Words of a Fether

I am the way, the truth, and the life;
no one comes to the Father except through me. ~Jesus

site banner

The Bible, Inspiration, and Inerrancy, Part Three

It should go without saying that all debates on what the Bible teaches are irrelevant until the text itself is established by the same criteria we would use for any other ancient texts. In Part One we focused on the OT and its credibility, and in Part Two we examined the same for the NT. Having done so, we will no longer question its content but now proceed to the matter of perfection and divine inspiration. This will likely be the most pivotal and controversial part of all, since I believe that both sides of the debate on this point are wrong to some degree.

As you know, the Bible contains a variety of literary genre. In the OT we have history, poetry, law, prophecy, and wisdom literature. Throughout we have many instances of “thus saith the Lord”, when a prophet or priest would speak with divine authority which was to be accepted as if heard directly from God. But this hardly means that anyone designated a prophet or priest spoke for God every time they opened their mouths. They always clearly announced when they had a message from God, and the people were to verify it by demanding 100% accuracy of any prophetic message (Deut. 18:22). Yet at the same time, such people were held in high regard as wise and authoritative leaders.

The OT is about Israel and for Israel, and not the history of the whole world, with the obvious exception of the first 12 chapters of Genesis. Even then, the names, places, and topics chosen for preservation were those that had bearing on the path that led to the formation of Israel as a people. Its “metanarrative” or overarching theme is to explain the origin of humanity, the fall of humanity, and the redemption of humanity through a specific line of people leading up to “the seed of the woman” (Gen. 3:15), the Messiah. As we’ve seen, this narrative is historically accurate and trustworthy, the prophets were found to be legitimate, and in spite of its having been compiled over many, many generations by people from a wide variety of situations it is true to the metanarrative. These facts themselves are seen by many as the stamp of divinity, a miraculous oversight and direction. Others see them as human dedication to a cause, but when one looks closely this strictly naturalistic view becomes less tenable; see this Thinktank article for example (though the focus there is on the NT the principle applies).

But an important point commonly overlooked is that the Bible records/preserves a lot of things without endorsing them. There are plenty of examples, usually gleefully paraded by critics, of atrocities being committed but without any indication of divine displeasure. Yet as I’ve said many times, the reporter is not to blame for the crime, and in fact is seen as a poor and biased reporter if judgment is pronounced in the act of reporting. So when we read of people being chopped up, assaulted, slandered, or hounded, we need to consider the nature of reporting historical events. And the purpose of such reports was to serve as warnings and lessons for us (1 Cor. 10:11).

But what about when God ordered something such as the slaughter of whole nations including children and even animals? Again the Thinktank responds, and concludes thusly:

Judgment is called God’s “strange work” in the OT prophets. What for us humans is the problem of “why does God not do anything about evil and cruel people” is simply the other side of His patience with us. He hopes that we will accept a love of the truth and a commitment to value. In love, He deliberately “believes the best” (I Cor 13).

What started out as the “Unfair genocide of the Canaanites” ended up as the “Less-than-they-deserved punitive deportation from the land”-- filled with patience and mercy and ’second chances’. It was nonetheless a judgment, and nonetheless involved death-- as it later would be repeated to His people.

Far from being the “genocide of an innocent people for land-hungry Israelites”, it was instead the “firm, yet just-- and even a little merciful to the masses-- removal of a people from a tract of land, mostly through migration.”

Now let us consider another angle and then draw a conclusion between the two. Jesus and the NT writers quoted the OT, but often imprecisely. We study yet another Thinktank article and see that there are two primary factors that apply: the OT text of the time was not what we use today, and we cannot impose modern rules of quotation upon ANE practices. God never changes (Heb. 13:8, James 1:17), but his dealings with mankind certainly do, and he works with us where we are in order to lead us to a desired goal; this is as true on a global or national level as it is on a personal level.

