Things to hold onto in hard times

Last time I was suggesting ways we might respond to times of global trouble such as now. But what about responding to the times of trouble in our own personal lives?

I keep coming back to suffering, because it bothers me. But mostly I’ve approached it from a theoretical, theological perspective – wrestling with the imponderable age-old questions of why there’s suffering and whether God’s to blame.

Now though I’d like to take a more practical approach. I’m pretty sure there are people reading this who are going through hard times, some maybe terribly hard times, and I’d like if possible to offer something more practically and emotionally helpful than a theological discussion.

Of course, when you’re in the midst of suffering, it’s likely nothing anyone can say will seem (or be) very helpful. And many things people (including Christians) say, meaning to help, are either deeply unhelpful, or else are mere empty platitudes. So I offer these thoughts cautiously, aware that the best response to someone else’s sufferings is rarely words or ideas, but rather presence, and maybe practical assistance.

And for those who aren’t struggling now, that’s brilliant, and I really hope your life continues to be trouble-free. The chances are though that at some point something difficult will come along, perhaps out of the blue. Preparing to face the bad times may be one of the most important things any of us can do in the good times. And of course we can be there for others who are right now going through the mill.

Problems and pains come in many forms and with many causes; there’s no one-size-fits-all. It may be some major trauma or tragedy, or more likely just minor daily frustrations and difficulties that mount up till they seem overwhelming. And we can be blameless victims or we can sometimes bring our troubles upon ourselves. But whatever the type or cause, there are a few things I think we can hold on to.

  1. You’re not alone

“Life is difficult” – M. Scott Peck
“Everybody hurts”
– REM

At some point, life throws something nasty at all of us – bereavement, break-up, redundancy, illness, crime, bullying, financial problems, or just a string of Monday mornings.

When we go through dark times, we often feel utterly alone; that no-one else can really understand or share our troubles. But the truth is that there are always others who are going through the same feelings or experiences, or who have gone through them before and lived to tell the tale. That’s not to belittle your troubles, but simply to say that you are not on your own. Everybody hurts, sometimes.

And it’s often possible – and usually helpful – to find and connect with some of these fellow-strugglers for mutual support. The internet can be a wonderful thing. I’ve been encouraged simply through writing this blog how many others have wrestled with similar issues and problems to me.

And for people of faith, we can perhaps hold on to the knowledge – often despite the outward appearances – that God is with us. The One who has made himself incarnate in us understands our pain and shares our sufferings, and ultimately will redeem them. But I know it can sometimes be pretty hard to experience that as a reality when we’re really going through it. Sometimes it does just feel that God is absent or doesn’t care, and maybe the best we can do is yell at him in our hurt and frustration. He can take it.

  1. Help is available

Again, when we struggle or suffer we often feel no-one can help us, or maybe we just don’t like to ask for help. And sometimes we just want to crawl into a hole and lick our wounds in peace, alone.

Nonetheless I’d urge you not to cut yourself off from people entirely. Whatever you’re going through, there are others who will understand, who may be able to help and who would be glad to be asked. If we don’t have close friends or families we can call on, there are decent churches and professional counsellors fairly readily findable through the internet or the phone book.

Or again, it may be that the best help will come from a support group of others who are struggling with the same issues you are. There’s honestly no virtue in suffering alone. And it almost always does help to talk to someone, perhaps with the proviso that it’s someone you can trust and who won’t respond with criticism or judgement like Job’s ‘comforters’.

I’m not saying that anyone else will necessarily be able to solve your problems; that may be something only you can do, or your difficulties may not the kind of thing that can be ‘fixed’. But others can support, encourage and help you through your trials and make it all far more bearable.

For me, I’ve found seeing a secular counsellor/therapist incredibly helpful in managing my particular kinds of issues. Others may prefer a spiritual director, life coach, mentor or some other kind of adviser.

  1. Don’t blame yourself

When things go wrong we often think we must be to blame – perhaps we’re being punished for misdeeds, or perhaps we’ve simply brought this trouble on ourselves through bad choices.

Of course, we’re all flawed humans and we do quite often contribute to our own sufferings (which is annoying). But blame and self-blame are never helpful responses. Even if it’s entirely our fault (which is rare), we can have compassion on ourselves, accept our weakness and see it as something we can work on, not something to beat ourselves up about. Everyone messes up sometimes, but that doesn’t need to define us.

And in many cases it simply isn’t our fault, at least not primarily. It may not be anyone’s, not even God’s. We often want someone to blame, someone to take responsibility. But sometimes rubbish just happens, as part of being not-yet-perfect people in a not-yet-perfect world. It may not always have a reason – though that doesn’t mean it can’t come to have good meaning and purpose in the end.

I’m out of space this time. So next time – there is always hope; you can get through this; and good can come of it – plus a few practical things you can maybe do…

Posted in Dark night of the soul, Suffering, Tragedy | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

New Year – new hope or no hope?

Happy New-ish Year to you all.

If Christmas is the most stressful season, New Year is surely the most depressing (particularly for natural pessimists like me). Once the celebratory fireworks have faded, the January skies look even blacker and bleaker than before. Once the midnight champagne has worn off, we’re left with a headache and the prospect of returning to the daily grind and the same old, same old. The date’s changed but that’s about all.

And there’s all too often the added guilt of broken resolutions; the shine rapidly wearing off our new good intentions; the sense of a new blank sheet begun and then almost immediately blotted. Not to mention all that Christmas food to work off.

Out in the wider world, there don’t seem to be too many causes to celebrate either right now – unless we’re holding out blind hope that a simple change of calendar can close the door on all the troubles of 2015.

Last year was bracketed by the Charlie Hebdo shootings and the Paris bombings, and filled with frightening tales of the continued rise of Islamic State and religious extremism. The horrific and seemingly insoluble Syrian civil war has dragged dismally on, sucking in ever more foreign military powers and creating ever more traumatised refugees. Global economical recovery continues to stall. And the threat of human-made climate change looms ever larger and more uncontrollable, with extreme weather affecting as many people as extremist religion.

And now David Bowie and Alan Rickman have died.

