Tag Archives: word of god

Jesus is the Word of God, Not the Bible

These thoughts follow on last week’s post about “Jesus and Scripture,” and the often ugly and desperate state of Christian rhetoric on social media this weekend.

Christians, we ought to stop appealing to “the Bible” as a flat, uniform record of a simple, consistent theology or a prepackaged morality. Being a collection of wildly diverse texts across many traditions, eras and languages, the Bible represents a series of inspired poems and arguments about what God is like. As Christians, we’re the ones who say that Jesus won the argument. He clarifies and corrects our idea of who God really is.

Protestantism, for all the good it has done the world, has erred by systematizing the Bible’s many visions of God into one giant, scary, contradictory loaf of generic divinity. God is loving, but His love is expressed as wrath. God is merciful, but He demands either moral perfection or sacrifice. God is forgiving, but His justice is violent. Jesus sorts it all out for us. God is not a king or a tyrant, but a loving Father. God demands mercy, not sacrifice. God doesn’t hate our enemies like we do, He loves them like we should.

Our job is not to “obey the Bible,” as if Jesus had come to endorse and fossilize every idea that was ever written about God. As we observed last week, Jesus enthusiastically endorsed the Jewish law (you know, the one none of us even tries to keep), but only according to his own radical and open-hearted interpretation. That is the error of conservative biblicism: it goes just far enough to get Jesus’ endorsement of the scriptures, then pulls out and redirects our attention back to their own self-interested authoritarian interpretations. Jesus doesn’t defer to the authority of scripture, he assumes authority over it, hijacks the whole thing, and reveals that it was always and only about empathy and love. Our job is to follow Jesus in his selfless understanding of God, neighbor, and world, and to trust that this is the way of salvation.

I trust in the Bible as an authentic witness to the traditions of our faith and – most important – to Jesus. But my belief and obedience are reserved for Jesus.  Or at least in my better moments I know they should be.


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.


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.


Errant Notions Part Three: The Self-Authorizing Book

Third in a series of posts examining common arguments and assumptions regarding “biblical inerrancy,” the belief that the Bible is without error in its every claim.

These next two posts will explore what are probably the most popular arguments for inerrancy today, namely that the Bible is inerrant because it claims to be (this post), and more emphatically because Jesus said that it is (next post). These assertions are closely related but I think they deserve to be treated separately. Distinguishing the perceived authority of the Bible from that of Jesus is a helpful and fruitful maneuver and most relevant to my goals in this series and this blog in general.

Because It Says So

Before we can explore what the Bible may or may not say in reference to its own inerrancy, there are some questions to ask and clarifications to be made. As with most of the arguments we’re considering, there are technical considerations that eventually give way to the more subjective and spiritual questions at the heart of this debate. The first question we need to ask is how any text, let alone the Bible, can be said to authorize itself. If someone asks, “how can I know that this book is reliable and free of error?,” how satisfying is the answer “because it says so”? Texts can make all manner of claims, but the claims themselves cannot constitute authorization. This type of self-authorization is not legitimate in law, science, or philosophy, so why should the Bible be any different? Without verification from an external authority or, better yet, personal experience, how can any book convince us that it is not only good, not only true, but correct in its every affirmation?

What “The Bible” Can Say About Itself

This forces the bigger question of exactly how “the Bible” might be said to make such a strange claim in the first place. The scare quotes aren’t meant to belittle or disrespect, but to highlight the problem we have whenever we claim to represent what “the Bible” says on a given topic. The Bible is a diverse and multivocal library of texts; some are conversant, some represent conflicting points of view, some are surely unknown to others, and all are absolutely unaware of their place in the context of a future canon. How can any single passage be said to address the inerrancy of every other passage in the whole collection, even those of other times, places, authors and communities?

It is germane at this point to examine the popular passages frequently used to make the appeal for inerrancy. I will divide these into two groups: passages which use an approximation of the phrase “word of God,” and those which directly address the topic of written texts.

a. “Word of God” Passages

In many Christian traditions, especially those which emphasize a doctrine of inerrancy, the phrase “word of God” has become synonymous with “the Bible.” This is usually bound up with the notion of God as the true author of all canonized scripture, with no human voice or opinion strong enough to obscure the divine truth. As a result, any passage that uses this phrase (or anything like it) can and tends to be treated as a reference to the whole Bible and its inerrancy. But while the phrase does indeed appear in the Bible (unlike other doctrinal catchphrases like “the fall,” “original sin,” or “trinity”), we will observe that it never refers to the full collection of canonized texts we know as “the Bible,” and that it usually has something to do with the personal decrees and purposes of God. A few examples will illustrate this:

Psalm 12:6 – “The words of YHWH are flawless, like refined silver…”

In this Psalm, attributed to David, the poet laments the absence of “godly” and “faithful” leaders to care for the poor and disenfranchised in Israel, until YHWH announces in verse 5 that He will “now arise” and answer the cries of the needy. The “words of YHWH” in verse 6 refers to this promise to care for the poor. There is nothing here about written texts, just an artistic juxtaposition of human failure and divine faithfulness.

