Here’s my latest Credo article – published in the Newark Advertiser today.
For a Christian the Bible is an important book. But it needs to be handled with care.
There are Christians who treat the Bible as being inerrant (without error) and think that every word in it must be treated as factually accurate. Because it’s the Word of God so it must be.
There are a number of problems with this approach.
The Bible is actually a collection of books written by a considerable number of different authors over a period of many years. Some of these books consist of the type of writing that can be judged as true or false (books of history for example). Others are not that type of writing at all – there are books of poetry (for example the Psalms); there are stories – works of fiction – (for example Jesus’ parables that tell great truths but didn’t actually happen) and there are works of the imagination (what might the beginnings of the universe have been like – there was certainly no human being there to witness it.) Asking if writings in these categories are factually accurate is a bit like asking if one of Beethoven’s symphonies is true.
You can also find inconsistencies in the Bible texts. So while there a lot of rules early in the Bible that spell out exactly how rituals and sacrifices are to be carried out according to what God wants later on the prophet Amos says God doesn’t want these rituals but instead seeks justice and righteousness.
The Bible writers were also writing in the context of their times. Rules were laid out that make very little sense to our society today. There aren’t many today who even attempt to obey all the Old Testament rules. You can find texts that support slavery and that reflect the less than equal status of women at the time they were written, for example. Most of us, rightly, don’t think like that anymore.
I think reading the Bible in search of inerrancy misses the point. In my view what the many writers of the Bible texts were doing is striving to explain their imperfect understanding of God, at the time they lived, in ways that people then could relate to. Sometimes they achieved great insights. At other times they really struggled to come to terms with God and couldn’t find the answers they were looking for. But they all thought that these insights and struggles were worth passing on and writing down for the benefit of others to build on, including those who wrote later Bible texts.
The Bible isn’t like a mathematics text book, outlining incontrovertible proofs about things. Trying to understand the things of God isn’t like that. Instead try reading it for what it is: a record of humankind’s developing, changing and deepening understanding of God over many years. An understanding that continues to develop and change today, many years after the writers of the Bible put down their pens.
Mark Taylor – Minister Newark Congregational Church