All Reading Is Interpretation: The Application of Perspective in Biblical Meaning

This is the fifth essay in a collection entitled, A Course in Understanding the Bible. The full collection is organized as follows:

  1. The Bible is Not Infallible: Destabilizing Plenary Inspiration
  2. Going Fishing with Grandpa and Learning to Tell the Truth
  3. God Did Not Write the Bible: The Formation of Scripture
  4. Why the Bible is Important to Christians: Rethinking Scripture and Inspiration
  5. All Reading Is Interpretation: The Application of Perspective in Biblical Meaning

The most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed an idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of a doubt, what is laid before him” (Leo Tolstoy).

Have you ever read a book a second time only to discover something new that escaped you the first time? New meanings emerge, but the book is the same and you are looking through the same eyes. What’s different? Over time, you had a vast array of new experiences that altered your horizon of understanding, generating new interpretative possibilities and evoking fresh insights. What changed is your perspective.

This strange experience of reading with “new eyes” gestures toward an important principle in philosophical hermeneutics: all reading is interpretation. The meaning of a piece of writing is “not an automatic and unproblematic exercise of deciphering a set of consistently identical signs on paper in front of us” (Werner Jeanrond, Theological Hermeneutics, 1). The meaning of a text is not objective and self-evident, as if any well-intended reader could easily discover “the right meaning.”

When talking about the Bible, some people argue the contrary. They claim to have easily discovered the correct meaning of a passage with a simple, literal reading. No interpretation is necessary, only common sense. “Look!” they say, “The meaning is plain as day, right there in black and white.” But this naïve, uneducated, and highly personalized approach is shallow, misguided, and dangerous.

To the contrary, hermeneutics helps us understand that the meaning of a text (including the Bible) is not an objective fact waiting to be discovered like a quarter under a couch cushion. Rather, meaning is something that is created when our minds interact with a text. Simply put, meaning is an event. Since the meaning of a text emerges through the application of a particular perspective, it is important to remember that our perspective is always limited.

So what shapes our perspective? An extensive list is beyond the scope of this article, so a few general examples will have to suffice. First, we might consider how a wide range of formative experiences in early childhood influence how we see the world, especially in our family of origin. It would also include our education, both secular and religious, and how this influences our views on things like politics, morality, and religion. Our perspective is also shaped by the way we see ourselves and others in relation to gender, race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, age, and sexual orientation, as well as the way the dominant culture interprets and assigns value to such identifiers. When it comes to interpreting sacred texts, our past and present experiences in a community of faith will generate various “pre-understandings” that must also be taken into account. For example, before we ever start reading the Bible on our own, most of us begin with a particular image of God and a wide range of assumptions about what the text could possibly mean and how it should be interpreted. These pre-understandings usually come through the inculcation of religious traditions in a specific community of faith, but they can also be acquired through the absorption of cultural stereotypes. Regardless, these pre-understandings serve to highlight and privilege certain interpretive possibilities, while obscuring and repressing others.

The main point is that a wide range of continuous experiences generate innumerable interpretive filters and pre-understandings that come together to create a person’s limited perspective. This perspective provides a world-view that functions like a pair of glasses through which we see everything, including our sacred texts and traditions. When different perspectives interact with a text, different meanings emerge. So, a twenty-three year old Columbian woman living in extreme poverty will interpret the Bible differently than a wealthy, white, fifty-five year old American man. They will focus on different passages and, in some cases, discern divergent meanings.

Since meaning is an event that happens when different people’s perspectives interact with a given text, multiple meanings are possible. Texts are polyvalent. While we are not entirely enslaved to our own perspectives (see below), no one can achieve a perspective-less God’s eye view. This does not mean that interpretation is a free-for-all in which we can make a text say anything we want. When it come to the Christian Bible, there are interpretive boundaries established by the community of faith, by the academic disciplines of Biblical studies and theology, and by common sense. But firmly grasping the role of perspective in the event of meaning and the polyvalent nature of all texts will help keep us humble in our interpretation.

