What the Bible Is

What the Bible Is January 22, 2014

An alert to readers of the “Progressive Christian” Faith Stream who do not often read the “Evangelical” Faith Stream: if you are interested in Christian conflict about the Bible (what it is, and whether it is inerrant and to be interpreted literally), you should regularly visit Peter Enns’ blog.

From within the evangelical stream of Christianity, he often challenges both inerrancy and literalism. His blogs consistently draw a large number of responses that provide a window into how many conservative Christians think of the Bible.

A fine recent example is his blog “Conservative Baptist Leaders Defend Inerrancy at ETS: Is This a Parody?” It summarizes the remarks of a panel of conservative Baptist leaders at last year’s meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. For them, biblical inerrancy is not one doctrine among many, but the foundation of all doctrines and thus of the truth of Christianity. In their minds, Christianity stands or falls on whether the Bible is inerrant. Many of the one hundred plus responses (maybe more than two hundred by now) illustrate the passion this issue arouses.

In one sense, biblical inerrancy is not an issue for progressive Christians. Not affirming biblical inerrancy is one of the defining characteristics of progressive Christianity. In another sense, it is an issue. Many of us grew up with an understanding of Christianity that implicitly or explicitly affirmed that the Bible is always right. We took it for granted that that’s what it meant to call the Bible “the Word of God” and to say that it was “inspired by God.” Many of us have had to deal with this issue in our own journeys. For some of us, it continues to be a source of conflict with family members, friends, and acquaintances who think of the Bible as inerrant. Moreover biblical inerrancy is a central issue dividing American Christianity, as well as elsewhere in the world.

The controversy about biblical inerrancy is ultimately a question about what the Bible is. Christians affirm that it is “the Word of God” and “inspired by God.” But do those phrases mean that it is inerrant and/or infallible? Some conservative Christians argue that there are important differences between “inerrancy” and “infallibility.” But functionally, the two terms are synonymous: for those who affirm either, the result is that the Bible has a divine guarantee to be true about everything that matters. As “the Word of God” and “inspired by God,” it is a divine product.

Within this framework, one of the common responses to the challenge to biblical inerrancy goes like this: if all of the Bible isn’t inerrant, how do we decide what parts are inerrant and what parts are not? If it’s not all “inspired by God,” how do we decide what parts are?

The question assumes the impossibility of a satisfactory answer. If the Bible as “the Word of God” and “inspired by God” isn’t completely inerrant, then some human authority is being elevated above the Bible, whether the teaching of the church, the verdicts of scholarship, or the preferences of individuals. Within this point of view, the authority of the Bible disappears, subjected to human authority.

But what if the options for Christians aren’t “All of the Bible is inerrant” or “Some of it is, and some of it isn’t”? There is another option. All of the Bible is a human product – it’s not that some of it is a divine product and some of it isn’t. Rather, all of it, Old Testament and New Testament alike, contains the voices of our spiritual ancestors in ancient Israel and early Christianity. It tells us about their experiences of God, their thoughts about God, their understandings of what life with God is about, their praise and prayers, their wisdom. We hear their voices, their witness and testimony. And their limited understandings, their blindness and conventions, their desires for protection and vengeance against their enemies. It’s all there.

My Christian journey has led me to the conviction that the Bible is, to use a phrase from Paul, “treasure in earthen vessels” (II Cor. 4.7). Paul was not referring to the Bible, but to the messengers of the gospel, including himself. The gospel, the good news of Jesus, comes to us in earthen vessels, “clay jars” to us the language of a recent translation. Earthen vessels, clay jars, are finite products, human products. It applies to the Bible as a whole.

So it’s not that the Bible is inerrant, or parts of it are and parts of it aren’t. It is all a human product. And yet it is “treasure” in an earthen vessel. It is the witness and testimony of our spiritual ancestors

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