Literal, inspired, inerrant, infallible, unchanging, eternal perfection…or leaky human vessel through which God reveals his high logos?
What are evangelicals conveying to the world—humility or pomposity?
This minister turned author of a major best selling series we are all familiar with has from the beginning used the “literal” claim to validate and support his now widely publicized fictional perspective of the book of Revelation. This same general outlook on the end times has held for over thirty years. In that time it has been so solidified into the minds of its adherents as unquestionably true, that an entire generation of evangelical Christians is now unable to distinguish whether this orthodoxy originated on the Mount of Olives or the mountains of San Bernardino.
Though the end-times perspective that has so taken the country by storm with this author’s series of books is one that needs to be critically and scripturally examined by bold thinking Christians willing to assess the damage that may have been done by an erroneous presentation of high and holy truths, this is not the place to do so.
But the good would-be prophet’s comments on national television point to a larger and more disturbing misconception running rampant within evangelical ranks today, of which a potentially error-ridden second-coming theology is but one aspect. The question is not one of biblical “prophecy” per se, but rather of an entire approach, or outlook, or frame of reference to the reading and interpretation of the Bible as a whole.
I would help us, if I might, approach the Bible with more accuracy and insight—and more literality if and when it is called for—by understanding more clearly what kind of book the Bible actually is. To do so, we need to first examine some common misconceptions.
The same author whom I mentioned has publicly maintained that Catholics don’t know how to read the Bible accurately. Underlying such a perspective is the assumption, not unusual among evangelicals who have not investigated the matter in great depth, that Catholics do not view the Bible as literal and inspired and infallible and inerrant as they themselves do. The conclusion drawn from this assumption is that they, evangelicals, are more knowledgeable concerning the Bible’s true meaning, secrets, doctrines, and interpretations, than Catholics and others within Christendom who do not share this same adherence to and emphasis on literality.
Reading the Bible “literally” is viewed by most evangelicals as the Rosetta Stone of biblical interpretation, without which true scriptural understanding is as impossible as deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics was prior to the discovery of the famous trilingual inscription near Rosetta, Egypt. Only to those who read it literally will the Bible unfold its true meaning. Upon this basis, evangelicals stake their claim to know the Bible’s truths more accurately than other Christians.
There are a host of problems here, too many to consider in a single discussion. Not the least of these is the self-righteousness apparent in such a view, and the humility so glaringly absent. Spiritual self-confidence and boldness is one thing, arrogance is another. Jesus certainly stepped forward in the synagogue with confidence and boldness when he proclaimed, “Today is this scripture fulfilled in your hearing.” He confronted the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, too, with boldness and confidence.
The question is not being “bold for God” in one’s approach to Scripture. Our interviewed brother certainly spoke boldly and forcefully about his vast knowledge of Scripture. The more important question, however, is what spiritual posture provides a more fertile ground for the growth of Pharisaism and pride, and what sort of attitude gives rise instead to humility. The latter, I might suggest, may be a far more vital ingredient to a proper, balanced, and truthful reading of Scripture than is pietism about one’s own vaunted knowledge.
Now, indeed, Jesus knew something about the meaning of Isaiah’s words that no one else in that synagogue knew. It is not unreasonable in itself to expect one person to be more knowledgeable than another in probing the depths of the Scriptures. Certain people do know the Bible better than others. The question is whether the parallel is accurate between Jesus (who knew the meaning of Isaiah’s words better than his Jewish listeners) and today’s evangelicalism (which claims to know the Bible better than other Christians) solely on the basis of literality? As we will see, seeming “literality” may offer a flimsier foundation upon which to base biblical interpretations than some realize.
Labels—pro and con
I detest attaching labels to Christians. In one sense, all denominational, fundamentalist, liberal, and whatever other words you can think of are meaningless if they represent the attempt to define, pigeon-hole, and limit what Christianity is and how it functions. A “Christian” is one who follows Christ and obeys his commands, not one who has attached himself as a “member” to any particular church, sect, group, or doctrinal persuasion, or who votes to the right or the left, or whose social agenda is activist or conservative. Father, what would you have me do? is the sole validation of active, believing faith in He whom we call the Son of God.
Because of this foundational criteria, every church and Christian group of every outlook and methodology is full of both Christians and non-Christians, as well as those, as C.S. Lewis says, who are slowly in the process of ceasing to be Christians, and others who are slowly in the process of becoming Christians. Being a Methodist, a Catholic, or a Baptist does not make one a disciple, it only makes him a Methodist, a Catholic, or a Baptist, who may or may not be a daily follower of Jesus Christ.
