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Errant Notions Part Four: Jesus and Scripture

Latest in a series of posts exploring common arguments for “biblical inerrancy,” the belief that the Bible was authored by God and is without error in its every statement.

If you want to win an argument about theology or the Bible or really anything, your best move is to demonstrate that Jesus is on your side. Somewhere on the social Internet at this very moment, someone is posting something glib and ill-researched about Jesus’ politics, his views on gun control, or which shows would fill his DVR. For evangelicals defending the inerrancy of the Bible, it has become quite popular in the last few years to claim that Jesus himself was the original biblical inerrantist.

Different forms of this argument have come from different corners of Christian culture, but most of them say something like this: Jesus believed and taught that the Bible is the inerrant, verbally inspired Word of God, and so must we. The specific claims attributed to Jesus here are that all the words of the Bible are a) perfectly true and without error, because b) they were supernaturally transmitted to their authors by God Himself. In a moment we will consider sayings of Jesus that are commonly used to support these claims.

You Know The Drill

If you’ve been following this series you know what comes next. Before we can assess the prooftexts for this argument, a major technical clarification has to be made. Our first question, of course, is what “Bible” or “Scripture” might have meant to Jesus. It certainly cannot have included the New Testament, the contents of which would not be written for some decades after his departure. To complicate matters further, there wouldn’t even be an official canon of Hebrew Scriptures until that same later period. Jesus quotes many of the familiar Hebrew texts from our “Old Testament” and surely considered them sacred scripture. Still, it must be established here on the outset that “the Bible” or “the Scriptures” did not and could not mean precisely the same thing to Jesus as they do to the Christian inerrantists who invoke his endorsement.

Now let’s look at the two most popular passages of New Testament scripture used to demonstrate that Jesus affirmed the inerrancy of the Hebrew Bible.

Matthew 5: Every Jot and Tittle

In the Gospel of Matthew, in the famous “Sermon on the Mount,” Jesus says the following:

“Don’t suppose that I have come to destroy the law or the prophets. I didn’t come to destroy them; I came to fulfill them! I’m telling you the truth: until heaven and earth pass away, not one jot, not one tittle, is going to disappear from the law until it’s all come true. So anyone who relaxes a single one of these commandments, even the little ones, and teaches that to people, will be called the least in the kingdom of heaven. But anyone who does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”
(Matthew 5:17-19)

We have every reason to believe that the “law” and “prophets” Jesus refers to are portions of the same Hebrew Scriptures we know today. And as to whether his comments constitute a claim to the “inerrancy” of those scriptures, it would frankly be difficult to suggest otherwise. The real issue, however, is how this “inerrancy” might work and what it means and accomplishes. In a sense, it is ironic that modern inerrantists would appeal to this passage, which calls for strict obedience to a law that no Christian feels compelled to keep today. But their point, they’ll say, is that Jesus believed the law (and thus our biblical record of it) to be perfect and infallible.

But surely his unequivocal endorsement of the law must be weighed against Jesus’ radical re-interpretations of it, which enraged and scandalized the “inerrantist” watchdogs of his own day. Jesus’ claim is not merely that the law is true, but that it is going to “come true,” that every squiggle and dot of it will be “fulfilled,” and he will personally make this happen. He then presumes to reframe and reshape the law on his own authority, in many sayings like this one:

“You heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you: don’t use violence to resist evil! Instead, when someone hits you on the right cheek, turn the other one toward him.”
(Matthew 5:38-39)

So which one is inerrant, “an eye for an eye” (from the written law) or “turn the other cheek” (from Jesus)? They represent two very different responses to evil. The jots and tittles say one thing, Jesus says another. It appears that the ultimate fulfillment and truth of the law, according to Jesus, is not to be found in the aging scrolls or their classical interpretations, but in the person and perspective of Jesus himself.

John 10: Scripture Cannot Be Broken

“We’re not stoning you for good deeds,” replied the Judaeans, “but because of blasphemy! Here you are, a mere man, and you’re making yourself into God!”

