On Thursday at prayer meeting, we had a short and unplanned discussion on biblical inerrancy. In some ways this is a topic that divides the church. That is, you either believe the Bible is inerrant or you believe it is inspired (and there are some who find a third way to view it – I am probably in that camp).
Now, I do not want to get to deep into the nitty-gritty of this topic. My basic response to those who claim inerrancy is this:
Which bible is inerrant? What version? Which translation? What “original manuscript” – we have hundreds and in some cases thousands!
You see, the truth is we have several different versions of some books. With some of our oldest manuscripts, we can find discrepancies in particular words. We can find errors that scribes crossed out and corrected. We can find additions and deletions from manuscript to manuscript. So which one is inerrant?
And even further, there are clear places where scripture disagrees with itself. For example, there are 4 gospels that tell some of the same stories about Jesus with different details.
Barth Ehrman has written a book about such contradictions: JESUS, INTERRUPTED: REVEALING THE HIDDEN CONTRADICTIONS IN THE BIBLE (AND WHY WE DON’T KNOW ABOUT THEM). He says,
In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is not interested in teaching about himself. But when you read John’s Gospel, that’s virtually the only thing Jesus talks about is who he is, what his identity is, where he came from. This is completely unlike anything that you find in Mark or in Matthew and Luke. And historically it creates all sorts of problems, because if Jesus actually went around saying that he was God, it’s very hard to believe that Matthew, Mark and Luke left out that part — you know, as if that part wasn’t important to mention. But in fact, they don’t mention it.
“For by grace are you saved through faith . . . not of works.” (Ephesians 2:8,9)
“You see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.” (James 2:24)
The Old Testament speaks in immense violence at the hand of both God and humans. And yet it also says, Thou shall not kill, it speaks of beating swords into plowshares, of learning war no more. Jesus comes to us and says you have heard it said eye for an eye…but I say turn the other cheek, you have heard it said love your neighbor hate your enemy, but I say to love your enemies.
So look, if the Bible disagrees with itself in so many places, why are we even speaking about inerrancy? In fact, I think the inerrancy conversation is a failure to understand what the Bible is. It is the story of God written by the people of God. And those people have different parts of the story to tell at different times through history with different understanding of who God is and was. Taken as a whole, the Bible writers debate one another, they offer point and counterpoint as they seek to better understand God. The further along in the biblical story we get, the more clearly we begin to see the way of God.
Discovering this clarity can be a tricky task if you simply read each verse of the Bible as inerrant. And honestly I believe this is one of the greatest problems in the way people read scripture today! Taking each verse on its on, out of context of the rest assuming that it if infallible standing on its on without error.
The Bible can be faithfully or responsibly read that way. Because along the journey from Genesis to Revelations, things get messy. Admitting and embracing that messiness is key to our journey of faith. I love what theologian and writer Peter Enns says about this,
The Bible’s messiness—its diversity, tensions, and contradictions—is precisely that characteristic of Scripture that makes it so applicable to us. It is only by our following Scripture’s lead and wrestling with the tradition that the “tradition remains living.
So, today I want to offer you one of the best ways of wrestling with scripture that I have come across. And it is really quite simple. The basic question to put before yourself is this:
- To what is the Bible pointing me?
- What direction is scripture heading?
- What is the trajectory of the story of God when taken as a whole?
- And where does any particular story fit in that trajectory?
Jesus makes this way of reading the Bible so clear in our scripture for today. Jesus begins this section in verse 17 by stating:
I have not come to abolish the law and the prophets, but to fulfill them.
The he goes into at least 6 different issues of the day each beginning with:
you have heard it said…, but I say to you…
Jesus does not negate what has been said in scripture. He comes to more completely fulfill the intent of the law. That is, he point us further along the trajectory that God would have us move as we journey further and further to the kingdom of God.
Let me give you an example.
Eye for an eye (called Lex Talionis) – Today this may seem pretty harsh to many of us. Yet in the Ancient World, this was a revolutionary idea that in fact greatly limited the amount of violence that could be done to a person. You see, prior to the time this teaching came around, the list for revenge often led to punishments that were more severe than the crime. Consider stealing. It was not uncommon to take a finger or hand from someone who stole…and in some cases a person could be put to death for theft. Yet those punishment are far harsher than simple petty theft. An eye for and eye limits the punishment. In other words, you cannot take a persons hand when they only stole a loaf of bread. Thus the net effect is that the OT teaching of an eye for an eye limited the amount of punishment and violence that could be done.
Jesus then comes along and further limits punishments and violence by saying you have heard it said and eye for and eye, but I say to you you must turn the other check, if someone wants to take your coat, you give that plus your cloak, if someone forces you to walk one mile, then you walk two. In other words, you must not do harm to someone who harms you. You must not return evil for evil. You must not return violence for violence. Jesus takes the spirit of the OT teaching to its logical conclusion. He takes the teaching and goes a step further. That is, the biblical writers of ancient Israel limited the violence of their day, and now we further limit violence until there is no more violence.
When we read these together, we see a trajectory in scripture. We see where scripture is pointing us. It points us towards a world that repays good for evil. Towards a world that subverts violence with kindness.
I can think of no other figure in our modern history who gets this as well as Martin Luther King Jr. who took the evil and violence of segregation and Jim Crow laws and subverted them with nonviolence. That is the kind of actions that fit with the trajectory that the Bible teaches us.
And understanding scripture in this way helps us to make sense of biblical discrepancies. It is a lens for reading scripture that does exactly what Jesus teaches us to do…that is, to follow the spirit of the law not the letter.
I wrote a blog earlier this week about the Tree of Life suggesting that at the center of scripture is a God who wants us to choose Life. And this idea is summed up in Deuteronomy 30:19:
I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.
Choose Life: it’s a great summary for understanding the trajectory of scripture. God wants you to choose Life. And scripture is the story of God and God’s people as they seek to understand what it means to choose Life, how to take actions that choose Life. And at different places in scripture we are taught different lessons about what choosing life means:
Choose Life, not legalism.
Choose Life, not the letter of the law.
Choose Life, not revenge.
Choose life, not judgement.
Choose Life, not rejection.
Choose Life, not division.
Choose Life, not retaliation.
Choose Life, not lust.
Choose Life, not loopholes.
Sometimes scripture goes further than we are comfortable:
Choose Life, not your own personal safety.
Choose Life, not simply what is fair.
Choose Life, not profit.
Brothers and sisters, no matter where you are, no matte what life has brought to you, no matter the joy or the trial before you…Choose Life. Turn in this good book, read and remember the stories, for together the stories in this book that make up the story of God will point you towards that choice. Choose Life.