The Unfortunate Side-Effects of the Doctrine of Inspiration

I 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,

steve :)

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9 Responses to The Unfortunate Side-Effects of the Doctrine of Inspiration

  1. Marshall says:

    it is our understanding (including interpretation) in need of inspiration.
    may the paraklete, the Holy Spirit of God teach us all things.
    our unity in Christ demonstrates His most excellent work!

  2. Tim Cooper says:

    Hey Steve,

    A friend turned me on to Beyond the Box about a couple weeks ago, gotta say I am really enjoying it! I don’t often reply to blogs, in fact I have done it only one other time but this just seemed like such a good fit I couldn’t pass it up.

    The following is something I wrote a few months ago that I believe is heading in the same direction your blog was. Since I don’t know the politics of replying to blogs I (sheepishly) hope this isn’t too long.

    John the Baptist boldly heralds the arrival of Jesus with an earth shattering statement. In the face of all the great scholars of his time, In the face of the Sadducee’s and Pharisees unsurpassed knowledge of scripture the Baptist rips apart their theology in one sentence…

    John 1:18 No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.

    Have we overlooked the significance of this proclamation? The Greek word for “seen” in the above verse means; (to know by experience, to perceive or to be acquainted with). John the Baptist just dropped an atom bomb! He flat out told those that memorized the first five books of the Bible that they did NOT know God!

    For the first seventeen verses of Chapter One the apostle John gives us a history lesson, a mini Bible as he sees it. Then he finishes with a quote from John the Baptist, “No man has seen (to know by experience, to perceive or to be acquainted with) God”. John is telling us that up until this point in history no one really knew God. Jesus His Son had arrived to declare and reveal the Father’s true nature to mankind. When John the Baptist said NO ONE knew God, did he mean it? Was John “inspired” by God when he said it? When John said NO ONE had a clear picture of who God was, wouldn’t that include the Old Testament writers? If this were just one isolated verse we could possibly explain it away or symbolize it but the problem is it’s not an isolated verse, it is repeated over and over by Jesus himself.

    John 5:37 And the Father himself, which hath sent me, hath borne witness of me. Ye have neither heard his voice at any time, nor seen his shape.

    John the Baptist proclaims to the world that NO ONE knew God before Jesus and here we see Jesus confirming John’s message. NO ONE had fully and completely heard or seen God before Jesus Christ

    John 17:25 O righteous Father, the world hath not known thee: but I have known thee, and these have known that thou hast sent me. 26 And I have declared unto them thy name, and will declare it: that the love wherewith thou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them.

    Whenever the word “name” is used in Hebrew it simply means nature or character. So when Jesus says; I will declare your name, He is saying I will declare (who you are). The fall had so blinded us and so twisted our nature that it was impossible to see God clearly. Jesus is the light that came to help us see God for who He truly is. “The world has not known you, but I have and I will declare to them who you are!”

    John 8:19 Then said they unto him, Where is thy Father? Jesus answered; Ye neither know me, nor my Father: if ye had known me, ye should have known my Father also.

    If you know Me, you would know the Father. Or we could flip this around and say if you don’t know Jesus you don’t really know the Father. Did the Old Testament writers know Jesus as well as a born again believer? Jesus Himself said that the least in the Kingdom of God is greater than the greatest Old Testament prophet. – Selah

    Mark 12:24 And Jesus answering said unto them, Do ye not therefore err, because ye know not the scriptures, neither the power of God?

    Was Jesus actually saying that they didn’t know the scriptures? Most scholars agree and Jesus knew that this group of people did know the scriptures from mans point of view. But once again He was telling them they didn’t really see, they still believed the lie and thus remained behind a veil.

    John 6:46 Not that anyone has seen the Father, except He who is from God; He has seen the Father.

    What will it take before Christians agree with Jesus and simply say that NO ONE really knew God before He showed up? Is it possible we have let the writers of the Old Testament actually trump what Jesus said?