“It’s written in your law, isn’t it,” replied Jesus to them, “‘I said, you are gods’? Well, if the law calls people ‘gods,’ people to whom God’s word came (and scripture cannot be broken), how can you accuse someone of blasphemy when the Father has placed him apart and sent him into the world, and he says, ‘I am the son of God’?”
(John 10:33-36)

So this one is interesting. Basically, some of Jesus’ neighbors want to execute him for calling himself “son of God” (something he only does in John’s gospel, but that’s another discussion). Jesus defends himself by quoting Psalm 82, in which God incidentally refers to a group of mortal beings as “gods.” However, it is Jesus’ parenthetical statement that “scripture cannot be broken” that has become a slogan of the inerrancy movement. This too is rather ironic.

The overall point of Jesus’ words seems to be that scripture can be used to condemn or to rationalize almost anything. By the scriptures an angry mob can set out to murder a blasphemer, and by the same scriptures the victim can defend and justify himself. Both Jesus and his attackers agree that “scripture cannot be broken,” what sets them apart is what they choose to do with it. Unbreakable scriptures can be a weapon or an instrument of salvation.

This passage is also understood by some to support the “plenary verbal inspiration” of scripture, the belief that God supernaturally dictated the words of scripture to its authors. But I have to chalk this up to a (willful?) misreading of the text. The “people to whom God’s word came” are not the inspired authors of the Psalm, but the “sons of the Most High” in the context of the Psalm, the ones God called ‘gods.’ On this point it’s a bit of a stretch.

Conclusion

To sum this all up: It would be foolish to deny that Jesus had the highest possible view of the Jewish scriptures. But this is not a complete picture. He also shifted the onus of infallibility and authority onto himself and his teaching as the ultimate fulfillment of the scriptures. When today’s inerrantists use the Bible as an impenetrable shield against criticism and doubt, or a foregone justification of their own self-interested interpretations, they are at cross-purposes with Jesus. Jesus points us not to the static words of the ancient written law or to cold, unbending religious certitude, but to his own authoritative interpretation of the scriptures which always bends toward empathy and selfless love.

Using Jesus to establish the integrity and authority of the Bible gets it completely backwards. Jesus is our beacon of truth and authority, not the book. For Christians, Jesus is the inerrant word of God.

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Hearing Voices in Scripture

As I’ve suggested many times, I believe that the standard Protestant and Evangelical methods of reading the Bible suffer greatly for denying or ignoring the polyphonal nature of the texts. By assuming a perfect consistency of voice and perspective (and technical “inerrancy”), we effectively silence the human conversations and arguments that characterize the Jewish tradition which produced the library we call “the Bible.”

Anyone who spends a good amount of time with the texts will inevitably encounter these disparate voices, but our traditions have trained us to respond in different ways. Some deny the subjective human dimension as far as they can, preferring to see God as the primary author of all scripture; any appearance of disagreement or problem being merely a cautionary demonstration. (“God wrote it, I believe it, that settles it!”) Others weave complicated apologetics designed to soak apparent discrepancies in reason until they dissolve together into a mush. (“Nothing to see here, folks!”)  Still others, unsure how to navigate surprising diversity and apparent dissonance, demote the Bible to secondary status. (That is, they just don’t read it.)

Readers grounded in these methods risk missing out on the defining human disagreements of the Bible (usually about the nature and character of God), and – most ironically – end up with a “perfect” Bible that isn’t very useful. The inevitable crisis of this approach is “what about this verse?” syndrome, whereby detached, out-of-context passages are used to challenge or even trump one another for appearing antithetical. “Don’t get too excited about that verse, what about this one over here?” The people who most loudly deny that scripture contains contradictions are the ones most likely to battle each other with contradictory verses.

Once we come to terms with the diverse threads of human opinion that run through the Bible, we can contextualize and explore them, we can discern and compare them, and we can work toward a holistic and robust understanding of the larger world that gave birth to the scriptures. Nowhere is this more urgent and crucial, I would argue, than the sayings and teaching of Jesus in the gospels. A flat, tone deaf view of the Bible will quote Jesus, a Psalm, Leviticus, and 2 Corinthians on an equal plane of authority, with the often deceptive qualifier “the Bible says!” Among the many problems with this approach: it doesn’t allow any of the texts to breathe and speak in their own space, and, what’s worse, it threatens to muffle and temper the voice of Jesus, the one voice in the biblical chorus that all Christians consider to be authoritative above others.  Heard on its own terms, the voice of Jesus should be free to harmonize, rhyme, contrast or disagree with any other voice we hear in the Bible.

