For the Bible Tells Me So?
By Martin Thielen
Many centuries ago a bald holy man walked down a road on his way to the city. As he neared the city, he came upon a group of boys. When the boys saw his bald head, they began to tease him, saying, “Go away, Baldhead! Go ahead, Baldhead!” In anger the holy man called down God’s curse upon the little boys. Immediately, two vicious bears emerged from the woods and mauled them. Unfazed by the screaming, violence, and blood from the bears ripping the little boys’ bodies apart, the holy man continued his journey into the city.
Where does that awful story come from? It comes from the story of the prophet Elisha in the Holy Bible (2 Kings 2:23-25). And there are plenty more biblical texts just like it, including a vengeful passage in Psalm 137:9. In this text the psalmist, full of hatred for the Babylonians, wanted to murder infant Babylonian children by smashing their little bodies against the rocks.
Somewhere along the way, Christian believers must answer a crucial question about these kinds of troubling texts, which are so prevalent in the Bible. Are such passages meant to be taken literally? Does God really send man-eating bears from the woods to rip apart little boys for teasing a prophet? Or was this a campfire story the ancient Israelites told their children and grandchildren to engender respect for the holy prophets of Israel? How you answer that question will have a huge impact on how you understand Christian faith. Ultimately, it will determine if you fall into the literalist, fundamentalist camp of Christianity or the mainline and moderate camp.
People hold one of three positions about biblical inspiration. People believe that the Bible is either (1) all human, (2) all divine, or (3) both human and divine. Let’s review all three.
The Bible is all human. This position says the Bible is inspired, but no more so than Shakespeare or any other great work of literature. However, this is not a viable option for most Christian believers who consider the Bible to be “the Word of God for the people of God.” From the very beginning, most Christians have affirmed that the Bible is “Holy Scripture.” Although Christians hold differing views of biblical inspiration, as we’ll see below, almost all Christian believers and churches affirm that the Bible is special. As a result, Christians hold the Bible in high esteem, turning to it for both doctrinal beliefs and behavioral guidance. Therefore, for the majority of Christians (although not all), an all human Bible is not an acceptable option.
The Bible is all divine. This position says that everything in the Bible is literal, including all historic, geographical, and scientific details. Although this view is held by fundamentalist churches, it’s not the historic Christian position. In fact, this view of the Bible, called “biblical inerrancy,” is quite new in Christian history. It first appeared in the early 1900s in reaction to modern science (especially the theory of evolution) and modern biblical scholarship (called “the historical-critical method.”) Conservative believers felt threatened by these modern views, so they adopted the concept of an “inerrant and infallible” Bible that could not be questioned by modern science or scholarship. Unfortunately, this view of Scripture is overwhelmingly problematic. For example, if everything in the Bible is literal, then:
- The earth is flat.
- Creation took place 6,000 years ago.
- The world was created in six, twenty-four-hour days.
- Women are the property of men.
- Slavery is approved by God.
- Polygamy is approved by God.
- In order to win a bet with the devil, God let Satan kill all ten of Job’s children.
- God throws raging, jealous, violent fits, killing thousands in the process.
- Eating shellfish is an abomination to God.
- Wearing blended garments (like cotton/polyester) enrages God.
- Menstruating women and handicapped men are not allowed in public worship.
- God’s preferred system of government is a monarchy.
- All governments, even highly oppressive ones, are established by God.
- God approves of genocide and commanded people to practice it.
- Woman are to be silent in church.
- Women are to wear veils in church.
- People who commit adultery should be stoned to death.
- The penalty for working on the Sabbath is execution.
- Sassy teenagers are to be executed.
The above examples are just a few of the massive problems that come with biblical inerrancy. For example, if the Bible is all divine, how do you explain its inconsistencies? In the book of Matthew, we are told that Judas, the disciple that betrayed Jesus, hung himself. However, in the book of Acts, we are told that Judas fell down in a field and died from massive internal rupturing of his organs. Both stories can’t be true. So why do we have two conflicting stories in Scripture about the death of Judas? The answer is simple. When the Bible was written—many decades after the original events occurred—two different stories were circulating about Judas’s death. The writer of Matthew picked up one story, and the writer of Acts picked up the other. If space permitted, hundreds of examples of inconsistencies in the Bible could be given, including conflicting accounts of the birth and resurrection of Christ.
