Friday, 7 March 2014
On Biblical inspiration, interpretation and inerrancy.
Jehoiachin was eighteen years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem three months...2 Kings 24:8
Jehoiachin was eight years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem three months and ten days...2 Chronicles 36:9
In my previous post I addressed a concern that I have with the bible replacing Jesus in the hearts of some people. I also mentioned that I would like to discuss what Paul meant regarding the inspiration of scripture and what we should do with some of the contradictions that we find within the Old and New Testaments.
Perhaps I should first mention something here that will help me to lay the foundation for where I am going with this. If you have read some of my previous posts, you may have noticed that I refrain from referring to the bible as God's word and usually use terms like “scripture” or “God's book” instead. I don’t think that it’s technically wrong to call it God's word as the bible itself uses the word “word” to refer to scripture as well as Jesus or a message from the Lord in various passages. Nevertheless, there is a two-fold reason that I personally refrain from doing the same. Firstly I do it to avoid causing confusion and to create a clear distinction between the word that is ink (the bible) and the Word that is flesh (Jesus). Secondly, scripture is not exclusively God's words but rather should be viewed as God's story. Or to put it differently, the bible records the words not only of God, but also those of fallen men, angels, demons and even the devil. Sometimes, people even mention that they are speaking of themselves and not by the Spirit (see 1 Corinthians 7:25) So we need to be careful when we say “it is written”, for what follows may indeed be in the bible, but it might not be of God. With that in mind, let’s look at some of the problems we may encounter when reading the bible.
Firstly, the bible clearly has God's fingerprints all over it. It is full of prophecies that no human could possibly have come up with. The rise and fall of nations is often prophesied about in detail as were the details of the birth, life and death of the world's promised messiah. And even where scripture ventures into seemingly unbelievable tales, science or an ancient historical manuscript, will once in a while pop up and validate it. Snakes once having legs which you can read about on the BBC website by clicking here and here is the first example that springs to my mind. A recent study within the group I fellowship with revealed an incredibly detailed chiastic structure within the book of Revelations and that it contained over 500 Old Testament references within 404 verses which is simply mind boggling. John clearly had some inspiration in penning that letter. But the problem with our outlook on the bible comes in when we create a blanket view for all of the words holding the same weight and we ignore the human element involved in its assembly. And so we get to verses like the 2 quoted at the start of this article where a clear discrepancy exists and we are forced to find a way to try and harmonize it because our faith has been placed in every jot and tittle being in place rather than placing our faith in the one it was written about. It took me several years to even share those 2 verses with another person for fear that I might cause someone’s faith to wobble. Eventually I realized the hypocrisy of sharing Christ with certain cards still held close to my chest and that despite these rare inconsistencies that pop up it would not shake the faith of a believer who knew God personally.
Secondly, the bible cannot be read like a dictionary. You can open the dictionary anywhere and what you read will make perfect sense and be 100% true regardless of what is written 50 pages earlier or later. But the bible cannot be read like that. It is a book of unfolding revelation and God does not approach every situation in the same way, always using the same methods. For example, in Deuteronomy 7:1-4, Moses commands the Israelites to utterly destroy the people in the lands that they were about to conquer and not to intermarry with them. Nehemiah 13:1 reiterates that “no Ammonite or Moabite should ever come into the assembly of God”. The story continues in verse 25 with Nehemiah retelling that of those who had intermarried, that he “...cursed them, struck some of them and pulled out their hair” before cleansing the Hebrew people of everything pagan (verse 29). Ezra 10:23 actually says that they cast the women and children out from among them. Now consider those stories with that of Ruth which was probably written a short while later. Ruth was a Moabite woman whom Boaz married; it is a wonderful picture of Jesus and the church which according to Moses, Ezra and Nehemiah should never have happened. Boaz and Ruth are even listed in Matthew chapter 1 as ancestors of Jesus. Now all these stories are a part of scripture and rightfully so, but it is the Boaz/Ruth account which clearly reveals the grace, mercy and love of Jesus that we are to walk in.
This is far from the only time in scripture that we encounter conflicting messages. Consider the Psalmist who wrote these words in Psalm 137:8-9
O daughter of Babylon, who are to be destroyed,
Happy the one who repays you as you have served us!
Happy the one who takes and dashes
Your little ones against the rock!
Compare that to the heart of Jesus for children revealed in Matthew 18:6 or his command in Matthew 5:44 to love your enemies. To give just one more example, we also see in scripture that Paul was not to worried about believers eating food that had been sacrificed to idols (1 Corinthians 8), something that the other apostles and elders warned against in Acts 15:29 and that was strictly condemned by Jesus in Revelations 2:20. In sharing these few examples I just want to point out that teachings sometimes differ within the Old Testament, between the Old and New Testaments and then even within the New Testament itself.
So how then are we to approach the bible and how can one truly still believe that all scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16)? I would suggest that we are NOT to approach it as a legal document where we throw verses at one another which fit our own preferences while ignoring what the rest of it stares. The way that we SHOULD interpret the bible is through Jesus, who is the only one who ever truly revealed the fullness of God's character to us.
No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known. John 1:18
Jesus obviously regarded scripture as from God, he quoted it throughout his ministry but he also did not hesitate to overrule it when necessary (Matthew 5). In fact, he actually told the people that John the Baptist was greater than all the prophets (who penned the Old Testament) who preceded him (Matthew 11:11) and then declared that His own testimony was even weightier than John's (John 5:36)! The Old Testament does indeed give us glimpses of what God is like, but the fullness of who the Father is only gets revealed in Christ and it is therefore through his life that we approach all scripture and scripture through its variance I believe actually invites us to wrestle with it in order to discover the heart of Christ and the will of the Father.
For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. 1 Cor 3:11
As for inspiration, if you believe that God literally penned each word through a human vessel then you may actually be attributing the occultic practice of automatic writing to God, think about it. There may indeed be little grammatical errors that have crept in over time and every scholar I know of recognizes the unique writing styles of the canon's various authors. But the reliability of the book as pertaining to all the big things, especially the life, death and resurrection of Jesus has been proven time and again to be considered reliable and undeniable.In this I have faith because it has been tried and tested and the living Christ confirms it.