Monday, June 3, 2013

Biblical Adventures in Botany and Inerrancy

Mark 4:30-32 reads (with emphasis added):
And he said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
And similarly, Matthew 13:31-32:
He put another parable before them, saying, “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field. It is the smallest of all seeds, but when it has grown it is larger than all the garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.”
For size reference, this is a mustard seed:
Pretty small, huh? I should probably mention the orchid seed, shown here on a penny:
Here is a side-by-side comparison of both seeds on a penny:
Did Jesus just lie? Or does this prove that He was not God but a mere man, ignorant of modern botany?

Biblical Inerrancy

Wayne Grudem's landmark systematic theology defines inerrancy thus (emphasis the author's):
[In the previous chapter] it was argued that all the words in the Bible are God's words, and that therefore to disbelieve or disobey any word in Scripture is to disbelieve or disobey God. [2 Timothy 3:16, 2 Peter 1:21, etc.] It was argued further that the Bible clearly teaches that God cannot lie or speak falsely (2 Sam. 7:28, Titus 1:2, Heb. 6:18). Therefore all the words in scripture are claimed to be completely true and without error in any part (Num. 23:19, Pss. 12:6, 119:89, 96; Prov. 30:5, Matt. 24:35). God's words are, in fact, the ultimate standard of truth (John 17:17)...with evidence like this we are now in a position to define biblical inerrancy: The inerrancy of Scripture means that Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact. This definition focuses on the question of truthfulness and falsehood in the language of Scripture. The definition in simple terms just means that the Bible always tells the truth, and that it always tells the truth concerning everything it talks about. This definition does not mean that the Bible tells us every fact  there is to know about any one subject, but it affirms that what it does say about any subject is true.
The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy summarizes itself:
1. God, who is Himself Truth and speaks truth only, has inspired Holy Scripture in order thereby to reveal Himself to lost mankind through Jesus Christ as Creator and Lord, Redeemer and Judge. Holy Scripture is God's witness to Himself.
2. Holy Scripture, being God's own Word, written by men prepared and superintended by His Spirit, is of infallible divine authority in all matters upon which it touches: It is to be believed, as God's instruction, in all that it affirms; obeyed, as God's command, in all that it requires; embraced, as God's pledge, in all that it promises.
3. The Holy Spirit, Scripture's divine Author, both authenticates it to us by His inward witness and opens our minds to understand its meaning.
4. Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God's acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God's saving grace in individual lives.
5. The authority of Scripture is inescapably impaired if this total divine inerrancy is in any way limited or disregarded, or made relative to a view of truth contrary to the Bible's own; and such lapses bring serious loss to both the individual and the Church.
Albert Mohler, the president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, describes inerrancy on his blog:
The affirmation of biblical inerrancy is nothing more, and nothing less, than the affirmation of the Bible’s total truthfulness and trustworthiness. The assertion of the Bible’s inerrancy — that the Bible is “free from all falsehood or mistake” — is an essential safeguard for the Bible’s authority as the very Word of God in written form. The reason for this should be clear: to affirm anything short of inerrancy is to allow that the Bible does contain falsehoods or mistakes.
Biblical inerrancy remains a strong theological presence in modern evangelicalism and fundamentalism, especially in the United States.

Possible Responses to Matthew 13:31-32 and Mark 4:30-32

Obviously, reconciling this belief about the truth of the Bible with these passages about the sizes of mustard seeds is not a trivial matter. I am not sure whether I would have been troubled by this passage if I had been presented with the seed size comparison when I held my earlier, hyper-logical view of Scripture, but I can try to guess at the most probable and logical answers an inerrantist might field when confronted by this tension:

  • Ask whether an orchid seed falls under the category defined by the Greek word translated as "seed", σπερμα.
  • Assert that mustard seeds in first-century Israel were smaller than the ones we have today, or that orchid seeds were larger.
  • Admit that the ESV text contains a factual error, but argue that this error was not present in the original manuscripts and was inadvertently introduced by a translator or scribe.
  • Accuse me of "proof-texting" and say that a complex and weighty doctrine like inerrancy can't be conclusively disproven by a single verse.
  • Accuse me of faking the images, or otherwise affirm that the Bible is correct and any other evidence is false, even if it isn't presently clear how.


To the first answer, σπερμα is used in the Bible to refer to either 1) generic seed, the kind sown in a field or 2) someone's offspring or descendants. It is difficult to conceive of a meaning for σπερμα (in common, nontechnical Greek, mind you) broad enough to incorporate both of these but narrow enough to exclude orchid seeds, which are much more similar to wheat seed than human descendants.

The second is difficult to prove conclusively since any first-century mustard or orchid seeds have likely germinated and died by now, but it is rather ad hoc and difficult to believe that such a change in the seeds of these plants could have taken place in less than 2,000 years and the burden of proof certainly falls on anyone who would claim otherwise. The microscopic size of the orchid seed is actually an integral part of its method for reproduction, due to the fact that it lacks endosperm (literally "inside-seed"), the part of a seed that provides nutrients to allow it to begin growing, relying instead on symbiotic relationships with fungi to complete their lifecycles, and it would be quite significant for the orchid seed to evolve into such a different form since then.