How are we to respond to such times? Can we find any hope to hold on to, or to hold out to others? Or do we just put our fingers in our ears and sing happy choruses, hoping that it will all go away if we ignore it, or that maybe God will magically sort it all out for us?

I’d suggest that on the contrary a good place to start is lament. We don’t need to have answers. We can weep and cry out to God, wordlessly if we have no words, or even shout and get angry with him if it helps.

On our own?

Of course, some will respond that such times of global trouble merely demonstrate that God doesn’t exist, doesn’t care or is powerless to help – or may even be a monster inflicting these troubles on us for fun. There’s no hope or help to be found in religion; we’re on our own.

I disagree. But I also think that the atheists and agnostics have a point. We may not be on our own, but in a sense it is up to us. We can’t just sit back and expect God to bail us out without any involvement on our part. We’re all to some extent part of the problem and can all in some way be part of the solution.

Is this the End?

Of course, how we respond to such times will depend on our personality and also our theological perspective.

Some are quick to see any series of disasters as signs of the End Times; that Christ’s return and God’s final judgement are imminent. I suppose there’s always a chance that this time it could be true, but I’m slightly sceptical about such predictions. People have been predicting Christ’s soon return since shortly after he left the first time, and many terrible times have hit the world since then without ushering in the End. The End will come one day, but we really have no idea when and it might not be for another billion years.

Yet perhaps there is still something helpful we can take from this view. There is a bigger picture, and God’s kingdom is coming, albeit often in gradual, hidden and unnoticed ways. These troubles are not the end, and they will eventually pass. And meanwhile God is immanent, Immanuel, close, here with us, redeeming the present sufferings of humanity. There is always hope.

And in the meantime we all live our daily lives in the light of eternity; each day could be the last for any of us (cheery new year thought). So I for one could probably live more fully, making each day count a bit more.

Repent or perish?

Others, viewing God more as a Righteous Judge than as a Loving Father, see times of trouble as God’s present judgement to punish the wickedness of humanity.

I do accept that God is righteous and that (precisely because of his love and goodness) he hates injustice, particularly towards the poor and outcast. But I find the idea that global troubles are God’s judgement hard to swallow, not least because these troubles always tend to affect the poorest most.

Yet there may again be something useful we can take from this view. God cares about injustice and suffering, and wishes to put them right; we can be part of that. And more helpfully than pointing the finger at other people’s sins as to blame, we can follow the great saint Michael Jackson’s advice, take a look in the mirror and see if there’s anything that needs changing in ourselves. In my case possibly starting with my new beard.

Redemptive presence

My own view is that God is redemptively present and active in the world, but not micromanaging and controlling everything that happens. The present troubles are not necessarily signs either of his displeasure nor harbingers of the End. Rather I think they are simply the ongoing travails of an imperfect world and flawed humanity in our slow upward struggle towards wholeness and maturity, against the ever-present downward forces of entropy and chaos – or sin and evil if you prefer.

Meanwhile we can maybe each play a small positive role. God willing, we can be bearers of his light, incarnations of Christ, participating in larger or lesser ways in God’s great work of redemption.

Individuals can change the world – look at Martin Luther King, Francis of Assisi, Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela, Gandhi, Malala. But none of these people changed the world entirely by themselves; nor did they change the whole world, only a part of it. Working with like-minded others, we can all at least be a part of something that changes a small part of the world slightly for the better.

So now, where’s that beard-trimmer?

Posted in Eschatology/end-times, World events | Tagged , , , , | 7 Comments

Christmas miracles?

It’s a funny old time of year, Christmas – the season of peace and goodwill which is as stressful as divorce; celebrating the birth of hope with an all-out frenzy of shopping and consuming. It’s a funny old part of Christianity too, and a pretty odd of the Bible.

The nativity narratives are absolutely bursting with the supernatural and miraculous, the heavenly spilling over into the earthly. Angels pop up all over the place, singing and bringing messages of hope and warning. Wise men are guided by a marvellous star which acts like a sort of divine sat nav, moving, starting and stopping conveniently to point the way to the amazing birth. And a virgin ‘who has not known a man’ conceives and gives birth to a son, the son of ancient promise and prophecy who will bring heaven’s light to the world.

Of course, all of these supernatural miracles can be a bit of an embarrassment to sophisticated, modern, scientific, sceptical liberals like many of us. Do we really have to believe in angels, magic stars and virgin births? Can’t it all be a bit more, well, rational and sensible?

If we really want to, I think we probably can demthyologise the Christmas story to quite an extent, disbelieving or explaining away most of the miraculous elements, and still remain Christian. There are many possible explanations for the Star of Bethlehem, one being that Matthew included it as a largely symbolic element with theological rather than historical significance. Angels we can probably choose to believe in or not without any harm, and I’ve argued before that the Virgin Birth may not be strictly necessary to Christian faith.

For myself though, I’m still inclined to accept the miracles here as in the rest of the gospel accounts. For a start, they make it all a lot more colourful and frankly more interesting. And who’s to say God can’t or wouldn’t do these things if he so chooses, even if none of us today has ever seen a bona fide supernatural miracle?

The central miracle

But there is one central miracle at the heart of Christmas that I don’t think we can excise and still retain a meaningful Christianity. For me it’s one of only two absolute core, non-negotiable miracles or divine events recorded in the Bible. It is of course the Incarnation (not quite the same thing as the Virgin Birth).

The Incarnation, literally enfleshment, of the divine Word, the One who ‘was God and was with God in the beginning’ – this for me is the living, beating heart of Christian faith. That God the eternal and perfect took on our form and likeness and nature, actually became one of us in all our mess and brokenness, bearing the full indignity of physical being, is what makes Christianity unique in my view. Only a God of absolute love, mercy and goodness – and one determined to redeem humanity and physical nature at all costs – would ever even consider such a thing, let alone do it.

Many Christians view the resurrection – the other non-negotiable miracle – as the more important, but I’m not sure. Of course, they’re two sides of the same coin; the one leads to the other, and the other flows from the one. But for me, once we have the fact of the Incarnation, the death and resurrection of Christ are almost inevitable; foregone conclusions. They are simply the outworking and completion of what begins at Christmas, the full flowering of the bloom that springs up in the nativity cradle. Once God has taken on human form, he will also take on human death and will raise up our life into his.

