To read this series from the beginning, start here:
This last post of the series has been the most difficult to write. That may be because, despite the fact that I’ve gleaned so much from studying this issue, I realize more than ever how much I still have to learn.
Some time ago, I began examining the claim that the Bible is the inerrant, verbally inspired, and complete Word of God when parts of the traditional Evangelical narrative didn’t quite make sense. The explanations for these questions were always short on support and long on blind faith. The other parts of this series detail the biggest problems with this view of the Bible and my reasons for questioning them. The belief in the Bible as the inerrant, verbally inspired, and complete Word of God creates some serious implications that we should consider.
The first implication of this belief is that it, of necessity, breeds disunity. I’ve come to the conclusion that the belief in the Bible as the inerrant, inspired Word of God is the primary reason for the theological confusion and denominational infighting that we see throughout Christianity. It is what props up the most detrimental aspects of the Christian Religion. This belief provides the rationale behind our dramatic disunity. I admit, this is a pretty drastic statement, and I didn’t come to this conclusion quickly or easily.
Yet, even if the Bible were authored by God, I don’t know what good it would do us, since Christians can’t agree on its interpretation. It should follow that if God gave verbal inspiration and guaranteed preservation, He would at least grant us comprehension. I know that many Christians think that He has done this. They adamantly believe that the Holy Spirit that is leading us into all truth, starting with their denomination, and this process will be complete when the rest of the liberal and legalistic Christians give up their stubbornness and agree with them. If we were to stop adamantly attributing contradicting portions of the bible to God, it would be easier to be patient with those that do not share our understanding.
A second implication is the institution of intellectual and spiritual paralysis. A divinely authored book gives one a high level of comfort in one’s religion—especially if it is interpreted by a Cleric. It facilitates simplistic explanations for complex, ambiguous dilemmas. I think that Christians have tended to confront these dilemmas in one of two ways. Sometimes they go with their gut instinct or follow the crowd and use a few isolated Bible passages that, they claim, constitute God’s directive to support their decision. Or they read a few verses that touch on the issue and upon them, build a monumental doctrine which changeth not. Now many Christians honestly hold the view that “if any element of the Bible can be questioned, then none of it can be trusted.” That statement is only logical if there is one universal author who has claimed that the entire anthology is true and without error, which is assumed in the case of the Bible. We don’t use that line of reasoning in any other area of our lives. For instance, if your brother-in-law is a financial advisor with a good track record, you wouldn’t reject his investment advice simply because he is a bad auto mechanic.
A third implication is the supremacy of the Bible. Christians pay lip service to this concept, yet every Christian’s personal preference supersedes his belief in the Bible. Even Christians that hold to sola scriptura don’t treat the Bible as if it were a directive from God in every respect. Many demand the death penalty for murderers because “it’s Biblical;” but because of public opinion, they won’t demand the death penalty for homosexuals. There’s usually an alibi that the death penalty for homosexuals only applied to the nation of Israel when it was a Theocracy. Never mind that Jesus never endorsed the death penalty for any reason. If an act was immoral “back then,” it is immoral today. If you believe that God mandates a particular punishment for a particular act, and you don’t agree with it, then at least have the integrity to acknowledge the disparity in your positions. The apostle Paul pretty clearly stated that women should wear a head covering when they pray. Women from a handful of Christian denominations practice this. Most Christian women do not. If the words that Paul wrote really originated with God, shouldn’t women obey them? Jesus told his disciples that they should was each others’ feet. Some Christians practice this today. Most don’t. Some that wear head coverings don’t practice foot washing. Very few denominations forbid their women to speak in church as Paul (God?) commanded. Over and over you hear, “that specific command only applied to a certain culture during a certain period. I’m sorry, but you can’t have it both ways. If one truly believes that God commands something and that command has no caveat, then one’s life ought to bear that out. I don’t know anybody that claims to believe that the Bible is the authoritative, Holy Word of God and doesn’t pick and choose which parts they want to obey.
Another implication is that the plenary nature of Scripture should be validated by those that affirm it. Yet, thousands of Christians who maintain that the Bible is the believer’s “sole authority for faith and practice” have written myriads of books “clarifying” the Bible’s statements about God, worship, the Bible itself, and religious practice. So you’re telling me that God wrote a multi-volume book that is without error, fully authoritative, and complete in every regard, with the canon of Scripture authoritatively, ultimately, and assuredly closed with the book of Revelation. And you felt you should write a book expounding on some facet of what God has already told us? And in spite of that, I have to believe that the Bible is the inerrant, inspired Word of God in order to get to heaven? Call me a skeptic, or a heretic, or whatever, but don’t call me a sucker.
