Sunday, 22 November 2009

Out of the Theological closet: I do not ascribe the Bible with the title 'infallible', or the like.

Before I get too deep I would like to make a couple of points through which you may interpret this, and subsequent posts: 1) I belief the Bible is important to Christians and is a gift of God which was breathed of him. 2) This belief is relatively new and many who know me will know the fervour with which I defended Infallibility in the past. 3) All of these 5 heterodox beliefs that I am commenting on (including this one) came whilst I believed in the infallibility of scripture. With that said, let us continue.

Belief in Infallibility seems to be a defining point of Evangelicalism. If you can remember my post on Doctrinal Basis you will hopefully remember my annoyance at how many Doctrinal Basis put the belief in the Bible (whatever that belief may be; though usually infallibility) before any other belief e.g. Christ. Not that it isn’t an important doctrine but rather that we must put things into perspective. Christians are not those, as is often said, who follow the Bible but rather those that follow Christ! The Bible has a very important place in our following Christ but is subservient to it. I.e. We read the Bible as we are followers of Christ, not the other way around!

Let me give you a little more background to how I am where I am. As I've already said I held inerrancy whilst I was coming to this conclusion and it is not something I've come to lightly, I promise you. I was looking at the prophecies in Ezekiel concerning the fate of Tyre (Ezek 26; 29). Problems with it were mentioned in passing in a comment of someone’s blog so I decided to look them up. I suggest you go and read them for yourself if you’re not sure what they say but a quick recap follows. It is part of Ezekiel’s oracles against the nations. In 26 Ezekiel reports that God talks about how Tyre is mocking the downfall of Jerusalem. God declares that he is the enemy of Tyre and will utterly destroy it through Nebuchadnezzar leaving just a bare rock. In 29 we read the God is now giving Egypt to Nebuchadnezzar because he fought Tyre yet neither he nor his army got anything for it. The Problems we have is that we know from history that 1) Nebuchadnezzar never destroyed the City of Tyre (that is on the Island, despite trying), only the coastal Tyre, and 2) that Nebuchadnezzar only, at best, gained control of part of Egypt temporarily (although this is less of a problem I feel).

This is not to say that there are no possible answers to this critique. The most common are that later on, Alexander the Great fulfilled this prophecy by conquering Tyre and destroying it. What I found however is that I wasn't letting the text speak for itself, nor for God to speak, but rather I was placing my belief in Infallibility of Scripture over and against the truth. To me the text clearly states that it is Nebuchadnezzar that would do the conquering, anything else is to stretch the text. It is also held that perhaps this is a prophecy about the return of Christ and the ultimate judgement of nations. This however seems unlikely as it is girded in the middle of prophecies which talk of literal events in time. I had to decide where I stood on this matter and I concluded that from what we know of the text and of history that I could not, with a clear conscience, hold that this passage was without any doubt correct. I had to abandon what I had always been taught about the Bible. I had to start again.

I started with the concept of whether the Bible has to be infallible for it to be any use to the believer. To be honest I had started asking this before I came to this position, brought on by questioning those who held what I now hold. I concluded that the answer was no. The Bible no-where calls itself perfect and infallible but is rather something we use to describe what had been observed by some. I also concluded no-where is it said that a believer must believe the Bible to be perfect to be a believer. In fact there is nothing that one must hold in regard to the Bible for one to be considered a Christian.

I took a closer look at the traditional passage people use for upholding this doctrine: 2 Tim 3: 16-17. "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work." Scripture is therefore useful for us. It seems a rather weak word to use if it was perfect. It is also quite odd, if it were perfect and it was a required doctrine, that Paul (or for that matter, Jesus) didn't make more of a point of it. In the context he was instructing Timothy, giving him last advice, urging that he stick to sound doctrine. If it were that important one would expect that here, of all places, he would say so. I often get the idea from what people say of the Bible that it is either a part of the God-head to be worshipped (see sermon by Steve Anderson) or something akin to the Qu'ran where God personally wrote every word. It just isn't true! We know that fallible, finite mankind wrote the Bible and believe that God has inspired what they wrote.

I think it is also worth mentioning here where the Bible gets it's authority from. I think we often treat the Bible like a book of magic spells when in fact it is just a book. The power comes from the living God behind the book. I have in the past written of the fact that the Word of God is Jesus and not (innately) the Bible (see here).

