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Today I’ll wrap up my series on abortion and the Bible. In previous posts I showed that Exodus 21:22-23 can be interpreted in two radically different ways. If men are fighting and accidentally hurt a pregnant woman, causing her to lose her child, one interpretation says the culprit should be fined for the miscarriage. But others read this passage as saying he should be executed for causing a premature birth in which the child later dies.

People disagree about how to translate the ancient Hebrew – miscarriage or premature birth? Exodus of course is one of the core books of the Jewish Scriptures, also called the Old Testament by Christians. Jews have generally favored the miscarriage interpretation, and pro-choice Christians say this passage suggests that abortion is not murder. Pro-life Christians tend to view these verses as involving premature birth.

I am not an expert on the Hebrew language, but when I studied for my doctorate in religion I learned that translating ancient texts is definitely not an exact science! There is often very substantial disagreement.

On this web site I have argued that God did not “write” the Bible and that many commandments attributed to God show signs of human weakness, ignorance, and even mindless viciousness. (Example: a child that curses one of its parents must be killed.) But suppose we assume for the sake of discussion that every verse of Scripture does reflect God’s will. What should we say about a passage like this that is so important and yet so ambiguous? Here are four possible ways of thinking about this predicament. None of them are at all attractive:

  1. God doesn’t care about clear communication. Murky and confusing commandments are just fine. That’s a bizarre suggestion.
  1. God guides some of us toward the right interpretation. That would mean Scripture is a helpful guidebook for those God favors, and a source of error for everyone else – odd, for a God of love and mercy. In this case it would suggest that God let Jews make the wrong interpretation for millenia, and finally revealed the right one to pro-life Americans.

During the American slavery controversy, Bible passages condoning slavery were quoted much more often by southern preachers than by clerics in the north. Did God give northern clergy the right interpretation just because they lived in anti-slavery states? Or was their exegesis shaped by their political views?

  1. God hates us all and considers every person worthy of eternal torture in Hell. It doesn’t matter much what we do on Earth. None of our actions are good in God’s eyes, so guiding us with clear Biblical teachings is unimportant. The only thing that matters is taking Jesus as savior, to avoid the fires of perdition. Fortunately these days few people accept such an extreme version of Calvinist theology.
  1. God didn’t realize how important the abortion controversy would become later on, especially in the U.S. So it wasn’t important to clarify this passage. But that would mean an all-knowing deity created a guidebook for living that would go out of date. That’s just silly.

Furthermore abortion has always been a significant concern. “Abortions have been performed since ancient times and recipes for ridding women of pregnancies are as bizarre as they are plentiful. The Egyptians prescribed crocodile dung. The ancient Greeks recommended pennyroyal, an extremely toxic herb as likely to kill the women as to abort the fetus. Other colorful abortion aids included sitting over a vat of boiling onions, honey/salt/mouse feces suppositories, mashed ants/camel spit/deer hair paste, and stepping over a live viper.” For more, click here.

Saying for the sake of discussion that the Bible is 100% God’s word leads us to bizarre conclusions. Logicians call this reductio ad absurdum – reducing to absurdity. If we follow some idea to its logical consequences and these consequences are ridiculous, the idea is probably just wrong. So this passage about abortion in the Bible helps prove that “Biblical inerrancy” is an error.

Roger Christan Schriner

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I’ve been trying to show that even though there are good ideas in the Bible, some Scriptural commandments attributed to God definitely do not reflect divine guidance. But now let’s take another tack. Let’s assume that every word of this book was inspired by God, and consider the implications. The passage I want to consider pertains to abortion and the Bible, Exodus 21:22-23.

22: When men strive together, and hurt a woman with child, so that there is a miscarriage, and yet no harm follows, the one who hurt her shall be fined, according as the woman’s husband shall lay upon him; and he shall pay as the judges determine. 23: If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life . . . (Revised Standard Version)

These verses have important implications for the pro-life vs. pro-choice controversy. Read the rest of this entry »

I’ve now finished my new book. It took a full year longer than anticipated, forcing me to put off many important priorities. So I’ve decided to suspend this blog for a while. I still welcome comments on the two dozen items I’ve already posted.

