Psalm 119:105-112 New International Version (NIV)
105 Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path.
106 I have taken an oath and confirmed it, that I will follow your righteous laws.
107 I have suffered much; preserve my life, Lord, according to your word.
108 Accept, Lord, the willing praise of my mouth, and teach me your laws.
109 Though I constantly take my life in my hands, I will not forget your law.
110 The wicked have set a snare for me, but I have not strayed from your precepts.
111 Your statutes are my heritage forever; they are the joy of my heart.
112 My heart is set on keeping your decrees to the very end.
I don’t know much about precious gems. Rubies, sapphires and emeralds are just rocks to me. But there is one precious gem that I at least recognize: diamonds.
Though I know very little about diamonds, I know that they are valuable and if someone offered to give me a diamond mine, I would probably take them up on the gift. It would seem like a pretty good offer to me as I would be financially set for the rest of my life. I would simply go into the diamond mine with some tools and a wheelbarrow and get to work, marking the beginning of a new stage of my life. (Please know that I have no working knowledge of diamond mining. Just go with me here, it is an illustration.)
But when you are mining for diamonds, you don’t just take your broom and sweep up the diamonds on the surface. No, you dig deeper. You take your pickaxe and your shovel and you start sifting through the dirt and you dig deeper, uncovering new diamonds along the way. These diamonds need polished and cleaned; they need cut and prepared. And sometimes, the biggest and best of the jewels can only be found after spending a significant amount of time digging.
I think the Bible is a lot like a diamond mine. There is much of value to be found on the surface. Passages like John 3:16 and 1 John 3:16 jump right off the page. But there is much more the deeper you go. That is why I like to read commentaries and look at the original languages; the deeper you go, the more you will find. It takes work, but it is worth it.
I have a high view of the Bible. I believe that it is the inspired word of God. Paul writes to Timothy that scripture is “God breathed.” But I also believe that many people misunderstand how to use this resource because many people try to make the Bible into something that it is not. These people go mining for diamonds using just brooms rather than the pickaxe and shovel that it requires.
Today’s apophatic statement has to do with how we read the Bible, how we mine for diamonds. I will admit right up front that this topic has made me more uneasy than anything else that I have preached on in recent years. But it is something that I feel strongly about and I believe that it needs saying. I feel uneasy about this apophatic statement because I know that some people will hear me say these words and they will immediately stop listening. Perhaps some will be tempted to get up and leave. But I believe that if you listen to all that I have to say, you will likely agree with me and probably see that you already read the Bible as I am suggesting. So what’s to be nervous about?
Apophatic statement number three:
The Bible is not inerrant in all that it says.
Different people use terms, well, differently. But I tend to use the words “inerrant” and “infallible” interchangeably. When people claim that the Bible is infallible or inerrant, they are saying that everything in the Bible is absolutely factual; there are no errors and no mistakes. Those who adhere to a position of biblical inerrancy would say that you must believe in things like a literal six-day creation because if you can’t believe that God literally created the world in six days, resting on the seventh, then how can you believe anything in the Bible?
I’ve used that argument before as well. There was a time when I would have said that the Bible must all be absolutely, 100% factual or else we might as well say that none of it is true. But today I want to suggest that very few if any credible scholars or theologians actually believe everything in the Bible is 100% factual by today’s standards. Some might say that they believe that because it sound pious and religious, but in reality, nobody does.
We will get into that in a bit, but before we do, I want to share today’s kataphatic statement because I think that it might make some of you who are starting to think of me as a heretic get back on board with what I want to say:
The Bible is inerrant in all that it means.
There is a big difference between the statement that the Bible is inerrant in all that it says and that the Bible is inerrant in all that it means or intends to say. Another way to say this is that it isn’t the Bible that has errors. It is our way of reading and understanding the Bible that is full of errors. (Now those of you who are angry with me may put your rocks down.)
I’ll ask you this: What’s the point of the Bible? Some may answer that it is a guide for how we are to live our lives as Christians. Others might say that it is the story of how God works through Jesus to bring forgiveness to his people. And these are all aspects of the Bible, but what I believe to be the best way to look at the Bible is to say that it is the story of God who created the world good, witnessed the degradation of that which was good, and is working to reconcile all things to himself through Jesus Christ. The point of the Bible is to reveal the history of creation and God’s redemptive work in which he calls us to participate.