These thoughts make a fitting backdrop to the post I published earlier this morning about Jesus and Christian Karma.

 

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Four Ways Jesus Loved His Enemies

Jesus enemiesEveryone knows that Jesus said something somewhere about loving our enemies, but to look at his followers you’d think it was just a passing suggestion or a euphemism for something much more complicated. Many modern factions of Christianity are not unlike other insular groups, very sure of who our enemies are and what God has in store for them. Even the prophets and apostles of scripture can’t seem to resist defaulting to an “us versus them” mentality, which only fuels today’s followers by providing them with “biblical” rhetoric about God’s impending vengeance on the bad guys. (Watch Paul wrestle with enemy love in Romans 12:14-21, and see him get downright scary in 2 Thessalonians 1:5-12.) We give those ancient authors a pass because of the times and culture in which they lived and for the persecution they faced, but the fundamental problem persists. The results today range from easily ignored pop-culture revenge fantasies  to deeply disturbing calls to arms against specific groups of perceived enemies.

Was Jesus simply being unrealistic when he commanded his followers to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:44)? Some have taken an approach similar to Paul’s in Romans 12; we should outwardly tolerate our enemies right now like Messiah said, but only in anticipation of judgment day when he’s coming back to settle the score. We win, they lose, we just have to bide our time. But that’s not so much “love” as it is “sanctimonious condemnation and self-delusion.” The Romans 12 approach is really just the 2 Thessalonians 1 approach with a smiley face painted on it.

What about Jesus? Did he practice what he preached vis-à-vis enemy love? The biblical evidence indicates that radical empathy and subversive affirmation of the “other” are central to both Jesus’ message and his legacy. Here are just four ways that Jesus modeled love of enemy, according to the gospel accounts.

1. Jesus refrained from cursing Israel’s enemies

Jesus stood in the tradition of Israel’s prophets. The earliest prophets saw their task as twofold: 1) admonish Israel’s kings and priests on behalf of YHWH, and 2) comfort the nation by pronouncing divine wrath upon her enemies. Later prophets (like Isaiah and Jeremiah who were a major influence on Jesus) intensified their challenge to Israel, especially in light of the “curse” of exile, but still maintained that God would ultimately and eternally punish the pagan powers who carried the curse out. Jesus picked up the prophets’ call for reformation (he called it “repentance”), but he dropped the oracles of fire and brimstone against Israel’s enemies. He spoke some harsh and difficult words, but the worst of them were reserved for the religious authorities in his own land. This is not to say that that he condoned or ignored the brutality of Rome (for example), it simply demonstrates that he made a conscious decision not to frame his prophetic message in terms of “us versus them.”

2. Jesus told stories that inspired empathy for enemies

Along the same lines, Jesus told parables to ignite his followers’ imaginations and to challenge their presuppositions. A major theme of his storytelling is a radical rethinking of both “us” and “them.” One of the best known stories concerns a detested political and ethnic enemy who turns out to be an Israelite’s true “neighbor” (Luke 10:25-37). To love this neighbor as much as oneself, says Jesus, is to know God. In one sense Jesus’ parables are subversive and shocking, and yet they are not without precedent in his own tradition. Hebrew texts like Ruth and Jonah (both invoked by gospel authors) offered stunning and countercultural portrayals of hated enemies as sympathetic and beloved of God. Jesus claimed and amplified this vision.

3. Jesus interpreted scripture by filtering out violence and retribution

It is fascinating when studying the gospel texts to consider when and how Jesus invokes the Hebrew Scriptures in his teaching. Which books does he quote? Which books does he not quote? Which passages does he quote, and when? What does he leave in, what does he leave out? There is a growing scholarly interest in “how Jesus read his Bible.” One of the patterns that emerge from such a study is Jesus’ apparent intentional hermeneutical move away from violence and vengeance. This finds broad expression in the way Jesus reframed the Torah law to focus on relationships and empathy rather than technical compliance (see Matthew 5:21ff.). But consider also Luke 4:16-30, wherein Jesus quotes Isaiah (61)’s announcement of “the year of YHWH’s favor” (when God rescues “us”) but omits the very next line about “the day of God’s vengeance” (when God punishes “them”). By the end of the passage, Jesus’ disappointed neighbors are trying to throw him off a cliff. This dimension of Jesus’ bible teaching is challenging on a number of levels, in its original context and our own. (This topic is addressed in a fascinating book called Healing the Gospel by Derek Flood, who is currently writing another book specifically about violence in scripture.)

