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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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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20 Responses to The Bible – truly perfect and perfectly true?

  1. chaddamitz says:

    Thanks for sharing your theological perspective. You mentioned some valid points, especially the difference between a Muslims infallibility of the Quran versus a Christians view on inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible. Of course, we know there have been copyist errors and not all the stories are to be taken literally. As you said, this doesn’t change the meaning of the text or the intended purpose since God is still able to speak his infallible logos through fallible men.

    I also agree the Bible has certain genres: historical narrative, apocalyptic, wisdom, psalms, etc. for instance, I don’t literally believe the antichrist is a dragon with 7 heads and 10 crowns. This is a symbolic description of something much greater than human imagination.

    What I am troubled by is your perspective on the Genesis account. If you take it as symbolic and not historical narrative, then is the fall of man also symbolic? Did Adam and Eve literally son against God or is this a mythological way to help us understand the psychology of negative attributes like lying, anger, lust, etc? Also, if the Genesis narrative is not historical, did Jesus really need to die for our sins? Why would there need to be a substitute for something that never actually happened? Could you help me to understand this better? Thanks!

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    • Hi again chaddamitz. Re Genesis, sin and salvation, this is a tricky and complex one but I’ll do my best!

      So words like ‘sin’ and ‘salvation’ are labels we use for things which are real and important, but which we don’t (perhaps can’t) fully understand in any kind of literal or scientific way. They are ‘mysteries’. So for me, it’s not vital that we understand the precise history of our ‘fall’, nor the precise mechanism of our salvation. All that really matters is that we realise we need Jesus – the one who is love and truth and goodness incarnate.

      So if someone finds it most helpful to view the Genesis account as straightforwardly historical, and the cross as a straightforward substitionary sacrifice for sin, I’m broadly fine with that, though it’s a different understanding from my own.

      For myself, Genesis 1-2 seems to bear the hallmarks of allegory or truth-bearing myth. The ‘Tree of Life’ and the ‘Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil’ seem to me more likely to be symbolic than actual horticultural varieties. Nonetheless, there may still have been a first human couple (whether evolved or not), who may have made the first moral choice away from goodness and towards evil. I think the story is introducing these ‘truths’ without necessarily stating that it happened in precisely that way as a historical account.

      My own view is that as humans we carry the baggage of our evolutionary past, sharing with animals our instincts towards dominance, violent competition, lust and so forth. But we uniquely have a choice to rise above our animal natures, to become Christlike in love, mercy, compassion. I believe that Christ’s death on the cross is a vital part of this process, but it doesn’t have to be understood as a literal substitionary sacrifice for sins (though it can be).

      I’ve blogged much more about these themes elsewhere:
      https://evangelicaliberal.wordpress.com/2014/07/02/what-is-sin-and-does-it-matter/
      https://evangelicaliberal.wordpress.com/2013/03/25/why-did-jesus-die-part-ii-the-spiritual-reasons/

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      • chaddamitz says:

        Hey Evangelical Liberal, thank you for responding back in a detailed and respectful manner. I will say that after reading your two articles and website, I am at least open to some of your suggestions.

        I think NT Wright does do a good job at explaining the atonement and propitiation of Christ. I also believe that Christ came to fulfill the role of Prophet, Priest, and King. His death was more than just to take away the sins of the world. He fulfilled the meta-narrative aspects of the Bible, such as redemption and restoration. He came to redeem us through his death on the cross and He also restores us back to the image we marred when we fell.

        Because Genesis 1:28 says we are created in the image and likeness of God, I also agree with you that we are not completely depraved. Yes, all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. But we do have redemptive qualities already in us: Humans can show compassion, generosity, truthfulness, etc because of the image we bear. Instead of saying completely depraved, I might argue we have a “natural propensity towards sin.”

        I may agree with you that the fall of man might not have happened exactly with a tree in the garden and the devil talking through a snake. This may be a simple explanation to demonstrate that human beings rebelled against God and did not obey His commandments. However, I am not comfortable suggesting some evolutionary explanation; that we need to rise above our animal nature of dominance and violent competition to love, mercy, and compassion.