    John 5:39 Search the scriptures; for in them ye think ye have eternal life: and they are they which testify of me. 40 And ye will not come to me, that ye might have life

    Have we as New Testament believers become like the Pharisees and Sadducees? Will we remain behind a veil that Christ Himself removed? Will we give as much weight to the Old Testament writers as we do to Jesus Himself?

    Over and over we are told no one really knew God, no one saw Gods true nature. Jesus was here to clear that up, the express image telling us that if we have seen Him we have seen the Father. Jesus was here to tell us He didn’t do or say anything He didn’t see the Father do. The Word, God in flesh was here to say; look at Me, I’m it. I am what you have been looking for in the scriptures. I am here in bodily form to show you exactly what I am like. All things written before, all things seen before are just shadows; you did not see me clearly. Here, I AM.

  3. Scott R says:

    Steve, great post. I started to listen to your podcast several months back, but don’t remember how I happened upon it. I think I found it when doing a searching for “libertarian anarchy” in iTunes, and found a specific podcast of yours that way.

    I have much to say and would love to converse privately, but for now I’ll limit myself to comments about this post of yours. I think your highlighting of Jesus’ “You have heard it said.” quote is great. Modern Western Christianity seems to be overrun by a legalistic/law-oriented OT Judeo interpretation of the scriptures, that they may as well have stuck with just the OT. Mercy, forgiveness, loving one’s enemies…all of that is absent. Instead there is just a warped sense of “justice”.

    Marshall, your re-post is also excellent and worthwhile reading.

    I left “institutional” Christianity several years ago but have always been keeping an eye out for a group of nearby believers who met my “litmus test”. Yes, my wording makes it sound like I’m being judgmental and looking for a brand of Christianity that did everything the way I thought was right, but I’m being honest here, and there were some serious flaws with the group I left. Without getting into details now, I felt like I was becoming more and more of a hypocrite as I “matured” there, and I knew that that was not how I should be growing as a Christian. Today, I long for a church which does not have a salaried pastor/evangelist “leader” (everyone seemed to be on equal footing in the early church, all money was shared, and elders were given respect because they had demonstrated that they earned it through their behavior and lifestyle, not because they were good/persuasive communicators. Money was shared among those who needed it, and for wealthier communities, was sent to poorer churches. Paul was funded by some widows when off and about preaching to a distant group of people who had never heard of Jesus…he did not receive an annual salary by the local Christians so that he could stay put for years and years.

    In more recent years, the nationalistic USA-first (Jesus a distant 2nd) has been the other big “litmus test” for me. Everyone is on-board with “honoring” those “who serve”. I can’t get on board with that. I can’t even stomach it.

    Well, now I’ve gotten thoroughly off-topic I’m sure, and I’m sorry for that. Like I said, I have much I’d like to share with you and I hope that I can do so. God bless you!

  4. Phil Hawkins says:

    Hello, Steve, it’s been a looong time since I commented here!

    To climb onto a hobby horse of mine, that you may remember from comments in the past, there is a lot of interpretation going on here, starting with the verse at the start as printed in our Bibles. The very use of the word “Scripture” in this verse is an interpretation by the translators of our English Bibles. (The decision to capitalize the “S” is an interpretation, too–the oldest NT manuscripts were written in all caps, with very little punctuation and no spaces between words.) I dug out my Greek NT and Analytical Greek Lexicon before starting this comment, and the Greek word literally means “a writing” and refers back to the “holy writings” (Scriptures”) mentioned in the previous verse. This use of the traditional “churchy” words goes all the way back to King James himself, who insisted that the scholars who worked on the KJV use them; he disliked the use of more literal words by Tyndale and some of the other English tranlators before the KJV. And of course, the verse divisions only go back to the mid-1500s; in “Pagan Christianity” Frank Viola and George Barna discuss the verse and chapter divisions and the harm caused by enabling “proof-texting” by taking verses out of context over the last four centuries. (Lately, in spite of my lifelong preference for the NASB, I’ve been reading “The Message” which does not have the verse divisions.)