A modern Christmas miracle?

Today though, we all know Christmas can be a pretty tough time of year for many, and pretty mundanely unmiraculous for all of us. About the greatest miracle most of us can hope for is to have completed all our Christmas shopping and card-writing in time, or perhaps to get through all our Christmas meet-ups reasonably unscathed.

This year though, I was very involved in a very minor and tangential way in something that did feel like a kind of Christmas miracle. I can’t go into the details, but a friend of a friend had gone missing a few days previously in their home country on the continent, apparently leaving a goodbye note, and no-one had yet been able to track them down. Hopes were fading fast and all my friend felt they could all do now was hope for a miracle.

The story touched me particularly because 22 years ago I’d had a pretty bad episode just before Christmas and gone briefly AWOL, much to my family’s distress. So I did pray a fair bit for this person, though to be honest without a lot of hope. It seemed pretty obvious what had happened, and that nothing could really be done.

And then a day or so later the missing person was found – not in a great state, but alive at least, and with hope of a future. My friend said it did feel like a Christmas miracle, and I felt the same. Of course I don’t know if my own prayers contributed anything, but to have been involved at all felt amazing.

Christmas means hope

If I could sum Christmas up in one word that wasn’t incarnation, it would probably be hope. It’s light in the darkness. The possibility of real change. A future with promise. These are the miracles I need at Christmas, indeed at any time of year. I’m fine with angels and stars, ancient prophecies and virgin births, but the main miracle of Christmas is God with us, God in us, God for us (all of us), bringing real hope that by his grace things can be better than they are right now. That we can be better than we are right now.

Happy Christmas to you and yours!

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What does the Bible really say about inerrancy?

So I’ve come to the end of this series on the Bible. This post is a finisher-off for completists, and also for anyone who still believes that the Bible claims to be inerrant.

Of course, trying to prove that the Bible is without error by quoting the Bible is a circular argument, only truly convincing to the converted. But many people do still accept the argument, so here I’d like to deal with each so-called proof-text in turn and show that in context none of them are talking about inerrancy at all. Rather, in almost all cases, they’re talking about God’s consistent character and his covenant faithfulness.

2 Samuel 22:31
As for God, his way is perfect: The LORD’s word is flawless; he shields all who take refuge in him.

(The wording here is identical to Psalm 18:30 and Proverbs 30:5).

So what’s the context? ‘David sang to the LORD the words of this song when the LORD delivered him from the hand of all his enemies and from the hand of Saul’.

Reading the verse in its context then, it’s a song about God’s faithfulness; his keeping of his covenant promises of protection and provision. It’s not about scriptural inerrancy. Furthermore, David clearly isn’t intending this description of God’s perfection to be extended to his own words here in praise of God, even though these words do now form part of the scriptural record pointing to God’s goodness.

Psalm 12:6
And the words of the LORD are flawless, like silver purified in a crucible, like gold refined seven times.

Again, what’s the context? The preceding verses make it clear:

2 Everyone lies to their neighbour; they flatter with their lips but harbour deception in their hearts.
3 May the LORD silence all flattering lips and every boastful tongue—4 those who say, “By our tongues we will prevail; our own lips will defend us—who is lord over us?”
5 “Because the poor are plundered and the needy groan, I will now arise,” says the LORD. “I will protect them from those who malign them.”

So the whole passage is comparing the deceitfulness of humans – false flatterers and those who oppress the poor – with the truthfulness and integrity of God. Once again it’s about God keeping his promises; that unlike humans the Lord is good and true to his word. It’s about God’s integrity and faithfulness (and his power), not about scriptural inerrancy.

Psalm 19: 7-8:
7 The law of the LORD is perfect, refreshing the soul. The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy, making wise the simple. 8 The precepts of the LORD are right, giving joy to the heart…’

Context? Look at verses 1-4:

1 The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
2 Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge.
3 They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them.
4 Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.

So this psalm is about God’s word and wisdom, both in Scripture (here specifically the commands and laws of the Torah) and in creation; God’s speaking to his people via Moses and also via ‘the heavens’. It’s not about the whole of the Bible as we now have it, nor is it limited to the Bible alone. And ‘perfect’ here is not about inerrancy but about completeness, goodness, health-bringing (‘refreshing the soul’).

Proverbs 30:5-6:
Every word of God is flawless; he is a shield to those who take refuge in him. 
6 Do not add to his words, or he will rebuke you and prove you a liar.

This expands on 2 Sam 22:31 and Ps 18:30, starting the same and then (slightly ironically!) adding the line about not adding to God’s words.

In context it isn’t particularly about written scripture, and it certainly isn’t saying that the words of this psalm or the psalmist are flawless. Its meaning appears rather to be that you aren’t to say that God commanded, promised or revealed something that he didn’t.

Isaiah 40:6-8
All people are like grass, and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field… The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures [or stands] forever

Again, this is about God’s eternal faithfulness, his unchanging character, his keeping of his covenant promises, compared to the fickleness of short-lived people. It’s not saying anything about scriptural inerrancy.

Matt 5:18 (spoken by Jesus)
“until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means pass from the law until everything is accomplished”
(or ‘until its purpose is complete’ OR ‘until all be fulfilled’)

This is an interesting one, because Jesus himself did in a sense change the law (for example, on unclean foods and arguably on Sabbath observance). And more importantly, he instated a new kind of covenant not based on keeping the written ‘law’. There’s an argument then that ‘until all be fulfilled’ refers to Jesus’ fulfilment of the Torah and old covenant on the cross – so no longer applies.

But either way, Jesus is referring here specifically to Torah, the OT law, not to the Bible as a whole. It’s not about scriptural inerrancy; it’s about God’s character being consistent, and the covenant relationship with his people being based in that character.

Mark 14:49 (spoken by Jesus)
“Every day I was with you, teaching in the temple courts, and you did not arrest me. But the Scriptures must be fulfilled.

