I was raised as a missionary kid in a fundamentalist family. My dad, a pastor as well as a missionary, preached on plenty of different topics, but the theme that has always stuck with me was this:
Never blindly accept what someone teaches you, not even if he’s a pastor, and not even if it’s me. Test everything by the Word of God.
To one extent or another, that piece of advice has directed the entire course of my life.
My family moved back to America when I was sixteen. I completed my senior year at Harford Christian High School, and then I headed off to the bastion of fundamentalism that is Bob Jones University, eager to acquire skills I could use in God’s service. After graduating, I went to work full time for Answers in Genesis (the ministry of Ken Ham), having interned there for the previous two summers.
In case you’re unfamiliar with any of these organizations, you should know that they all share a core conviction: the Bible is the inspired, infallible, inerrant, sufficient, and authoritative Word of God. They also hold in common the belief that we should separate from so-called “Christians” who do not share this conviction. (Such divisive separatism is, in my view, the primary distinguishing mark between fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals with otherwise identical theology. But that’s not the topic for this post.)
Answers in Genesis is most well known for its positions on science—they teach that God created the earth in six 24-hour days around 6,000 years ago and that Darwinian evolution is a lie. But if you actually ask them, they’ll say that these are side issues stemming from the core of what they’re really all about, which is biblical authority.
The Bible, they say, is the foundation of our faith. It must be the final authority for all of Christian belief and practice. They teach that the scriptures are entirely free from error or contradiction. So what the Bible says is to be accepted without question. Everything else must be filtered through the lens of what the Bible supposedly teaches. It’s what they call the “biblical worldview.”
And I wholeheartedly believed it! I taught their worldview myself, desperately fighting for that inerrant Bible. You can still read many of my past writings on their website. Like my explanations of certain “supposed Bible contradictions” or even the article I coauthored with Dr. Terry Mortenson, in which we argued the biblical necessity for a global flood.
[Update: I’ve been informed that Answers in Genesis has now removed my articles from their site. Accordingly, I’ve changed the links to the Archive.org mirrors of my old articles.]
For five years at Answers in Genesis, I taught their message of biblical authority. But trouble was brewing. My commitment to the Bible would end up landing me in hot water with the very ones who sought to defend its authority.
I never forgot that advice my dad gave. I paired it with the Apostle Paul’s advice to “test everything, hold on to what is good, and reject every kind of evil” (1 Thessalonians 5:21–22), and I applied it as fully as I was able. Every belief I had been given came under the scrutiny of (my interpretation of) the inerrant Bible. I saw myself as a noble Berean, “examining the scriptures daily to see if these things were so” (Acts 17:11).
These examinations brought with them a number of changes in my beliefs, all regarding standard Christian debates: I rejected the Calvinist theology I had been raised in; I switched from an “institutional” church model to a more “organic” house-church gathering; I started questioning whether a Christian should use violence in self-defense; and a handful of similar matters.
All because “the Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.”
On the one hand, my parents were not very happy about my changing beliefs. Despite the fact that I was only following my dad’s advice to test everything by the Bible, they viewed the conclusions I came to as a rejection of “clear biblical teaching.”
On the other hand, none of the changes I’ve described thus far were enough to threaten my position at Answers in Genesis. But that wouldn’t be the case for long.
I was about to start questioning a sacred cow of conservative evangelicalism.
No, I hadn’t allowed for a belief in evolution. I hadn’t concluded that women could fill equal roles with men in church leadership. I hadn’t started to reconsider my position on homosexuality. And I certainly hadn’t wavered in my commitment to the Bible’s inerrancy. Those changes took a lot longer.
But I had started to question the nature of hell.
Not the existence of hell, mind you! Nor the matter of who was going there. I was still quite convinced that a person’s fate was sealed at death, and that all who died without accepting Jesus were headed for eternal hell. But what was this eternal hell like? Was it eternal torment or eternal destruction?
The Bible didn’t seem to be as clear on this question as I would have preferred, but I was starting to lean toward the belief that hell was a place of irreversible destruction, a view commonly known as Annihilationism. Contrary to the claims of my critics, my questions at the time had nothing to do with emotionalism or matters of love or justice. I was only interested in what the Bible taught. And I was becoming less and less convinced that it taught eternal conscious torment.
