It Ain't Even a Good Tautology

The struggles of literalism to equivocate it's way around the cosmology of the ancients are not the only challenge it faces. Claiming that scripture is literally without error not only demands that we not seriously look at creation, but it also demands that we not seriously look at scripture.

The problem for the fundamentalist is that once you've convinced someone to cast away the hard sciences and give themselves fully to the study of the Word, it just opens a whole 'nutha can o'woims. You're in trouble from the git go, as cranking through the first creation story (Genesis 1:1-2:3) and then the second creation story (Genesis 2:4-3:24) gets folks to wondering why the two...(two?)...creation stories don't share the same order. Ummm...pastor?

Once you get into the meat of the story of Israel, things don't get easier. The narratives in 1 Samuel - 2 Kings don't jibe with the narratives in Chronicles. Numbers, names, and chronologies are off...not hugely...but they aren't the same. For thems of us who don't approach Holy Scripture as a seamless system, we see in it's messiness evidence not of falsehood but of the living reality of this ancient assemblage of documents. But for literalism, it's heavy lifting time, time to develop carefully constructed defenses entailing interpretive gyrations and speculation involving original autographs and scribal errors.

But cranking through a litany of these picayune variances isn't as difficult as looking at places where the Bible just plain doesn't agree with itself. The latter chapters of Isaiah and the book of Ezra, for instance, completely disagree about how to deal with foreigners. The wisdom tradition asserts in Proverbs that righteousness brings blessings and wickedness a curse, but then that whole idea of simple retributive justice is debunked by the speculative Wisdom of Job and Ecclesiastes.

As we move into the New Testament, things don't get easier. The Gospels tell the same basic story, but the variances in narrative emphasis and chronology require highly complex constructs to reconcile. Things aren't easier in the Epistles, where Paul's inclusive approach to citizenship and idol meat are diametrically opposed to the radical inflexibility of John of Patmos. Paul can't even seem to agree with Paul...first women are both implicitly and explicitly described as leaders in the church, and then they're to sit down and shut up.

The objective historical-critical scholarship that defined serious Bible study in the last century looked at these variances and disagreements and saw nothing that stood as an impediment to proclaiming Christ. But for literalism, it was once again a call to man the ramparts.

In defense of this doctrine, Christians are compelled to say..well...I know that passage seems to say one thing, but it has to mean something else. It isn't a defense of Holy Scripture, or of it's authority, or of it's significance in the life of the believer.

It's a defense of a doctrine. But at what cost?