Jesus is referring specifically to prophecy here – that what was prophesied about him must come to pass. It may also mean that all Scripture has a wider purpose which must be fulfilled – and that purpose is arguably to point to Christ (see John 5:39).

It’s also possible that Jesus’ words here could be an ironic statement. Those who have come to arrest him believe in the Jewish Scriptures which predict the Messiah, but have entirely failed to see that those Scriptures point to Jesus (and to his rejection at their hands). Yet in so doing they are actually, strangely, fulfilling the Scriptures.

John 10:35 (spoken by Jesus)
If he called them ‘gods,’ to whom the word of God came—and Scripture cannot be set aside” (or ‘cannot be broken’)

This is an odd verse and not easy to interpret. The context is the Pharisees’ criticism of Jesus for claiming to be the son of God.

So in context it’s clear that Jesus isn’t claiming that all ‘scripture’ is inerrant, certainly not the whole Bible as we now have it. On the contrary, it seems likely that Jesus is using the Pharisees’ own ‘High’ view of scripture – their belief that it ‘cannot be set aside’ – to challenge their other preconceptions and assumptions about him. So once again, Jesus is saying that if the Pharisees truly believe the scriptures, they’ll see that these scriptures point to him.

Mark 12:36 (spoken by Jesus)
David himself, speaking by the Holy Spirit, declared: ‘The Lord said to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I put your enemies under your feet.”'”

It’s worth comparing this with 1 Corinthians 12:3: ‘and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit’).

In other words, we all in a sense speak ‘by the Holy Spirit’ when we agree with what God says, and specifically when we acknowledge that Jesus is Lord – which may be what David is doing in the quoted psalm (‘The Lord said to my Lord’, i.e. the Christ or Messiah, Jesus). Also, David appears to be prophesying about the Messiah here, which means that in this rather special case he may actually be relaying God’s prophetic word to him by the Spirit’s inspiration.

2 Tim 3:15-17
15 …from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, 17 so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

This is the biggie of course, the crucial ‘proof-text’ for the Bible being ‘inspired by God’ (God-breathed). Note though that this passage is actually relatively modest in its claims. And nowhere does it claim inerrancy, only inspiration.

Firstly, the Bible ‘is able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus’ – in other words, the Bible points or leads you to the person of Christ and encourages you to have faith in him, which is what ‘saves’ you. So the Bible here is simply the witness to Jesus.

Secondly, it is ‘God-breathed’, not God-dictated. God breathes his Spirit, his life, into and through the words of Scripture rather as he breathes his life into us to make us living beings. This is in a rather different sense to how many fundamentalists understand the divine inspiration of the Bible.

Thirdly, the Bible is ‘useful’ – a considerably more modest description than ‘essential’ or ‘vital’ or ‘the ultimate authority’. And what is it useful for? ‘…for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.’ By this description it’s a practical spiritual training guide, with the express purpose of equipping us to do good works. It’s not a complete divine answer-book, nor is it a textbook of science, history or even theology.

Fourthly, what are ‘the Holy Scriptures’ referred to here by Paul, that Timothy has known ‘since infancy’? They can’t be Paul’s letters or indeed any part of the New Testament. That’s not to say that Paul’s letters aren’t Scripture (Peter apparently refers to them as such). But they’re not what he’s referring to here.

Hebrews 6:18b
It is impossible for God to lie
Rick Warren uses this to ‘prove’ that the Bible is ‘right and true’ (see Warren’s post here). But that argument only works if you already accept that the Bible is God’s written word in a very specific and particular sense, one which the Bible itself does not endorse. Furthermore, the full clause is ‘two unchangeable things in which it is impossible for God to lie’, specifically referring to God’s swearing an oath by himself to Abraham.

2 Ptr 1:19-21
19 We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it… 20 Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. 21 For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

This is often used as a proof-text about the whole of Scripture being effectively authored by God, but this goes well beyond what the passage is actually saying.

Firstly, it refers specifically to OT prophecy, not to the whole of the Bible as we now have it.

Secondly, ‘spoke from God’ does not necessarily imply inerrancy. The origin of the prophetic thought is divine, but the wording and expression are human and so not necessarily unflawed. The writer does describe the message as ‘completely reliable’, but there are different senses in which something can be reliable. My own view is that the point here is that the Messianic prophecies concerning Jesus can be trusted, and that we can believe that Jesus is the one they point to. The writer’s concern here is to lead his readers to the full truth and new way of life found in Christ.

Let me know if I’ve missed any verses that you’d like me to pick up on!

And that’s really it on the Bible. For now.

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Sola scriptura – is the Bible really all we need?

So we’re finally coming in to land in this series on the Bible. In this penultimate post I’d like to cover off a few remaining ideas and draw some of the strands together.

Multiple perspectives

Last time I mentioned that we inevitably (and unconsciously) bring our own subjective perspective to our reading of scripture. What each of takes from the Bible may be very different, in large part because of our temperamental, cultural, theological and social differences.

But this problem of multiple perspectives (if it is a problem) is not only external to the Bible. The Bible itself contains multiple perspectives and alternative voices which defy our attempts at neat categorisation. The Bible does not lend itself to systematic theology (hooray).

So one verse presenting the mainstream view will usually be balanced or challenged, qualified or queried by others elsewhere appearing to say something very different. Scripture is composed of too diverse a set of texts for us to be able to make blanket statements about what the whole Bible says on any given subject.

For instance, I looked a while ago at different views on whether God could save everyone but chooses not to (Calvinism), wants to save everyone but can’t (Arminianism), or will indeed save everyone (Universalism). Proponents of each view will be able to find supporting proof-texts in the Bible, but the overall picture is partial and too deeply mixed to unravel satisfactorily. So often we choose the version that fits our innate preferences or existing preconceptions.

I once tried to do a small group Bible study on poverty and riches, and I diligently found almost all the relevant verses in the Bible (there are a lot). There were OT passages which strongly suggested that poverty was a curse and that material riches were a divine blessing or reward. There were others, mainly from the NT, that by contrast implied that riches were a curse and poverty the more blessed state. The end result was that we were all confused rather than edified.

Which isn’t to say that the Bible is of no use in interrogating such issues, but that by itself it’s unlikely to present straightforward, universal answers. In most cases, we need more than just the Bible.

