History, inerrancy, and failed eschatology – I

Not all learning disorders are inherited.  We commonly see persons with otherwise high-functioning minds and no adverse family history who are selectively disabled in music, art, mathematics, etc.  And we often find an acute narrowness of mind in selected areas of philosophy, politics and theology (including atheists with impossibly narrow views of theism).

Few would contend with the idea that some of these selective kinds of disabilities can be acquired in the course of the thinker’s learning experience.  Just as work-related disabilities are acquired as a result of bad work habits and unsafe conditions, we can easily imagine that adverse or unsound circumstances in the inner and outer learning environment of mind can contribute to temporary or permanent disabilities in mental work.

English theological writer Lily Dougal used a concept of acquired learning disability to answer the question, Why was the eschatology of post-exilic Judaism so wrong in its depiction of God’s coming kingdom?  Dougal argued that, for these apocalyptic writers, history and doctrine had combined to create an unhealthy environment for the kinds of mental work involved in truth-seeking.  Error overwhelmed truth in the minds of these Jews because their work was burdened by false principles of knowledge.  Above all, it was the dogma of scripture inerrancy  which most dominated and disabled (and ultimately embarrassed) the spirituality of the Jewish eschatological schools.

Dougal argued that the inerrancy principle ruined Judaism’s prophetic power because it tends to (1) demoralize, (2) confuse, and (3) belittle the human mind.

(1) Scripture inerrancy demoralizes the mind.  The principle of inerrancy is fatal to the morality of any religion – but especially those whose writings extend over a long history of spiritual development.

“The sacred scripture taught God’s love, but … within it there were the noblest visions of goodness and mercy, together with savage conceptions of deified cruelty… God in his relation to man was seen, not simply as the best and wisest being of whom man could conceive, but as a mixture of good and evil, and therefore hostile not merely to all those things to which man at his best was hostile, but also to much that was best in man.”  (Dougal & Emmet, The Lord of Thought, 1922, pp 18, 19, 39.)

The mind looking for inspiration from religious texts held to be inerrant is liable to apprehend all inspiration at a common par value.  This equalizing tendency contributes a source of drag on the highest teachings of any tradition.  It may compromise the balance of good in an individual’s moral compass.  It may even threaten the moral destiny of an entire religious body, rendering it unable to discern a turning point in history, when God offers the gift of a new light which transcends some point of earlier inspiration.

Next up (continuing with Dougal’s analysis): 

(2) The principle of scripture inerrancy confuses the mind by magnifying the importance of discrepancies and contradictions.

(3) The principle of scripture inerrancy belittles the mind by encouraging a fantastic view of inspiration and forcing the mind to create incredible rationalizations and harmonies to resolve its contradictions.

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3 thoughts on “History, inerrancy, and failed eschatology – I

  1. Pingback: History and inerrancy – around the blogosphere « next theology

  2. What you refer to as the dogma or doctrine of spiritual inerrancy in the Hebrew tradition might be giving them too much credit: I am under the assumption that a significant challenge to this precept was never posed or even posited. So rather than dogma – which is actively formed, spelled out, taught, etc. – we might be better to define this as an assumption, with respect to its historical acceptance. Today, of course, things are much different. Enjoyed your post, thanks.

  3. Thanks for writing, Rob.

    I agree it would be better if I were to keep calling it a ‘principle’ rather than a ‘dogma’ in the context of Judaism – since that has more a sense of ‘unwritten rule’ (which is the point I think you’re making). In my head I keep wanting to draw the link between Second Temple inerrancy and our current ‘inerrants’ but I risk anachronism, as you point out.

    If I decide to edit my vocab ‘downwards’ from the word ‘dogma’, I will stick a note in your comment, so that your good point doesn’t lose its edge.

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