But as I said, hell is something you’re not allowed to question in conservative circles, and certainly not at Answers in Genesis. Long story short, my new understanding about the nature of hell was not compatible with their statement of faith. I was given some time to make up my mind, but when I could no longer affirm eternal conscious torment, I was forced to resign.
You can hear more of that story in the interview I did with the Rethinking Hell podcast shortly after losing my job. And if you’re interested in my current understanding of hell, check out my recent post, “25 Views on Hell? 2 Questions to Reframe the Debate.”
At this point, I want to make something clear. My purpose in sharing this is not to attack anyone. I love my parents, and I’m so thankful for them, regardless of our disagreements. As for the folks at Answers in Genesis, they are some of the most sincere and wonderful people you’ll ever meet. Many of them remain my friends to this day. I even met my wife while working there, and she’s still the love of my life! I have nothing but fond memories of my time at Answers in Genesis.
I’m writing this in opposition to a harmful system of belief. I have nothing against the people who are currently held in that system of belief, just as I used to be.
But we’ve not yet reached the conclusion of my journey out of that system. Being expelled from Answers in Genesis was a major turning point, but I still had a ways to go. I still believed that an inerrant Bible was the foundation of my faith.
Having to leave Answers in Genesis, though painful at the time, turned out to be a tremendous blessing. Since I no longer worked for a ministry with a mandated statement of faith, I was able to ask questions more freely and follow them more honestly, wherever they might lead. And the new job I found brought my family and me out to the Pacific Northwest—the most beautiful part of this country I’ve seen, and the place we’re all thankful to now call home.
As I continued testing my beliefs against the Bible, my earlier questions regarding the use of violence became a firm conviction: Jesus and the Apostles taught complete non-violence, even in matters of self-defense. I saw it throughout the New Testament, but it really came down to that pesky command to love one’s enemies. How could killing someone ever be compatible with loving them?
Around this time, I also began to take seriously the Anabaptist tradition—the oldest existing branch of the church to have consistently taught and modeled non-violence. Additionally, Anabaptists believe that while the whole of scripture is inspired, the New Testament must have primacy over the Old, and the life and teachings of Jesus must take center stage. These principles would become crucial for me as my understanding of scripture continued to evolve.
For a while, all was well. I had my new belief regarding non-violence, and not much else changed (apart from having sold my 1911). But it did bring up another nagging question. If the New Testament is so full of non-violent teaching, what about all the violence in the Old Testament?
Now remember, I was still fully committed to the idea of a Bible that contained no errors and no contradictions. So it wasn’t an option for me to say that the Old Testament was wrong about violence. Preston Sprinkle, in his book Fight: A Christian Case for Non-Violence, offered the solution I found most compelling at the time, and it satisfied me for a while. But the further I pressed into this, the more complicated things became.
It wasn’t simply a matter of humans committing violence in the Old Testament, nor even of God allowing violence for a time. If the Old Testament is to be taken literally, God actually commanded much of the violence that occurred. And that would mean that God has a violent streak.
But I was also coming to understand that Jesus perfectly reveals God. Again, this was a strictly biblical conclusion. Passages like Hebrews 1:1–3, John 1:17–18, and Colossians 1:15–17 all point us to Jesus for our picture of God. But Jesus taught and modeled non-violent enemy love. And he taught that our love of enemies should be based on God’s love of everyone. Such non-violent enemy love is, according to Jesus, what it means to be sons of our Father and to be perfect as he is perfect (Matthew 5:43–48).
So we have a perfectly non-violent God of love revealed in Jesus Christ, but we also have a God of violence and warfare revealed in the Old Testament. This is a huge problem! This isn’t one of those little supposed contradictions that falls apart with a basic understanding of context. This is a matter of two diametrically opposed views about the very nature of God. How does one “solve” this contradiction?
These questions also led me into an examination of the concept of justice. What does justice look like to God, and how does he carry it out?
