How Atheists and Inerrantists Agree on the Bible

You have probably noticed this as well.

I have long observed that certain non-Christians, or former Christians, reject the Bible as though it was written as a consistent document to be interpreted literally. As I have encountered and engaged these critics of the Bible on various blogs over the past year, the realization is even stronger—many of them treat the Bible as though it claims inerrancy. They agree with Christian inerrantists in this approach.

In my interactions with these biblical critics, I am often accused of cherry-picking the Bible, choosing the parts I like, or making it up as I go. They don’t seem to grasp that there is a legitimate, informed,  and consistent way to read the Bible without assuming inerrancy.

Biblical Inerrancy

David Schell’s Syllogism

Today I discovered an excellent resource to understanding this point better. It fits in perfectly with our discussion on biblical context, so I am going to break from my planned post to bring it to you attention.

This resource is posted by blogger David M. Schell. I encourage you to read his entire post at Why Young Earth Creationism & Biblical Literalism Aren’t Going Away, but right now I am going to interact with his excellent syllogism.

Schell states:

Most fundamentalists were taught that if there are any contradictions in the Bible, then it is untrustworthy. And many atheists became so after discovering that those contradictions did in fact exist. Both start with the same problematic premise:

(1) If there are contradictions in the Bible, then the Bible is false.

  1. Fundamentalists follow (a) with
  2. (2a) The Bible is not false, therefore
  3. (3a) there are no contradictions in the Bible.
  1. Some streams of atheists accept (a), then follow (a) with
  2. (2b) There are contradictions in the Bible, therefore
  3. (3b) The Bible is false.

David Schell’s point is already clear to those of us who do not subscribe to biblical inerrancy, but for some reason it does not seem clear to inerrancy-oriented critics. What I find so exceptional is that David expresses it in terms that anyone should be able to grasp.

He suggests that those questioning inerrancy should begin by rejecting (1) If there are contradictions in the Bible, then the Bible is false’ rather than accepting (1) and rejecting (2).

The Unfortunate Result of this Major Premise

Many fundamentalists, evangelicals, and other inerrantists come to a place where they have doubts about whether inerrancy is true. They might see problems with inconsistencies and ‘contradictions’ or begin to realize that there is, in fact, a strong case for evolution. Some begin to wonder whether the angry, violent, vindictive God depicted in the Old Testament is a true characterization of God or wonder how a loving God can punish people with eternal torment.

These are difficult issues for maturing inerrantists, and it is good for them to work through these doubts on inerrancy. But their quest is in grave danger if they begin with the major premise that ‘If there are contradictions in the Bible, then the Bible is false’.

Let’s change the premise slightly to read: ‘If the Bible is not inerrant, then the Bible is false’. Accepting this premise, and then becoming convinced that the Bible is not inerrant, leads to the conclusion that the Bible is false. The Bible is then rejected. Some lose their way and some become atheists who criticize the Bible as misleading and worthless.

The Alternative of Understanding Biblical Context

There is a valid approach to appreciating the Bible as a valuable book, filled with truth about Jesus and the Father, without assuming or demanding inerrancy: the Bible was written by people who felt they had a strong connection with God. This was true in the Old Testament, but it was particularly so with those who met Jesus, were transformed, and wrote about their understanding of him.

In their writing, these people wrote about their experiences and how they felt about them. However, they used their own words and ideas. They also used literary genre that cannot be read literally because it was not meant to be read literally; this includes apocalyptic, midrash, proverbs, poetry, letters and many other forms of expression.

When coming to grips with the fact that the Bible is not an inerrant book, there is no need to throw out the baby with the bath water of inerrancy. On the contrary, a better understanding of the biblical context makes the Bible an even richer document. So outgrow inerrancy and see the Bible anew!

Next time we will return to our discussion on apocalyptic.

Photo Credit: knowhimonline via Compfight cc
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Have a great day! ~Tim
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29 Responses to How Atheists and Inerrantists Agree on the Bible

  1. michaeleeast says:

    A very good analysis of inerrancy.
    There is always the danger of reading into the text what we want to hear..
    But we must always remember that we may be wrong on some details.
    This may be the case with homosexuality.
    It may be that Moses and the prophets were homophobic.
    And it may be that even Jesus was homophobic.
    But that does not mean that homophobia is right.
    Nor does it mean that this is God’s attitude to homosexuality.
    My experience is that God loves me as much as anyone.
    And His Love extends to all.