One of the biggest dangers for religious people is forgetting that they are reading with a pair of interpretive glasses, that they are reading through a worldview constituted by a complex set of interpretive filters and pre-understandings. If we are not even aware that we are interpreting through a particular perspective then we unwittingly become a slave to the limitations and dangers of that perspective and foreclose on the possibility of deeper and more transformational meaning. Henceforth, anything we can do to become more aware of our interpretive filters and pre-understandings will encourage humility, expand our horizon of understanding, and hopefully evoke fresh insights that will make us more faithful interpreters of the Bible. The best way to do this is to read the Bible in conversation with others, especially those who are different!

One important conversation is between the reader and the author(s) of the text. Anyone who has engaged in the academic discipline of Biblical studies knows that the contemporary reader does not have direct access to the original intent and audience of the author. These must be tentatively reconstructed using tools provided by multiple disciplines like archaeology, history, ancient languages, literary and form criticism, and cultural studies. This attempt to determine what an author was trying to communicate to the original audience is the work of exegesis, and (since this is reconstructive work) it too requires interpretation.

While historical-criticism does not operate on the basis of certainty, much can be learned about the ancient world, the perspective of the author, the context of the original audience, and the message being communicated. As those who live on the other side of the Enlightenment, the perspective of the author and intended audience will be very different from ours. Acknowledging these important differences allows us to distance ourselves from our own interpretive filters so we can listen to the text on its own terms. While we never do this perfectly (because we cannot completely escape our own perspective), to a certain extent we can resist the urge to blindly project our own modern presuppositions on ancient texts, effectively collapsing the radically different worldviews of the author and contemporary reader. In hermeneutics, this is known as distanciation. We can provisionally bracket our own presuppositions and allow the text to speak to us as a genuine other in ways that will illuminate, challenge, and even change our interpretive filters, as well as broaden our horizon of understanding.

In addition, Christians believe that God somehow works through this interpretive conversation with the Bible to speak to us in transformative ways. God can and does speak to us through the kind of scholarly exegesis described above, but God also speaks to us in more devotional readings of scripture, like the ancient practice of lectio divina. Indeed, both of these approaches are important as we seek to understand the Bible and encounter God through it. (See my article, “Shaped By Scripture: Two Different Ways of Reading the Bible.”) As God speaks to us in and through the interaction of our perspective with the Bible, it becomes the Word of God in the power of the Holy Spirit. This encounter with the Word can illuminate, challenge, shape, and even alter our interpretive filters in ways that broaden our horizon of understanding and allow us deeper access to divine truth. This is at least part of the process by which we mature in the faith and grow in wisdom. The more spiritually mature the reader, the more faithful the interpretation. This is why the Bible should also be read in conversation with spiritual directors and teachers who have become wise through contemplation.

It is also important to read the Bible in conversation with the larger Christian tradition, both synchronically and diachronically. Gaining more knowledge about how Christians have interpreted the Bible in different ways over the course of 2,000 years will help surface and evolve our interpretive filters, as will contemporary conversations with other Christians around the globe who occupy very different perspectives. We not only ask how Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, and Wesley interpreted the Bible, but also how Christians in Africa, South America, and Asia interpret the text today. We study the history of Christianity but also Latin American Liberation Theology, Black Theology, Feminist and Womanist Theology, and Minjung Theology, all of which confirm the added benefit of conversations with philosophy and critical-theory. One could also argue the benefit of reading in conversation with people of other religious traditions. A great example of this is the interreligious dialogue between Thomas Merton and Thich Nhat Hanh.

Again, it should be clear that we don’t have to be slaves to a narrow and shallow interpretive framework. While our reading is always perspectival, our perspective can evolve and deepen over time by disciplined engagement in the various kinds of conversations mentioned above. One way of understanding this truth is by reference to the hermeneutical spiral.

Hermeneutical Spiral

As you can see in the diagram above, we start with pre-understandings that give us an interpretive framework for understanding the text. As we practice distanciation by bracketing our presuppositions, we allow the text to speak to us as a genuine other in the interpretive process. New insights emerge that are appropriated and assimilated in ways that transform our pre-understandings.

In conclusion, the purpose of this article is to destabilize the idea that textual meaning is a neutral, univocal, and static object that is passively waiting to be discovered by a well-intended reader. I am also trying to destabilize the idea of reading as a literal one-to-one correspondence between the human mind and printed words on a page. Taken together, I am criticizing what Merold Westphal calls “cognitive transubstantiation” and emphasizing the importance of interpretive humility. Furthermore, by sharing some key insights in philosophical hermeneutics, we have seen how important it is to be aware of our own perspective and to read sacred texts in conversation with others so that our interpretive filters can evolve and our horizon of understanding can be expanded.

