Don’t Believe What Everyone in the Bible Says

Narrator and character. Biographer and subject. Whenever people talk in a written work, there is a difference between how you are supposed to take the words of the author versus the words the author wrote down from various people.

For a quick example, consider the following text:

Suddenly, out of nowhere a large, metallic woman appeared out of nowhere. “It’s my mother!” Dornob exclaimed. Little did he know just how wrong he was.

In this text, two people make statements. The first is the narrator. He is (in most writings) assumed to be correct. The other person saying things is Dornob. He is a character in the story, and unless the narrator tells you that Dornob is infallible or just right, we assume that he is no more or less reliable than the average bear. In this particular case, Dornob is quite wrong, and the narrator tells us so. Of course, the narrator doesn’t have to tell us explicitly that Dornob is wrong for him to be wrong. Past, future, or outside material may make that clear.

This same logic applies to real world writings, too. A reporter can write a piece on the events of the day, but that doesn’t mean he thinks every person he quotes is correct. Sometimes he’ll say so specifically, but other times he may quote something someone said that he knows is not entirely correct without comment, simply because we know he doesn’t agree 100% with everyone he interviews.

To most of you, this probably sounds like common sense (if I’m speaking clearly, that is). But for a lot of people, this basic logic seems to disappear when the Bible is involved. What do I mean? I’ll jump to an example:

His servants asked him, “What did you just do? While the baby was alive, you fasted and wept, but when he died, you got up and ate food.”

He answered, “While the baby was alive, I fasted and wept because I thought, ‘Who knows? The LORD may be gracious to me and let him live.’ But now that he is dead, why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I’ll go to him, but he will never return to me.”

2 Samuel 12:21-23

Now, this text is in narrative form. The author is telling a (historical) story. So we have to remember that there’s a difference between what the author/narrator says and what the people he is writing abut in the narrative say. The author was divinely inspired, but the the people he wrote about were just people saying what people say. We would probably agree already that the servants didn’t say anything divinely inspired, so what about David? He is just a person in the narrative, and he is not the inspired author/narrator. Therefore we should also read his words as merely his own, not divinely inspired.

Of course, if you recognize this verse, you may see where this is going. Many Christians use verse 23 to argue that infants who die go to “heaven” (something I do believe, by the way). After all, the Bible says that David would go to his baby, right? Completely wrong. The author/narrator under the inspiration of the Spirit does not say that David will go to be with his child. David himself said that, and the author of 2 Samuel just wrote down what David had said. David had just sinned against God big time, and he had just lost his child. There is no special reason to think that he is speaking God’s words here. Seeing his child again was his own expectation, which could be right or wrong. (As a side note, since God had revealed so little about life after death at this point, David probably wasn’t talking about heaven. He probably just meant they would be together in the grave.)

There are other examples of this kind of thing throughout the Bible. For example, David, the same person from before, lied in 1 Samuel 21 (which was written by the same author, probably). The author doesn’t specifically say that David lied, but the story shows he did. In Genesis 30:18, Jacob’s wife Leah says that God has rewarded her for letting Jacob make a baby with her slave girl, and the text never mentions that she was wrong, but we know from the whole of Scripture that polygamy is wrong.

We always, then, have to make a distinction between what the inspired author says himself and what the people he is writing about said. Otherwise, we can be led into any error of the people the Bible talks about. But since we don’t trust everything the Pharisees, the serpent, or lying Jacob said, we must also remember that we can’t trust everything even the good people said when they are just characters in the story, not the author.

Basically, don’t believe what everyone in the Bible says.

Don’t Believe What Everyone in the Bible Says

The Bible Is Not a House of Cards

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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.)

The Bible Is Not a House of Cards

May God Destroy You and Your Children

Isn’t the Bible so wonderful? Day after day, we are presented on Facebook with the many inspiring and heart-warming promises and truths from the Good Book. We all know them. We can be confident in all our pursuits since “I am able to do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13). Never do we need to worry about the future, because Jeremiah 29:11 says, “For I know the plans I have for you—this is the Lord’s declaration—plans for your welfare, not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.”

Yes indeed, we have many sweet hopes to cling to in the Bible. But not everything is quite like you’d think. Truthfully, most of the pretty little quotes we pull out of the Bible—especially the Old Testament—and put on pillows are arbitrarily ripped out of context. They sound nice, so we use them without paying any attention to the who, what, when, where, and why behind them. This, however, isn’t an entirely appropriate way to handle God’s written word.

To see what I mean, think about verses like these:

Let his children wander as beggars, searching for food far from their demolished homes. Let a creditor seize all he has; let strangers plunder what he has worked for.

Psalm 109:10-11

Happy is he who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rocks.

Psalm 137:9

I will bring distress on mankind, and they will walk like the blind because they have sinned against the Lord. Their blood will be poured out like dust and their flesh like dung.

Zephaniah 1:17

Indeed, I am about to send snakes among you, poisonous vipers that cannot be charmed. They will bite you. This is the Lord’s declaration.

