I have a subscription to “Christianity” magasine, published by Premier Christianity. An article in a recent edition grabbed my attention. Two people gave thumb-nail sketches of their different approaches to the Bible. One was Brian McLaren (from his book, “We Make the Road by Walking”), the other Andrew Wilson (from his book, “Unbreakable: What the Son of God Said About the Word of God”). In order to clarify in my own mind what I think they are saying, and to process my own opinion, I’ll sketch a few notes on the article. Let’s deal with Brian first.
In summary, Brian seems to be saying or implying that insisting on the inerrancy of scripture has three problems.
1. It causes rigidity in the sphere of human experience that values authoritarian structures of control over human expressions of compassion. In support of this he cites the historical suppression of women and minorities as well as the elevation of white, European, males.
2. Jesus and Paul corrected scripture (e.g. Matt 5.21-22 & Gal 5.6), and thus, by implication, we are justified in doing so, given that we have the Spirit and Jesus promised that he would guide us into all truth (John 16.13).
3. Focussing on the innerrancy of the Bible and fighting those who deny it, leads to Christians and the church having the wrong focus. We’re in danger of focussing on the fight instead of Jesus.
Now it’s Andrew’s turn.
I’ll summarise his response to Brian’s position as follows.
1. The historical problems caused by Christians and churches are an expression of human sin and have nothing to do with whether the Bible is innerrant or not. The Crusades, the Spansh inquisition, institutional slavery and the like were caused by people not following what the scriptures teach, rather than by an application of what they teach.
2. No one in the New Testament corrected Old Testament scripture, but instead they revealed it’s fuller meaning and what it pointed towards. Jesus did not say the scriptures were incorrect, but that people incorrectly interpreted them, or did not really know them at all (Matt 22.29). Further, he fulfilled scripture, but did not correct it (Matt 5.17).
3. Taking our eyes off Jesus is a matter of spiritual perspective, and not whether we believe the Bible to be inerrant or not. Our responsibility is to keep Jesus front and centre, and the Bible helps with that because he is the Word (Jn 1.1, 14).
Now it’s my turn to try and make sense of these positions for myself. What do I think, and what can I take away from this debate that might help me in my Christian walk?
1. Andrew is right. There is no reason to think that a different belief in the inerrancy or otherwise of scripture would remove the problems caused by Christians in the ways they interpret and express it in their lives. Jesus knew that the biggest asset to his message was the people who accepted his teaching. They would be the “light of the world” (Matt 5.14-16). He also knew that the biggest barrier to others accepting his teaching could be those self-same followers! They might be hypocrites (Lk 6.42), and they might merely listen to him, but not practice his teachings (Lk 6.47-49). But, again, the problem is not the teachings of Jesus, but whether people actually implement his teachings fully, “Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” Luke 6:46 NIV11. The call to me and other disciples of Christ is to ask the Spirit to help us match our talk with our walk. And to be humble to correction with this is proved to be out of sync. If there is a problem, it is not with God’s Word, but with the heart.
2. Brian is right that the scriptures take us on a journey. It is an exciting adventure for those willing to take it. We are walking with Jesus as he did with his disciples (Mark 2.14, 23 etc.), and we can expect to learn as we walk. In this, he might be helping us to think of the Bible as the living Word of God, rather than simply a scholarly exercise. I need reminding to look for Jesus in the Bible, not just information about Jesus. The written Word is designed to lead to the Word-lived-out in me and other followers of Jesus.
3. I wonder if finding parts of the Bible in need of being “corrected” might be a convenient way of avoiding my own need of correction. The most challenging parts of scripture are always most likely to be the very parts that I would wish were not as they seem. The teachings of Jesus do not always seem “fair” or make sense from a human perspective (love your enemies?!). It is good that they make me uncomfortable.
Perhaps we can learn from both Brian and Andrew. I’m not sure I’ve represented them fairly or fully, but the debate can be useful as long as it helps us consider our response to the Bible, not just our perspective on it. Personally, I don’t have a problem with God’s Word being inerrant (though defining that would be a different article), and I accept it that it is so. But I also accept the challenge to enflesh the Word myself, as Jesus did.
If you have any thoughts on this discussion, please leave a comment below, or email me on firstname.lastname@example.org.
More information here: http://www.premierchristianity.com/Featured-Topics/Bible-Debate-Have-we-misread-the-Bible