Infallible and authoritative?

But isn’t the Bible the Christian’s ultimate authority in all matters of faith, doctrine, practice and living? If the Bible says it, is it not our duty to believe and obey it – ‘God said it; that settles it’?

I don’t believe that God desires this kind of slavish obedience. I think he generally wants us to engage, to wrestle, to question, to seek, to think for ourselves. There may be rare occasions when urgency requires that we jump to it and do what God commands without discussion. But I don’t think this is God’s normal mode of speaking to us.

Furthermore, for the Bible to function as the final and unquestionable authority its words and instructions would have to be entirely clear, straightforward and unequivocal, and clearly intended to apply to all situations and contexts for all time. As we’ve seen, this just isn’t the case for much of the Bible. There are some core things we can all mostly agree on, parts of the Bible whose meaning is largely clear to everyone, but much (perhaps most) is open to nuances of interpretation.

If we insist on following ‘what the Bible says’, we’ll soon discover that what the Bible says tends to be both bewilderingly complex or oblique, and frustratingly partial (patchy even). We just can’t use the Bible as a divine answer-book for all of life’s situations and problems.

This isn’t to say that the Bible doesn’t have authority; just that its authority is not of the kind that some assume.

The mystery of Scripture

My view of the Bible is rather like a detective mystery – something which deliberately does not give up all its secrets and truths straight away; where the plain, surface reading is not necessarily always the best or fullest one. I’ve written more on this here.

Jesus deliberately used parables – stories whose meanings are hidden, and which may be open to various valid alternative explanations and interpretations. True, he did interpret some specifically, but to view them all as having one single meaning is I think to miss the point. They’re stories we have to work out for ourselves, or which work themselves out in our lives.

In my view there can be no single ‘right’ way to read the Bible. But even if we could interpret the Bible perfectly, that would miss the point. We can have all the right doctrines and theology, and be completely un-Christlike. ‘If I can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge but have not love, I am nothing.’

Interpretation and incarnation

Above all, I believe that the Bible has to be read and interpreted in community and through the primary lenses of love and grace and goodness. It’s a fundamentally relational book, not an academic textbook, a legal rulebook or a DIY manual.

So instead of infallibility and inerrancy, I’d emphasise interpretation and above all incarnation.

The idea of incarnation is central to Christianity; it’s how Christ works, first becoming incarnate as one of us, and now becoming incarnate in and through each one of us. I believe it’s how the Bible works too; the divine word has to become ‘enfleshed’, incarnated in our real everyday lives. Preserving a perfect Scripture is never the point of our faith.

Sola scriptura?

So is the Bible all we need? No, and it was never meant to be. The Bible points us to Jesus, and always back to Jesus, the true living Word of God. That is its primary purpose.

Which is not to deny that the Bible contains a whole lot of wisdom and example that’s useful to us in seeking to follow Christ. As the famous 2 Timothy 3:16 verse has it, ‘all scripture is…useful… for training in righteousness’. There’s plenty of good and helpful stuff in the Bible, if we approach it with care (and yes, probably prayer).

And in approaching and interpreting the Bible, we need also to draw on the resources of our reason and imagination, our experience, and the rich tradition of the historic church, as well of course as the Spirit. We do need more than just the Bible alone.

The die-hard sola scriptura approach must surely hold that all works of literature, art, music, science, philosophy, psychology and anything else – anything that are not simply glosses on or expositions of scripture – are at best unnecessary and futile, and at worst wicked distractions and distortions. I think this is plainly nonsense.

You could perhaps argue that all ‘good’ art, literature, music and science is in a very, very loose sense a gloss on Scripture. But I don’t think we need to make such a case in order to see art and science as valid and fruitful endeavours.

And in fact to use ‘sola scriptura’ as a rallying-cry for Bible-thumping fundamentalism is completely to miss the point of the phrase as originally coined. Then it was intended as a weapon of reform against the power abuses of a church which claimed that you needed their officials to mediate God to you, regulate your life, interpret the Bible for you and forgive your sins – all at considerable financial cost. ‘Sola scriptura’ was a radical call for liberation, a rebellious reclamation of power by the common people. I’d be quite happy to reclaim it again in that sense.

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The Bible – a question of interpretation?

I’ve said I don’t believe the Bible to be perfect or inerrant in the ways Christians have often assumed. But even if it were somehow perfect in its original form (whatever that is), we can never actually access that original perfection.

For us to engage with it, the Bible has to be first translated and then interpreted. Both of these stages introduce elements of uncertainty and complexity.

Unless we’re Greek and Hebrew scholars, the Bible as we receive it has always first been translated. Differences between the various English translations highlight the difficulty in getting to the ‘original meanings’. Some words and concepts are extraordinarily hard to translate, either because they have no direct modern or English equivalent, or because the original meaning is unclear and disputed.

Some of the passages about homosexuality, for example, are particularly fraught with these difficulties – how, for example, should the obscure word arsenokoites in 1 Cor 6:9 be translated? Faced with uncertainty, translators (or their editors) will often make decisions based on their own theological preferences.

Language is inherently imprecise

Ultimately the Bible is a work of language, and human language is both fundamentally metaphorical and inherently imprecise. Words and phrases often have multiple possible meanings; when used idiomatically, poetically or in a particular literary or cultural context their sense may change radically.

Furthermore, meanings of words and phrases aren’t forever fixed but are fluid, changing over time, so it’s often very hard for even scholars to be completely sure what they would have meant to their original authors and readers.

So translation is at least partly an act of interpretation, of judgement, sometimes of guesswork. We’re never getting ‘what the Bible says’ unmediated, in some state of original perfection.

Original words

To add another layer of complexity, even the best translators can’t get back to the original words of Jesus, as he almost certainly didn’t speak to his followers in Greek! So even if his original reporters remembered and recorded his wording accurately (which they clearly didn’t always, as the gospel accounts differ slightly), they’ve rendered them in another language. A layer of interpretation has therefore been introduced at the outset.

