Fallible, Literally

Posted: February 25, 2010 by Matt Horan in ReEmergent Church
Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

By Matt Horan

The beautiful Gutenberg Bible is the first produced on the printing press.

I don’t need the Bible to be “infallible” anymore.

I used to.  I used to have a radar that trolled the horizon for possible challenges to the perfection of the Scriptures.   If someone claimed that the Bible was too old, out of date, out of touch, full of contradictions, full of errors, etc, I would hyperventilate a little and get ready to put my heresy-slaying boots on.

I’ve thought about my faith journey lately–how I began, where I’ve been, what I’ve seen, how I’ve changed.   Some think I’ve become “liberal.”  I don’t like when people get called “liberal” or “conservative,” because these are sweeping generalizations–there’s no one word that can encapsulate a person’s theology.  But assigning those words–like assigning any label–helps the assigner feel better because they’ve declared the assignee a “non-influencer.”  “This person’s a liberal, so I don’t have t listen to what they say.”  “This person is too conservative, so they wouldn’t fit in around here.”  Labels are tragic–destroyers of healthy dialogues and relationships between people who are different.

So, perhaps I’ve gone liberal, because I don’t feel this need to defend the infallibility of the Bible.  “Infallibility” says that the Bible (in original manuscript form) is completely accurate and free of errors of any kind.  If there were such a book, then I can see the value in holding it up with reverence and working extra hard to do what it says.  But lately, I don’t know… I just feel like I haven’t needed that lately.

Also, infallibility has a cousin named “literal.”  It makes claims that the stories of the Bible all really happened.  There really was a great flood, there really was a big fish who swallowed Jonah, etc.  Further, like it’s cousin, I haven’t felt a need for that lately either.

Consider Romans 12:2.  “And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.” (NASB)

Consider Psalm 34:8.  “O taste and see that the LORD is good; How blessed is the one who takes refuge in Him!”

I guess I feel like infallibility or sweeping literal readings (when they may not be intended) require so little faith.  Faith comes when you actually try following the Bible’s advice.  Every time I make decisions based on the advice of the Scriptures, they come through for me.  Maybe there was a fish to swallow Jonah, or maybe not, but every time I resolve myself to help people that I don’t like very much, the experience comes back to bless me more than anything I might have given to others.  Showing love and kindness has an effect every time.

It didn’t take infallibility to show me that.  It took my trying the Bible out.  It took me tasting and seeing that the Lord is good.  It took me proving that God’s will is perfect.  It didn’t take assurances of perfection.  It just took following the Bible’s advice and seeing what happens.  Turns out to be good advice for me every single time.

  1. Jay Therrell says:

    Actually – like not believing everything happens for a reason – it just means you’re a Methodist! :). Love, Your “Conservative” Bro 😉


  2. Sorry, Matt. This sounds like you never really understood your original position very well, and now you have none, but still find the Bible spiritually formative.

    The funny thing is: that’s sorta where I am too. 🙂

    As a Wesleyan, taught at Asbury Theological Seminary I was never taught inerrancy or literalism. I was taught to honor the humanity of Scripture, as well as it’s revelatory qualities. I was never taught a dictation theory of inspiration.

    As time has gone on, I find I have great and greater confidence in the power of the Scriptures but less and less ability to state what my Doctrine of Scripture is! (I’m not saying that’s necessarily a good thing, I’m just saying that’s what’s happened.)


  3. Matt Horan says:

    Hey Craig. I’d disagree with your critiques here, but do appreciate your jumping in.

    I’d disagree with the premise that I never really understood my original position, as well as the premise that I have “none.”

    If I were to state my entire theology on the doctrine of Scripture, that wouldn’t be very compelling reading, I’m afraid, but it would be long. Two surefire ways to make sure that no one ever reads my blog post. 🙂


  4. John Meunier says:

    Thank you for sharing your developing relationship with the Bible.

    You use this word “need” a few times. I wonder why what you need from the Bible is the determinant of whether you take its stories literal or not. In your list of stories that may or may not be real, you stop short of the big one – Easter. Does it matter to your view of the Bible – or your faith – whether you take the biblical witness to Easter as literal?


  5. Matt Horan says:

    Great question. I do believe in the literal Easter. I think a literal reading is sometimes appropriate, sometimes not, and sometimes unclear. But either way, the story is one that my faith community has adopted as it’s identifying, unifying, foundational, formational narrative. Over time, it has proven itself in the application, which is a far more powerful testimony to it than archaeological dickering. Though I love the archaeological dickering (I’m a subscriber to Biblical Archaeology Review–how Bible-nerdy is that?), the proof is in the living-out of the Scriptures. Finding the pottery shards necessary to make a case for the flood, Lot’s wife becoming a pillar of salt, the location of Sodom and Gomorrah, Jonah literally being swallowed by a whale, etc. fascinates me, but I don’t have to wait to find them before I can believe, so that I can trust, so that I can have a living faith.

    The Easter event is cause to rejoice. Jesus is the firstborn among the resurrected–a sign of things to come for when God’s Kingdom comes fully on earth as it is in heaven, and all things are made new. I believe this for a number of reasons, but every time I step out in faith and do what the Bible asks of me, I can believe it a little more. A life of consistent trust in the Scriptures bodes well for a good life ahead of deepening faith.