Proverbs 30:5-6 – “Every word of God proves true…; Do not add to his words lest he rebuke you and you be found a liar.”

Taken as an isolated statement and out of context, this might sound like a warning not to alter the infallible words of scripture. However, reading the full passage, we discover a text in the Hebrew wisdom tradition that is not concerned with written words or books, but with human integrity. God’s “word” is not a text but His wisdom and provision. Those who “add to” those words are greedy ones who seek more than what God provides, who chase riches, lie, and mistreat the weak. The human author of the text beseeches God to save him from these people and their folly.

Isaiah 55:11 – “…so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose…”

This is our first example that presents God as the speaker, and this passage is ubiquitous in inerrancy culture as a pronouncement of the unflappable power of the Bible. In context, however, it’s not about the Bible at all, it’s about the end of exile and Israel’s return to her homeland. The “word” that goes out from God’s mouth is the promise that rescue and restoration are at hand, and that this particular historical nightmare is finally coming to an end.

b. Passages About Scripture

Other selections deal explicitly with issues of texts as sacred scripture. These actually do concern the authority of the text, though the major contention continues to be the breadth of that authority. Can any Bible passage be construed as referring to the authority of the whole canon? These are the two most likely candidates:

2 Timothy 3:16 – “All scripture is breathed by God, and it is useful for teaching, for rebuke, for improvement, for training in righteousness…”

In Paul’s second letter to a young pastor named Timothy (authorship is disputed, though not by most inerrantists), the apostle gives advice to his protégé on dealing with his troubled congregation. In this verse, Paul reminds Timothy that scripture should always play a role in his teaching and ministry. He declares that scripture is “breathed by God,” which is the closest we’ve come to the idea of God as an author, or at least an inspirer, of written texts. But a question persists: to which texts does “all scripture” refer?

It might refer to any of the Hebrew Scriptures, or just to the Torah, or to some unknown configuration of early Christian texts. We know that it cannot refer to the New Testament, which would not be fully written, collected, or canonized for at least another century. It’s also worth noting an alternate but valid translation of this verse which reads, “all scripture THAT is breathed by God is useful for teaching…,” which is even more ambiguous. In any case, this passage concerns the inspiration and value of some unspecified collection of sacred texts, not the inerrancy of every word in our Bible.

Revelation 22:18-19 – “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book.”

Since it lands on the final page of our canonized Bibles, it’s been easy to assume that this warning applies to the whole collection. It’s pretty clear at face value, of course, that the author is referring specifically to the prophecies contained in the latter chapters of this book, and that his concern is the integrity of the prophecy, not the inerrancy of the text. At the same time, textual scholars shine additional light on something else that may be going on here. Authors and scribes of ancient texts would often include warnings to plagiarizers and forgers not to mess with the contents of a scroll. This might well be a warning to other writers or pastors not to co-opt or alter this prophecy for their own purposes.

Humble Texts, Infallible God

These texts make strong claims, some about their own value, most about the character and goodness of God. What none of them do is assert or establish the inerrancy of the entire library in which they will one day be collected. No single text in the canon was ever equipped or positioned to do such a thing. The value of these ancient works is not their own inherent integrity, but their inspired witness to divine faithfulness. The texts of the Bible testify to the goodness and infallibility of God, not the other way around.

Here’s a reminder that my criticism of the inerrancy doctrine in no way constitutes an attack on the Bible. Quite the contrary, it is the claims of inerrancy which mischaracterize the Bible and sabotage an honest and fruitful reading of scripture. By imposing false uniformity and foregone infallibility upon the books of the Bible, we actually damage the witness of the individual components of the Bible and thwart opportunities for authentic learning and genuine revelation. The authors of biblical texts would surely be disheartened to know that the onus of glory and power had been transposed from God to their books.