Summary: The Bible is a masterpiece that reveals God. Like everything made with human hands, it has flaws. Rather than obsessing about this, we should tune our ear to what the Bible wants us to hear: the living Voice
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The Magic Book?
I Love the Bible
The first time I heard God speak to me personally, it was through the Bible. I don’t remember the details of my teenage angst but I do remember the moment I heard the Voice. I had plopped down in a black bean bag chair. I was so depressed that I had resorted to desperate measures: reading the Bible. It fell open to a Psalm. Like me, the writer was feeling the absurdity of life and wondering if God had flown the coop. I felt a strange closeness with the writer. Suddenly, I heard God speak. It was comfort. It was hope. It was love. I nearly fell out of my chair, which is pretty tough to do when you’re in beanbag chair!
That encounter created a lifelong hunger. I longed to hear that Voice again and again. It was more alluring than girls, more exciting than basketball, more rewarding than straight A’s. There was nothing like it. Peter’s words to Jesus were exactly how I felt: “You alone have the words of eternal life!”
This hunger drove me to get up early each morning. I put on classical music, opened my Bible, and listened for the Voice. Most mornings, I heard it. I never lost this love. It led me to get a Ph.D. in New Testament and to learn to read the New Testament in Greek.
Over the years, my love for the Bible has grown. It is great literature that addresses life’s greatest issues: Job struggling with evil; David finding God in the desert; Isaiah foreseeing universal reconciliation; Jesus proclaiming the Kingdom; Paul explaining the New Creation.
I love the Bible the way I love a good set of binoculars, because of what I see through it. But like all human creations, it is not perfect. In my evangelical tradition it’s against the rules to say this, but it is obviously true.
The Bible Is Not a Perfect Book
A few years ago I attended a scholarly conference on Biblical inerrancy. Speaker after speaker stood up and made the case for the perfection of the Bible. In scandalous tones, they referred to the heretics who had left the group because they dared to questioned this. As the talks droned on, I couldn’t help but feel kinship with the heretics. As wonderful as the Bible is, it is not a perfect book. Here are four reasons why.
1. The Bible Is Not a Book
The first reason why the Bible is not a perfect book is that it isn’t a book at all. It is a collection of writings that spans centuries, some of which are collections themselves.
In our day, it is hard to imagine anything other than the book form. But the book format (called a codex) didn’t emerge until about 200 A.D. Prior to this, writings were preserved on scrolls. The book of Luke is about as much text as you could get on a single scroll which is probably why Luke’s writing is divided into two parts, Luke-Acts.
In the first century there was no question about which books belonged in “the Bible” since there was no such thing as “the Bible.” Instead there was a basket of scrolls. There was debate about which writings belonged in the basket, but by its nature, this was flexible. Not all writings in the basket were of the same value. Some were obviously inspired and were in everyone’s basket. Others barely made it in at all. Different Christian gatherings put different scrolls in their basket.
The first record we have of the 27 books we call our “New Testament” being defined as the accepted scrolls was in 367 A.D. in a letter written by Athanasius, the bishop of Alexandria. This was still not the final definition of the Bible. The unification of the church under the power of Rome led to the unification the accepted books but controversy lingered. In fact, to this very day, the cement is not dry. Protestants declare 66 books to be the Bible but our Catholic and Eastern Orthodox friends include various books from the intertestamental period.
2. There are Discrepancies in the Bible
Generally speaking, the Bible is amazingly accurate. Cities mentioned are found by archaeologists. Customs are confirmed by historians. But those who claim the Bible never makes a mistake overstate the case. For example,
- In 2 Samuel 24:1, God asked David to count the fighting men of Israel.
- In 1 Chronicles 21:1, Satan asks David to count the fighting men of Israel
- In 2 Samuel 24:9, 800,000 men fighting men are counted
- In 1 Chronicles 21:5, 1,100,000 fighting men are counted
- In 1 Kings 4:26, Solomon had 40,000 horses
- In 2 Chronicles 9:25 he had 4,000
- In Matthew 1:6-7, Jesus’ line is traced through David’s son, Solomon
- In Luke 3:31, Jesus’ line is traced through David’s son, Nathan
- In Matthew 20:29-34 Jesus heals two blind men on the way to Jericho
- In Mark 10:46-52 Jesus heals one blind man
Want more examples? Google “discrepancies in the Bible.” There are plenty of people who delight in pointing them out. If you want to try to explain them all away, consult Norman Geisler1 or any of a host of Christian apologists who have devoted their lives to the task of smoothing these kinds of lists out.