    On the Inerrancy and related issues: There are some minor problems with the Biblical text–very minor, especially considering it was copied by hand for over 1400 years, longer for the OT. There are some differences between the Hebrew text that survived to modern times and the Dead Sea Scrolls, and other differences in the text used for the Greek Septuagint Version of the OT. The text experts have sorted the NT manuscripts into “families” based on which seemed to be copied from which older text, with regional variations in some. But the variations are minor (if all the disputed readings in the NT are collected together, it amounts to about a half a page out of the whole NT, with no major doctrine affected –unless you consider “snake handling” a major doctrine). The Hebrew OT is pretty good, too–there are a handful of words that even modern Jewish rabbis are no longer sure what they meant originally– but overall the transmission has been not perfect, but remarkably good. Better, in fact, than anything we have on Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar in terms of older manuscripts and number of copies.

    I think the biggest problem is this: We’ve got people who are redeemed, but still fallen human beings, reading the Bible and interpreting it. And you’ll have to forgive me, but Paul nailed it in one “verse”– “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” All too often, our Biblical scholars, and an even larger number who are not any kind of scholar, get all “puffed up” about what they think they know about what some verse means. They start acting and talking as if their interpretations of the Bible are just as inspired and inerrant as the text itself. In fact, historically, most of the fighting among Christians is over interpretations, not the words of Scripture. What’s more, most of the fighting starts among the pastor class and their instructors in the seminaries–if ordinary Christians get involved they’re usually just parroting what they heard from some pastor! I have said before, and I’ll say it now: we need to hang on tightly to our humility when reading the Bible, and keep a solid distinction in our minds between the actual words of the Bible and what we think it means. Because when we get to the Other Side, we might found out that God does not agree with some of our interpretations–and we are not going to win any arguments with Him. Better to hold them a little lightly, in case we have to let go.

  5. Phil Hawkins says:

    One more thing I thought of since last night, that might be worth mentioning. When you really dig into it, the doctrine of “inerrancy” only applies to “the autographs”–the original copies of the Biblical books as written by the authors (or the scribes they may have dictated to). “Inerrancy” does not apply to the thousands of Greek manuscripts copied by hand until printing was invented, nor does it apply to the translations of the Bible into other languages, ancient or modern. There are a lot of people who talk loosely about Inerrancy, but the serious scholars and theologians have actually a very limited concept of it, officially. And no, we do not have any of the “autographs” today. The oldest NT manuscript I have heard of is a papyrus fragment of the Gospel of John, which is dated by text experts to about 125 AD, about forty years or so after the traditional date of John’s writing it; and it was found in Egypt, hundreds of miles from Ephesus, where early church tradition says John wrote it.

  6. Kansas Bob says:

    “interpret Scripture not just with other Scripture, but more specifically with the teaching of Jesus”

    Absolutely Steve. My take is that we should always apply the Jesus filter.. especially to our theological musings. :)

  7. brettact2 says:

    Thanks for laying out with clarity the dynamics that are involved with the belief in the inspiration of Scripture. My own understanding of the connection between inerrancy and inspiration is that this is a more recent development. As Darwin’s views grew and took over science, the church world either assimilate or rejected this new view of science. Those who rejected formed several dogmatic doctrines to shelter believers from this, including the view of inerrancy that currently has morphed into an extremist position.

    As you pointed out, there are several aspects of God’s process for developing things that account for some apparent contradictions. But there are types of inconsistancies that nothing accounts for. I think that the need to ignore these tell us more about ourselves than about God: why must I exalt a creation of God to the status of God? I am comfortable with applying the historical view of the creation to the Bible: it has an abundance of beauty to show that it was created by God, but enough flaws to show that it is just His creation, and not Him.

    Does every detail of everything have to be factually accurate? Would God invest years in getting someone to the point where he could serve Him in an effective way, but scrap him because his sense of history is off, or he doesn’t know all the details, or some other trifling; simply because the record of his service would go in a book, that someday people would believe was accurate in every way?