So we can consider these two points (that the OT reports without endorsing, and that NT quotes of the OT are not necessarily word-for-word), and conclude that while the Bible as a whole has evidence of divine authorship, this includes the reporting of things God never endorsed and words he never uttered. The actions and teachings of even the most righteous OT characters cannot be expected to be micromanaged by God at all times, but we can consider their closeness to God as a good reason to consider their teachings authoritative.

That last sentence has direct bearing on questions about NT teachings in the Letters. Was Paul always under direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit when writing? The text itself tells us ’no’, as in 1 Cor. 7:10-12 for example. It seems to me that Paul is telling us exactly when he has a direct command from God and when he does not. Yet in the latter case, can we then dismiss his words as uninspired? Remembering the principle argued in that last sentence of the previous paragraph, we can still attribute authority to them as we would to any prophet or priest in the OT. But Paul himself defined exactly what degree or kind of authority this was: to build up the community of believers (2 Cor. 10:8, 12:19, 13:10). Though in very rare cases he did “pull rank” (1 Cor. 5:3,11, Gal. 2:14), the overall character of his ministry was to serve and nurture with humility and meekness (1 Cor. 2:1-5, chap. 9).

So God certainly oversaw the preservation of those words he deemed important and valuable in both Testaments, but without micromanagement or operating people like puppets. There is leeway for human fallibility without sacrificing divine authority, and if Jesus could quote a mere translation as the very authoritative words of God, then quite obviously the exact minutae of communication is not what matters most. Some will at this point quote Mat. 5:17-18 here, but the context is of prophecy and law, not a blanket endorsement of an accountant’s approach to the text. The Thinktank analysis of this is as follows:

Do not think that I have come to dismantle the superstructure of promises, demands, and predictions recorded in the writings of Moses and the Prophets--leaving them unfulfilled. On the contrary, I have come to fulfill every single prophecy and obey every single requirement therein.

Even the most ardent inerrantist will admit that we do not have the original “strokes of a pen” from either Testament, so to quote this passage as justification for a wooden literalism (contrasting approach at my L/H/G page here) is at best the fallacy of special pleading.

But then the questions come, “Where does it stop? Is this not a slippery slope to throwing out the whole Bible? By what criteria do we say ’this carries authority but that does not’?” The answer is what has been argued in this essay: it is the understanding of “the letter of the law versus the spirit of the law”. Communication is rarely so precise that it cannot be misunderstood, even when the words are from God, because the limitations lie with us as imperfect beings. Certainly all can agree that no amount of leeway with the details can ever overthrow core principles such as that Jesus is God in the flesh who died for us and rose again, that the metanarrative of the NT is freedom from the rule of sin and Satan, that believers are to live in humility and love but also truth and justice, and that we are “all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28) and all heirs of the Promise (Acts 3:25, Rom. 4:14, Gal. 3:29, Eph. 3:6, Heb. 6:17, 11:9).

There is a critical difference between lack of precision in the text itself (parts One and Two) and lack of precision in interpretation. From any reasonable understanding of the text, God’s concern is more with the message than the medium, and with character more than mere outward performance. God “remembers that we are dust” (Psalm 103:14) and will judge us by our hearts and intents, not our honest mistakes. How we handle differences of opinion is probably as important to God as whether we have them.

Such principles (see also Rom. 13:10) are in no danger of erosion from a realistic yet respectful approach to the Bible, which was never meant to be a book of incantations or formulas, but a message and a basis for hope. We are told in its pages about the character of God so we can know how to please him and how to avoid displeasing him. So sin is still sin, honor is still honor, mercy is still mercy, and Jesus is still the only Way, Truth, and Life (John 14:6). We need fear no critical examination but must guard against fallacious or ill-informed attacks that “make shipwreck of the faith” (1 Tim. 1:19). We must not respond to such attacks with fear and anger, but with knowledge and the confidence that comes from it. God’s Word will indeed accomplish its purpose (Isaiah 55:6-11):

Seek the LORD while he may be found; call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake their ways and the unrighteous their thoughts. Let them turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will freely pardon. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. "As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.

Part One, Part Two

Posted 2011-06-19 under Bible, religion, debate, apologetics