This whole thing is a waste of time. When you assemble a library of 66 books spanning many centuries there are different perspectives and contradictions in details. None of these obscure the message. Do we care if there were 800,000 or 1,100,000 fighting men in David’s army? Does it matter if Jesus healed one or two blind men on the way to Jericho? These discrepancies do not detract from the point the writers were trying to make. The problem is caused by looking at the binoculars instead of through them.
3. Some Parts of the Bible are Better Than Others
Some parts of the Bible are better than others. The detailed descriptions of rituals in Leviticus may have been useful when they were written but when is the last time you had someone preach on this verse?
When the body has a boil on its skin and it is healed, and in the place of the boil there is a white swelling or a reddish-white, bright spot, then it shall be shown to the priest. (Leviticus 13:18-29)
You’re much more likely to hear a sermon on this:
Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous… (1 Corinthians 13:4)
Which of these is better?
Now Joshua captured Makkedah on that day, and struck it and its king with the edge of the sword; he utterly destroyed it and every person who was in it. He left no survivor. Thus he did to the king of Makkedah just as he had done to the king of Jericho. (Joshua 10:28)
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. (Matthew 5:43-45)
A friend with a twisted sense of humor once had a mug made for me inscribed with the following verse:
And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you: yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood. (Isaiah 1:15)
You won’t find that mug in the Precious Moments section of your Christian bookstore. Why? Because we focus on the portions of Scripture that speak truth to our souls. We can spout on and on about how all Scriptures all equal. Our behavior proves we don’t believe it.
But we should be careful here. Luther is famous for calling the letter of James a “letter of straw” since it didn’t fit his understanding of grace. Looked at through the lens of the Kingdom, James fits perfectly. Humility is called for. Before we get out our scissors like Thomas Jefferson and start cutting out the pieces we don’t like, we should pause and ask whether the Bible needs modified or whether we do.
4. The Idea of an Inerrant Bible Is a Relatively New Idea
According to Theology Today, “There have been long periods in the history of the church when biblical inerrancy has not been a critical question. It has in fact been noted that only in the last two centuries can we legitimately speak of a formal doctrine of inerrancy.”2
What brought the issue of inerrancy to the fore? Why did it emerge around the time of the Reformation? Why has it become a litmus test of orthodoxy in evangelical circles? Not because of a quest for truth but because of a quest for authority.
The Real Issue: Authority
Jesus urged people to obey their Father in Heaven and prescribed no intermediaries. He taught his followers to make a direct connection with God and told them to help others do the same. As thousands of individuals began to directly experience the love of God the world was changed.
As often happens, this grassroots movement was harnessed by a human institution. Rather than urging each person to make a direct connection with God, people were instructed to give their allegiance to God’s representative on earth, the church. This was no longer God’s direct gathering of souls, the ekklesia. It was a human institution with a human leader. In the fourth century the Roman Empire co-opted this human institution and things got even more messy. Obeying the church became a civic as well as a religious duty. What gave the holy Roman empire its authority? The infallibility of its human leader. The Pope spoke for God.
One of the cries of the Reformation (1517) was “Sola Scriptura!” In other words, authority resided in the Scriptures, not the Pope. This was an attempt to get back to the heart of the Christian faith but it was more than just a theological shift. It was a social revolution. The authority of both the church and the state was undermined. That’s why the Enlightenment was such a bloody mess. It was not just a search for truth. It was a battle for power. What gave the Reformers the authority to rebel? The Bible.
The American twist on the Reformation was to separate the church from the state. Add American individualism to the mix and you wind up with the dizzying array of churches we have all around us. What gives each group its authority? The Bible. Each claims to have the correct interpretation, justifying its existence (and invalidating all others).
The Protestant version of an infallible Pope on a throne is a Pastor thumping a Bible with rows of commentaries in the background. The Bible is an infallible book. The pastor is an infallible interpreter. Just as the Pope spoke for God when speaking ex cathedra, so the Pastor speaks for God when “rightly dividing the Word.” This is why we pastors go to such extremes to prove that we have the necessary skills. It’s why I have a Ph.D. in New Testament and read the Bible in Greek. This is more than an issue of scholarship or a search for truth. It is a claim to authority.
