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’.


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.


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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The Bible – the Good Book, or a very bad book?

Before we get to inerrancy and inspiration, I’d like to look at the worst stuff in the Bible and the terrible uses Scripture has sometimes been put to.

From one viewpoint, the Bible is a deeply troublesome set of books – sometimes in a good way, but often not.

Most obviously problematic is the widespread violence and bloodshed in the OT – often apparently divinely-sanctioned (or so the authors believed). And there are also the harsh punishments for disobedience or moral lapses, including the death penalty for Sabbath-breaking.

Other deeply disturbing elements include the pervasive societal sexism and what at times looks worryingly like racism.

Justifying evil?

It’s hardly surprising then that the Bible has been used through the ages to justify dreadful things including massacres, torture, slavery, apartheid, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and the subjugation of women. It’s far too often been used as an instrument of human control and brutal power rather than of liberation and genuine good news.

For this reason I tend to be suspicious of the adjective ‘biblical’ (e.g. ‘biblical doctrine’, ‘biblical marriage’, ‘biblical gender roles’ etc). I’m no longer very interested in whether or not something can be said to be ‘biblical’. Slavery, sexism, polygamy, genocide and death by stoning are all (in one sense) ‘biblical’. But I’d argue that none of them are ‘Christian’ or ‘Christ-like’, and for me now this is a far more important qualification.

And I linked to these last time, but here again are two pieces specifically addressing issues of biblical violence and sexism:

The Bible’s problem – or ours?

But I’d suggest that the fundamental problem with the Bible may not so much be the Bible itself but us. The problem is how we read the Bible and what we then do with it. It’s our skewed approaches to the text that lead us to draw skewed conclusions from it or to impose skewed meanings on it.

So we attempt to force the Bible to fit specific moulds, to speak to us about particular subjects and in particular ways. But the Bible doesn’t conform to our expectations; it isn’t what we think it is, and it often doesn’t say what we think it says or in the ways we think it says it.

For a start, I don’t see that the Bible ever claims to be the 100% accurate, perfect, inerrant Word of God; that’s an understanding we’ve imposed on it and read back into the text (more on this another time). What it does present is something altogether more complex, messy and category-defying – but also more important and potentially life-changing.

Misusing the Bible

The Bible presents us with a whole range of ideas and examples, many of which I’m sure we’re not meant to take as ideal or correct. Just because something’s in the Bible doesn’t mean it’s automatically divinely sanctioned, God’s appointed way for us all to follow. What the Bible presents is rather the messy reality of deeply flawed people stumblingly following God’s call; stutteringly translating his part-heard words into their broken language according to their limited understanding.

So if we treat the Bible as perfect, literally true, binding and normative, we will likely end up misusing it to prove or support things that its authors (and God) never intended.

Of course the same applies to most literature. Harry Potter can be misread as supporting witchcraft; C.S. Lewis’s Narnia chronicles can be used to justify sexism, racism and war; Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice appears to approve anti-Semitism. But these would all be abuses of the texts.

Admittedly, these works never claim to be Holy Writ. But I’m not convinced that the Bible does either – at least not in quite the way that we’ve understood that.

Why the Bible still matters

So why should we still bother with the Bible? With all its violence, sexism and other imperfections, isn’t it just too deeply flawed to be of any use to us?

For me, the main reason the Bible matters is because of its direct relationship to Christ.

The gospels are the nearest we can get to the actual words and deeds of Jesus, albeit with the caveat that some may have been slightly misremembered or else adapted to make a theological point. The rest of the New Testament records the lives, thoughts and teachings of Christ’s eyewitnesses and first followers (including Paul). All this makes it hugely important to those of us seeking to know and follow Jesus.

The Old Testament foreshadows and prefigures Christ, and sets up the background and context for his incarnation, his Messiahship, his life and words and deeds (including his death and resurrection). The OT also of course records a number of direct messages from God received by the prophets, even if we might now query some of the more violent and genocidal content in these prophecies.

