tried to come up with a less-wordy title for this post, but simply couldn’t. I considered replacing the word “unfortunate” with “unintended” because I really do think what I’m about to discuss is completely unintended by those who hold to a doctrine of inspiration of Scripture. But I felt like “unfortunate” communicated better how I really feel about this issue. “Unintended” can still be good. In this case, what is unintended is, in fact, quite sad.
Paul writes in 2 Timothy 3:16 that “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (NASB, or otherwise translated as “All Scripture is God-breathed…”). In the past, I have (in places on this blog) raised questions about how that verse should be treated. Is it saying that the 66 books of the Protestant canon of Scripture are inspired? Is it only referring (as it does in context) to the Old Testament? Is it saying that only those books included in the Protestant canon are inspired and no others? Or is it saying something else?
This post is not about answering those questions, however. Maybe I’ll get back to those questions again in a future post, but for now I want to examine the side-effects of believing that all 66 books of the Protestant canon are completely inspired by God in their very words.
On the surface at least, I really don’t have an issue with believing that all 66 books are inspired by God. Or maybe, to be completely accurate, I should say that I don’t have any problem with someone who does hold to that viewpoint. However, the doctrine of inspiration, especially since it is based so heavily (exclusively, even??) on this statement by Paul leads to some interesting issues. These are, in my opinion, issues that are problematic.
Issue #1: The Doctrine of Inerrancy
The doctrine of inerrancy flows naturally from the doctrine of inspiration. If God is actually the author (through the Holy Spirit) of the words of the Bible, then it follows rather plainly that the Bible is without error. This raises some questions, though. For example, what about apparent contradictions in the Bible? Well, to the strict “inerrantist”, there are no contradictions. If in one passage (2 Samuel 24) it says that God caused David to take a census, and in a parallel passage (1 Chronicles 21) in another book by another author, it says that Satan caused it, then the strict inerrantist has to reconcile those two passages. This is usually done by saying that God used Satan (or allowed Satan, or instructed Satan, or whatever) to accomplish his (God’s) purpose in the situation.
This answer is not entirely satisfactory to some, though (myself included). It’s a bit of a circular argument. Here’s a contradiction, but it can’t be a contradiction because the Bible doesn’t have contradictions. And the Bible doesn’t have contradictions because we’ve explained away all the contradictions!
It doesn’t really make sense, though, to say that every word of Scripture is inspired by God and then to have “errors” in the text. So you can’t really believe in verbal inspiration without going down the inerrancy path. This, in effect, paints us in a corner, then. It’s an unfortunate side-effect of the doctrine of inspiration that we have to then explain away any contradictions or apparent errors.
Issue #2: The “Every Verse is Equal” View
This is perhaps the worst side-effect of the doctrine of inspiration, in my opinion. Because Paul’s words are interpreted to mean that every verse of Scripture has a use for teaching, instruction in righteousness, etc., people have done two things that are detrimental to our understanding of Scripture: 1.) Pulled individual verses out of context and used them to support whatever cause the person is passionate about, and 2) Use verses to support points even though those verses are actually contradicted elsewhere in the Bible.
Recently, this became very clear to me in the wake of the murder of Osama bin Laden by a US Navy Seal special ops team. Immediately upon announcement of the news, my Facebook feed split dramatically into those who were whooping it up in jubilant celebration and those who felt like the situation required a certain amount of sobriety. And I’m not talking about the difference between my Christian friends and my non-Christian friends. I’m just talking about my Christian friends.
Those of us who posted messages of a more sober nature were put down by a lot of those “jubilant celebrants” because we weren’t rejoicing that “justice had been done” or that a mass murderer was finally taken out.
What surprised me, however, was that those who were rejoicing so jubilantly were quick to throw some proof-texts into the mix claiming that there was scriptural precedent for their joy and that, in fact, it was quite appropriate for believers to celebrate in that way. And when some of us tried to counter with the teachings of Jesus regarding loving our enemies, etc., we were called “naive” by some, attacked by others as taking scripture out of context (really?!?) and put down by still others who claimed that we would gladly stand by while assailants came into our homes and raped and murdered our wives and children.
All of this came from a use of scripture that says that any verse can stand on its own as support for a position. I could not disagree more strongly, and I think that this, as I have already said, is the worst side-effect of the doctrine of inspiration.
So what is the alternative?