Such labels are especially meaningless in that “evangelical” is not a denomination at all, but a general outlook and perspective concerning matters of faith. There are “evangelical” Catholics and “evangelical” Lutherans and “evangelical” Episcopalians, and so on.
However, I do occasionally use labels because I try to communicate practically. So I speak of fundamentalist, liberal, conservative, evangelical, and even sometimes employ the term latitudinarian to myself. As Christians we look at things differently. It is useful to be able to recognize those differences in a spirit of unity rather than using them as a basis for repudiation, debate, contention, and judgment.
Practically speaking, then, I think we all recognize that there are differing perspectives among us. There is a general evangelical outlook that is different than the general Catholic outlook, and both are different than the general Presbyterian, Brethren, Methodist, Amish, or Quaker outlook, and so on. It is only prudent of us to be familiar with these distinctions.
Similarities and disparities exist all along the spectrum. Catholicism and Orthodoxy, for instance, share a great deal in common, as do, perhaps, Baptists and Pentecostals. But all the lines within and between all segments of Christendom overlap, and thank God they overlap so much. That’s what makes us a family. The true “Christian” will feel the bonds of kinship, brotherhood, unity, and affection anywhere he goes amongst his or her fellow believers, even though specifics of expression and outlook vary. Our local American Orthodox congregation, for instance, is largely made up of “converts,” so to speak, from other denominations, including many who once considered themselves “evangelicals,” and probably still do. Some of my closest friends, and one of my sons, are Catholic. These relationships provide rich fellowship and fertile spiritual discussion about deep spiritual matters. The lines between their “Catholicism” and my “latitudinarianism” overlap almost completely. My former pastor and spiritual mentor became Orthodox before his death. I have Latter Day Saint relatives whom I love dearly. My mother was an Episcopalian. Two of my other sons are elsewhere along the spectrum, one so far “elsewhere” that he does not at present consider me his brother in Christ at all. Among my closest companions in the spirit, I count a Lutheran, several Baptists, Presbyterians, Mennonites, Pentecostals, and a number of believers who are members of no church at all. One of my spiritual mentors was a Quaker. All these labels blur and intermingle to make up what Paul so wonderfully called “the body of Christ.” So though I place no eternal significance upon them, I use labels simply to help us be familiar with differing general outlooks that exist upon the spectrum of faith.
Where our differences lie
Having taken this brief panoramic look at the many identifying distinctions which Christian believers affix to themselves, I think it could be argued that on the whole, active evangelicals are probably familiar with more of the Bible than is the average active Catholic, Orthodox, mainline Protestant, Anglican, Lutheran, or Episcopalian. In a general way, one who considers himself an active evangelical is likely to have a greater personal working knowledge of the details of Scripture than is the average man or woman on the street who calls himself a Catholic or a Presbyterian or whatever else the case may be.
The reason implies no value judgment. It is simply a matter of emphasis. Knowledge of Scripture is more heavily stressed in an evangelical environment. Evangelicals (including Catholic evangelicals, Orthodox evangelicals, Anglican evangelicals, and Mennonite evangelicals) tend to place a higher priority on personal Bible study than do other more traditional church-based and/or liberal expressions of Christianity.
Catholicism and Orthodoxy, for example, base their belief system largely upon tradition, the teachings of the Church, the creeds, and the pivotal role of the Eucharist. Evangelicals would say their beliefs are based on Scripture. Because of this distinc-tion, evangelicals feel a greater imperative to know the content of their Bibles. That is where their foundations lie. The average Orthodox or Catholic believer, on the other hand, will devote more effort to the study of church history or the lives of the saints, perhaps, and will likely know the historic creeds of the church more intimately than will most evangelicals. That is where their foundations lie.
Thus, the average evangelical will more readily be able to quote passages from Scripture, will be more familiar with the scriptural basis for his or her beliefs, will be able to cite scriptural references for various doctrines, and will be more likely to know the differing themes of Romans and Ephesians and I Timothy, say, than the average non-evangelical Catholic or liberal Baptist. The reason is simple. The average evangelical has made such topics the focus of his study and reading. An evangelically-minded Presbyterian will probably study his or her Bible more than a liberally-minded Presbyterian. Over time, he comes to know a great deal about the books of the Bible and their contents. That same evangelical, however, may find himself in uncharted waters of ignorance if the discussion should turn to pre-reformation church history, the development of the Nicene Creed, or the lives of the martyrs and saints of the first 1500 years of Christ’s Church. At that point the average Catholic or Orthodox believer will likely demonstrate greater knowledge because that has been the focus of his reading and study.