Furthermore the Greek text has no punctuation or speech-marks, and often the grammar is too sparse or ambiguous to be absolutely certain of the original intent. For example, Jesus’ words in Mark 3:28 that ‘everything will (or can) be forgiven the sons of men’ – the Greek verb can be translated in different ways which radically change the meaning.

And of course even biblical scholars don’t have the perfect original manuscripts; there are slight differences in the earliest extant copies. If a ‘perfect’ original version ever existed, we certainly don’t have it now.

However, it would be misleading to overplay all this. Within broad parameters and with certain provisos, we can probably be reasonably confident about the overall meaning of the majority of Bible passages. But we can’t be 100% certain about the precise meaning in many cases. There’s room for doubt, for questioning and re-interpretation, particularly on difficult and controversial passages about (for example) hell, homosexuality, or the role of women.

And even if we’re sure what it means, there are legitimate questions over which passages are ‘binding’ on us today – given that many clearly aren’t.

Questions of interpretation

Above all it’s never just a simple case of ‘What the Bible says’; we always have to interpret the Bible.

If translating is an act of interpretation, reading is far more so. As we read the already translator-mediated biblical text it it’s further mediated by our own perspective and what we bring to it, which we can never completely avoid.

We all have to use interpretive frameworks to try and understand what the text is saying. Fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals are no different. They too have to rely on their own chosen approach to interpreting the Bible – one which cannot be guaranteed to be perfect and infallible.

So even within the most conservative evangelicalism there are varying interpretations of scripture, and understandings of many ‘biblical’ issues have changed over the years – from creationism to End Times theology, from gender roles to abortion and the death penalty.

The Bible challenges itself

Some evangelicals hold that Scripture interprets itself. Perhaps – but if it does, it rarely does so clearly and unequivocally, without space for alternative readings. I suspect this is intentional, allowing room for God to speak differently through it to our different contexts. I don’t think the Bible was ever meant to have single forever-fixed meanings.

And where scripture does interpret itself, it’s often in very surprising and non-literal ways. New Testament authors frequently re-interpret and re-use OT scriptures in novel and unorthodox ways. Paul interprets OT history allegorically. The author of Matthew’s gospel rips OT quotations out of context and uses them in ways the original authors definitely never intended. Jesus himself is pretty creative in his use of the psalms.

So the Bible constantly challenges and revises itself. God overturns or re-interprets previous commands, injunctions and prohibitions which were for a specific situation not for all time. The classic example is Peter’s vision (and Jesus’ teaching) overturning the clear scriptural ban on ‘unclean’ foods.

All this means that even if the Bible were inerrant and complete, our interpretation and understanding of it can’t be.

Critiquing fundamentalist readings

So I believe that the fundamentalist, literalist approach to scripture misunderstands and misuses the Bible. It uses the Bible to shore up its own position and shout down other viewpoints. But that was never the Bible’s purpose.

We often forget that mainstream fundamentalism is a relatively recent phenomenon. Most Christians throughout history haven’t approached the Bible this way, and have interpreted much of scripture allegorically, analogically or prophetically as well as literally.

Straightforward literalism doesn’t even work as a hermeneutic; it’s not possible to apply it with consistency and coherency across the Bible, even often across single passages. The Bible always wrong-foots such attempts, because it wasn’t written to be read in that way. The plain meaning is not always easy to determine, and reading it in the ‘obvious’ way often misses the point that original readers would have understood.

The Bible never demands that we read it literalistically, as though it were a divinely-dictated textbook of correct answers. Rather we engage with it on its own terms and in its own context. We approach it more like a complex work of art, which does not give up all its meaning at once and which may have multiple layers of meaning. And we approach it not so that we can slavishly follow ancient regulations, but so we can encounter the eternally-new Spirit who breathes afresh through it.

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The Bible – truly perfect and perfectly true?

So, many Christians assume that the Bible must be perfect because it is (they believe) God’s Word, and God cannot lie or make mistakes; his word cannot be less than flawless (Psalm 12:6). This has led to the doctrine of inerrancy which I rejected last time.

Nonetheless, it’s a powerful argument. Surely a perfect God would give us a perfect book to follow?

Differently perfect

Crucially though, God’s idea of perfection is not the same as ours. The idea of perfection presented in the Bible is primarily about wholeness, completeness and finished-ness; and also about harmony, restoration and shalom. It’s not about the absence of superficial flaws or inaccuracies.

Indeed, God very deliberately seems to delight in putting his treasures in ‘jars of clay’ or ‘cracked pots’, vessels which are clearly riddled with imperfection but through which his light can therefore shine all the more. I would argue that the Bible is just such a flawed vessel.

The Bible is not the Qu’ran – which in the classic Islamic view is (as I understand it) a perfect book dictated by God based on a flawless original copy eternally pre-existing in heaven. If that description applies to anything in Christianity, it’s surely to Christ himself.

I’ve said that Jesus alone is ‘perfect’. Yet in his humanity even Jesus was subject to the limitations and, in a sense, the flaws (I don’t mean sins) inherent in our species. The author of the letter to the Hebrews talks of Jesus learning obedience and being made perfect or complete through suffering (Heb 2:10 and 5:8-9). If even Jesus was somehow subject to incompleteness or limitations, how much more the Bible?

A messy book for a messy world

The doctrine of inerrancy – of a perfect, flawless scripture – simply requires the Bible to be something it’s not. The Bible is too gloriously messy, complex and rough-edged to allow the kind of neat categorisation or one-size-fits-all answers that inerrancy demands.

If we were living in a perfect world, we probably wouldn’t need the Bible. We need the Bible precisely because we’re in something of a mess, but that also means that the Bible can’t be a perfect book. It has to address imperfect humans in non-ideal situations and it has to use limited, imprecise, imperfect human language to do so. The Bible is God’s concession to us in our current flawed condition, not his final perfect eternal word.

Differently true

But if the Bible isn’t perfect, then how can it be true? And if it isn’t wholly (and literally) true, isn’t it a lie?

Evangelicals in particular make much of the Bible being true – indeed, being The Truth and the very foundation and standard of Truth. However, it’s inevitably their own version and interpretation of the Bible that they consider to be the Truth (more on interpretation next time).