  6. Daniel says:

    I think i would disagree with your definition of the terms. I think it helps a discussion like this to draw a (fine) distinction between “infallible” and “inerrant.” Infallible means “never failing” – which refers to what the Bible does. Inerrant means without error and this would seem more to refer to the factual content of the Bible (usually, this is taken to mean the original manuscripts, not modern translations, and we have to rely upon textual criticism to bridge the gap). Many evangelicals who are not fundamentalists are fine with adopting the first “infalliblity” but not the second “inerrancy.”

    Since infallibility refers to what the Bible does, the follow up question is “what IS the Bible intended to do?” I’d look at 2 Tim. 3:15-17 for this and then I would note that the emphasis is upon theology and growth in holiness, not in scientific exploration. Any mature discussion of infallibility in this sense would likely have to include thinking about the work of the Spirit in helping the Church community interpret the Bible rightly (since all agree that mis-interpretation is possibility). That would then lead to the discussion of the role of tradition in proper interpretation (i.e. the life of the Church community across the ages).

    But the Bible clearly is not “without factual error” in the form that we have, since details (usually minor details) of stories that are repeated often contradict from one telling to the next. But that doesn’t bother me too much.


  7. Matt Horan says:

    Hey Daniel, thanks for chiming in. I’m not sure there’s universal agreement on our use of those two words, but you’re right, it’s helpful to set forth some definitions. According to your definitions, I would agree with infallibility. In my post, I was referring to content. Well said.


  8. jrhickey73 says:

    Hey Matt why Jonah? I’ve been thinking about this topic but wanted to let it marinate for a few days. This discussion has come up several times in my experience and it seems the story of Jonah is a common thread.
    Years ago while teaching Bible study one group member asked if Jonah was really in the fish or should we just “chalk that story up as poetry”? Another separate car-ride conversation with a friend referenced the Jonah story asking if that was literal or metaphor. Matt, your post again specifically references Jonah. Can you or your seminary friends shed some light on this?
    My response in all three occasions have been the same. The point of the story in Jonah is NOT the fish. Jonah’s story is one of disobedience, repentance, and encouraging spiritual growth. But since you asked… Personally, I happen to believe Jonah was in the fish. I also believe Elijah called on the Lord and fire burned up the offering. Daniel was in the lion’s den, three of his friends with funny names were spared from a fiery furnace. I believe the walls of Jericho fell and Lazarus was 4 days dead. I also believe Jesus is alive and will return.
    Here is my question (which is a dangerous one); Which part is and which part isn’t? But more specifically why Jonah?
    Your brother in Christ,


  9. Matt Horan says:

    Million dollar question, Jay! Thanks for marinating!

    I don’t disagree. Jonah could have been in the fish. Daniel could have been in the Lion’s den. The world could have been created in seven days. The walls of Jericho could have fallen in because of the marching and trumpets, Elijah’s offering could have burned up. These are all things that I believe that God has the power to do.

    At the same time, my faith in God’s Word is not dependent on these literally happening. You’re right, Jonah is an easy example because it’s more well known than Daniel, Elijah, or Joshua and the battle of Jericho. I think this: Christians have for years felt pressure to defend their faith by providing evidence that the fantastic miracle stories are likely, possible, probable, etc–as if they must be for us to have faith in Jesus Christ.

    I think this: It is easier to Google “Fish that can swallow a person whole,” “Lions that ignore person in their den,” or “Architecture of Bronze Age Jericho” for facts that might support the idea that these things really happened and engage in debate about it; than it is to go and help people we don’t like, stand up to authority figures who ask us to compromise our faith to give more of ourselves to our company/association/etc., or to be obedient despite having to do it in the face of possible defeat or failure.

    Arguing that these things really happened distracts us from real obedience. In this day and age, people will be invited into a relationship with Christ when they see in us authentic faith lived out without hypocrisy. It is in the living of God’s Word that proves it true far more than hoping archaeologists find the walls of Jericho.

    IF the battle of Jericho is a fictional story told to make a point about obedience, it can still have transformative power in our lives by our living it out. IF the Creation story took millions of years, it can still have transformative power in our lives and the lives of others by our living in awe of the world God has created. IF Daniel and the lion’s den is a fictional story told to make a point about faithfulness, it can still have transformative power in our lives and the lives of others when we remain faithful and let the chips fall where they may. IF Elijah’s offering being burned is a fictional story told to make a point about belief in the God of Israel in the face of other more tempting gods, it can still have transformative power in our lives and the lives of others by our continued trust in God regardless of how popular God’s will might be in the situation. Faith is not having enough evidence to make your claims ironclad. Faith is stepping out in trust to be obedient, confident that the outcome of obedience is far better than the outcome of disobedience.

    These stories may be literal truth. They may be fictional stories told faithfully for teaching purposes. Either way, they are our stories, and they can change the world. People will follow Jesus not because we proved them literal by our research and answers to their questions, but because we proved them powerful by the results of our living them out.

    (P.S. I have no doubt that Lazarus was raised from the dead, but this post is already getting kind of long, so let’s hit that one over lunch sometime. 🙂 )


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