Last February, in "The Aura of Infallibility", I observed that the apologist's claim of scriptural inerrancy is really a claim of personal inerrancy. Even if I believe a book to be without error, I must rationally admit that I could be wrong about that. The only way to maintain a claim of inerrancy with absolute confidence, as many theists do, is to believe that I myself am incapable of committing error in that judgment - which is just what many believers do, even if they don't think of it in those terms.
But people are not infallible, and the claim of biblical inerrancy cannot be sustained. The Bible contains many verses that contradict each other, as well as others that contradict established facts of science or history. Whether in its original autographs or its modern translations, the text is plainly errant. Given this, we must consider what the implications are for believers - and for atheists. Can it make any rational sense to follow the dictates of an errant Bible?
Some Christians have said no - if the text has any errors at all, we must throw it away. For instance, the Methodists' founder, John Wesley:
If there be any mistake in the Bible, there may well be a thousand. If there be one falsehood in that book, it did not come from the God of truth. (source)
And many modern atheists have taken this and run with it, asserting that if the Bible contains any errors, it cannot be the word of a perfect god and must therefore be valueless and should be discarded. Moderate believers, by contrast, hold that even if the text has faults, it still contains divine wisdom that we can use to our benefit. Is this a sustainable position, or should we side with the fundamentalists and argue that the Bible must be taken as either all or nothing?
I'm of two minds on this topic. I can see the logic in arguing that, if the Bible was the handiwork of a perfect god, it would itself be without error. I can't imagine why a deity who desired to communicate with us would permit the mistakes and prejudices of human beings to distort his message; that makes no sense to me. But to be fair, the psychology of the fundamentalists' god strikes me as equally irrational, just in different ways.
So are the two views, the fundamentalist and the liberal, equally implausible? Not quite: in my opinion, there is one small asymmetry between them.
I don't think that only inerrancy could justify belief in the Bible. Nevertheless, if you assume the text to be the product of divine revelation, it raises some serious questions as to why it would be imperfect. If God had a message he wanted to convey to humans, one would think he would want to communicate clearly. Surely, if God is benevolent, he would want humans to understand his will; he would not desire that we be confused or divided. The consequences of his leading us astray are terrible - just witness the rivers of blood spilled by people warring, persecuting, and torturing each other for the sake of their differing interpretations of God. Yet all this religious dissension also shows that the message is anything but clear.
So, did God not want to communicate his message more clearly? Or did he want to, but lacked the ability to do so? Either option poses a serious challenge to belief in a benevolent, all-wise deity. Why would God even write a book - a single book, one whose origins lie in a long-ago time and a very different culture, one that is prone to mistranslation, misinterpretation and deliberate alteration? Why grant some people special access to his word, and convey the message in such a flawed and imprecise format? Why not just speak to all of us directly, impress his message on everyone's heart?
For all their faults, the fundamentalists can deal with many of these questions more adequately. They would say that God did inspire a perfect book, one that conveys his message exactly as he wanted it, and it's only human fallibility that is to blame for all the religious dissension. But the liberal theology, for all its virtues, does not have satisfactory answers for these challenges. By positing that God has permitted human error to creep into the Bible and mingle with his own message, they can account for the Bible's errancy - but only at the cost of a more illogical and convoluted theology that has no answers for several obvious and vital questions. By far their best option, liberal or conservative alike, would be to stop making excuses for the Bible and adopt a more rational philosophy.