4. Jesus blessed his enemies as they murdered him

It’s one thing to avoid hateful rhetoric and to reconfigure an abstract religious/political framework around love and empathy. It is quite another to stare an enemy in the face as he brutalizes you and to declare him “forgiven.” This is exactly what Luke portrays (in chapter 23) when Jesus is crucified and prays, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.” The ramifications of this moment in the gospel narrative cannot be overstated. On the one hand, our notions of right, wrong, and forgiveness are turned inside out, as a divine agent pronounces forgiveness over unrepentant murderers. At the same time, Jesus is living out his own teaching to the utmost extreme, practicing his preaching to a confounding end. It is one of the great climactic moments in our Bible, second only to what comes a chapter later. (And there’s more that could be said about the non-vengeful nature of the resurrection tradition in contrast with popular messianic expectations.)

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Of all the moral imperatives in scripture, none remains more elusive and challenging than Jesus’ call to empathy and selfless love. This is the theme not just of his teaching, but of his life, his death, and his glorious legacy.

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What Do I Mean When I Say “Bible”?

A thoughtful reader noticed that I frequently leave the word “bible” uncapitalized in my blog posts and podcast transcripts and asked me to explain my thinking. For example, I might write about “what the bible says” or “bible authors.” While I do not deny that this is a conscious stylistic choice, I actually had to think long and hard about precisely why I do it, as I developed the habit some time ago. So am I grateful to my friend for the opportunity to self-examine.

My choice to leave “bible” uncapitalized is never an overt theological, doctrinal, or political statement, though it surely has all sorts of ramifications. Primarily, it has to do with what I mean by the term “bible,” and more often than not I am using the word as an umbrella or category rather than a proper title. I employ standard capitalization when referring to a specific text (“Revelation,” “Qohelet”), a specific collection (“Hebrew Bible,” “New Testament,” “Catholic/Protestant Bible”) or a published version of a Bible (“NIV Bible,” “ESV Bible”), but I intentionally type “bible” when referring to the broad category of biblical texts. In this way, in my mind, it’s interchangeable with a word like “scripture,” which just means “writings.” I’m talking about the texts we know as the canonized books of our “Bible,” but which also feature historically in other collections and contexts.

When I write “The Bible,” it activates certain presuppositions in the mind of a reader, most likely involving the printed English translation of the Protestant canon that is sitting on a nearby bookshelf. That’s not a bad thing in itself, but one of the major thrusts of my writing is the appreciation of texts in their original settings, with an emphasis on origins and first meaning. Using “bible” as a category rather than a proper name is my attempt to avoid getting stuck in some of our Christian presuppositions. Maybe a quick, practical example would be helpful.

I’ve talked about Daniel 12 in a couple of blog posts and podcasts. This is a passage about resurrection and judgment. In the context of the Protestant canon, it often serves as a proof text in discussions of rapture, heaven and hell. In the context of the Hebrew Bible, however, it is primarily about vindication for Israel and punishment for pagan empires in the wake of the exile. A robust discussion will consider a full range of context and possible meaning, and by referring to Daniel 12 as a “bible text” or “scripture,” I am inviting readers not to bypass its rich history and consign it by default to a modern post-Protestant context.

This distinction isn’t only important across Testaments or canons. In 2 Timothy 3:16, Paul tells a young pastor that “all scripture (sacred writing) is breathed by God and is useful for teaching, for rebuke, for improvement, for training in righteousness…” Far too often, I have seen this verse used to self-authenticate and self-validate the Protestant Bible, as if the author was aware that he was writing one of the sixty-six books of the Christian canon. Of course, not only was there no Christian canon at the time of writing, there wouldn’t even be a Jewish canon for another generation. There was some standard by which texts were considered “scripture,” but it is unknown to us. Paul is talking about “bible,” but not “The Bible™.”