    Like

  2. Marc says:

    Tim – I have had similar encounters with atheists. The assumptions that people make regarding the Scriptures have led to ever growing sectarianism, atheism, and confusion. The Creator has given us three revelations: the Creation, the Scriptures written by people inspired by the Creator, and the Incarnation of the Creator Himself. Clarity in understanding requires all three revelations. The Scriptures and Incarnation are not understood well by those who are not a part of the community that wrote the Scriptures and experienced the Incarnation; True Israel, the Church, the pillar and ground of the truth.

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  3. Pingback: The danger of inerrancy | lotharlorraine

  4. lotharson says:

    Hello Tim, great post!

    I just blogged about it http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/2014/02/27/the-danger-of-inerrancy/ and gave some useful ressources for your readers. You are naturally warmly welcome to take part in the conversation there 🙂

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  5. sheila0405 says:

    2 Timothy 3:16-17 New International Version (NIV)
    All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

    This is the passage that was used by my pastor as I grew up in his fundamentalist church, to prove that the Bible is the literal word of God, and that the Bible alone is our sole source of authority. But the passage itself doesn’t say that.

    “All Scripture”. Not “ONLY Scripture”. God reveals himself to us in ways other than the Bible.

    “God breathed” (sometimes translated as “inspired”. God inspired certain writers to record what they encountered in their journey with God. Does that mean what they wrote, on their personal levels, is inerrant? The passage doesn’t say that. It is “useful” (or, “profitable”) for Christians to learn how to live as Christians. There is nothing that says that it is the only source, only that it is a useful source.

    I found that once I left fundamentalism, common sense alone in looking at some of the “proof texts” gave me a whole other way of looking at the Bible. It is liberating.

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  6. Every Christian believes in some form of inerrancy. Even if you take a minimalist approach to Christianity, you still, at the very least, believe what the Bible says about Jesus is true. That belief then is your inerrant scripture.

    I readily understand why many Christians want to distance themselves from Evangelicals, who are inherently fundamentalist, but sooner or later it all comes back to the Bible. A previous commenter mentioned the three ways God reveals himself to humans. Where did this thinking come from? The Bible.

    Liberals/progressives have taken things so far now that I have seen people arguing that they don’t even need the Bible. They believe in Jesus, not the Bible. Lost on such people is the fact that what any Christians knows about Jesus comes from the Bible.

    Simply put, without the Bible, in some shape or fashion, there is no Christianity. Perhaps it is time for Christians to call a new council so an updated canon can be put together. I suspect this council will want to deep six the OT since it is an increasing embarrassment to the church. Some of Paul’s writings might needed to be rewritten too. I assume no liberal would have a problem with this since it is just a human book. Surely after thousands of years it is time for an update? Now I said this to see how the liberal/progressive Christian might respond. My guess is that in their response they will reveal they are more like Evangelicals than they care to admit.

    When I challenge Christians on their interpretation of the Bible, I want them to see that maybe, just maybe there is no baby in the proverbial bath water. Yes, there was a man named Jesus…he lived, he died, end of story. Claims of a virgin birth, a dead man resurrecting from the dead, numerous dead people coming to life after Jesus resurrected, walking on water, walking through walls…these are pretty note worthy stories, yet only the Bible records these events. I hope you will forgive us atheists for not accepting these stories without corroboration. Especially when we look at the various manuscripts and see that there are thousands of variants (errors/contradictions?) and that most of the extant manuscripts are dated centuries after the events they record.

    It is not that I think the Bible is false. It is the claims that Christian sects make from the Bible that I think are, in many cases, false. The Bible, like any literary work has value, but as time moves forward that value lessens. For me personally, outside of Ecclesiastes and the sermon on the mount, I find no value in the Bible.

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    • Hi Bruce, welcome to Jesus without Baggage!

      Atheists do not bother me at all. In fact, I enjoy sharing ideas with honest, respectful, well-informed atheists–as you seem to be; they help prevent me from holding shallow views.

      Let me say that it is a mistake for people to say they believe in Jesus and then discard the Bible. I agree that “without the Bible, in some shape or fashion, there is no Christianity.”
      I believe there is truth in the Bible, especially about Jesus, just as there is in an ancient book about Julius Caesar.

