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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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,
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.