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Can My Students Believe in the Inerrancy of the Bible?

QUESTION:

Do you ever get a student in your class who doggedly insists upon the inerrancy of the Bible? If so, and if they write their term papers in support of Biblical inerrancy, is it possible for them to get a passing grade in your class?

 

RESPONSE:

HA!  That’s a great question!

So, part of the deal of teaching in the Bible Belt is that lots of my students – most of them? – have very conservative views about the Bible as the Word of God.    A few years ago I used to start my class on the New Testament, with something like 300 students in it, by asking the students a series of questions, just for information.  I would ask:

  • How many of you in here would agree with the proposition that the Bible is the inspired Word of God (PHOOM!  Almost everyone raises their hands)
  • OK, great: Now, how many of you have read the Harry Potter series? (PHOOM! Again, almost everyone raises their hand).
  • And now, how many of you have read the entire Bible? (This time: scattered hands, here and there, throughout the auditorium)

Then I’d laugh for a minute and say, “OK, so I’m not telling *you* that *I* think the Bible is the inspired Word of God; you’re telling *me* that *you* think it is.   I can see why you might want to read a book by J. K. Rowling.   But if God wrote a book – wouldn’t you want to see what he had to say???”

What I have found over the years, consistently, is that my students have a much higher reverence for the Bible than knowledge about it.   Most of them would say, at the beginning of the course, that there can be no mistakes in the Bible.  But of course they haven’t actually read the Bible in order to *see* if there are any mistakes in it.  They’ve just learned, from childhood, that it’s a perfect, flawless book.

The goal of my class is NOT to deconvert anyone from their religious beliefs or to convert them to become an agnostic like me.  I don’t see that as a viable goal – especially in a secular research university funded by the state.  The state is not and should not be in the business of promoting one religious view or agenda – or one anti-religious view or agenda – over another.  The state, when it comes to education,  is in the business of educating its young, and not so young, people,  And so my goal is to get students to learn more about the Bible from a historical, not a religious/theological, perspective.

And that’s what my class sets out to do.   I never ever have any writing assignments in which students have to defend their religious views, about God, Christ, the Trinity, the inspiration of Scripture, and so on.   And so in direct response to this very good question, I never ask students to support a view of biblical inerrancy.

But what I do do is have them look critically at the Bible – and to draw their own conclusions.   And so rather than ask them to lay out for me their theology of Scripture, I will give them an exercise such as this:  I’ll ask them to read carefully the accounts of Jesus’ resurrection in Matthew 28, Mark 16, Luke 24, and John 20-21.   I ask them to list in detail everything that happens in each account, one by one.  And then I ask them to compare their lists.   They then are to indicate all the things that are in common among the Gospels and all the things that are different.   And then they are to indicate if they find any of the differences to be irreconcilable.

It’s a fantastic exercise (all semester we do exercises like this), because it does not involve me telling them that there are differences, even discrepancies, even flat out contradictions in the texts.  They see them for themselves, and have to figure out what do to about them.

In class I will lecture about how scholars deal with problems like this, what scholars think about the sources behind each of the Gospels, and how scholars have isolated discrepancies both in small details (which women went to the tomb?  how many were there?  what did they see there?  what did they hear there?  what were they told to do?  did they do it?) and in big matters (did the women tell anyone or not?  did the disciples stay in Jerusalem and never leave until long after Jesus had returned to heaven?  Or did they immediately leave Jerusalem and go to Galilee and there saw the resurrected Jesus, not in Jerusalem?).

And I will talk about how scholars have found these differences significant, not for their theological views of the inspiration of Scripture, but for their understanding of the relationship among the Gospels, the distinctive emphases of each of the Gospels, and the historical reliability of the Gospels.

In my class, students are NOT required to accept the views that I lecture on based on standard, critical scholarship.  If they want to hold on to their views of inerrancy, then I urge them to try to figure out how they can reconcile what appear to be contradictions.  If they can’t reconcile them, then I suggest that whatever it is they believe, it should be consistent with the facts that they themselves agree to.

Some of my students end up shifting their theological views about the Bible during the class.   Others find it all very confusing, and it forces them to think about their views while they are, at present, unwilling to change those views. Yet others of them hold fast to their views very firmly.  It’s not my job to tell them what to believe, but to instruct them about biblical scholarship.  And to get them to *think*.

My view is that a course on the NT, especially in the American South, is ideal for a university education.  If one of the major *points* of a university education is to get people to THINK, then this kind of course is perfect.  If students are relatively alert and sober, they find that historical realia create problems for their religious convictions.  If these convictions are important to them, this FORCES them to think about them – either to change them or to develop more sophisticated ways of understanding them.  Either way, they become far more thoughtful, both about the facts of history and the beliefs they hold dear.  And I think that is a very good thing indeed.