Jeremiah 8:17

You will eat your children, the flesh of your sons and daughters the Lord your God has given you during the siege and hardship your enemy imposes on you. The most sensitive and refined man among you will look grudgingly at his brother, the wife he embraces, and the rest of his children, refusing to share with any of them his children’s flesh that he will eat because he has nothing left during the siege and hardship your enemy imposes on you in all your towns.

Deuteronomy 28:53-55

None of these have quite the same inspirational quality, do they? They’re actually a bit scary and difficult. But without context, there’s no less reason to think that these apply to us than that the happy stuff does. What, after all, makes Jeremiah 8:17 different from Jeremiah 29:11?

So what? Are we, again especially with the Old Testament, forbidden from quoting anything to encourage? Clearly not. Paul does this himself on multiple occasions. But if we can do encouraging quotes rightly, how do we do so?

Basically, the key word is context. We have to pay attention to the who, what, when, where, and why. To make my point simple, I’ll just dive into two examples.

First, an example of my scary verses. Deuteronomy 28:53-55 speaks of God sending such a harsh judgment that people in their distress will resort to eating their own children, and even then not sharing any with others. So what’s the context? Can this be applied to us? In the passage’s original place in Deuteronomy, God is declaring the blessings and curses of the Old Covenant to Israel. If they obeyed His laws, they would receive many blessings. If they disobeyed, they would receive many curses, including this one. Of course, we modern Gentile believers are not under the Old Covenant, but the New Covenant in Christ (Heb. 9:15). There are no curses in the New Covenant (Rom. 8:1, Gal. 3:13). This means this passage clearly is not about us.

There is, however, a twist. Even though this passage does not directly apply to us, such a harsh judgment does reveal the intensity and severity of God’s condemnation against sin. How serious must disobedience be if God even punished Israel by letting their enemies terrorize them so much that they ate their children? And if God would provide such a punishment to those who received only types and shadows, how much greater will those who refuse the fully revealed salvation of God’s only Son be punished (cf. Heb. 2:2-3)? Moreover, if Jesus bore the full wrath of God for our sin, how much of a sacrifice must that have been! So even though this passage isn’t directly about us, there are applications which affect us.

Now for an example of thinking context through for the happy verses. I’ll take Jeremiah 29:11, “For I know the plans I have for you…” What was the original context of this verse? Jeremiah was writing a letter to the Jews who were exiled in Babylon. In verse 10, he told them that God promised to bring them back to Israel after 70 years. The good plans involved Israel’s return to the promised land. God’s judgment, the Exile, was not His last word, because His plans were for their good. Again, then, we run into a verse which is not directly about us. Jeremiah 29:11 was written to and for exiled Jews in Babylon to reassure them of God’s promise to bring them back to Israel. We are obviously not in the same situation, so this verse is not about us.

Even still, there is clearly a way that this verse can be applied to us. We who are the Church are the true Israel, according to the New Testament. We are not at home in this broken age; we are exiles waiting for our restoration when God makes the New Heavens and New Earth. And God has promised to do this, to bring us safely home to the recreation of the new age. He will indeed resurrect us just as He did His beloved Son, who brought the beginning of the kingdom to the world. Like the exiled Jews, God is promising to bring us safely home. For “we know that all things work together for the good of those who love God: those who are called according to His purpose” (Rom. 8:28). Therefore Jeremiah 29:11 can actually be applied to us as well, just in a secondary way.

Hopefully these two examples are helpful. The Bible is filled with texts which were written neither to us nor about us, but all of them were still written for our benefit (2 Tim. 3:16-17). When we look at the Scriptures, we must be discerning, rightly dividing the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:15). Many verses are not directly to us, but they do have wider applications which affect us. This is especially the case when looking at the Old Testament. Only context (both the immediate context and the context within the whole story of the Bible) can tell us exactly what is for, about, or to us. So let’s keep that in mind, that we may be approved by God.

May God Destroy You and Your Children

Beliefs about the Bible: Biblical Inspiration 101

The Bible: what a controversial book it is. The bestseller of all history, no other book is itself the subject of so many books. It’s so big that it’s not even one book, but really 66 different, connected but independent books (and if you’re Catholic, there’s even more!).

Naturally, with the Bible being the kind of book it is, and with it having the reach it does, people have disagreements about it. Some people ignore it, others toss it aside as hogwash, a few spend all their time opposing it, and then there are those strange folk who believe that God is somehow behind it. I, unsurprisingly, am one is them.

However, even among Christians, people who do agree that God was/is involved, there is disagreement about exactly what He did. This question is the doctrine of Biblical inspiration. What does it mean to say that God inspired the Bible? Here I plan to give a quick introduction to the major theories.

Dictation Theory

The most strict theory of Biblical inspiration is dictation. According to dictation theory, God spoke every word of Scripture straight to the Biblical writers, perhaps even audibly, and they wrote them all verbatim. In this view, the writers aren’t technically authors; they are more along the lines of secretaries transcribing a letter for their bosses.

