I grew up with great respect for the Bible. Even more than that, really. I regarded the Bible with reverence. My grandmother would not allow anything to be laid on top of the Bible, and although I didn’t go that far, I understood her sentiment. After all, the Bible was a sacred book. Even though humans had produced the written the text of the Bible, it was somehow a record of what God had said. It was the Word of God.
As a Bible college student and then as a minister for many years thereafter, I championed the cause of “Biblical inerrancy.” If God is perfect, I reasoned, and if the Bible was the Word of God, then the Bible must bear the character of the God whose word it was. In its relation to God, the Bible was the literary equivalent of Jesus. As Jesus was the Word of God in human flesh (cf. John 1), the Bible was the Word of God in written form. I could no more consider the possibility of an error in the text of the Bible than I could imagine Jesus, during his earthly life, snatching a woman’s purse to get money to buy beer.
But what if that assumption about the nature of the biblical text is wrong? What if God never intended the Bible to be regarded as some kind of supernatural document that came into existence through some sort of “divine superintendence” of the various writers so that what we have in the Bible was not technically dictated by God but which, for all practical purposes, really was?
What if, rather, the Bible is a collection of writings, pulled together across many centuries, written in a variety of cultural settings by a host of different people, all of whom were trying to convey what they were thinking and experiencing as they sought to know something about God that would have meaning for their day-to-day lives?
Please hear me out. I’m not saying that’s the way I now think of the Bible. I’m only asking you to consider the possibility that serious Christians could actually look at the biblical text like that.
I have many friends who still identify themselves as conservatives, both religious and political. I connect with many of them through their posts on Facebook. While reading some of those posts recently, I had a bit of an epiphany.
It occurred to me, as I read multiple references to the Bible as the inerrant, infallible Word of God and the only source of objective, absolute truth, that such a belief in the character of the Bible is itself a subjective conclusion. That is to say, apart from some statements in the Bible ostensibly claiming inerrancy for itself (e.g. 2 Tim 3:16), there is no other source—particularly none that is both objective and external to the text of scripture—on which such a conclusion can be based.
So here’s what we have. If we believe the Bible claims authority and inerrancy for itself, then we assume the truth of that claim because it is found in a document that we believe to be authoritative and inerrant. In philosophy, we call that kind of argument “reasoning in a circle” or “begging the question.” That means that people making an argument assume, as support for their position, the conclusion which their argument has not yet proved.
I realize I am skating on thin ice with heated blades here, but if you read this post carefully you will notice that I have made no assertions about the text of scripture, one way or another. I have only raised the same questions that are being raised by more and more thoughtful Christians all the time, not to mention thoughtful non-Christians who approach the Bible without any evangelical presuppositions.
And with this post, I am not denying anything about the Bible. I’m simply pointing out that when anybody claims the Bible is an objective source of infallible assertions of inerrant truth, that is, in and of itself, a subjective conclusion. This is simply a plea for intellectual honesty as the foundation for discussion.
I remember the first time I heard a Bible scholar from the progressive side of the spectrum make the statement, “I take the Bible seriously but not literally.” I was scandalized! That was, in effect, a denial of all I believed about the nature of the biblical text.
In recent years, however, I’ve come to understand and appreciate that point of view. Whether or not I agree with it is not the point. I can honestly say that I prefer that approach to one which insists the Bible is to be taken literally but then doesn’t seem to take it very seriously. I am not persuaded by any view of the Bible which may loudly assert that the biblical text should be regarded as inerrant and authoritative, but then, at least in practical terms, somehow manages to overlook or explain away the clear teaching of Jesus in the matter of cross-bearing discipleship.
My goal in all of this is faithfulness and integrity in every aspect of kingdom living and unity in the midst of diversity among the people of God. I want to see non-Christians embrace the cause of Christ and his kingdom. That will not happen if we don’t take seriously the honest questions of intelligent truth-seekers. As I read recently, “the heart cannot worship what the mind rejects.”