And there’s plenty else good that we can get from the Bible – mainly because humans and relationships haven’t changed all that much. (More in ‘What use is the Bible?’)

A flawed masterpiece

So I believe we do well to treat the Bible with respect, take it seriously and engage properly with what it says (something I’m not sure ‘Bible-believing Christians’ always do).

Nonetheless, I can’t any longer sign up to a simplistic model of the Bible as a comprehensive and inerrant textbook whose every command is eternally binding on us or whose every example is normative. I view it rather as a collaboration or conversation between God and flawed humans in deeply non-ideal situations.

I’m certainly not saying we should follow the example of 2nd-century ‘heresiarch’ Marcion and simply remove the parts of the Bible that we don’t agree with, or that are culturally uncomfortable for us. Some of the parts we don’t like may still be valid, perhaps even vital. But we need to engage with them in more grown-up ways than merely ‘the Bible says…’ And above all, we need to look at the Bible through the prism of Jesus, the true Word of God (more next time).

My own view is that the Bible is in a sense inspired, but not inerrant, perfect or fully comprehensive. It is, I’d argue, still one of the chief means God uses to engage people in dialogue (though far from the only way). But that doesn’t mean that everything contained in its pages is necessarily entirely ‘true’ or ‘correct’ in the usual modern senses.

Next time then, what does divine inspiration actually mean?

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Bible posts round-up

Okay, hopefully I’ve now whetted your appetites for lots of faintly controversial Bible-related stuff! :)

It turns out I’ve already written plenty of posts on Bible-ish topics over the last few years, which it would be remiss of me not to wave in your general direction at this point. Please forgive any repetition and woffle – when you blog over a long period you do start saying things again without realising, as well as occasionally writing utter rubbish. And I know my posts can be ridiculously long.

Dealing with difficult passages

Gospel discrepancies

Reacting against the Bible

  • “Don’t read your Bible…” – why it might be okay to lay the Bible to one side during particular seasons of your spiritual journey
  • Burning the Bible – a poetic reflection on whether it might ever be appropriate to consign portions of Scripture to the flames.


  • What use is the Bible? – is this set of ancient religious/historical texts really of any practical use to our lives in the 21st century?
  • Truth matters – but what is truth? – looking at whether the deepest ‘Truth’ is something that can ever adequately be expressed in words, doctrines or creedal formulations.

Enjoy! And please always feel free to leave comments on old posts.

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Rethinking the Bible

Let us now rise and sing Hymn 2316 (to the tune of ‘Immortal, Invisible’):

Inerrant, infallible, God’s word alone;
Eternal, immutable, truth set in stone.

The final authority, all we need hear;
The source of theology, though not of beer.

Hmm, last line might need more work before I can sell it to Puritan churches.

So – the (Holy) Bible. Scripture. ‘The Word of God’. 1000-plus-page blockbuster, multi-billion bestseller. Owned by many, read by few, understood by fewer (if any). Source of inspiration and faith, confusion and controversy (but not beer) for the best part of 2000 years.

I really don’t want to undo all the good work of the last couple of evangelical-friendly posts so soon. But over the next few posts I will be saying some things that are quite critical of one of the chief pillars of evangelical belief and therefore of evangelicalism in general – sorry. Pray for me, a straying sinner.

For many evangelicals, the Bible is surely the single most important physical object in the world today, for it is nothing less than the inspired, inerrant, authoritative and sufficient Word of God in written form, containing all we need for salvation and sanctification (sola scriptura!).

You might say, with only slight exaggeration, that for some conservative evangelicals the Bible has become almost a fourth member of the Trinity. Indeed it has arguably often taken the place of the Holy Spirit in everyday life and decision-making. The Bible is the infallible and unquestionable guide to all thought and conduct, all belief and practice. Defending the Bible and its literal truth has for some (not all) taken precedence over feeding the hungry, freeing the oppressed and sharing the liberating reality of Jesus. (Not that I’m particularly good at any of these things myself, to be fair.)