The infiltration of self-righteousness
This distinction, however, tends to bring in its wake a subtly divisive judgment on one side of the fence that, as I perceive it, does not exist on the other.
When confronting evangelicalism, the average Catholic does not generally say, “Ah, because I know more about the saints and martyrs and creeds of the church than most evangelicals, I, as a Catholic, am a more devout and obedient follower of Christ.”
But I think when confronting Catholicism, as exemplified by the interview I mentioned at the beginning, the average evangelical does subtly think, “Ah, because I know more about the Bible, I, as an evangelical, am a more devout and obedient follower of Christ than most Catholics.”
You may perhaps disagree. But so I have found it. In more than forty years in the church, I have encountered this subtle judgment of pride with regard to Scripture to a far greater extent within evangelicalism because of what it considers its own superior Scriptural knowledge. And usually this self-righteousness grows out of the assumption that evangelicals read the Bible as “literal,” “inerrant,” and “infallible,” while others do not. Therefore, as they see it, they are able to interpret Scripture accurately and correctly.
Greater scriptural knowledge may exist within the ranks of the laity of evangelicalism, but in my eyes less humility toward the body of Christ also exists. And it may be instructive to inquire to what extent the latter obscures the accurate eyesight of the former, and stunts the effectiveness and practicality of that “knowledge.”
Do information and knowledge = wisdom and truth?
The question thus becomes: Does greater scriptural knowledge indicate the possession of greater and more accurate truth at a high level?
It may be the case, in general, that evangelicals possess greater personal knowledge of the data and information of Scripture. They generally know the contents of their Bibles to a degree not emphasized in other segments of Christendom. But does this knowledge of data, information, and content translate into a recognition of God’s high Logos truth?
What if, rather, based on a series of misapprehensions and faulty assumptions, many evangelicals who know their Bibles, as it appears, inside out, actually do not grasp much of the high Logos truth to which Scripture points? What if an accumulated storehouse of biblical data and information does not necessarily yield the desired result? For it is not enough simply to read the Bible and amass its data. A computer can do that. To get at God’s high Logos truth, the Bible must be read correctly.
Most Christians do not know how to do so. That includes Catholics and evangelicals, liberals and conservatives, Pentecostals and Quakers. And most Bible teachers and preachers, authors and priests, yes, and so-called prophets too, are only deepening in the minds of their listeners a long tradition of incorrect assumptions that prevents their followers from coming anywhere near the lofty logoV that God intends his Word to convey into their hearts.
Startling though it will be to evangelical ears, one of the chief stumbling blocks to a right reading of Scripture, even one great cause of a spiritual dullness of which they are utterly unaware, is the Rosetta Stone—it would perhaps not be too strong even to call it an idol—of literality. It is such a stumbling block because it so easily leads to a formulistic and jargon-cliche outlook rather than a high-Logos personally obedient perspective.
Literality is subject to personal bias and emphasis
As an aside, let me make a point here that may be important to emphasize so that my objective and personal outlook are both clear. I believe most strongly in the imperative of literal obedience. I believe in it so strongly that I try, however imperfectly, to base my life on just such literal obedience. What I am here attempting to isolate, clarify, and illuminate is the misplaced self-righteousness that is based upon a false assumption that evangelicals in general are more guilty of than others, that they possess the sole perspective necessary to read the Bible correctly. I believe this is a grievous error. Thus I would clarify that literality is not the target of my remarks, but this spiritual pride that leads to proof-textualism.
The fact is, no one reads the Bible with perfect consistency of method or approach.
No evangelical scholar reads the Bible with perfect literality. Nor does the most liberal agnostic Anglican read the Bible with consistent agnosticism. We are all literalists where we choose to be. And I would even add that we are all agnostics and doubters where we choose to be. Every one of us focuses our attention on scriptural passages we like and which confirm our own biases and pre-held perspectives. Likewise, we explain away and disregard ones we don’t care for, and which threaten our personal biases of belief.
We are all literalists, we are all doubters. It just depends on which part of the Bible we happen to be focusing our attention. The unbelieving skeptic brings his unbelief to bear on the resurrection, saying, “I don’t believe it. It could never have happened. Therefore Jesus was not the Son of God.” The doubting Calvinist brings his skepticism to bear on Philippians 2:10-11, and in similar fashion “explains away” by means of certain theologic twists and turns the literality of Paul’s words in such a manner as to preserve the bias of his Calvinistic theology of eternal punishment.
