What do very many Christians and very many atheists have in common? Believe it or not, they view the Bible pretty similarly. What could an atheist and a Christian both think about the Bible? Both often act as though the Bible were a house of cards.
We’ve all seen card houses. As children, we all made them. They were always a very difficult project, trying to stack each flimsy card just right to keep the whole building from falling down. And fall down they did. At the slightest disturbance, if even one card was removed or wiggled, the entire house crashed.
To far too many people, the Bible works more or less the same way. Every statement in Scripture is a card, and the whole Bible is the house. If a single statement were found false, mistaken, or even just a bit uncertain, the falling card would mean the collapse of all 66 (or 73, for my filthy papist Catholic friends) books and indeed the Christian faith as at all trustworthy.
The logic behind treating the Bible this way is usually quite straightforward. According to the Christian side, the Bible is the word of God. Since God can’t lie or even make a mistake, every word in the Bible must be certainly true. Therefore if a single word in Scripture were less than completely true, the Bible could not be God’s word. So Christianity is false.
But this is a completely wrong way to approach the Bible. Let’s say we found for sure a definite error or contradiction in Scripture. What would be the possible implications? There are, generally speaking, two options:
The house of cards logic is correct, which means that because of this error, the entire Bible is not trustworthy. So Christianity is almost certainly false. This position is taken by many pop-level atheists, and is also the fear many Christians would have if they found an error.
The house of cards logic is false. Even though there’s an error, the Bible can still be considered the word of God. But in this case the “word of God” does not mean every last individual word comes straight from God’s mouth. A more flexible theory of Biblical inspiration is probably true (see my post on the different theories). Christianity can still be true. This position is assumed by very many Christians outside pop-theology.
Obviously, option 2 is preferable to option 1 for multiple reasons. For one, remember that Christianity is based on Jesus first, and the Bible second. Historically, Jesus did rise from the dead, regardless of whether the Bible has errors or not, so Christianity is true. As well, remember that no other book is held up to an all-or-nothing standard. If the Bible was not the word of God, we would have to treat what the Bible says just like we treat what every other book says. In that case there would be still good reasons to believe that Scripture is at least generally reliable, that Jesus did rise from the dead, that the apostles spoke authoritatively for Christ’s church, and even that the Old Testament is a useful historical resource. Based on pure facts, evidence, and human reason all of this would be true even if the Bible wasn’t God’s word.
If that is not enough to persuade you, I would also suggest that the Bible can easily be God’s word even if there are errors. There are several theories of Biblical inspiration out there. Some allow for errors, some don’t, but most of them still call Scripture “God’s word,” say that He actually speaks using the Bible, and agree that our Bible has final authority over the faith. I wrote a post about the major theories a while back, and you can look at that list to understand what I mean if you don’t. So if the Bible did have an error, maybe verbal, plenary inspiration would be wrong, but something else like dynamic inspiration—which does say the Bible is God’s word and final authority—could be the truth.
So I propose a different analogy for the Bible. God’s word is not a house of cards, but a house of many materials built on a firm foundation. That foundation is the history of Jesus Christ, including the history of the Israel who brought Him into the world, the history of His own life, and the history of the church of His apostles. All of these things really happened, and behind them all is the work and word of God, His powerful acts and equally powerful words by which He brought Himself to humanity. Even if the Bible was never written down and passed on to us, this all still happened in our own space and time history. God through Jesus is a physical part of our human past. So with this firm of a foundation, even if there were cracks or rot in the walls or floors, the house of God’s word would still stand.
The Bible, then, is more than anything a testimony to these foundational facts of history. What God did and said in the past are now fixed realities, and the words of Scripture tell us about them. We can see the Bible as the word of God because God’s own prophets and apostles, led by the power of the Holy Spirit, wrote it as permanent witness to God’s revelation in the human world, including His greatest and final revelation of Himself in Jesus Christ.
If this is how we see the Bible, then errors become less important. The text we read in Scripture is the, to use an analogy, courtroom testimony of witnesses to what God has done and said. So even if the witnesses were to make mistakes, forget things, or interpret something wrongly, what God actually did and said remains solid and fixed. The Bible is built on a firm foundation, and so is no house of cards but the house of the wise man.
All this, by the way, is not to suggest that the Bible actually is full of errors and needs special defense. No, I think that Scripture speaks for itself (actually, the Holy Spirit speaks for, through, and with Scripture), showing us that we can trust the Bible. Yet for the sake of the faith of many people, and to keep ourselves from being ridiculous before skeptics, I do propose this understanding so that we do not have to worry about errors in the Bible even if they do exist, since our faith is focused on something, make that Someone, who is Himself the undefeatable Truth. My concern is truly a pastoral one: I want people to know their faith in Christ needn’t be shaken just because they can’t find any answer to reconcile two genealogies or Resurrection accounts.
In case this isn’t clear, by the way, I’m not actually saying there are errors in the Bible. I’m not convinced that there are, but I definitely wouldn’t stake my life that there aren’t. If we are to be faithful to the God who created the real life world, we have to judge that based on what is actually in the Bible, not by our doctrines of inspiration. What we believe about the book God gave us has to be based on what is really true about what He gave. My true attitude is this: if there are no errors in the Bible, I praise God for giving us such perfect record of who He is and what He does! If there are errors in the Bible, I praise God for even making human mistakes work towards His all-consuming purpose of redemption, just like He does in our lives all the time! Either way, God is glorified, because we have a book from the Father, about the Son, given through the Holy Spirit for our sanctification. Amen!
(P.S. To any of you more learned readers out there, you may think my explanation of the Bible sounds really Barthian. While I do find Barth a very helpful influence with his language of witnesses and testimony, I am more conservative on Scripture than he is. My theory of inspiration is not actually Barthian, and honestly I still default to verbal, plenary inspiration.)