Life After the Evangelical Church: Part 2 The Bible

It is my conviction that to treat the Bible as inerrant and infallible is un-Christian in that it is both dishonest, and dishonouring to the the Bible itself and to the God Christians believe inspired it.

Image of a fragment of a dead sea scroll, from the Isaiah scroll, 1QIsab
From the Dead Sea Scrolls; a portion of the second discovered copy of the Isaiah scroll, 1QIsab (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dead_Sea_Scrolls)

As an evangelical I was taught that the Bible is inerrant (contains no mistakes about anything) and infallible (absolutely trustworthy). Some evangelicals temper this with ‘as originally written’. The second statement is a matter of faith, since no original manuscripts exist. But for practical purposes it makes no difference, since it is the Bible we have which is used as the basis for faith and life.

The reason inerrancy and infallibility matter so much for evangelicals is their understanding of inspiration. Since ‘All scripture is inspired [literally ‘breathed out’] by God’ (1 Timothy 3.16), the argument goes that it must be inerrant and infallible, since God does not make mistakes and always tells the truth. Any suggestion that there are inconsistencies or mistakes in the Bible must be strongly refuted, for two reasons. Firstly it would be blasphemous to suggest God would make mistakes, and secondly, to accept an error in the Bible would be undermine and negate its entirety, and the whole of Christianity into the bargain.  

Many make the case against against Christianity based on the Bible: ‘it can be proved there are errors in the Bible therefore the whole of Christianity is false’. Ironically evangelicals adhere to the same belief, that Christianity stands or falls on the inerrancy and infallibility of the Bible. Historically both views are extremely modern. Inerrancy and infallibility simply were not an issue for Christians before the enlightenment. It was a given that the Bible was written by ancient writers and reflected their varying understanding, worldviews, particular agendas and reasons for writing.

By way of three questions let me provide examples that illustrate why this view of the Bible is dishonest.

  • In the creation accounts, in what order were animals and man were created? (see Genesis chapters 1 and 2)
  • Who incited King David to take a census of Israel – God or the Satan? (see 1 Samuel 24.1 and 1 Chronicles 21.1)
  • When did Jesus carry out the ‘cleansing of the temple’ – near the start or the end of his ministry? (see Matthew 21.12 and John 2.13)

These are just three of literally hundreds of ways the Bible shows us it is not one book with one overriding message. It was written by dozens of authors over many centuries. It reflects the particular agenda, understanding and worldview of its authors. In many places it attempts to correct or revise earlier instances of history or theology, and in other places flat contradicts itself. (The writers of Chronicles seem especially keen to ‘correct’ or ‘revise’ the accounts of Samuel and Kings.) Just consider for a minute that some words attributed to God are outright contradicted in other places, again supposedly by God.  Attempting to iron out and resolve these differences into one ‘flat’ narrative is simply not possible and insisting on this has let many people to reject the faith altogether. In my view is misses the point about what the Bible actually is.

One further example: why do we have four gospels, not one? If historical and theological consistency is the aim, then one definitive gospel would be far preferable. However the church fathers rejected early attempts to consolidate the gospels into one definitive account, regarding retaining the differing accounts as preferable.

Let us be honest about what the Bible is and what it is not. Let’s be honest about what ‘inspiration’ actually means. To do so is not ‘liberal’ or a sign of weak faith. To be really honest about the Bible honours it for what it is: a collection of different genres of writing, written over many hundreds of years for many different reasons. I would go further: the Biblical writers obviously thought it was legitimate to challenge, re-interpret and re-purpose earlier writings and to be faithful to the Bible one must be free to engage in this today.

If you are interesting in exploring this subject further a good place to start is Peter Enns’ blog and podcasts at https://peteenns.com/blog/ and https://peteenns.com/podcast/.

2 thoughts on “Life After the Evangelical Church: Part 2 The Bible”

  1. Another line of argument that occurred to me is this. When the text of 2 Tim 3:16 was written, what did the author mean by “all scripture”? It is not the same as “the Bible” as the Bible wasn’t assembled until a couple (?) of centuries later when the canon of scripture was agreed. Did the writer of 2 Tim even realise that what he was writing would eventually end up as part of the Bible.

    Likewise in the epistle of Jude, a section from the Jewish book of Enoch is quoted. Did the author consider that to be “scripture” at the time, and why is in not now considered to be?

    So it seems that to hold that the bible is infallible and inerrant, one has also to believe something that is extra-biblical, ie that the people who assembled the canon of scripture were inspired by God also, to pick the correct (“inspired”) ones and leave out the uninspired ones.

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    1. Hi Iain, sorry for the long delay in replying, its been a busy summer and I haven’t really thought much about the blog. Thanks for visiting the blog and taking the time to comment. I agree with your points. Pete Enns has lots of good articles about this on his blog (https://peteenns.com/blog/) and you can dive deeper into this with his books.

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