Last week I posted on the church’s view of the Big Bang and Evolution. This naturally got me talking about inerrancy and infallibility, two pet peeves of mine which I think have been incredibly destructive for the Christian faith, and which are the focus of many of my blogs and writings.
One reader asked “You say the Bible never claims inerrency or infallibility. Isn’t that exactly how some Christians interpret certain new testament passages? How do you interpret those passages?” My immediate, unconsidered response was: okay, which one(s) … there are almost 8,000 verses in the New Testament!? [my attempt at lightening things up a bit!?]
After thinking about it a bit longer, though, I focused on how we tend to like to have things simple and clear-cut. Some choose to believe everything without questioning. Others want to be told exactly which ones to take literally, and which ones not. And then there are some who, when told that not all passages need to be taken literally, then they jump to the opposite extreme and suggest we should just throw the whole book out.
But what if life is more grey-scale than that, rather than black and white? What if the answer is: “It depends“?
Many New Testament passages are easy to take literally: Simon had a brother named Andrew … Paul studied Judaism under Gamaliel … “Blessed are the peacemakers” … “You will always have the poor” …
Other passages are easy to not take literally, but instead attribute to the mind-set of the people at that time: Paul’s view on hair-length for men versus women (1 Cor 11:13-16) … the idea that the souls of dead people exist in subterranean caverns (Philippians 2:10) … that slaves should obey their masters (Col 3:22; Eph 6:5; Rom 6:16) … Jesus saying that the mustard seed “is the smallest of all seeds on earth” (Mark 4:31) [there are in fact many seed types which are much smaller] … the claim that “there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven.” (Acts 2:5) [I think it’s safe to say that there weren’t any Chinese Jews there, or Jews from the North American Aboriginal tribes, or Aztec Jews, or Inuit Jews … all of these were nations at that time too, but the Roman world didn’t know about them.]
And then there are many other passages that fall in between. Some fully-committed believers take them literally, and other equally committed believers interpret them differently. In both cases, some do so without thinking things through, while others do the hard work … thinking, searching, asking, praying … to find out where they stand.
I’m a big advocate for the more thoughtful contemplative approach. This doesn’t need to be scary: we do it all the time. When we follow a cook-book that says: “This is the best recipe for XYZ that everyone in the family will love“. When we see advertisements for products that are claimed will make us happy. When a news journalist reports on a breaking story. When our financial advisor tells us what we should do about a certain investment. We can either just treat those words with blind literalism, with unquestioned faith in the source of that information, or do the work of testing it, considering it carefully, probing it for weaknesses.
Even after all that careful consideration, people might still come to opposite conclusions. That’s okay too. Sometimes truth is indeed relative. Jesus told one guy he had to “sell all your possessions and give to the poor” (Matt 19:21) because wealth was an obsession for that guy, but Jesus didn’t give that same advice to/about many other rich people (Matthew 27:57; Mark 12:41; Luke 14:12; Luke 16:1; Luke 16:11). That having been said, yes, he did often point out that wealth can be a cancer in your life (Matt 19:24; Luke 12:21), but that’s not the same as saying that all Christians must not have wealth or that they too must sell everything and give to the poor.
And then we get to those really difficult points. The ones that can divide people. The exclusivity of the Christian/Gospel message. Miracles. The virgin birth. The resurrection of Jesus. The divinity of Christ.
In some cases, the problem is we get stuck at the surface level and don’t dig deep enough to find the underlying nugget of truth. I used to get hung up on Jesus’ command to cut off my hand or my foot, or to pluck out my eye, if they cause me to sin (Mark 9:42-47). That niggled at me for years until in anger I asked what he really meant by that. I mean honestly: if we were to really take that literally, then who among us would still have hands, feet and eyes? And in that moment of frustration … but also a moment of really searching for the truth … I got the clear sense that he did in fact mean it literally. But also that I wasn’t getting his message quite right. You see, it isn’t our hands or feet or eyes that cause us to sin. It’s our human nature. Our mind. And that’s where he said we have to do the radical surgery. To get rid of the old nature. As Paul put it so well a few years later: “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph 4:24) … “…be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will“. Romans 12:2).
In other cases, the problem is not that we don’t dig deep enough, but instead that we dig in too strongly. For example, the divinity of Christ. Some insist that Jesus was “fully human and fully divine“. But this just over-inflates the point so that it becomes divisive. You can’t be fully both.
To be human is to be:
– limited in time, space and knowledge
– prone to disease and fatigue
– sinful and having a sinful nature
To be divine is to be the complete opposite of these:
– unlimited in time (not necessarily the same thing as immortal)
– unlimited in space (omni-present)
– unlimited in knowledge (omniscient)
– unlimited in any other sense (omnipotent)
So to say that Jesus is “both fully human and fully divine” are just empty words. A sound-bite. There were things he didn’t know (Matthew 24:36). Things he couldn’t do, like ministry in a crowd that didn’t have faith in him (Mark 6:5), or be in two places at once (he had to walk everywhere, didn’t he?). He still needed to catch a good sleep (Mark 4:38). The Bible never says he was fully both. Sure, it does say “he had to be made … fully human in every way” (Heb 2:17), but that doesn’t mean he was fully divine at the same time. I can claim to have been fully an infant and fully an adult, but not both at the same time. So why do we have to divide on whether he was fully divine while walking around among us here on earth? Likewise, the Bible never claims inerrancy or infallibility, never insists on a simplistic literal reading of the texts, so why insist on these emphatically?
And as for the other points, why do we have to divide over them? Jesus never commanded us to believe in his turning water to wine. No command to believe in the loaves-and-fish miracles, or his virgin birth. Nor did he tell us to demand that others believe in those things. Instead his final great commission was simply “… go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you…“. And what were those commands that he’s commissioned us to teach?
They were few and they were simple: love.
“A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34)
“Do unto others as you would have them do to you” (Matt 7:12)
“love your neighbor as you would love yourself” (Matt 22:39)
“love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:44) …
“By this will everyone know that you are my disciple: if you love one another” (John 13:35)
Those would be the verses that I’d say we should put on the ‘Take literally’ side of the ledger.
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