Bible | Movies | Books | People | Hot Topics | Holidays | Humor | Gallery | Sermons | Prayer | Quizzes | Communities | God | FAQ | Links




The Bible: True or False?

A new way to think about the authority of the Bible

Sometimes the debate between those who see the Bible as the inspired Word of God, and those who see it as a document produced by human writers and editors becomes frozen in the following exchange.

Those who are identified as fundamentalists or biblical literalists will say something like this. "You can't pick and choose among books or passages from the Bible, suggesting that some are true while others are false. Either the Bible is inspired or it isn't. Either it's the infallible Word of God, or its writers were liars."

God does not inspire falsehood

In making this case such persons cite certain scripture passages as proof of the pudding.  For example, 2 Timothy 3:16-17, which reads: "All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that people of God may be complete, equipped for every good work."

But what is "scripture?"

In reading this passage, one needs to consider first what the writer (possibly Paul or one of this followers) had in mind when using the word, "scripture." He (she?) could not have meant the Bible, for the Bible as we know it did not exist at that time. There were a great many texts that were regarded by both Christians and Jews as having divine authority, especially that body of literature that later came to be included as the "books of Moses" or the first five books of our Bible.

Others gave equal weight to the writings of the prophets. Others would have said that the earliest collections of the teachings of Jesus and the narratives of this birth, death and resurrection were to be counted as "inspired."

But even within this short list of the most highly regarded texts there was wide room for disagreement with different local communities of faith having their own preferences and producing their own texts.  It was not until several centuries later that Christians finally reached consensus about what was to be included in "the Bible."

Even today the Bibles that most Catholics rely upon contain an entire body of literature not found in the Bibles that most Protestants read.

So the words of the letter to Timothy can't be taken to mean that all those writings now represented in what we know as "the Bible" are either "inspired" or to be considered as "scripture." We simply do not know with any degree of certainty what the writer of this letter would have defined as "scripture."

And most important, we have no evidence for the view that this writer thought that his (her?) own words were to be given equal weight to the words of Moses, the prophets, or Jesus Christ himself.

In the debate between those who regard the entire Bible to be free of error and those who do not, there is one point on which both sides agree. If significant difference of opinion or teaching can be found between one biblical writer and another, or any contradiction between one biblical passage and another, then the entire case for the authority and inspiration of the Bible fails. God does not teach error.  Or, as it is often said, "God does not change his mind."

But at a deeper level, one might ask, what wrong with changing one's mind in the face of changing circumstances? This might not be a bad idea, even for God.

Can God Change His/Her Mind?

Take the letter addressed to "Timothy" as an example.

"Inspiration" for whom, and for what?

This is clearly a personal letter written to a trusted friend and colleague who faced specific challenges at a particular time in a particular place. The writer of this letter does not appear to be addressing something as general as "the human condition," but rather is offering guidance to an individual who presumably will find these words pertinent to the challenges of the moment.

Were Timothy facing a different set of challenges, the letter would have been different. Would this present a problem? No more so than it would be a contradiction for a doctor to prescribe appropriately different treatments for different illnesses.

And let's try to look at it from God's perspective. God cares about the circumstances faced by particular people at particular times. What one person needs in one situation may be radically different from what another person needs at another time and place. Is it inconsistent for God to address specific people in different ways?  Surely not.

What would be problematic would be for God to utter the same set of "teachings" without regard to circumstance. Writers like the one we are considering here understood that they were in a relationship with a living God who was responding to their own, very unique circumstances. God's response to a different set of people facing different circumstances would quite naturally be different.

Therefore it's not a problem that God appears to "change his mind." Indeed, what would be a problem is a God who tried to impose "one size fits all solutions" to the complex problems of an exceedingly complex world.

Further, it is abundantly clear that when God speaks, those who listen often go away with different understandings of the message. We humans have a tremendous capacity for filtering, distorting, or spinning any text we read, any event we observe, any truth we learn. The biblical writers and editors were no different in this respect than any of us.

The miracle of "inspiration" is not that God overwhelmed certain people with such a profound understanding of the truth that the texts they composed were free of error.  The miracle is that God was able to communicate in such profound ways in and through those fallible human beings who were involved in the writing, editing and publishing of what we know today as the Holy Bible.

Bottom line ...

In my mind the authority of the Bible does not stand or fall over the issue of whether it is entirely free of error. This debate illuminates very little. The authority and inspiration of the Bible rests upon the fact that century after century, generation after generation, people have found wisdom and inspiration upon its pages. The truth of the Bible is established in the simple fact that it has passed the test of time.

Charles Henderson

You are invited to join our Forum
and discuss any issues
pertaining to faith or the search for it.
Your comments are published here instantly.
CrossCurrents Forum

(To see the current list of topics your browser must allow Active Content)

CrossCurrents
Recent Discussions

Please take a moment to let us know you were here!  
Just send us an email to subscribe to our free newsletter.


For those who prefer a form: Click here to subscribe.

If you want to talk with someone in person,  please feel free to call 212-864-5436
The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and Executive Director of
  CrossCurrents.
He is the author of God and Science (John Knox Press, 1986).  
A revised and expanded version of the book is appearing here.
God and Science (Hypertext Edition, 2005).
He is also editor of a new book, featuring articles by world class scientists and theologians, and illustrating the leading views on the relationship between science and religion:
Faith, Science and the Future (CrossCurrents Press, 2007).

Charles also tracks the boundry between the virtual and the real at his blog: Next World Design, focusing on the mediation of art, science and spirituality in the metaverse.  

For more information about Charles Henderson.