In such a case, I would argue that the unbelieving skeptic is wrong about the resurrection. And we will all have to wait and see how God intends to fulfill the high Logos truth of Philippians 2:10-11 before we know whether the Calvinist is right or wrong about eternal punishment. But it is important that we see from such an example that pietism is not called for. No one is a perfectly consistent literalist. (The point is valid to be made, however, for the sake of objectivity, that obviously the unbelieving skeptic will doubt far more in the Bible than will the so-called agnostic believer. The nature of the two kinds of “doubt” is different as well.)
We ought to have no complaint with this inconsistency of approach. It is to be expected. In its own way, it might be seen as validation of the vast breadth and complexity, perhaps even the truth, of the Bible. It may be indicative of a correct approach to Scripture’s multi-layered and extremely diverse range of texts.
What I rail against is the self-righteousness with which evangelical and agnostic and liberal and Catholic and Baptist alike imbue their own viewpoints with the stamp of God’s approval as the only enlightened viewpoint.
It is such scriptural spiritual pride toward the body of Christ, not our inconsistency of approach, that kills, that dooms unity, and that damages our witness to the world. The world will not mind if we say, “There are perplexing aspects to the Bible we do not understand. In love and brotherhood we view them differently, but we do not allow them to diminish the unity of our brotherhood.” The world will respect us for our honesty, and respect us even more for our unity in the face of tremendous diversity. But when we condemn our brother and sister believers of varying viewpoints and puff ourselves up as if we and we alone possess the full truth, the world will surely turn a deaf ear.
Literalists and non-literalists together
Now to the point toward which I have been leading: Evangelicals take the Bible no more literally than does anyone else. All Christians (even non-Christians) pick and choose where to read the Bible’s words and make literal application, and where to read them as figurative and symbolic and make non-literal application.
Entire social programs have been founded on a “literal” reading of Jesus’ words in Matthew 25:35-36. Some who have based whole lifetimes of service upon the principle of this passage are not even Christians. Sadly, conservative evangelicals do not usually emphasize the literal imperative of Jesus’ feed the hungry, clothe the naked words as a basis for salvation, which Jesus clearly makes it in this passage. Instead, they look to John 3:16 and Jesus’ words to Nicodemus that “you must be born again.”
Here we have two passages (John 3:16 and Matthew 25:35-36) in which, from the Lord’s own mouth, we are given what appear to be categoric and unequivocal guidelines for salvation. Yet Christians read and interpret and emphasize these two salvationary passages differently. The evangelical says, “Yes, of course, feeding the hungry is important…but the foundation must be urging unbelievers to be born again by a personal experience of repentance and faith in Christ in their hearts.” On the other hand, the liberal says, “Yes, of course believing is important as Jesus said in John 3:16…but without practical feed-the-hungry actions to accompany it, Jesus himself makes clear that such belief is meaningless. Being saved is doing what he said not a heart-experience.”
Thus, we see our local Presbyterian Church spearheading a Food Endeavor campaign to care for the poor in our area, while a mile away the Baptist church sponsors frequent evangelistic efforts, door to door witnessing programs, and includes a salvationary altar call in every service. No one is encouraged to invite Jesus into their hearts in the Presbyterian church. There are no food or clothing collection boxes for the poor at the Baptist church.
And down the road we encounter a Pentecostal fellowship in which both John 3:16 and Matthew 25:35-36 pale under the gigantic shadow cast by the church message board as it emblazons the full gospel message of Acts 2:4. and 38 for all the town to see.
So where does true literality lie—in the sinner’s prayer of evangelicalism, in collecting food for the poor, or in speaking in tongues as the true validation of belief? Catholic readers may get to this point and say, “All three miss it. Being saved, rather, is represented by—” and might proceed to offer yet another scriptural emphasis of salvation.
It is a distinct focus, a specific emphasis, which we develop for ourselves. All Christians draw the lines of literality in different places according to their own personal views, scriptural interpretations, biases, church backgrounds, and learned perspectives.
Head coverings and mutilations
Examples of such fluid and personally defined literality abound. I have used some of these before, but they are so instructive as to bear repeating.
Evangelicals and prophecy buffs base their outlook of the future on a literal reading of the rapture (1 Thessalonians 4:17) and a literal interpretation of temporal Israel’s role in the end times drama. All the while, however, they ignore the massive Old Testament indicators, as well as Paul’s words in Romans 9:6, 8, that “Israel” has become a spiritual and symbolic Israel, and that the Church is now Israel, rather than the 21st century secular nation going by the same name. Symbolic interpretations are the last thing an evangelical preacher wants to hear mentioned when teaching about the end times. It’s all about literality—charts, graphs, wars, timetables, world governments, amphibious landings, crashing planes, and driverless cars.
