All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
—2 Timothy 3:16-17, NIV
Someone recently asked if I consider the Bible the inspired and inerrant word of God, or if I feel it contains some errors and contradictions. I said I am not satisfied with those choices, because I think there is a third and better way. In this discussion, I’m using the word “theory” very loosely.
The “inspired and inerrant” theory
Because the “inspired and inerrant” theory of biblical inspiration is concerned only with the text, apart from the reader, many of the people who hold this theory assume that they need no further information beyond the biblical text—though most concede that a knowledge of biblical languages is helpful, if only for getting a more detailed understanding. It doesn’t occur to them that the reader is a factor in the interpretation. Sometimes they think that just the bare act of reading the Bible makes them an expert and that they can draw conclusive and infallible conclusions from what they think they are reading. For them, the Bible is inerrant and the reader is infallible.
It wasn’t long ago when there was a lot of religious confusion and most people did not have access to high school, let alone college. A scholar who had a seminary education could talk rings around a minister who did not, not because he was smarter, but because he had more information. The scholar could win a debate even when it was the consensus of other scholars that he was wrong. The best way to level the playing field back then was to limit the debate to the text of the Bible—excluding anything that is not in the text—because that’s all an intellectually brilliant but uneducated minister had in common with a stupid but educated scholar. “Only the Bible” became a corollary to the “inspired and inerrant” theory of inspiration and there are some people who deprecate all outside information and even see higher education as a disqualification.
In the United States, there is still a high financial barrier to higher education, so there are still many brilliant people who cannot get academic qualifications. Not because they are dumb, which they are not, but because they are poor. Even so, everyone today has access to libraries, inexpensive reference books, as well as the internet, so everyone can evaluate and apply that information to their Bible interpretation. It is even possible for people who cannot afford to go to school to teach themselves biblical languages. For this reason, many people who believe the Bible is “inspired and inerrant” uphold the supremacy of the Bible while partly dropping the “only the Bible” part. That allows them to inform their interpretations with biblical languages, biblical cultures, biblical politics, biblical economics, and biblical social institutions—but if they find a discrepancy, the Bible always wins.
Unfortunately, that’s not everyone. The most severe problem we have with the “only the Bible” part of the “inspired and inerrant” theory is that it is not biblical. We could say that interpreting the Bible is like being a judge in a trial. The text is a witness to the truth, the interpreter judges what the testimony means. However, the Bible itself says that the testimony of only one witness is not sufficient to determine the truth. We need a second witness, one that comes from God and is equally infallible. Fortunately, we have that witness: the universe, which God created and which God called good. It cannot lie.
Here is how the second witness comes into play. Imagine the members of a Bible study group “proving with the Bible” that the sun really rises in the north. The next morning, when it actually rises in the east, instead of revising their interpretation to fit reality, they retrofit reality to the interpretation. They either declare that “east” is really “north,” or they allege a conspiracy among compass manufacturers, and since they represent this as a Christian belief, outsiders deride Christianity. In effect, they have declared God’s creation a liar and they have caused Jesus’ little ones to stumble.
Problems with the “inspired and inerrant” theory.
There is nothing wrong with the theory, but there can be something wrong with the application:
The principle of “only the Bible” was originally intended to limit the scope of theological debate to even the odds. However, in some extreme cases, “only the Bible” has spilled over into all fields of knowledge, making advocates believe that reading the Bible made them experts in the Bible and everything else as well. Advocates can do much harm by overriding experts, especially physicians.
It is not possible to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge to be as authoritative as God, and it is in fact a sin to attempt it.
The “inspired and inerrant” theory ignores the existence of the reader and does not test the reader’s interpretation to compensate for influences from the reader’s background, education, and social setting that can color, and even distort, what they conclude. They can incorporate folk beliefs into their doctrinal formulations and they can give social values that are otherwise neither here nor there divine sanction that they do not possess.
Is the “inspired and inerrant” theory valid?
Yes. Asserting that the Bible is inspired and inerrant, and that only the Bible is a valid source of religious truth is a valid viewpoint. The flaw is in ignoring that the reader’s preconceived ideas and social values influence their interpretation, and in giving the Bible authority it does not claim in areas it does not address.
