Sunday, June 17, 2012

Inerrancy and the Mustard Seed

Twice in two days I have heard or read about the Parable of the Mustard Seed. Now that is not Jesus' statement about 'mustard seed faith'. That's in Matthew 17:20. This parable is in Mark 4:30-32 as well as in Matthew 13. It reads thusly:

Again he said, “What shall we say the kingdom of God is like, or what parable shall we use to describe it? It is like a mustard seed, which is the smallest of all seeds on earth. Yet when planted, it grows and becomes the largest of all garden plants, with such big branches that the birds can perch in its shade.”

This was preached in church today along with another parable and all I can say about that is that you should have been in our church this morning. It was the best that I have ever heard it preached. But that is not what I am discussing here.

Rather, I want to discuss the doctrine of the inerrancy of the scriptures. Inerrancy can be defined as "being without error in the original manuscripts". That includes any statement the Bible makes about any subject. If it makes a theological statement about God or salvation, then it is completely and utterly true. If it makes a statement about history or even science, then that is true as well.

This last statement, and therefore inerrancy itself, has been challenged by some orthodox believers. In other words, some Christian scholars accept that whatever the Bible says about God or other 'spiritual' ideas, then it is accurate and authoritative; however, when the Bible makes statements about historical or scientific matters, then it is not necessarily true. They say that the spiritual truths are the ones that are really important, not the other stuff.

What does this have to do with the Parable of the Mustard Seed? Well, I was reading the blog post of a Christian teacher who does not believe in inerrancy and he used this parable as proof. He said that anyone who believed in inerrancy would also have to believe that the mustard seed was actually the smallest seed in existence, and since the mustard seed is not the smallest seed, then the Bible is not inerrant.

He insisted that inerrancy must mean that one must take the every passage in the Bible in the most grossly literal sense possible. But nobody actually does that. Nobody thinks that when Jesus said "I am the vine" that it means that He is literally a vine. The most literalistic, fundamentalist, most gullible believer would never even consider it a possibility. It is clearly a metaphor.

Jesus is not making a scientific statement nor even using what he might have believed was a scientific fact as the basis of the parable. Rather, he is painting a picture with words. He is saying that the Kingdom of God is like the smallest of seeds that becomes the biggest of plants. He uses the mustard plant to paint the picture. People knew about the mustard plant. It is a big herb bush. His statement about the "smallest" seed and the "largest" plant do not have to be taken as literal, scientific truth. It's a poetic image. It's a manner of speaking. It's the same way that we speak. It's no different than when historians speak of the "shot that was heard around the world". Of course, no shot has ever been heard around the world. The truth that comes out of such a statement, however, is more powerful than any brief literal description can be. We talk like this to get across to people the meaning which we mean to convey. (And nobody says that the historian here is historically or scientifically in error.)

But this does not mean that we should just take the theological meanings and separate them from the historical and scientific truths presented to us in the Bible. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is, at the same time, a scientific, historical and theological fact. The theological truth that comes out of the resurrection is based on the historical fact of the resurrection.

It is heresy to affirm the theological truth of the resurrection and deny its historicity as do famous theologians like Barth and Bonhoeffer. You cannot separate the two. If the Bible teaches that there was a historical Adam and Eve and you deny that Adam and Eve are historical figures, then you have a problem. It is not enough to simply affirm the spiritual truth associated with the story.

Now I will admit that someone who does not know much about seeds might think that Jesus was making a scientific statement, but that does not mean that they will still believe that mustard seeds are the smallest of seeds when they are shown otherwise. They also will not give up their belief in inerrancy. They will (rightfully) alter their view of what Jesus was actually saying.

It is no different from the way that we now view passages in the Bible that seem to indicate that the sun goes around the earth. Once it was proven that the earth goes around the sun, then we realized that these passages were not describing scientific realities, but were only giving us an anthropomorphic (human) perspective. In other words, it was only describing how it appears to us. The Bible has always been recognized as doing this. In Genesis, it describes three men approaching Abraham and meeting with him. We later found that these were, in fact, angels and not men. Was the first text in error? No. They appeared to be men, but they revealed themselves otherwise later. It's no different from us calling a meteorite a falling star.

I know that some do not view inerrancy as an important doctrine. They say that it is better to acknowledge the spiritual or theological truths of the Bible and not worry about the rest. This is not relevant, they say. I could not disagree more. If the Bible is the Word of God then it is all true - the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

(Perhaps more on this in a subsequent post.)

No comments:

Post a Comment