I don’t disagree that the Bible is true (in a sense), but we need to be open to the idea that God’s standard or idea of Truth itself may be very different to ours. Our modern, post-Enlightenment minds are geared to expect factual, historical and scientific accuracy; the Bible is concerned with different and deeper categories of truth. Facts are not the ultimate expression of truth or reality; facts are not always even particularly important.

I’m now convinced that truth is far more complex and multi-faceted than we’ve normally allowed; that it has a relational, interpersonal dimension; that poetry can be truer than proposition, and that truth often has to be expressed as paradox.

A truth beyond facts

I sometimes think it’s a shame that the Bible contains only words and no pictures (well, except the Good News version). But it does contain a vast array of word-pictures, imagery and symbolism. These cannot be read intellectually or factually; rather they touch on deeper elements in our psyches. Symbolic truth is as important as literal truth – or more so.

For perhaps the deepest truths are always inexpressible; they simply cannot be reduced to words or formulae. They can only be known, as a person is known; can only be experienced, as love is experienced, or as great music or art is experienced.

We have to talk about God, but in doing so we cannot help but mislead; cannot help but misrepresent him, because no words can fully express, explain or convey his reality.

And as I’ve said before, the uniquely Christian idea is that the Truth is a person, not a book or a principle or a law or an equation. Jesus, the divine logos, is the ultimate truth and the way we engage with truth – through incarnation and lived-out relationship, not mere logic or intellect.

An imperfect Bible needn’t destroy our faith

Nonetheless, many Christians fear that losing a perfect, inerrant Bible will destroy the foundation of their faith. If we start to question whether some parts of the Bible might not be literally true, how can we be sure that any of it is true? Once we’ve rejected, say, the literal truth of the Genesis creation account, how can we trust anything in the Bible, including the gospels?

I’d reiterate that the Bible can still be true in the most important ways without having to be literally, scientifically and historically true at all points. And we also have to allow the Bible to be itself, reading the different books according to their genre – for example, Genesis 1 as a poetic creation myth, rather than as science.

So just because some parts of the Bible are more mythical or poetic than historical, that doesn’t mean that the gospel accounts of Jesus are not broadly trustworthy. They may perhaps contain some symbolic elements (like the Star of Bethlehem perhaps), and even some minor inaccuracies or inconsistencies, but on the whole they have the ring of authentic eyewitness accounts.

And ultimately the foundation of our faith is not the Bible but rather Jesus, the one to whom the Bible points.

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Is the Bible inerrant?

Let’s say for argument’s sake that the Bible is inspired in some sense. Does this mean that every word, every clause, every comma of Scripture must be 100% accurate, inerrant and divinely-ordained?

I don’t believe so. To imply inerrancy from inspiration is, I believe, to confuse two entirely different and unrelated ideas. It’s also demanding that the Bible conform to our standards of accuracy and perfection, rather than that we accept it on its own terms.

What do we mean by inerrancy? That there are no mistakes or errors in the Bible? I could possibly affirm this if we meant no divine mistakes, but certainly not if we mean no human mistakes. The Bible is riddled with human authorial and scribal errors. However, it’s just conceivable that God intended these human flaws to be there, or more likely is content for them to be there.

Scriptural discrepancies

My own belief in a perfect, coherent and inerrant Scripture started to unravel when I read the four gospels closely side by side. They simply couldn’t be reconciled in a number of key places. Jesus said or did quite different things according to the different sources; his entire meaning was different at times. The same events or speeches as reported in different gospels come out in entirely different ways. Particularly problematic are the birth narratives, the calling of the first disciples and the resurrection accounts.

This is of course what you’d expect of eyewitness reporting, and it actually gives the ring of authenticity to the gospel accounts. But it does remove the claim of inerrancy. People don’t remember perfectly, even apparently when aided by the Holy Spirit.

Misquoting scripture

There are other mistakes too. The author of Matthew’s gospel is notorious for misquoting Old Testament passages. Most notable is his ‘he shall be called a Nazarene’ (Matt 2:23), for which no source has been found, and the mangled quote from Jeremiah about the potter’s field (Matt 27:9).

Matthew’s nativity references to ‘out of Egypt I called my son’ and ‘Rachel will not be comforted’ are also questionable in their claim that these passages are fulfilled in Jesus’ life. That’s not to say that the quotations are wrong exactly, but they belong to a very different interpretive tradition to the literalist, fundamentalist model. And other NT authors also use OT quotations in similar ways, which may be valid but which are certainly not following the ‘plain’ meaning of the text.

Some NT authors also quote apocryphal works, or even in Paul’s case racist pagan poets (‘All Cretans are liars’, Titus 1:12)! This raises the question of whether the Bible endorses these sources as inspired – given that many evangelicals argue that Jesus quoting from the OT endorses it as ‘God’s Word’.

Proof-texts?

Of course there are various well-known proof-texts for inerrancy, in particular ‘all Scripture is God-breathed’ (2 Tim 3:16). I’ll try and deal with these another time, but I don’t believe most of them do mean what inerrantists claim. And as these text are all taken from within the Bible, the argument is circular anyway.

There are also certain scriptural passages that undermine the case for inerrancy. The classic is Paul’s ‘I say, not the Lord’ in 1 Cor 7:12 – stating that these particular words at least are not God’s.

Similarly, Proverbs 30:5 refers to God’s words being flawless, but this is clearly not meant to refer to the words of the proverb itself.

And then there are the troubling footnotes in the Bible which acknowledge that the earliest manuscripts don’t have the end of Mark’s gospel, or the section in John 8 with the woman caught in adultery. There are the frequent notes acknowledging that the meaning is unclear or that there are different versions in different sources. There are also some troubling questions over the authorship and authenticity of some of the letters which bear Paul’s name – including the one from which the ‘God-breathed’ quotation comes.

The canon

It’s also worth recalling that the whole biblical canon wasn’t set in stone for the first two centuries or so after Christ. Heated dispute raged over which books should actually be in the Bible, a debate which did not cease when the canon was officially decided. Roman Catholics have extra books in their Bibles. Martin Luther wanted to lose the epistle of James. Others have questioned the inclusion of Revelation, and of Jude.

