From the Archive: Thank God For Blessing Us With A Fallible Bible

I thought I should reshare this post from almost two years ago, since it is relevant to discussion that took place in my Sunday school class last Sunday.

Lately I’ve been wondering what would happen if conservative Christians kept the same notion of a Bible that was verbally inspired, in which God determined precisely what it should contain in every detail, but also took seriously the fact that the Bible contains what appear to be differences of viewpoint, discrepancies, and in some cases apparently irreconcilable contradictions. What if one also approached this matter with the assumption that God is honest, loving, and considerate?

Perhaps, rather than assuming that the difficulties are in the Bible to test our willingness to switch off the minds God gave us, and take a leap of faith (or of gullibility), it could be assumed instead that the difficulties are there to be taken seriously, to teach us.

What we’d end up with is a Bible that can serve fundamentalists’ kindergarten-level needs, but can also help readers get beyond kindergarten, even force us beyond it when the time was right, when we were old enough mentally and spiritually to read carefully and notice details.

But instead, what has happened is that some loud and unruly children who found the new and challenging things being taught in first grade too much to bear, went back and took over the kindergarten, and told those in it that the Principal wants them to stay there, and that those who leave kindergarten because they come to find it unsatisfying or problematic are backsliding. And alas, many identify Christianity itself with the loud voices of these unruly, overgrown kindergarten kids. But what if God has providentially placed in the Bible clues that are meant to lead you to eventually realize that what God wants from you is precisely what the loud voices of fundamentalism condemn: taking responsibility for your own actions, for your moral judgments, and learning to live with uncertainty, yet not without faith?

My appeal to fundamentalists is this: try approaching the Bible as though you actually believe what you claim to: (1) that God is honest, (2) that God means for you to study the Bible carefully and in detail, and (3) that God put everything that is in the Bible there for a reason.

Maybe it will enable you to finally stop repeating kindergarten and graduate to first grade. Eventually you’ll face some spiritually tough years, spiritual ‘adolescence.’ But spiritual maturity and adulthood await you on the other side, and if you’re willing to be honest about doubts and questions, there are many, many Christians who will help you. In spite of what you’ve heard, there are a lot of teachers, resources, friends, and interesting experiences God has in store for you beyond the comfort of kindergarten.

You probably don’t want to merely play with blocks your whole life (although LEGOs never stop being fun). Why settle for the spiritual equivalent of doing just that?

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  • Stuart

    What an excellent article!May I request permission to cross-post this on our blog with the appropriate link to you?

  • Scott F

    Over at Parchment and Pen, Michael Paton makes a similar point, using the parable of the Race to liken your overgrown Kindergarten Christians with those who hang around the starting line congratulating themselves for starting the race but forgetting that the race is to be run. His context is a "critique" (sorry, Michael) of Once-Saved-Always-Saved but the it dovetails nicely with your points.

  • Sabio Lantz

    This morning I was reading William James' (1902, Varieties…) and came upon this quote that reminds me of your point:Thus if our theory of revelation-value were to affirm that any book, to possess it, must have been composed automatically or not by the free caprice of the writer, or that it must exhibit no scientific and historic errors and express no local or personal passions, the Bible would probably fare ill at our hands. But if, on the other hand, our theory should allow that a book may well be a revelation in spite of errors and passions and deliberate human composition, if only it be a true record of the inner experiences of great-souled persons wrestling with the crises of their fate, then the verdict would be much more favorable.Would this be part of your point?If you do, I agree with your Jamesian judgement (in ways), but I question your statement:"God has providentially placed in the Bible clues that are meant to lead you …"I wonder if you really believe that or if you just say it in concession to get conservatives to take the step you wish them to take.For it sounds like the creationists who feel God has placed dinosaur bones at different layers than humans just to test our faith. Do you really feel God has a hand in the making of the Bible? If so, placing little clues seems the work of a tortuous God. I'd rather go James' route.

  • James F. McGrath

    Stuart, you are certainly welcome to share this elsewhere as long as you indicate the original author and link here. I'm glad you found this useful!Sabio, let me think about what James wrote and respond properly when I have more time…

  • Daniel o

    Ouch!!!! witty, friendly, provocative, maybe even slightly a nuisance but ultimately true. Great post Jim. You never end to inspire and entertain your readers.

  • Stuart

    Thanks James.

  • terri

    I was going to comment, but see that Sabio beat me to what I was going to ask you!God has providentially placed in the Bible clues that are meant to lead you …"I wonder if you really believe that or if you just say it in concession to get conservatives to take the step you wish them to take.

  • Lloyd

    Thank you for this well written post on God's Word to mankind. Now if only all will read and study it and finally "live it". God bless, Lloyd

  • James F. McGrath

    Replying to Sabio, I think that I agree with James, but I also think I need to read the quote in context at some point and check if I have understood his point.As for the common question from Sabio and Terri, I don't think that direct divine interventions would have been necessary, to cause human authors to err in ways they otherwise wouldn't have. But there is a sense in which that scenario, God forcing the authors to misspeak in spite of their aptitude and intelligence, is a humorous reversal of what many think "inspiration" entails, and it might be fun to explore further.

  • Jon Wilburn

    James -Its been a while since I've commented on your stuff. I was curious to know if you had posted anything about Butlers basketball team … you haven't :) Congrats on the Final Four.Regarding this post. I grew up a conservative fundamentalist, so to read this and agree readily is not something I am prepared to do. However, I have always been one to stretch myself and my thinking. Pushing the envelope if you will. I have had this very battle in my mind: Is the Bible truly fallible? It certainly raises questions and answers some for me.

  • James F. McGrath

    In my present academic climate, I have the freedom to talk openly about whether the Bible is fallible. But I suspect that if I implied that our basketball team might be fallible, I'd get lynched! :)

  • Thom Stark

    If I wrote this post, word for word, I'd get dozens of comments about how arrogant I am and how disrespectful I am to people I disagree with, characterizing them as kindergarteners. But when you write it, it just reads like a helpful heuristic exercise. By the way, I agree with Sabio. It's a pedagogical concession.

  • Jay

    Since Louisville and Kentucky are both out of the tournament, I find myself becoming a Butler fan.