WHAT IT IS AND IS NOT (excerpt)
Have you ever seen that bumper sticker that says, “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.”? Of course, while I am sure not everyone reading this book will think of the Bible in this way, I do think it is helpful to understand where someone who does is coming from. Grasping why some people believe with all of their being that the Bible is inerrant and infallible can be quite enlightening.
Let’s begin with that word, “inerrant.” “Inerrant” simply means “free from error.” Using this word to describe the Bible is usually a way to say something about its trustworthiness. A person who uses this word typically believes that God inspired absolutely everything within the Bible. Thus, every word on every page, every promise and command is intended and relevant for the believer reading it today. The level of trust in this way of thinking is difficult to describe adequately: you trust God, so you trust that God carefully directed how the Bible was made, at every step along the way.
This perspective usually goes hand-in-hand with the idea that the Bible is as perfect as God is perfect. If you pause to consider the implications of this belief, the stakes are quite high for a person defending the Bible’s inerrancy. Saying the Bible isn’t perfect may feel tantamount to challenging who God is, and if you are going to question that, where does the questioning stop? It feels like an all or nothing gig.
This is how I saw things at one point, so I can empathize with this conviction. The first time someone I respected challenged the Bible’s inerrancy, this thing called a “slippery-slope” suddenly became very real to me. As you can imagine, that level of questioning does not appeal to a person who believes that “all scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness” (1 Timothy 3:16). This verse is, after all, a significant part of why so many Christians take this inerrancy approach to the Bible. Scripture being “God-breathed” is also taken to mean that it is “God-inspired.” The reference to “all scripture” is taken to mean everything contained in the Christian Bible. The reasons are mounting for why some people get defensive when someone suggests that there are errors or contradictions within the Bible.
So, in light of these things, I invite you to take a few moments to mull over the following two points:
1. What scripture does 1 Timothy 3:16 refer to?
The letter of 1 Timothy was written before the gospels and letters that make up the Newer Testament were considered to be “scripture.” The author of 1 Timothy would have been writing from the tradition of Judaism. So “scripture” only referred to the passages in the Torah, Prophets, and Writings that he would have been familiar with.
Additionally, the author of 1 Timothy could not have anticipated the formation of the Newer Testament (which was formalized in the late 4th century), much less that his letter would be included in it. Although, some people (including myself, at one time) might claim that God knew what writings would eventually be considered scripture, wanted this line to refer to all of scripture, and therefore inspired 1 Timothy’s author to say those things. Viewing the Bible as inerrant makes such reasoning possible, but it doesn’t take seriously the writer’s actual context or intention.
Perhaps the most important aspect of this question that I hope you will think about is that if you have a passage in scripture that says that all scripture is God-breathed, then you have a self-validating system or an example of “circular reasoning.” Think about this for a moment. While convenient, I do not think that God would endorse such sneakiness.
2. What did “God-breathed” mean?
Now that we know that “scripture” meant the Hebrew Bible, we are still left with a conundrum: how are we to understand the “God-breathed” part? Would the original recipients have thought it meant that every word in the Hebrew Bible was as God intended, as many people take it to mean today? Or would they have thought of it in the generally-inspired kind of way? Would the original audience have thought that it meant that there would be no errors, in terms of names and places and dates, and that every story happened just as it is narrated, as many people do today? Of course, we will never know. But here are a few insights for you to consider, for now. We will get into more depth on these topics throughout the book.
Let’s take the idea that all of the stories in the Bible happened exactly as they are told to us. This is, for instance, what people believe to be the case when they hold to a strict Creationist perspective on the origins of the planet. They read the first couple chapters of Genesis as a narration of what transpired “in the beginning.” Aside from this being a bit difficult, since no one was there to transcribe what God said and did, there are logical problems to the poetic order described in Genesis 1, such as the occurrence of day and night before there was a sun to rise and set.
As for the matter of there being no inaccuracies, in terms of names or dates or places, you could compare Judges 1 with Joshua 10. Joshua’s narrative makes it clear that the Israelites kill everyone they come across, slaughtering town after town full of people. Judges tells us that the Israelites did not drive out the inhabitants of the land, but that the Canaanites remained and the Israelites settled among them. Surely these cannot both have transpired. But there is a way to read both accounts that respects them and does not require that you ditch your faith as a result. It does require that you read with an understanding of the stories’ context and why they were written, and at least a dose on how histories were told and passed down at the time.