Another example of the problems that come with biblical literalism can be found in the familiar story of Noah and the ark in Genesis 6—8. Although many people believe that the Noah story literally happened, a lot of sincere and thoughtful Christians are reluctant, for several reasons, to affirm a literal reading of the text. First, no scientific evidence exists to suggest that the earth ever experienced a worldwide flood. Major floods have occurred locally and regionally, but it’s doubtful that the entire earth ever flooded. Also, how is it possible that every species on the planet was placed into one boat, even a big one? From a scientific analysis, the story has overwhelming problems. Second, the Genesis flood story is extremely similar to an ancient Babylonian myth that predates the Bible. Even a casual reading of the two stories leads to the likely conclusion that the Israelites borrowed the ancient story, adapted it, and retold it according to their purposes. Finally, significant theological challenges exist with the passage. If the Noah story literally happened, then God purposely annihilated every living creature on the earth in a worldwide genocidal flood. This image of God is hard to reconcile with Jesus’ teachings that God is like a Heavenly Father who deeply loves his children, even sinful ones like the prodigal son. Valuable theological lessons can be found in the story of Noah, including the fact that God takes sin seriously and God expects us, like Noah, to live righteous and faithful lives in a pagan culture. But one can affirm these theological truths without believing in a literal, worldwide, genocidal flood.
Many years ago I had a conversation about biblical literalism with an extremely conservative pastor. We were talking about the Old Testament stories of David killing his arch-enemies, the Philistines. Several of those stories claim that David singlehandedly killed hundreds of Philistines at a time. I said to this pastor, “What if the biblical writers exaggerated the number of Philistines that David killed in any given battle? What if he only killed thirty instead of three hundred? Would that matter?” The pastor replied, “If that were true, I would have to quit the ministry and renounce my faith. If I can’t believe everything in the Bible, then I can’t believe anything in the Bible.” Sadly, this kind of radical literalism is extremely damaging to the Christian faith. It forces people to take an all or nothing approach to Scripture, a totally unnecessary choice that the Bible does not require.
For these and many other reasons, the vast majority of Christian believers do not affirm biblical inerrancy. And they don’t need to affirm or accept it. Only a small percentage of Christians advocate this position. The Bible itself never claims to be inerrant; it claims only to be inspired. Biblical inerrancy has never been the historic position of the church. In fact, the church existed for nineteen centuries without this view. Belief in biblical inerrancy is not necessary for Christians and is, in fact, detrimental to authentic faith. Telling people they must believe something that intellectual and theological integrity cannot authentically accept only hurts the Christian cause. Thankfully, a third and far more promising position exists concerning biblical inspiration.
The Bible is both human and divine. This is the classic position of the church, held by virtually all mainline and moderate denominations. This view states that the Bible was inspired by God. People who hold this position affirm, along with the Bible, that “all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16, NIV). The Christian church has always affirmed that God inspired the Bible, that Holy Scripture has a divine element. But the church also affirms that the Bible is a human document. People, not God, wrote the Bible. And they wrote it according to the worldview of their time, which was a prescientific world. For example, the biblical writers believed that the world was flat and that mental illness was caused by demons. Those kinds of prescientific views are reflected throughout the Bible.
A concrete example of human involvement in the Bible is found in Luke 1. Luke began his Gospel by writing, “Therefore, since I have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account” (1:3 NIV). We clearly see human involvement here. Luke did his homework. He researched his subject well and eventually wrote the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts. Although God inspired Luke’s writing, Luke was fully involved in the process. In short, Luke’s Gospel is the product of divine inspiration as well as human insight and human limitations.
Clearly Christians do not have to interpret everything in the Bible literally. In fact, since some passages of Scripture express pre-Christian and even sub-Christian views of God, Christians should not interpret everything literally. However, that does not mean the Bible is not true. For example, take the book of Genesis. Genesis is full of many great truths: God created the world; human beings are created in God’s image; human sin is real; and God dearly loves all creation. However, a person can believe these great truths without believing that the earth is flat, that the world is only six thousand years old, that serpents talk to people, or that Noah literally placed two representatives of every living creature on earth into one boat.
I love the Bible. My life has been transformed by the message of the Bible. However, like most Christians through most of Christian history, I do not believe that everything in the Bible has to be understood literally.
Christians must always remember that we worship God, not the Bible. The Bible points us to God, but the Bible is not God. Many years ago John the Baptist came upon the scene, preparing the way for Jesus. When people went to hear John preach, they asked him, “Are you the Messiah?” John said, “No, I am not the Messiah, but I bear witness to the Messiah.” The same is true for the Bible. The Bible is not God, but the Bible bears witness to God. Therefore, Holy Scripture is central to our faith.