When we change to the topic of communion and the Lord’s Supper, however, visit nearly any evangelical church and one will hear frequent use of the terms symbol and symbolic as the pastor prepares his flock to partake of the elements (whose literal “bread” and “wine” have been changed to thin wafers and grape juice.) In this case it is Catholicism and Orthodoxy that read the Lord’s words literally, believing that the elements are literally transubstantiated into the actual body and blood of Jesus. Now the evangelical explains away a literal reading. The Catholic has become the literalist, the evangelical the literal skeptic.
So where does greater literality exist?
Do any Christians seriously consider being “crucified with Christ” a literal text, or “circumcision of the heart” to be a literal requirement of faith? To follow such passages “literally” would require mutilation and death. Yet Paul speaks of them as being components of our ongoing life in Christ. They are clearly and obviously symbolic images.
I think it likely that my “eyes” and “hands” have caused me to sin in my life. But I have never taken Jesus’ words literally and gouged out the one or cut off the other.
Why, then, do evangelicals have such difficulty transferring the insight and common sense necessary to read such passages non-literally to the possibilities inherent in a passage such as being “caught up to meet the Lord in the air,” where Paul might be using symbolic imagery exactly as Jesus often did? I say nothing on it either way. I only make the point that intelligent, objective, and mature reading of Scripture must admit to such a possibility.
All Christians come to the Bible using a blend of literal and interpretive perspectives to arrive at what they consider “truth.”
I don’t mind if one arrives at the conclusion that the rapture will indeed be literal, while circumcision of the heart is figurative. Perhaps the rapture will be literal. In the matter of the rapture, I confess myself an agnostic. I do not know, and do not think we can know, the full extent of how these scriptures will be fulfilled. It is not the viewpoints themselves that ought to concern us, but the attitudes we bring with them. Do we bring unity and humility to the table? Do we come to Scripture with honesty, open-mindedness, and without pride toward our brothers and sisters?
The Bible’s “immutability” and “unchangeableness” represents yet another misunderstood concept. All history is fluid and changing as it is being written—God’s history included. Yet some hold to an illusion of unchangeableness that is no more founded in the fact of actual practice than is 100% literality.
In how many of today’s churches are women “not permitted to speak,” in literal adherence to Paul’s words?
Who takes the command for head coverings as literally binding upon us today? The Amish, plain Mennonites, and a few others, but not most evangelicals or Catholics, Anglicans or Pentecostals.
Head coverings, political issues, women speaking in church, food offered to idols, ownership of slaves…the fact is, our interpretation and application of the Bible’s themes and truths do change with time.
Let us be honest with ourselves. Let us bring humility into our perspectives. Let us recognize that all Christians choose to draw the lines of the literal and the symbolic, the changeable and the unchangeable, as it happens to suit them, and in such ways as confirm their own doctrinal preferences. Few of us are really as open to and objective about truth from varying directions as we think.
Let us obey God’s word, and ask for the insight and wisdom and understanding of his Spirit to enter through the door of our obedience, illuminated into our hearts through the windows of humility and unity.
Too literal or not literal enough
Lest it seem that I am particularly hard on evangelicals for their misplaced pride toward other segments of Christ’s body, the opposite error is equally undermining to vigorous faith—not taking the Bible literally enough. The average Catholic could learn a valuable lesson from the evangelical’s diligent study of the Bible. How can anyone expect to obey Christ’s commands when he or she has so little knowledge of what those commands even are. How many rank and file Catholics have read the New Testament once through on their own during their whole lives? How many liberal Presbyterians and Anglicans are all too comfortable and complacent in their near complete ignorance of the Bible, when its literal commands and instructions have been given to serve as their instruction manual for life?
I have heard as a justification for Orthodoxy, Episcopalianism, and Catholicism that their prayer books and missals are so structured that one hears every passage from the entire Bible once every three years. That is certainly a worthy objective and a right worthwhile result. But what good is this mentally absentee “listening” if it goes in one ear and out the other, and if those words are not made part of the believer’s personal study, diligent application, and moment-by-moment life of intimate obedience? The same question could be asked of the thousands of mentally absent Protestants who spiritually snooze through sermon after sermon, week after week all their lives, but never incorporate the truths they hear into a moment-by-moment life of prayerful discipleship. It may be that passively hearing so much of God’s Word, never asking if there is something contained therein to be obediently done, is worse than never hearing it at all.
