Tag Archives: inerrancy

The Problem With “The Bible Says”

Our old, flat, and uninformed way of reading the Bible has become at best an unhelpful burden, at worst a liability. The church’s insistence on handling the Bible as a singular and consistent whole rather than a library of diverse voices continues to stifle and sabotage our ability to grow and learn. Worst of all, it has built an echo chamber of tepid and contradictory religion where the radical voice of Jesus can no longer be distinguished or heard.

Simply reporting that “the Bible says” this or that isn’t helpful in itself and can actually be detrimental and misleading. Yet this continues to be this basis for authoritarian Christian claims, often over the lives and fates of others, and not just inside the walls of the church. If “the Bible says” something, it must be true, and it must be prescriptive at least for the lives of Christians if not for all humankind. This elevates the texts of the Bible to a dangerous and impossible level of authority, consistency, and relevance. It also relativizes and neuters the subversive teaching of Jesus.

Context is Everything

If one day your spouse or roommate announced, “The library says that April is the cruellest month!” and then proceeded tearing out calendar pages and barricading doors, you might think they were nuts, or you might even join their strange crusade. But if you knew that those words were written in the early twentieth century by the English poet T.S. Eliot in a poem about death called The Waste Land, you could calmly engage them in a conversation about what those words might mean to them personally.

Context reveals the subjectivity and humanity of a text, which is precisely why Christians interested in an authoritarian Bible ignore it, and want others to ignore it too. They simply expect the “clear meaning” on the face of the text to be unquestioned and obeyed. The problem is, apart from context, the only “clear meaning” is the one imposed upon the text, explicitly or by way of unspoken assumptions. And when we do allow context to illuminate meaning, the shape and application of that meaning is often not as clear and straightforward as we’d like it to be.

Some Things “the Bible Says”

Here are just a few examples off the top of my head of things “the Bible says” that are not as straightforward as they seem.

    • The Bible says that the earth was created in six days. (Genesis 1)
      Actually, the book of Genesis opens with a song celebrating nature. It uses a distinctive seven-day schedule as an orderly and easy-to-understand framework in which to explain creation, often in contrast to the chaotic and violent creation myths that were popular in that ancient world. We know a lot more about the cosmos today, so what kind of language might we use to describe the fundamental integrity of the universe?
    • The Bible says that the punishment should fit the crime, i.e. “an eye for an eye.” (Leviticus 24:20)
      Actually, while some Torah laws appeal to this principle, later dubbed lex talionis, others call for harsh punishments and even execution. Elsewhere in the gospel of Matthew, Jesus teaches his followers to forfeit all retaliation and to confront evil with nonviolent resistance. Does this perhaps represent a trajectory away from violence and retribution? How do we approach questions of justice and punishment in our own time and culture?
  • The Bible says that God punishes children for the sins of their parents. (Exodus 20:5; Numbers 14:18)
    Actually, this is a common claim in some portions of Torah and some prophetic texts, but it also openly rejected in the writing of Jeremiah and the teaching of Jesus. How does it change our understanding of history and our view of the future if we get past the idea that God punishes us for the “sins of the past”?
    • The Bible says that rich people go to hell and poor people go to heaven. (Luke 16:19-31)
      Actually, Jesus adapts a very common Greek fairy tale as a parable about the subversion of wealth and class in the kingdom of God. How might Jesus reconfigure some of our best known myths and stories to demonstrate our inside-out values?
    • The Bible says that there can be no forgiveness of sin without the shedding of blood. (Hebrews 9:22)
      Actually, the unknown author of Hebrews says that “according to the law, there could be no forgiveness without the shedding of blood.” It’s part of a complex and often strained argument for the superiority of Christianity over Judaism. How would we as Christians respond to this kind of argument today?
    • The Bible says that wives must submit to their husbands. (Colossians 3:18)
      Actually, the apostle Paul wrote letters to his first century congregations teaching them to organize their relationships according to mutual love and respect. Language of “submission” was commonplace in that ancient world, but Paul’s point was about reciprocal love rather than strict hierarchy. How should we approach family relationships today in a way that reflects our understanding of Christian love?
    • The Bible says that women cannot teach or lead men. (1 Timothy 2:12)
      Actually, the author of Timothy (probably not Paul) wrote a rant against a particular group of women who were apparently stirring up trouble in one of his churches. What do the contents of letters like these reveal about the evolution and struggles of the earliest Christian churches? What issues in our own day might correspond to those faced by the ancient churches, and how might we respond to them? And while we’re here, does the controversy about the authorship of Timothy and Titus have any bearing on how we read and interact with the Bible, or on our concept of “biblical authority”?
  • The Bible says that the world will end in Armageddon, a cosmic battle between good and evil. (Revelation 16)
    Actually, the book of Revelation is not a prediction of the sorts of things that will or must happen in the future. It was a creative apocalyptic response to a specific first-century crisis, the martyrdom of Jewish Christians at the hands of the Roman Empire. The author was attempting to reassure suffering people that Rome would fall and God’s kingdom would be established, and images of dragons, plagues, and war were his way of condemning Rome’s oppressive regime. What does the Bible’s pervasive critique of empire say to us as modern Americans? How does our view of the future change if holy war is not a foregone conclusion?

