Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Did Ecclesiastes Get It Wrong?

A few days back, Kalyn left a comment to one of my posts and specifically asked me to respond to it (One of the perks to being married to the blogger is you can remind him at home to respond to a comment!).  You can see the post and her comment here.  Rather than trying to put my thoughts in another comment box, considering how long winded I can get, I decided to just do a whole post in response.  Her question was this:

"As Church of Christ -ers, we are taught that the Bible is infallible. Is it fair to say that Ecclesiastes got it wrong, though? It is arguing that this life is vanity, and we know that is not the case."

After thinking about the question, I see two issues that need responded to before I can directly look at Ecclesiastes.  The first is the idea of infallibility, and the second, the word vanity as used in Ecclesiastes.

So, infallibility....  Infallibility as an idea is often used interchangeably with the idea of inerrancy, which is the theological argument that the Bible is free of error.  Here's the kicker...how do you define "error."  You see, there's a lot of baggage behind that little word in regard to the Bible.  For example, does the idea of inerrancy suggest that there cannot be any spelling errors in the Bible?  There are, and that statement isn't even beginning to scratch the complexity of how we now get our Greek and Hebrew manuscripts.  What do you do with the fact that some ancient manuscripts don't even have the last chapter of the Gospel of Mark or put verses in different places?  Well, someone might argue, the original didn't have those mistakes!  Maybe, we of course don't know because the originals no longer exist.  But in a way, all those arguments are just dodging the issue.  If Paul misspelled a word, would Scripture still be innerant?  It would, by definition, contain an error.

Some would argue that inerrancy means the Bible has an answer for all our questions.  This grows out of the idea that the Bible is our guide and authority as Christians (which I personally couldn't agree with more.  After all, canon means "measure," so the Biblical canon is the thing which Christians must measure themselves against.); however, there are some problems with thinking that the Bible answers all our questions without critical thought or interpretation.  For example, does the Bible tell us whether we should be Republican or Democrat?  What about modern tax legislature, does the Bible directly address that?  Social Security reform?  Traffic laws?  These, of course, are superficial examples, but it goes to show that the Bible does not have an answer for every question we might ask.  The challenge of the canon is to learn to humble ourselves to a point where we start asking the same questions it is asking.  We might find out our questions weren't the point to begin with.

Inerrancy also assumes that all parts of the Bible are meant to be interpreted literally.  With this assumption, the Bible becomes nothing but a rule or code book we must decipher.  In the end this belittles the reality of different genres within the Bible, such as wisdom literature, historical narrative, poetry, myth, gospel, and epistle to name a few.  Different genres function differently, so the proverb that says, "Give strong drink to one who is perishing, and wine to those in bitter distress; let them drink and forget their poverty, and remember their misery no more (Proverbs 31:6-7)," isn't suggesting we should throw whisky at the homeless.  So too, the Psalm that says, "Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock! (Psalm 137:9)" is not suggesting infanticide as a Christian virtue.

As you might have noticed, I am not a supporter of the idea of inerrancy.  Scripture is authoritative.  It is our measure.  It is an account of God revealing himself to humanity, but "inerrancy" (read also "infallibility") among Christian circles comes with a huge amount of negative baggage, most of which the Bible itself does not support.

Enough about inerrancy, what about vanity?  In my post "A Puff Of Smoke," I mentioned that the Hebrew word used by the author is better translated as a "puff of air," sort of like seeing your breath on a cold day.  It's there and then it's not.  The word is either hevel or hebel, I can't remember off the top of my head and I've packed up my Hebrew Bible, so I'm out of luck as far as looking it up.  Either way, maybe a good way of thinking about "Vanity, vanity, all is vanity," is, "Fleeting, fleeting, everything is fleeting."  That is not the same idea as pointless, which is along the lines of what we usually think of when we hear the word vanity.

So, let's bring this all back to Ecclesiastes and Kalyn's question, "Is it fair to say that Ecclesiastes got it wrong?"  I would say no.  First of all, the Teacher doesn't say life is pointless but that it quickly passes.  It would be a rare person who disagreed with that statement.  Second, if we appreciate Ecclesiastes as wisdom literature rather than a book we must use to find some rule by which to live (a.k.a., a book meant to challenge its readers to help them learn and grow rather than a book that provides them with a systematic form to duplicate), we see that Ecclesiastes is very helpful as a standard for measurement (canon), in spite of how dark a book it might be.  Ecclesiastes got it exactly right.  Life flies by, and money, pleasure, security, wisdom, the list could go on...nothing will make it last any longer.  In the end, fear (honor, worship) God and obey him, and learn to appreciate the blessings he gives us along the way.

I hope that helps, dear.  I'll see you after work.

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