This is not a hill that I will die on. It is not a stand that I’m taking against any traditional conceptions of the Bible. It is just my own attempt to navigate the often messy and complex straits of biblical literature without losing sight of the big picture. It’s the forest and trees and whatnot. I have no idea if it’s actually constructive or helpful. For all I know it might come across as obtuse or even disrespectful, but that was never my intention. I hope this gives you a little more insight into my crazy bible brain.

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Rescuing the Bible From Inerrancy

A Plea For Honesty and Realism

Ask an evangelical Christian today what the center and heart of Christianity is, and they’re likely to say something like “Jesus is the Son of God,” or “Jesus saves sinners.” But they’re just as likely, in my experience, to say something like “the Bible is God’s inerrant and infallible Word.” A recent interview with Norman Geisler by the Billy Graham Institute underscores the intense manner in which many Christians are doubling down on “biblical inerrancy” as a sort of moral stand against non-believers and the greater culture.

So this is an awkward but opportune moment for me to chime in and explain why I do not subscribe to the doctrine of inerrancy and why I think it’s actually harmful to both faith and personal sanity.

Inerrancy Defined

Biblical Inerrancy is a Christian doctrine about the factuality, reliability and authority of the Bible. It comes in harder and softer flavors, the hardest claiming the text is infallible in all forms and softer versions asserting that the original texts were correct in every fact they affirmed. The major implication of the doctrine, according to its adherents, is that every teaching of the Bible is as true and reliable as every other, and that God’s own authority is carried by every word. This is meant to give the Christian believer a measure of confidence and certainty as they read and proclaim the Bible.

Inerrancy in History?

Proponents of inerrancy assert that it has always been a central part of historic orthodox Christianity. While it’s true that the inspiration and authority of Scripture have always been integral to the faith, “inerrancy” is a distinctly modern category. The early Church writers like Clement of Alexandria spoke often about the sacred and inspired nature of the Scriptures, but they had no concept of inerrancy (and many like Clement himself subscribed to mystical and allegorical readings of the Bible that most inerrantists would reject).  The question of factual veracity as a measure of reliability and value is a product of post-Enlightenment thought.

Historically, biblical inerrancy is a major tenet of the American Evangelical movement of the 20th Century. The concept developed throughout the 1950’s and 60’s but was expressed publicly and explicitly in the “Chicago Statement On Biblical Inerrancy” in 1978 (within my lifetime!). This is not an ancient doctrine fighting against modern sensibilities, it is a modernist attempt to describe the authority of the Bible in the most extreme terms available.

Inerrancy in Scripture?

What does the Bible say about its own inerrancy? Keeping in mind everything we just observed, and setting aside the question of whether any text could conceivably establish its own “inerrancy,” it is helpful at this point to clarify a few things about the Bible and the way it talks (or seems to talk) about itself. For instance:

  • Our term “the Bible” does not refer to a single work of literature, but to a collection of ancient texts that were celebrated and preserved by religious communities and collected together many centuries after they were written.
  • In biblical texts, the word “scripture” does not refer to the canonized collection of texts we call “the Bible,” it simply refers to writings that were known and cherished by the author and community which produced that text. Many writings that were considered sacred to ancient communities were never canonized into the Hebrew or Christian Bibles.
  • The phrase “word of God” in Scripture does not refer to the Bible. In the Hebrew Scriptures it refers to the wisdom, decrees, and will of God expressed through creation, providence, and messengers like the prophets. In the New Testament, Jesus is the “Word of God” embodied.

And so, a few quick examples of how this affects our reading of Bible passages frequently quoted in support of biblical inerrancy:

  • “The words of YHWH are flawless!” Psalm 12:6. The poet David compares YHWH’s promises to refined silver.
  • “Every word of God proves true!” Proverbs 30:5. The prophet Agur celebrates God’s reliable character.
  • “All scripture is breathed out by God, and is useful for teaching, for rebuke, for improvement, for training in righteousness.” 2 Timothy 3:16. Paul implores a younger minister not to forsake the sacred writings of the early church community when teaching and serving his congregation.

Bible texts have much to say about God’s own “words” and the value of the “scriptures” cherished by the ancient Jewish and Christian communities, but the onus of authority and infallibility is always on God and never on the writings themselves.