        To me, this worldview suggests underplaying sin as a malfunction or genetic mutation rather than a grievous act against a holy God. When I was reading through Ezekiel 8-10 last week, I didn’t realize how angry God was with the Israelites for creating idols. Because of the way God views sin in the Bible, I can’t suggest sin to be an evolutionary maladaptation we need to “rise” above through the power of Christ.

        In the end, I am still convinced the evangelical position on the Genesis narrative and the substitutionary atonement of Christ is more rational than demythologizing the Genesis narrative or giving an alternative position to why Christ died.

        I think you are right on when you say: “Or, to nuance that view slightly, was a perfect representative needed who could bear once for all the sin-penalty due to all humans, and Jesus was the only one who could fulfil that role? Was it a sacrificial payment for the ‘debt’ we all owed to God because of our offences against him, but that none of us could fully pay?”

        I know we will agree to disagree, and that’s okay. I really think dialoguing our differences are very important. I respect your position, and you respect mine. Thanks again for your posts. Have a great day.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Hi chaddamitz, thanks very much for your kind and thoughtful response! I wish that there could be more such respectful dialogue between people from different Christian (and other) traditions.

          I rate NT Wright too – he’s much more evangelical than me, but he really know his stuff and is always well worth listening to.

          I would certainly agree with ‘natural propensity towards sin’. I suppose the discussion arising from that is what we really mean by sin (and where does it come from), in what way does sin separate us from God (if it does), and how does Jesus’ sacrifice deal with that? And how we approach these questions will depend on our theological tradition – evangelical, liberal, Catholic/Orthodox, etc.

          For myself, the evangelical understandings I accepted for a long time no longer fully work or make sense to me – but if they work for you, that’s great. For me now, I find a more symbolic or mystical approach more helpful. So I don’t have a problem with the language of sin being a legal offence that requires the payment of a literal penalty in Jesus’ death, but for me this is a word picture attempting to describe a reality for which we have no adequate language. And the penalty/payment model is no longer the one that I find most helpful in understanding the cross.

          So I don’t really want to demythologise the Bible – in many ways I want to re-mythologise it, looking to interpret it in more symbolic and allegorical ways than the more literal ones of evangelical theology.

          I broadly accept biological evolution, so I do need to re-interpret the Genesis account somewhat to accommodate that, and for me an evolutionary understanding of how sin arises makes sense of my experience. But I wouldn’t seek to impose that view on others – it’s just one way of trying to understand the origins of sin. And even if sin is partly the result of biological programming, ultimately it’s still a choice we make, and a problem we need to overcome with Jesus’ help.

          Thanks again for engaging with respect! God bless you 🙂

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  2. chaddamitz says:

    Also, are you denying the star of Bethlehem as an actual event because it’s supernatural or because there is no historical validity to it? I think if you are presupposing no supernatural events can occur, aren’t you inferring your own worldview of Naturalism?

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    • Thanks very much for your comments, and apologies for the delay in replying! I’ll answer this one first (Star of Bethlehem) as it’s shorter and easier to respond to.

      I’ve blogged at some length about the various possibilities for The Star of Bethlehem here: Questioning Christmas: the Star of Bethlehem. I certainly don’t preclude the possibility that it was a genuine supernatural event, or a natural one that was used (even ordained) by God.

      But I’m not convinced that it needs to have been a genuine historical/astronomical event in order to be meaningful, important or even (in a sense) true. And the fact that only Matthew mentions it and that astronomers have struggled to pinpoint it does lead me towards thinking that it was probably (not definitely) either more of an astrological event than an astronomical one, or else an example of the ‘Midrash’ interpretive tradition.

      I’m not a committed Naturalist by the way – far from it. I believe in a supernatural God who is capable of performing miracles, though I do have a question mark over exactly what we mean by terms like ‘supernatural’ and ‘miracle’. I broadly accept the historicity of most of the miracle and healing accounts in the gospels, again with some question marks.