Each of these biblical statements represents the work of a subjective human author, and each invites us into a world of thought and imagination. There are a thousand conversations to be had, fresh in each generation, and always new voices to be added. It is never enough to simply throw “the Bible says” at someone, as if these texts were objective axioms from the very mouth of God, and as if our own humanity and the humanity of the Bible’s authors never entered into the equation. If there is truth and value and glory in the Bible, we will find it together through humility and listening, by embracing honesty and subjectivity.


Break Your Bible: Ezra Makes Judah Great Again

One of the major convictions which fuel most of the material on this blog is my belief that modern Christianity must confront and reconsider how it understands and interacts with the Bible. This is not necessarily the most important nor the ultimate task, but it is a necessary stepping stone to growth and progress. The old flat and systematic way of reading the Bible as an inerrant catalog of religious axioms is the biggest hindrance to spiritual advancement and the rediscovery of Jesus which we need so urgently in my opinion.

In that spirit, I often highlight problematic or misunderstood portions of scripture, not to be contrary or to “attack the Bible,” but to foster the important conversation about what the Bible is and how we can read it honestly and fruitfully. Today I want to look at the small book of Ezra.

Ezra, Revival, and Mass Deportation

In a sense, Ezra should be one of the most triumphant and satisfying texts of the Hebrew Bible. It narrates the return of the exiled citizens to Judah, the rebuilding and rededication of the temple, and the religious reawakening of the people. And yet, many modern readers find this to be a shocking and upsetting episode for reasons we will presently consider.

The titular Ezra only shows up in the book’s final chapters, a priest empowered by the Persian King Artaxerxes to re-establish the traditions and (more importantly) the laws of the Torah. This involves prayer, reinstating sacrificial practices, public reading of the law, and a call for national repentance, which is where things start to get rough. Ezra demands that those Judahite men who have married foreign wives during or since the exile must divorce them and have them all “put away” along with their children.

The gamut of modern reactions to the book of Ezra is perhaps represented by two recent blog posts: one from our pals at Charisma News hailing Ted Cruz as “an Ezra for America,” and one from Fred “Slacktivist” Clark who responds with both horror and humor. The difference is between those who believe that mass divorce and deportation of women and children are right and good when religiously justified, and those who have their doubts.

The standard church reading of Ezra, informed by inerrancy and an apologetic commitment to the moral cohesion of the entire Bible, sees this as a story about revival, repentance, and the difficult choices we often must make when confronted with God’s clear commandments. This is not to say that every bible-believer smiles in approval of the tragic events at the end of Ezra (though some clearly relish it). But most feel obliged to give assent to the “divinely inspired” leadership of Ezra. In fact, most wouldn’t dream of questioning any of it, simply because it happens in the Bible.

Ezra and History

In a flat and self-contained reading of the Bible, especially historical texts like Ezra, the perspective of the author is always assumed to be divinely sanctioned, the morality consistent and prescriptive, and the main characters heroes of the faith. But diverse political and ideological perspectives run wild in the collected texts of scripture, often in tension or even in slap-fights, if we will just open our eyes to see it. When we acknowledge this fact, it is no longer possible to talk about a singular “biblical” perspective, but rather the various voices and agendas which populate the library. Just because the historical context or ideological bent of a book or author is not spelled out for the modern reader doesn’t mean they are not present or have no bearing.

In the case of Ezra, he represents a particular aristocratic wing of Yahwism in the fifth century BCE which placed a strong emphasis on religious and genealogical purity. This powerful group (or party) was opposed to and by other groups, such as the resident Samaritans, who were descendents of the northern Israelites with different ideas about how the nation should be run and who was to be included in the “people of God.” This political battle gave Ezra’s party control of Jerusalem and resulted in the great schism with Samaria, the effects of which are still seen centuries later in the narratives of the New Testament gospels.

