The Bible is without question the most influential book in our faith. Probably in our culture. And in the last 1500 years likely in the world. And yet it is also the most widely argued about. People from nearly all ideological backgrounds have managed to use the Bible to support their position. It was used to defend, and then abolish slavery. It has been used to support and denounce both capitalism and socialism.
Today, among Christians there are two primary camps. Biblical literalists who believe the Bible is inspired, infallible, and inerrant, and more progressives contextualists who believe the Bible is inspired, written by men about God, and to be understood in the context in which it was written. I was raised in the first camp but have fallen into the latter camp. Here is why.
First of all, the accusation from literalists is generally that progressives cherry pick the Bible, using the parts they like and ignoring the parts they don’t (ie the gay stuff). The truth is we all cherry pick the Bible and prioritize some parts over others or simply ignore parts that conflict with our ideas about God. Progressives just acknowledge this and can give reasons for it.
Second, the Bible was written by men, telling their stories of interactions with God. They did not know they were writing the Bible and it often shows. There are stories that if taken literally depict a monstrous God who cares little for humanity, taking innocent lives for no apparent reason other than to glorify Israel. However if the stories are men viewing events and trying to figure out God’s role, the stories start to make sense.
The same can be said of many Old Testament stories. As literal stories they don’t hold up to criticism, but as fables or myths passed along to teach stories about how we got here, why we are here, and how God still wants to interact with us, the stories have a great value. They are not infallible, but they are truly inspired. By setting them free of the bonds of being a history lesson, the story becomes bigger and gains the ability to teach us so much more. It also frees us from the arbitrary timetables.
Then we ask questions like is everything in the Bible set in stone? Jesus and Paul both seemed to think otherwise. Jesus multiple times said “you heard it was said…” and then followed up with “but I say…” and either added to or sometimes completely contradicted something from the Old Testament. He also broke the Sabbath and several other OT rituals.
Paul, not being the Messiah, may have come across as more brash. The Abrahamic covenant required circumcision of all males. Even if you weren’t a Hebrew, to participate in any customs or worship, circumcision was a requirement. When dealing with gentile converts, Paul just said, “hey, don’t worry about it.” Understand, Paul was writing letters to Churches, not writing the Bible as far as he knew. So Paul and Jesus both took established Old Testament rules and just set them aside and set, these don’t apply anymore. According to Acts, Peter had a dream and did the same with the entire kosher food requirement, and now Christians get bacon.
Which brings us to authorship. The literalist idea is that the Holy Spirit dictated the Bible through a select group of people, word for word, and then by inspiration Theodosius I the Emperor of Rome assembled the Synod of Hippo to determine which books were and were not given by the Holy Spirit, so as to include the right ones in what is now the Bible. This created the infallible, perfect book we have.
But the Bible was written by men who had no idea they were writing the Bible. Some of them were scribes, documenting events. Some were poets and prophets, not trying to create doctrine, but to tell a story. The authors were human like us telling stories of their interactions with a God that was beyond their understanding. We can read their stories and connect with them because we too are human, and broken, and have a broken understanding of His great love.
So, what do we do with the Bible? This was my question when I started down this path. It was all or nothing. When it couldn’t be all, I was lost. But i realized a Bible that wasn’t inerrant could still be inspired. And we have a lense to interpret it through. That lense is Jesus. He said if we have seen Him we have seen the Father. So that becomes our starting point. And Jesus did promise the Holy Spirit to teach us, so we have to approach God and learning humbly, with the Holy Spirit to guide us, with Jesus as our lense for interpretation.