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.
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?