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Through a Glass, Darkly

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Ernest Partridge
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The Bible is the inerrant ... word of the living God. It is absolutely infallible, without error in all matters pertaining to faith and practice, as well as in areas such as geography, science, history, etc. (Rev. Jerry Falwell)

The Gallup organization reports that thirty-five percent of Americans believe the Bible to be the "inerrant word of God," while another forty-eight percent believe it to be the "inspired" word of God, but nonetheless "inerrant" if certain parts are interpreted symbolically rather than literally. Similarly, The Barna Group reports that 61% of Americans believe that "the Bible is totally accurate in all of its teachings." (More statements of Biblical "inerrancy" here, here and here).

Most of the industrialized world would be astonished, bewildered and appalled upon reading such statistics, especially in view of the fact that the United States has long been the world leader in scientific research and technological development. Due to that leadership, American Universities and research institutions have been magnets, drawing outstanding scientists, engineers and students from around the world, many of whom have remained to further enhance the scientific, technological and economic vigor of the United States. We have led the world in Nobel Prizes and in the volume of scientific publications, as we have exported our technologies throughout the civilized world.

There is no guarantee that this pre-eminence will continue.

Heretofore, American society has been, in a sense, schizoid. Educated elites, with the support of enlightened commercial interests and government subsidies, have flourished atop a mass culture that was suspicious and dismissive of intellectual "eggheads," and stubbornly attached to traditional "old time religion." And yet, the entire national economy has benefited enormously from scientific research, technological development and application, and public higher education, facilitating the opportunity for gifted and enterprising young people of modest means to join the elites -- a Jeffersonian "natural aristocracy of talent and virtue."

But now that order has been overturned by the regressive right. It has done so with the enlisted support of a faction of religious fundamentalism that is hostile to science and that demands and receives unprecedented influence in public policy.

Consequently, American leadership in science and technology may now be in jeopardy as the theory of evolution is challenged in our public schools, as (so-called) "conservative" students in our universities are encouraged by the likes of Lynn Cheney and David Horowitz to harass "liberal" professors, as cutting-edge biomedical research is blunted by religious qualms about stem cells, and as research funding for the National Science Foundation, the National Academy of Sciences, the Environmental Protection Agency, and other federal scientific agencies is being severely curtailed.

There is a great deal at stake here. And yet scientists, secular scholars, and even liberal and moderate churches have been reluctant to challenge the fundamentalists, holding that such pre-modern beliefs should be "respected" as "private" and "personal." Unfortunately, for their part, the fundamentalists have not displayed reciprocal respect and tolerance for contrary views about theology, scripture, or the grounds of morality.

The fundamentalists take the issue of Biblical infallibility very seriously. As one of their leading spokesmen, Rev. Jerry Falwell warns, if Christians are "able to say out loud that the Bible is not the inerrant word of God--that its inspiration is not really different from that of the Bhagavad-Gita or Thoreau's Walden or Maya Angelou's poems--then a great number of conservative and fundamentalist idols begin to topple."

In this case, I agree completely with the good Reverend: challenge "inerrancy," and those "idols" become vulnerable. Which is precisely why I propose to criticize and refute the doctrine of the infallibility of the Bible. Once that is accomplished, the progressive will be better equipped to topple those conservative and fundamentalist idols.

In this analysis, I propose an unusual approach: Let us assume that the Lord God, Creator and Ruler of the vast universe, dictated eternal truths to the original authors of the 66 books of The Holy Bible. As a secular philosopher, I don't believe this nonsense for a moment. But even if we assume all this, then even so, I will argue that the Bible that is in our hands today simply cannot be "infallible."

First of all, when the fundamentalists claim that the Bible is "inerrant" - literally true from back to front - which Bible are they talking about? If they mean the English translations, then there is no point going back to original Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek texts to dig out the "original meaning." God's truth is before us in plain English. But to believe this, we must also a believe that The Lord God guided the hands of King James' scholars, through every word. Or if not those scholars, then those who produced a "preferred" translation of the Bible into English.

But which translation? If God won't tell us, then to the degree that those many Bibles differ, to that degree they are "errant" - subject to error.

However, since no one seems to claim that the translators of the English language Bibles we now have in hand were elevated to the status of holy prophets, we look to the sources, for the "original" words and meanings. But again, which sources?

It gets worse. No one fully understands ancient languages. The best experts on the meaning of ancient Hebrew or classical Greek and Latin were those who spoke it and wrote it as their first languages - and they are all dead, of course. (For that matter, "living" natural languages are inherently vague and ambiguous to some degree - but that's the subject of another essay).

So modern scholars do the best they can by reading ancient texts as they try to "get into the heads" of those who wrote them. And, of course, those scholars disagree with each other - even if one or another of them entertains the colossal conceit that they are reading, and understanding, the "inerrant word of God."

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Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. Partridge has taught philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The (more...)

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