The faithful interpretation of scripture is a life-long process, and our hope is that as we continue to grow in this regard that the Bible will continue to be a narrative space where we can encounter the risen Christ and be conformed to his image.

(Image Source: http://www.metanexus.net/essay/entangled-narratives)

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Going Fishing with Grandpa and Learning to Tell the Truth (Course in Understanding the Bible)

This is the second essay in a collection entitled, A Course in Understanding the Bible. The full collection is organized as follows:

  1. The Bible is Not Infallible: Destabilizing Plenary Inspiration
  2. Going Fishing with Grandpa and Learning to Tell the Truth
  3. God Did Not Write the Bible: The Formation of Scripture
  4. Why the Bible is Important to Christians: Rethinking Scripture and Inspiration
  5. All Reading Is Interpretation: The Application of Perspective in Biblical Meaning

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One of my fondest memories as a child was spending the night with my grandfather to go fishing the next morning. We woke up early on Saturday morning and grandpa started the coffee in an old stainless steel percolator. As it was brewing he said, “Markie, go get the cookies.” I shuffled off to the low-lying shelf in the dining room where a black flower print tin sat within my reach. As grandpa peeled-off the lid a puff of air filled the room with the smell of coconut macaroons. After pouring his coffee he took a thick blue plastic cup, filled it three-quarters of the way full with whole milk, and topped it off with a splash of coffee to make me feel like a big boy. After slurping cookies drenched in coffee flavored milk, he helped me get dressed and we loaded the fishing gear into the old Scout truck.

Grandpa and Nick

This pale green tank looked like it was made for war, and one of its distinguishable features was a concrete reinforced steel bumper that could level a small tree. Once the rods and tackle boxes were secured in the back, we opened the creaking doors and jumped in. If the noise of the doors where not loud enough to wake the neighbors then the roar of the cold engine surely was. The truck rumbled through the old neighborhood until we got the major road that would take us from downtown Lakeland to the Fin and Feather fishing ponds on the outskirts of Polk County in the old phosphate mines.

As we were driving down South Florida Avenue, a young man in a blue Camaro started tailgating the old Scout truck. Grandpa eyeballed him in the rearview mirror and then casually spit Red Man tobacco over his left elbow hanging out the driver side window. I could see a glimmer of anger in his eyes, but he kept his cool as the Camaro accelerated and barely squeezed between the front end of the truck and the back end of a car in the left-hand passing lane. Grandpa knew this scared me, and so he looked over with a smile lopsided by a wad of chew and said, “Well, if he woulda got a piece of that concrete bumper that woulda taught ‘em!” His laugh made me laugh, and I thought, “My grandpa is so cool.” This man taught me many things in life other than fishing, and with the exception of my parents was the person who had the greatest overall impact on my life. The greatest gift he gave me was the experience of unconditional love. Grandpa adored me and I knew it.

Most of you never met my grandpa, but after reading this story you probably have some sense of who he was and the kind of impact he had on my life. In addition, the way that I tell the story gives you some insight into my life as a child. What makes this possible is good character description. The more stories I tell, the more you will come to know this great man, and the more likely it will be for him to impact your life indirectly though the storytelling. If this is my purpose, then what is not important are the factual details of the account.

What if I told you upon further reflection that the cookie tin was not black but indigo blue, or that grandpa filled the plastic cup two-thirds of the way with milk instead of three-quarters. What if the Scout truck was yellow instead of pale green, or what if the passing car was a Corvette instead of Camaro? What if this account does not describe a single historical event in my life but is a composite story that draws on my fading memory of several different fishing trips with my grandpa? Does any of this make the story untrue? Would knowledge of factual errors or artistic license render this story incapable of giving trustworthy testimony about my grandfather’s personality and character? I think not. I can get many of the facts wrong and still tell the truth about grandpa in a way that will move and inspire you.

