Does Inerrancy Matter?

I suppose the fact that this topic does generate discussion, that there are doctrines and statements both for against it means that in an academic sense it does. What I want to ask is, do these questions matter outside the academy?

My concerns here centre around some fairly hefty caveats that most inerrancy doctrines contain, a sample:

  1. Unless you are a King James 1611-only type, inerrancy only applies to the original language of the earliest manuscripts. I think that I’m in a fairly large majority among Christians in my utter lack of understanding of ancient Greek, Hebrew (aside from some swear words taught to me by a Jewish boss once) and other pertinent dialects. In other words, I have no idea about the fidelity of any given translation and, insofar as there is nuance particular to any one language, most of us lose it. This means that I can think that the Bible says something and some Greek-speaking scholar or clergy will come along and say no, it’s not a really good translation – apparently one of the NT words that is associated with “homosexuality” is extremely obscure and could also refer to prostitution or something else entirely. Without understanding that there are different Greek words all translated as “love” the “Do you love me?” dialogue between Peter and Jesus is frankly obscure. As I child I assumed that Jesus was just being a jerk or something. The fidelity of the translations available to us (despite what I figure are honest, painstaking efforts by translators) probably means that those of us not adept in ancient languages will continue to have trouble.
  2. Assuming that we who do not speak the languages of the original manuscripts are relying on others to do the explaining for us, we must also consider the tremendous human desire to retain a favoured reading of a translated text. By this I mean that everyone who does the translating on our behalf has grown up with a particular English (or other contemporary language) version of the Bible – no one comes to the text neutral. All previously-read translations would inevitably colour any and all translation work that even the most honest and careful translator did Here’s an extra-biblical example: In an interview with Russian-lit translators Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky that I heard on CBC they recounted how some reviewers criticised their version of Anna Karenina because it lacked the “upper register” of the original’s dialogue. Except, as Pevear and Volokhonsky explain, the so-called upper register isn’t in Tolstoy’s original text, instead the reviewer was likely clinging to Constance Garnett’s much earlier, perhaps more ornate, translation of Anna Karenina. We cling to the versions we know, all of us, and so all of us would come to original manuscripts with certain preconceived ideas about how certain passages ought to be rendered. This partially explains KJV fans, they want certain phrases (blood of Jesus, et cetera) in there, regardless of whether the original has it or not. Despite our best intentions, we will colour every translation.
  3. Inerrancy doctrines usually throw in a caveat that the original intended meaning of the passage has to be known. This is probably partially a nod to passages that seem to imply things that we know are manifestly false, such as geocentric understandings of the universe. We now take it that the authors of these passages were not, contra the Renaissance church, trying to expound on the physical sciences, but rather they were using phrases of a sort that we retain 500 years into the Copernican revolution (sundown, sunrise, et cetera). Unfortunately there was a great deal of squabbling over this (to put it mildly) and surely the whole geocentric thing stands as a great warning about how difficult it can be for anyone to understand an author’s “original intent” for something written in another language at another time. Most of us take it that Jesus’ parables do not have to have been historical verities, it doesn’t matter, they exist to illustrate something, to tell a story. I know of no school or denomination that feels the need to show a historical good Samaritan. That said, to suggest that their are other parts of the Bible that may be parables gets some people tremendously upset. As for me, I feel more at ease with, say, Job being a story than with the idea that God makes a bet with Satan – but to some people this is a very troubling position, either way though, I don’t know for sure. Was the author recording the biography of an actual man or using a story as a meditation on suffering and the nature of God? Just because something is a work of fiction does not mean it contains no truth. Dostoevsky probably has more to say about human nature than a thousand self-help books even though his stories are not historically true.
  4. This is the part of the argument where someone will say, “but if you take that position then who’s to say what parts are historical and what parts aren’t?” And then there’s all this concern about some kind of slippery slope and the whole edifice will crumble. I don’t know what to say though, it appears as that’s what we’ve been given. It’s not a science textbook or a history book or a play or even the writings of one single prophet, instead it’s a cacophony of different voices, some being austere in their assessment of things and others far more elliptical. It is not unlike the problem that the translator faces in figuring out how to voice any given passage.

Where all this ends up for me, and this post is really just me thinking out loud, is that whether or not inerrancy is a correct doctrine, the qualifications I have outlined, mixed with my lack of linguistic training, our collective inexperience with the nuance of the language as it was experienced in the culture that created the text (imagine future generations trying to figure out what we mean by “cool” or “gay” in any given sentence) means that while the text can, in large part, be reliably translated and is sufficient to communicate its core message, I cannot make any sort of claim that I will ever be able to fully access or comprehend this possibly inerrant message. This doesn’t mean that it isn’t something that can be debated by theologians, bloggers, or whoever (and I’m certainly not posting this to stifle the debate here), I just question the practical possibilities for it all.