Question: How could God author a text with errors?

This is a good question. It is clear that God could choose to use and speak through a text with errors in it. God is sovereign and will do as He pleases. We also know a work does not need to be inerrant to be trustworthy or useful as we use imperfect sources all the time in our daily lives. But how could a book written by God, who is perfect and omniscient (knows everything), have errors inside?

"Sometimes fun is poked at the people who confess that they believe whatever the Bible says. "Do you really believe that the whale swallowed Jonah?" was the question put to one friend of mine, and she answered, 'I'd believe what the Bible says, even if it said that Jonah swallowed the whale!' One hopes that the answer was given tongue in check." [Marshall, Inspiration p. 9]

There is the potential for profound truth in that absurdity. If God sat down and wrote the Bible from His divine-heavenly perspective then of course we should give priority to its truth claims over all others, including those of science. All those stories that appear outlandish to us today would have to be accepted. Kangaroos and penguins swimming across vast oceans, tens of thousands of miles, to board an impossibly gigantic wooden ship built by a 600 year old man? A walking, talking snake in a magical garden convincing a couple who didn't know good or evil to evilly eat a piece of fruit, bringing death and disease into the world? Talking asses, living in a fish's belly for three days and nights? Hercules with good hair slaughtering a thousand men with the jawbone of a donkey and getting his revenge at the end? If God wrote the Bible from his perspective and if the genre of his writing was history then yes, we naturally have to believe all these things are literally true as many Christians have and still do. But there are two huge ifs involved in that statement. Namely that the Bible was written from God's perspective and its genre is something akin to modern history.

I reject both of those presuppositions and the problem is the question posed in the title of this writing is usually based on a very specific model of Biblical inspiration. It generally assumes verbal-plenary inspiration which tends to make scripture out to be a divinely written theological encyclopedia that was dropped from heaven. Verbal-plenary inspiration claims that God chose and dictated every single word of Scripture to its human authors. Some places in scripture do claim to be the product of divine dictation (Rev 2:1,8,12; Isa. 38:4-6 etc) and there are many places that begin with "Thus says the Lord." But this is not what all of Scripture looks like. Hebrews 1:1 says that God spoke to the prophets "in many and various ways" (e.g. dreams, visions, etc). If we look at the prologue to Luke (1:1-3) it claims to be the product of human research and careful investigation, not divine dictation. Let us take a look at 1st Corinthians 1:14-16 as its a problem for dictation models:

14 I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so that no one can say that you were baptized in my name. 16 (I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized anyone else.) 17 NRSV

Divisions had arisen in Corinth and Paul is thankful he had only baptized Crispus and Gaius but quickly remembers he baptized the household of Stephanas and adds in that caveat overriding what he just wrote. The NIV and NRSV put verse 16 in parenthesis. Paul momentarily forgot that he baptized them, corrected himself and then admitted his further ignorance. Proponents of verbal-plenary inspiration have immense difficulty in explaining this. If God were writing the Bible from a heavenly perspective He certainly would not forget who Paul baptized and it seems odd to imagine God inspiring Paul to write in this fashion. Clearly then, the human authors had significant autonomy in the works they wrote -- a belief held by most evangelicals. It could be claimed that God allowed the authors to write from their own experiences and perspectives but moved over them to ensure certain things were included and prevented them from making errors. This passage could even depict the process of inspiration at work. Paul made a limited and faulty statement which quickly gets clarified and corrected under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. I tend to generally agree with most of that but I don't believe God was concerned with preventing all errors or those that didn't infringe upon his intended purposes in Scripture. Why do I believe this? To put the matter bluntly, because there are clearly errors and competing theologies in scripture! Historical, internal, scientific and in my opinion, moral errors can be found but let us focus on a few scientific ones here for illustrative purposes. Christianity has a long history of both advancing and fighting science. John Calvin famously wrote:

"We will see some who are so deranged, not only in religion but who in all things reveal their monstrous nature, that they will say that the sun does not move, and that it is the earth which shifts and turns. When we see such minds we must indeed confess that the devil possess them, and that God sets them before us as mirrors, in order to keep us in his fear. So it is with all who argue out of pure malice, and who happily make a show of their imprudence. "

People who thought the earth moved were deemed deranged and possessed by the devil at one time but this isn't as bad as it seems. Incorrect beliefs can be warranted and the proponents of them like Calvin can be intellectually forgiven. It is customary for pre-scientific people to embrace pre-scientific ideas and it takes time for major paradigm shifts to occur in human thinking. Conventional knowledge at the time would tell Calvin the sun moved and the earth stood still. The Bible is, after all, "unashamedly geocentric." Sometimes scientific progress is at odds with what has been considered the plain understandings of Scripture for hundreds if not thousands of years. In today's world it is no longer heliocentric vs geocentric ideology. For most that issue has fully worked itself out but now we have biological evolution lopsidedly battling creation science in the limelight. Scientific errors or at least incorrect scientific background knowledge appears scattered throughout the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. Parts of the Bible refer to the four corners of the earth (Is. 11:12), think thoughts come from our kidneys (Psalm 16:7), believe there is a solid firmament in the sky (Gen 1:6, Job 37:18), proclaim much to Galileo's chagrin, the earth is immutable and does not move (1 Chron 16:30; Ps 93:1, 96:10, 104:5; Is 45:8), that the earth is flat (Mt 4:8, Dan 4:10-11), stars are small and close enough to the earth they can fall from the sky and land on it (Rev 6:13-16, 8:10; Mt 2:10, 24:29; Dan 8:10). A host of problems are also evident if the details of Genesis 1-2 are taken as literal, factual history (e.g. plants are created before the sun). The statement by Calvin and the infamous incident with Galileo and the church makes one issue clear. Biblically speaking, it was obvious for at least over a millennia that the earth was immutable and did not move.

We can certainly quibble over some of these potential conflicts and debate their intended meaning but overall they give me the impression that God conveys His truth through limited and at times mistaken worldviews. From this, for one who subscribes to Biblical inspiration, it is only natural to conclude God accommodated his message through time-conditioned revelation. Interacting with people on their level in their own culture, with ideas they can understand, even if some of those ideas are ultimately incorrect, seems the most effective method of communication to me. Calvin agreed at least in part in his commentary on Psalm 136 when he wrote "the Holy Spirit would rather speak childishly than unintelligibly to the humble and unlearned." God has to condescend himself no matter how he communicates with us sinful human beings. Scripture makes a pretty compelling case that God did not feel the need to override the incorrect scientific and cosmological background knowledge of the Biblical authors. Maybe we should pattern ourselves after His likeness! So for me, errors in the Bible are not "God making mistakes." The human authors God chose to speak and accommodate his message through made the mistakes just as some exegetes today make the mistake of assuming a top-down heavenly perspective in the Bible. A ground-up earthly perspective where God moved over the authors and influenced them is much more consistent with what we find in scripture itself. The most important part is of course God moving over us as we read Scripture! Without that it may be little more than cellulose. As Dale B Martin wrote:
We may trust scripture to provide what we need for our salvation. We may trust that we can read scripture in prayerful hope that God will speak to us through our reading that text. But ultimately this belief-or, perhaps better put, this stance, attitude, or habitus-is actually an expression of our faith not in a text but in God and the holy spirit. We "leave it up to the holy spirit" to protect us from damnable error in our readings of scripture. We depend on God to keep us with God in our readings of scripture. Properly understood, the doctrine of the infallibility of scripture is a statement less about a text and more about God." [The Meaning of Scripture in the Twenty-first Century]

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