This example helps us to understand that there are different ways of telling the truth. In addition to factual analysis, truth can be powerfully communicated through metaphor, analogy, simile, and symbol, and in various mediums like poetry, music, visual and performing arts, story-telling, fables, fiction, preaching, personal testimony, wisdom sayings, and philosophical discourse. Indeed, sometimes figurative language is better suited to express the truth, as when writing a love note. What better communicates love: (1) “When I see parts of your body, neurotransmitters are released into my bloodstream and create a surge in dopamine levels,” or (2) “In your eyes, the light the heat; in your eyes, I am complete; in your eyes, I see the doorway to a thousand churches; in your eyes, the resolution of all the fruitless searches.” It is not only possible to communicate truth in figurative language, but sometimes it the best way to do so.

Although humanity received many gifts in modernity with the birth of the natural and social sciences, an important problem followed in its wake: the hegemony of factual analysis. According to this view, truth is equated with factual claims verified by empirical evidence. Any other way of telling the truth is seen as inferior and must be subordinated to the facts. Modern people seem obsessed with the question, “Did that really happen?”

A clear example of this hegemony in Christian theology can be found in Charles Hodge’s theory of plenary verbal inspiration in the nineteenth-century. In an attempt to ground his religious claims in objective truth, he developed a theory of divine inspiration that reduced the Bible to a compendium of facts dictated by God to infallible communicators. (See the first essay in this collection, “The Bible is Not Infallible: Destabilizing Plenary Inspiration.”)

However, this hegemony of factual analysis creates enormous problems for religion because (as most Christian theologians readily acknowledge) religious language is inherently metaphorical and analogical. This is true because there is a qualitative difference between God and the world, which is determinative of how human beings experience, reflect on, and communicate divine revelation. All God-talk operates on a principle of metaphoricity because it seeks to bring to speech what we cannot directly apprehend or express. Human thought and language is limited and cannot capture or contain the infinite ground of being. If truth is construed as a one-to-one correspondence between factual claims and empirically verifiable evidence, and if there is never a simple one-to-one correspondence between God and what we say about God (as if God were an object in the world subject to our investigation), then we can say nothing true about God. Such a constrained definition of truth also creates problems because the Bible is constituted by many different genres that cannot be reduced to a compendium of facts without doing violence to the text. Finally, it is widely acknowledged by scholars that many biblical claims are false when considered on a purely factual level in light of contemporary historical studies (“The Bible is Not Infallible: Destabilizing Plenary Inspiration“). If the only way to assess truth claims is through factual analysis then we are left with two equally bad options: either (1) dispense with the Bible as untrustworthy, or (2) dismiss the findings of scientific research by accentuating the fallibility of human proposals and the infallibility of scripture (i.e. appealing to blind faith to defend an irrational ideology).

Thankfully, postmodern philosophy has called the hegemony of factual analysis into question and provided an escape from this false dichotomy. Important studies in hermeneutics have generated new conversations about how to understand and evaluate truth claims. Although this huge body of literature is beyond the scope of this piece, I will present some of its most salient insights in the fifth essay of this collection, “All Reading Is Interpretation: Important Insights in Theological Hermeneutics.” At this point, it is sufficient to highlight that there are different ways of telling the truth. If we are open to this reality then we can begin to rethink what we mean when we say that the Bible is true.

 Lionel Nietzsche

In the next essay, “God Did Not Write the Bible: The Formation of Scripture,” we will draw on insights from contemporary theology and biblical studies to see how the Bible came to be. Then we will be in a better position to understand what it means to call the Bible “scripture” and what we mean when we say that it is inspired by God. Any claim of inspiration assumes that the Bible is in some sense true. How it is true is yet to be seen, but once we are freed from an overly constrained definition of truth as “just the facts” we get some interpretive breathing room to reflect on more creative proposals.

The Bible Is Not Infallible: Destabilizing Plenary Inspiration (Course in Understanding the Bible)

This is the first essay in a collection entitled, A Course in Understanding the Bible. The full collection is organized as follows:

  1. The Bible is Not Infallible: Destabilizing Plenary Inspiration
  2. Going Fishing with Grandpa and Learning to Tell the Truth
  3. God Did Not Write the Bible: The Formation of Scripture
  4. Why the Bible is Important to Christians: Rethinking Scripture and Inspiration
  5. All Reading Is Interpretation: The Application of Perspective in Biblical Meaning

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Who Can Argue with God? 