While our traditional way of mining Bible stories for absolute truths and coded messages has only ever seen Ezra as a positive example of how a nation might please God by cracking down on certain laws or enforcing certain prohibitions, a more careful and educated approach understands that we are reading a text written by the winners of a particular ancient culture war. This doesn’t make their actions inherently commendable or condemnable, but it means that we are free to use our discernment and moral sensitivity when considering that question for ourselves. If forced mass divorce and deportation in the name of “pure religion” strikes you as unsavory, you might want to follow those instincts. I can even think of a few other voices in the Bible which might agree with you.

Weighing the Cost of Intellectual Honesty

Whenever I push Christians to think critically about the Bible like this, there is always the inevitable “gotcha” question: If you nuance, critique, or openly disagree with even one part of the Bible, how can you trust or believe in any of it, especially what it says about Jesus?

This question presupposes so much about authority and the nature of belief and the Bible, and my response is always the same. I can only judge anything I read in the Bible based on the same simple criteria I apply to everything else: Is it good, and does it turn out to be true? I can’t prove, argue, or defend anything based on those questions, I need to have faith and patience. Good things will bear good fruit, and bad things will bear bad fruit, regardless of obtuse appeals to authority or “purity.”

Subjectivity is unavoidable, in fact our attempts to deny it take us down roads of compromise and delusion. When it comes to the Bible, let’s learn from history, literature, and conscience. Let’s be the best subjective, educated thinkers we can be, let’s passionately celebrate the good things we find and not hesitate to call out specious and harmful things as well. 


Charisma’s Insane Diagnosis of Progressive Christianity

Charisma News' image of the enemy.

The enemy, according to Charisma News.

Oh, Charisma News. You amuse and enrage in bafflingly equal measure.

Another screed from the evangelical watchdog website has been making the rounds on Christian social media, this time bemoaning the treachery of a “New Christian Left.” Says the author:

It’s painful for me to admit, but we can no longer rest carefree in our evangelical identity – because it is changing.

Gone are the days when a true believer could simply rest on his privilege, er, laurels. Today there is a war for the very heart of “evangelical identity,” and apparently that’s quite a very bad thing. What exactly is happening to threaten Evangelicalism? The author continues: Continue reading


Errant Notions Part Six: This Time It’s Personal

Last in a series of posts examining common arguments for ‘biblical inerrancy,’ the assertion that the Bible is without error in everything it affirms.

This is the final argument we’re going to consider in our series on inerrancy, and it is quite unlike the previous ones. Up to this point, each question we’ve considered had a technical aspect to it: Were the original autographs free of error? Was canonization an indication of infallibility? Does the Bible establish its own inerrancy? Did Jesus teach inerrancy? And what did the church fathers and reformers believe about the nature and authority of scripture? Each of these can be researched and assessed to varying degrees of satisfaction. Our sixth argument, unlike these others, is less technical and far more rhetorical. And, for me, it has become unexpectedly personal.  Continue reading


Errant Notions Part Five: A Perfect Tradition

The latest in a series of posts dissecting common arguments for “biblical inerrancy,” the assertion that the Bible is without error in everything it teaches.

“Inerrancy is nothing more than what the church has always believed.” That’s the battle cry of the inerrantist defender, and it is the fifth argument that we will be exploring in this boring series. It is also the first of our arguments that might actually pertain to the canonized Bible as we know it, for what it’s worth. While previous arguments have been focused on figures or sources that originate before the texts of the Bible were collected and canonized, this one regards the writings and opinions of the early Christian fathers (who were themselves the forgers of the canon) and the reformers (who inherited the canon). The question is this: did the church fathers and Protestant founders teach biblical inerrancy as the singular and unanimous view of mainstream Christianity?  Continue reading


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.


Errant Notions Part One: No Autographs!

In this next series of posts I want to consider the major arguments made by proponents of “biblical inerrancy,” the belief that the Bible is without error and infallible in all that it teaches. These are the arguments I intend to address:

I will say this as often as I can throughout this series, but I want to say it clearly here at the start: I do not enter this debate because I have a low regard for the Bible or because I wish to undermine its authority for the Christian. I value the Bible highly and recognize its essential role in the formulation of Christian belief and practice. But that is precisely why I am a vocal critic of the inerrancy doctrine, which I believe to be a smokescreen of false certainty masking deep insecurity and doubt. Instead of engaging the Bible for what it is, inerrancy proffers a shortcut to certitude, as if deep spiritual convictions could be foregone, predetermined by a formula apart from soul searching and rigorous study. I believe as all Christians do that God can and does speak through scripture, but the presumption of inerrancy actually limits the extent to which we are willing and able to listen.

