All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
—2 Timothy 3:16-17, NIV
Someone recently asked if I consider the Bible the inspired and inerrant word of God or if I feel it contains some errors and contradictions. I said I am not satisfied with those choices, because I think there is a third and better way.
The ‘inspired and inerrant’ theory
Because the “inspired and inerrant” theory of biblical inspiration is concerned only with the text, apart from the reader, some of the people who hold this theory assume that the reader needs no further information whatsoever beyond the words on the paper—though most concede that a knowledge of biblical languages is helpful, if not essential. They sometimes think that each individual is a religious expert for himself and can draw conclusive and infallible conclusions from the Bible.
Since this theory does not take the reader into account, people who subscribe to this theory sometimes cannot tell when they are reading things into Scripture that aren’t there. That is why some people who believed this theory of inspiration were dead sure in the 1950s that God would pour out His wrath against racial integration. And it is why some people in this camp are constantly setting dates for the end times, based on whatever the current political anxiety is. Because they fail to take themselves into account in their theory of inspiration, they often can’t discern the spirits. Quite often they can’t distinguish between what the Bible says and what they would like it to say until many years have past.
If it were true that the reader is not a factor, that the text stands alone, and that simply reading the Bible reveals the truth, then everyone who has this view would be unanimous in their beliefs. They aren’t.
The ‘errors and contradictions’ theory
On the other hand, the people who say that the Bible is full of errors and contradictions do understand that the reader is a factor in the interpretation, but they go too far in the other direction, assuming that the reader is a superior authority to scripture. In order to identify errors and contradictions in a text, you have to judge the text, and in the case of the Bible, that presumes that you know more about ancient times than the ancient authors did! That is breathtakingly arrogant! The most severe problem here is that since the people in this camp select which scriptures are valid and which are not, they make their own canon of scripture as they go along. They do not find God, they only make the Bible into a mirror where they find their own views reflected back at them. For years, people in this camp said the Hittites never existed and were a metaphor for the enemies of Israel—until someone dug up the Hittite empire. (Whoops!) Today you can take classes in the Hittite language.
Not long ago, a scholar noted that throughout the history of the ‘search for the historical Jesus,’ the scholars of each age tended to find a Jesus who looked just like them and shared their concerns. The same thing happens to liberal theologians today who seek the ‘canon within the canon.’ Why? Because the process of using theological criteria for determining the authenticity of the text is nothing more or less than throwing out the scriptures that they don’t like and keep the ones that they do. The result is a Bible that says exactly what they thought it would; a Bible that cannot teach them anything, because it contains no surprises or puzzles.
Comparing the two camps
There are four aspects of reading the Bible: the biblical text, the biblical background (which includes the language, situation, culture, society, history, and writer), the reader, and the reader's background (which includes the reader’s language, situation, culture, society, and experiences.) Both of these theories of inspiration only take the first two aspects into account.
The essential difference between the two is that “inspired and inerrant” camp assumes the reader is irrelevant, while the “errors and contractions” camp assumes the reader is an infallible judge. In both cases, it is like watching television while someone is standing in front of the set, only the person blocking the picture is you!
The reader as a factor in the reading
The parable of the talents in Matthew 25:14-30 is a very good example about how the interpretation depends on the reader. Most people don’t know that there is the rabbinical law behind this parable. It is the burial of the one talent that is the key to the whole parable.
Here’s how the rabbinical law works:
Suppose a friend gives you a diamond necklace for safekeeping while he goes on a trip. You keep it in a safe behind a painting, but unfortunately a thief breaks in, figures out the combination, and steals it. Under rabbinical law, you were responsible for the necklace, so regardless of the circumstances of the theft, you have to reimburse your friend for the value of the necklace. However, suppose you buried it in your back yard. Your friend returns, he wants his diamond necklace back, so you both go out into the yard to dig it up, and lo and behold! Someone got there before you, dug up your roses, and stole the necklace! Under that same rabbinical law, you are not liable for the loss because the necklace was buried.
So let’s compare two Bible readers, both of whom have the same view of biblical interpretation. Reader One, who is unaware of this rabbinical law, thinks the master is angry about the servant’s lack of productivity and gets an impression that God is severe. Reader Two, who is aware of the rabbinical law, realizes that the master is angry about the servant’s lack of responsibility and does not get an impression that God is severe.
Now let’s ask both readers the question, “What if the servant with one talent had invested it at the bank, as the master suggested, but bank went broke and he lost the money?” The first reader, thinking that the punishment was for a lack of productivity, would answer we don’t know, since it isn’t in the text, but the master would probably punish the servant even more severely. The second reader, understanding that the punishment was for avoiding responsibility, would answer, we don’t know, since it isn’t in the text, but the master would probably still reward the servant for taking responsibility, but since the master suggested the bank, he obviously knows that investments sometimes go bad. So most likely he would not punish the servant for things that are beyond his control.
