fine plan (It has its own website.) but when it is introduced in a sermon and given a Biblical name it, intentionally or accidently, borrows the infallibility claim of Scripture.

Many other such things exisit.  You can buy the book “The Bible’s Seven Secrets to Healthy Eating” for example.  The common theme is that well-meaning Christians look at the Bible, take out all the verses they deem applicable, and construct a belief that they dub “Biblical.”  We even have a fancy term for this effort – “exegesis.”  And all too often, when we do it, we consider ourselves wise and discerning.

But no matter how infallible the Bible is, the process of pulling out the verses is not.  It is a human effort and decidedly fallible.  And it is fallible when I do it too.  This is easy to accept, even chuckle at, when we see it on weight loss plans and mustaches, less so when we see it on issues that are important to us.  There are many issues where Christians are quite vehement in our disagreements and when we do so publically it causes others, at best, to raise the question I started this article with.  At worst it makes us look like fools.  How do we solve this problem?

It starts with grace.  We begin by admitting that, no matter how sure we are, our exegesis is not infallible and we don’t claim for it Biblical infallibility.  We then are gracious to those who differ, treating them with courtesy and respect.  Finally we are gracious to accept the taunting and teasing of unbelievers as we wrestle with these issues. 

The Bible is a narrative of God’s amazing love for, and relentless pursuit of, you, me and all his wayward children.  In receiving this story we respond with gratitude and love in return which inspires in us a desire to lead lives that please God.  As we struggle to understand what that life might look like, and our inability to live it on our own, we can again be awed by the grace of God.

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