The “errors and contradictions” theory
On the other hand, the people who say that the Bible is full of errors and contradictions really do understand that the reader is a factor in the interpretation, but they go too far. They assume that they are a superior authority over scripture because of their education. Some even think that they are experts in ancient things simply because they live in a century with a bigger number. Either way, if they think that there are errors and contradictions in the text, they have to identify them, and in order to identify them, they have to judge the text. In the case of the Bible, they can end up presuming that they know more about ancient times than the ancient people did! That is breathtakingly arrogant! They seldom conclude that an apparent contradiction exists because the information in the middle is missing. Perhaps the writer assumed that the reader already knows it.
People who belong to the “errors and contradictions” camp (and I’m talking mainly about theologians and others in academia) tend to belong to higher social economic classes than the “inspired and inerrant” group. This includes, most prominently, people who have extensive formal education in biblical languages, biblical cultures, biblical politics, biblical economics, and biblical social institutions, which they bring to bear on their Bible interpretations. They are also equipped to discern when the “inspired and inerrant” group has gone of the deep end and they are equipped to make better interpretations—but of course not all of them use that equipment responsibly.
Problems with the “errors and contradictions” theory.
There is nothing wrong with the theory, but there can be something wrong with how it influences the scholar’s methods.
Suppose a scholar is affiliated with church that has declared a past theologian’s works to be normative—Calvin, Aquinas, and Augustine come to mind. The scholar’s findings have to validate that past theologian, and the scholar might retrofit them without knowing it.
Scholars operate in the same world as intellectuals of other disciplines. They need to use the same methods of critically examining evidence and being skeptical of intermediate findings. They are also under publish-or-perish pressure—they have to continually publish academic papers that are new and original and stimulate discussion among their colleagues. The problem? The New Testament is a very small book. Its text has been collated, translated, authenticated, analyzed, interpreted and read over and over again for two thousand years, and nearly anything that can be said about it has already been said. So what can a scholar do? He has to find new ways of examining the evidence, advance and defend new interpretations, and challenge commonly held ideas. Exploring a road to identify that it is a dead end is just as important as finding the right one.
Since scholars had no real-world evidence for the Hittites, they theorized that the Hittites were just a biblical metaphor for the enemies of Israel—until someone dug up the Hittite Empire! They often producing tightly argued theories so that others can knock down. This is the healthy to-and-fro of academia. However, many of these scholars are much more orthodox than you’d think from their publications.
Since credentials and qualifications are very important in the academic world, scholars can get carried away by their expert opinions, and the opinions of their colleagues. The most extreme case I know about is the Jesus Seminar, which published a book adding a fifth gospel, which the ancient church had rejected, to the four canonical gospels and actually voted on truth.
Scholars are pressed against the wall by the need to produce original papers, so they sometimes end up advancing outlandish theories, possibly just to stimulate academic debate. The outlandish theories attract the attention of the press. The lure of fame, fortune, and notoriety cause them to go further out on the limb until they become the liberal counterpart to televangelists, bringing more glory to themselves than to God.
“Errors and contradictions” can produce a theology that gives people the impression that there is no solid truth behind Christianity, that it is all myths, legends, and opinions, and this causes Jesus’ little ones to stumble. Scholars don't make good pastors, because they cannot offer people who are suffering or dying any concrete reassurances. Imagine the dying man asking the scholar, “Am I going to heaven when I die?” And the scholar answers, “There are two or three schools of thought about that.”
Is the “errors and contradictions” theory valid?
Yes. Asserting that the Bible has errors and contradictions causes people to examine it more closely; it can be a constructive way of testing the spirits to see if they are from God. The flaw is taking it too far, ignoring that it can plunge believers into despair, damage pastoral care, and cause the public to mistake the scholar’s theory as the final answer.
Comparing “inspired and inerrant” with “errors and contradictions”
There are three components to interpreting the Bible, the Word of God in the Bible (the text), the Word of God in the Creation (reality), and the interpreter. The interpreter acts as a judge to hear the testimony from the text and reality and to determine what it means.
“Inspired and inerrant” with “erors and contradictions” both neglect one of the two witnesses, they only differ in which one they neglect. “Inspired and inerrant” deprecates the creation, while “errors and contradictions” deprecates the text. They have opposite views of the interpreter. “Inspired and inerrant” assumes that the interpeter is functionally non-existent, “errors and contradictions” assumes the interpreter has supreme authority.