The third is very difficult to hold to given that the assertion is present in both Matthew and Mark, which would both have to have been corrupted in the same way from some similar but inerrant form, and the same parable is also likely mentioned in Luke 13:19. According to my 28th-edition Nestle-Aland textform, the biggest relevant known textual dispute in these verses concerns the grammatical form of "has grown" in Matthew, and of "grain" in Mark. Not much room for disagreement here.

It is true that I am trying to show that belief in Biblical inerrancy is unjustifiable with a single Bible passage, a practice which I would count as "proof-texting" and which I try to avoid doing. But the thing about inerrancy is that by making such a strong, sweeping claim about the nature of the Bible's statements, it makes just this sort of proof-texting possible. To allow for meaningful conversation, I am arguing under the assumptions of the view I am trying to speak to, not my own. And inerrancy is, in fact, able to stand or fall on a single verse like this because the strength of the claims it makes also makes it very fragile. See the last point of the Chicago Statement: "The authority of Scripture is inescapably impaired if this total divine inerrancy is in any way limited or disregarded," which presumably includes the finding of a single counterexample that definitively violates it, in the same way that finding a single rock levitating in midair for no discernible reason would call the theory of gravity as we know it into question.

Accusing me of faking the images would be unjust (and, may I say, unchristlike), since I didn't (Matthew 5:37). (In fairness, I did simulate the last one) And, of course, this charge would fall apart as soon as one did any research into the (public) sources I used, unless they are also all faked. Continuing to believe that the mustard seed is the smallest of all seeds in the face of clear evidence to the contrary (such as a display of actual orchid and mustard seeds side-by-side) would be downright conspiratorial and raise the question of what, if any, evidence is required to get you to change your mind.

A high-maintenance doctrine

Of course, to the inerrantist this stubborn persistence in the "truth" is not only reasonable, but commanded by God; as Grudem argues, "all the words in the Bible are God's words, and that therefore to disbelieve or disobey any word in Scripture is to disbelieve or disobey God." The Bible, God's revealed word, says that the mustard seed is the smallest seed on earth, so that's what they believe. This is troubling for a number of reasons. As I have previously argued, this way of allowing the words of the Bible to "trump" all other information assumes a hierarchical, premodern view of truth (remember that Jesus is the Truth) that casts the Bible as the only reliable source of information we have, and all other truth claims, even what we plainly see with our own eyes, as suspicious and aimed to deceive us. David writes that we are intended to learn about the nature of God from His creation: "The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork."

This placing of spiritual knowledge over empirical knowledge, in turn, has the effect of situating the inerrantist in a very dualistic, "two-storey" universe. The Bible is God's truth over and against the claims of this fallen world, and no dialogue or meaningful connection is possible between them. The truths of the Bible are believed in isolation from experience, reason, or any other possible qualifiers to them. This casts serious doubt on how God made us. Our very perception and reasoning abilities, rather than being part of our being made in His image, testaments to His handiwork, and gifts to allow us to appreciate and steward His creation, become suspect and unreliable, with our faith (blinded by being deprived of its companions reason and perception) our only trustworthy guide to living as Christians. And so the Bible becomes our book of science, cosmology, biology, and botany, over and against the fallen claims of "this world". The task of the Christian is to simply believe, without questioning, the revealed truths of God and not the lies of the world.

In the Mohler post, I found another quote relating to a book by Michael Licona that questions whether the earthquake and resurrections that are documented in Matthew 27:51-54 actually happened and specifically points out the absurdity of the implied inference that the saints who were raised waited in their tombs doing nothing until His resurrection. Mohler says, "First of all, if we ever accept the fact that we are to explain what anyone in the Bible was doing when the Bible does not tell us, we enter into a trap of interpretive catastrophe. We are accountable for what the Bible tells us, not what it does not." The text itself says, notably, "And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many." The implication that the saints were raised when Jesus died and came from their tombs after He rose is manifest, but Mohler says that we aren't supposed to make it but instead to disconnect our belief in the pure and true words of the Bible from whatever relation they may have with the rest of reality. In other words, we are expected to suppress our critical reasoning whenever it would lead us to question scripture. This suppression of doubt and disconnection of spiritual truth from the rest of life is, as I have experienced, not healthy.