Questioning the received view

But what do we even mean by terms like inerrant, infallible, inspired; perfect, sufficient, authoritative; Scripture, Word of God? Are all these terms actually justified by the biblical text itself? Would they have been understood by the Bible’s original authors? If they’re worth keeping, can we re-interpret them in alternative and more helpful ways?

I don’t necessarily have a problem with most of the terms themselves; it’s the conservative evangelical or fundamentalist interpretations I’m uncomfortable with. So I have a problem when they’re used to mean that everything in the Bible is ‘literally’ true; that it has to be taken at face value and that we cannot question its ‘plain’ meaning. I have an even greater problem with the idea that if particular doctrines can be shown to have Scriptural backing (i.e. proof-texts), then they must be unquestioningly accepted.

I also have a problem if the terms are used to mean that the Bible is a divine answer-book or life-manual from which we can derive a neat set of truths to believe, doctrines to accept, commands to obey and promises to hold on to. I have a problem when we try to fit the messy complexity of the Bible into a watertight systematic theology, or when we try to pin down ‘what the Bible says’ on any given subject, be it homosexuality, hell, the role of women or whether we should have guitars and drums in worship.

Some might just say I have a problem. :)

An unhealthy approach – and towards some alternatives

I think it’s dangerous and unhealthy to view the Bible – and supposedly ‘biblical’ or Bible-derived doctrines and moral laws – in these ways. I would go so far as to say that it isn’t truly Christian (owing more to Hellenistic and perhaps even Islamic ways of thinking), and that it runs counter to the original purposes and intentions of the Bible and its authors.

Lest you think I’m setting up a straw man, just cast a glance over some daily devotionals by US evangelical megachurch pastor Rick Warren, author of The Purpose Driven Life™, e.g. The Bible is Historically Accurate, or Trust the Bible – Jesus Did. Warren uses various out-of-context proof-texts to ‘prove’ that the Bible is 100% accurate. His hermeneutic and his exegesis – his methods and his conclusions – are (I think) sloppy and flawed, and in my view damaging both to the Bible and to its readers.

Which I realise is a bit harsh, sorry. Rick Warren’s intentions are surely good, but I think his well-meaning attempts are misguided here.

Over the next series of posts I want to look at these ideas of inerrancy, inspiration, authority and so on in more depth. I also want to look at what I think may be more helpful ways or approaching the Bible – above all letting it be itself rather than trying to squeeze it into our mould of what it should be, or getting it to say what we think it should say.

Please don’t think that I don’t care about the Bible or what it says. I consider the Bible to be of unparalleled importance, significance and value. I just don’t any longer approach it in a particular evangelical (or Catholic) way. I no longer view it as God’s Written Word Eternally Set in Stone, with a single right way of reading and understanding each passage and verse, valid for all times and situations. I see it rather as a living, dynamic document through which God engages us in a transformative two-way conversation.

Next time – the trouble with the Bible…

Posted in Bible, Evangelicalism | Tagged , , , , | 49 Comments

Re-habilitating (and recovering from) my own evangelicalism

Last time I was looking at some of the reasons why evangelicals get a bad press, often unjustly. I suggested that some dislike evangelicals because of their theology, their stance over certain issues, or because of feeling written off or looked down on by them.

I can identify with all of these, but in my case there’s another and more important reason for my anti-evangelical bias. It’s that for quite some time I was an evangelical (or thought I was and tried to be), but over the past few years have started emerging from evangelicalism – and reacting (maybe over-reacting) against it in something not unlike a teenage rebellion.

I’ve written plenty before about the idea of stages of faith development, and how an early black-and-white fundamentalist phase can often later give way to a period of doubting, questioning and perhaps rebelling against the authorities that you once trusted. This has certainly been the case for me.

