This post is part of a series on theological variety and also a companion personal experience piece to a previous article about varieties in belief regarding the Bible. For the introductory article in the Theological Variety series, click here. For the post on views on the Bible, click here.
One of my favorite movies of all time is the 1960 film Inherit the Wind. Depicting the famous Scopes Monkey Trial of 1925, the film revolves around a teacher put on trial for teaching students about evolution. The trial is presided over by a powerhouse atheist defense attorney and a juggernaut of the Fundamentalist movement as the prosecutor. Throughout the film, the focus shifts to the battle over the Fundamentalist theology central to the vitriol in the town against Cates, the teacher, and Drummond, the defense attorney. The tension is further stirred over challenges to the towns’ beliefs of an absolute literal understanding of scripture as central to orthodox Christian belief.
Perhaps part of why I love this film is because it kind of hits home for me. Growing up in a small town Southern Baptist church, I was also raised with the belief of biblical inerrancy: the idea of the Bible being the perfect Word of God bestowed upon humanity, having no errors (at least in its original format) and being the correct and final authority on every issue it addresses (religion, morality, politics, philosophy, science, sexuality, etc.).
For a long time, I bought into this idea. After all, the Bible was to be considered the foundational text of the Christian religion. If the Word of God wasn’t always right, how could I trust anything in faith?
As I got older, I learned that like many good things in the faith, the Bible can be a great tool for a flourishing faith but makes a poor idol. And that is exactly the problem with the doctrine of inerrancy: it makes the Bible an idol.
For crying out loud, I remember going to Vacation Bible School as a kid and having to recite a pledge of allegiance to the Bible, along with the American and Christian flags. Looking back, it was pretty disturbing.
So if inerrancy idolizes the Bible, then why is it still so pervasive in the American evangelical church?
Perhaps it’s because a belief in an inerrant Bible deals with the murky questions around Scripture by simply negating them.
Forget questions about evolution and the age of the earth. The Bible says creation happened in six days, so that has to be correct, right? Forget questions about ancient near-Eastern nomadic tribes and their understanding of astronomy and physical science. If the Bible says the sun stood still for a whole day, then that had to happen right? Plus, humanity all coming from two people in a garden in Mesopotamia, a guy getting a 3 day cruise in a fish stomach, a global flood that killed nearly everyone, all the evil people in the future getting matching 666 tattoos? No questions about those because the Bible says so and that’s the bottom line.
Then there’s the infamous blood, guts, and misogyny of the Old Testament. But since God loved Israel and was apparently really pissed at those darned Canaanites, all the carnage gets a free pass, right?
But, even with its most ardent and Fundamentalist followers, inerrancy still doesn’t have an absolutely firm grip. I can’t help but notice that we haven’t as a “Christian nation” been stoning gays and loose women, banning bacon and shellfish, and that mixed fiber clothes are still in circulation. I mean, those things are in the Bible, so what’s the problem?
The biggest problem I’ve found with the belief in an inerrant Bible is that it doesn’t leave room for grappling with big questions from tough passages, and without truly dealing with those questions, one’s faith can suffer, if not fully implode.
What about the passages with occurrences that deny scientific explanation? What about the presence of poetry and specific literary devices found constantly throughout Scripture? What about the disturbing passages containing rampant violence, genocide, misogyny, and other atrocities that are seemingly condoned by a supposedly loving and just God?
Perhaps we can’t simply turn away from these and cover them with the “God said so” treatment. Perhaps we have to look all of these ugly parts in the face, address them, and do our due diligence to figure out how the fit into the story of the Gospel. Perhaps we have to ask some difficult questions that may not have any simple answers.
The fact is that we have in our faith a weird and ancient book containing many stories, both wonderful and disturbing, and we will have to wrestle with those realities like Jacob wrestled with God. And like Jacob, we’re probably going to walk away with a limp and a blessing.
So, how do we do this?
First, we have to acknowledge a few things about what the Bible is.
It’s an ancient collection of many different books throughout the ages mostly dealing with the history and theology of one ancient near-Eastern people group.
It contains many works that were mainly passed down via oral tradition before being written down.
It contains many different genres, including but not limited to prosaic descriptions of events, flowing epic poetry, songs of worship and lament, wisdom writings, correspondence letters written to specific groups in specific situations, fantastical and cryptic apocalyptic protest literature, and multiple recordings of similar events from various sources.
