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?
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.
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.