Biblical Inerrancy

November 26, 2003 | 4 comments
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Gordon Smith writes, in comments to Nate’s post on the Historian’s letter: “While the Historian is right about the official Church position — that the Biblical text is not inerrant — you would never guess that this was the Church’s position if you were an anthropologist visiting wards and seminaries. In my experience, many members of the Church have embraced the erroneous views of so-called Christians on this matter.”

Mormonism differs from fundamentalist Christianity by embracing error.
It recognizes transmission error and biased editing in the Bible.
It recognizes that the Book of Mormon contains errors (“the mistakes of men”).
It recognizes that prophets do not always speak with authority.
It recognizes that even authoritative prophetic pronouncements might be subject to revision as a people and a prophet outgrow cultural biases and the limitations of the natural man.
It recognizes that our own experience of the Spirit can be distorted by our emotional needs.

So, how do we escape differing from liberal Christianity, where we are blown about by every wind of modernity?
In practice, I think we do it by acting as if theses sources were presumptively inerrant. Even if a doctrine or a passage doesn’t make sense to us, we treat it as true and try as best we can to reconcile it. If we can’t reconcile it, we admit that it may be wrong, but also admit that our understanding might be flawed. Since some sort of reconciliation is usually possible, to an anthropologist we might well appear to to believe in inerrancy. Only in unusual circumstances do we have to resort to a hierarchy of authorities.

In my own experience, this presumptive inerrancy can be very fruitful. For instance, sections of the Old Testament may well be legendary or otherwise misconstrued (e.g., the Flood, Job). Other parts are parts that we would like to exclude (e.g., the massacres that God commanded on the enemies of the Israelites). But my understanding of the Gospel has been enriched by treating them all as true, so I will continue to act and think as if they were.

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4 Responses to Biblical Inerrancy

  1. dende blogger (jeremiah john) on December 1, 2003 at 1:24 am

    I have also thought that you find richer ore in the mountain by seeing consistency, truth, and profundity rather than parochialism, dillusion or outright invention.

    Still, my current theory is that it is precisely our belief in translation errors in the Bible that lead us to these ‘inerrancy’ habits of speaking and thinking at least in folk theology. We repeat to ourselves that the Bible is mistranslated in parts and readily use this to explain many scriptures–and it’s not just in sunday school. J Fielding Smith, maybe the best known Mormon scriptorian of the 20th century, uses this to explain John 4:24 and several other passages. But precisely because of this suspicion of the translations (in addition to a general anti-intellectualism in Mormon theology), until recently few scholars have actually examined alternate English translations, much less Greek and Hebrew manuscripts. I don’t know McConkie’s and Fielding Smith’s background in these languages, but if they did have knowledge of them they surely don’t put it to much use when interpreting scrupture.

    Whereas scholarly scriptural interpretation in traditional Christianity (which led to modern biblical scholarship) started with the premise that the Greek and Hebrew words of the Bible were in some strong sense inerrant, Mormon Biblical studies, has oddly enough, been spurred on by the mistranslation doctrine to “save the appearances” and take the KJV Bible as Word of God, except when it seems to clearly contradict ‘modern revelation’. And so we have a ready interpretation of scriptures that don’t fit, and never have to go into the historical, anthropological, and philological studies which we would need if we took the words themselves more seriously as sacred but translated texts.

    We frequently hold to many KJV idioms without good reason, which leads to some exaggerated interpetations and false assumptions (e.g. that ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ were intended as elevated, formal speech when it is closer to the truth to say that these are just older ways of saying ‘you’). This is understandable, since the BoM is written in KJV idiom, but it still leads to bad Biblical interpretation. My wife still recounts the story of the education week speaker who spent 30 minuntes talking about the meaning of “help meet” in Genesis, as if “help meet” were actually a meaningful (but little-used) term in modern English, or captured some Hebrew concept with exceptional perfection.

  2. Nate on December 1, 2003 at 12:41 pm

    My understanding is that “thee” and “thou” are actually LESS formal than “you.” They are the archaic English equivalent of “tu” in French as opposed to “you,” which was closer to “vous.”

  3. dende blogger (jeremiah john) on December 1, 2003 at 3:55 pm

    This is topic which needs to be explored–the kind of effect which the KJV has had on Mormon theology. This needn’t be a stepping stone to somehow cleansing KJV language from our theology, but rather becoming more self-conscious about our origins. Of course, the KJV was important to Joseph Smith, though he did try to correct it. It is a very beautiful translation, and it is “doctrinally stronger” in some places, but I think that these two qualities are usually exaggerated by LDS people. If you compare the KJV to the NRSV, for example, the elegance of language is quite good in the latter, and more balanced with accuracy than KJV. Doctrinally I see no difference on the whole.

  4. Diana, translator on August 26, 2004 at 2:53 pm

    Many parts of the Bible had been transmited by people by word of mouth… so translation errors are not really the most important. Translating Bible is an art, not just a word-by-word translation.

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