For those who might be interested in my new book, here’s some basic information. It’s called Your Living Mind: The Mystery of Consciousness and Why It Matters to You. This publication confronts the most bewildering puzzles in philosophy of mind. It explains how dedicated scholars have struggled with these riddles, apparently without success. I offer opportunities for the reader to reflect and experiment, and I present my proposed solutions. I have tried to explain subtle ideas in straightforward language, minimizing technical jargon. Issues are clarified with illustrations, diagrams, and specific examples.

Your Living Mind was written for several kinds of readers. Do any of these statements fit for you?

* You want to develop a well-crafted personal philosophy of life. Understanding consciousness is part of that quest.
* You want to learn about yourself, to know who and what you are.
* You have been interested in the “big questions” of philosophy and psychology, and you’d like to revisit this sort of reflection.
* You find it fascinating to learn about the mind and the brain.
* You have already explored contemporary consciousness studies, and you enjoy playing with new ideas about “philosophical zombies” and other enigmas.

It’s now available on Amazon.com.

Roger Christan Schriner

This blog deals with the question of Biblical inerrancy. Is every verse of the Bible literally true, due to being inspired by a loving and all-knowing God? As I have indicated, I am impressed by the very large number of Bible passages that do not seem to have been inspired by such a deity.

Today I tried an experiment. I opened the Old Testament at random five times, and briefly scanned the text of the two facing pages before me. I was wondering how often I would find the sort of troubling statements I’ve discussed in earlier posts. The pages I opened to began with Leviticus 8:31, Judges 20:44, II Chronicles 15:7, Proverbs 8:35, and Jeremiah 39:4.

This experiment has its limitations, because to understand a Bible passage one has to read it in context. Old Testament material is often part of a long historical account of the nation of Israel and its relationship with surrounding nations and with God. But even without spending much time establishing context, it was clear that certain Biblical themes are very often encountered:

God wants us to carry out elaborate rituals to do penance for our sins. Carry out these rituals precisely “lest you die” (Leviticus 8:35). Example: “Do not let the hair of your heads hang loose, and do not rend your clothes, lest you die….” (Leviticus 10:6).

The men of that era often slaughtered each other over theological and moral issues (Judges 20-21). God supposedly intervenes in such military campaigns (Judges 20:28). Physically seizing women and forcing them into marriage was considered acceptable behavior (Judges 21).

Those who do not accept the established religion shall “be put to death, whether young or old, man or woman” (II Chronicles 15:13).

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom….” (Proverbs 9:10). “The fear of the Lord prolongs life….” (Proverbs 10:27).

Military invasions, victories, and defeats often result from obeying or disobeying divine commandments. “Because you sinned against the Lord, and did not obey his voice, this thing has come upon you” (Jeremiah 40:3).

I can imagine someone contending that all of these passages reflect God’s will, but it would be a bit of a challenge to make that case.

Try it yourself. Open the Old Testament five times and read the two pages revealed, seeing if you encounter statements that do not seem divinely inspired. And do the same for the New Testament. (I’m obviously not saying that every human action reported by Scripture is divinely inspired. The question is: Does it seem as if God wanted the text written as it was? Does God, for instance, want people who don’t believe in the correct theology to be put to death?)

Try it. Think about it. If you pray, pray about it. See what you discover.

Roger Christan Schriner

I’ve posted a page that includes most of the Bible passages quoted on this site. When I cite more passages in the future I’ll add them as well. I’ll try to organize the passages by topic, but of course some verses relate to more than one subject.

In about a week I’ll resume frequent postings, including several on that ever-popular religious topic, guilt.

Roger Christan Schriner

“Did God Really Say THAT!? A Blog about the Bible” is mainly intended for those who think that every bit of the Bible was inspired by God, and are willing to reconsider this belief. But it can also be helpful for those who do not take the entire Bible literally, and want to communicate with friends and family members who do.

If that’s your goal, be careful how you present this blog. Use it as a springboard for conversation rather than as a club for whacking your literalist relatives. I do not want to provide lighter fluid for starting arguments. And beware of feeling superior to those who treat every verse of Scripture as holy writ. All of us have made mistakes about religion and none can be complacent.