For dictation, every last bit of Scripture is inerrant truth straight from God, with no human part at all. The Bible is 100% of God, 0% of man. This view rules out the possibility that the writing styles, personalities, or worldviews of the authors had any influence at all on what they wrote, for better or worse.

Verbal, Plenary Inspiration

This is the theory you are probably most used to. In VPI, God revealed His perfect truth to the Biblical authors through the Holy Spirit, keeping them from all error, and providentially ensuring they used just the right words. The authors are actually authors, but they were given the truth by God and He was careful to make sure they wrote just what He wanted.

Now, unlike dictation, VPI says God worked in and through the style, personality, and experience of each author to get the right text. There is an actual human part to the Bible, but it is guided, protected, and overshadowed by God’s part to produce a word-for-word perfect Scripture. This excludes errors of any kind, whether scientific, geographical, historical, or theological.

Dynamic Inspiration

Next down the line is dynamic inspiration. Dynamic inspiration says that God gave the authors perfect truth through the Spirit, but that they wrote them down on their own. God inspired the truths in Scripture, but not the precise words and sentences used to express that truth. That part was the job of the authors alone.

In this view, there is clearly a strong God element and a strong human element in Scripture. Both work together to produce a Bible full of God’s truth. However, in this view unlike the previous two, this doesn’t require that Scripture be 100% free of all errors, only that it teach the truth about God and salvation. Minor errors on geography, census data, science, or certain historical details could seep in on the human end. These don’t affect doctrine, though.

Existential Inspiration

Further along we go until we find existential inspiration. Existential inspiration sees the Spirit’s work primarily in how Scripture is received. Scripture is “God-breathed,” but it is not God breathing out perfect truths. Instead, it is God breathing life into an otherwise normal human work. The Holy Spirit gives special power to the Bible that makes it fit for spiritual growth.

In this view, the text of the Bible is basically a human work, the result of fallible men encountering God. It has all the errors a normal book about God might have: historical, scientific, and even theological sometimes. The authors, especially the apostles, had close enough contact with God that their writings are reliable, but not flawless. Yet God takes this flawed human creation and fills it with life-giving power as the Spirit speaks to author and the reader.

Karl Barth’s View

Karl Barth was a brilliant but not entirely normal theologian of the 20th century. He was trained in liberal German theology that taught lots of modern nonsense before he made a sharp break back towards historic Christianity. This left him with a unique doctrine of Scripture influenced by both sides. Since it’s so different, I’ll spend extra time explaining this one.

For Barth and people who take after him, the true Word of God is Jesus, God’s fullest revelation of Himself. There are other, less primary forms of God’s Word as well: His deeds and speech in redemptive history, and the writings and preaching which testify to them. Scripture is not itself the Word of God, but a witness to God’s Word, just like John the Baptist was not the Christ but came to point people to Him. The Bible was written by Spirit-filled people appointed by God to testify in writing to His deeds, His words, and ultimately His Son.

In this view, Scripture is 100% divine and 100% human. It contains all the limitations, errors, even wrong beliefs and ideas of the human authors, but it still permeated by divine truth and stamped with divine approval so that it is a uniquely reliable authority for the people of God. Even though it carries all the mistakes of the authors, Scripture was inspired by encounter with the Word of God, and the Holy Spirit uses it to direct the reader’s gave to Him despite the text’s flaws. 

Natural Inspiration

Last and certainly also least is natural inspiration. No saving the best for last: I don’t like natural inspiration at all. It says that the Biblical authors were only inspired by God inasmuch as anyone can be through normal spiritual means. The way you feel after a convicting sermon, uplifting worship song, day of thanksgiving, or intense personal devotion is really all there was to it for those writing the Bible. The Holy Spirit did nothing more in them than He does in us.

In this view, Scripture can be and is loaded with human error of every kind. While it is pretty reliable, it is only so to the extent that the authors understood the truth. If John the Apostle’s writings have any advantage over John Piper’s, it is merely that the Apostle knew Jesus personally. Ultimately, Scripture is very valuable because of its place in Christian tradition and its devotional use, but its origin is not especially divine.

What I Believe

It’s a secret to everyone. Including myself. When I figure it out maybe I’ll let you know. Until then, he’s a handy chart to sum up what I’ve said here.

Summary Chart of Views on Inspiration
Name God’s Role Man’s Role Errors? Who Believes It
Dictation God’s words 100% Secretary-like None Fundamentalists
Verbal Plenary 100% God’s word Man writes under inspiration and providence None Most Evangelicals
Dynamic 100% God’s truths Man writes in his own words Some minor, non-doctrinal Some Evangelicals, many others
Existential Spirit brings life to text Man writes on his own Many, of any kind, but generally reliable Mostly radicals and liberals
Barthian Spirit points author and reader to true Word in Christ Man writes his own, human testimony to the Word Many, of any kind, but specially reliable and authoritative Karl Barth, Neo-Orthodox, Revisionist Reformed, some others
Natural God doesn’t do anything unique Man writes of his own initiative Many, of any kind Radicals and liberals
Beliefs about the Bible: Biblical Inspiration 101