My journey into – and out of – evangelicalism

So I found, or rather re-found, Christian faith 20 years ago and joined a charismatic evangelical Anglican church which was vibrant, alive and exciting. Having been brought up in an ultra-‘high’ Anglo-Catholic tradition which I never really connected with, this felt like a breath of fresh air; the real thing. And in plenty of ways I think it was, sort of; I don’t want to knock it now.

But over the years I found that there were elements within the wider evangelical and charismatic traditions that I felt increasingly uncomfortable and unhappy with, not to mention parts of the Bible I struggled to accept as ‘God’s Word’. I tried hard to accommodate all these things, but cracks started to appear in my watertight theology.

Finally, maybe about 10 years ago, I began to realise that I simply couldn’t accept a lot of the fundamental premises or worldview of evangelicalism. It seemed increasingly clear to me that the Bible wasn’t inerrant, and that there were other and (I felt) better ways to interpret it and to understand crucial aspects of faith such as sin, atonement, salvation, hell and so on.

Reacting against evangelicalism

So I began to react against evangelicalism. I felt that I needed in some ways to ‘recover’ from it, or perhaps recover my faith from it. I was (am) seeking a new, different way of being Christian – a way that radically reinterprets my former evangelical beliefs while remaining to some degree grounded in them.

So a lot of what I’ve said in this blog is a reaction against aspects of evangelicalism that I’ve found personally unhelpful, unhealthy, restrictive, not life-affirming… or which I simply don’t like.

And I’ll admit that quite often my reaction is irrational and disproportionate. It’s something of an allergic response. Particular evangelical phrases almost bring me out in a rash – for example ‘God’s Word’; ‘sharing (or preaching) the gospel’; the adjectives ‘biblical’, ‘scriptural’ or ‘sound’; certain Bible verses quoted out of context. I hear these red rag phrases and I want to shout rude things – doubtless a sign of my spiritually parlous state.

Something else that often unreasonably annoys me about evangelicalism is a tendency to take everything (not just the Bible) too literally and seriously, and so to miss out on symbolism and metaphor, complexity and ambiguity, humour and playfulness. I’ve complained before about an evangelical lack of imagination. I don’t actually think that’s a fair assessment. But even if it is, it’s not wrong to be that way; it just doesn’t work for me.

Evangelicalism suits a particular type of person

So I wonder whether evangelicalism may simply suit certain kinds of people and personality better than others.

My theory (for what it’s worth) is that evangelicalism is a brilliant system for people who like systems. It’s ideal for those who like things well-ordered, neat, correct, clear, systematic, logical, watertight. And I think it can also be great for activists, people who like to get out there and do faith rather than spend ages thinking about nuance, complexity and alternative possible interpretations.

I’d suggest then (at the risk of crass generalisation) that evangelicalism may be particularly well suited to lawyers, engineers and physicists, maybe even librarians, and rather less well suited to poets, artists or philosophers.

So the main reason I’m no longer evangelical is not that evangelicals are nasty, nor even that they’re wrong necessarily. It’s simply that I don’t feel at home within evangelicalism; don’t feel that’s where I truly belong, where my personality best fits.

Evangelicals are not baddies

I’d suggest that the vast majority of evangelicals are simply ordinary folk who love Jesus, love the Bible, and love people. They’re doing their best to follow Jesus (as they understand him through the Bible), and to care for people in the way they believe to be right (according to the Bible).

I would query some of their ideas about what Jesus wants, how to interpret the Bible and how best to care for people – but their care, devotion and dedication often put me to shame. And where we disagree, I’ve no real guarantee that I’m right and they’re wrong.

Indeed, perhaps some of my dislike or fear of evangelicals as a species (not as individuals) is because, deep down, I have a nagging fear that they might actually be right after all. And as my hero Albus Dumbledore once wisely observed, it’s much harder to forgive people for being right than for being wrong.

And if I’m really honest, some of the things that most wind me up about evangelicals are traits and tendencies I dislike in myself and wish to distance myself from.