Nothing Tops The Originals!

In a way this first one is the most compelling argument for inerrancy. And yet, in another more accurate way, it is an utter non-argument. You’ll see why. The claim is this: “The Bible is inerrant, but only in the original autographs.” That is, only the original compositions written by the hands of the authors (or their scribes) are truly infallible and constitute the word of God. We’ll tackle the phrase “word of God” in a future post, and for now we’ll focus on the substance of this claim about the original manuscripts.

This argument is rather convenient in one sense and awkwardly inconvenient in another. On the one hand, it is helpful in dodging questions about canonization or scribal transmission or the interpretation of difficult texts. Forget all that noise, only the originals are perfect anyway! On the other hand, the original autographs do not exist, and we will likely never have access to them. No one outside of the Bible has left us a record of seeing or reading or handling the original texts, and our oldest copies of New Testament books are scribal copies of copies of copies made more than a century after the originals were written. The argument cannot be demonstrated or tested. The post could end here on a technicality.

Getting Down to Brass Tacks

But this is not really a technical argument. In fact, it’s not an argument at all, it’s an assertion. A religious claim. And that’s OK! Religious claims make great religious claims, but they usually make lousy arguments. This claim ultimately forces a question of personal belief: Do you choose to believe that the original biblical autographs are the infallible words of God Himself, perfectly true in everything they affirm? Each hearer must answer that personal, spiritual question for him or herself. I have great respect and brotherly affection for my Christian friends who answer “yes,” even as I must answer “no.”

For me, the evidence is the texts themselves. They are too obviously the product of diverse human personalities to have all been secretly authored by God, and even as they reveal Jesus they also seem to affirm too many horrors and ambiguities to be called “perfect” in their every teaching. If God actually did write them, that remark is wildly out of line. If, however, inspired humans wrote them to express their beliefs and experiences of the divine, it only makes sense. But this is where we discover that inerrancy isn’t really about the nature of the texts themselves, it’s about the will of the person who wants to appeal to their authority.

Without inerrant, unquestionable proof texts, our claims over the lives and destinies of others have no solid basis. We are left without a platform, with no posture of superiority, forced to rely on our own discernment and humility and experience. But isn’t that exactly where a Christian servant and follower of Jesus ought to be: vulnerable and teachable and selfless? This is ultimately why I reject inerrancy; it represents a false and self-serving front of arrogant certainty that denies our own humanity as much as the Bible’s. It doesn’t just misrepresent the living texts of scripture, it threatens to turn the believer into a fossil of empty certitude and an agent of unrighteous condemnation.

Hiding Behind the Text

The original autographs of the New Testament texts don’t exist and likely never will. But that’s why and how they have become a sort of safety net or trump card for those who seek to justify themselves with the Bible. We can prove that manuscript copies contain errors. We can demonstrate how even our best translations fall short. We can wrestle with voices in scripture that seem to promote retribution and hate. But we will never be able to scrutinize those originals, and so they provide a safe place for insecure believers to lay low, an impenetrable shield behind which to hide. It’s far easier than engaging messy reality with humility and an open heart.

I do believe that God speaks to us through scripture, but He does so as often in spite of what the text affirms as through it. In hindsight, I might have made this the last post in the series, since it gets so swiftly to the heart of the inerrancy debate. There is much more to say, but it will all hearken back in one way or another to this point: that inerrancy is a calculated rhetorical assertion, not a fact.


Break Your Bible: 2 Thessalonians 1 and the Revenge of Jesus

The first post in this series examined Numbers 25 and religious zeal, a troubling text from the Hebrew Bible and the equally troublesome strand of biblical theology that it inspired. The second post explored Jeremiah 7, a text which seems to openly contradict one of the central tenets of Torah law. Those posts were intended to dramatically illustrate real conflicts between Bible texts and to highlight the problems with forced assumptions of biblical homogeny.

For this third (and final?) installment, I want to undertake something even more potentially unsettling for Christian Bible readers: I want to assess the moral integrity of a standalone passage of scripture, and one from the New Testament, no less.

“In Flaming Fire, Inflicting Vengeance”

Let’s get to it. Here is the text of 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10 (ESV):

[5] This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be considered worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering — [6] since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, [7] and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels [8] in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. [9] They will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, [10] when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.

