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…

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About TheEvangelicalLiberal

Aka Harvey Edser. I'm a web editor, worship leader, wannabe writer, very amateur composer and highly unqualified armchair theologian. My heroes include C.S. Lewis and Homer Simpson.
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49 Responses to Rethinking the Bible

  1. Daniel Taylor says:

    Yey sounds like some interesting reading coming up. Will enjoy the articles!

    Like

  2. tonycutty says:

    We call this concept ‘Father, Son and Holy Bible’ 😉
    Especially since the One Who is effectively usurped is the Spirit.
    And btw I am working on a similar blog post. Plagiarism will probably not occur as my article is, I think, complementary to this one. Great minds think alike, especially when the same Spirit is directing them…..

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  3. Terry says:

    Oh, Harvey, the reason why Rick Warren is dodgy is because he’s using the NIV. Now, if he were to use the KJV . . . (I was going to link to a Chick tract, but the website seems to be down.)

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  4. jesuswithoutbaggage says:

    Oh boy, I am excited about this series; and you have started with a bang in this introduction! Let me say that I believe in the infallible, inspired; perfect word of God, but it is not a book. It is Jesus.

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  5. Great article. I look forward to this series. I have progressed into this way of thinking over the past few years. It has been so relieving.

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    • Sorry for the delay in replying! Yes, it’s been a huge relief to me to move away from the old ways of thinking about the Bible, which for me were so restrictive and (I think) potentially damaging to emotional and spiritual health. Though I’m still ‘on a journey’ with this and the old ways come back to bite me occasionally!

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  6. epic says:

    I agree with everything you said, but for me now that I’m questioning the historic accuracy of the Bible, I’m questioning the very basis of my faith. I feel like if the Bible isn’t true and infallible, to continue believing in God is to be worshiping a “false” God, one that I’m just making up to fit my own desires of who I want God to be.

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    • tonycutty says:

      No doubt Harvey will elaborate on this later, but don’t worry, you are not worshipping a false God. It doesn’t have to be completely infallible to be true, and the thing is that Holy Spirit not only guarantees your inheritance but He also leads you into all Truth. He will make things clear to you.

      And I love your last sentence, ‘…one that I’m just making up to fit my own desires of who I want God to be’. That’s actually really perceptive, because actually God is indeed everything you want Him to be, and even more and even better. It stands to reason that God is Good, else nothing else works. If you were making up a false god then you would not even be worried that you might be doing so. There’s nothing wrong with questioning the Bible, this is honest and healthy and God calls us to wrestle with Him. Make your security in your relationship with Jesus and everything else will follow from that. Jesus is what God really looks like.

      My blog posts here: http://www.flyinginthespirit.cuttys.net/2015/07/26/the-of-security-of-relationship/ and here: http://www.flyinginthespirit.cuttys.net/2015/09/22/wrestling-with-god/ should help on the being secure issues.

      And about Jesus being what God looks like: http://www.flyinginthespirit.cuttys.net/2015/10/08/graven-image/

      Blessings!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Hi epic, thanks for your honesty – I hear what you’re saying and I’ll admit that this has been a struggle for me too at times. I think it is at first for anyone who has been raised to view the Bible as 100% accurate (like a modern history textbook), and who then starts to question some of its history, science and theology. Stick with me over the next few posts and I hope I might be able to suggest more helpful ways of approaching the Bible without losing faith in the one who it (imperfectly) points to – Jesus, the real ‘Word of God’.

      Liked by 1 person

    • jesuswithoutbaggage says:

      Epic, I understand your concern. When I first realized the Bible was not inerrant I had a year-long crisis of faith. In the end, though, I discovered a better foundation for my belief–Jesus. I cannot trust the Bible as inerrant, but I do trust in Jesus as I find him from the memories of his earliest followers.

      I write about my experience at https://jesuswithoutbaggage.wordpress.com/2013/04/03/discovering-jesus-as-the-foundation-of-all-my-belief/

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Joanna Broome says:

    Hi,

    thanks for this – just yesterday I had a conversation with my spiritual director about what to do with the bible given that I no longer hold the typical ‘evangelical’ view – I have seen it used unwisely too often – but saying that I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water. It seems to me that people can make the bible say just about whatever they want depending on which verse they want to interpret to ‘prove’ their point. How do I make sense of it? how do I relate to the parts I find really difficult? I look forward to your future posts. >

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    • Hi, thanks so much for your comment. I really identify with the questions you raise – what to do with the Bible once you’ve moved away from the evangelical approach, how to make sense of it and relate to the hard parts. I’ve been wrestling with all of these myself and so have many others! The good news is that the evangelical approach has never been the only or ‘correct’ way to read the Bible. I don’t think it’s how the original authors meant it, and through the centuries there have been many other more helpful ways of approaching the Bible. I’ll do my best to cover some of these over the coming posts – I’ll inevitably leave stuff out, so if there’s more you’d like to hear about do please shout out!

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  8. The bible may not be a source of beer, but when I lived in the Solomon Islands bibles, as given away in large quantities to people who did not read English or in many cases read, were very popular. The leaves from the bible made a far superior roll up compared with pages from an old copy of the Solomon Star

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  9. Alfiethedog says:

    Can I just ask whether your discussion of the Bible will include the deuterocanonical books? Certainly should, in my humble opinion. And I have every confidence that you will at no point be tempted to forget that what we call the Bible is basically an anthology, however God-breathed, of highly diverse and originally discrete writings… As to Rick Warren, I’m afraid I can think of few things less attractive than a purpose-driven life. Mightn’t love-driven be just a tad more appropriate?!

