We love our children – those of us who are parents – and we hate to see them under attack. Which is why, right or wrong, we always attempt to defend them.
And so it is with Christians and our scriptures.
We love our Bibles – those of us who read them - and we hate to see them under attack. Which is why, right or wrong, we always attempt to defend them.
But is that a fair comparison?
After all, our children – much as we love them – are human and not divine. And they often make errors.
Is scripture inerrant?
But what about scripture – is that human too? And is that capable of error?
Lots of Christians find it very hard to accept or admit that scripture is anything short of being entirely inerrant – that is, completely void of any error.
And yet, anyone who has read the Bible – even just the gospels, knows that every verse cannot be taken as being completely accurate.
Take, for example, the accounts of the women who go to visit Jesus’s tomb on Easter Sunday morning. In Matthew’s gospel we are told that Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb ‘with the other Mary’ and she sees an angel roll away the stone from the tomb. In John’s gospel we are told that Mary Magdalene goes to the tomb alone and she finds the stone has already been taken away.
So which is it?
Did one woman go or two? Was the stone rolled away in their sight or had it already been moved before they got there?
Clearly both accounts cannot be precisely accurate.
We can, of course, say both accounts contain the same essential truths – that women were the first to go to the tomb and the tomb was open and empty.
And this is fine. So long as we don’t then go around picking and choosing other verses in the Bible and insisting on the precise literal truth of those verses – just because they support our particular opinions – even though others may interpret those verses differently. And the verses may jar with other verses and the overall message of the gospel.
In this age-old debate on the literal interpretation of the Bible, a verse from the book of 2 Timothy is often quoted. This verse says, ‘all scripture is ‘God-breathed’ [or inspired] and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.’ And this is true. Every book in the Bible was written by a person or people who were in intimate relationships with God and what they wrote reflects the presence of God in their lives.
But this is not the same as saying every word they write is equivalent to having been dictated by God. Nor that every word needs either to be interpreted literally or in one particular way; or that some passages do not need to be understood in the context of their times or wrestled with to see what God wants to say to us today.
Inspiration is not dictation
Inspiration is not dictation. The Bible is not a set of rules cast in stone – it’s a rich treasury of stories and literature that takes us deep into the relationships people had with God in ancient Israel and in the early Church.
The Bible is absolutely essential reading for every Christian and, through it, God does teach truths that he wills to reveal fully through the person of Christ. And through the Bible God does inspire men and women of every age to new spiritual insights.
When the author of Timothy 2 says that all Scripture is useful for teaching, I do not think he is saying that scripture is just a collection of true beliefs that we have to learn by heart. I think he is saying that prayerful reflection on scripture, continued exploration of its difficulties and mysteries, and a search for its often hidden meanings, will be of great spiritual value and is an excellent training in prayer.
Reading the Bible often evokes discussion. And this discussion, rather than provoking fear, should help us explore the riches of God’s truth not only by giving us the opportunity to assert our own interpretations of particular verses and passages but also by listening carefully to the interpretations of others.
To anyone who insists that every word of the Bible must be interpreted literally, I would ask what they make of Jesus’s final words to Peter at the end of John’s Gospel when he says, ‘Feed my sheep.’ Did Jesus literally have a flock of sheep that he needed someone to take care of? Or did he intend Peter to care for the people around him in the way that shepherds care for their sheep?
The Bible has been used and abused by so many and so many times to perpetuate distorted interpretation of God’s truth – from justifying slavery to sexism to judging who is or is not the better Christian. Even in the gospel account of Jesus’s temptation, we see the devil using (actually, abusing) holy scripture in his attempt to lead Christ astray.
It’s time to see scripture for what it truly is – God-breathed, inspired - in the sense that it is written by people who were individually and as communities in relationship with God, blessed with incredible and enduring spiritual insights. But also hidebound by the prejudices and social conventions of their times and unable to see and communicate in its entirety the joy, mystery and acceptance that only the presence of the living Christ can bring.
Seeing the ‘God-breathed’ in scripture and beyond
I was in Liverpool Cathedral last week and stood beneath the beautiful west end window and read the simple pink neon sentence beneath it – produced in awkward, scratchy handwriting by Tracey Emin - which says, ‘I felt you and I knew that you loved me.’ It’s not scripture. But truly it touched me. It was God -breathed.
Let’s recognise the graciously blurred boundaries between the sacred and the profane – and let’s pray to discern what is truly God-breathed in both.