It's a debate that's been going on for a long time: can we really trust the Bible - every word? And if it contains any mistakes, can we believe any of it at all?
Steve Chalke recently weighed in with his article Have We Misread the Bible? He suggests that the Bible is not wholly divine revelation, but conversation. He describes the Bible as:
a collection of books written by fallible human beings whose work, at one and the same time, bears the hallmarks of the limitations and preconceptions of the times and the cultures they live in, but also of the transformational experience of their encounters with God.He argues that the Bible is "sometimes discordant, sometimes contradictory". Rather than being a finished word from God, is a dynamic ongoing conversation involving all Christians. He says that the Bible is in no way infallible or inerrant (that is, free from mistakes and errors), and that to teach this is to send the "chilling message" that the Bible must be "blindly accepted".
For all Chalke's talk of a "new conversation", this is an old and ongoing debate. But how God speaks to us through the Bible is a question that every Christian must grapple with, and one that anyone considering the truth of Christianity must evaluate. Chalke raises some good and important points: the need to read the Bible as a consistent whole, rather than focusing on favourite bits; the importance of understanding each part in its context; for believers to be able to ask questions open and honestly in our churches.
Let's face it, understanding the Bible is sometimes difficult, and parts of it seem strange, offensive or immoral to contemporary ears. We need to really wrestle with that challenge. But it seems to me Chalke is in danger of throwing out the trustworthiness of the Bible with the bathwater of naive interpretation.
The basis for trusting the whole Bible is the radical claim that God has spoken to us and revealed himself to us, in word, action and in the person of Jesus. God is real and has spoken. And since God is all-knowing and truthful, his word is completely true and trustworthy. Paul wrote to Timothy that "all scripture is God-breathed, and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness" (1 Tim 3:16), and while he would have had the Old Testament scriptures in mind, even in the New Testament we see Peter including Paul's letters with "other scriptures".
There's obviously a lot to discuss here about what exactly that all means. But trusting the Bible as "infallible" or "inerrant" doesn't mean accepting it blindly or stopping asking questions about it. This kind of anti-intellectualism can be a real problem in more conservative churches. Often one particular interpretation of the Bible, such as complementarianism or Young Earth Creationism or some other shibboleth, is asserted to be the "plain meaning of the text", and to deny this is to deny the authority of the Bible itself. Whatever the merits or demerits of those interpretations of the Bible, to insist on them as the only interpretation is toxic. This will either drive people away from completely trusting the Bible, or make them acquiesce to a shallow, fragile understanding of the Bible. But this is far from the whole picture, and in my experience is much less common than critics of Christianity, especially its evangelical forms, would like to make out.
There are many Christians who treat the total trustworthiness of the Bible as a foundation that inspires confidence to examine, question and discuss what it says. We can go to history, science, philosophy and so on, to consider and debate whether the Bible is true. If the Bible really is absolutely true in everything it affirms, then it will stand up to honest, humble scrutiny. And if on closer examination it turns out not to be true, then it wasn't worth believing in the first place.
To believe in the objective truth of the Bible is to live and to believe dangerously. We aren't playing word games, but dealing with questions of truth and reality. The facts may one day demand that we admit that our faith is mistaken and our confidence misplaced, or they may continue to demand our complete obedience and trust in Christ.
When you stop trusting the Bible completely, you're in danger of no longer believing Christianity but instead your own Pick'n'mixianity. Pick'n'mixianity can't be disproved, because anything that does get proved wrong can be swept under the carpet of human fallibility, or spiritualised away into nothing. A faith that can never be shaken by facts is unreal.
If the Bible contains mistakes, then it becomes easy to dismiss anything uncomfortable or counter-cultural as a human mistake, rather than from God. Believing in a fallible Bible makes it easy for us to filter God's word. Chalke is quick to point out that we all pick and choose parts of the Bible. To a point he's right: no-one is saying it's easy to interpret and live by the Bible as a consistent whole - but we should be trying.
But where I disagree is the idea that we can use the living Word of God, Jesus, against the written word of God, the Bible. Our knowledge of who Jesus is and what he taught comes from the Bible. So if the Bible is unreliable, how can we have a reliable understanding of who Jesus is to guide us? "Jesus" becomes subjective, the projection of our own ideas of what's good.