We have to take largely on trust that the books in the Bible are the ‘right’ ones; not all Christians, not even all prominent Protestants have agreed. There are reasonable reasons for a working acceptance that the canon we have is good and sufficient (at least adequate), but we can’t use the Bible itself to prove this.

The canon of scripture is the product of the Christian community, as well (we trust) as the Holy Spirit. It was arrived at through argument and prayer, in the context of relationship and of spiritual living. All this is in many ways a model for how the whole of scripture works, and how the interpretation of scripture works. It’s not divinely imposed and fixed but worked out (and continuously re-worked) in relationship and practice.

Not inerrant, but still useful

None of this is to say that we can dismiss whichever chunks of the Bible don’t fit with our preferred theology. It’s simply to underscore that the Bible isn’t inerrant or perfect in the sense that some modern evangelicals require.

I don’t wish to overplay ‘errancy’. I’m not saying the Bible’s a load of rubbish or that most of it’s false, or that the errors it contains are huge and deeply problematic. On the contrary, I’d suggest that the Bible is still for the most part good and useful, and even true – depending on what you mean by truth. It just isn’t perfect – or not in the way we’ve mistakenly demanded of it.

So next time, alternative ways of looking at truth and perfection – and why losing our belief in a perfect Bible needn’t mean losing our faith.

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Is the Bible the inspired Word of God?

Many Christians, particularly evangelicals, refer to the Bible as ‘the Word of God’. What does this really mean?

By using this title are we saying that God dictated the Bible; literally spoke or sanctioned all of its words? That it’s a flawless and complete record of all that God has ever wished to communicate to us? That it’s fully accurate in all details, including historical and scientific ones? That everything contained in it is literally true and universally applicable?

This has certainly not been the view of most Christian thinkers throughout the ages. Jesus, not the Bible, is the true incarnate ‘Word of God’ (as spoken of in John 1:1); he is the divine and eternal ‘Logos’. Jesus, not the Bible, is Truth embodied, Truth personified (John 14:6). And Jesus alone is ‘perfect’ and ‘complete’.

Jesus said to the Pharisees ‘you diligently search the scriptures, believing that in them you will have eternal life; but those very scriptures point to me’ (John 5:39). The Bible’s primary purpose is to point us and lead us to Christ.

God’s words

I accept that the Bible contains ‘words of God’. Most importantly there are the words directly spoken by Jesus, though of course these are always reported and often differ between the various gospel accounts – and even the original manuscripts are translations, as Jesus didn’t address his followers in Greek. But they are as close as we can get to Jesus’ actual utterances, so they’re highly significant.

There are also God’s messages apparently directly communicated through his prophets. However, these only account for a small proportion of Scripture, and the extent to which even these are direct divine ‘dictation’ is questionable.

The rest is very much human in authorship, so not obviously God’s Word in any straightforward sense. However, it may of course still be divinely inspired – so what does this actually mean and how might it work?

Inspired by God?

There’s the common meaning of inspiration, which Peter seems to be referring to in 2 Ptr 1:21: ‘prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit’. It’s ‘inspired’ utterance, being caught up in the Spirit and giving voice to ideas and thoughts that seem to have (or actually have) come from beyond or outside yourself.

We know Thomas Edison’s quotation about genius being 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration. But there are occasions when the proportion of inspiration rockets up to nearer 99%; when writers, artists and composers – or prophets – feel lifted and carried along by something bigger, more real, more powerful than themselves, and for a brief time their work flows almost effortlessly.

When theologians speak of the Bible authors being ‘inspired by God’, something like this may be part of what they mean. The authors are caught up in God, carried along by him; they cannot help but speak and write. It isn’t divine dictation, or automatic writing like some spirit medium – the words are their own, but they write as they have seen and felt and known, as the creative Spirit of God moves and flows through them.

God-breathed?

Secondly, there’s the idea of ‘breathed’ or ‘breathed into’ – which is the direct translation of ‘inspired’ as used in the classic 2 Timothy 3:16 proof-text (‘All Scripture is God-breathed’). As I understand it, the idea is that God breathed into the words of Scripture – in-spired (‘spire’ refers to breath, as in respire). It’s actually the same picture we have in Genesis when God breathes his Spirit into the man Adam and he becomes a living, thinking being. And of course when Adam dies, he expires – i.e. God ‘removes’ his breath of life from the man. So humans are also ‘God-breathed’.

With Scriptural inspiration then, it’s not necessarily that God breathed out all the actual individual words, but that he breathes into them now as we read them, giving them life and power, energy and meaning.

God’s (potential) Word

So I believe the Bible can become the Word of God when it’s used by God to speak to us here and now. It’s in our reading of it, our engagement with it led by the Spirit that it becomes God’s Word.

A great symphony is only truly music when we hear it and (crucially) when it communicates to us; until then it’s just dots on a page or a background noise. The Bible is only God’s Word when we have ears to hear; when God speaks to us through its words and we are changed by the encounter.

Which means that the ‘meaning’ of the Bible may not always be the plain surface meaning of the words, but may sometimes be something more personal, even subjective.

To quote from an old post: ‘The Spirit of God hovers over our reading of the scriptures to interpret them to us anew. The reason we have a changeless 2000-year old book is not so that we can learn its for-all-time set-in-stone meaning, but so that we can let the ever-new God re-read it to us. As he does so, he brings new colour to the old pictures; brings out new harmonies and resonances in the old score.’

God’s two books

All this also means that God’s communication isn’t necessarily limited to Scripture. He can in theory speak through anything he chooses, and it becomes God’s Word to us as we receive it and as it changes us. The Bible may be the primary or normal means by which God communicates, but it’s by no means the only one.

So I would argue that the natural world of God’s creation can also be seen (in a sense) as God’s word. There’s a long Christian tradition of the ‘two books of God’, Scripture and Nature. God spoke the world into being and breathed his life into its creatures. His creative word forms and sustains his creation. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’s perfect; certainly not now, and perhaps it never has been (Genesis 1 notwithstanding). And perhaps the Bible isn’t either. But God can still speak through both his books.

Next time – is the Bible perfect and inerrant?

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