Saturday, August 22, 2015

Game Changer Book That Made Me Rethink How I Read the Bible

Just as learning that the Bible isn’t inerrant changed my perspective on the Bible, one particular book I read stretched me to let go of previous beliefs about the Bible. Peter Enns’ book The Bible Tells Me So was a game changer for me. In fact, I would call the book disturbing. Enns, a biblical scholar and professor of theology, touches on instances of what he calls, “the Bible behaving badly.”

I will add that Enns has been criticized for emphasizing the human nature of scripture over the divine nature of scripture. In fact, his approach was so unsettling to the Board at Westminster Theological Seminary where he taught that they decided to let him go. Having read his book I have to say that I understand why. It is unsettling, but deep inside I had to admit that his argument made so much sense that I simply couldn’t dismiss it.

We’ve all experienced those instances where something we’ve read in the Bible jars us and we don’t know how to deal with it. Instances of the Israelites being called on to annihilate the Canaanites always made me cringe. It depicts a brutal, unmerciful God. I always tried to justify the wrathful behavior. Enns spends time talking about the Israelite beliefs and treatment of the Canaanites.

What about the differing accounts of the Israelite Babylonian captivity? Why are they so different? What about that Levitical laws, intricate, demanding laws that no one could follow to a T. Even those who tout that the Bible is inerrant and who take the Bible literally, skip over many of the Levitical laws. What was God thinking when He came up with all of those? Why is God so kind and loving in some books of the Bible and bi-polar and vengeful in others? He’s a God to be feared. One wrong step and we’ll be obliterated.

We are told God is unchanging and yet He seems much more approacable in the New Testament. The Old Testament God is scary.  If Jesus is God’s son, then he and God are one but I never saw Jesus being the wrathful diety. We did see him get angry, but it was a just anger.

When Christians read about these incidents of the Bible behaving badly, we either lock it behind a door in our mind and don’t talk about it, or we wrestle with explaining to others who criticize the Bible trying to invent explanations that “God’s all just and all knowing and His ways are not our ways," or some other contrived explanation. We work hard to make the Bible line up with our expectations. It’s stressful.

For many Christians there are things in the Bible that make us squirm. Enns’ explanations make so much sense. If we understand how the Bible was written—not as a history book but as documents shaped from individual human perspective and with specific purposes in mind, then it makes much more sense. That’s how you get different accounts of the Babylonian captivity.

According to Enns, Christians feel they need to defend the Bible against criticism but maybe this isn’t the right approach. Many Christians use the Bible in such a literal and inflexible way they have turned it into law, much like the Pharisees of Jesus’ time did. It also leads to cultural cleansing and the “just war” excuse.

If we take the perspective that there is still good in the Bible but that we shouldn’t make it so binding that we need to allow for errors and that human spin, then we hold to it more lightly which is a healthier approach. It is when we try to force it on people and we take it literally that we evolve into judgmental, self-righteous people.

Accepting Enns' perspective was very difficult for me at first. It all made great sense but opening the door to the belief that perhaps only some parts of the Bible are inspired and some parts are distorted because of the agendas of the writers really challenged me. I find myself still bouncing back and forth to wanting to believe Enns’ perspective or tossing it out and going back to what I once believed.

To summarize now where I stand on the Bible I would say it is this:

  • First, I believe it is well written but does contain errors.
  • I believe parts of it are the inspired word of God but not all. I don’t feel God dictated word for word what was written down. I believe that fallible humans wrote what they felt was right but that their human nature and agendas sometimes interfered.
  • I believe that many people use the term The Word of God incorrectly. Each instance where the Bible speaks of God’s word may mean different things dependent on how it translates from the original language. In some cases The Word is talking about Jesus. In some cases it is talking about a direct message from God. And there may be still other cases it may mean something entirely different. People who say the Bible is the Word of God act like it is an all comprehensive novel that God dictated all at once and that is simply not the case.

There is much good in the Bible, but it should not be taken literally. Despite what some Christians hold to, you won’t go to hell if you don’t read it every day. Jesus is God in the flesh and the lens through which we should view what God’s will is and what God’s nature is like. If you read a passage that seems out of sync with God’s nature then question it. 

In my next post I will talk about what I believe about the book of Revelation, one of the most misunderstood books in the Bible.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Is the Bible Really Inerrant, Part III

We've looked at how the Bible was written, first passed down via oral tradition and then eventually penned on parchment by various individuals. 

We also looked at the review process through which various documents were passed and voted on in order for them to be canonized to give us our present Protestant Bible,

In addition, we saw where errors are present for a variety of reasons. After making this study (this was all part of a Tough Questions book I was working on) at the conclusion of my book in process, I reached the conclusion that it is more accurate to say that the scriptures are God-Breathed than to say the Bible is inerrant. 

Those who still hold to the complete inerrancy of the Bible must either be unaware of its history and the errors that exist, or they choose to block them out. I must ask why we should we respect the beliefs of those who stick to the inerrancy  argument if they choose to live in such ignorance? It certainly doesn't lend them much credibility.  

Here is what I originally wrote while concluding my chapter on inerrancy in Tough Questions.


The Bible is over 3,500 years old. It has a history of textual issues as any translated document would. Despite this fact, it is one of the most accurate documents ever translated. If someone confronts you saying the Bible is filled with errors, you might surprise them by agreeing with them. Then you can choose several errors or discrepancies to talk about and how insignificant these are.

Inconsistencies can be explained without loss of integrity to the Bible. Rather than saying it is inerrant, it is more accurate to say it is God-breathed and the inspired word of God. The Bible remains a solid foundation for our faith.
Having written those words a little over two years ago, I have to say that I am in continuation of transformation and refinement and I no longer feel that even this conclusion is absolutely spot on. 

There have been times all throughout my Christian formation where certain passages in the Bible have troubled me because they seem so completely out of sync with what Jesus taught and how he responded to people. At times, especially in the Old Testament, God seems almost bi-polar. One minute He's kind and loving and the next minute He's wiping people off the face of the earth.

In one story Abraham goes toe to toe with a very patient God trying persuade Him not to destroy the people of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18:16-33). Little by little He whittles down the numbers until God agrees to sparing the cities if just 10 righteous people are found.

How could God be so approachable and merciful in this story and so harsh and destructive in others.  Why would God give such strict and meticulous laws as the Levitical laws? The 10 commandments seem right in sync with what seems reasonable Then come these Levitical laws with so many details and impossible scenarios. They sound so much like  the rules the Pharisees placed on the public. 

Have you ever noticed how Christians skip over them because they are so overwhelming? God sure was into making things hard.   Why are there two different accounts of the Babylonian captivity?  Why are there three different versions of the story of Christ's birth. You get the idea.

Have you ever read something in the Bible that really troubles you because it puts God in such a harsh light?  Have you ever read something in one book of the Bible that seems to contradict something you have read in another book of the Bible? Have you ever been bothered by depictions of ethnic cleansing in the Bible that made God seem like a vengeful, hateful God and then tried to reconcile it with Jesus being God's son and how different and loving he seems and yet he says, "I and the father are one?" (John 10:30)

I have, but in order to cope with these seeming disparencies I did what many Christians do, I shut them behind a door in my mind because they are so troublesome and I don't know what to do with them. I have heard Christians explain away the behavior in  answers such as this, "God is all wise and all knowing. His ways are not our ways and He knows best."

Peter Enns, author of The Bible Tells Me  So calls these incidents cases of the Bible behaving badly. In my next post I will talk more about what I learned from the book that has rocked me to my core and what I currently believe about the Bible and how we should be using it.