I think the biggest problem is that of a syllogism: 1) God is perfect, 2) the Bible is from god, 3) therefore the Bible must be perfect. I used to think this too but I feel that it is actually erroneous. It would be the same as saying: 1) God is perfect, 2) mankind is from God, 3) therefore mankind is perfect. We know this not to be true, so why are we so convinced by the first syllogism and not the second? I now hold to a form of Divine Accommodationism: That God uses the imperfect to express the perfect. We hold that when it comes to the church yet seem to struggle when it comes to scripture. How can the finite fully express the infinite?

I'm not saying that the Bible definitely isn't perfect. I am open to being proved wrong as new evidence is brought forth. Perhaps the early sources we have about Tyre are incorrect and we may find something that proves that the Bible was right. If so then great, I have no problem with that at all! However I feel it rather dangerous to label the Bible beyond what it claims for itself; that is God-breathed. Till then I think that it is better to stick to what we definitely know about the Bible, that it is "useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work."

I think that will do for now but before I go I must thank 3 people in particular for their support in this matter: Firstly is Mick Hough, the rector of my local church (St. Peter's, Woodmansterne). I had only just moved to the area when I started struggling with this concept. I met with Mick, who didn't know me, and talked about where I was. Thank you Mick for your support. Secondly I also Must thank Robin Parry of Theological Scribbles whom furnished me with a list of helpful books. Lastly I wish to thank James Hall, a friend of mine, who often puts up with my incomprehensible blathering as I search for the truth. This is not to say that they hold the same views as me, or nor, but rather they were a blessed light in a dark time. Thank you.

Till Next Time!

Thanks to Letters from Camp Krusty for the image.


  1. Yo Pedro,

    I haven't had chance to look at the relevant passages in Ezekiel so won't comment on that but I have a much wider point: how do we determine what is historically? This is a crucial question especially in regards inerrancy (catch all term here) since we need a criteria by which to judge it. Now in regards your statement about the archaeology and historical evidence of Tyre you assume to be true and take them over the Biblical narrative hence these over areas are a better authority in this instance. The question is why? We need to create a consistent criteria to apply equally to all documents especially historical ones. Also needing work on is the relationship between historical documents and science. Say for example many documents from the High Middle Ages imply that the climate was rather warm yet scientific study indicates the opposite. Who do we believe? In this instance I'd side with the documents on the basis if they are accurately dated then there's no reason why they'd systematically lie.

    Any way as ever I never answered merely asked even more questions. Back on Ezekiel I'll try and have look but no promises.

    Btw how do you think people who essentially worship the Bible as Christ act differently than those who aren't bibliolaters?

    The Rambler

  2. Hi Pete!

    You said: Christians are not those, as is often said, who follow the Bible but rather those that follow Christ! The Bible has a very important place in our following Christ but is subservient to it. I.e. We read the Bible as we are followers of Christ, not the other way around!

    It’s true that the Bible doesn’t have authority or importance in itself. Evangelicals often talk about the Bible being “the supreme authority”, but it would be more precise to say it “bears God’s divine authority”. The Bible is important because it comes from God and points us to Christ. A properly evangelical approach to the Bible values the Bible for these reasons.

    But the inerrancy of the Bible is vitally important because we know Jesus through the Bible. If the Bible isn’t reliable, then our entire knowledge and experience of Jesus is uncertain. The danger of saying that we should be “Christ-centred and not Bible-centred” is that it implies its possible to have reliable knowledge of Christ outside of the Bible.

    If the Bible is unreliable, then the meaning of "Christ" is suddenly up for grabs. Even with an evangelical view of scripture, it's easy to remake Christ in line with our own presuppositions - how much easier this is if we can dismiss difficult parts of the Bible as mistaken or unreliable!

    I'll try and respond to some of the exegetical issues about Ezekiel and about what the Bible claims for itself when I get chance. God bless!

  3. Take you're time to have a look but I suggest you do.
    Those are some good questions and here are my good answers:

    You ask why I take the extra-biblical evidence over the Biblical. You say that we must be consistent and I agree with you which I why I've come to this conclusion. The extra-biblical advice can be wrong, however what tends to happen in regard to the Bible is that when a source agrees with the bible we herald it and when it disagrees we cast it off as wrong, often with no-more reason the that it disagrees. One needs to look at each case in turn and decide which approach to take. I for example decided to accept the extra Biblical sources in this case as: The early sources seem to suggest a different conclusion to Ezek 26, later sources (e.g that Alexander conqured Tyre) disagree with the conclusion that Tyre was utterly destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar, and Ezekiel even seems to contradict himself in chapter 29. All that added up suggests to me that, at least in this case, the Bible is in error. However if we get to a point where one can interpret the evidence equally on either side I would suggest taking the Bible at its word because in general it has been proven to be correct. The reason this case is so shocking is, I feel, not that it is wrong, but rather that it is amongst so much that is correct. It is the minority case!