      But I’m not convinced that the most important thing about the supernatural events recorded in scripture is always simply that they are historically factual. And if it turns out they weren’t, that doesn’t pose an insuperable threat to my faith in Jesus.

      I may need a bit of thinking time before tackling your other questions, which are a little tougher!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. jamesbradfordpate says:

    Reblogged this on James' Ramblings.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Symbolic truth is as important as literal truth – or more so.
    Oh absolutely!
    Great stuff as ever. Thanks for distilling my own thoughts better than I could have.

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  5. B says:

    Does God tell people who to date/break up with/ marry?

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    • Hi B, thanks for the question! Personally I don’t believe that God has an absolute requirement for us to date or marry a particular person – I think he gives us freedom and responsibility to make these choices for ourselves.

      However, that’s not to say that he might not guide and nudge us (particularly if we ask him!), towards relationships that will be more life-bringing and mutual, and away from those which would be abusive or very unequal. No-one we date or marry will be 100% ideal and perfect anyway, so all relationships will require work, forgiveness, healing at various points. But some relationships may just be too problematic, and so best avoided or got out of as quickly as possible.

      I do believe that God cares about the details of our lives and wants us to be whole, and of course some relationships will help this and others will hinder it. But I also don’t think God is controlling or overly directive, so he may steer us but I think his plans are quite flexible and adaptable when it comes to details of who we date, where we work and so on.

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  6. Pingback: The Best Blog Posts I Read in November-December | Jesus Without Baggage

  7. What a load of drivel. Maybe you should read the Bible more before a ridiculous exegesis. All scripture is “God – breathed”. Why don’t you read into the new testament about the punishment for leading gods “children” astray. Maybe that’s a poem as well

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    • I do always appreciate it when people ‘speak the truth in love’ 😉

      I’ve read the New Testament a few times, thanks. I just interpret it differently to you. You may well be right of course, but don’t forget that according to Paul it’s more important to have love than to be right.

      I go through all the scriptures on biblical inerrancy one by one here if you’re interested, which I suspect you aren’t:
      https://evangelicaliberal.wordpress.com/2015/12/11/what-does-the-bible-really-say-about-inerrancy/

      That includes the one about scripture being God-breathed. Which is not the same as inerrant or infallible. According to Genesis 2:7, humans are also ‘God-breathed’, but we are certainly not inerrant or infallible.

      I do however believe in the Word of God, and his name is Jesus.

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      • There is no such thing as love without rebuke. Read Moses’ laws as it relates to being a good neighbor.

        I don’t take pride in this but you are a charlatan. Jesus didn’t have a problem with the Pharisees because they thought scripture was perfect, they thought themselves perfect by perfectly following external commands but having dark hearts. You are guilty on the opposite spectrum. The bibke is one complete book beginning to end. It is given by God as a way to know and better follow him through the spirits help. Listened to a Truth fur Life on the radio a few months back about God’s Providence, and how God himself wrote scripture through human hands. But I’m sure you know more than that pastor. If you do know it’s not inherently correct without error than where are the errors? Can I have a list of errors in the Bible? And what allowed you to discover such things?

        It is laughable truly that you write on the Bible and yet believe the Pharisees fault lies in thinking scripture was perfect.

        The plain things are the main things, and the main things are the plain things. You take such liberties on your conclusions. You are a charlatan and it is shameful that a good meaning searching Christian would ever latch onto anything you say.

        My advice to anyone, pray for the spirits help to make the book live to you. And strength to not let worldly knowledge or worldly understanding to I’m any way change the word of God who created this world and people and has given us his owners manual. And don’t in any way listen to a thing on this site, it takes pearls and throws then to be trampled by pigs.

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        • Dear The Special One, I appreciate your concern, however expressed.

          I agree with you that the Scribes and Pharisees’ fault was not solely their view of scripture, and I’ve never said that it was. Nonetheless, they clearly prided themselves on their superior knowledge of Scripture as well as their adherence to strict moral codes. As Jesus said to them, ‘You diligently search the Scriptures, believing that in them you have eternal life, but these same Scriptures point to me’. The same could be said of many evangelicals and fundamentalists today. Yet Jesus alone, not the Bible, is the true and living Word of God (John 1:1).