What's more, the New Testament presents Jesus as the fulfilment of the Old Testament, not simply as the next stage in the conversation, with more stages to come. Chalke says that the "dynamic conversation continues beyond [the Biblical canon] and involves all of those who give themselves to Christ's on-going redemptive movement". While I agree that the project of discovering how to live out what's revealed in the Bible is ongoing and dynamic, it's based on a finished plan of salvation.
The reason why, for example, Christians don't obey the law of Moses from the Old Testament is given within the New Testament specifically on the basis of Christ fulfilling the Law for us, and because the Council of Jerusalem recorded in Acts specifically does not require gentiles to follow that law. There are still further interpretive questions to apply - for example, few Christians today observe the principle of avoiding eating blood in meat, which the Council reaffirmed - but there are some clear principles in place to guide us in our interpretation of how we are to obey under the new covenant. The fulfilment found in the New Testament is specific, not an ongoing trajectory of spiritual "progress" that conveniently seems to culminate in modern Western liberal values.
I also disagree with Chalke that Pick'n'mixianity is more credible to a modern generation. People will probably like us Christians as people more if we just outright reject the parts of the Bible that seem to them to be authoritarian, sexist, homophobic and so on. But Christianity itself loses its credibility as truth if we edit it to fit with contemporary values. While people will be pleased that we're not "bigots" and "fundamentalists" in their eyes, many will ask us "why bother clinging onto the Bible at all?"
Interpreting the Bible carefully and correctly will clear away many misunderstandings and barriers, without the "need" to throw out chunks of it. I don't for a moment believe that the Bible is actually sexist or genocidal or homophobic when correctly understood and interpreted. We also need to be humble in recognising that although the Bible is infallible, our interpretations aren't, and so we should always be open to correction.
We need to be aware of our presuppositions - we never start from a neutral position, but all begin by placing our faith in something, whether that's human reason, or personal experience, or religious tradition or whatever. I've found that the best way to tackle my doubts and questions has been by trusting God, asking him for understanding, rather than by putting my faith on hold until I find answers. Real faith isn't blind, but seeks understanding.
If the Bible is really eternal truth revealed by God, we should expect it to challenge each of us in every culture in some way, and not just in the ways that support our agendas. If we only see challenges for other people in the Bible, and it isn't making us personally uncomfortable and different, we've probably stopped listening. Our faith has credibility when not just our beliefs, but our whole lives and lifestyles, are shaped by radical obedience to Christ.
Let's continue the 2000-year-old conversation about whether the Bible is completely true or not. But let's not underestimate the difference it makes to approach it as fallible "conversation". To do so crosses a watershed, where authority shifts from the text as God has inspired it, to us as interpreters. It's not just a change in what we believe about the Bible, but a change in how we arrive at every belief. Above all, it takes us back to the questions of is God truthful? Is he trustworthy? And is he a good communicator?
As I've grown in my own faith, I've wrestled with many questions about the Bible - what does it really say about Creation? About Hell? About the role of women? I've doubted and explored and questioned whether it's historically accurate, scientifically true, morally good, in the face of what have sometimes seemed compelling challenges. I don't have all the answers, but I have enough to convince me that my questions are best approached from the starting point of trusting God and his word.
- Watch Steve Chalke and Andrew Wilson discuss "Does the Bible Have Errors?" on Premier.tv
- The Great Evangelical Disaster by Francis Schaeffer (on the watershed between trusting the Bible completely or not; written 30 years ago but very relevant to current debates)
- Is there a meaning in this text? by Kevin J Vanhoozer (on whether it's possible to know meaning from a text, particularly the Bible)
- The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict by Josh McDowell (collects evidence for the resurrection and reliability of the Gospels - probably a bit dated by now, but a good intro)
- Is God a Moral Monster? by Paul Copan (tackles many of those tough Old Testament passages where God seems like a jerk)
- Creation or Evolution: Do we have to choose? by Dennis Alexander (discusses various models of relating and reconciling Genesis and science)
- Who's afraid of postmodernism? by James K A Smith (really helpful on the relationship between reason and faith)