      But the bible is written by people (not God), so I don’t think it is ‘inerrant’ or ‘infallible’. It is, however, an important source of information about a person who tells us of the loving Father, who impacted and transformed a group of followers, and who taught us to love others and foster reconciliation. I also believe in the resurrection.

      I do not distance myself from evangelicals; I am an evangelical–part of a growing number of theologically progressive evangelicals.

      I really appreciate your comments Bruce, and I hope you continue to share your thoughts here.

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    • Marc says:

      Hi Bruce – As the commentator that mentioned three types of revelation, I thought I would try to add some clarity to my comment.

      The material Creation has pointed to a Creator long before any of the Scriptures were ever written. Our current scientific knowledge gives much weight to the cause of the cosmos being an intelligent Creator.

      The early Christian Church existed for several decades before any of the NT. Scriptures were written. The witnesses to the Incarnation developed an oral tradition consisting of liturgical prayers, worship practices, and art forms that enabled the Gospel to spread.

      Both the community of Israel and the Church were able to exist apart from the Bible for a considerable period of time, so your assertion that the Bible is a requisite of belief is not really accurate. However, your statement about the false claims sectarians make about the Bible rings very true.

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      • Creation pointed to a god of some sort, not the CREATOR as you assert in your statement. That creation points to the CREATOR is derived from Romans 1.

        Yes, the church existed for 20 years or so before the first book of the Bible was written. this means then that it existed for 2,000 years with the Bible as its foundational text. Again, I can think of no way where we end my with Christianity without the Bible. Take the Bible out of the equation and all the religious writings that were derived from the Bible…what would be left? Would there be enough historical witness to say, Jesus was the virgin born son of God who died on the cross for man’s sin, and resurrected from the dead three days later? Of course not. Even this basic gospel affirmation requires the Bible.

        Of course, I totally disagree with your statement that modern science reveals to us an intelligent creator. What science continues to do is show us that there is no need for a creator and that the creator that the Christian church has preached up for 2,000 years is, well, not so intelligent. (just a side comment here, no desire to get into a science discussion)

        I think your goal of Jesus without baggage is commendable and Christianity would be well served if every devotee took this path. But, every time you walk into the church you attend or go to a Bible study, you bring your baggage with you, the Bible. Without it, there is no Christianity and nothing to study at “Bible” study.

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        • sheila0405 says:

          It seems that you hold this belief: if some of the Bible is incorrect, then none of it can be assumed to be correct. I believe that simply because the Bible has fiction within it, or contradictions, or errors due to human authorship, that doesn’t mean that none of it has value. People have been debating the veracity and meaning of various texts within the Bible for centuries upon centuries, and I suppose that will continue on. But I believe there is a God and that he loves his creation. You choose not to believe in any god. That’s okay with me. It also doesn’t change how I view the Bible. I believe my innate spirituality would mean that if I lived in an area that never heard about God or Jesus, I would believe in whatever god was presented to me in that area. But, that’s just me.

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          • Not sure where you get that from. I would NEVER make such a statement. Is there accurate history in the Bible? Sure. Is all of the Bible accurate history? No. Is most of it accurate history? No.

            I assume you also missed where I said “For me personally, outside of Ecclesiastes and the sermon on the mount, I find no value in the Bible.” I would never say no value. I would say LITTLE value for me personally. I know millions of people find great value from the Bible. This does not mean its teachings are true, it just means people find value in its teachings/stories.

            Of course I don’t think humans have innate spiritually. An adaptation as a result of evolution? Maybe. Because I have no innate spirituality, the only way I can look at the Bible is intellectually. I try to look at all religions from a sociological and economic perspective. People gain something of value from religious faith, so they are willing to pay the required cost of admission into the particular sect they are a part of. I see it like going to a movie. A movie is a work of fiction that I find enjoyable. I am willing to buy a ticket to see the movie…that’s the price of admission. So it is with religion.

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          • sheila0405 says:

            I got it from this sentence: “But, every time you walk into the church you attend or go to a Bible study, you bring your baggage with you, the Bible.” You see the Bible as baggage. That negated your comment about Ecclesiastes and the sermon on the mount. You merely have some time for those. And, I said that I have innate spirituality. I didn’t say that you do. I think there is a spiritual aspect in everyone, but not necessarily tied to religion. I refer to that part of humanity that can be inspired by a great painting, a hero, a lover, an act of nature such as a thunderstorm. Even the most ardent nonbeliever can usually find inspiration in something.