I hope the difficulties in this text are as obvious to you as they are to me. Even if you feel compelled to affirm everything you read in the Bible, I truly hope that the content of this passage gives you pause. There is a gleeful attitude of retribution, vengeance, and an appetite for divine violence in these verses that is unbecoming of a Christian, much less of a prominent apostle like Paul. Am I out of line for suggesting this? Are we permitted to make moral judgments like these about what we read in scripture? If not, why not? Does this author get a pass because he is writing scripture? Is scripture good by virtue of being called scripture, or because it says good things?

The Impulse to Make Excuses

As an amateur Bible scholar, I am tempted here to offer up some caveats. 2 Thessalonians is a contested book, understood by some to be the work of an unknown author writing in Paul’s name. But this doesn’t get us off the hook. The letter is received into the canon as a genuine work of Paul, and whatever the case it is Christian scripture. It is ours, but what shall we do with it?

Another possible caveat: These early church texts often reflect a context of persecution and fear, wherein Christians faced brutal dangers at the hands of Rome. Given these realities, isn’t it understandable that they might write a desperate text like this? The premise may or may not be true; the level of persecution facing the church in this early stage appears to have been minimal, though specific campaigns against Christians were not unknown. The question persists: Even if we can discover a context that helps us understand the reason for the bloodthirst apparent in a text like this, must our sympathy make space for acceptance and approval? Are the expectations and attitudes displayed in this passage normative for all Christians?

Clarifying The Text

It is helpful (and necessary, in a case like this) to be as precise as we can about what the passage in question is actually saying.

Our author says that Jesus will return in fiery judgment against unnamed enemies of the community to whom the letter is addressed. This divine act of vengeance will be “just,” since the enemies deserve it for the way they’ve treated God’s people. Jesus himself and his “mighty angels” will dole out this punishment, which will apparently involve obliterating the enemies of the Thessalonians before Jesus is received and celebrated by his true followers.

Some aspects of the judgment envisioned by this passage may align with general Christian expectations and teachings. Jesus the king will return, whatever that looks like, and he will “judge” the world and dwell with his people. Jesus himself described a judgment scenario in the form of a parable (Matthew 25:31-46). The judge in Jesus’ parable, the “son of man,” doesn’t personally unleash a violent attack on those judged unworthy, but he does send them away into (parabolic) “fire.” At first glance, this seems at least somewhat compatible with Paul’s shocking oracle in 2 Thessalonians.

On closer inspection, however, the basis and standard of Jesus’ judgment are completely different from those implied by this passage. The coming judge, says Jesus, will judge people from all nations, not just enemies of this church or those who oppose them. And that judgment will be based on ethical standards of personal integrity and charity, not on how badly they persecuted his friends. It’s about human decency, not petty revenge.

Jesus’ parable of final judgment, in addition to being universal and ethical in nature, was meant to challenge his hearers and call them to repentance, not to give exclusive comfort to “us” while guaranteeing the destruction of “them.” In this way, the judgment scenario imagined by the 2 Thessalonians passage seems to profoundly misunderstand and misrepresent Jesus’ vision of judgment, and to misapply it as tribal rhetoric to rally and rattle an insular community. This is judgment not as a clarion call to all humanity, but as a screed against a hated enemy.

Reading The Bible With Moral Discernment

We might give Paul a pass for the fear and aggression which informed a text like this. He was a human being, and clearly wanted to instill his readers with hope. But where his words clash with the teachings of Jesus – regarding love of enemies and the nature of God’s judgment – I conclude that we must read them through a Jesus-shaped lens and acknowledge their folly.

Wrestling with a passage like this is not about “undermining the authority of the Bible” or “questioning God.” I simply suggest that we do not numb our minds or hearts when we read scripture just because we consider it sacred. In fact, its sacredness ought to demand our full sensitivity. A major Christian value is discernment, paying attention to whether something bears good fruit or bad. Why should this not apply to our reading of the Bible?

This might be the test of a vision of judgment: does it present the same challenge to me and my community of “true believers” that it does to all humankind, or is it designed to target those I hate the most while giving my tribe a free pass? The latter type has been pervasive in American Christianity in the last century. While Jesus emphatically decried the “us versus them” mentality, his followers throughout history have found it irresistible, and Bible passages like this one have fanned the flames.

2 Thessalonians is ours. We cannot mute it or snip it out. We can, however, face it head-on and look to Jesus to help us understand and interact with it in a constructive or even a cautionary way. It simply won’t do to read a text like this without discernment, allowing it to temper or compromise the message and legacy of Jesus. Protestants have a history of doing this, especially with the writings of Paul. Learning to read the Bible with spiritual and moral sensitivity in pursuit of divine revelation is our best and only hope. We may need to break our Bible open to get at its heart.


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.