Needless to say, its complicated.
When God gave us the Bible, God did not give us an internally consistent book of answers. God gave us an inspired library of diverse writings, rooted in a variety of contexts, that have stood the test of time, precisely because, together, they avoid simplistic solutions to complex problems. It’s almost as though God trusts us to approach them with wisdom, to use discernment as we read and interpret, and to remain open to other points of view.
-Rachel Held Evans; Inspired
We have to accept certain facts: that we have leftovers of stories long passed down through oral tradition about how God worked in the world, that there are poetic devices talking more about the power and glory of God than the chronology and mechanics of God’s actions, that we have many stories of violence and bloodshed written by the people carrying out said violence and bloodshed, that a bunch of interconnecting pieces of various smaller stories telling a larger narrative don’t always line up neatly, that some of our heroes weren’t actually very heroic at all.
The Bible is a beautiful book, but also a complicated and messy one filled with ancient standards for a no-longer existing civilization in a bygone era. There’s a great deal of messiness and confusion in this ancient book, and simply saying the Bible is always right doesn’t do us any favors in dealing with this messiness.
The Bible has a very close relationship to the Church. It didn’t drop down out of heaven; it actually arose out of the history of God’s people. It’s messiness, in my mind is beautiful, because it speaks to what God is doing in the world, which is going to be messy because it involves us.
-Tim Mackie; Exploring My Strange Bible Podcast
Also, if we’re being honest, it’s unfair to the Bible as well.
Inerrancy holds the Bible to an impossible standard of perfection and tries to make it support a weight it wasn’t meant to hold.
We’re talking about an ancient collection of sacred texts brought together over the ages, not golden tables that descended from the heavens.
Maybe we’d we better at extending grace to others if we could extend a bit of grace to the Bible. Maybe if we could be a bit more fluid in our approach to scripture, we’d actually end up with a stronger faith.
Second, we must acknowledge the Bible is not the cornerstone of the Christian faith. That position belongs to the Word of God in the person on Jesus Christ, not to a book.
Don’t get me wrong. The Bible is an inspired text and a gift to humanity from God, but it is not God; and unfortunately, the manner in which we uplift the Bible trends toward idolatry.
The Bible can show us the way to the saving love of God, but it cannot in itself save. It can give us help in reconciling us to each other and to God, but it is not itself the Great Reconciler. We often attribute the being of God to the Bible, but to do so in an offense to both.
What launched Christianity was not a book; what launched Christianity was an event–the Resurrection. The Bible did not create Christianity, Christianity created the Bible.
-Andy Stanley; Church Leaders Podcast
We must remember that for ages, the Bible as we know it did not exist. It was over three centuries into the history of the Church before the scriptures as we know them were compiled. Prior to that, even compositions of the Hebrew scriptures we know as the Old Testament were fairly recent, with the Septuagint (Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures) being completed by 132 BC. Prior to that, many of the books of the Old Testament weren’t compiled together in Hebrew until during and after the Babylonian Exile.
The Bible has a messy and complex history, just like the Church it emerged from and was written to. It’s not quite as seamless and perfect as we may have always believed, and that’s okay. Humanity has a messy history when it comes to communing with God and a long track record of getting it wrong. Yet, God still persists to love and speak to us, and the Bible reflects that.
Yes, it has gaps, contradictions, and unsolved mysteries. It has stories of violence, misogyny, and chaos; and it’s okay to be disturbed by them. These darker parts show a flawed humanity being met by God in the mess where they are and steadily called higher to be better to one another. These darker parts are stepping stones on the winding path where Jesus calls us to show grace and peace to all people in the name of the Kingdom.
So do I believe the Bible is inerrant? No, not anymore. Do I believe the Bible is the inspired sacred Scripture given to us by God? Absolutely. God is good and has given us a good gift in the Bible for our benefit. We must remember, however, the Bible is not God. It’s a messy and complicated work, just like us.
There are parts of the Bible that inspire, parts that perplex, and parts that leave you with an open wound. I’m still wrestling, and like Jacob, I will wrestle until I am blessed. God hasn’t let go of me yet.
-Rachel Held Evans; Inspired
For more reading on this subject:
Inspired by Rachel Held Evans
Is God a Moral Monster? by Paul Copan
A Flexible Faith by Bonnie Kristian
Also check out videos and podcasts from The Bible Project as well as the Exploring My Strange Bible Podcast
If you would be interested in contributing a personal experience piece, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Adam, thanks for sharing your perspective around the inerrancy of the Bible. Appreciated reading your thoughts.
