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/.

You Are Not Alone

I have had some mixed responses to my last post.

Thankfully most have been positive. Those of you that write will know how incredibly vulnerable it can feel to write honestly about something that has been painful to you, and then to hit the ‘Publish’ button. So it is gratifying when people can say positive things about a post even when they don’t agree with everything in it.

A few responses have been less positive. Some have spoken of alarm bells (presumably about some ‘dangerous’ opinion), others have questioned whether it is helpful or necessary to write about such things. It is this second point want to address today.

My response it that it is not only necessary, it is essential. That is, essential for me to say it, and essential for others to hear it.

When one has been through a significant experience it can be difficult to make sense of what has happened. Speaking things out, writing them down, listening to others, discussing with others; these are all ways of processing life experiences and are all the more important when these have involved a measure of pain. These have been an essential in dealing with my life journey over the last decade. Very few people would begrudge me doing these things. But the question is (and it is a good question): ‘why do you need to publish this stuff online?’ Behind the question is the implication that it is uncharitable to some people and unhelpful to others.

I readily concede that it is difficult to write about experiences of church without being seen criticise others, especially church leaders. I have struggled with this and one reason I have not written about these things sooner is that I have needed to be sure in myself that I am not writing out of hurt or resentment. For the record, I did not leave my former church because of some disagreement or falling out with anyone. The church is a good church and the people are good people, many of whom I still count as friends. My posts are not directed at individuals but at a belief system and culture, which was my home for many decades and helped me in many ways, but ultimately become something I could not stay in any longer.

So why say these things publicly? Why publish them in a blog and then promote them on Facebook and Twitter. Why not quietly and privately grieve the passing of one season of life, and then move onto a new chapter without hurting anyone’s feelings or challenging their comfortable beliefs? The answer is: I know I am not alone. There are many people who are right now going through the same unsettling, bewildering, questioning of faith, of what they have been taught, of God. This might even be you. And because of the culture of your church, you find it impossible to express these thoughts without disapproval, condemnation, or worse, pity. You do not need to have verses quoted at you, exhortations to have more faith, to pray more. You do not need treating like a sick person, whose contagious disease could fatally infect others. You need to know that it is okay to think, to question, to grow. You need to know it is okay to not have all the answers, to challenge certainties, to embrace mystery. You need to know it is okay to be disturbed, to be angry, or just plain tired of struggling with it all. You need to hear this stuff, and hear it from me.

And that is why a write this stuff. It is not for the certain, the faithful, the sure. It is not for the confident, the zealous, the radical. It is for the nervous, the shaken, the bewildered. It is for the hurting, the wounded, the reeling. It is for the doubters, the unstable, the exhausted. You are not alone.