How to Think about the Bible?

How should we think about the inspiration and authority of the Bible? What does it mean for the Bible to be authoritative in the church and how is this related to the question of its inspiration? For Protestants who affirm the principle of sola Scriptura, this is a particularly pressing question.

One view that seems to be clearly untenable is the ultra-conservative view that the Bible is totally inerrant in every word. This includes not just broad theological affirmations or historical events, but historical details like the number of people killed in a particular battle, the exact words spoken by Jesus on a certain occasion, etc. Not to mention various statements about the natural world that seem to contradict what science tells us (I’m talking about things like the evolution of life on earth or astronomy, not miraculous events. Nothing that science tells us can rule out, as far as I can tell, that God might act in history; science deals with how things go when left to their own devices, but it can’t tell us if or when God might not leave things to their own devices). In short, it seems clear that the Biblical writings (and in many cases the oral traditions which underly those writings) were products of their time and incorporated beliefs that we would now regard as mistaken.

But surely the inerrantist makes an illegitimate inference when she concludes that if we can’t trust the Bible to be a textbook of science or history, then we can’t trust it to be a revelation of God. Presumably St. Paul had some false beliefs about biology or astronomy, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t get the Gospel right. The inerrantist doesn’t seem to take seriously enough the human element in Scripture, that it was written by fallible human beings with limited knowledge. Rather she adheres to an excessively mechanical notion of inspiration, where the Spirit literally dictates every word to the authors who are little more than passive instruments.

On the other hand, what we might call the extreme “liberal” view emphasizes the human element at the expense of the divine. It sees the Bible as a collection of writings that arose out of the religious experiences of certain groups of people over several centuries. The liberal tends to see the inspiration of the Bible as a point on the same continuum as the inspiration of any great work of human genius. As such it is a decidedly mixed bag (the liberal often likes to stress the high ethical ideals of Jesus with the “barbaric,” “vengeful,” etc. God of the Old Testament) and different parts of the Bible will have lesser or greater value.

The Achilles’ heel of the liberal position is that the Bible seems to lose all of its authority. If the religious ideas of the Bible are simply human products (however exalted) then we have to test those ideas by some external criteria (our own experience, moral/religious sense, etc.), since there is no claim that the Bible contains a self-revelation of God. Rather, it reflects human aspirations toward the divine, many of which may have been supreseded by later experience. The Bible is ultimately subordinated to our own judgment, and it’s hard to see how it can retain its traditional place as normative for the life of the church.

So it seems what we need is a via media between a deeply implausible conservative inerrantism and a liberalism that dissolves any authoritative status for the Bible. Can we find a way to maintain that the Bible is both a product of particular fallible human beings and a self-revelation of God?

More to come…

5 thoughts on “How to Think about the Bible?

  1. Lee

    Bill – Thanks! I agree this is much more readable.

    Eric – Glad you’ve been enjoying the blog. The next few posts on this topic probably won’t offer much in the way of a definitive position. I by no means have a settled “view” on this issue. I’m just trying to make sense of all this. But hey, what’s a blog for?

  2. Captain

    Lee,

    Yeah, thanks for starting the ball rolling on this one. I’m in seminary now, and a lot of the questions I’m chewing on have to do with inspiration/authority/reliability questions. I’m looking forward to having some questions answered and other ones raised.

    Dave

  3. Pingback: Blogs of Christmas past « A Thinking Reed

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