Again I say—to Catholics and evangelicals, Mennonites and Pentecostals, Baptists and Presbyterians, and to myself as well—What would you have me do? is the one true basis for faith. Any Protestant minister or Catholic priest who teaches anything other than doing the red letters of the New Testament—the literal as well as the symbolic—is not teaching the true gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Inerrancy and infallibility
In addition to dismantling the pious illusion of 100% “literality,” intelligent and mature readers of Scripture must recognize that the Bible comes to us as a surprisingly inhomogeneous, fragmentary, and even contradictory Book.
Let us not pretend it to be otherwise. The Bible presents, on the surface of it, a very perplexing and confusing picture of God and his ways.
God is love, the Bible says, but he told the Israelites to slaughter their enemies down to the last woman, child, and goat.
God’s nature is to forgive, but there are some according to the prevailing orthodoxy that he will never forgive because they have rejected him.
Jesus is a king, but he was executed as a common criminal.
Jesus emphasized the necessity of being born again, yet never explained with any specificity exactly how it was to be done. Later he said that many of those who called him Lord had somehow mistaken the process and would be sent away to aeonian punishment. If such drastic consequences were involved, why was he so intentionally vague about it?
Jesus said we are to know the Father, yet throughout the Old Testament God seemed deliberately to make himself unknowable. Jesus calls him Abba, yet God told Moses no one could look upon his face.
Everywhere you look the Bible presents us with seemingly contradictory information. Anyone who says these things aren’t puzzling isn’t paying attention. It is very puzzling.
Of course, we have been well instructed by our theologians how to satisfactorily explain such seeming discrepancies. But on the face of it, they simply illustrate the contradictory nature of the scriptural account.
Many more subtle factors than these begin to rear their heads when the discussion turns to words like inerrant and infallible in connection with the Scriptures—claims like literal that gives rise to a misplaced and wholly unfounded self-righteousness and causes many to misunderstand the very nature of the Bible itself, and what kind of Book it actually is.
Does the Bible contain errors, inconsistencies, and mistakes? It all depends on what you mean. On what level is “error” defined?
It is universally recognized, for example, that the final passage of the Gospel of Mark was not written by Mark himself but was added later, possibly to make up for the fact that the original ending had been lost and to keep the surviving but truncated version of the “good news” from ending with the rather faithless assertion about Jesus’ followers, “they were afraid.”
However you look at it, Mark’s lost and modified ending is unsettling to a belief in inerrancy and infallibility. If Mark was indeed the chosen man whom God miraculously “inspired” to write the first gospel account, and if he did so infallibly and without error, just as God wanted him to, how did a portion of that perfect and inspired account come to be lost? This would seem to be a strange intermingling of divinely inspired perfection with human error. Wouldn’t God have watched over the document as carefully as he inspired it in the first place? And if Mark’s was such an inerrant and infallible document, all except, for some reason, the ending which somehow was not inspired…and if, because of that fact, God saw to the necessity that only that imperfect portion would be lost, torn off at the very word where infallibility ended and fallibility began, and then infallibly inspired some other scribe to add the perfect portion that Mark had somehow been unable to produce…what does that imperfection of Mark’s say about the rest of his gospel? Was or wasn’t Mark a “perfectly inerrant and inspired” vessel?
I mean no sense of levity or disrespect by speaking so. But sometimes it is necessary to think like this in order to follow to their logical conclusions some of misconceptions that are floating about in the minds of Christians today. Church people have not been taught to be implicational thinkers. Thus, much of their thinking is sloppy. And yet when you try to address the points of their inconsistency, you are usually met with some variation of, “If the King James was good enough for Moses and Paul, it’s good enough for me,” arguments.
Clearly we are not going to unravel the mystery of Mark’s ending. I only make the point that pride with respect to inerrancy and infallibility and “literal inspiration” are no more well placed than is pride in one’s literal adherence to the Word of God. The “leakiness” of the scriptural vessel is simply too readily apparent.
Mark’s ending was lost—that’s all. It is an unfortunate accident of history, just like the tragic burning of the Alexandrian library. Similarly, biblical genealogies don’t match. Even the Lord’s own genealogy contains either omissions or outright errors. Historical accounts are occasionally contradictory. Much is contained within Scripture’s pages which appears useless to us today, or of interest only in a historical but not a practical sense.
There are three responses to information such as what we are confronted with by the ending of Mark or the inconsistent genealogies: The close-minded response—to deny the historical evidence; the doubting response—to use the information to deny the veracity of the message altogether; the mature and objective response—to accept the evidence as indication of the fact that the living water of God’s truth comes to us through flawed and leaky human vessels.
