Why factual discrepencies in the Bible are a barrier to faith: lower-order and higher-order concerns

The Gutenberg Bible displayed by the United St...

The Gutenberg Bible displayed by the United States Library of Congress, demonstrating printed pages as a storage medium. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As this Ex-Fundamentalist-now-Reformed-Anglican-Anglo-Catholic-Episcopalian Mutt struggles with factual discrepencies in Scripture, I think I finally realized why evangelical and Reformed claims about the Bible have fallen on hard times.

And in part, this is a different thought to add to Ross Douthat’s analysis of why American became a nation of heretics, as described by Tim Keller.

The factual discrepencies within Scripture are nothing new, but what they mean, and why they mean what they mean, should be the puzzles addressed by Douthat, Keller, and many others who occupy influential positions in Christianity.

Otherwise, any Christian is on unstable intellectual ground: Making rational arguments based on a self-contradictory book is non-rational. If your starting point is non-rational, then ultimately, your rational arguments are unsupported.

To me, the challenge of defending the Bible in our time is understanding that people automatically, intuitively, common-sensically organize information according to “lower-order concerns” and “higher-order concerns.”

What do I mean by those phrases? Well, sometimes, when talking about how to grade an academic paper, my colleagues and I refer to “lower-order concerns” and “higher-order concerns.”

Lower-order concerns might be (in some cases) correct use of commas, while high-order concerns might be (in some cases) having a real argument and supporting it. Missing a couple of commas isn’t as bad as a thesis statement that argues nothing or an unsupported argument.

Considering claims about the Bible, people will be more likely to believe higher-order claims when lower-order claims are correct.

Basic factual information could be considered a lower-order concern. As a former newspaper section editor, I can assure you that, all kidding and warranted insults about journalists aside, a cub reporter can get the time and date and basic facts of a city council meeting — and get them right most of the time.

What that cub reporter (usually) cannot do is understand the political philosophies at work. The political philosophy, the ideas, behind a city-council decision might be a higher-order concern. (Granted, city councils don’t always appear to be populated by philosopher kings, but stick with me a few more seconds.)

Indeed, those journalists who leave newspapers and broadcast journalism to work for National Review or The New Republic are those journalists who, early on, excelled at getting the facts right — and then progressively moved into higher-order thinking. You worked hard at the lower-order concerns to earn the right to write about the higher-order concerns.

Now, in the Bible, what we see are numerous discrepencies in lower-order arenas. For whatever reasons, the Biblical texts we have today do not always give a consistent picture of the facts of important events — events important enough, evangelicals and Reformed folks assume, to be part of God’s revelation.

I think many, many people are not willing to believe the higher-order, theological and doctrinal, claims of the Bible because the lower-order issues are problematic.

Again, many people will say, “If you can’t get your facts right, why should I listen to you about anything else?”

Wouldn’t you think a similar thought if a salesperson or a politician couldn’t get his or her facts straight?

Isn’t that a normal, shrewd reaction backed by the Proverbs?

God hates dishonest scales, right? Let your yes be yes and your no be no, right? Truthfulness, right?

Of course, it’s not that simple — but simplistic thinking is exactly what evangelical and Reformed churches have offered on this topic. Sure, you can say there are non-simplistic answers by pointing to the big guns at the seminaries and all the Gospel Coalition folks, fine, but they’re not leading the vast majority of churches.

Here’s my current, tentative, in-progress solution.

I think believing in the Nicene Creed, based on the testimony of Scripture, makes sense. As ancient testimony, the Scriptures reasonably could support the Creed. I’m not sure the Scriptures reasonably can support the Bible-study industry that keeps Christian bookstores open.

I think believing in the atonement, based on the general thematic trajectory of the Scriptures, makes sense.

What doesn’t make sense are the Bible studies that try to unpack every little verse and turn each one into grand statements about humanity or morality or whatever.

The available text criticism simply does not render a Bible that reliable.  Furthermore, I don’t think the common use of the terms “inerrant” and “infallible” can possibly be relevant when glaring factual discrepencies exist. Maybe the problem is our post-Enlightenment, rationalistic way of considering something “inerrant” — without error — but more about that later.

Of course, text criticism is a very high-order matter. Someone might counter my arguments by elevating a side issue and saying that not many people know about the Bible anymore, at all, never mind text criticism. Not that many go to church anymore. Not that many people read anything anymore, so reading in and of itself, and the Bible, actually aren’t even the issues. The culture is the issue. Social change is the issue. Et cetera.

