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Infallibility


I have recently been reading about the history of various religions of the world, and something that seems to have caused a lot of trouble over the centuries has been the tendency to expect and/or look for infallibility, either in human leaders/founders, or in holy writings. This tendency also seems to have led to exaggeration with regard to supernatural events. The whole thing seems so terribly pointless, especially when one considers all of the problems that have resulted from it.

We have dealt elsewhere with the rather hollow attempts by various Christian denominations to claim infallibility on the behalf of the Bible, when even the Bible itself does not make such a claim. The Bible does say that all holy writings ('scriptures') are "inspired", but no mention is made of infallibility, nor does it establish the bounds of what constitutes a holy writing and what does not. Nevertheless, most Protestant denominations say (or imply) that it relates to every word of the 66 books of the King James Bible, and to absolutely nothing else. They further argue that "inspired" (because it means that the words come from the Spirit of God in the person writing them) necessarily implies infallibility.

Common sense tells us that these conclusions represent incredible leaps of logic. It is part and parcel of the message of the New Testament that "inspiration" (or the presence of the Spirit of God in an individual) is now available to all believers. Indeed, we regularly talk of being inspired to do various things, and of inspired sermons, inspired songs, and inspired writings. Yet there is no suggestion that all of this inspiration implies infallibility on the part of any person being referred to.

Most of us are able to accept quite easily that we are surrounded by people who are capable of both good and evil, moments of great inspiration as well as moments of great error. Even in the midst of the inspired moments, we generally consider ourselves free to pick and choose which aspects of the sermon, song, or writing we will embrace, and which we will reject.

So why can't we do this with our holy books as well? I have frequently been told that such an approach to the Bible would be dangerous, because people would then be free to take the parts that suit them, and to reject the parts that do not. But, hey, isn't that what people do already? All the talk about infallibility in the Bible has not resulted in widespread agreement on what it is saying. Instead, it has been used as the basis for arguing some of the most spurious teachings, based on an absolute literal approach to any isolated "proof text". Anyone questioning the teaching is seen as wanting to rip that proof text out of the Bible, and thus of being a heretic.

Of course every fundamentalist (for that is what these infallibility teachers really are) reverts back to a non-fundamentalist approach with regard to the proof texts used by the opposition... which is why you can often listen to a debate between two fundamentalist factions and never hear either side give a truly satisfying answer to the proof texts raised by the opposition. Neither side is really interested in getting the bigger picture, because they have been so heavily steeped in a doctrine which actually originated from some other source, that they will only cling to those bits and pieces that support their doctrine.

But I wasn't going to dwell on Christian fundamentalists in this article. I was going to note how the same attitude has worked in other religions, and, more importantly, how it frustrates efforts to see how God may be working through virtually ALL religions to accomplish his will in today's world.

Muslims have been called "The People of the Book" because of their dedication to the Qu'ran (or Koran), a book that was supposed to have been miraculously given to them by their prophet Muhammad. Muhammad himself, was unable to read or write, and so he would memorise sayings that he felt were coming to him through inspiration, and teach his followers to memorise them as well. It was quite some time before all of these were recorded in the book which is now known as the Qu'ran. Yet the book is treated with such honour that a true Muslim would not even translate it into any other language than the language in which it was originally written (Arabic). While some Christians behave as though God, Jesus, and all of the prophets of the past spoke only in King James English, strict Muslims officially teach that the language of God is Arabic.

Once again, we see how a doctrine of infallibility about a book works to trap God inside its pages, and to negate so much that he may be doing elsewhere, especially if it takes a slightly different slant on some issues. If, for example, Muhammad (or Krishna, in the Baghavad Gita) talks of going to war, and another prophet comes along espousing a higher ethic (that of turning the other cheek and loving our enemies), the other prophet must, of necessity, be treated with suspicion. Each time someone mentions infallibility, they are implying that there can be no higher revelation. And anything seen to contradict the infallible revelation pretty much has to be seen as being in error.

Even attempts at picking the best from various other religions (whether it be the Sikhs drawing on Islam and Hinduism, or the Bahais taking bits from all of the world's great religions) often results in yet another "package" that gets more of the infallibility treatment. The Bahai idea of uniting that which is good in all religions is a commendable one. But it becomes personally offensive to me that they have claimed their founder is a step up from the One that Christians believe to be God's greatest revelation to mankind, especially when I see that the ethic Jesus taught goes far beyond that taught by their prophet.

