Friday, 18 September 2009

The Bible - Infallible?

I have noticed that Christians who insist that the Bible is the Literally True Word of God say that the Bible has to be infallible or their interpretation of it falls down; it’s either right or wrong. This is a very modern way of looking at the Bible and of defining truth which is not how the Bible has traditionally been interpreted.

The Bible contains various types of books and they need to be read in different ways. Whilst the history books should be generally accurate (but don’t forget ‘spin’ is not a modern invention) the books of prophecy and poetry have to read in a different way and problems come when people muddle them up – a lot of Genesis is a poetic book about creation and not history. The main issue with reading the Bible is to read it as God’s story and the story of his interaction with mankind, in particular, but not always, the Jews. I know I have said this before but it is something that I have come across many times and, when I remember, I always find it helpful.

If the bible is infallible it shouldn’t, by definition, contradict itself so let’s look at couple of examples where I think it is clear that it does.

Firstly in Ezra 10 you find the Jews who have returned from exile in Babylon expelling the foreign wives they had taken along with any children as they believe that this is what the Law commands them to do. However the Law may not have been as old as they thought and was probably written down during the exile, from earlier oral traditions, and was being written by a people who saw themselves as a persecuted people who were the only ones loyal to God. I had thought that the book of Ruth (and Noah?) was written as a counterblast to this showing that David was descended from a “foreign wife” but modern scholarship has put the Book of Ruth well before the exile and so the Jews should have realised that God was for everyone and not just them. Certainly the Law and the Book of Ruth do not seem to be in agreement.

The other passage I want to look at in Matthew 5 where Jesus gives a series of “You have heard it said… but I say to you…” statements; in particular v 38 to 42.

You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

Here Jesus directly contradicts a command given in the Old Testament (Exodus 21:24, Leviticus 24:20 and Deuteronomy 19:21) and replaces it with his law. So who is right? On the face of it they contradict but if you read this as God’s story and of his interaction with mankind you get a different picture of a growing awareness of God’s character. An eye for and eye comes from a time of tribal tensions when if someone from one tribe insulted or injured a member of another tribe they would see it as a matter of tribal honour and not just go after the person concerned but the whole tribe and inflicted considerably more injury than they had suffered. In this context “an eye for an eye” is a moderating influence (to stop the tribes of Israel wiping each other out?) but read as part of God’s story it is a partial revelation and the first step towards Jesus command to “Love your enemy.”

Is the Bible infallible? It doesn’t appear to be because of internal contradictions. However if it is read as God’s story and of his interaction with mankind it becomes the story of how we respond, including getting it wrong, and how God’s revelation is partial until fulfilled in Jesus. At that point, and only then, does it become infallible.

I believe that God the Holy Spirit can speak to us through the Bible in ways we cannot understand or foretell, surprising us and pointing us to Jesus, God in human form, and guiding us to live our lives like His. It tells the story of God’s relationship with the Jews leading up to the climatic moment of the crucifixion. In view of this I believe that reading and studying the Bible are an important part of the Christian life.

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