Well, I certainly don’t claim to have all (or even any!) of the answers, but I think that we can look at this from a couple of angles. Those who believe in a very conservative, strict view of inspiration claim that viewing the scripture as anything but completely inspired by God leaves us with absolutely nothing to hang our faith on. In other words, if any of it means something other than what it says, we can’t trust any of it.
I think this is a very simplistic and faulty view. It’s not an either/or proposition. Much as western Christianity thrives on its “either/or” positions, truth is almost always somewhere in the middle! Note that I am not saying that truth is relative. But truth is not always found by contrasting two polar opposite views. First of all, we need to recognize some things about the revelation we have been given in scripture.
Scripture itself attests to the fact that revelation is not always immediate. It is most often progressive in nature. Getting back to the two passages about David taking a census, rather than trying to absurdly reconcile two very different statements, it perhaps makes more sense to see that when Samuel wrote his narrative, he did not understand that actions that violated God’s principles and plan were not actually initiated by God. But later on, when the writer of the Chronicles comes along (some estimates are that the books of the Chronicles were written approximately 500 years after the writing of the books of Samuel), some development has taken place in the understanding of the role of Satan.
This nature of progressive revelation is attested in Hebrews 1, which makes it quite clear when it says that in past times, God spoke through prophets, etc., but now he has spoken through Jesus. In other words, the past revelation was insufficient in revealing the Father to us. This is a very important point. It is important because it gives us a good indication of how we should approach Scripture.
I like to phrase it this way: We must read Scripture through the lens of Jesus. In other words, we must pass everything we read in Scripture through the revelation of the Father in Jesus.
To put it bluntly, the believers in Old Testament times did not understand the Father. They didn’t understand the battle between God and Satan. They did not understand the character of God. They did not understand the plan the Father had to redeem all mankind to himself.
So, when Jesus comes along and reveals the heart of the Father to us, it necessarily changes some things. For example, Jesus addresses issues of retribution and “justice” by referencing the Old Testament law in a strange way. He says, “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye’, but I say to you, ‘Love your enemies. Do good to those who hurt you.'”
Note his choice of words: “You have heard it said.” This is highly significant. Because when we return now to the Old Testament law and attempt to make it the standard for civil law or for even personal action/reaction toward others, we ignore the teaching of Jesus. One cannot simultaneously love their enemy and rejoice over their demise. When people quote Old Testament verses about rejoicing over their enemies, or wishing their enemies harm (i.e., the so-called imprecatory Psalms), they do so at the expense of Jesus’s revelation. Why would we want to return to a “darker-glassed” view of the Father?
(A side note: Some have attempted to use Revelation 18 to defend the rejoicing over Osama bin Laden’s death, as well. However, I think it is important to note that the rejoicing in Revelation is not over the death of a person or even a group of people, but rather the destruction of a system, referred to as Babylon–a system that stood in opposition to the character and kingdom of God. That is very different, in my opinion.)
So, again, what are the alternatives? The alternative is to understand first of all that we don’t know for sure what Paul was trying to say in his comment about inspiration. We know that there is value in the Old Testament in pointing us to Jesus (see Jesus’s statements in John 5). And we do know that God, from time to time, spoke through the prophets and revealed some of his heart and passion (although they rarely understood what he was saying). But was Paul specifically saying that every single verse of the Old Testament is still useful for teaching us how to live our daily lives? I seriously doubt it because Jesus himself had a different view of the Old Testament. (“You have heard it said…but I say to you….”)
Secondly, we must, as I have already pointed out, interpret Scripture not just with other Scripture, but more specifically with the teaching of Jesus. If Jesus says that “an eye for an eye” is not how we are supposed to view our enemies or those who hurt us, then that verse in the Old Testament cannot bear weight on our lives anymore.
To the strict inspiration-believer, this sounds like we simply pick-and-choose what to believe in the Bible. But I say that is a straw man. It is a serious misunderstanding of what I am saying. Jesus promised us that the Holy Spirit would come to us and teach us all truth. We must recognize that interpretation of scripture comes through the Holy Spirit. And if we listen to the voice of the Spirit, we will find that many things begin to make sense in a way different from what is traditionally taught.
In summary, I would encourage anyone who holds to a strict view of inspiration to carefully weigh the side-effects of that view. Don’t allow that view to put you in a position where you end up demeaning the teaching of Jesus or the progressive revelation that took place over 1,000’s of years. And do not quench the Holy Spirit in your use of the Bible. One need only to look at the way New Testament writers used quotes from the Old Testament to see that a strict view might not always be the way to go!
Until next time,