    Like

    • I gave up reading the Purpose-Driven Life after the first chapter. It wasn’t all bad, but way too Calvinist for my liking, and like you I can’t see much appeal in being purpose-driven. Or being driven in any way, really, apart from by a chauffeur perhaps.

      I fear I’m not best placed to comment on the deuterocanonical books as I’ve not yet read most of them in any depth! I did make a start a few years back, but found whichever one I was reading a tad unappealing and gave up. Perhaps you might write a guest post on the subject?

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      • Alfiethedog says:

        Wish I could, but I’m no expert either. Was really just making the general points that the Bible consists of many and varied books, and that canonicity, what’s in and what’s out, is in the end a matter of opinion, even prejudice. Add to that the fact that we all have our favoured canon within a canon (if Luther, for example, hadn’ t felt a particular affinity with St Paul the history of Western Christianity would have been very different), then we have a colourful and variegated picture, which is actually far more interesting than the lazy assumption or power-related assertion that the Bible is one coherent book.

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        • Yes, I wholeheartedly agree! And I certainly will be saying something along those lines at some point.

          My own private favoured canon would leave out large chunks of St Paul altogether, along with a fair bit of the Old Testament. And I’d add the Narnia chronicles in as canon (albeit flawed).

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          • Alfiethedog says:

            C.S.Lewis has the arguable disadvantage of not (as far as I know) having been recognised as an authoritative author by the early church, but why not? At least it would be obvious where the Narnia books would slot in – straight after the existing two books of Chronicles.

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          • Hmm but what then about Mormonism?

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            • Yes, that’s a fair point. I’m only joking really about making new additions to the ‘canon’ – I love C.S. Lewis’s stories and I might argue that he was ‘inspired’ in a sense but I don’t really think that his works are ‘Scripture’.

              These are questions worth pondering though – what might qualify something new for inclusion in the canon? What criteria could we apply and who should judge? And once it had been deemed canonical, would we then have to treat it differently?

              I’m personally a bit ambivalent about the whole idea of an official scriptural canon, but I can see also the need – part of which is simply to keep out nonsense and hoaxes. And to my personal judgement, and without wishing to offend any Latter-Day Saints who happen to be reading, The Book of Mormon would probably qualify as both nonsense and a hoax.

              Liked by 1 person

  10. Frederick says:

    Please find a reference which gives a completely different Illuminated Spiritual Understanding of the Spiritual Gospel of Saint Jesus of Galilee
    http://www.dabase.org/up-6.htm

    Like

    • Thanks for sharing. For myself, I don’t find the account you link to historically or spiritually convincing, and nor does it accord with my own experiences and understanding of Jesus, but I’m happy to let it stand as an alternative voice. Bless you in your journey.

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  11. Have you read ‘The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible by Scot McKnight’? It’s very interesting and explores many of these kinds of issues.

    As someone who loves stories, I guess I treat the bible as God’s Great Story, told by different people (all of them muppets like everyone else), with inspiration, over hundreds of years. I think, for example, it’s wonderful how in the bible you can read of King Hezekiah and you get one ‘side’ of the story, and then you can go to the British Museum and see the hexagonal Sennacherib Prism which recounts the same story from the ‘other’ side, as t’were. See here:
    http://www.britishmuseum.org/explore/highlights/highlight_objects/me/t/the_taylor_prism.aspx

    If we were to gather 100 people for a morning – just a few hours – afterwards, every single person would have different recollections of what had happened. If it was a church service, for example, we would each take from it the things that spoke to us as individuals. There would likely be some things that spoke to us collectively, but probably not too many of them. I think of the bible and its authors as like that. Or maybe it’s like after a funeral when you all talk about your memories of the person who has died and although you’re all remembering the same person with great fondness, you all have different (and sometimes conflicting) memories. That’s how I see the (nevertheless inspired) Word of God. I am a Baptist, so I do value the importance of the Word, but as my old pastor once said, the bible contains history, but it is not a history book. It contains science but it is not a science book. It contains stories but it is not a story book. It is more that all those things. We limit the bible if we say it only speaks in a certain way – especially if we assume that the only way in which it speaks to us is as a 21st century Western middle-class construct!

    Ok, I’ll leave the rest to you… I’m intrigued to read more of these posts 🙂

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  12. Anne Raustol says:

    Thank you! I am so tired of: “just do what the bible says” or calling a marriage or any thing “biblical” or calling a church a “bible believing church.” I can’t see how one could be so certain or bold or presumptuous to say such things. It’s like…I don’t know…trying to shrink God down to the size of a piece of candy we can hold in our hands or put in our pocket. Looking forward to your follow-up posts!

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    • Thanks so much for your comment! I completely agree with you. The adjective ‘biblical’ is one I’ve come almost to hate unfortunately, especially when it’s used by people who are absolutely sure they know what God wants/says (and more often than not don’t have a clue!). More on ‘biblical’ in the next post, hopefully today…

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  13. Pingback: The Best Blog Posts I Read in October | Jesus Without Baggage

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