Ask the Thoughtful Pastor: do you believe anything in the Bible is true?

I believe Bible is true. But that doesn’t mean it is historical in the sense that it records verifiable historical events nor does the truth of the Holy Scriptures make those words reliable scientific textbooks.

Bible is true and the Psalm teach us how to prayMs. Thomas,

Is there any part of the Bible that you DO think is literal? So far you’ve stated that the information in Revelations is not to be taken literally and today the stories of Noah’s building the ark and Jonah are not true. I believe in the New Testament it states that all scripture is inspired by God – 2nd Timothy 3:16. Is this also not real?

How do you decide which part to believe and which part is just fantasy? If a “pastor” – whose supposed mission is to point people to God- doesn’t believe what you’re teaching from, how do you expect anyone else to?

If you can’t support the very source of Christianity, perhaps you would be better to find another line of work.

I fell in love with the Bible when I was 20 years old and spent the last 48 years working to understand it. Out of respect for their God-breathed status, I spent years mastering biblical Hebrew and Greek, earning two advanced degrees in addition to the grounding in Anthropology from Rice University.

Yes, the Bible is true, but the more I know the truth, the less I know

I have learned this: the more I know, the less I know. My confident assurance when I was 20 that I had the all answers about God has slowly matured to healthy self-questioning about our abilities to fully understand a series of writings written in an entirely different time with radically different understandings of how the world works.

The Bible overflows with wondrous words, with stories of an uncivilized group of unruly, uneducated former slaves fighting for their freedom and seeking to create a society based on religious beliefs radically different from those around them.

Their stories offer glimpses of how those wandering tribes, later settled people, sought to make sense of their world. Readers may observe how they justified violence, cruelty to outsiders, unbelievable mistreatment of women.

The beauty of the Psalms teaches us how to pray, to offer thanksgiving, to find sorrow over our sins.

The prophetic writings, both in the Hebrew and Greek portions, call us out for favoring the rich while further oppressing the poor. Those writings, along with the Gospels, display for us the heart of God for the excluded, for the foreigner, for the sick and infirm. They show us what real forgiveness looks like, why grace is so difficult, and the power of real, self-sacrificing love to heal the world.

The Epistles display just how complicated it is to live fully as Jesus-followers and prepare us for the challenges ahead.

The Wisdom writings offer solid grounding for making good moral decisions.

The Bible is true but it is not necessarily historically accurate

I believe Bible is true. But that doesn’t mean it is historical in the sense that it records verifiable historical events nor does the truth of the Holy Scriptures make those words reliable scientific textbooks.

When we impose a 21st century, white, US-centric, primarily male-generated mindset upon the Holy Scriptures, we do violence to the texts. Such an imposition shows a distinct lack of respect for the Bible.

The current emphasis on “inerrancy” or a “literal” interpretation of those holy words would leave the original writers scratching their heads in dismay.

The world was not created in six days, 6000 years ago, but it was created good by a good God.

Whales don’t swallow people, but many of us know the dark night of the soul and the profound heart change of heart that accompanies those painful times.

The story of Noah, one of the most troubling depictions of God in the entire Bible, shows how sin always destroys. We may learn from it that decisions to abandon goodness and light will inevitably and indelibly taint our souls and bring the world down. But it is not a nice children’s story.

All of us get to choose how we will handle the Bible. We can ignore it, cherry-pick it, manipulate it to hurt others or to justify our prejudices, or let it be what it is with an acute awareness that we see through a mirror dimly.

Translator bias is all over the Bible

What many read and say is “inspired” and “inerrant” has massive distance from the original writings, none of which exist today. We have only copies of copies.

Every punctuation mark and paragraph break are editorial choices, added later. Chapter and verse numbers, also added much later, interrupt the flow of thought, making it difficult to capture the original intent.

Chapter headings, inserted in many translations, are nowhere to be found in the authenticated manuscripts. The uninspired translators added them.

If you think that my passionate pursuit to read, to study, to understand the Scriptures as the writers intended and as the original hearers would have understood them is problematic and disqualifying to the pastorate, so be it.

But I suggest that an insistence that the Bible be distorted to read as though it were written to 21st-century readers does not honor those sacred words. Instead, it proclaims that we are too lazy to do the hard work necessary to handle rightly the word of God.

Photo credit: Aaron Burden.

Note: I found it interesting that this questioner addressed me as “Ms. Thomas.” I never demand the use of my earned credentials, i.e.., “The Rev. Dr. . . . ” and actually prefer to be addressed by my first name. However, in this case, the lack of the title may indicate little or no respect for both my ordination and the years of scholarship preceding it. That, of course, is the writer’s privilege and is certainly consistent with the writer’s contention that I should leave my profession.

A version of this column is slated to run in the Denton Record-Chronicle. The Thoughtful Pastor, AKA Christy Thomas, welcomes all questions for the column and would especially like questions your children/grandchildren/students ask. Although the questioner will not be identified, I do need a name and verifiable contact information in case the newspaper editor has need of it. You may use this link to email questions. 

