Tuesday, August 16, 2011

If the Bible Is Not Inerrant


I began a recent post on this blog with these words:

“Some people read the Bible as if it were one thing: a single book by one Author expressing a single point of view in one voice, God’s.”

I’m still not sure that I punctuated that sentence correctly, but I think it says what I mean: the Bible is not what some people claim that it is.

If I’m right (and I think I am), if the Bible is not one thing, if it is not what the Fundamentalists and literalists and biblicists and inerrantists claim, if it is not the direct words (plural) of God, if it is not a single book, if it is not the work of a single Author (written with or without the help of ghost writers), if it does not speak in a single voice, if it is not a rule book or a road map or a verse mine for proof texts, if it is not in every instance factual in matters of history and science...

If the Bible is none of these things, then what is it?

I believe that the Bible is both more complex and more wonderful than a doctrine of inerrancy suggests.

The Bible is a collection of books containing many kinds of literature: history, myth, poetry, prayer, prophecy, historical romance, fable, parable, allegory, apocalypse, epistle, etc.

The Bible was written by (not just through or in the voice of) unique, inspired people of faith who, like Ezra and Isaiah, sometimes disagree with one another, and who nonetheless bear witness to God.

The many works that make up the Bible are united under the umbrella of a great meta-narrative, a story that begins in Eden and ends in Paradise. It is the story of the Creator God who seeks reconciliation with alienated humanity--God who reaches out through patriarchs and their fractious progeny, through a chosen and sometimes disobedient nation, through a Christ who came out of that nation--a holy, human, crucified Messiah--and through his clay-footed followers.

The Bible is a library in leather covers, a collection of treasures in clay vessels, a symbol pointing beyond itself to a greater reality, a delightful, maddening, difficult, joyful, fearful and sometimes contradictory love letter. It is the question to all of your answers about God.

The Bible is, as Martin Luther said, “the cradle of the Christ.” It is the word (singular) of God and a witness to the Word (singular, cap) of God. It contains the knowledge sufficient for salvation.

The Bible is an invitation to take part in a conversation, an invitation to wrestle with the Lord, an invitation to find your place in the story that begins in Eden and ends in Paradise.

And need I say that the Bible is even more than that?

Punctuation is a pesky thing when one is deliberately writing run-on sentences. I purloined the picture of the scroll from this website dedicated to short mystery stories.


  1. Why believe it? How do you know it's true?

  2. Hi, Nixon is Lord. I'm sorry that it has taken a couple of days for me to respond. I've been at a conference and haven't had the time, or internet access to reply.

    I have to say you have one of the more amusingly blasphemous nicknames I've encountered.

    Anyway, to your question, "Why believe it?" I have to assume that "it" is the Bible. You use a couple of other terms that would need to be clarified as well. The first is "believe." If by "believe" you mean something like "give intellectual assent to a proposition" then I would need to know what proposition that is. If the proposition is "it [i.e. the Bible)is true" then I have to ask what you mean by "true."

    I'm starting to sound like Bill Clinton parsing the word "is" but please bear with me.

    If by "true" you mean "factual" then I don't believe that the Bible is "true." It is clear to me that the Bible, though it contains some factual information, is not made up entirely of facts and that was, at least partly, the point of this post.

    In other words, I do not give intellectual assent to the proposition that the Bible is entirely factual and in that limited sense, I do not "believe" that the Bible is "true."

    On the other hand, if by "believe' you mean something like "put faith in" or "trust" and by "true" you mean "resonant within my psyche" or "revelatory of the reality of God" then I absolutely believe that the Bible is true.

    I read the Bible daily. I read through the entire Bible about once a year. I read the New Testament in its original Greek. In this reading, like many generations of believers before me, I encounter God.

    If you demand proof of God's reality, I can't provide it. For the convinced skeptic no proof is sufficient. For the convinced believer no proof is necessary. I live with an awful awareness of God's reality, and reading the Scriptures is one of the spiritual practices that connects me to God.

  3. By "believe", I mean think that you should live your life by what it says. Believe means that you think you understand what it means and think that you should do what it says. "True" means that if you follow its injunctions, what happens is what it said would happen.
    If I read a bottle of medicine and it says "Do not take with alcohol." and I have 2 shots of whiskey, I didn't believe the bottle. If I go into a coma for a month, then the bottle was probably true.

  4. Then the Bible could be anything that your already know. Why bother to go to church and pay money and sing the songs and lose your Sunday mornings if you already know what to do morally?
    Why run twice as fast to get to the same place?
    Religion is either absurd or superfluous.

  5. Welcome back, Nixon. I will post a proper reply to you in the next couple of days.

  6. Okay, hi Nixon.

    It seems to me that you have a rather mechanistic definition of "truth." It's a definition that I think you share with Christian Fundamentalists who insist that the Bible is "true" because it is "factual."

    You also reduce the Bible to a collection of rules. Granted, there are rules in the Bible (613 mitzvot in the Hebrew Testament alone, though I've never counted.) There is, however, much more to the Bible than a list of shalts and shalt nots. In fact, the Bible is a library of different kinds of literature.

    You say that the Bible is, by your definition "true" "if you follow its injunctions, what happens is what it said would happen." I don't think that the Bible, as a whole, makes any such claim for itself.

    Now, granted, many people make claims for the Bible. Fundamentalists claim that it is the very word of God. Dispensationalists claim that it predicts the future. I think the Roman Catholic Church claims that reading the Bible grants the reader an indulgence.

    I, too, make a claim for the Bible, though my claim is much more modest. When I read the Bible, I encounter the God whom it proclaims. This is not my claim alone. I know that others also encounter God in the Scriptures, and have for many generations.

    If you choose to continue this conversation, Nixon, I hope that you will strive to be a little clearer in your posts. Your post from October 11 at 4:18 PM begins, "Then the Bible could be anything that your already know." Frankly, I'm at a loss to know which statement of mine you are responding to. Your question about church attendance appears to be a non sequitur. However, I will say that I don't go to church just to get moral instructions. In fact, that's the least of my reasons for church attendance.

    I go to church to participate in a community that is dedicated to seeking the will of God and enacting it. Church is about relationships: the believers' relationship to God, to one another, and, as a community, to the larger world. I sing the songs precisely to sing with others. I put my offering in the plate because I believe that it both supports the community to which I belong and the community's mission of service.

    I don't think I've "lost" (your word) a single Sunday morning by attending church. I have gained.

    Finally, you say, "Religion is either absurd or superfluous." Ignoring the false dichotomy in that statement, I will only say that it is your opinion. Others, I'm sure, share it. Then again, people like myself find their religious practice to be a meaningful and central to their lives.