Of course it’s all too easy to form groups and take sides, to define ourselves as not evangelical and then (by a small leap) anti-evangelical. As humans, we so often forge our own identity by attacking, dismissing or excluding others who aren’t like us (or who we wish to dissociate ourselves from). But that’s never Christ’s way. It’s not about goodies and baddies.

So if you hate or despise evangelicals and evangelicalism, I’d ask you to reconsider.

And if you’re an evangelical and have felt got at by this blog in the past, I’m sorry. I will try to do better (forgive me when I fail). And I’d ask you in turn to consider that evangelicalism may not be the only way to be truly Christian.

Despite all I’ve said, evangelicalism will probably always remain a part of me. I’m no longer truly an evangelical, but I can’t reject it completely. So for now at least I’m an Evangelical Liberal – an odd marriage of opposites that kind of works for me.

Posted in Evangelicalism, Liberalism, Stages of faith | Tagged , , | 62 Comments

Why do many people not like evangelicals?

Evangelicals are much nicer than people think
If you bump into one then your heart shouldn’t really sink
They’re really lovely guys
Who just aren’t keen on compromise
So change the subject if doctrinal issues should arise…

Thus begins a jaunty little ukelele calypso I’ve been working on. The first line repeats each time, getting progressively more qualified until it ends up ‘(Most) evangelicals are (mostly) nicer than (most) people think (most of the time)’. Which isn’t fair, but might be a little bit funny, perhaps – so that makes it okay, right?

Okay, much as it galls me to, I must admit I’ve been guilty of anti-evangelical bias in my thinking and in this blog. There are reasons for this, but I’d like if possible to take a slight step back from that now, apologise for hurt caused and try for a slightly more positive and balanced position. That’s not to exclude legitimate critiquing, but I’ll try to avoid cheap shots and carping. Mostly.

The caricature and the reality

I’ve tended to caricature evangelicals as lacking in imagination and humour, as ploddingly literal, embarrassingly earnest, Pharisaically fun-hating. I don’t think I’m alone in this. It’s all too easy for liberals, progressives and Anglo-Catholics to dismiss all evangelicals (unfairly) as sanctimonious, self-righteous, sin-obsessed, po-faced, puritanical, pious, homophobic and a whole bunch of other things we  don’t like, and which in reality most evangelicals aren’t like.

When we think of evangelicals it’s often the more vocal ultra-conservatives, über-Calvinists and fundamentalists who come to mind. But evangelicalism is a far broader church than that. There are progressive evangelicals, open evangelicals, liberal evangelicals, charismatic evangelicals and contemplative evangelicals. There are evangelicals who support gay marriage and female ordination. There are evangelicals who accept evolution, evangelicals who don’t believe in a literal hell, evangelicals who question biblical inerrancy. There are even evangelical universalists.

There are extremely intelligent and deep-thinking evangelicals (think Tom Wright for starters); evangelicals who understand science, do nuance and get metaphor. There are open-minded and generous-spirited evangelicals, like the late John Stott. And there are deeply compassionate evangelicals who work their hardest to make the world a better place for everyone to live in. The abolitionist William Wilberforce was famously an evangelical, and Tony Campolo and Jim Wallis are contemporary examples of progressive evangelicals with a passionately strong social conscience.

But are these not just the exceptions? I don’t believe so. I could list plenty more names, but more important are the many ordinary evangelicals I know personally who are for the most part kind, intelligent, good-humoured people – however much I may disagree with aspects of their theology.

So why do a lot of people – including other Christians, and including me – often dislike or misrepresent evangelicals, or feel that they’re fair game for mockery?

The Bible and bigotry

Probably one of the chief reasons evangelicals get a bad press is the perception that they hold bigoted, antediluvian views and beliefs – at least, views that look that way to anyone steeped in the values of modern liberal western culture. For example, we assume that evangelicals are fairly likely to oppose gay marriage and female ordination.

But that isn’t the case for all evangelicals, by any means. And where it is, that’s often not because evangelicals really want to hold these views – they simply feel they have to, because that’s what they’re convinced the Bible says and they believe the Bible to be God’s written Word and final authority.

