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.