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.
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.