Tuesday, February 17, 2009

There is no "Clear" Message in the Bible

Many, probably most, creationists insist that a "Clear Message" exists in the Bible. Here’s a typical comment that I’ve gotten from a creationist during a debatge:

> Who God is and what he expects of us and how we
> are supposed to act is very clearly laid out in
> the Bible, especially by the teachings of Jesus.

If things are “very clearly laid out” in the Bible, why would there be so many forms of creationism? Wouldn’t everyone take away from the Bible the same message?

Science, on the other hand, is full of clear messages. If someone says that the speed-of-light is 299,792,458 meters per second, would anyone misunderstand that message? Note that I’m not saying that the message is necessarily accurate or inerrant (although in this case it is probably both). Instead I’m merely claiming that the message is clear and not subject to varying interpretations. Any two people who read that claim will understand it in precisely the same way.

That is very unlike the Bible. Nearly every passage in the Bible has two or more differing interpretations.

So even if the Bible is the inspired word of God, clearly the message contained in the Bible is subject to misunderstanding and misinterpretation. We know that because there are so many varying interpretations. They can’t all be correct because many of them contradict each other.

Allow me to bring my engineering background to bear a bit on this subject. The Bible really is an example of information theory.

At the web page http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Information_theory, Wikipedia defines “Information Theory” as “…a discipline in applied mathematics involving the quantification of data with the goal of enabling as much data as possible to be reliably stored on a medium or communicated over a channel”. The channel in this case is the Bible. Surely the goal of the Bible is to enable data to be reliably communicated over that channel.

In order to deliver a flawless message, three different “components” must be working flawlessly (or at least sufficiently well enough to have errors corrected). Those components are:

1. The transmitter
2. The communications channel (also called the transmission medium)
3. The receiver

These things are factors in any transfer of information.

If you buy a product at the grocery store, the barcode on that package contains information about that product. In that case:

1. The transmitter is the machine that prints the barcode.
2. The transmission medium is the packaging with the bar code printed on it.
3. The receiver is the barcode reader in the grocery store.

In the case of the Bible (if creationists are correct about its source):

1. The transmitter is God
2. The communications channel consists of the authors of the Bible (for example, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John).
3. The receiver is the person reading the Bible – in other words the creationist.

We can see examples of how all these components must be working properly if we have problems with our television or radio reception.

Occasionally the problem with receiving a message is found at the source (the transmitter). Surely we’ve all seen cases where the source of a TV program displays a message stating that they are having “technical problems”. Or if you turn the TV to a non-existent channel basically it is the transmitter that is faulty (it doesn’t even exist).

We’ve also experienced cases where the communications channel is not working correctly. Those during severe weather. More relevantly many of us have had times where we see significant amounts of “static” due to problems with the communications channel. These are noticeable when you are listening to the radio in your car and you drive under some power transmission lines or through a tunnel.

Then, of course, there are times that the receiver is not working correctly. Those of us old enough to watch TV with antennas that had so-called “rabbit ears” recall adjusting those “ears” in order to maximize the performance of the receiver. Even more obviously, if you turn off your receiver you won’t receive a message.

To see a clear TV picture or listen to a clear radio signal or to correctly receive any type of information all three things – the transmitter, the transmission medium and the receiver - have to be working correctly. Just having two out of three isn’t good enough.

The same is true for any information transfer, including the transfer of a message from God through the Bible.

Most creationists insist that in the case of the Bible, the Transmitter (God) is flawless and that the communications channel (the authors of the Bible) are also inerrant. Therefore, they claim, they can understand the message inerrantly.

When they say that, they are obviously overlooking the third component of information transfer: the receiver (the person reading the Bible).

I would argue that it is not just unlikely, it is actually impossible for the receiver – a fallible human being - to operate inerrantly. For that reason alone it is absolutely and totally impossible for anyone to claim to have an inerrant understanding of the Bible. That is impossible even in the unlikely case that God is the source for the inspiration in the Bible and the authors also operated inerrantly as they transcribed those words.

In response to this claim, I had a creationist say this (capitalization unchanged from the original post):

> After 60 years I learned which are the CONDITIONS which
> provide proper understanding of the biblical messages.

I don’t have a problem with someone saying that reading the Bible again and again improves a person’s ability to understand it. But, and of course, that answer is purely arbitrary. Did you not know those conditions after only 59 years of study? How about 58? Or 57? Regardless of how many times someone has read the Bible and regardless of the amount of time they have spent studying it, there is no point where anyone magically is transported into the land of inerrancy!

Moreover, what if someone else has been reading the Bible for 61 years and has a different interpretation? Should we prefer their interpretation over the interpretation of this creationist who has only been reading the Bible for 60 years?

I’ve also had creationists say that they can inerrantly understand the Bible because they can read it in the original Hebrew or Greek. But even that’s arbitrary. How well do you know that language? Many of us have problems understanding our own teenage children because they use words that we don’t understand! How can anyone effectively expect to inerrantly understand something written in a language that they can’t use themselves in everyday life?

Obviously it is impossible to use a language in everyday speech in the same way that it was used thousands of years ago. The author may have had an intended usage for a particular word that we can’t possibly know because the usage has died out and was never even documented.

Think of the comprehension problems many of us have when we read Shakespeare. His works are less than four centuries ago. With the Bible we are talking about books which are thousands of years old.

Besides even people who can read the Bible in its original languages often have different interpretations. This would be a more persuasive argument if everyone who read the original texts came away with the same message.

That’s not the case.

Furthermore, not everyone who is able to read the Bible in its original languages interprets the Bible identically. So even in its original languages there is no “clear message”.

My favorite example when debating this point is John Shelby Spong. Spong is a retired Bishop of the Episcopal Church[1]. He has a Master of Divinity degree and two honorary doctorates in theology. He has read the Bible so often that he has lost count (though he is certain that the number is over 100). He has also read the Bible in its original languages. He has also written nearly two dozen books about the Bible. He has lectured extensively on the Bible at Harvard Divinity School. He even prays at least two hours every day.

Very few people have more impressive credentials in regard to the Bible than Spong.

Yet Spong does not believe that the Bible is inerrant. More specifically, he doesn’t believe in the virgin birth nor does he accept the physical resurrection of Jesus. His views are very liberal and criticized by many other theologians including the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Spong may or may not be correct in how he views the Bible, but few if any creationists can claim that their interpretation of the Bible is better than Spong’s simply because their credential are more impressive. So no one can claim that their particular interpretation of the Bible should be accepted solely because they have more experience or a better exposure to the Bible.

The bottom line – people are fallible. Regardless of how long you have lived and studied the Bible or how much you have studied and learned the original languages, there is no point where someone goes from being fallible to infallible.

Any reader will always be fallible. Therefore any reader may always be wrong, regardless of how good their intentions might be or how often they’ve read the Bible or even how well they are able to read the text in its original languages.

There is no “clear message” to be found in Scripture.

Just an added note: the Roman Catholic Church, or at least some members of that church, insists that the Church’s official interpretation of the Bible is inerrant because their church has an infallible leader, the Pope, who has been given this gift of infallibility in things like Biblical interpretation by God. I’ll let the reader consider the merits of this claim for themselves. It is worth pointing out that the Church’s official interpretation of the Bible has changed in just the last few centuries regarding things like geocentrism. The Bible itself has NOT changed. All of which does make one wonder…

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Shelby_Spong, referenced on January 18, 2009

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