Scripture’s God-Breathed Imperfections
“Inerrancy” of Scripture
As a conservative evangelical who accepted the “inerrancy” of Scripture, I used to be profoundly disturbed whenever I confronted contradictions in Scripture, or read books that made strong cases that certain aspects of the biblical narrative conflict with archeological findings. Throughout my college and graduate school career, I spent untold hours and no small amount of anxious energy trying to figure out ways to reconcile Scripture’s many contradictions, harmonize problematic narratives with archeological data, and refute a host of other “liberal” views of Scripture (e.g. the documentary hypothesis, the late dating of Daniel, etc.). At least twice during this period I came dangerously close to abandoning my faith because, despite my best efforts, I could not with intellectual honesty find my way around certain problems.
In my previous blog, I expressed one of the reasons why these things do not bother me anymore. The ultimate foundation for my faith is no longer Scripture, but Christ. I feel I have very good historical, philosophical, and personal reasons for believing that the historical Jesus was pretty much as he’s described in the Gospels. I also feel I have very good reasons for accepting the NT’s view that Jesus was, and is, the Son of God, the definitive revelation of God, and the Savior of the world. I, of course, can’t be certain of this, but I’m confident enough to make the decision to put my trust in Christ, and live my life as his disciple. I continue to believe in the inspiration of Scripture primarily because Jesus did, and his Church has done so throughout history. But because the intellectual feasibility of my faith no longer hangs in the balance, I simply don’t need to get bent out of shape if I conclude that it contains contradictions, historical inaccuracies, or other human imperfections.
As an incidental aside, I’d like it to be known that I more often than not find myself ending up on the conservative side of things as it concerns the many debates surrounding the accuracy and consistency of Scripture. I find that if you accept that God is real, and accept the possibility of miracles, the arguments for highly skeptical views of Scripture tend to be surprisingly weak. But the more important point is that I no longer feel I need to end up on the conservative side of things (for on certain matters, such as the dating of the book of Daniel, I actually don’t). I don’t any longer feel that anything of great consequence hangs in the balance on where these debates end up, for my faith is anchored in something much more solid than what either side of these debates can offer.
Inspiration of Scripture
In any event, there’s a second and more recently discovered reason why these flaws no longer bother me. I simply no longer see any reason why God’s infallible Word should exclude human flaws. In another blog, I shared why I believe the cross expresses the thematic center of everything Jesus was about. God was most perfectly revealed when, having become a human in Christ, he bore our sin and our curse on the cross. On this basis, I argued that our theology must not only be Christ-centered; it should be, from beginning to end, cross-centered.
If we accept this perspective, it fundamentally changes the way we think about the nature of biblical inspiration (as well as a host of other things). If the ultimate revelation of the perfect God took place by God making our imperfections his own – that is by, in some sense, becoming our sin (2 Cor. 5:21) and our curse (Gal 3:13) – on what grounds could anyone assume that the process by which this perfect God reveals himself in his written Word must exclude all human imperfections? I would think a cross-centered approach to biblical inspiration would lead us to the exact opposite conclusion. Think about it. If the cross reveals what God is truly like, it reveals what God has always been like, in all of his activities. And it is this God who reveals himself by “breathing”(theopneustos, 2 Tim. 3:16) Scripture. In this light, I submit we should expect to find human imperfections in Scripture.
Infallibility of Scripture
Does this mean that we must reject biblical infallibility? It all depends on what you mean by “infallible.” “Infallible” means “unfailing,” and for something to “fail” or “not fail” depends on the standard you are measuring it up against. So when you confess Scripture is “infallible,” what standard are you presupposing? If your standard is modern science, for example, I’m afraid you’re going to have a very hard time holding onto your confidence in Scripture, because last I heard, scientists were pretty sure the sky wasn’t a dome that was “hard as a molten mirror” (Job 37:18) as it held up water (Gen.1:7) with windows that could be opened so it could rain (Gen. 7:11). So too, if your standard is perfect historical accuracy, or perfect consistency, you’re going to sooner or later run into trouble as well for similar reasons. In fact, I would argue that you’re going to run into problems if your standard is even uniformly perfect theology. For example, we instinctively interpret references to Yahweh riding on clouds and throwing down lightning bolts to be metaphorical (e.g. Ps. 18:14; 68:4; 104:3). But ancient biblical authors, along with everybody else in the Ancient Near East, viewed God and/or the gods as literally doing things like this. They were simply mistaken.
The Cruciform Standard
But why should anyone insist that Scripture conform to any of these standards of accuracy? If we accept the view that all theological concepts should be centered on the cross, then it means that our understanding of “biblical infallibility,” as well as “biblical inspiration,” should be centered on the cross. And as I said above, if God most perfectly revealed his perfection by identifying with our imperfections on the cross, then we should have no problem affirming that the Bible is a “God-breathed,” “infallible,” and even a “perfect” book while at the same time accepting that it contains human imperfections. And it’s not simply that Scripture is inspired despite having human imperfections, as many argue. If we accept the cruciform approach to inspiration, we should rather affirm that God “breathes” through Scripture’s human imperfections as readily as God “breathes” through any and every other aspect of Scripture.
Finally, if we accept the cruciform approach to inspiration, then the cross becomes the standard against which Scripture’s “infallibility” must be assessed. In this light, to confess that Scripture is “infallible” means, most fundamentally, that it will not fail to bear witness to the crucified Christ if properly interpreted through the power of the Spirit, and with our eyes focused sharply on Christ. As Luther, Calvin, and most Protestants since have understood, all Scripture was written for the ultimate purpose of bearing witness to Christ (see Jn 5:39-47; Lk 24:27). If you go to Scripture with a heart that is open to the Spirit and with the ultimate goal of finding Christ and growing as his disciple, it will not fail you. And when this is your highest aspiration, Scripture’s occasional inconsistencies, historical errors, outdated cosmologies, and conflicting theologies simply fade into insignificance.
Note: This article was originally published on the temporary blog Greg used prior to the launch of ReKnew.org.
Image by Les Chatfield. Used with permission. Sourced via Flickr.