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          • I can, and do, find inspiration in many things. However, I find no such inspiration in religion or its religious texts. Been there, done that. I have chosen to put my focus on family and nature. This gives me all the inspiration I need. Sure, there are individual Christians that I respect and admire. Many of them read my blog. I am sure there are churches here and there doing a good work. But, I am no fan of American institutional Christianity. Power hungry, self absorbed, incestuous, and oftenirrelevant. (For those who are not members)

            You are misinterpreting my statements, but I doubt there is much value in trying to get you to see that. Thanks for the discussion.

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          • sheila0405 says:

            Actually, I think I affirmed what you said. You don’t find innate spirituality, but you do experience inspiration. We merely disagree as to what role religion plays in such inspiration. Of course a person without any religion can be inspired. And, you see the Bible as baggage. I was merely asking questions, not trying to challenge you.

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          • michaeleeast says:

            Well said, Sheila.

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          • michaeleeast says:

            I agree, Sheila.

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        • lotharson says:

          Hello Bruce, I view the Bible like I view the books of C.S. Lewis, John Wesley, Aquinas, Francis of Assise and many others.
          http://lotharlorraine.wordpress.com/2013/09/18/on-the-inspiration-of-the-bible-and-other-books-von-der-interpretation-der-bibel-und-anderen-buchern/

          I believe that they and the Biblical writers are people who had genuine experiences with God and wrote about it according to their own cultural background.

          By the way you are a very nice and respectful atheist so you are welcome to challenge me on my blog if you so wish 🙂

          Friendly greetings from Europe.

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  7. Pingback: Apocalyptic | Jesus Without Baggage

  8. Pingback: Great article on Biblical Inerrancy | Flying in the Spirit

  9. Tim says:

    I am a former believer who is now an atheist. It has nothing to do with inerrancy, that’s ludicrous at best. It has to do with the bible being nothing more than legend, plaigaristic ideas from other scripts already in existence, fantastic stories that are not even physically or metaphysical even posdible, a screwed up time line that is not even historically correct, the life of Christ that was somehow missed by every single historian alive at the time, and so on and so forth. Please quit writing about stuff that alludes you. We are,atheists because of the bs spewed by you people and your creative works of fiction. We definitely don’t agree as you assume. The best way to become an atheist is to read the scriptures for yourself. They are pretty self-explanatory as they are not only in error, they are made up totally, most of them after the 3rd century. I doubt seriously if you have ever talked to any of us, since if you did then you know that about 99% of us were believers at one time, not the other way around. There is a reason why atheism is the fastest growing belief on the planet by former believers, and you really don’t get why, obviously.

    Liked by 1 person

    • sheila0405 says:

      I was a believer for over 50 years. Biblical inerrancy played a large role in my deconversion, coupled with Divine Hiddeness. You don’t speak for all atheists. Each one of us has a unique experience. You certainly do not speak for me. Tim is a decent person. Why attack one of the good guys?

      Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Hi Tim, I truly thank you for your comments; if I only hear from people who agree with me I won’t learn much. I agree with you that much of the Bible (particularly in the Old Testament) has a lot of legend, material borrowed from other cultures, unbelievable fantastic occurrences, and contrived history.

      I know that not all atheists agree on everything; I wrote this early in my blogging, and after rereading it just now I realize I should have made it clear that I was describing only one (large) segment of atheists in the article. And I realize very well that many atheist were once believers, though I think 99% is likely too high.

      You doubt that I ever talked to atheists, and in that I can say you are quite mistaken. I sometimes read atheists–like Dawkins; I spent a period of time interacting on an ex-Christian website–many of them were atheists. And I count atheists among my respected friends, such as Sheila, who has already responded to your comment, and Jonny Scaramanga at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/leavingfundamentalism/. Both of them are former believers.

      You are also mistaken in assuming I obviously don’t know why atheists are growing in numbers. But the thing is: I have no problem with atheists. This article is about one aspect of how some atheist think about the Bible that is based, curiously, on the same assumptions as inerrantists.

      I am happy to hear from you further.

      Liked by 1 person

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