A Series: Christian Theology—Answers to Questions: Six: What Is the Bible?
In my immediately preceding essay in this series I wrote about “revelation” and argued that good Christian theology is based on revelation reasonably interpreted using tradition, reason, and experience. I suggested also that the Bible is the primary source of revelation for “doing theology” in the sense of critiquing messages claimed to be “Christian” and constructing doctrines for all Christians.
However, all who have read the Bible carefully and especially all who have studied it know it has problems; it is not a “perfect book” if you’re looking for a system of doctrines dropped from heaven to earth, as it were. It’s a collection of various kinds of literature written over a long period of time by different kinds of people with different purposes in mind.
It seems ludicrous to me to think that if someone could go back in time and tell all or even some of the human authors of scripture that someday someone would compose a system of truth, like a philosophy, based on what they wrote, they would be bemused.
And yet, that development seems—with hindsight—inevitable. But I won’t go into that here. I will just say that, apparently, to me, anyway, the Bible is NOT a not-yet-systematized systematic theology or philosophy. And I consider it unfortunate that some Christians treat it that way and attempt to create such systems and claim that they are functionally equivalent with the Bible itself. (I won’t name any such Christians but only say that anyone who has studied the history of Christian theology knows to whom I am referring.)
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
Here I will describe a number of Christian views of the Bible in broad categories and with broad descriptions. Know that each one contains different versions that have some major viewpoint about the Bible in common.
First, many Christians throughout history, since the Bible was written and canonized (but even before the New Testament was finally canonized), have viewed it as a book or collection of books (writings) dictated by God. There are places in their writings, for example where third century Christian scholar Origen and sixteenth century Christian reformer Luther treated the Bible this way. That it was dictated by God left open how it should be interpreted and they disagreed about that. But the issue here is not the history of the Bible’s interpretation but the history of Christian thought about what the Bible is.
Second, many modern Christians, especially in the 19th through the 21st centuries have viewed the Bible as “our sacred stories” only and not as supernaturally inspired or authoritative. Such modern, “liberal Christians” often consider other religions’ scriptures as their sacred stories but eschew devotion to any book as authoritative.
Third, most conservative Protestants and Catholics have viewed the Bible as the “inspired and inerrant (or infallible) Word of God written” and thus supremely authoritative. For Catholics this means alongside a certain strand of extra-biblical tradition that does not contradict the Bible. For Protestants this means above all tradition. For conservative Protestants since the Reformation the Bible is the supreme source and norming norm of all religious belief and practice. Underlying this view of the Bible is the belief that it is verbally inspired by God and that God is its ultimate author.
Fourth, and I will end with this one while acknowledging that I cannot cover all the myriad of Christian beliefs about the Bible, for many 20th and 21st century Christians, especially so-called “neo-orthodox” or “dialectical” theologians, the Bible is God’s unique instrument and witness to Jesus Christ who is revelation in person. The Bible “becomes the Word of God” when a person is drawn by it into decision-making encounter with God. For the person totally outside such encounter the Bible is simply a religious text with no authority or power.
Again, I know there are other Christian views of the Bible, but I think the majority of Christian views of the Bible fall somewhere near one or more of these categories.
Each one of these views has strengths and weaknesses—from a modern (and I don’t mean liberal) perspective. The idea that the Bible was dictated by God is fraught with difficulties. So are all the views. On the other hand, the idea that the Bible is our sacred stories can hardly be rejected except insofar as it claims to say everything about the Bible that needs to be said. The first one (dictation) does not do justice to the humanness of the Bible. The second one (our sacred stories) does not do justice to the divine aspect of the Bible (viz., its inspiration).
Jumping now over many questions and issues I will tackle the one that consumes the most attention and energy among especially conservative Protestants in at least Great Britain and America and places where conservative Protestants from those countries have gone as missionaries to found churches: the question of the Bible’s accuracy. This is also known as the inerrancy controversy.
I have studied this question, this issue, this controversy from every possible angle. I have read scores of books about it and have written some chapters about it. In the very conservative Christian church I grew up in the word “inerrancy” was not used. “Inspired and infallible” was how the Bible was described. Then, during my seminary career, the great “inerrancy controversy” broke out with the publication of a book entitled The Battle for the Bible (1976). The controversy had been simmering beneath the surface of conservative Protestantism for a long time—at least back to the mid-19th century—but now, with that book’s publication, it broke out into internecine theological warfare.
Every evangelical theologian and many pastors were forced to declare themselves either for or against the “inerrancy of the Bible in the original autographs.” Many books were written; many statements were issues. Some Statements of Faith were re-written to include “inerrancy.” Seminary professors were fired; pastors lost their churches. Denominations divided. Ironically, the National Association of Evangelicals’ Statement of Faith did not include “inerrancy.” It describes the Bible as infallible. Are those the same? Some said yes; others said no.
“Biblical inerrancy” became a litmus test and sometimes a shibboleth used to decide who is and who is not authentically evangelical (meaning truly conservative, biblically committed Protestant Christian).
Story: In 1984, at the height of the “inerrancy controversy,” I applied to teach theology at a mainstream evangelical college and seminary. The denomination that operated the institution had/has a Statement of Faith that includes that the Bible is inerrant (or without error) in the original autographs. During my interviews (three levels) I brought this up and said that I was not committed to the word “inerrancy” (or the phrase “without error”) even though I believed the Bible is supernaturally inspired and the supreme authority for Christian belief and practice. Fortunately for me, before any of the interviews, a friend on the faculty gave me an unpublished statement about the Bible written by John Piper when he interviewed to teach there. He had some concerns about the word “inerrancy” as well. So earlier (he was no longer on the faculty when I interviewed and then was hired) had written this two page essay full of qualifications about “inerrancy.” What it came down to was that he affirmed “inerrancy” insofar as it means “perfect with respect to purpose.” (I considered and still do consider “infallible” a better term for that than “inerrant.”) I used that unpublished Piper statement about “inerrancy” throughout my interviews. Everyone knew that it was accepted by the faculty and administration as sufficient for hiring Piper as he has been on that faculty for a few years earlier. (By that time he had moved on to pastor a local Baptist church.)
The rest is my history—I was hired with the understanding that I did not like the terms “inerrant” or “inerrancy” or even “without error” but that I could live with them and teach in accordance with them so long as I understood them to mean “perfect with respect to purpose.”
Just out of curiosity I sent Piper’s two page essay about the Bible’s accuracy (perfect with respect to purpose) to Carl F. H. Henry, the “dean of evangelical theologians, and asked if he considered it a sufficient equivalent of “biblical inerrancy.” My specific question to him was whether “perfect with respect to purpose” could be a sufficient definition of “inerrancy” when used about the Bible’s accuracy. He wrote back with a “hard no” (to borrow a phrase from a current commercial for a television series I haven’t watched and probably won’t). In essence he said “That would be a ‘hard no’.” Well, I tend to agree. To the “person in the pew,” anyway, “inerrancy” means something much stronger—in terms of absolute, technical, detailed accuracy of every sentence—than “perfect with respect to purpose.” All through my fifteen years teaching at that college and seminary I showed Piper’s essay to students and colleagues and explained that this is what I mean when I affirm “biblical inerrancy.”
So what is the Bible’s purpose with regard to which it is perfect? I believe it is to draw us into communion with God with all that that entails. I believe it is also to reveal needed information about God for Christian worship, devotion, moral living, ethical action, and teaching and preaching.
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