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Inerrancy doesn’t idolize a book; it idolizes its author. A book reflects its author, inevitably. The two cannot be separated, any more than you can be separated from this blog post. You would not criticize the latest New York Times bestseller as if it wrote itself; every criticism falls ultimately on the author, and is taken that way. That goes for the Bible as well. If the Bible has contradictions, its author is imperfect. If the Bible is inerrant, so is its author.
I would disagree with your definitions of inerrancy. Some of the matters you mentioned, like evolution and stoning, are matters of interpretation and social progress, not accuracy. They also aren’t always central to the Christian faith. An inerrant book does not cease to be inerrant if some its concepts are unclear; we simply understand that they were, inerrantly, left unclear deliberately, and we unite or divide based on that.
If the Bible was inspired but not inerrant, God is imperfect. There’s just no way around that for me. And if I eliminate the motive to please man (something that has always bogged Evans down) or to show up Fundamentalists (who usually screw up by misunderstanding the Bible rather than following it) and focus instead on God, inerrancy becomes a lot easier to live with. But that’s just me.
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Thank you for your thoughtful interaction, Brandon.
I would disagree with the idea of God as author and view God more as a publisher of sorts.
The Bible is a human book with divine inspiration and will come with some of the difficulties of humanity, but I believe God trusts us to work with that.
At the end, we agree that God has given us something wonderful that can guide and build us. While I may not view the book as perfect, I still see God as such and trust the Bible given to us to bring us closer to the perfect heart of God.
Thank you, again, for your thoughtful interaction. God bless.
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I’ve always maintain a separation between the idea of God as “author” (an assumption and faith position) versus God as having delegated authorship to dozens of Believers (a historical fact that might or might not imply inerrancy). The inerrant view necessitates a dictation model – that God gave David word for word every Psalm he wrote, for instance. That seems far fetched for many of us. God delegated and inspired David with wisdom and artistry but likely left things like word-choice and accompanying instruments up to him. We aren’t automaton drones, after all… but then that gets into whether one believes in free will versus predestination.
One thing we can say with absolute certainty – is that we aren’t at all certain about the mysteries of God’s ways or Word!
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first off I don’t owe anyone anything.
It is up to the power of the Holy Spirit to unveil your eyes.
There is no need for manipulation to get a response out of me 🙂
First I want to say this… there are zero flaws in the bible and to say that there is, is saying that God has flaws which He doesn’t because He is perfect.
2nd you are missing the spiritual aspect of this whole debate.
The spirit realm was here before the physical. Otherwise the physical would not exist.
Now wrap your head around this.
A perfect unity, (which there is zero in this world so it may be difficult to understand) But God is EVERYTHING, EVERYWHERE and He is the Father who created all that exists, from Him came Jesus and from Jesus came the Holy Spirit. Now to think they are one being who works together all for the good of mankind is difficult to understand unless you have the discernment from the spirit.
God is His word and yes the word is Jesus and how we get to know who Jesus is, is through The word which is ALIVE today (Jesus) The Holy Spirit is the holiness that indwells in you. He teaches you, by giving you wisdom from God for He knows all that Jesus Knows.
John 16 Jesus clearly states the trinity and they are all one in complete perfectness.
Now I have attended a Baptist Church, and most of the people there were still hurting and not in a state of realizing their authority with His spirit living in them.
I’m sorry that you had a not so great experience in the church BUT God is so good and is Perfect in all his ways.
I will pray for you because prayers move mountains, and it is Gods will for everyone to be saved and understand his ways.
I want to know exactly what flaws you have found in the bible?
Saying that there are imperfect people in the bible is not a flaw but a reality. God is teaching us through these people of the Old Testament and New Testament times that He still loves and abides in us even though we have evil ways. I believe that it is absolutely profound that God loves us as much as He does. That he sent his only son to die a brutal death to pay the price so that we could be in heaven with him, in His presence.
Have you heard of the Dark matter theory?
Well there is this “STUFF” persay that holds everything together, but scientists cannot for the life of them figure out what it is. They know that it’s there but they cannot define it.
In simple terms what they have found is GOD, He is omnipresent He is in everything and the perfectness that holds everything together.