The Heart of the Problem

You might assume at this point that I’m mounting a technical or scientific argument against inerrancy. While I think I’ve already demonstrated how that might work, it’s actually not what I’m on about. I certainly have no desire to convince my fellow Christians that their Bible contains errors, general or specific. I don’t find inerrancy to be historical, biblical, or technically tenable, but my real objection is to the ideological assumptions behind the doctrine.

The most revealing rhetoric about inerrancy, in my opinion, comes in response to the question, “Why do we need it?” Or more to-the-point, “What do we lose without it?” Norman Geisler’s answers in the interview linked above are typical:

“If we can’t trust the Bible, then we’ve lost the very foundation of our faith.”

“Once you deny the inerrancy of the Bible, you don’t have any basis for your teaching. And you’ve lost the power of God because if it’s not the Word of God—if what the Bible says is not what God is saying—then how can we preach it with authority and life-transforming ability?”

Not only does Geisler reinforce the traditional oversimplification that “God’s Word” = “the Bible,” his answers betray the fear and faulty assumptions at the heart of the inerrancy claim. If we lose inerrancy, he says, we lose the “foundation of our faith” and the “power of God” which gives us “authority” when we preach the Bible.

Two questions:

  1. Why? Why would losing the claim of inerrancy cost us our faith? Is our faith a vulnerable and open-hearted trust in the good character of God, revealed in Jesus and testified in the Bible, or is it an anxious and tenuous faith in a system of facts, a house of cards that might come crashing down at any moment? Is our certainty just a mask to hide that fear?
  2. Where did we get the idea that we need this “power” and “authority”? Did Jesus teach his followers to seek power and authority? Is the aim of our faith to dominate and control others into thinking and believing like us? Is the Bible a living and breathing testimony to the traditions of God’s people, or a magic trump card with which we can “win” the culture? Are we being pious or just arrogant?

My point is not that everyone who holds to inerrancy is just afraid and arrogant. In my experience the doctrine’s adherents are devout and godly people with the absolute best of intentions. But those lofty intentions are part of the reason why the troubling implications of the doctrine have gone largely unexamined. I think that an honest and humble reassessment is in order.

Finding A Better Way Forward

I understand the appeal of inerrancy, I really do. I love the Bible, and my desire to “prove” and “defend” its integrity is what led me to study it and ultimately to attend seminary. But the Bible I encountered in my studies was not a catalog of theological propositions and cultural truth bombs, it was a diverse library of stories and songs and poems and histories and visions that cried out across the millennia with a startling and broken humanity, even as they testified to the divine. Inerrancy, in my estimation, is part of a modern approach to the Bible that often silences those voices and even puts words in their mouths. There has to be a better way.

For the sake of discussion, I offer two examples of “better ways” of thinking about the Bible and its value and authority for the Christian:

  • N.T. Wright’s Scripture and the Authority of God is, in many ways, a very traditional and “orthodox” take on the question of Scripture. What I find so refreshing about it is the clarity and realism it has about the nature of the texts and how they work. Wright compares the Bible to a signpost, set up by helpful people, which points you on your way, but your business is ultimately at your destination. Wright’s full of stuffy little British analogies like that.
  • Inspiration and Incarnation by Peter Enns is one of the more insightful and helpful books I’ve read on this subject. Enns suggests an “incarnational” approach to understanding what the Bible is and isn’t. If God’s infallible love had to be embodied as a mortal human being so that we could encounter it, surely we can appreciate the subjective, human origins of the Bible while still acknowledging its sacred payload. (Enns was fired from an evangelical seminary for his views.)

These are the first two examples I could think of, and they aren’t perfect. That is to say they are errant, but I’m afraid those are the only types of methods available to us. What they have going for them is a combination of intellectual honesty and intense devotion to the texts of the Bible.

My original title for this post was “Embracing Errancy.” I nixed it because it’s a bit misleading and over-the-top, but I still like the phrase. I’m not talking about embracing the factual errancy of the Bible, but embracing our own errancy, and the errancy of our traditions. Our beliefs and interpretations, like the Bible itself, can be powerful tools, signposts pointing us in the right direction. But we will always struggle with the temptation to trade vulnerability and trust for certainty and pride. That’s when our doctrines and even the Bible itself can become idols.

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