Have you ever disagreed with someone about a complex moral issue only to have them dismiss your perspective with simplistic Bible quotations? I had this experience recently after an interview on a local Christian radio station. When my thirty minute spot was over, the host invited me to stay and meet the pastor scheduled for the following segment. A few minutes later, a man wearing a big smile and hipster clothes enter the studio and cracked a joke in reference to the group of people that would be the subject of his one hour talk—homosexuals. His joking demeanor quickly turned angry as he derided Christians who were not throwing down the gauntlet in vehement, public condemnation of the Supreme Court decision granting marriage equality to gay and lesbian people. He even singled out evangelical pastor, T.D. Jakes, saying that he was “more black than Christian” when he voted for Obama, and that his “soft” public response to the court’s ruling showed that he was more interested in “padding his wallet” than telling the truth about homosexuality.

I was sincerely ashamed by the divisive tone of this pastor, which was fortified by ideological politics and a naïve understanding of the inspiration of scripture. I did not want to be associated with this conversation and planned to leave during the first commercial break. But before I could exit, the guest pastor asked me what I thought about this issue. Experience has taught me that arguing with people who already think they have God’s definitive answer is an exercise in futility. So I simply replied that many Christians wrestle with this issue and arrive at different conclusions. He responded by asking how someone could claim to be a Christian and not believe what is clearly written in God’s word.

Like many people who have been influenced by various strands of American fundamentalism, this pastor assumed that he was simply reciting the literal, infallible, inerrant Word of God. He was not expressing his view but God’s view, and there was no possibility that he could be wrong. Anyone offering an alternative interpretation was contradicting the very mind of God and corrupting the Christian faith with selfish motives. This Pastor did not understand himself to be an interpreter of scripture in service to the community of faith, but as a spokesman for God almighty. His claims were not only devoid of spiritual humility, but were also ironic insofar as they assumed a theory of inspiration that is not required by scripture. As this pastor claimed unmediated access to the infallible word of God, he was unaware of the interpretive glasses resting on his nose that were fashioned not by God but by nineteenth-century American theologians like Charles Hodge.

This article is not about homosexuality, it is about the inspiration of scripture. My goal is to destabilize plenary verbal inspiration and claims of biblical infallibility in order to make room for an alternative view (which will be articulated in subsequent articles). I will proceed by giving a brief history of this doctrine as articulated by one of its staunchest defenders, Charles Hodge, and then offer some general observations that raise serious questions about biblical inerrancy. Although both parts of the article make important points in support of the main argument, part two can be read independently by those not interested in the history of the doctrine at issue.

Part I: A Brief History of Plenary Inspiration in the Theology of Charles Hodge

During the seventeen and eighteenth centuries, groundbreaking discoveries in geology, evolutionary biology, and historical criticism challenged some of the church’s teachings about the Bible. At a more philosophical level, devastating critiques were leveled by intellectual powerhouses like Ludwig Feuerbach, Karl Marx, and Sigmund Freud. In light of such challenges, the dominant trend of Protestant theology in the nineteenth-century was inherently subjective. According to this trend, human access to the divine comes in and through human experience. Examples of this can be found in the works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Friedrich Schleiermacher, and Horace Bushnell. The general orientation of these theologians in relationship to philosophy and science was one of engagement. Their goal was to generate fresh interpretations of Christianity that were intellectually honest in the context of an emerging critical consciousness.

However, there were a minority of theologians who were suspicious of this subjective turn. They argued that this approach inevitably led to the triumph of human reason over biblical and confessional authority, which could be seen in the development of theistic rationalism and the emotional religion of American revivalism. In light of these concerns, scholastic Protestant theologians focused on securing their religious dogma from threats issued by philosophy and science, especially historical-criticism. Instead of a posture of engagement, they sought to defend their traditions by (ironically) turning inward to provincial confessions of faith, which they assumed would ground their theology in objective truth. One of their main apologetic strategies in this endeavor was to develop a theory of inspiration that endowed the Bible with infallibility. This brief historical survey will focus on Princeton theologian, Charles Hodge, because his theory of plenary verbal inspiration became axiomatic in the development of American fundamentalism, and because the central ideas of his theory continue to shape the interpretation of scripture in fundamentalist and evangelical churches today.