But people tend to use the Bible for things that it was never intended to be used for. The Bible is not a science book and it isn’t a historical record book. In fact I would say that our modern understanding of science and historical accuracy would be completely foreign to the original hearers of the Bible.
When we read the Bible we need to remember that there are a number of genres present and each genre requires a certain hermeneutic, or way of reading and interpreting the text. For example, the creation narrative in Genesis 1 is not meant to be read as a science book. It is Hebrew poetry. The repetition of phrases like, “And there was evening, and there was morning — the fourth day” and “it was good” show us that this is poetry.
You don’t read poetry like you read a science text book. If I wrote a poem to my wife, I might say something like, “Your eyes are like the autumn leaves, adorning the mountains on a crisp October morning.” If I read that phrase from a scientific perspective, I would come to the conclusion that my wife’s eyes are comprised of dead vegetative matter, devoid of any active chlorophyll, thus causing their deep brown hue.
While there might be some truth to that — I am sure my wife’s eyes are devoid of any active chlorophyll — that’s not the point of that poetic line. The point is that her eyes are pretty like the autumn leaves. You read different genre of literature differently.
This is how I come out on the whole inerrancy issue. If someone asks me if the world was really created in six days or not, I would tell them that I really don’t care. I don’t care if you believe that it was created in six days and I don’t care if you believe that the earth is billions of years old. I don’t care because that isn’t the point of Genesis chapter 1. Here is a theological guide for you to remember when you are faced with these hermeneutical questions: the point is the point.
So when someone says that I need to believe in a literal six day creation or else I might as well throw out the entire Bible, I just have to say, “That’s not the point. The point is the point, and the point is that God is the creator of the heavens and the earth. And the point is without error.”
Some people will say that my proposed way of reading the Bible, looking for the point and not worrying about whether or not each detail is factual, causes some concerns for them. But I would say that reading each line as factual actually provides more reason for concern. If you do a quick online search, you will find that a lot of atheists jump on some of these little inconsistencies in our Bible and claim that because these inconsistencies are in the text that the whole thing must be thrown out. Both sides seem to believe that each and every jot and tittle need to be 100% verifiable in order for the Bible to be true. But every jot and tittle aren’t the point. The point is the point.
Reading the Bible looking for the point rather than the smallest details helps us deal with some inconsistencies that some Christians ignore in order to call the text infallible and some atheist believe disproves Christianity. For instance, in the synoptic Gospels, that is Matthew, Mark, and Luke, we read about Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem during his third year of ministry on what we now call Palm Sunday. The people welcomed Jesus as the king of the Jews. And in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, after Jesus makes it through all of those palm branches and shouts of “Hosanna in the highest!” he goes to the temple. Jesus sees that there are some people taking advantage of those who need to exchange money and purchase animals, so he overturns the tables and drives out the animals. He tells those who are responsible for this atrocity that they have made his father’s house into a den of thieves.
This is a very significant event in Jesus’s ministry! We are led to believe that it is Jesus’s actions in the temple that day that are the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. The religious leaders then conspire with one another on how they can have Jesus killed.
Now turn to John’s gospel. In John’s gospel the story of the cleansing of the temple comes in chapter 2. Jesus has called his disciples, they go to a wedding in Cana, and the next thing we find is Jesus cleansing the temple.
Some atheists would say that this is proof that the Bible is wrong and God does not exist! Some biblical inerrant-ists would say that Jesus cleansed the temple twice! Which is correct? I think neither. I would say, “That’s not the point!” The point is that Jesus is not only a king but also the high priest over all matters of religion and that those who cheat their brothers and sisters out of money at the temple will not be tolerated. The chronological order is not the point. (This is a little overly simplistic. I also would encourage you to look at the placement of this pericope from a Redaction Criticism perspective.)