According to Mosaic law, God required payment for sins. For some sins, God demanded that sacrifices be given. For many other sins—or for the unfortunate foreigners whose land the Israelites needed—the punishment was either dismemberment or death. And the Israelites were commanded over and over again to “show no mercy” in such cases (Deuteronomy 7:2; 13:8; 19:13, 21; 25:12).
But this is not the only opinion voiced in the Old Testament. Other authors state that God does not require sacrifices and never told the Israelites that he did (Psalm 40:6; Isaiah 1:11; Jeremiah 7:22). And according to Hosea, rather than commanding the Israelites to show no mercy, Yahweh says the opposite, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice; the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6).
Sure, I could scrutinize the wording of these verses, dig into the Hebrew, and come up with some way to force an agreement. But would that really be faithful to the texts? These aren’t just single verses that appear contradictory; they represent vastly opposing viewpoints—a debate going on within the pages of the Old Testament.
I realized that, if I was going to be consistent in testing every belief by the Bible, I would have to submit the concept of inerrancy itself to the same test. If the Bible is fully sufficient (a belief that goes hand-in-hand with inerrancy) then inerrancy must be taught by the Bible itself.
But guess what. The Bible makes no such claim! I scoured the pages of scripture; I read multiple books by inerrantists on the subject; and I could not find a single passage that teaches anything like inerrancy.
Paul says that scripture is inspired or God-breathed and that it is profitable (2 Timothy 3:16). But neither of those claims would mean that it contains no errors. God may have inspired scripture, but he gave that inspiration to humans who then authored it. The prophecy of scripture, according to 2 Peter 1:20–21, is a collaboration between God and men. So while I’d expect scripture to be full of divine truth, I’d also expect it to contain some human error.
Some passages, such as Psalm 19:7, speak of God’s law as being “perfect.” But this concept of perfection simply means that it is whole or complete. In other words, the scriptures we have are exactly the scriptures we need.
But what if God wanted our scriptures to speak with opposing voices? What if he didn’t want to hand us an inerrant manual for every area of life? What if God values discussion, debate, and wrestling with the texts? What if he values it so much that he allowed for debate to go on within the texts themselves? What if God believes that such debate is part of what makes scripture profitable?
The book of Job is fascinating to me. It’s buried near the middle of our Bibles, but many scholars believe it was actually the first book of the Bible to be written. And nearly the entire book is a debate between Job and his “friends.”
Even inerrantists admit that we shouldn’t take the statements by Job or his friends as inerrant in themselves. They may have been divinely recorded, but they’re still divinely recorded opinions of men. Furthermore, these opinions contradict one another within the book of Job, and many of them contradict other scriptures as well.
The value of the book of Job does not lie in the individual truth claims made by its characters. Rather, the whole debate is itself valuable and profitable. If that weren’t the case, then we might as well throw out the majority of the book, and just keep the beginning and end portions where Yahweh himself speaks. But no inerrantist would want to do that. They recognize the value of this debate.
What if this is how we should view all of scripture?
Have you ever read one of those “multiple views” books? I love them! They bring together multiple Christian authors who disagree on a certain subject. The authors each present their case, explaining why they hold to their perspective. And then each of the authors critiques the explanations of the other authors.
It’s a beautiful, healthy way to debate certain aspects of Christianity while remaining united in Christ. And there’s so much value to be found in the debate. Generally speaking, each perspective has some elements of truth to it. But of course, that doesn’t mean that they’re all equally correct.
Imagine, however, that we were to take such a book, and claim inerrancy for it. What if we were to say that the opposing views don’t actually contradict one another after all? It would take some hard work and a lot of linguistic gymnastics, but I bet we could find some convoluted way to force agreement. Language is pliable. If we want a text to say something badly enough, we can generally make it do so.
My example here may sound absurd, but is that any less absurd than trying to force a Bible that does contain contradictions to not contradict itself?
If we start with inerrancy as a presupposed idea, then we have to make the scriptures agree, even when they don’t—even when their disagreements are deliberate. That’s not faithful to the scriptures. And it causes us miss out on the beautiful debates they contain. How can we profit from those debates if we pretend they aren’t there?
“Test everything by the Word of God.”
