I believe that much of the Bible is the inspired word of God as interpreted by the person writing it. However, much of it is a history of the Jews. Many parts of it are political writings set forth to enhance the writer’s power. Certainly there are parts that I do not believe are the “word of God.” The prime example might well be in Joshua when the Israelites kill all the people (including women and children) and livestock in a town that they are attacking, supposedly on the orders of God. This is not the loving God of all people in whom I believe. If one believes the Bible to be infallible, then God really did order these terrible acts. I don’t believe that. Thus in my opinion anyone who does believe that is misguided.
- Strengths: This kind of thinking, which takes seriously our depraved understanding of God and the world (especially our tendency to make room for our own sins while condemning others!), creates a clear vision of authority–if the Bible says, we must believe it.
- Weaknesses: What do we do with passages of the Bible that are hard to believe (like God’s command to kill an entire city) or otherwise inconsistent? This position creates tension within the Bible if every word is inspired. Also, “inerrant,” “infallible,” and “verbally-inspired” are non-biblical, non-ancient words that have been tacked on in response to Modernist skepticism. Also, the most extreme version of this position can lead to a Quran-like view of the Bible, which is foreign to Christianity.
- Strengths: This approach relieves some tensions that exist in the large, complex document we call the Bible. We are allowed to drop what seems out of date, outrageous, or inconsistent (which has its own pitfalls). In practice, many people do this anyway; we have a “canon within the canon.” Calvin himself taught that Romans and John’s Gospel have a special place in the Bible, unlocking the meaning of other parts.
- Weaknesses: This way of thinking places the Bible below human intellect, allowing us to reject parts of the Scriptures that don’t square with our fallen worldview. Last week at our public library’s used book sale I hit the religion table to see what treasures were lurking there. I picked up a copy of the Jefferson Bible, which was Thomas Jefferson’s attempt to peel away the inauthentic fairy tales and reconstruct the real, essential Bible. It is a tiny volume and stands as a monument to the impudence of arrogant, sinful people who try to change God’s self-revelation.
- Strengths: This line of thinking allows people absolute freedom.
- Weaknesses: This line of thinking allows people absolute freedom.
When I was ordained in 2002, I took a vow acknowledging that the Scriptures of the Old Testament and New Testaments are, by the Holy Spirit, the unique and authoritative witness to Jesus Christ in the Church universal, and God’s Word to me (W-4.4003a). I also vowed to sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do, and I agreed to be instructed and led by those confessions as I lead God’s people (W-4.4003c). I take seriously those vows and humbly strive to put myself under the guidance of the Holy Spirit as it uses the Bible and confessions to shape me.
Our Presbyterian confessions, which are influenced by Calvin (and later by Barth) are uniformly clear that the Bible is the written Word of God that witnesses to the Word-made-flesh. (See The Scots’ Confession, Chapter XIX; The Second Helvetic Confession, Chapter 1; The Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter I; and even The Confession of 1967, 9.27-30) And so I submit myself to this collective wisdom of my Reformed tradition.
Certainly there are some things in the Bible that are not palatable for me (e.g., God’s command to put to death seemingly innocent people, the household code in the epistles, and even Psalm 137:8-9). But, knowing my own depravity and my own limited understanding, I will err on the side of taking seriously the words of the Bible rather than throwing away those that don’t agree with me–even if it means living with tension. In many ways, a little understanding and contextualization helps to resolve the problems with difficult passages in the Bible. For instance, Joshua 10-11 recaps Israel’s violent conquest of Canaan, including “devoting to destruction” every living thing. In the explanation, the Bible says, “For it was the LORD’s doing to harden their [i.e., the Canaanites’] hearts that they should come against Israel in battle, in order that they should be devoted to destruction and should receive no mercy but be destroyed, just as the LORD commanded Moses” (Joshua 11:20 ESV). God’s passionate love for humanity is always held in tension with God’s demand for justice and righteousness. The example of the Canaanites, who rejected the LORD, reminds us of our own proclivity to reject God and our need to throw ourselves on the mercy and love poured out at the cross of Jesus Christ.
So, after all that involved discussion, I would probably put myself in the first camp, while eschewing fancy words to describe how the Bible is God’s Word.