I do not believe in an infallible Pope. I do not believe in an infallible Bible. I don’t believe in infallible interpreters. I love to speak of God but will never claim to speak for God. We have strayed far from Jesus’ message of a direct, living connection with God.
The Bible is a finger pointing to God. We should focus on what the finger points to, not the finger. If we were driving down the road and you saw a beautiful sunset, you might call my attention to it and point. I would stare at the sunset and drink it in. I would not examine your finger for warts.
Each of us must learn to see for ourself. You can’t do it for me. I can’t do it for you. We must learn to listen to the living Voice. This is exactly what Jeremiah proclaimed in his famous New Covenant passage:
This is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel after those days, says the Lord. “I will put my instructions deep within them, and I will write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. And they will not need to teach their neighbors, nor will they need to teach their relatives, saying, ‘You should know the Lord.’ For everyone, from the least to the greatest, will know me already,” says the Lord. “And I will forgive their wickedness, and I will never again remember their sins.” (Jeremiah 31:33-34)
This idea scares some people. Without a ruling power to keep everyone in line, won’t we be condemned to a hopeless maze of subjectivity?
Subjectivity, yes. A maze, no. The reason for this is the power of truth.
Truth: A Magnetic Center
I love this line from the Declaration of Independence,
“We hold these truths to be self-evident…”
Truth needs no defense. We know what is true for the same reason we know when the sun is shining. Can human ignorance, prejudice, fear, and sin block the light of truth? Yes. Our history is full of tragic examples of this. But when it happens, we feel the darkness. No one mistakes it for the truth. We may eclipsed the sun but we will never extinguish the light. As John put it,
The light is shining in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it. (John 1:5)
Darkness may deceive us for a season but light always shines through in the end. When people are set free and empowered to seek truth for themselves it leads to us to a deep unity. This is a far different thing than imposing of human dogma. Dogma brings uniformity. Truth brings unity.
Truth: A Living Voice
I live in a world of a million distractions. Hearing God is no small task. It’s no wonder that the idea of God’s word in a book appeals to me. I don’t have to listen. I just open it and read. It’s nice that it’s such big book. I can almost always find what I want God to say. But this substitution of God’s living Voice with words on a page robs me of life’s greatest joy: hearing God.
Before Jesus died, he did not promise his followers an infallible Pope or an infallible book along with an institution to defend it. He promised a living Guide, the Holy Spirit.
“But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth.” (John 16:13)
Jesus told the Pharisees, who loved to quote Scriptures and argue for their interpretations, that eternal life was not found in the Scriptures. They should seek a relationship with a living God.
“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life. (John 5:39-40)
The writer of Hebrews says,
For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are open and laid bare to the eyes of Him with whom we have to do. (Hebrews 4:12-13)
Since we refer to the Bible as the “Word of God” it is a common to assume “Word of God” in this verse means “Bible.” That is a pretty big assumption since at the time this was written there was no Bible as we know it. God is the subject here. The “word of God” is his God’s living voice, not a collection of human writings. The goal is to be transformed by the living Voice, not to become expert interpreters of a written book. The Bible is an invaluable aid in hearing God’s voice but it but must never become a replacement for the Voice.
Truth: A Never-Ending Pursuit
Belief in the triumph of truth sets me free to love other people, whether or not I see eye-to-eye with them. It is not a common creed that binds us but a common quest. I don’t have to be on the same page with someone to seek the same center. I am able to love all people, no matter what they believe. I trust in the triumph of truth. Light beats darkness every single time.
One of my joys is to learn from others. I love it when people share their insights. I grow weary when they begin prescribing them. In the same way, I love to share my discoveries but do not expect others to follow them. Even less do I feel the need to vilify those who disagree with me. Truth does not need me for its defense. When the noise of humanity dies, truth will stand unchanged.
Like God, truth is infinite. There is no end to this journey. That’s why it is so foolish to claim to have arrived. We are all children playing at the edge of the ocean.
I reject the modern arrogance that we are the smartest people who have ever lived. I read the writings from previous centuries. I love my Bible. I have found it to be one of the mightiest and purest rivers of truth. I love the Bible the way I love my binoculars. I could tell you all the specifications, the type of lenses, the apertures, what I paid for them…
But I love them most when I pick them up and look through them.