    I think on the historical documents/science debate we need to look at why they differ. I would agree with you that we should, in general, take an eyewitness account at its word. However if there is evidence that it is wrong we need to take seriously why they differ. For example, is thier an agenda on either side? Now in the case you site there may be no reason for the author to lie, where as there is more chance that the scientific results are flawed or its interpretation biased (e.g. Climate change). Case by case. I would argue that the approach should be uniform, not necessarily the application.

    In regard to Bibliolaters I would argue that their approach to worship may not look any different but their belief would be in error. It is in reality a case of idolatry do you not think. Its akin to the picture above, worshipping the signpost and ignoring where it points. I also think that it lead to this situation where it is seen as blasphemous and heretical to question the bible, which I think you would agree, is rather dangerous.

    God bless

  4. Hi Caleb, thanks for your response.
    Its great to see you have a solid foundation of why the bible is authoritative but you know what I was getting at right?

    I agree with you when you say, "If the Bible isn’t reliable, then our entire knowledge and experience of Jesus is uncertain." However I would argue that the fact that the bible isn't infallible doesn't negate its reliability. If we had a history book which had an error in it, yet otherwise was correct we would still cliam that it was reliable even though it was flawed wouldn't we. Or even keeping it closer to home. When we call God Jehovah we are using a title that doesn't exist in the bible. There is no such word. It was a mistake in translation, one of many in the KJV, for example. Yet we still claim that the KJV is (or should I say was) authoritative and reliable. See what I'm getting at?

    You also say, "The danger of saying that we should be “Christ-centred and not Bible-centred” is that it implies its possible to have reliable knowledge of Christ outside of the Bible." Not quite sure where you are quoting from, as I went out of my way not to say that! I think the Bible should have a central place in the Christians life, but just with the knowledge that it is to reveal christ, not to be some magical, perfect book. (I'm not thinking of you when I say that btw.) You are right that Christ is up for grabs if we don't have an authority but I sould argue that the bible is the authority in which God reveals himself. I would argue that we have extra-biblical sources that point to the fact that these gospels are authoritive. (E.g. Early, via apostles, etc.) If we aregue that they are only authoritative because they are believed to be infallible (without evidence) then what is to stop the gnostics making the same claim, or the mormons, or the muslims? I think what I'm getting as is that authority and infallibility are two completely different things, and we must have reasonable evidence to make any claim to infallibility, which I'm sure you agree with. I think that we often come up with an odd definition which in reality isn't infallibility anyway e.g. When gospel writters mistake names, quote fom various books when claiming it was all isaiah. Or when in the OT bats are called birds, and rabbits are said to chew cud. Yet we claim these don't count. See what I mean?

    Let me know when you get a chance to take a look at the text. Obviously there are other ones. Its just that this one was a breaking point for me. Thanks.

    God bless

  5. Hi Pete,

    I'd agree that generally speaking we don't require something to be completely without error to consider it reliable. For most things, we can accept a certain margin of error. But the Bible isn't "most things" - it claims to be, or is held up to be, the Word of God, with unique authority over our beliefs and actions.

    How practically can you maintain the authority of the Bible if it contains mistakes? If the Bible is wrong in a factual statement about Tyre being destroyed, then there is no reason to have certainty in the authority of any Biblical factual statement, including that Christ rose from the dead, or that murder is wrong. If we say that a particular Biblical statement was accommodated to an imperfect and mistaken human understanding, then any Biblical statement could be an accommodation to imperfect human understanding, right up to the very fundamentals of the faith.

    On what consistent basis can you answer someone who says (as many do) that the idea of God punishing and being wrathful is false, that God was simply accommodating himself to a sinful humanity who wrongly saw him as vengeful, for example? Or that the supposed miracles in the Bible are an accommodation to a primitive worldview that falsely believed in an interventionist God?

