All posts in this series refer back to the conversation found here.
My conversation with Damon began because we have opposing views on the nature of Creation. Like Ken Ham, Damon believes that the universe was created about six thousand years ago, and we can derive this age based on true historical facts presented in the Bible. Like Bill Nye, I believe that the universe is closer to 14 billion years old, and we can derive that age based on physically observable evidence.
Clearly the two views are mutually exclusive.
Of course, that disagreement wasn’t the reason our conversation continued. In addition to subscribing to the position that the universe is really, really old, I also profess to be a Christian. Damon was curious about this fact, and I think that’s what began our correspondence.
This is an interesting starting point, because I see in Damon’s question an assumption that Christian faith and trust in scientific evidence must be mutually exclusive. To be fair, Damon doesn’t make that exact argument. He presents it as Christian faith requiring that a believer take the word of the Bible first and foremost, and acknowledging the authority of outside sources only on those points that do not contradict what the Bible says.
Basically, as far as I can tell, you have to either believe the whole Bible or none of it (at least as far as being -from- the Bible. Certainly there is overlap to believe some things that we see elsewhere.).
This is not a very unusual position within the evangelical church. I used to agree with it myself. At it’s most basic, what Damon’s arguing is that in the Christian life, there is a hierarchy of authorities, and the Bible is the supreme one. Nothing can contradict it, and anything that does is categorically wrong. Subjects on which the Bible is silent may be addressed through input from other authorities.
By itself, I don’t think this doctrine is terribly dangerous or damaging. It’s eminently sensible to prioritize the importance of authorities outside oneself, and for a Christian the Bible is certainly useful in exploring the character of God. The problem comes when we combine this idea with the doctrine of biblical inerrancy’s most extreme form, biblical literalism.
Briefly, inerrancy is a doctrine in which the Bible is taken to be perfectly correct as a revelation from God. There are various flavors of this doctrine, and they range from believing that the Bible is inerrant in revealing God’s character, to believing that it’s inerrant in all things. This latter position is called literalism because it claims that the Bible speaks literal physical truth.
Here’s where young earth creationism emerges. YEC is a peculiar doctrine because it incorporates all of the doctrines I’ve mentioned up to this point, and uses them to support the narrative that the creation stories in Genesis are literally true and that no amount of evidence in the natural world may contradict this fact. That’s why when Damon questions my theology in his first message (“What confuses me is how you can so easily sever the Gospel from the rest of God’s Word. If you believe what the Bible says on the Gospel, then you must also believe it on everything else.”), he assumes that it’s impossible to be a Christian who lives by the gospel while also not believing the creation accounts.
The short answer to that question is pretty simple: I don’t believe in the doctrine of inerrancy, but I do consider the Bible to be authoritative with respect to revealing God’s character. Another way to put it, which Rachael likes to say, is that things which are true are not always factual. I believe the texts that comprise the Bible represent the experiences of specific people encountering the character of God, and like with any text, character can be revealed without telling only that which is factually accurate. I believe the accounts of Jesus’ ministry and the early Church are authoritative in demonstrating God’s character, even if I don’t think that the accounts are perfectly historical (for the record, I’ve not studied the historicity of the New Testament in any major depth, so I have no real opinion about the factual accuracy of the documents that comprise it; I am content with my belief in Jesus’ divinity, which I think, like all articles of faith, is unprovable in an objective sense).
In my initial responses to Damon, I also write a little bit about my issues with the doctrine of sola scriptura. I think my explanation there is incomplete with regards to how such a doctrine leads to idolatrous practice. Under sola scriptura, Christians have only the authority of the Bible to define how they practice their faith. This is an inherently weak position to take, because it relies on only one authority which is not fully explicit or consistent in demonstrating proper practice of the faith (no matter how much someone may say, “The Bible is perfectly clear about…” it remains an ambiguous text in many respects). I think that adherents of sola scriptura recognize this weakness at least subconsciously, and so they tend to develop theological systems which impose consistency on the Bible through use of a particular interpretive lens. So far, this isn’t anything really egregious; like with any text, people must interpret the Bible’s meaning when they read it. The error (and idolatry) comes when readers forget that they are always doing subjective interpretation and assume that they are only doing a “plain reading of the Bible.” Aside from the fact that reading without interpreting is impossible, coming to the conclusion that a person’s reading of the Bible does not contain any interpretation leads to the assumption that how that person understands the Bible is the objectively right understanding.
Before “The Bible clearly says,” there is always the unspoken qualifier, “I believe…”
No matter how strongly you believe in the inerrancy of the Bible, you cannot change the fact that we can’t pull meaning from it without first putting the words through a fallible human interpretation. Forgetting that caveat is what leads to the mistake of believing that a particular interpretation of the Bible is the same as the objective meaning of the text. It’s that mistake that leads to idolatry, as we begin to equate what we think the Bible says with what God’s words objectively mean.