Contribution Post By Eric Hatfield from The Way? & Is there a God?
It is best I begin by outlining where I’m coming from. I believe the evidence points to God being the creator and designer of the universe, and of the human race; to Jesus being divine and the revelation of God; and to people having experiences of God in their daily lives. I won’t be discussing that evidence here (you can see my reasons at Why believe?), but that is the basis of how I approach the Bible.
All of these conclusions can be reached without considering the Bible to be anything more than what historians tell us. But once I believe, then I must approach the Bible by considering historical facts and the implications of faith in Jesus.
So I begin my thinking about the Bible believing that the New Testament has historical credibility, understanding that Jesus respected the Old Testament but superseded it, and concluding that I should treat the Bible as a revelation of God. The question is, what does that mean?
Is the Bible inspired?
2 Timothy 3:16 must be the starting point. It says:
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness ….
The key here is the word translated “God-breathed”, or (often) “Inspired”. The difficulty is that this is the only place where it is used in the Bible, so its meaning is uncertain.
- The most common understanding is that the Bible is “breathed out” by God, so it contains the very words of God.
- NT Wright says inspiration means “by his Spirit God guided the very different writers and editors, so that the books they produced were books God intended his people to have.” This implies God exercised less control than the first explanation.
- This passage could be translated “Every inspired writing is profitable …”, thus telling us how to use the Bible, but nothing about inspiration.
- Ben Witherington says inspiration means “God speaks through these words. God breathed life and meaning and truth into them all.” Witherington goes on to point out that Paul doesn’t explain how this occurs, and is more interested in the result – that christians can know how to behave.
Other passages also show there isn’t a clear answer:
- 2 Peter 1:21, which speaks of human beings being “carried along by the Holy Spirit”, is equally ambiguous.
- When Paul discusses marriage in 1 Corinthians 7, he distinguishes between various levels of authority – from Jesus’ teachings (v 10), his own opinions (v 12) and his conclusion based on the guidance of the Spirit (v 40).
I conclude then that we should be wary of thinking we can fully define the roles of God and the human authors in the Biblical writings. We should be content with believing that the Bible is an important part of God’s revelation of truth to us, but the authors used their own gifts and style.
Is the Bible without error?
- The Bible doesn’t make this claim. Inerrancy is generally based on verses which say God’s words are true, and the assumption (also never found in scripture) that the Bible can be understood as God’s own words.
- It doesn’t look as though it is inerrant, for there are many obvious difficulties and many historical problems we may not always be aware of.
- Claims of inerrancy only apply to the original writings, and not to any document or translation we have today, so the doctrine has no practical application.
- It has not been a majority view through 2 millennia of christianity, and is not held by all (possibly not even by most) christians today. Its present-day formulation is relatively recent.
I can only conclude that there is no reason to believe that the Bible contains no errors. That doesn’t mean I believe it has errors, or that any individual problem is an error, for many apparent errors have subsequently been explained. I prefer to think that regardless of possible errors, God inspired the authors and uses the Bible to reveal himself. Some people find this view incongruous, but we are quite used to reading fallible books and newspapers and drawing what we believe are true conclusions, so why not here? – and we have the Holy Spirit to guide us (John 14:26, 15:26, 16:13).
Interpreting the Bible
How should we interpret the Bible?
Unfortunately, both believers and sceptics too often interpret in the way that suits them. I believe we need to learn from the scholars what the words and concepts meant in the original culture, then we need to pray for the Holy Spirit’s guidance, discerned by the body of christians, on how to apply passages today.
Should the Bible always be interpreted literally?
It is clear that some sections are poetry, parable, vision, psalm, etc, and most christians recognise that these types of literature should not be interpreted literally – though unfortunately this doesn’t stop many christians from using the Psalms in inappropriate ways. But the harder question is: which other sections are literal and which are not?
I have no trouble, based on scholarship and the Holy Spirit, interpreting Genesis 1-11 as myth, and Job and Jonah as more folk tale than historic. I have more difficulty with the ‘historical’ books of the Old Testament, but I tend to agree with CS Lewis that they appear to be exaggerated history with legendary elements.
It is worth noting that Jesus and the New Testament writers don’t always interpret the Old Testament in a literal way, but use interpretations common to first century Judaism that we would regard as somewhat fanciful. For the first few hundred years, many christians employed allegorical interpretations, and Augustine (one of the most influential of all christian writers) cautioned in the 4th century against interpreting Genesis literally.
Is the Bible a book of rules for faith and life?
If this is its primary purpose, then its final form is very strange, for it is more narrative than anything else. It certainly contains rules, but the New Testament replaces rules with principles, and a strong teaching that the Old Testament laws have been superseded by the guidance of the Holy Spirit (Luke 16:16-17, Romans 7:6, 2 Corinthians 3:6) – so anything not done in faith is sin (Romans 14:23).
Questions and difficulties
Most common questions and difficulties are removed by the above approach. We don’t expect perfection and unambiguous rules, but more a story of God at work with imperfect people. We don’t expect to understand everything, but we expect the important things to be clear enough, and the Spirit to guide us. Perfect knowledge is not achievable in this life, and we live with uncertainty but also with faith.
Thus difficulties in the Bible are not sufficient to undermine my faith and my reasons for believing, though I must admit I am still troubled by the Old Testament commands to kill.
Living as a christian
I have lived as a christian for almost 50 years, and these convictions have developed slowly. I haven’t found that my changed view of the Bible has led to any loss of faith or zeal for God – at 66 I am still as committed to serving God by helping others to ‘see him more clearly, love him more dearly and follow him more nearly’, and playing my small part in bringing justice and mercy on earth.
My wife and I pray together every day and read the Bible together on many days. I study the Bible with the best scholarly help I can get, and lead studies for others in groups. I don’t believe the Bible is inerrant, but I take it seriously and I find that the Spirit speaks to me through it – certainly I find plenty of places where I see the need to improve my behavior.