I’m sure that you’ve heard how if there was just 1 molecule off in the creation of our world that we wouldn’t be here… that being said there was a perfect formula to create the universe. That Perfect formula is God and He is a being in Himself.
So going back to your non-inerrancy debate … it is wrong. Because of the proof of the perfectness of God and His word.
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1) I don’t recall anything being said about you owing anyone anything.
2) Once again, the Bible and God are not one in the same. That does not mean the Bible is devoid of God, but the Bible cannot be thought of as God. The Bible is a collection of works written and compiled by humanity (with divine inspiration, I believe) to tell the story of humanity/Israel in relation to God and their experience of God. As it is a human work, it is open to error. However, as the Bible is not part of God and was made by humanity, the possibility of error in the Scriptures does not explicitly imply error in God.
3) There’s no need to expound on the Trinity here. FYI, I do affirm the Trinity.
4) Yes, that’s cool about the Dark Matter studies. I’m hesitant to say it IS God, but that’s not to say I don’t as being OF God. Same as gravity, subatomic particles, etc. I also do not deny the intricacy of the universe as sustained by God.
5) Please understand some things about the denial of inerrancy. First, it is NOT a salvation issue. Second, it does not ignore Scripture, but rather refuses to idolize it. Third, denial of inerrancy is not simply to present a laundry list of found errors, but affirms the human roots of the Bible, states that there is an open possibility for error but said error does not denigrate God, and frees us from the need of mental gymnastics for literal or near-literal interpretations. Adam and Eve may or may not he historical people, but the point of their story is conveyed either way. Jonah, Job, etc. may be more fable than fact, but the story is conveyed regardless. Things attributed to God throughout scripture may or may not he actually from God, but the story of God and man is still told and God is still good.
Also, since leaving inerrancy, I’ve actually come to love God and the Bible more and to find deeper understanding in the pages of scripture.
If your understanding of inerrancy helps you, then great. But it is not the only way of looking at scripture.
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Interesting perspective. While I do believe we should not worship a physical book, His Word is how God has chosen to reveal Himself to us. We worship God because of the Word.
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Wow, man. Way to open up a troublesome topic. I admire your candor and your courage.
First, I think your discussion around bibliolatry is appropriate. Many Christians, and by extension the churches they come from, discuss the Bible more than God’s presence within us, his Holy Spirit. That’s not to say the Bible isn’t inspired, but that God literally lives within his people, the Church. That is not imparted by reading a book, but is bestowed by our gracious Father. We would do well to listen to God’s Spirit within us as well as the Bible.
Second, it is a logical fallacy to claim that the Bible must be perfect because God is perfect. That is a false dichotomy. It ignores the fact that “perfect” is not a term we can agree on. If we assume we all have the same definition of “perfect”, which we don’t, it still fails because it’s akin to saying that because God’s presence is in me I never sin.
I recently took my family to the Ark Encounter. My kids are young and impressionable, and I’m trying to teach them to think through matters of faith and life in general. We had very frank discussions about how there are Christians, like me, who believe in evolution as a possible explanation for the origin of life. I simply believe that it was God who directed it.
Thanks for the topic, Adam. I’m really excited to read more of your stuff.
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Thanks so much, Chip. We’re in the midst of a series on theological variety right now if you’d like to check out more of our stuff. RogueMillennials.org
Interesting post, I have always viewed the Bible as Gods inspired teachings- the various authors of the books inspired by God and the Holy Spirit – I feel that we each experience reading the Bible differently as we apply it to our own lives in a way that is unique to the individual.
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Do I idolize the Bible? That is a good qusstion. I think not. I respect it – I accept it as inspired by God rather than actually written by Him. It is God that I worship.
Thank you for your challenging thoughts. You have made me, any I suspect many readers think. And thinking is a great place if we want to learn
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Thank you for sharing your story, your ups and downs walking in the Word. I like the straightforwardness and the doubt in this blog post because it encourages to raising questions.
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Interesting thoughts on the topic, very thought provoking. I am not sure with you about some of your point but do agree that the Bible is not the center of our worship, God is the center.
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Thank you for this article! While I disagree with you that the doctrine of Bible inerrarncy leads to idolizing Bible, I appreciate your outlook. I think that with our human mind our understanding of God’s word will always be limited. And that is whey we have the Holy Spirit to help us.
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