With the whole catholic and orthodox church of Jesus Christ I whole heartedly affirm that the Bible, the Christian scriptures, is entirely trustworthy and true.
As they say, however, the devil is in the details.
How does “trustworthy” and “true” function? What do these adjectives mean?
Clearly, given a recent experience, a group of people can agree that the Bible is trustworthy and celebrate that common affirmation and consensus and then fall into disagreement and even suspicion (often leading to excommunication) over how that affirmation is consistent with the phenomena of Scripture and various interpretations of it.
When I say Scripture is trustworthy and true, I mean it is perfect with respect to its purpose. It is infallible in the sense that it does not fail to fulfill its assigned function–to identify God for us. By that I mean Scripture communicates to us the metanarrative of God’s story of creation, fall, redemption and consummation in a powerful way that, if we allow it, draws us into the real world of God. In the inimitable words of Hans Frei, “the Bible absorbs the world for us.”
The Bible’s main purpose is transformation, not information. Yes, of course, it includes much information, but the information is for the purpose of transformation.
Trouble arises when people disagree about the accuracy of the Bible’s information content. Unfortunately, that is an obsession with evangelicals, especially “conservative evangelicals” still rooted in fundamentalism.
Information closely connected to the transformational aim of Scripture is most important. That’s why Bible translators do not begin by translating, say, Ecclesiastes, to provide the gospel to people. They begin with, for example, the Gospel of John. We all intuitively know that some portions of Scripture are more directly related to the Bible’s overall purpose than other portions.
When I say the Bible is trustworthy, I mean it can be (and for Christians must be) trusted to transform those who are open to its message, the gospel, by bringing them into encounter with the living God through Jesus Christ. I do NOT mean the Bible is a source book of information about history or cosmology or even morality. All those are in the Bible, but they are not its main purpose.
When I say the Bible is trustworthy, I do NOT mean every event recorded in the Bible happened exactly as it is described there. And anyone who says all did have simply not wrestled deeply enough with the phenomena of Scripture. It takes Herculean efforts to harmonize many biblical accounts of the same events and, in the end, they are not worth it and do not really succeed (except by forcing harmony where it does not exist). An excellent example, of course, is the event of Peter’s denial of Jesus. Harold Lindsell had to have the rooster crowing six times to harmonize the gospel accounts.
Even most conservative evangelical biblical scholars know this, but they keep it a secret (except among themselves). They don’t want to share it with the lay people who look to them for fundamentalist support. If they really told their constituents what they know to be true about the Bible, they would be crucified by many of them. So they preach inerrancy, but among themselves and in their footnotes admit that the Bible contains many “problems” that resist harmonization.
My guide in all this has been Donald G. Bloesch–a God-fearing, Bible-believing, Jesus-loving Christian theologian if there ever was one. But who rejected strict inerrancy in favor of what he called a “sacramental view” of Scripture. He used the illustration of a light and the glass light bulb. The light within the bulb, playing on the filament fibers, is God’s Word. The physical bulb itself is the Bible. God’s Word needs the Bible as its medium, but the medium is not the message itself.
Does affirmation of the Bible’s truth and trustworthiness commit me to believe every event recorded in the Old Testament happened exactly as recorded? Who does believe that? Hardly anyone I know. And to those who say they do, I ask again, did God inspire David to conduct a census or was it the devil? Or did God inspire David using the devil? Sure, you can find ways to “explain” one account or the other, but you can’t simply believe both as they are described. That’s the case with many events recorded in the Bible.
Even the great Charles Hodge admitted there are flaws in the Bible. He compared them with the bits of sandstone in the marble of the pillars of the Parthenon. He said we Christians are justified in trampling such arguments under our feet. I’m not sure what he meant by that except to say we are justified in simply ignoring the sandstone (flaws in the Bible) because of the majesty of its marble. However, problems arise when someone whose job it is to inspect the pillars of the Parthenon points out the sandstone. Too often he gets trampled under fundamentalist feet.