    It's possible for you individually to affirm your personal belief that these specific things just happen to be true, even though it's entirely possible for them to be mistaken. What is impossible is to bind people's beliefs and consciences to submit to the Bible as authoritative if we in our modern wisdom can decide what's correct and what isn't.

    Let's come back to that syllogism you discuss. You said:
    I think the biggest problem is that of a syllogism: 1) God is perfect, 2) the Bible is from god, 3) therefore the Bible must be perfect. I used to think this too but I feel that it is actually erroneous. It would be the same as saying: 1) God is perfect, 2) mankind is from God, 3) therefore mankind is perfect. We know this not to be true, so why are we so convinced by the first syllogism and not the second?

    Firstly, Genesis indicates humanity was created perfect (in the sense of being without sin - I believe Adam and Eve would have grown and developed; "perfect" in a moral sense rather than a static sense), but fell by our own sin. That syllogism isn't exactly wrong - it's just that it only tells the very start of the story.

    Secondly, the evangelical view of the Bible is more than just being "from God" in a vague sense. Scripture is the means through which God reveals himself in Christ to us, and speaks to us. So the syllogism is more like this:
    1) God is perfect and all-knowing
    2) Therefore, God is completely truthful
    3) The Bible is God speaking to us
    4) Therefore, the Bible is completely truthful

    It seems to me that the logic is sound if (1) and (3) are true - the big questions are whether these are a true view of God and a true view of the Bible.

    Ok, I'd like to go into what the Bible claims about itself, but it's getting late, so I'll have to leave that for another time. I realise I haven't actually made any arguments for infallibility as such - just tried to push the question of the logical consequences of rejecting infallibility. If the Bible can be mistaken on one point, then everything is up for grabs.

  6. I've read the relevant passages in Ezekiel, and had a quick look at some different translations to the NIV to get a better feel for the text. I've also read an article on Bethinking giving an evangelical view of the prophecy as a point of comparison to your arguments.

    I honestly can't say that I think it's too much of a stretch to say that there's a switch in verse 12 to referring to the "many nations", and seeing the prophecy fulfilled in later historical events.

    I'd agree that without a prior commitment to whether or not the Bible is infallible or not you can argue the toss either way. But I don't think it's wrong for your general beliefs to influence your assessment of new information.

    If my wife, who I trust implicit, apparently lied to me, then I wouldn't immediately conclude she was lying. I'd reserve judgement, ask her questions, assume there was a misunderstanding. It would take a culminative weight of evidence, tested over time, for me to abandon my faith in her. This is quite reasonable, because the weight of evidence is very strongly stacked in favour of me being able to trust her, so it would need an awful lot to swing it the other way.

    As Christians, we should be open to the possibility that we could be wrong in our beliefs, and willing to change our beliefs if there is good reason. We shouldn't have blind faith. But it's reasonable to continue to trust God even if some things aren't clear to us, to humbly recognise that we only have part of the picture.

    We also need to take seriously the following: firstly, the Bible as God's authoritative word; secondly, our own fallibility; thirdly, that sin distorts our ability to accept the truth; and fourthly, that Satan is a deceiver who won't hesitate to manipulate our sense of intellectual integrity and our desire for truth into making an idol of our own certainty and intellectual respectability. These are all reasons to be suspicious of our own reasons for disbelieving the Bible, to really search our hearts.

    You say that "I could not, with a clear conscience, hold that this passage was without any doubt correct." But it isn't necessary for you to believe that the passage is without doubt correct; you can always find room for doubt. It's possible to acknowledge your doubts and questions, while still choosing to keep trusting God and his Word as you try and honestly answer them.

    I've been through times of doubting the Bible's truthfulness - can I really be justified in believing it to be true? At times I've come close to saying no and chucking it all in. I've looked into issues of the reliability of the Bible a lot, and that helped me in establishing that Christian belief is reasonable. But for me it was also a matter of the heart; I didn't just want reasonableness, I wanted certainty, on my terms. I wanted to be able to prove the truth of the Bible with complete certainty to myself and others, and was unwilling to accept that my understanding would always be partial, that there would always be questions to ask and think through, and I would always need a measure of humble trust. God didn't give me a magic bullet piece of evidence to infallibly prove the truth of Christianity, but he did change my heart so I was willing to have a humble, reasonable faith in him and his word.