(BTW: students do *not* need to agree with historical scholarship to do well in my class.  They simply have to know both what scholars have to say about historical issues and what evidence scholars adduce in support of their views.  If they know these things, they’re free to believe, religiously, anything they choose, as far as I’m concerned.  If they choose to continue to believe the Bible is inerrant, I simply want them to believe it in a thoughtful rather than in a mindless way.)(I want my agnostic and atheist students to be more thoughtful about their views as well!)


What Is Different in My Textbook?
The Bloody Sweat and Historical Plausibility

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Comments

  1. Avatar
    bonnie43uk  October 26, 2014

    Bart, do you have a preference as to which version of the bible your students study from?. I’m guessing the KJV is the most popular. And are there any versions of the bible you’d prefer them not to study from?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 26, 2014

      I ask them not to use the KJV for study purposes. Their preferred one is the NIV, which I tend not to like a lot. My preferred translation is the NRSV, which I especially like in a study edition such as the HarperCollins Study Bible.

  2. Josephsluna
    Josephsluna  October 28, 2014

    So i was just relaxing at home at viewing a Yale University videos, and found,
    Friedrich Nietzsche? Can you tell me real quick what he meant by that in your words
    paul the corrupter noble prestine religion of jesus as a moral teacher ?

    • Bart
      Bart  October 28, 2014

      Nietzsche was one of those thinkers who thought that Paul’s doctrine of redemption through the death of Christ was completely removed from Jesus’ own ethical teaching about how one should live in the world.

  3. Avatar
    drussell60  March 29, 2016

    Catching up on your blog posts as I am fairly new to it. This is an interesting discussion in deed. I am curious to know if you have ever been confronted by an angry parent, or pastor who perceives you are attempting to plant seeds of doubt in their children. This happened to a friend of mine who was teaching in a seminary in Michigan. He had a group of pastors show up to his class and they confronted him in front of his students and eventually he was forced out.

  4. TWood
    TWood  September 6, 2016

    I’ve often read that biblical inerrancy rose in the 19th-20th centuries. I’ve heard this from you as well as Christians like Alister McGrath. But then I read statements from people who lived earlier which seem to challenge this belief. Two examples below:

    Papias: “Mark committed no error while he thus wrote some things as he remembered them.”

    Luther: “I have learned to ascribe the honor of infallibility only to those books that are accepted as canonical. I am profoundly convinced that none of these writers has erred.”

    I assume Papias and Luther must be defining “infallibility” and “inerrancy” differently than modern fundamentalists do, but I’m not able to fully grasp what that difference is exactly. What’s your sense of these two quotes in light of the claim that biblical inerrancy didn’t show up until the 19th century?

    • Bart
      Bart  September 7, 2016

      Papias is simply saying that Mark faithfully recorded what he had heard Peter say. He had no doctrine of inspiration that we know of. Luther knew that there were mistakes in the Bible. He thought, for example, that James contradicted Paul at the key theological point of how a person is justified, and therefore was wrong. The idea that the very words are inspired wihtout mistake is usually traced to the Niagara Conferences at the end of the 19th century.

      • TWood
        TWood  September 7, 2016

        1. I get that Luther had an antilegomena… but is there evidence he believed there were errors within his homologoumena? Errors in books he didn’t consider inspired isn’t the same as errors in books he did consider inspired. I’m not challenging your view, I’m just looking for clarification.

        2. I know not all inerrantists rejected Darwinism (e.g. B.B. Warfield), but certainly many did because they saw it as a challenge to the trustworthiness of Genesis, etc. Is it your sense that the Niagara Conferences’ “very words are inspired” was created as a response to Darwin and the rise of science in general? That seems to be the popular understanding… but I’m wondering if that’s your sense too…

        • Bart
          Bart  September 8, 2016

          1. I don’t really know! Maybe someone else on the blog can comment; 2) I imagine so, but again, I don’t really know.

  5. Avatar
    jhague  June 7, 2017

    “What I have found over the years, consistently, is that my students have a much higher reverence for the Bible than knowledge about it. Most of them would say, at the beginning of the course, that there can be no mistakes in the Bible. But of course they haven’t actually read the Bible in order to *see* if there are any mistakes in it. They’ve just learned, from childhood, that it’s a perfect, flawless book.”

    This goes along with what I am trying to say (probably not very well) in the current thread (June 2017). That church people in general mainly know about the Bible what they hear from the pastor at church. And what they hear is that the Bible is a perfect flawless book. So as you say in this post, most people do not study or even read the Bible, but they “know” that it is perfect.

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