Maybe, but maybe not. Ex-evangelical and popular author Bart Ehrman teaches classes at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill each semester. I don’t know how large his classes are, but you can bet he’s taught hundreds by this point in his career.

And Ehrman is not the only one at a univeristy with his point of view. College for the middle class has almost become a political right, and kids have to take classes outside their fields to fulfill curriculum requirements. I imagine Ehrman’s perspective, and indeed his books, are presented positively in numerous universities to tens of thousands of students each academic year. (Although, as Ehrman himself has said, many people in New Testament text criticism remain believers.)

So consider the likelihood that many college-educated people have been forced to assess the higher-order claims of the Bible — its theology, its doctrine, its history, its claims about Jesus Christ — in light of the lower-order problems.

A significant portion of the college-educated middle class dismissed higher-order claims due to problems with lower-order claims.

When the lower-order claims fall apart, the higher-order claims do not seem legitimate.

Now, I also want briefly to note that we have to ask hard questions about why, if the Holy Spirit guided this canon down through history, God allowed us to wind up with a text that doesn’t offer the kind of testimony a cub reporter could get right.

And, if those discrepencies can be explained away legitimately and truthfully, then how can this Book truly be a book for all people, when it requires a specialist’s academic knowledge and historical and liguistic understanding to keep straight?

Could it be, simply, that certain understandings about “inerrant” and “infallible” render the Bible’s testimony unreliable at best, ridiculous at worst?

Maybe, just maybe, the task is to undo post-Enlightenment rationality. Maybe, as Stephen Toulmin tried to do late in his career, the task is to replace “rationality” with “reasonableness.” In other words, I don’t think we can advocate a self-contradictory text on the micro level, on the verse-by-verse level, unless we radically recreate everyone’s daily, default epistemology.

We could, however, begin understanding the Bible texts as historical testimony.

Please comment, correct, rebuke as you have time.



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5 responses to “Why factual discrepencies in the Bible are a barrier to faith: lower-order and higher-order concerns

  1. Will have to read it again in the morning with coffee. My first reaction is that you have explained the way many of us think – and some of what we think but do not say – better than we know we think it. I also think that what we think about these matters is not really important enough to argue about it . To me, true faith is believing that the love of God has it covered and we can not know what he thinks.


  2. Your Liturgical post has kept me up in the night.

    Focusing on your “they” demons. The collective “they” of our past and present no longer exist. Just as we have moved on from who we were 15 – 30 or 40 years ago they have moved on also. “They” said or wrote things then that we tend to lock them into. As we get older give them room to have grown too…

    Freedom from “them” has allowed me to become a Galatians child – to accept the forgiveness and forgetfulness of God and go forward to experience the fullness of his creation that I am in the midst of now.

    I believe that the chief end of mankind is to glorify God. In my being I love seeing his creation touch everywhere. I can glorify him by being still anywhere – some places are certainly more beautiful than others but the wonder of his creation is everywhere.

    Good Friday morning – 5 am – parked next to Trinity chapel on 30th avenue North facing Dunkin Donuts in a heavy rain. DD is open and busy – lights on, people (people who drive pick-ups and back them into the parking spaces before slowly walking into the shop like it was not raining…) constantly coming and going as if this is their regular early morning routine on the way to work. A world I have never been a part of.

    Light. God given light. It does not do what I would think it would. The raindrops make little puddles on the windshield that slowly merge – fill up and give way to become a tiny stream. In the darkness of the early morning, the light of the street lights and the shopping center signs combine to light the raindrops and light puddles in a show that is at once orchestral but quiet, very moving without being directed or produced. It all just happened. What if we did not have light?

    What if Christ had not been? As we sat there in the car, thinking about Easter and what it means to who we are, I wondered for the first time in my life what my/our life would be like if we were not Easter people. If we did not believe in the gift of atonement that you (Liturgical) find supportable. Without the teachings of Christianity would we feel like we needed atonement? It was interesting to see a little of this thought reflected in the Easter sermon on Sunday. What would have happened if it had not happened.? Another blog post perhaps.

    One thing I know would be different. Without our knowledge of the word of God as we have it in the canons of scripture that we love to pick apart we would not know what we do about how God thinks or perhaps wants to relate to us. Think about life without scripture. Take it out of everything you know. You will not go far without missing it. Shakespeare. Child rearing. Love. Arguments. Laws. Authority. Friendship. Poetry. History.

    There are so many intentions available for us to embrace Christ. The ways of worship are as many as there are people. Our particularly southern cultural expectations for what is “required” in worship and our behavior toward it are breaking down and flowing out into our lives as a whole rather than being confined to our Sunday Best behavior.