I was brought up to believe that the Bible is the Word of God. But Jesus is also the Word of God. It got kind of confusing at times. Lots of equivocation.
But as I continued studying, I discovered that the Bible never actually refers to itself as the Word of God. Throughout the New Testament, that phrase is reserved specifically for Jesus or for his gospel message. We could say that the scriptures represent the word of God in a secondary sense, as they certainly include words from God. But in the ultimate sense, only Jesus truly is the Word of God.
When my dad taught me to test everything by the Word of God, he had the Bible in mind. But I was finding that the Bible itself, when tested by itself, was found to be wanting. The Bible simply is not the single, cohesive, inerrant book that I would like it to be. It’s a collection of books—all inspired and profitable, but often contradicting one another.
But Jesus is the infallible, inerrant Word of God. Jesus, rather than the Bible, is our ultimate authority for all belief and practice. Jesus is the foundation of our faith, and we dare not build on any other. Yes, we need the Bible to point to Jesus, but once we get to Jesus, he must take supremacy.
When it comes to interpreting the Bible, the revelation of God in Jesus Christ must be our baseline. We must test everything else by his standard.
So how did Jesus read the Old Testament? Did he treat it as if it were inerrant? What did he have to say regarding the debates within its pages?
For starters, Jesus sided with mercy rather than sacrifice. Twice he quoted Hosea 6:6, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice,” at one point adding, “If you had understood what this means, you would not have condemned the innocent” (Matthew 12:7). So if Jesus calls us to show mercy, we must forsake all Old Testament commands to “show no mercy.”
The lex talionis or “law of retaliation” formed the core of Israel’s justice system. “You must show no mercy: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” (Deuteronomy 19:21). But Jesus directly overturned this command. “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, do not retaliate against evil” (Matthew 5:38–39).
And Jesus consistently lived this out, blatantly breaking the law in order to show mercy, even to those whom the Old Testament would have condemned to death. This doesn’t mean that Jesus rejected the Old Testament. He had the highest regard for it. He didn’t come to abolish the law and the prophets but to fulfill them (Matthew 5:17).
Fulfilment means bringing something to completion or perfecting it. Jesus came as the completion of everything the law and prophets pointed toward, and he perfected them by showing us how to properly understand them. But that often means contradicting the letter in order to follow the spirit.
According to Jesus, all the law and prophets hang on two simple commands: love God and love your neighbor (Matthew 22:37–40). Or to put it another way, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, for this fulfills the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12). But we must disregard Old Testament notions of violence and retaliation in order to live out Jesus’ rule of love and mercy. This is the only way to truly fulfill the scriptures.
For a much more detailed analysis of how Jesus and his Apostles read the scriptures, including how they frequently edited Old Testament texts to alter their meanings, be sure to check out Derek Flood’s excellent book, Disarming Scripture: Cherry-Picking Liberals, Violence-Loving Conservatives, and Why We All Need to Learn to Read the Bible Like Jesus Did.
So what now? If the Bible is not inerrant, how can we be certain about anything?
I hear this question pretty much every time I mention the idea that the Bible contains errors. And I totally get it! If we’ve built our foundation on an inerrant Bible, then it’s a scary thought to have that foundation pulled out from underneath us. That’s precisely why it took me so long to come around. I too would much rather have an inerrant Bible.
But here’s the thing. We don’t get to remake the Bible according to our standards of what we think it should be. The Bible is exactly what it is, and we have to trust that God knew what he was doing when he inspired it to be such.
I’m not going to claim that I have all the answers for how to move forward. But I know this: Jesus is the only foundation we should be building on.
Yes, we do need the Bible to point us to Jesus. We also need the church, both modern and historic, to help us understand the Bible. We need natural revelation to show us God’s glory. We need spiritual leaders who have been on this path for much longer than us, whose examples we may follow. We need community to keep us grounded. And most of all, we need the Holy Spirit to guide us.
I understand the desire for certainty, but that just isn’t an option. Even among inerrantists, there’s never been a consensus of interpretation. So there’s no true certainty there either. Somewhere along the way, simple faith has to come into play.
For me, I’ve chosen to place all my faith—and to test everything—by the Word of God: Jesus Christ.