Reading through a glass darkly
Reading the Bible is like reading it through a sheet of glass. If there is printing on the glass, it will look like it’s in the Bible. If there is a smudge on the glass, you won’t be able to read the text it obscures. If there is a shiny place, you’ll see yourself instead of the text. When you read the Bible, you are indeed reading it through a glass, much like 1 Corinthians 13:12. You are that glass. Your values are on the glass, God’s values are in the Bible, but if you don’t take the glass into account, you can’t tell the difference.
In the 1950s in the United States, some people who believed the “inspired and infallible” theory of inspiration were dead sure that God would pour out His wrath against racial integration. Because they were reading the Bible through a sheet of glass that had racial segregation written on it, they thought it was in the Bible. Other people keep constantly interpreting current political anxieties as signs of the end times, and keep doing it even though they are always wrong, because they are reading the Bible through a sheet of glass that has their political anxieties printed on it. Because they aren’t taking the glass into account, and can’t even detect that it is there, they can’t discern whether their interpretation is coming from the Spirit of God or is it coming from the spirit of me.
People who believe the “errors and contradictions” theory of inspiration have the same problem, but with different results. They read the Bible through a sheet of glass that has their values written on it. They aren’t aware of the sheet of glass, so if they see anything that appears to be contrary to their values, such as sexism, slavery, social injustice, they make it into a characteristic of the Bible, deprecate the Bible, and live by their own lights.
Both groups insert their values into the Bible. They often quite right about their values, but instead of detecting them, they are inserting them, and they end up with things not coming out even. The difference is that the “inspired and infallible” group inserts the values they cherish, while the “errors and contradictions” group inserts the values they deprecate.
How both theories of inspiration go wrong
Here’s an example to show how both theories can go wrong. Suppose I write about my neighborhood. I say that there are two major highways, a north-south highway called Route 29 and an east-west highway called Interstate 66. Later in the text, I describe my neighborhood as rectangular, with Interstate 66 forming the northern boundary, and US Route 29 forming the southern boundary (and two other roads to the east and west). Imagine that several centuries later, my document somehow becomes part of the Bible.
The future “inspired and inerrant” reader would conclude that I lived in an era where it was possible for parallel lines to cross.
The future “errors and contractions” reader would find a contradiction, because in one sentence I said the roads were perpendicular, but in another sentence, I said they were parallel. Parallel lines do not cross.
Both of my statements are true, however, and both readers are wrong. There is information in the middle that I didn’t include, because it wasn’t necessary to get my point across. What neither of them know is that in my day, roads weren’t straight lines. They tended to meander. Roads were labeled according to the direction you would go if you traveled their entire length. Interstate 66 goes from Washington DC to the mountains, so it is labeled east and west. Route 29 goes from Maryland to Florida, so it is labeled north and south. The small section of Route 29 near me goes east and west by the compass, but we refer to it by the signs. Both of my statements were true. There is no special geometry and there is no contradiction. In my neighborhood, the east-west highway and the north-south highway are parallel.
There are also two north-south highways near my house that cross at a right angle, but let’s not get into that.
Many people who believe the “inspired and inerrant” theory believe that the reader is not a factor. Many people who believe the “errors and contradictions” theory think the reader is a superior authority. Both make the Bible into a mirror where they see a reflection of their own beliefs and values.
People who cannot learn from the Bible
Have you ever noticed that there are people who never learn anything new from the Bible? Either they “learn” what they already knew, or they “prove” what they already believed.
Have you ever noticed that there are people who never learn anything old from the Bible? Either they find “inconsistencies” that correspond to the gaps in their knowledge or they find “evidence” that the biblical writers are wrong.
If it were true that the reader is not a factor, that the text stands alone, that nothing but the text matters, and that simply reading the Bible reveals the truth, then everyone who reads the Bible would be unanimous about what it says. They aren’t.
If it were true that the reader is a superior authority, that the text can be corrected, that the interpretor’s analysis matters most, and that simply analyzing the Bible reveals the truth, then everyone who interprets the Bible would get roughly the same results. They don’t.
Does Jesus come with a balm or a sword?
It used to be a sort of hobby among biblical scholars to find out what Jesus was really like, to extract Him, so to speak, from the biblical text and see Him in the context of history. Each time, they “discovered” a different “historical Jesus.” Albert Schweitzer took the air out of that when he noted that the scholars of each age tended to find a Jesus who looked just like them and shared their concerns. They read the Bible through a glass that turned out to be mostly a mirror.