Ultimately, the driving factor in this unfounded belief seems to be fear. Fear that if one doesn’t have all the answers or can’t provide a coherent counter-argument to every criticism, then his faith system would crumble. Fear that if perfect understanding isn’t achieved on every issue, then one won’t make it to heaven. I can’t imagine God wanting us to serve Him out of fear. That would be a characteristic of a dictator, an abusive spouse, or an insecure child. God isn’t threatened by us and doesn’t need to dangle threats over our head to force us into compliance. God doesn’t demand love. He offers love and desires it in return. He put humans on earth and gave them work to accomplish. Our life on earth seems to be a developmental phase. We should expect to struggle through difficult circumstances and issues. We won’t have crystal-clear, unambiguous formulas for every dilemma, and that’s ok. We do however, have a few tools at our disposal which I’ll get to shortly.
I can’t explain how God works, but two important things seem to be consistent. First, God operates in an orderly manner. He instituted cause and effect both in the physical world as well as in the metaphysical. That’s why when the Genesis creation account, if its parallel structure is interpreted literally, indicates that God created plants 24 hours before He created a sun to raise their temperature above absolute zero, I question whether or not the author is writing a scientific treatise or a polemic. The fact that God always operates in this orderly manner undercuts the argument of those that confidently state that “we can see light from stars that are millions of light years from earth because “the Bible clearly states that God created the light from the stars before He created the source of the light.” Or “He created the stars and also created beams of light that came from them and instantly stretched for millions of light years.” While God, at times, performed supernatural miracles that defied the laws of nature, He never terminated the orderly cause-and-effect relationship which governs the universe.
Second, God is not deceptive. Referring back to the genocide issue, why would God convince the Israelites for centuries that they were so special that they had Divine authority to kill any and all people who resided on the land promised to them—even children. Why would He lead them to believe in the concept of Zion as a physical piece of dirt from which the Israelis would rule the world, and then set them up for abject failure by sending a Messiah that left them in subjugation to Rome and set up a non-violent, spiritual kingdom open to all nations? Jesus preached non-violence during a time when the Jews were oppressed by one of the most brutal, and certainly the most powerful, empires the world had ever seen. It seems disingenuous to tell a people for centuries that savage warfare is the way to bring about God’s kingdom on earth, and then excoriate them for their desire to do just that.
For what it’s worth, here is my understanding of the Bible thus far. The books of the Bible (at least most of them) were inspired by God, but not verbally authored by Him. I think they were inspired like Paul said—written by fallible humans who intended the books to be useful to others on their journey. These books frequently contain records of times when God communicated with man, and reading the biblical anthology, one can certainly see the miraculous thread that runs through history. I don’t know to what extent God intervenes in human affairs; but whether it is due to divine intervention or humans doing the right thing in accordance with God’s guidance, flawed humans have been accomplishing God’s purposes from the beginning. It seems that the folks that Christians hold up as “heroes of the faith” were, to put it bluntly, scoundrels, rogues, and vile criminals. They were cowards, thieves, adulterers, braggarts, fornicators, liars, cheats, prostitutes, traitors, and murderers. And I’m referring to the “good” people here. Makes me think there might be hope for me yet.
The writings of the biblical authors are useful and profound tools, among others, that God has given us to draw us to Himself. We should be less concerned with the inspiration of these writings and more concerned with the truth, for God is the source of truth. He has given us a record of the example and teachings of Jesus. He’s given us a conscience, and He’s given us the Holy Spirit. If you believe Jesus and Luke and Paul, the Holy Spirit is with us to give us comfort, guidance, and abilities to be used for the benefit of others. Did the Holy Spirit’s inspiration stop when John wrote Revelation? Isn’t it conceivable that the Holy Spirit might inspire some today to speak or write for the benefit of others? If the Bible were “all we needed,” then there would be no need for the Holy Spirit. Some might argue that the Holy Spirit’s sole function is to help us understand the Bible which is “God’s Living Word.” Yet this is concept is completely antithetical to what Jesus and Paul taught.
What sort of marriage would you have if you spent every day reading love letters that your spouse had written to you 15 years ago? Occasional rereading in order to renew your love is healthy. Obsession with a stack of letters is not. As Christians, we must stop worshiping the bible and start living as people in a relationship.
God has been communicating in various ways with man since the the world began. He offered reconciliation over and over. We didn’t get the message. The Israelites, rather than extending God’s blessing to their neighbors as God desired (and expressed to Adam, Eve, Abraham, Isaiah, and Jeremiah), withdrew into a cloistered, exclusive society and rejoiced in their special status as “God’s chosen people.” Much like Christians do today.Finally, God, looking with pity at the hell we were creating on earth, sent a messenger with the clearest message possible—an example in human form. He sent His only Son. The one to whom God directed us to listen. The One who told His followers that if they looked at Him, they would see the Father. The One who came to shine light into the darkness and bring the hope of life to those facing death. I agree with John who spent three years walking with Jesus when he said that Jesus, in fact, was the Word—the fullest and purest expression—of God that humans had seen since creation. The one who took our sickness, carried our diseases, bore our sins, freed us from bondage, patiently accepted the worst treatment that humanity could bestow, and in the end, defeated death and reconciled us to God. The Word of God is Jesus. The God of “the Bible” looks like Jesus. He always has, and He always will.