What an effect that has on our Christian walk! Reader One might avoid obeying a commandment if he thinks the results won’t work out, while Reader Two might obey commandments, even if he can’t see how they will turn out. For example, Jesus taught us to give money to beggars. Reader One disobeys when he thinks the beggar will use the money foolishly. Reader Two avoids judging the beggar and just obeys. Reader One thinks that apparent results are more important than faithfulness, Reader Two thinks that faithfulness is more important than apparent results.
So having the same theory of inspiration doesn’t guarantee that the readers will agree, because the theory is incomplete.
If the readers belong to the “inspired and inerrant” camp, and they do not know the rabbinical law in the background of this parable, they might not look for it. Their theory of biblical inspiration does not take into account that they themselves are also factors in the interpretation.
If the readers belong to the “errors and contradictions” camp, and they do not know know the rabbinical law in the background of this parable, they won’t go looking for it. Their theory of biblical inspiration makes them think they are already experts. Instead, they might conclude that they have found a contradiction between the God’s apparent unreasonableness in this parable and His mercy elsewhere in Jesus’ teachings.
The priesthood of all believers or the papacy each believer?
Both views neglect the importance of the reader, though in opposite directions, because both views have a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of the priesthood of all believers.
None of the priests in a priesthood can act unilaterally on his own; each is subject to their corporate discipline. They have corporate expertise, not individual expertise. They submit to higher authority. Each one has to subordinate his personal judgment to the corporate judgment of them all. It takes a lot of humility to be a priest in a priesthood.
You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
—1 Peter 2:5, NIV
Notice that in Peter’s view of the priesthood of all believers, individuals are just parts of a greater whole. Peter describes a priesthood of all believers, not a papacy of each believer.
People in both camps assume that they, as individuals, can make final, infallible interpretations of scripture, free from the contexts, biases, prejudices, and ignorance to which they are subject. It doesn’t improve matters when you assemble a group of like-minded friends, such as all the Bible scholars at a seminary or all the Baptist pastors in a state, because the groups are self-selected based on their shared opinions.
This is contrary to the word of God. No member or group of members of the Body of Christ can arrogate to themselves a task that belongs to the whole Body.
What theory of inspiration should we use?
I like the view that Jesus is the Word of God and the Bible is the canonical witness to Him. I know that people in the “literal and inerrant” side don’t like that, because they hear it coming from the scholars they call “liberal,” but they don’t realize how much respect has developed on the other side of the aisle for scripture over the last few decades and what a huge change that statement represents. To that statement I would add that the Bible is the canonical witness to the priesthood of all believers, not to each individual person serving as his own pope. As Christians, we are members of a body. None of us is complete by ourselves, therefore I agree with Luther than no individual is a self-contained expert who can accurately exegete the Bible. We all must work together. All of us.
Interpreting the Bible is a corporate activity of the entire Body of Christ. That Body of Christ does not consist of all members in good standing at the First Fundamentalist Church, nor does it consist of all scholars with doctorate degrees at ATS-accredited seminaries; it consists of all Christians in all nations and ages. The earlier ones are weightier, because they lived closer to the revelation, and they shared its social context. So the priesthood of all believers that reads and interprets the Bible includes people today, it includes Wesley, Calvin, Luther, Aquinas, Irenaeus, Ignatius, Chrysostom and the rest. Just because some of the parts of the body are with the Lord, it doesn’t mean that their contributions are now void. In other words, just because they’re dead, it doesn’t mean they’re stupid. Have you actually read any of those early guys? If not, you are in for a big surprise and a wonderful treat.
The “inspired and inerrant” camp doesn’t like that idea, because it is hard to do and it means we can’t have the final answers right now this minute. But Paul said in scripture that we don’t have the final answers during our lifetime. The “errors and contradictions” camp doesn't like that idea either, because they have to rub shoulders with the common folk. But Paul told us that humility is a fruit of the Spirit.
As we seek to understand God’s message in the Bible, we have many struggles, and many disquieting moments because not everything is cleared up. However, shouldn’t we expect that, since the people of God are called Israel, which means “struggles with God”? So to the “inspired and inerrant” camp, I say, struggling with the Bible is disquieting, and not having all the answers means God is bigger than you are, and that is frightening. But scripture says that we are to struggle with God. And to the “errors and contradictions” camp, I would say, “who made you so smart, that you can jump to the answer before all the facts are in? Who are you, to teach God? Were you there when He laid the foundation of the universe?”
What is the proper view of the inspiration of the Bible? What is the message that God has for us? Finding that out is one of the tasks of the whole Body of Christ. We are in the middle of that task, not at the end of it. God gave us brains, and He wants us to use them. He wants us to grow and make right choices.