          You ask for a list of errors in the Bible. It rather depends on what you mean by errors, but I deal with a few in this post:
          https://evangelicaliberal.wordpress.com/2015/11/05/is-the-bible-inerrant/

          And there are plenty of others – discrepancies between the creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2; discrepancies between the history in Kings and Chronicles. I can spell them out in greater detail if you’re genuinely interested, but I’m not sure you are.

          You are of course free to think me a charlatan and to warn others away from my blog. I appreciate that your motives are sincere and you believe you are doing God’s will. I will pray for you as I hope you will pray for me.

          Nonetheless, if you are not prepared to engage in dialogue more civilly, I will exercise my right to end this correspondence and remove any comments that I deem inappropriate.

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          • Randall says:

            The Genesis 1 and 2 account differences has been addressed and answered so many times, people try to trip up the bible anywhere they can to disapprove it or be able to then in turn make the bible say as they hope it means, instead of letting it be the only written word of God, God’s breath that the holy spirit helps us understand.

            The first things the devil tries to get Eve to do is believe “God didn’t really say that” and “God didn’t really mean that”. That is what the Devil does, and this whole site is based around people falling for the same thing Eve did, telling yourselves and others that “God didn’t really say that, to that which is clearly said” and that when he did say it and it is brought up to you guys you say “God didn’t really mean that”. I am not trying to have a civil debate with you, much like Paul in Antioch. People are looking for places like this to justify clearly stated sins and wrongs, such as sexuality, gender roles, who deserves hell, what is justice, et cetera.

            Your site is more dedicated to trying to show people how the Bible isn’t what it says, and trying to latch on small areas to show people that towing the line for Jesus is not good, when in fact it is the only true way. You do this all under the name of what Christianity is, and tell others you have knowledge in these areas, and that through modern psychology definitions the bible can’t mean this. The devil attacks the church inside and out, and it worries me people are reading these blogs and not the actual bible, because we get two different accounts from what is here to what is there.

            Im not in to political correctness, and in to standing back and saying well his/her opinion is just as valid as anyones because it’s not. You have the right to try and undermine the bible with every new keystroke and I have the right to say what you are doing is completely contrary to that taught by God himself. If you must know I found this site by someone in our church trying to tell members of the church why a certain sin is not a sin which is stated over and over again in the bible. You are hurting the church.

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            • Hi again Randall, again, I appreciate the good motive behind your vitriolic remarks. I can see that to someone with your views, I appear to be undermining God, the Bible and Christianity. If I truly believed I was doing that, I would certainly stop and repent, but I’m afraid I do not – which from your perspective must mean that I’m truly lost.

              I used to think broadly as you do, though I don’t think I ever expressed my beliefs in such an aggressive manner. Like you, I tried to get people to see what I thought was the error of their ways, and to follow the True Path set out in scripture. But over the years as I prayed, read the Bible more deeply, and also engaged more deeply with real people’s struggles and issues, I began to see things differently. I can’t make you see as I do, and I’m happy for you that you are so certain in your position. But it no longer works for me or many others, and I cannot go back.

              I still walk with Jesus – I think more closely and genuinely than ever – and I do not sense his Spirit rebuking me for my altered understandings of the Bible or of certain doctrines.

              So I’m afraid I will continue to write and practice what I believe and where my conscience leads, as I’m sure you will with yours. And I will pray for you and I hope you will pray for me.

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            • PS the Gen 1 and 2 accounts are not a particularly key one for me – the gospel discrepancies are far more problematic if one wishes to take an inerrantist view of Scripture. But there are nonetheless minor discrepancies in the order of the creation accounts, which is fine if you aren’t trying to take them as literal history and science.

              Of course, as with all these things, you can always find complicated ways round such discrepancies if you feel you have to. But what’s obvious to most linguistic scholars is that the styles of Gen 1 and 2 are completely different and that they are two separate, apparently unrelated accounts that have been put together by later editors. Which again isn’t a problem unless you need to see it as a seamless whole.

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