    That's what happened to me, I'm not saying it's necessarily the same for you - I can't know what's going on in your heart. But I would recommend you humbly and prayerfully consider your motives and the criteria you're applying for accepting the Bible.

  7. Hi Caleb,
    Thanks for both the posts. I know I keep saying it but I really do appreciate the time and effort you put into writing a reasoned reply. I feel blessed.
    I've read them and will reply asap. I've been a little snowed under as of late and am away till monday but I shall prayerfully consider what you have mentioned and give my response to you post-haste!
    God bless

  8. Hi Caleb,

    Right, I've finally had time to sit down, think through and respond to your comments.

    I'm going to start with your second post and work up to the first. Firstly I think that it is a very good article, as per usual, on Be-thinking. I hadn't read it before and enjoyed it thoroughly. Thanks for pointing it out. As I had said before Eze 29 wasn't such a problem (for the reasons pointed out in the article), but I still think it adds a little doubt (know what I mean?). It does indeed seem that the prophecies intent was fulfilled (I'm not doubting that), but I still question the detail. Basically what It comes down to is whether Neb was meant to fulfil it all or not. He certainly fulfilled some of it, that is not in question. I am convicted however that the likelihood that the change of pronoun in verse 12 refers to Alexander, etc is a reading based not on the text but on the history. Even if it does it seems for example that Vs 11 (Neb) parallels with verse 4 (bare rock), which also sheads light on it. It is not certain of course but seems likely.

    I agree that we are fallible hence why I am open to being wrong. It just seems to me, at present, that Biblical infallibility isn't consistent with what I know of the Bible. I trust that God is faithful and will help me to be so also. I look to him to lead me to a true understanding of scripture and how to deal with that conclusion. I do not see the Bible, as I've said before in a previous post, is the authoritative word of God but rather that Jesus is. It is only authoritative to the extent to which God reveals himself through it (although I know that may mean completely, but argue not at all times).

    Thanks for being honest about your struggles with this issue. I wanted certainty too which is why I clung on for so long but it got to the point where the doubt seemed to become a likelihood and therefore had to conclude that either Christianity was incompatible with fact, or that the bible had errors. I chose the later.

    My motives are to be faithful to God and his revelation. I honestly want to hold to biblical infallibility but felt that in doing so I was putting my security in the bible over my faith in God.

  9. On to the second post. I must say that I'm struggling with your question, "How practically can you maintain the authority of the Bible if it contains mistakes?” I've not as of yet worked on a full understanding of my conclusion but here are my initial thoughts:

    I used to, as you now hold, that the Bible as we have it today does indeed contain errors. The argument is that the autographs are the copies that are inerrant, which we no-longer have. Therefore the same question comes to you too. I would argue that "The bible says it, I believe it" idea is false. In reality it is "The bible says it, I interpret it in light of all available evidence the best I can, I believe it". Perhaps Eze 26 is an example of where the prophecy had been edited and was perhaps clearer in the autograph. Perhaps there is evidence that I have not come across yet that leads to the interpretation including Alexander to be more accurate. The Bible is authoritative in that it is: for the considerable majority backed by history, is extremely consistent in its theme and theology for a book written over thousands of years by 40+ authors. Most importantly however is that it is revealed through the Holy Spirit to each person.

    So to use your examples on punishment and miracles I would argue that: It is consistent in both Testaments that God is vengeful and wrathful. In both testaments God is referred to as dishing out punishment. It is also a more consistent theology with the concept of God's justice. For miracles I would respond that the concept of miracles some consistent with the story within which the miracles are set. Also God wasn't always seen as an interventionist God. Sometimes he is in fact described as withdrawing his hand for a time. For some miracles also the people they were performed around disbelieved that it was real (e.g. resurrection and Sadducees). It is also worth stating that (at least I would argue) miracles occur today. It is therefore reasonable that they occurred then.

    I believe your syllogism is good but flawed. You said:
    1) God is perfect and all-knowing
    2) Therefore, God is completely truthful
    3) The Bible is God speaking to us
    4) Therefore, the Bible is completely truthful

    I agree with 1 and 2. I disagree however with 3 and 4. The Bible is a means to which God speaks to us. Therefore what God truly speaks through his spirit is truthful. That is not to negate point 3 but rather changes point four to: 4) Therefore, the word of God revealed through the Bible is completely truthful. Again that may mean all of it, but doesn't necessitate it.

    Hope that answers you adequately. Let me know if I can say more.
    God bless.