I do not assume that Charles Hodge was the first person to claim biblical infallibility. This general idea was implicit in the early church fathers and developed more fully by Reformers like John Calvin. But a few important points should be considered before we jump to the false conclusion that the church universal has always embraced the theory articulated by Hodge. First, while the general idea of biblical infallibility might be implicit in what Edward Farley and Peter Hodgson describe as “the scripture principle,” the Bible itself does not require us to accept a theory of plenary inspiration (Hodgson and King, Christian Theology: An Introduction to Its Traditions and Tasks, 66).  In fact, the prophetic traditions in scripture can be appropriated to raise serious questions about any theory claiming perfect knowledge of the mind of God.  Second, although some of the early church fathers and Reformers assumed a general idea of scriptural infallibility, their literal truth claims were always held in tension with symbolic interpretations of the Bible. For example, Clement of Alexandria and Origen openly admitted that the literal sense of various biblical passages was demonstrably erroneous, repulsive, or unedifying, requiring a moral, mystical, or spiritual reading (69). This led to allegorical interpretations of the Bible, which were further developed by theologians like Augustine of Hippo. This same tension between a literal-infallible and spiritual-symbolic reading can be found in most of the Reformers, including Luther and Calvin in the sixteenth-century. Granting these historical facts, it is important to remember that these theologians assumed a pre-modern worldview and should not be uncritically parroted as if the Enlightenment didn’t happen. Sometimes the Christian tradition gets it wrong.

What is clear is that the theory verbal plenary inspiration articulated by Hodge didn’t fall from heaven, nor was this theory embraced by the universal Church in every age. It was developed by an eighteenth-century Protestant theologian at Princeton Seminary who was trying to fend off the external threats of Enlightenment infidelity and resolve internal conflicts within the American Presbyterian church (James C. Livingston, Modern Christian Thought: Volume 1: The Enlightenment and the Nineteenth Century, 300-302).

As we survey the brief history of this doctrine, it is important to note that Hodge did not start with the Bible per se. He started with an unwavering commitment to a conservative Calvinist confessionalism, which he assumed was important for a faithful theological interpretation of the Bible. According to Hodge, this confessionalism was given authoritative expression by the late seventeenth-century Genevan theologian, Francis Turretin (1623-1687), whose primary goal was to defend Calvinist orthodoxy as articulated in three foundational documents: John Calvin’s Catechism (1545), the Second Helvetic Confession (1566), and the Canons of the Synod of Dort (1619). In addition to the doctrines of election and reprobation, plenary inspiration and the inerrancy of scripture were essential teachings in this confessionalism. So instead of defending his theology with unmediated access to divine truth, Hodge’s understanding of the authority, inspiration, and use of scripture was strongly influenced by the Calvinist confessionalism of Turretin. Hodge’s unwavering commitment to the inerrancy of scripture did not emerge from a close reading of the Bible but from his desire to defend a particular theological tradition. Hodge began with the conclusion that the Bible was infallible and then set out to prove why this was the case.

Ironically, Hodge developed his views in opposition to Enlightenment infidelity by appealing to Enlightenment philosophy and science! Specifically, he drew from Scottish Common Sense Realism and the scientific method espoused by Francis Bacon in an attempt to ground his ideas in objective truth. As would become evident in the twentieth-century, this was a failed attempt to “beat them at their own game.” In his very effort to establish theology as an independent discipline grounded in objective truth, he rendered theology dependent upon Baconian empiricism, which would later prove to be devastating to the very ideas he so vigorously tried to defend.

In an effort to secure the infallibility of the Bible according to the inductive principles of scientific realism, Hodge was forced to construe scripture as a collection of facts that could be assessed, organized, and theorized. He argues, “the Bible is to the theologian what nature is to the man of science. It is his store house of facts; and his method of ascertaining what the Bible teaches, is the same as that which the natural philosopher adopts to ascertain what nature teaches” (Hodge, Systematic Theology I.1, 10).

