I’m increasingly of the opinion that a faulty view of the Bible is the number one theological problem facing much of the church today.
Let me unpack that a bit.
First, what do I mean by a faulty view of the Bible? I mean the view that every word of scripture was faxed directly from heaven to scribes who functioned as mere automatons to capture words spoken directly from the mouth of God. This widely held view is otherwise known as the inerrancy and/or infallibility of scripture, and it’s wrecking our understanding of God.
How so, you ask? I’ve talked before about how the Bible contains some obvious contradictions (see, for example, my series On understanding the Bible). But the biggest contradictions are not mere chronological quirks: they are violent depictions of God, particularly in the Old Testament, that appear to openly contradict what Jesus taught and revealed about God. (I’m talking, for example, about the contrast between the God who apparently commands the slaughter of thousands of Canaanite civilians and the God who, in Jesus, turns the other cheek and offers forgiveness even as the Roman executioners nail him to the cross.)
Now, if you hold to the inerrancy/infallibility of scripture as laid down above, it seems to me you have only two choices when faced with such contradictions.
1. Your first option is to attempt to hold together two conflicting aspects of God’s character – on the one hand, a burning anger that must be satisfied by blood, and on the other, a passionate, self-giving love expressed in unbounded forgiveness. The challenge is that you need to hold these together in a way that doesn’t make God look mentally unbalanced, not to say schizophrenic. Good luck with that.
2. Your second option is to posit that God underwent a personality makeover somewhere between the Old and New Testaments. Perhaps he realised the tough guy act wasn’t working and decided he’d better put his best foot forward when he sent Jesus. (Which also means that, when Jesus returns at the “end of the age”, he’ll be able to take off his “nice God” mask and get back to the business of slaughtering his enemies.)
The most common answer when challenged with how to reconcile two such contrasting depictions of God is what we call an appeal to mystery: we label this as one of those deep mysteries of God that our finite human minds cannot fathom. I might be more willing to buy this as an explanation if no other, better explanation were available.
But there is a much better explanation: Jesus is the most faithful and complete revelation of what God is like (don’t take it from me – it’s right there in the Bible). If that’s true, it must follow that any understanding of God that runs counter to the character of God revealed in Jesus is at best a partial, evolving understanding of God and at worst an utterly mistaken portrayal of God.
If we allow Jesus, and not the flat text of scripture, to be our guide, we can safely and happily conclude that those monstrous depictions of God found in the Old Testament are not accurate descriptions of what God is like. They are attempts by a primitive people, living in an ancient culture steeped in sacrificial religion and violent conflict, to begin to set down what they think God is like. But they are shadows, whereas Jesus is the substance.
The usual retort to this Jesus-led understanding of the revelation of God in scripture is something like this: But that means scripture is lying! And if I can’t believe some parts of scripture, how can I believe any of it?!
Friends, let’s calm down and be sensible. No one is saying scripture is “lying”. Much of the Old Testament is made up of sincere attempts to capture and understand what God is like. We only make it appear to “lie” when we insist on every word being the literal, absolute truth absent any historical and cultural context.
I believe the Bible is inspired in the sense that God inspired its authors to document their journey of seeking to understand him. I do not believe it is inspired in the sense that every word and every verse in every book stands on its own as the absolute and unquestionably accurate word of God.
So, back to my bold assertion that a faulty view of scripture is among the biggest problem facing many churches today. To put it bluntly, I would say that you cannot both believe that Jesus is the complete revelation of what God is like and take non-Jesus-like depictions of God found in the Bible at face value. You can do one or the other, but not both.
The reason I dare to say this is one of the biggest problems facing many churches today is that how we interpret scripture affects every aspect of our understanding of God. Get into a discussion about repentance, faith, sanctification, Christian ethics, morality, or any other subject you care to mention, and sooner or later lines will begin to be drawn based on who holds to the black-and-white inerrancy of scripture and who doesn’t. Until this difference of interpretation is resolved and the Bible is set free from the narrow confines of literalism, you might as well quit talking and go home.
In many people’s minds, it seems the Bible is more inerrant than Jesus. Thus Jesus, and the heart of the Father that he reveals, is sacrificed on the altar of biblical literalism, inerrancy and infallibility. The irony is that when this happens, the scripture whose very purpose is to point to Christ as the ultimate revelation of God ends up preventing people from seeing the very God to whom it bears witness.
[ Image: Joe Philipson ]