The second area of the Bible that I want to lift out as being less-than inerrant is the realm of science. In the early part of the 17th century there was a cantankerous astronomer who raised a bit of a ruckus in his home country of Italy. That astronomer was Galileo Galilei. Over his lifetime, Galileo wrote several articles on his observations and theories on the way that the world works. He published these observations and theories, which led to Galileo being invited to a little dialogue session at the Vatican, a dialogue session that is sometimes referred to as the Roman Inquisition of 1615. At this inquisition, Galileo was ordered to abandon his theories. In 1633 Galileo was invited to Rome again, this time to stand trial for another publication of those same theories that he had promised to abandon. At this trial Galileo was found “vehemently suspect of heresy,” put under house arrest for the rest of his life, and his writings were banned.
What was Galileo’s heretical theory? Heliocentrism. Galileo said that the sun was the center of the world as they knew it and that the earth and the other planets revolved around the sun. Galileo was deemed a heretic, put under house arrest, and his writings were banned because he believed what we know to be true today. He was called a heretic because the Bible says that the earth is a fixed object. It rests firmly on pillars. The Bible says that the sun goes around the earth, not the other way around. (Ps. 19, 93, 96; 1 Chronicles 16; Ecclesiastes 1)
This is why I say that the Bible is not inerrant in everything that it says. The Bible is inerrant in everything that it means. The point of these passages is not that the sun goes around the earth, which is fixed and does not move. The focus of these passages is on the one who put the sun and the earth in their place.
I know very few people who hold the theology of Biblical inerrancy that would claim that the sun goes around the earth. But there are some. On my bookshelf at home I have a book called, The Geocentric Primer. I’ve not read the book and I did not purchase it, either. It was given to me by someone who really believes that the earth is the center of the world. And the whole purpose of this book is to try to prove that the entire Bible is absolutely true by proving that the sun goes around the earth. Because again, if you can’t believe that part of the Bible, what can you believe?
I just can’t see how arguing for biblical inerrancy or infallibility is helping our faith.
I don’t think that the Bible was ever meant to be read as a scientific textbook. What I do believe is that God has used the Bible to speak to people throughout the ages. And if God would have told Moses 3,200 years ago, or Abraham 4,000 years ago that the earth was round, rotating, and orbiting the sun, these people wouldn’t believe it. No, part of the brilliance of the Bible is that it is intended to meet people where they are. There are indeed diamonds that can be swept off the surface. Though we know that the Bible is not inerrant in its approach to science, we do know that God has a history of reaching out to people through ways that we can comprehend.
What I am suggesting is nothing new to any of us. The New Testament is full of stories that we don’t believe really happened. We call these stories parables. When Jesus tells a parable, he doesn’t preface it by saying, “Now this really didn’t happen.” or “This is honestly how it happened, folks.” No, he starts off by saying, “There was a man who had two sons.” I’ve never heard anyone ever question whether or not the parable of the Prodigal Son ever really happened. Why not? Nobody cares! The point isn’t that this really occurred, just like the point isn’t whether the world was created in six day and is orbited by the sun. The point is that the Father will always welcome you back with open arms! Again I tell you, the point is the point!
We need to look for the point in the Bible and it is the point that is inerrant. But I also realize that the point can be a challenge to find sometimes. This is why I started with the illustration of a diamond mine. There are things on the surface of the Bible that we can lift out pretty easy and these are the things that we really need to know. Other things take some digging. Now if we all go digging in our own little mines we are likely to come up with our own interpretations. This is one of the reasons why we come together as a group, as a community. We call this a communal hermeneutic. We meet as a church on Sunday mornings, but I hope that you all continue to dig into the scriptures and think about these things throughout the week. When we go home we read through our Bibles, we pray about things that concern us, we live our lives, go to work, chase after children, and seek entertainment. All of these things inform how we understand the scriptures. Then we come back together again and we discuss these things together.
Some have said that you can make the Bible say about anything that you want it to say. And that might be true. But what you can’t do is convince everyone else that the Bible says what you want it to say. The guy who wrote The Geocentric Primer can claim that the Bible proves that the earth is the center of the solar system, but he isn’t going to convince very many people.
So we have these conversations to test our biblical interpretations. What do you think this means? What did Jesus mean here? How does this apply to my life? This is how we grow and develop our faith; this is how we grow and develop as a church. This is how we go mining for diamonds.
I believe that the Bible is the divinely inspired word of God. But I do not believe that the Bible is inerrant in everything it says. The Bible is inerrant in everything that it means.