Millions of believers assume the Bible is inerrant—that everything in the Bible is the absolute word of God. I believed this myself for thirty-five years, but I now think this belief is very mistaken and even harmful. It distorts the way we interpret the Bible and prevents us from properly discovering what it tells us.
We sometimes have problems understanding the Bible in its original, unfamiliar settings, but we also have a second problem—we come to the Bible with presuppositions we have inherited from others. These presuppositions accumulated over time and were passed down confidently from one to another, so that when we learned them from our teachers they appeared to be the only way to understand the Bible.
So it is with inerrancy.
Who Wrote the Bible?
Among believers, there are two perspectives on reading the Bible; one is to assume inerrancy, and the alternative is to approach the Bible without that assumption. It is almost like seeing the Bible through two different kinds of glasses, and they lead to completely different ways of following Jesus. One way leads to great harm to believers, non-believers, and the church; the second leads to love, peace, freedom, and reconciliation.
As a fundamentalist, I saw the Bible through inerrancy glasses. But after decades of wearing those glasses I experienced a paradigm shift that opened the Bible to me in a clearer way and also revealed the dangers of assuming inerrancy.
The key to this paradigm shift was the realization that God did not write the Bible—he did not dictate it, or guide it, or preserve it. Instead, the books of the Bible were written by people who felt a strong connection to God and who wrote about God based on their own experiences, circumstances, the influences of their culture, and their limited understanding of the world. This does not mean the Bible is without value—it is tremendously valuable!
But it is not the very words of God throughout, as though it were one continuous, authoritative book. When referencing passages from the Bible, it is misleading to say ‘God says’ or ‘the Bible says’. A more appropriate introduction is to say ‘Mark says’, ‘Paul says’, or ‘the book of Leviticus says’.
The Old Testament
With this perspective, it is easier to see that God was not the angry, harsh, vindictive God the Old Testament often describes; rather the Old Testament pictures how the authors of those books thought about God. And one of the things that influenced their view was the idea that God was responsible for human catastrophes. Therefore they interpreted their national history in terms of God’s direct actions, so that their successes and reverses were attributed to God, whom they saw as demanding, punishing, and harsh in expressing his displeasure toward both the Israelites and their enemies.
Thus to them it was God who rained down terror on the Egyptians that held the Israelites captive. It was God who directed his people to destroy the Canaanites. It was also God who punished Israel and Judah when they strayed, and who finally allowed them to be conquered by the Assyrians and Babylonians.
However, the Old Testament view of angry God was not the only view. There are also characterizations of the God of love, comfort, and empathy for the brokenness of humanity. In reading the books of the Old Testament we find many wonderful insights about God and life, but the Old Testament books were not written, so to speak, in one voice; because various authors had different understandings about God.
The New Testament
To an extent, the New Testament is similar to the Old Testament in that it was written by individual people and is not God’s very words—but there is a difference. The books of the New Testament center on the good news of Jesus, and most of them are told from the memories of Jesus’ earliest followers. While the Old Testament was written over a period of 1000 years, the New Testament was written within about a generation after the life of Jesus. And it focused on one thing—Jesus.
The word ‘gospel’ means ‘good news’, and the four books are about Jesus’ message of the good news: 1. God is not angry and harsh with us as some of us imagined, but loves us and desires our reconciliation and freedom from our burdens; 2. We can abandon legalistic religious rules and, instead, live a life of seeking the good of others; 3: We are now part of the kingdom of God helping to bring about God’s will on earth; and 4. We have hope of resurrection after death and a life of peace and happiness forever.
The early followers of Jesus wrote in their own words, from their own cultures, and from their own perspectives; but what they share with us is of immense importance. Though some details and emphases vary, I believe we can have confidence in the portrait of Jesus presented in the Gospels from the memories of his earliest followers.
In reading the Bible, this is where I would spend most of my time.
Paul’s letters are of a different genre than the Gospels. While the Gospels tell the story of Jesus and the good news, Paul’s letters address issues that arose in the churches he established. They are personal and specific to local situations; they are not addressed to us at all! And they are the words of Paul—not of God; therefore we cannot infer God’s revealed truth, or theological doctrines, from Paul’s personal advice and instruction to churches and individuals, because he wrote to specific issues in his own time and culture.
However, Paul’s writing’s are very useful. Though we live almost two thousand years since his original readers, we benefit from his thoughts and insights; but were Paul to visit us today I am sure he would be horrified to find that some believers consider his words equal to the voice of God. Some of Paul’s personal opinions are culture-bound, but that does not prevent me from admiring Paul and his insights on living as a follower of Jesus.
The Dangers of Inerrancy
Understanding the Bible as composed of important books written by humans who were bound by their histories, cultures, and limited knowledge makes more sense than viewing the Bible as one huge document revealed by God, as inerrancy assumes. In fact, using inerrancy as the paradigm for reading the Bible leads to harmful results of all kinds. We will talk about some of those harmful results next time.
In this series:
6 Religious Beliefs that Cause Tremendous Harm
The #1 Most Harmful Belief Among Christians—Angry God
4 Ways that Believing God is Angry and Harsh Hurts People
The #2 Most Harmful Religious Belief—the Inerrant Bible
A More Realistic Alternative to Inerrancy of the Bible (Today’s Post)
4 Huge Ways Believing the Bible Inerrant is Tremendously Harmful
How Legalism Stunts Our Spiritual Growth
How Should We Respond to Those who Teach Harmful Beliefs?
Photo Credit: Christian Evolution
The purpose of this blog is to support those re-evaluating traditional religious beliefs. If you find the blog helpful, consider following to avoid missing future posts.
In the column to the right, you can follow by email (most dependable), Facebook, or RSS.
Have a great day! ~Tim