In an attempt to defend his assumed conclusion of the inerrancy of scripture, Hodge married theology to a philosophy of science that forced him to reduce the Bible to a compendium of facts dictated by God to infallible communicators. This was necessary to make his theological apologetic work. It was not that the Bible itself required a doctrine of divine ventriloquism. Rather, it was Hodge’s own ideological commitments to a certain brand of Calvinism and a fear of “liberalism” that compelled him to secure his project by two-timing lady Enlightenment in defense of a perfect book.

Hodge is clear about what plenary verbal inspiration requires of all Christians. He argues that belief in Christ requires faith in the Bible as the word of God, “and faith in the Scriptures as the word of God, is faith in their plenary inspiration. That is, the persuasion that they are not the product of the fallible intellect of man, but the infallible intellect of God . . . in saying that the Bible is the word of God, we mean that he is its author; that he says whatever the Bible says; that everything which the Bible affirms to be true is true     . . . the Bible is the product of one mind [i.e., God]” (Charles Hodge, “Inspiration,” Biblical Repository and Princeton Review, XXIX (October 1857), 661-663).

The spirit of God verbally dictates divine facts and propositions to passive secretaries who are given the miraculous power of infallibility, precluding the possibility of any conceivable error in communication. This guarantees that the Bible is inerrant not only in content but in the very words used to communicate that content. This means that every part of the Bible is fully inspired; there can be no difference or degrees of truth or authority between one part of the text and another (what theologians call “leveling”). Every single letter in every single word in every single sentence in both testaments is equally inspired and infallible, not only in matters of religion and morality but also of history and science.

 

Part II: The Bible Is Not Infallible

In what follows, I do not offer rigorous arguments supported by multiple examples proving that plenary inspiration is a bad theory. Countless other scholars have already done this with overwhelming evidence. Those interested in a more detailed analysis can choose from a plethora of scholarly introductions to the Bible, and those not interested because of an ideological commitment to biblical inerrancy will find such arguments unconvincing anyway. Rather, I will offer some general observations that have become common sense in contemporary biblical scholarship. Furthermore, giving multiple examples to support these general observations is unnecessary because the primary goal of this article is simply to destabilize plenary inspiration. Based on the very logic of the theory itself, this can be done by merely demonstrating a single error. If it can be shown that the Bible is mistaken regarding any of its factual claims then plenary inspiration as articulated by theologians like Charles Hodge goes out the window. And if supporters of inerrancy respond by claiming that only parts of the Bible are fully inspired, then they surrender the warrants and backings of plenary inspiration that give their claims rational coherence. The only way forward would be to develop a new theory showing what parts of the Bible are infallible and which ones are not, along with enough evidence to overturn the scholarly consensus that biblical infallibility is laughable. Regardless of the reader’s assessment of the historical survey above, the general insights below should be sufficient to raise serious questions about the theory at issue.   

The Bible Is Not Infallible Regarding Scientific Claims. It is common knowledge in biblical studies that people living in ancient Israel assumed that the world existed in three parts. As can be seen in the illustration below, the earth was thought to be a flat disc sitting atop a cosmic ocean supported by great pillars below mountains. In addition to these cosmic waters below, they also imagined that there were “waters above” held at bay by a solid dome in the sky. Rain fell to the earth when the windows in the firmament were opened by God. One example that illustrates this is the story of the flood as recorded in Genesis 7:11-12: “In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life . . . all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened. The rain fell on the earth forty days and forty nights” (NRSV). The dwelling place of God (heaven) existed beyond the waters in the sky, and the realm of the dead (Sheol) was directly below the surface of the earth.

Biblical Worldview

A close reading of the creation accounts in Genesis 1-2 shows that the authors assumed this ancient worldview. Consider, for example, the way God created by separating the waters from dry land. First, God separated the waters on the earth from the waters in the sky by creating the solid firmament: “And God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.’ So God made the dome and separated the waters that were under the dome from the waters that were above the dome. And it was so. God called the dome Sky” (Genesis 1:6-8a). Then God separated the waters on earth from dry land: “And God said, ‘Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.’ And it was so. God called the dry land Earth, and the waters that were gathered together he called Seas” (Genesis 1:9-10a). The biblical authors also assumed that the sun and moon revolved around the earth, as can be seen in Joshua’s answered prayer while waging battle against the Amorites: “And the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, until the nation took vengeance on their enemies. Is this not written in the Book of Jashar? The sun stopped in midheaven, and did not hurry to set for about a whole day” (Joshua 10:13).