Peter Enns describes inerrancy as a "high-maintenance doctrine" in that significant time and resources must be expended to maintain its accuracy in the face of clashes with reality as in Matthew 13:32. In fact, I am convinced that maintaining inerrancy is counterproductive to an authentic Christian witness. It destroys rather than creates dialogue with nonbelievers and leads to unnecessary divisions with other Christians who dare to be so audacious as to trust their God-given eyesight and say that orchid seeds are smaller than mustard seeds. What remains of the dialogue between inerrantists and the "world" is inevitably shifted from the central "point" of Jesus and the Gospel to peripheral points of friction like the age of the earth, the relative sizes of seeds, or whether Adam and Eve had bellybuttons (let alone existed); the Bible is expected to speak to these issues just as much as it does to the person and work of God, and not only that but to speak a truer word than any number of the "empty claims" made by people specifically studying these things in the 2,000 years since.

A context-free Bible?

And after all, inerrancy is simply not a very high view of scripture, despite its ardent claims to the contrary. Rather than being taken at face value, the Biblical text is twisted, the simple meanings of its words complicated, hidden subtextual information added, or its integrity questioned in order to defend the integrity of inerrancy. In my own journey I have found an abundance of other examples of this kind of twisting that has to take place to defend the unambiguous truth and logical coherency of Scripture. As I became aware of just how much of my own preconceptions and biases I was reading into the text in order to maintain this view, I lost faith in it--and would have lost faith in God, had I not been able to dissociate the two.

Inerrancy forgets or willfully disregards the role of the reader-interpreter in the Bible by considering it to be "God's own words", "wholly and verbally God-given", implying that it is as direct a form of communication as God speaking audibly and individually to us. Unlike our merely human words, though, God's statements are expected to be free of context or any trace of relativization to limit their scope. I simply don't think this is how communication works. In fact, I don't even think this is the default way inerrantists approach the Bible.

For example, we, almost without thinking, interpret language like "the vault of heaven" (Job 22:14), "the four corners of the earth" (Isaiah 11:12), or "in heaven and on earth and under the earth" (Philippians 2:10) (or also "the waters under the earth", Exodus 20:4) to fit into our modern cosmology as "poetic language". By doing this we are automatically recontextualizing these statements from speaking about a premodern cosmos where the solid sky is supported by four great mountains and the earth's land sits on top of a subterranean ocean to our modern one in a way that flies in the face of inerrancy's insistence on God's words being eternally true and context-free. Similarly with David praising God for "knitting him together in his mother's womb" (Psalm 139:13), which came from a culture with virtually no knowledge of human embryology as we have today but which we read as speaking to our modern understanding of gestation. I have found that I am better able to appreciate the premodern context the Bible is situated in by recognizing it for what it is and how it is different than my own.

For another clear example of ancient cosmology espoused by the Bible, see Revelation 8:10: "The third angel blew his trumpet, and a great star fell from heaven, blazing like a torch, and it fell on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water." From what we now know of cosmology, we know that a star could not fall to the earth in such a way as to affect only a third of the rivers and springs; the earth would fall into the star, be engulfed in thermonuclear fire, and eventually be reduced to its component elements. We read "star" to be a meteorite without thinking about it, but the Greek used is simply αστερ, aster; John likely saw little distinction between "stars" that stayed in the sky and "stars" that fell to earth.

A Theopneustos Scripture

How do we move past such an unhealthy view toward Scripture and reality? For starters, by taking Matthew 13:31-32 and Mark 4:30-32 at face value and reading them like first-century hearers rather than twenty-first century ones: Jesus really is saying that the mustard seed is the smallest seed on earth. The mustard seed was likely the smallest commonly known seed at that time, so Jesus, a human situated in a particular human context trying to make a point not about plant biology but about the kingdom of heaven, used it for His parable rather than the "correct" plant His audience wouldn't have known about. (Also, the orchid doesn't grow that large anyway) This explanation is simple and intuitive, not suspicious like the evasions inerrancy must field to fit this text into its system. It recognizes the contextualized nature of both the Bible and of us, its readers and tries to bridge the gap between contexts.

This introduces the general principle referred to by Denis Lamoreux as the "message-incident principle": that we are to "separate not conflate" the infallible theological message of the Bible from its culturally contextualized incident, which may work in ancient views of cosmology, biology, etc. that we now know to be inaccurate. Inerrancy completely conflates the message and incident of any given part of scripture and argues that their indivisibility is an essential part of the Bible's being God's true and authoritative word. As I think I have satisfactorily established, there is at least one definitive counterexample to this claim, and many likely others. Recognizing the existence of this principle is essential for having a constructive conversation with other Christians or non-Christians about evolution, Biblical violence, or the Bible's treatment of slavery and gender.

2 Timothy 3:16 is frequently fielded to show how Scripture is "God's own words" and therefore incapable of speaking any falsehood: "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness." In other words, all Scripture is inspired by the Spirit and therefore wholly true. You know what else says the Bible is God-breathed? Humans. Finite, fallible humans. "Then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature." (Genesis 2:7) Just as Jesus had all the perfection of God in a limited, aging, ordinary human body, so the Bible is the infallible truths of God conveyed by, or perhaps "breathed into", ordinary, fallible human words. Just as God can work with or through imperfect people, so He can speak through the Bible we have, not just the Bible inerrancy claims we have.

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