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  • Matthew Baugh

    I’m also a pastor who studies the Bible critically rather than assume it is literal, and strongly agree. When Jesus said, “love your neighbor as yourself…” It’s not terribly important whether he said it in the Temple to a group of Pharisees and Saducees (Mark), or to the rich young ruler in the region beyond the Jordan (Matthew), or to a lawyer in conjunction with the parable of the Good Samaritan. The truth in the passage is in the words, not the historical setting.

    I’ve often heard the insistence that one must take the entire Bible as literally true to have any faith at all from Fundamentalist Christians. What’s new to me is the insistence of some anti-theists that if I’m not a literalist, I’m living a lie claiming to be a Christian.

    The idea baffles me.

    • Baffles me as well. But I’ve also heard it and know that many of those who read my newspaper column that runs in a very conservative city are more than sure I will end up in hell. And they delight in the thought.

      • Skeptical Realist

        You open the subject of Biblical literalism, then close out by addressing the problem of ignorant exegesis, seeming to conflate the two issues. The two are not the same issue at all. Of course sound exegesis of some if not most scripture requires a proper understanding of the author’s intended audience, the relevant culture and society, and even the politics of the day. But that doesn’t say anything about whether or not it should be interpreted literally, just that it be done so from the proper vantage point.

        Your point that history accounts in the Bible may not be historically verifiable is surprising. Nothing in the past is really truly historically verifiable, is it?

        Where do you get truth?

        Is the following literally true?:

        “You shall not lie with a male as with a woman. It is an abomination. Nor shall you mate with any animal,mtomdefilemyourself with it. Nor shall any woman stand before an animal to mate with it. It is perversion.”

        “If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination;”.

        May the grace, love, and truth of Christ be yours.

    • Chuck Johnson

      The idea baffles me.-Matthew

      Don’t be baffled.
      Many Christians for many centuries have claimed that the Bible is a book written by God. The have also claimed that God’s knowledge and wisdom are complete and perfect.

      It is a simple, logical conclusion that the Bible is true, complete and correct in every aspect.

      The logic is obvious.
      The falsehood of this conclusion is also obvious.

  • Clement Agonistes

    I don’t think “inerrant” and “literal” are interchangeable. “Inerrant” means basically what you stated above – that the Bible is True, but not necessarily scientifically/historically true.

    There is an informative report about Wayne Grudem, a conservative Christian, discussing this topic at:

  • Dr. Christy, I really like your statement: “The current emphasis on “inerrancy” or a “literal” interpretation of those holy words would leave the original writers scratching their heads in dismay.”

    I often think of Paul visiting us and discovering that his letters are considered to be the very truth of God. I don’t imagine him scratching his head, though–I see him being absolutely horrified!

  • Dan

    So, if you say “I believe Bible is true. But that doesn’t mean it is historical in the sense that it records verifiable historical events,” does that mean the Gospels are not historical in their record of Jesus’ life, his claim to be the incarnation of God, his crucifixion, and his resurrection? If you don’t believe these are verifiable, historical events then how do you claim to be a Christian, or is a “Jesus-follower” just someone who believes the Jesus persona showed us a higher ethical path to follow in our lives rather than the only path to eternal life with resurrected bodies of physical substance on an Earth restored to its original glory? I’m very confused about what appears to be a cherry-picked, deconstructionist, purely form criticism approach to holy scripture increasingly espoused by angry, elitist, mostly white, liberals who disdain and dismiss those who differ from their enlightened, humanist approach to exegesis of scripture.

    • Ficino

      Sadly, there are a lot of “angry, elitist, mostly white” people disdaining and dismissing those who differ from their approach to scripture. On both sides of the liberal-conservative divide.

  • Guthrum

    One subject that is sometimes mentioned on some radio church services is which version of the Bible should people use ? Some pastors say that the KJV is the only one that uses the original texts. Others use the NIV or ESV. At one time the ASV was used a lot before the KJV came back.
    Some recent versions of the NIV met disfavor because a lot of male referrals were changed: father, men, sons. This was done in some misguided attempt to make the Bible more “gender neutral.” So some churches use the older NIV version.

  • Linda Coleman Allen

    Christy, too bad those readers will be so disappointed when they see you in heaven. I don’t know what gets into people that think they know so much and then open their mouths to disclose that they are only angry or uninformed. I love that you speak freely and openly.

  • Chuck Johnson

    Any time that an infinitely wise and knowledgeable God is asserted to exist, contradictions arise.

    Any time that a supernatural being or miracles are asserted to exist, contradictions arise.

    I am an atheist and a scientist.
    Divine mysteries do not exist for me.
    Lots of mundane mysteries exist, the kind that scientists love to explore.
    That exploration has done a world of good for humanity, and the good continues as the explorations continue.