    I think we are assuming God had a surplus of people lined up, waiting to serve Him to choose from, to make this artificial standard of perfection possible. It seems the story of Jonah tells us quite the opposite: sometimes God was scrapping the bottom of the barrel to find someone to speak and act on His behalf. And, that is God’s own testimony about this salvation venture: I looked for a man to intercede on My behalf, but there was none. So My own right arm interceded for Me.

    Even the apostle Paul tells us, on this side of the Cross, Resurrection & Holy Spirit Baptism: live in humilty, because we all see through a glass darkly. If this is true now, how much more so in pre-Christ Israel; when most of the Scriptures were written!

  8. George Ertel says:

    Wonderful post, as always. And great comments as well.

    Theopneustos is translated as God breathed, which gets represented as inspired, which gets explained as inerrant. How did we get to inerrant from inspired, even? Typically if something inspires you, you have an idea, a sense, a motivation, but does inspired, in the usual sense of the word, mean perfection in the realization?

    And while everyone seems to not challenge the tense as being present tense — is — it seems to me most assume the word is really in the past tense: the holy writings were inspired by God when the authors wrote them.

    I am inclined to believe that the revelation provided via the prophets was indeed sufficient. As “Abraham” said to the rich man in the Lazarus parable, the brothers had the prophets and they ignored them, so they’d ignore someone from the dead as well. And the disciples did not recognize the resurrected Jesus on the road until He opened their eyes to Him. Thus the revelation is adequate; the reception is not. (Perhaps I’m being too picky; it wouldn’t be the first time.)

    All of this brings me to holy writings are God-breathed: God *today* breathes into the words that we receive today — flawed and altered words sometimes — and we can see what God wants us to know. Yes, that opens up huge possibilities for sincere (and insincere, self-motivated, self-aggrandizing) error, I know. But it seems to fit with the fact that God is alive and active.

  9. DPZ says:

    Replying here at the much later time, because it was referenced by a more recent FB post.

    First of all, I want to say, I greatly love the Bible and the scriptures contained therein, and I believe God speaks to me through them almost every day. For a long time, I held on to the belief that the Bible was inerrant (at least in its original form). Any errors or contradictions were because of miscopied texts, bad translations, wrong interpretations, etc. In the example mentioned of David numbering the people, I had no problem with God “using” satan to accomplish His purpose here. And there are also several other discrepancies in the two parallel passages cited (2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21). Long ago I looked at an English interlinear translation of the Greek Septuagint (LXX) for these two passages, and I recall that some but not all of the discrepancies disappeared. My reasoning was that the related portions of the LXX were translated from Hebrew texts that were closer to the original texts in their wording than the Hebrew texts we have available today. If the LXX translators had simply tried to smooth over and reconcile the discrepancies, then all (and not just some of them) should have disappeared. So this fit with my belief that the original texts were inerrant.

    Where I first ran into problems with the original-text-inerrant view was in the book of Revelation, chapter 7, where John names the 12 tribes of 12,000 which make up the 144,000. The tribe of Dan is not listed, but the (half) tribe of Manasseh is mentioned instead. I have heard various explanations for this, mainly that for some reason (idolatry) the tribe of Dan lost their inheritance, and was therefore replaced by Manasseh. The problem with this explanation is that the patriarch Manasseh was a son of Joseph (along with Ephraim), and since the tribe Joseph is also mentioned in this passage, it follows that both half tribes of Manasseh and Ephraim would be automatically included in Joseph. The additional listing of Manasseh is therefore redundant! It would be very unlikely for “Dan” to morph into “Manasseh” through transcription errors. And it is my hunch that the reason this was never corrected is because of the warning at the end of Revelation…

    “I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues which are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his part from the tree of life and from the holy city, which are written in this book. (Rev 22:18,19)

    One can say that misnaming one of the tribes is a minor thing, but all it takes is one instance to sink the inerrant hypothesis. Personally, I believe that what we consider the Holy Scriptures are “God-breathed”, just breathed through fallible human beings (like us) that God chose to partner with and work through.