The same thing happens both to “liberals” and “conservatives” today. The liberal Jesus comes with a balm, while the conservative Jesus comes with a sword. Why? Because when they read the Bible without taking the glass into consideration, it is nothing more or less than throwing out the Scriptures that they don’t like, but keeping those they do, or keeping the Scriptures that they don’t like, and glossing over those they do. Not much difference, is there? They both end up with a Bible that says exactly what they thought it would; a Bible that can teach them nothing, because it contains no surprises or puzzles.
The inspiration of the Bible
The parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30 is a very good example about how we can clean the glass through which we read the Scriptures. With a little research, we can find out what most people don’t know: there is the rabbinical law behind this parable. It is the burial of the one talent that is the key to the whole parable.
Here’s how the rabbinical law works:
Suppose a friend gives you a diamond necklace for safekeeping while he goes on a trip. You keep it in a safe behind a painting, but unfortunately a thief breaks in, figures out the combination, and steals it. Under rabbinical law, you were responsible for the necklace, so regardless of the circumstances of the theft, you have to reimburse your friend for the value of the necklace. However, suppose you buried it in your back yard. Your friend returns, he wants his diamond necklace back, so you both go out into the yard to dig it up, and lo and behold! Someone got there before you, dug up your roses, and stole the necklace! Under that same rabbinical law, you are not liable for the loss because the necklace was buried.
So let’s compare two Bible readers, both of whom have the same view of biblical interpretation. Reader One, who is unaware of this rabbinical law, thinks the master is angry about the servant’s lack of productivity and gets an impression that God is severe. Reader Two, who is aware of the rabbinical law, realizes that the master is angry about the servant’s lack of responsibility and does not get an impression that God is severe.
Now let’s ask both readers the question, “What if the servant with one talent had invested it at the bank, as the master suggested, but bank went broke and he lost the money?” The first reader, thinking that the punishment was for a lack of productivity, would answer we don’t know, since it isn’t in the text, but the master would probably punish the servant even more severely. The second reader, understanding that the punishment was for avoiding responsibility, would answer, we don’t know, since it isn’t in the text, but the master would probably still reward the servant for taking responsibility. Since he suggested the bank, he obviously knows that investments sometimes go bad. So most likely he would not punish the servant for things that are beyond his control.
What an effect that has on our Christian walk! Reader One might avoid obeying a commandment if he thinks the results won’t work out, while Reader Two might obey commandments, even if he can’t see how they will turn out. For example, Jesus taught us to give money to beggars. Reader One disobeys when he thinks the beggar will use the money foolishly. Reader Two avoids judging the beggar and just obeys. Reader One thinks that apparent results are more important than faithfulness, Reader Two thinks that faithfulness is more important than apparent results.
So having the same theory of inspiration doesn’t guarantee that the readers will agree, because the theory is incomplete.
If the readers belong to the “inspired and inerrant” camp, and they do not know the rabbinical law in the background of this parable, they might not look for it. Their theory of biblical inspiration does not take into account that their ignorance is a factor in the interpretation. The Sunday school question is, “How is God fair?”
If the readers belong to the “errors and contradictions” camp, and they do not know know the rabbinical law in the background of this parable, they won’t go looking for it. Their theory of biblical inspiration makes them think they are already experts. Instead, they might conclude that they have found a contradiction between the God’s apparent unreasonableness in this parable and His mercy elsewhere in Jesus’ teachings. The question is, “Where is the flaw in the text?”
If the readers of both camps know about the rabbinical law, they are likely to interpret the passage the same way.
The priesthood of all believers or the papacy each believer?
Both views neglect the importance of the reader, though in opposite directions, because both views have a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of the priesthood of all believers.
None of the priests in a priesthood can act unilaterally on his own; each is subject to their corporate discipline. They have corporate expertise, not individual expertise. They submit to higher authority. Each one has to subordinate his personal judgment to the corporate judgment of them all. It takes a lot of humility to be a priest in a priesthood.
You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
—1 Peter 2:5, NIV
Notice that in Peter’s view of the priesthood of all believers, individuals are just parts of a greater whole. Peter describes a priesthood of all believers, not a papacy of each believer.