Especially during the December holidays, it’s good to follow the advice of Aldous Huxley, who said when he was nearing death, “It’s a bit embarrassing to have been concerned with the human problem all one’s life and find at the end that one has no more to offer than: Try to be a little kinder” (quoted by Tom Owen-Towle, Spiritual Fitness, p. 343). In talking about religion with those who disagree with us, a little kindness can go a long way.

I’m going to take a couple of weeks off from blogging. Happy Holidays to all,

Roger Christan Schriner

I realize it can be depressing to slog through Bible passages that seem factually false or morally disturbing. But if you love the Bible and you’re finding the courage to read this blog anyway, remember this: If you find certain scriptural passages troubling, that is partly because they contrast so sharply with other passages which are inspiring and insightful. It’s jarring to encounter Bible verses that fall short, that seem out of sync with beloved verses that have lifted the hearts of believers everywhere.

So every time I spotlight an unsettling excerpt from the Bible, think of other places in Scripture that ennoble the reader and that urge us to a higher standard of personal commitment and action.

Roger Christan Schriner

In my previous entry I wrote that the harshness of Biblical death penalties suggests that those who wrote the Bible were limited by “personal and cultural biases.” One reader replied that this statement actually shows my cultural bias, because it is unclear “whether the Torah death penalties were ever regularly observed as written. Some scholars suggest that the very extremity of the stated punishment suggests it was never intended as the actual punishment but as a statement about the seriousness with which the matter touched society.” This commentator also referred me to a helpful web page called The Death Penalty in Jewish Tradition:

http://www.myjewishlearning.com/life/Life_Events/Death_and_Mourning/About_Death_and_Mourning/Death_Penalty.shtml.

So was I showing cultural bias? I admit it may have sounded as if I was showing ignorance about Hebrew culture, assuming that the ancient Hebrews always carried out the letter of their law. I’m sorry to have given that impression, so let me emphasize that I was not trying to focus on what the Hebrews did or did not do. Instead I was commenting on a list of plain and blunt statements in the Bible, and asking whether these reflect a supreme intelligence.

For example: I am not saying that every time a child impulsively smacked one of its parents they called the village together and stoned the little tyke. That seems most unlikely. As Paul H. Jones writes in The Fourth R, Nov./Dec. 2012, “If parents executed their rebellious children according to the directive of Deuteronomy 21:18-21, none of us would be alive!” (Actually I doubt that all of us were as rebellious as the “glutton and drunkard” described in that passage, but I’m sure you get Jones’ point.)

I will, however, stand by my statement that these passages reflect personal and cultural biases – although “opinions” would have been a better word than biases. Those who wrote these verses believed that imposing (or at least threatening) extreme penalties was a good idea, either because that was their personal opinion or because they were reflecting the opinions of their culture.

These passages sound quite human to me, rather than divine. I cannot imagine that a supreme being, knowing exactly how the human mind works, would prescribe death for a wide range of offenses, assuming that fallible men and women would soften these commandments appropriately. That assumption certainly didn’t turn out well for the fellow mentioned in Numbers 15:32-36. God supposedly commanded Moses to have him slain, merely because he gathered sticks on the Sabbath.

Furthermore, an all-knowing deity would have been able to predict the terrible damage that certain verses would cause when people took them literally. Witch-hunters down through the ages have justified their murders by quoting Exodus 22:18: “You shall not permit a sorceress to live.”

Remember, the focus of this blog is on whether every verse of the Bible was “written” by God. And even though the verses I’ve been discussing so far are from the Jewish Torah (which became part of the Christian Old Testament), Jews have not typically embraced scriptural literalism. Saying that God inspired every word of the Bible is much more common in conservative Christian churches than in Jewish synagogues.

I don’t think it works to say that God commanded these punishments, thinking, “These rules are so harsh that people will know I’m kidding.” So what are some other ways that a literalist could deal with the three puzzles about Biblical penalties that I discussed in my previous entry? I welcome further comments.

Roger Christan Schriner

Before considering other problematic Bible verses, I want to suggest two different ways of understanding the divine inspiration of scriptures.

A sacred book can be inspired through dictation. God, or an emissary from God, can speak to a human (or put thoughts into a person’s head) and these can be written down word for word.

In this scenario, the person is a passive instrument, serving as “God’s pen.”