The dyed-in-the-wool fundamental literalist says, “I don’t believe it. The Word of God is perfect. Mark’s name is on the book. Therefore, whatever the scholars may say, I believe he wrote every word under the direct inspiration of God, and that every word is perfect. Inerrancy requires that the ‘added ending’ theory be refuted. I reject the evidence as false. If that ending was good enough for Paul, it’s good enough for me.”
The skeptic says, “There, you see, that just goes to show how fallible the Bible is. You cannot depend on it. Lost endings…fragments…phonied documents bearing false names…there is no way to tell what is authentic and what is not. Jesus’ own words were no doubt incorrectly recorded as well. It is an entirely untrustworthy document.”
But he or she who brings a balanced, mature, objective, and knowledgeable reading to the Bible says, “The evidence of the most ancient manuscripts shows all the more clearly God’s use of the human drama to transmit his truth. His Word comes to us as no sanitized, test-tube perfect document, but as history. The warp and woof of its high themes and eternal truths are woven upon the lives and times and struggles and mistakes of a flawed humanity trying, sometimes unsuccessfully, to understand his ways.”
We find the above three differing responses everywhere—closed-minded shallow religiosity, doubting skepticism, and high-truth seeking objective wonder. We find close minded, doubting, and objective responses to the Genesis account, to the dating of the Old Testament genealogies, to explanations of the flood, to the “hard commands” God gave the Israelites, to the figurative passages of prophecy, to the miracles and resurrection, and to a host of biblical difficulties and questions.
We will always have formula-religion thinkers, and doubters, skeptics, and agnostics among us. But wouldn’t we rather attempt to discover the mind of Christ?
How many Christians have heard of Baruch? Probably not a majority. Yet it may be this brilliant Jewish historian, scribe of the prophet Jeremiah, who actu-ally wrote much of the Old Testament. He may also be the one biblical writer who actually knew what happened to the ark of the covenant, and may have had a hand in hiding it.
How many students of the Bible know that three separate Genesis accounts, or “fragments,” are commonly thought to have originally been written—(J) the Yahwist, (E) the Elohist, and (P) the Priestly Code—which were eventually interwoven into the single book that has come down to us.
Such news may be disturbing to those who would rather envision Moses sitting on a mountain with parchment and pen in hand being dictated to word by word from God.
But this is not how the Bible has come to us. Does this information make us close our minds to historical evidence, doubt, or seek high truth in order to obey more diligently?
Likewise, many do not know that for the first 200 years of the Church, 2nd Peter, Hebrews, Revelation, Philemon, and 2nd and 3rd John were considered spurious and were not included in most lists of “canonical” texts at all. No one knows who wrote Hebrews. The apostle Peter did not write 2nd Peter. It is not a first century work at all. Revelation was considered far too unreliable to be included in the canon. The authorship of 2nd and 3rd John were in doubt. The letters to the Corinthians are not really two letters at all, but represent a composite of four separate letters. If the Bible is inerrant, why didn’t these letters come to us as they were written and correctly labeled? As it is, we have, in a sense, falsified documents that have been altered from Paul’s originals and now purport to be something they’re not. Even the gospel of John was for a time held in suspicion and its inclusion in the canon was a point of great controversy.
What do we do with this information—reject it, use it to discard the validity of the whole Bible, or accept it as part of Scripture’s multi-dimensioned tapestry of truth?
The gradual accumulation of what we now call the “New Testament” (as had been the Old Testament before it) was a slow and very “human” pro-cess whose divine “inspiration” is oc-casionally difficult to discern amid the political and doc-trine-driven disputes of the first four centuries of the Church. Simply put, it is hard to see God’s hand in some of it. Why was 2nd Peter included in the New Testament canon, when the letters of Clement (which date from about 90 AD and are thus contemporary with a number of New Testament books and certainly earlier than 2nd Peter) were not?
God’s grand raising up
So what do we make of the many—what shall we call them?—foibles, incongruities, humannesses, “mistakes,” and “errors” that are contained in the Bible and are part of the biblical story? Do they diminish its power. By no means. They demonstrate all the more God’s use of the natural, the human, the flawed, the growing, the incomplete, the temporal to accomplish his supernatural, divine, perfect, complete, and eternal purposes.
Faith is nowise reduced by such an outlook. In its own way, it makes the Bible bigger, grander, broader, and more precious. It reveals God’s adaptability, as it were, to take the human drama and bring to life from it a flawed document, with its mistakes and lost endings and errant genealogies, and then raise that document and elevate it to his use by imbuing it with a spiritual power that transcends the level of humanity altogether.
God uses the imperfections of humanity to accomplish his divine ends.