There is this tendency for each religion to see itself as not only an improvement on all of the others, but also as the last and ultimate improvement, i.e the final step to perfection or infallibility, that really stifles their ability to grow and prosper according to the will of God.

I have to admit that I do see God himself as infallible, and I also see Jesus as His ultimate revelation. I have no problem with calling Jesus the Son of God, accepting the Virgin Birth, his resurrection, or even that he is worthy of worship in the same way that we worship God. But I think there is room even here to understand that such concepts are fairly pointless in the real world. What matters most is whether or not what he said actually works, and not some theological argument about his divinity or lack of it.

If, for example, "infallibility" means that Jesus never wet the bed as an infant, never harboured germs in his body, or never missed a question on tests at school, then I think we are taking it too far. The Bible says that Jesus "learned obedience through the things that he suffered". In fact, it is quite likely that it was his human-ness that made it so hard for Jesus' friends and relatives to accept the Spirit of God that was working through him in his adult life. As he said himself, "A prophet is not without honour except in his own house and amongst his own people."

I see things like Jesus more or less blowing up at the businessmen in the Temple in the best possible light.. as an expression of loyalty to God, and not one of hatred for either the money changers or the animals that were being sold there; but I can understand others saying that this seems to be an instance of him losing his cool, and thus behaving in a less than perfect manner.

I say that to underline the need to do the same thing with Muhammad, Baha' Ullah (founder of the Bahais), Siddhartha Gautama ('the buddha'), Confucius, and many lesser religious founders and leaders, whether it be Joseph Smith, Ellen White, Charles Russell, William Branham, or even myself. Not that I am in the same field as these other people, but just that it is important that I not teach a standard for others that I would not wish to have applied to myself.

It seems to be the nature of fallible human beings everywhere, to overstep our divine authority. Joan of Arc heard God speaking to her through some church bells, and the result appeared to be somewhat miraculous. She, a young girl posing as a military commander, led her country to victory in battle after battle (an imperfect mission in itself, in my opinion). But then she stopped hearing the voices, and she went on trying to do the will of God. Her accomplishments from that point on were not nearly as dramatic, and actually led to her execution.

Was Joan a fraud? Or was she just an imperfect human being doing her best with her limited understanding of the will of God? And was God even prepared to assist her at the level of spiritual growth that she represented?

Stories like the miraculous (though disappearing) gold tablets that Joseph Smith was supposed to have used to write the Book of Mormon abound with regard to the sacred writings of various religions. They tend to push people into an all-or-nothing approach to the writings as well as to the lives and ministries of the people concerned. Was the story about the gold tablets an elaborate hoax to generate an air of infallibility about the book? Or could it have been something that really happened, maybe even something that God felt was necessary in order to get Joseph to do what he wanted him to do?

The Catholic Church has protected itself (at least slightly) by refusing to declare anyone a "saint" (which really just means a Christian believer) while that person is still alive. In other words, there are no "living legends" in the Catholic Church. People are allowed to take or leave any living Catholic, including (within limits) the pope himself. (Infallibility is something only a few popes have claimed, and only on rare occasions.) But this whole business of waiting until after a person is dead for some years before deciding whether they are a true believer seems to be a practice which has only been made necessary by giving credence to the infallibility thing. Why can't people be saints, prophets, even founders of new religions, and still be quite fallible... maybe even downright wrong or bad at times?

It should be the right (indeed, the duty) of every believer, to do a bit of picking and choosing to work out what is right and what is wrong in every religion. Sure, you can do it selfishly. And what you get will be exactly what you pay for. On the other hand, if one makes great effort to be honest and unselfish, this picking and choosing can get us closer to the real thing than the all-or-nothing approach ever will.

Jesus himself said, "You can be forgiven for rejecting me, but you can never be forgiven for rejecting the Spirit of God." I think he was saying that it is the responsibility of each of us to extract the truth (i.e. the Spirit of God) from everything that we experience, without necessarily having to embrace the messenger through whom the truth comes.
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