On the other hand, inspiration may involve filtration. Communications from God or some other source of wisdom are filtered through the minds of human beings. Sometimes people are so thoroughly conditioned by their cultures or so full of their own prejudices that most or all of the message gets filtered out. And sometimes they think they’re hearing God when they are actually listening to a very different voice.

By the way, something similar can happen with guidance that comes from within. An unconscious insight may “try” to push its way into our consciousness, but for one reason or another we suppress or distort this message. The classic example is a revelatory dream that the dreamer misinterprets. Sometimes people discover, years later, that they completely missed the point of what a dream was trying to tell them.

Let’s assume that a personal deity did communicate with those who wrote the Bible. If the Bible seemed like perfect heavenly guidance from Genesis 1:1 through Revelation 22:21, then one could reasonably believe that this book was divinely dictated. But if there are numerous passages that clearly do not reflect higher guidance, perhaps such guidance was filtered through the minds and hearts of fallible humans.

Isn’t that how Christians often experience prayer? Even if they have been listening carefully for the voice of God, they may see later on that they were mostly hearing themselves. “Uh-oh! That was my ego talking, not God.” Or: “That was my anger … my stubbornness … my attachments … my narrow-mindedness … my self-righteousness … my fear of change.”

And maybe that sort of thing sometimes happened to those who wrote the Bible.

Roger Christan Schriner

I’ve been thinking about the way good people often disagree about important life issues, especially in dealing with politics, morality, and religion. Part of the problem is that we don’t like feeling uncomfortable, and one way to stay comfortable is to close our minds.

With controversial issues, strong arguments may pull us in opposite directions, and it’s no fun to feel like the rope in a game of tug-o’-war. So we choose one side of the controversy, and screen out information that supports the other side. Blocking out threatening facts is similar to the way our eyes blink when we get hit with a bright light. It’s a sort of mindblink. Shutting out data in this way can be soothing, but it can also be dangerous.

What’s especially dangerous is a related phenomenon we could call the heartblink. To block out disturbing data we momentarily disable our moral instincts.

When I was a child, I read the Bible all the way through. But even though I read all of the problematic Bible verses that will be discussed on this web site, I didn’t let myself realize their significance. I remember sort of “blurring” after reading a troubling passage, feeling confused and quickly moving on. Mindblinks and heartblinks shielded me from distress.

Here’s an example: Leviticus 20:9 states, “For every one who curses his father or his mother shall be put to death; he has cursed his father or his mother, his blood is upon him.” Exodus 21:17 also demands the death penalty for parent-cursing.

Many Christians have been startled at this teaching. In Is God a Delusion? theistic philosopher Eric Reitan asks incredulously, “Would a good God call for the execution of children who curse their parents?”

Notice that this commandment is clearcut, black-and-white. Execute the child, period. Nothing is said about the child’s age. Are we talking about a twenty-year-old? A ten-year-old? A four-year-old? Nor are extenuating circumstances mentioned, such as mental illness, low intelligence, extreme provocation, or the child’s repentance. What if the child was temporarily enraged and apologized immediately? Or suppose a little boy or girl had reason to hate the parent, such as being the victim of sexual abuse? Sorry, little one. No excuses are allowed.

Furthermore, if this was the voice of higher guidance speaking, one would think that God would have revealed helpful principles of communication and mutual understanding. The creator of the universe would presumably realize that there are other ways of dealing with an angry child besides killing it.

 I never cursed my parents, but as a child that passage should have gotten my attention. I should have asked myself, “If one of my classmates got mad and said, “Damn you, Mommy!” does God actually want that little kid to be stoned to death?

It’s easy to heartblink Leviticus 20:9 and Exodus 21:17 because they are so obviously not the Word of God. But both of these verses are embedded in a long list of rules that are explicitly presented as God’s commandments.

As you read the scriptural passages which I will discuss on this web site, watch out for mindblinks and heartblinks – moments when you suspend your ability to think, or your ability to care. Learn to notice when you cope with a passage such as Leviticus 20:9 by momentarily immobilizing your own moral instincts. All of us do this sort of thing from time to time.

The Bible as a whole, I believe, asks us to open our hearts rather than hardening them. Jesus and many of the prophets urged us to stay in touch with our compassion. I think they would agree: Beware of the heartblink.

Roger Christan Schriner