These foibles, inconsistencies, and humannesses all the more show us that the letter of the Scripture is not to be enthroned as an idol to be worshipped of itself. The letter will always kill. It is the spirit which God has breathed into his holy instrument, the spirit of his high Logos, this Word, that transmits its life to all those who obey it.
C.S. Lewis, in his Reflections on the Psalms, speaks of God “meaning more” in Scripture than any individual writer realized during his lifetime, or even perhaps than any one-dimensional analyst is able to uncover. He calls this process a “taking up” of the texts to a higher level than they appear on the surface. He calls it, as I have, a “leaky” process, one we wouldn’t have expected, or perhaps even preferred. Yet it is the method God chose to use.
The Bible is an instrument of revelation, but not the only instrument…an imperfect revelation, yet the Perfect Revelation.
To approach the Bible with accurate insight requires that we take our understanding of words such as inerrancy, infallibility, inspiration, immutability, and literal to higher levels. God imbues its foibles and inconsistencies, yes even what to the doubting may appear as flaws and contradictions, with a higher power, a deeper magic from before the dawn of time. He imbues its very humanness and the jerky and uncertain way the Bible came into being, with the spirit of high Logos truth. It is the ultimate example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Any detail, to the skeptic, can be disputed or repudiated to his satisfaction. But the high Logos of the whole, through which God himself breathes his own Spirit, remains. Let the skeptic doubt. The heart of the obedient childlike disciple will yet feed on the truth that is hidden from the worldy-wise man’s eyes.
The Bible may be errant in the details of the letter, but Inerrant at the high level of the Spirit. It may be fallible in the details of the letter, but Infallible at the high level of the Spirit. It may changeable in the details of the letter, but Immutable at the high level of the Spirit. It may contain mistakes in the details of the letter, but be Perfect in every way at the high level of the Spirit. For when all is said and done, we know that the Bible is the Perfect document for the transmission of God’s logoV into our hearts.
It may seem that I have gone to extraordinary lengths here to say all that is wrong with our approach to the Bible. Such has not been my intent, though it is sometimes necessary first to clear away the brush and undergrowth in order to be able to chart a clear path through the forest. I hope that in so doing, we will all be able to see with perhaps a little more clarity the hidden pockets of spiritual pride and subtle judgment that may exist within us with respect to the reading of the Bible, and that the humility which follows from that admission will open new windows of insight into the Bible’s high truth into our hearts.
Perhaps some may find themselves disheartened, thinking that a correct reading of the Bible seems almost hopeless, a too high and daunting task. After all this “brush clearing,” however, I do not really think it is so terribly complicated. With all my heart I believe that a wise, objective, intelligent, and true reading is not difficult to attain. It only requires that our hearts remain pure and singlemindedly devoted to obedience above analysis.
Obedience to Scripture’s commands, as MacDonald has so succinctly said in so many ways, is the only path that leads to wisdom
To the untrue heart, to the lover of doctrine, to the theoretical mind, to the proof-textual one-dimensionalist, to the critic and judge and theologic analyst, the Bible will always be more or less a sealed book. To the true, the humble, the obedient, the child-heart who counts his brother and sister as better than himself, the truth of the Scriptures will open themselves from whatever angle or vantage point that childlikeness makes its approach—from the right or left, from within Orthodoxy, Presbyterianism, the Plymouth Brethren, Catholicism, Calvinism, evangelicalism, or the Society of Friends. Childlike obedience will illuminate the high truth of Scripture along the entire spectrum of faith, revealing the children of God among the Amish and among the Zinzendorf Moravians, and everywhere in between.
A correct, balanced, objective, and mature reading of Scripture, though many mysteries remain, is not so very complicated:
We are to be born again and feed the hungry.
We are to anticipate Christ’s coming (because we are so commanded) and plan to live our entire lives as if we will not see it (for thus are we also commanded.)
We are to study God’s Word to show ourselves approved, and walk in harmony with our brethren who maintain differing perspectives.
We are to make disciples not converts, pressing no doctrine upon them but teaching them to obey by the example of our own obedience.
We are to show the world that Jesus came from the Father by our love for one another within the great-encompassing family of God.
Does it matter which of us is right on matters of debate? Perhaps eternally in some cases it may, though I am not so sure most of our differences will matter then.
Does it matter that we know who is right now?
Categorically not. We are only commanded to obey. Where in Jesus’ upper room discourse do we see a word about resolving points of difference?
If you love me, you will keep my commands.
Above all, we are to walk in unity and humility toward all men, but especially toward our brothers and sisters.
If you love me, you will keep my commands.
It is not really so very complicated.