What is the Bible? I’ve written about this before, but recently someone asked me the question, so I thought it might be worth writing about it again. It’s also timely; this past Tuesday, there was a debate between Ken Ham (founder of the Creation Museum in Kentucky) and Bill Nye (the Science Guy) about creationism and evolution. You can watch the debate (all two and a half hours of it) on youtube, if you’re interested.
One stream of thought claims that the Bible is “of infallible divine authority in all matters upon which it touches” and is “without error or fault in all its teaching.” These words come from a summary statement produced in 1978 by the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy. The essence of this statement is that the Bible comes directly from God, and that the human authors were simply human secretaries who wrote down the divine inspiration.
The statement goes on to affirm that in all its teaching, there is no error in the Bible, and that scientific hypotheses cannot be used to “overturn the teaching of Scripture on [matters like] creation or the flood,” or presumably anything else.
For many people outside the church, this view of the Bible is probably the most familiar way of considering the Bible. Unfortunately, it is also one of the things that prevent them from approaching the Bible. They just cannot accept this notion of the Bible being completely without flaw or fault. They cannot accept that the Bible’s understanding of creation precludes an evolutionary approach.
There is, however, another way of thinking about the Bible. Inerrancy is not the only way to approach the texts of the Bible. There are, in fact, many Christians who do not accept this notion of “Biblical inerrancy”. They think differently about what the Bible is, how it came to be, and how it can be profitably used and interpreted for modern life.
Let me say at the very beginning that this doesn’t mean that one way is right and the other way is wrong. It only means that there are different ways of thinking about Christian faith. We are all pilgrims on a journey, and none of us has the single right answer. It is possible for us to think differently about such things, and still accept that we are journeying towards the same God.
What is this different way of thinking about the Bible?
We affirm that the Bible is indeed inspired by God. But that does not necessarily mean that it is inerrant in every detail. It is not infallible.
Rather, we understand that the Bible is not a single book, but a library of books, written by different people over a span of some 1,350 years. It contains poems, songs, history, common daily proverbs, letters, prophecy (which, by the way, is not about telling the future, but is more accurately defined as preaching a word for the day in which the prophet lived), gospels, myths, and apocalyptic literature. As such a library of books, it represents the varying viewpoints of its authors over those centuries as they sought to understand the meaning of God in their lives.
I affirm that these writings are inspired by God. At the same time, I also affirm that the Bible throughout is a human product. The Bible contains the witness of our spiritual ancestors in Israel and the early church. It is a record of their experiences of God, their thoughts about God, their understandings of what life with God is about, their praise and prayers, their wisdom. We hear their voices, their witness and testimony.
We also hear their limited understandings, their blindness and conventions, their desires for protection and vengeance against their enemies. It’s all there.
Some parts of the Bible, frankly, are not very inspiring. They tell stories of genocide and the massacre of whole populations. They talk about keeping women in their place. They reflect the patriarchal world in which the Bible was born.
It is up to each new generation to discern where God continues to inspire us, and where we hear simply the presuppositions of a certain society at a certain time.
When I think about the Bible, I use a phrase from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians: “we have this treasure in earthen vessels.” (2 Corinthians 4: 7) Paul wasn’t referring to the Bible, but to the messengers of the good news of Jesus Christ, including himself. But it applies equally well to the Bible. The gospel, the good news, always comes to us in earthen vessels or “clay jars” to use a more recent translation.
So while the Bible may not be inerrant, it is still “treasure” in those earthen vessels. It has been remarkably full of meaning for people throughout the centuries. It continues to be inspired as people find their spiritual way and make their spiritual journey.
Yme Woensdregt is Pastor at Christ Church Anglican in Cranbrook