People in both camps assume that they, as individuals, can make final, infallible interpretations of scripture, free from the contexts, biases, prejudices, and ignorance to which they are subject. It doesn’t improve matters when you assemble a group of like-minded friends, such as all the Bible scholars at a seminary or all the Baptist pastors in a state, because the groups are self-selected based on their shared opinions.
This is contrary to the word of God. No member or group of members of the Body of Christ can arrogate to themselves a task that belongs to the whole Body.
What theory of inspiration should we use?
I like the view that Jesus is the Word of God and the Bible is the canonical witness to Him. I know that people in the “literal and inerrant” side don’t like that, because they hear it coming from the scholars they call “liberal,” but they don’t realize how much respect has developed on the other side of the aisle for scripture over the last few decades and what a huge change that statement represents. To that statement I would add that the Bible is the canonical witness for the priesthood of all believers in the aggregate, not for each individual person serving as his own pope. As Christians, we are members of a body. None of us is complete by ourselves, therefore I agree with Luther than no individual is a self-contained expert who can accurately exegete the Bible. We all must work together. All of us.
Interpreting the Bible is a corporate activity of the entire Body of Christ. That Body of Christ does not consist of all members in good standing at the First Fundamentalist Church, nor does it consist of all scholars with doctorate degrees at ATS-accredited seminaries; it consists of all Christians in all nations and ages. The earlier ones are weightier, because they lived closer to the revelation, and they shared its political, economic, and social context. The priesthood of all believers includes people alive today, but since the dead in Christ are still alive, it also includes Wesley, Calvin, Luther, Aquinas, Irenaeus, Ignatius, Chrysostom, Ignatius of Antioch, and all the way back. Just because some of the parts of the body are with the Lord, it doesn’t mean that their contributions are now void. In other words, just because they’re dead, it doesn’t mean they’re stupid. Have you actually read any of those early guys? If not, you are in for a big surprise and a wonderful treat.
The “inspired and inerrant” camp doesn’t like that idea, because it is hard to do and it means we can’t have the final answers right now this minute. But Paul said in scripture that we don’t have the final answers during our lifetime. The “errors and contradictions” camp doesn't like that idea either, because they have to rub shoulders with the common folk. But Paul told us that humility is a fruit of the Spirit.
Both camps can use historical resources responsibly or irresponsibly, for guidance (the right way) or permission (the wrong way). If you look through history to find some early Christian writer or the other who agrees with you, you are doing it wrong. Here’s the right way. Look at the writer’s credentials. Were they the leader of a dissident sect, like Priscilla and Montanus, or were they recognized as orthodox by their peers in the church? Even if the writers were personally okay, you still have to qualify their writings. Some, such as Tertullian and Origin, went through periodic heretical phases. Find out if are reading works that were considered heretical or orthodox by Christians in general of that era. The idea is not to find a reason why you are right, but a reason why you are on the right track.
It’s interesting to note that both “liberals” and “conservatives” often agree that later sources are better than earlier sources. That doesn’t make sense to me. Imagine you are a detective looking into a cold case that took place half a century ago. You have two witnesses. One says says, “I am John. I was there. I was a credentialed expert. This is what happened.” The other one says, “I was born 30 years after it happened; however, I am a credentialed expert and I investigated. John saw the accident. He told Sally, who told her neighbor, who told my cousin, who told my mother, who told me. This is what happened.”
Both witnesses are valuable, because the first one was there and the second one didn’t know about the cold case until decades later, but did research. Which one is better? Personally, I think it is the earlier one.
Reading the Bible
As we seek to understand God’s message in the Bible, we have many struggles, and many disquieting moments because not everything is cleared up. However, shouldn’t we expect that, since the people of God are called Israel, which means “struggles with God”? So to the “inspired and inerrant” camp, I say, struggling with the Bible is disquieting, and not having all the answers means God is bigger than you are, and that is frightening. But scripture says that we are supposed to struggle with God and we cannot know all things. And to the “errors and contradictions” camp, I would say, “who made you so smart, that you can jump to the answer before all the facts are in? Who are you to teach God? Were you there when He laid the foundation of the universe?”
The Inspiration of the Bible
What is the proper view of the inspiration of the Bible? What is the message that God has for us? Finding that out is one of the tasks of the whole Body of Christ. We are in the middle of that task, not at the end of it. God gave us evidence and brains, and He wants us to use both of them. He wants us to grow and make right choices.