    There is still a choice to be made but we no longer have to access it through the teachings of whatever clergy we might have had in our village in the days before we could read. We do not have to have a governing body decide whether we are protestant, catholic, orthodox, eastern – in fact, we do not have to be any of those things to be in fellowship. If we are blessed to have the time to explore we can fill our minds with Godly thought and teaching – learning – searching – googling to the nth degree! If we are not blessed to have that kind of time or inclination… we are blessed to have churches and pastors to provide some of that for us.

    A pastor who has to “produce” on a weekly basis – who feels the responsibility to be profound or inspiring or provoking whether he really has that in him at the time or not – is sometimes in a tough spot and would I think benefit from our willingness to give him a pass every now and then rather than expect him to give what he does not have. An expository homily would be very acceptable to me.

    In another direction – the literal versus the non-literal interpretation of scripture. Inerrancy. There are so many options – so many ways that Godly Christians believe about this. We can again not speak for the “they”. No one speaks for me but me. I do agree that it is time to give this up – your post on how we are sort of boxed in pretending to believe what we probably do not believe is really a communication problem. No one wants to talk about it. Look what happened to Rob Bell. Can’t we talk about it?

    The questions. Who is a Christian? What is a Christian? If I say I am a follower of Christ, I do not think anyone has the right to say I am not. Another blog.

    Listen – to Kristi Tippett’s April 1 podcast of her interview with Vigen Guroian on Onbeing.org.
    Guroian is an Armenian Orthodox theologian and this less than one hour interview reveals a lot of differences in how the “they” you think of as Christians you have known and the Armenian Orthox church of today (at least this one person representing it…) see scripture. I could easily embrace their outlook and certainly their music. It is not, about gardening.

    As a journalist and English professor you might be interested in what is going on with some of the interview techniques in this podcast. More than once Tippett asks a question she has carefully phrased to bring out a profound answer of some sort and Guroian just sort of passes on it. My impression is that he is relaying “yes I wrote that and that was a big deal to me at the time but I am on to something else now..”. You, as a writer, surely find yourself in those shoes as you post a Liturgical blog, the sun comes up on Tuesday and you are on to something else. But, you have invited posts.

    When I was in experimental psychology more than 40 years ago I had to write up a complete experiment every week. The grad student who had to read them had quite as task just like you do now with your classes. The average report was at least 10 pages long. One day I embedded in my text an offer to buy her a pack of cigarettes and a coke if she read that paragraph. Unfortunately, I put parenthesis around it and her eye caught it. You do not do cigarettes or coke but I will offer you a contribution to your reward fund if you read this. Obviously I can not use the b word or your magnetic eye would go right to it.

    The sun is rising. The horizon colors are so pastel. The ocean is gentle this morning. I hope you get to take a morning walk on the beach. I hope you get free of “them”. I have.


  3. Wow! I didn’t mean to keep you up all night. If you wondered why your comment didn’t appear right away, I have to approve all comments before they are posted.

    Much of your reply assumes a specific motive behind what I wrote. I feel free enough from the past to actually question the Bible and its message. Before, when “they” still haunted me, I was too afraid to ask questions and consider other points of view. When “they” held sway in my mind, I was concerned about what “they” might say, and “they” certainly wouldn’t approve of reading Bart Ehrman or Daniel Dennet. Now I just want to get it right for myself, and I don’t mind blogging about the process of sorting it all out — without a definite ending already in mind.

    I have heard Vigen Guroian on Mars Hill Audio and I’ll make a point of listening to Krista Tippet’s interview. Both are very interesting people.

    I will certainly take you up on that beer!


  4. It’s an interesting theory you present, but there’s no way alleged discrepancies in the Bible have played any significant factor in the decline of “Christianity.”

    Materialism and careerism? Yes.
    Gross hypocrisy, especially among religious leaders? Yes.
    Sociological factors such as geo-mobility, suburbanization (church no longer being central part of “community”)? Yes.
    Sexual revolution? Yes.
    Co-opting of evangelicalism by the neo-conservative political faction? Yes.

    I’ve been on college campuses and in the corporate business world for almost 20 years and there aren’t 8 people in 10,000 that could point to a single factual issue they find in the Bible. If anything, I would argue that it’s just the opposite – many people hold a more postmodern view, at least when it comes to religion. There’s no such thing as “fact” (at least in the realm of religion) – i.e. “the Bible is true for you, but not for me…” Usually, either something specific turns them off (such as the factors above), or just a feeling that “I believe in God and try to be a good person, but I don’t believe in organized religion.”


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