Effing with the Ineffable – What the Bible Is, and What It Isn’t
The Bible is the inerrant, infallible word of God! The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.
If you are a Christian, you have probably heard these kinds of comments too many times to count. They are usually used to defend an exclusionary view of God – who and what God loves and doesn’t love. Claiming that God is more loving and inclusive than the strict boundaries that are regularly read out of the Bible goes against the “clear teaching of scripture”, and has become one of the great heresies of our day.
Evangelical leader and Reformed Baptist pastor John MacArthur in the United States, and Archbishop of the Sydney Anglican Diocese in Australia, Glenn Davies, have both caused waves recently with their exclusionary reading of scripture – John MacArthur, in telling female preacher and fellow evangelical, Beth Moore, that she should stop preaching and “Go home”, because women taking on preaching roles goes against his clear reading of scripture; and Glenn Davies, for telling his fellow Australian Anglican bishops who support same-sex marriage to “Please leave us [the Anglican Church as a whole]”, as to him, scripture “clearly” condemns these unions and such a viewpoint has no place within the Anglican Church.
So why do many Christians see the Bible this way? Is it the only justifiable way to view scripture?
Raised to believe
Many of us were raised to believe that if it is in the Bible, then it is the Word of God. *His* direct message, straight from the horse’s mouth onto paper through human hands in an act of “divine inspiration” that cannot and should not ever be questioned. We’re told that if it is in the Bible, then it literally happened, exactly as it was written down.
Often overlooked, however, is that the various writers conveying the same story in scripture often have very different perspectives on what happened (eg conflicting accounts of creation in Genesis, the differing flood narratives, whether it is the satan or God *Himself* who drives King David to sin, the four gospels). In the book of Joshua, upon meeting an angel of the Lord, the titular character asks, “Are you for us, or for our enemies?” – to which the mysterious messenger replies “Neither”. Interestingly enough, throughout the rest of the same book, the writers then proceed to appropriate God’s blessing for the wholesale slaughter of the occupants of Canaan because God had apparently changed *His* mind and chosen sides.
God creates evil, God doesn’t create evil. God demands sacrifice, God never even asked for sacrifice. God ordains the slaughter of evil kings and priests, and later God detests their murders. God deliberately hardens hearts against him yet doesn’t want anyone to be estranged from his goodness. It is all in the Bible. How is it possible to create a clear reading of scripture from such glaring contradictions?
The simple answer is that it is not possible when one views the Bible in such a literal way. All sorts of theological gymnastics have to occur to defend such a view, not to mention conveniently ignoring verses that don’t line up with the particular narrative that one might try to pull out of scripture; which, considering the foundational argument of inerrancy and infallibility, is quite perplexing, if not humorous. Of course the easiest way to deal with all this conjecture is that “God’s ways are higher than our ways”, a platitude that is meaningless in itself and also devoids our entire understanding of life, creation and – most importantly in this discussion – faith of any meaning whatsoever.
A better way
But there is a better way to read the Bible, one that makes sense of all its disparities in a more appropriate manner. One that holds and honours the human element in composing the holy book. It does require a letting go of any “preciousness” one might attach to scripture, but it also allows a much more beautiful and reassuring picture of God to blossom if one is willing to explore it, enabling its true holiness to shine.
Instead of viewing the Bible as God speaking directly to the ancient Israelites, giving them *His* explicit instructions for life every step of the way, perhaps the better way is to see the Bible as the story of Israel’s ongoing discovery of who God is and their relationship with *Him*, the nations and all of creation. What starts out as a very polytheistic, tribal and let’s face it, bloodthirsty understanding of God (in line with the divine beliefs of their neighbours), eventually becomes more monotheistic, redemptive and merciful. Every step of the way, God patiently takes the current beliefs of the Israelites and slowly tweaks them, not necessarily through the direct revelation of a voice from the sky, but through their experiences and hardships and their desires for a more loving and just world.
Our projection of violence is not God
The violence that we then see attributed to God’s will, is not God’s will at all; only Israel’s misguided understanding of what they assume God’s will would be. God does not condone this view, but *He* is patient with them, knowing that shifts in consciousness must happen slowly if they are to take root. *He* takes Abraham’s inherited belief in deistically required child sacrifice and steps him and his burgeoning nation away slowly from such a view; and eventually from sacrifice altogether. What Israel initially sees as God’s glory over the Baals and Molechs and Ashtoreths whenever they brutally massacre their enemies changes as they come to see God as the only God, of all nations, and *His* desire for their neighbours as more redemptive than punitive.
The inspiration of Scripture
The “inspiration of scripture” that inerrantists put so much stock in, is not in every word being written by the hand of God *Himself*. Rather, scripture is inspired because in the midst of all of Israel’s (and our) very human desire for violence, retribution and punishment for our enemies, grace still manages to shine through, its mercies offered on an ever-widening scale as their (and our) faith evolves.
In fact, there is great danger in taking an inerrantist view of scripture. It is a view that takes a very immature, violent and tribally exclusive understanding of God in Israel’s earlier days of discovery and relationship with *Him* and holds it up at the same level as the more mature, inclusive and redemptive understandings of God and *His* grace that begin to shine through the cracks of Israel's retributive theology.
It is on par with holding up a primary school level of education as being equivalent to a bachelor’s degree.
The true Word of God
Of course, Jesus is the culmination of the scriptures. Everything points to him as the perfect expression of God’s character, and the ultimate expression of grace. Anything else in the Bible – before or after – that falls short of his standard of love, acceptance and forgiveness for one’s enemies is a perspective that still requires a maturing of grace.
So when Christians like John MacArthur and Glenn Davies choose to highlight exclusionary passages of scripture to justify their desire to express faith in exclusionary ways, what they are really doing is rejecting the developing biblical narrative of grace that we are invited to participate in for a rigid belief structure based on an ancient belief system that was nowhere near as rigid as what these men now claim.
We have a choice now, to take men like this at their word and revere the dirt that they hold up in the Bible as the definition of God’s character, or to dig deeper to discover the gold of grace upon grace buried deeper within.
Russell has a heart for community and reaching out to the marginalised and forgotten. He is getting to know the God of infinite goodness and is living a joy-filled life with his wife Belinda and three children in South-East Queensland, Australia.
See all previous articles by Russell Croft