But of course the Bible wasn’t written in or to a modern liberal western society. Plenty of stuff in the Bible is pretty repugnant to many of us now, and that (often unfairly) rubs off on those who feel they must defend the Bible, align themselves with it and try to live by its teachings.

Not really homophobic?

So I suspect that the majority of evangelicals probably aren’t significantly more homophobic or misogynist than the rest of us (a few may be). The difference is that they’re often sure that the Bible – God’s Word as they see it – unequivocally prohibits same-sex relationships and female leadership. So whether they like it or not, they feel they have no choice but to follow that line if they’re to remain obedient to God.

But there really is a difference between believing homosexual intercourse to be prohibited and being homophobic. It’s a subtle difference, to be sure, and can be hard to spot if you’re feeling hurt or excluded by a group who consider any expression of your sexuality to be wrong.

But take the example of shopping or working on a Sunday. Many evangelicals used to consider this prohibited (fewer do now). The plot of Chariots of Fire hinges on Eric Liddle refusing to compete on a Sunday. Yet evangelicals didn’t once a week suddenly hate, fear or despise shopping or work or any of the temporarily prohibited things; they simply didn’t do them. And the same kind of distinction applies to many evangelicals’ views of homosexual practice – forbidden, not (necessarily) hated.

Hell and exclusivism

Then of course there are all the other repugnant ‘biblical’ doctrines – hell for example.

Again, many evangelicals feel that they have to believe in the doctrine of a literal hell of eternal conscious torment, because they’re sure that’s what the Bible teaches. I suspect that few evangelicals are really happy or comfortable with this belief, but again they feel they have no choice. But because we hate or fear the doctrine, many of us also feel some repugnance towards those who hold it.

What perhaps makes it worse is that evangelicals also often believe that this hell is the inevitable ultimate destination for all non-Christians, as they’re convinced of the exclusivity of the Christian gospel – that only those who submit their lives to Christ are saved. And of course this is pretty off-putting to those on the outside. I have at least one non-Christian friend who (rightly or wrongly) felt judged and condemned by the evangelical Christians at her university. I suspect she misunderstood them, but if so it’s an easy mistake to make.

Those of us who aren’t evangelical can sometimes feel looked down on, excluded or dismissed by (some) evangelicals. And evangelicals can sometimes seem arrogant in their certainty; unwilling to listen because they know they’re right because the Bible says so. Again, I don’t think this is entirely fair to most evangelicals, but it can feel that way at times.

But I’d also say that where a few (usually conservative) evangelicals really are arrogant or exclusivist, that’s often simply out of fear. They fear straying from the Only Right Path and so being damned; they fear associating with ‘heretics’ and ‘sinners’ in case that leads them astray. It’s not an enviable place to be; such as these deserve our compassion not our hate.


Finally, evangelicals’ adherence to the Bible can sometimes lead them to positions which just seem silly to the rest of us and make them a laughing stock. Creationism – particularly Young Earth Creationism – is a prime example. For the secular world (and for many Christians now), evolution has long since won the fight and any who continue to deny it are, well, dinosaurs. But for some evangelicals, the Bible simply must be defended; nothing less than God’s perfect Word is at stake.

However, an increasing number of evangelicals, particularly scientifically-literate younger ones, don’t hold strictly to Creationism any longer. The Cambridge immunobiologist Denis Alexander is a prominent evangelical proponent of evolution, and he’s far from alone.

So a good number of evangelicals are prepared to re-interpret the Bible in the light of other evidence, whether it be historically on the issue of slavery like Wilberforce, or currently on issues like homosexuality, gender roles, evolution or the doctrine of hell.

And crucially, many evangelicals are much better than their theology. Even those who hold beliefs we strongly dislike or disagree with are often personally kind, decent and likeable people. It’s not our theology and beliefs that matter most in the end or that truly define us, but rather our humanity and how we treat each other.

Posted in Evangelicalism | Tagged , , , , , , , | 21 Comments