A few days ago I wrote about how strict biblical inerrancy is not, in my opinion, compatible with believing that Jesus is the full expression of the unchanging God.
Unsurprisingly, that post generated quite a bit of interest… and no small amount of pushback. Which, since I clearly have masochistic tendencies, prompts me to write more on the subject today.
There were two basic premises underlying my previous post: first, that Jesus takes precedence over the Bible; and second, that allowing Jesus to take precedence over the Bible forces us to acknowledge that the Bible is not inerrant.
One assertion frequently made by inerrantists in defence of their position is that the “Word” referred to in the first chapter of the Fourth Gospel (Greek logos, meaning “structuring principle” or “logic”) is both Jesus and the written word, i.e. the Bible. In other words, or so their argument goes, to attack the inerrancy of the Bible is to attack the very person of Jesus. I’d like to briefly refute that assertion.
First, verse 14 of John 1 tells us, “The Word became flesh, and lived among us”. To me, it defies credulity to try to infer that this basically means that the Bible became flesh – that what came to us in the Incarnation was essentially a walking library. (Quite apart from the obvious fact that, since the canon of scripture was not formed until the fourth century, there was no pre-existent Bible to take on flesh.)
Second, the author of the Fourth Gospel himself draws a clear distinction between the written word and Jesus, when he writes in verse 17, “The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ”. In other words, what the written word of scripture could never do, Jesus did. How one can then insist that the two are one and the same is frankly beyond me.
Third, Jesus himself drew a clear line between the scriptures and himself when he admonished his Judaean opponents, “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life.” (John 5:39-40). Again, since Jesus was so clear that the scriptures, while pointing to him, were by no means equal to him, who are we to disagree?
For me, these three points alone should at least be enough to convince us that the Bible and the second person of the Trinity cannot be considered equal. Which must, by extension, mean that they should not be given equal authority.
So what is the relationship between the Bible as the written word and Christ as the Eternal Living Word?
Let me try to explain it this way. Suppose you and I enter into a long distance relationship by correspondence. By reading the letters I send you, you’re able to learn quite a lot about me. You can infer various things about my tastes, my likes and dislikes, my personal and family history… perhaps even my physical stature and appearance. And everything you learn in this way might be quite accurate. But as long as it remains in written form only, it will never be complete.
But suppose I get on a plane, fly to where you live and turn up at your house. Suppose we then spend a weekend talking, swapping stories, eating together and sharing our passions and our hopes. Is it not true that you will have learned more about me in that one weekend of face-to-face presence that in months and years of reading letters from me?
Simply put, then, I’d say that the Bible is our best attempt to explain God in writing. But because of the limitations of writing as a medium of expression, the Bible was never going to paint the most complete possible picture of God. Enter Jesus: the most exhaustive revelation of who God is.
In other words, the Bible is an attempt to capture on paper what God has to say. It is incomplete because of the inherent limitations of the written word (and this is not even to speak of errors in perception, documentation, transmission and translation). But Jesus is what God has to say, with no such limitations.
Does this mean, then, that the Bible has no value or authority? Of course not. To say that if the Bible contains any errors, it must be totally unreliable (another favourite argument of some inerrantists) is childish logic. It’s akin to saying that if a thousand-page encyclopaedia contains one typo, it’s worthless and should go straight in the trash can.
In very simple terms, the value of the Bible is twofold.
First, the Bible is our primary historical record of the life and teaching of Jesus. It’s not my place here to explore the historical veracity of the gospel accounts; suffice it to say that many experts – including non-believers – have concluded that these accounts have, on the whole, great historical credibility.
Second, the Bible is the grand, centuries-old story of humanity’s journey from ignorance and archaic religion towards a deepening understanding of the One True God. As such, it can teach us as much about what we got wrong as about what we got right; and it shows us, if we will read it aright, as much about ourselves as it does about the God to whom it points.
Is the Bible vitally important? Absolutely. Should we respect and value it? Certainly. Is it perfect? Categorically not, for there is only One who is perfect, and no compendium of written words can accurately and comprehensively describe him. To equate the Bible with Jesus is to make something that is not God equal with God, which is idolatry.
Allow me to conclude with more words from the prologue to the Fourth Gospel:
“The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” (John 1:17-18)
[ Image: Adam Dimmick ]