Based on what we know from modern science, this ancient cosmology is patently false. The creation accounts in Genesis are not infallible in their factual claims for a three-storied world, a flat earth, a solid firmament, and an underworld below and heaven above. Of course, the biblical authors didn’t lie about these things, but simply drew on the best resources available in the ancient world to express their conviction that God created the world with purpose, meaning, and value. One of these resources was a collection of Babylonian creation myths called The Enûma Eliš. This is just one example of how some biblical claims contradict external sources in modern science.

The infallibility of the Bible is also called into question by internal contradictions related to such matters. The most obvious is the fact that there are two different creation accounts in Genesis (cf. 1:1-2:4a and 2:4b-24). People who have an ideological commitment to infallibility and insist on reading Genesis literally employ all kinds of hermeneutical gymnastics in an attempt to harmonize these two accounts into one grand narrative. But the fact that we have two different creation accounts that resist harmonization raises serious questions about the theory of plenary inspiration and the infallibility of scripture.

This brings us to an important point: the Bible is not a modern science book. The creation accounts in Genesis are etiological stories, and to read them literally as scientific accounts is to misidentify their genre and perpetuate anachronism. Furthermore, when our interpretive goal is to harmonize two different creation stories and make them conform to a modern worldview, we unwittingly eclipse the main theological ideas that the authors were trying to communicate through the narratives. We engage in the exercise of missing the point.

The Bible Is Not Infallible Regarding Historical Claims. This general idea is also supported by internal and external evidence. Internally, there are countless contradictions in the Bible when read as a compendium of historical facts. In addition to the two creation accounts mentioned above, compare the number of soldiers in the army recorded in 1 Chron. 21:5 and 2 Sam. 24:9, the length of the king’s reign in 2 Chron. 36:9 and 2 Kings 24:8, or the details of Paul’s itinerary in Acts and Galatians. A close reading of the four gospels also discloses multiple inconsistencies when read on a factual level. Consider that the genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and Luke not only list different names in his family tree but also disagree on the number of generations leading up to his birth. John says that Jesus cleansed the temple at the beginning of his ministry, while Matthew, Mark, and Luke say that he did it shortly before being arrested. Scholars argue that if this violation of the Pax Romana actually happened then it was probably the precipitating event that led to Jesus’ arrest, and that there is no way he could have gotten away with this twice. None of the gospels agree about whether there were angles or “men in shining apparel” at the empty tomb, or how many of these were present when the women arrived to prepare Jesus’ body for burial. Perhaps most striking, John describes Jesus’ crucifixion as happening on a different day compared to the accounts in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Again, these are just a few examples among many contradictions when the Bible is read as a history book.

In addition, biblical accounts sometimes contradict external sources in historical studies. Take, for example, the conquest of the Holy Land as described in Joshua. There is no textual source, aside from the Bible, that mentions this invasion. This alone raises questions if the conquest happened on the grand scale narrated in Joshua. Nevertheless, when scholars compare the massive destruction of the Canaanite cities in the Bible with evidence gathered through numerous archeological excavations, the empirical evidence in support of the biblical version is simply not forthcoming. Archaeologists have confirmed a dramatic resettling of the land in the first part of the Iron Age, but most scholars believe this happened by some kind of gradual migration, assimilation, or cultural evolution. Joshua’s fantastic account stems from the theological impulse to show how Israel enjoyed an utterly unique, intimate relationship with God prior to its postexilic apostasy. It is also interesting to note that we have no textual sources outside of the Bible that mention King David, King Solomon, or their magnificent constructions in Jerusalem (see Douglas Knight and Amy-Jill Levine, The Meaning of the Bible). It is true that the “facts” change as new evidence is gathered, therefore historians cannot claim absolutely that such events did not happen as recorded in scripture. However, if religious texts are not given a historical pass, then the present archaeological record is enough to raise serious questions about the facticity of some of the biblical narratives.

This brings us to another important point: The Bible is not a modern historiography. The biblical writers had no concept of modern history and no access to the historical-critical methods used by biblical scholars today, including those employed by archaeologists and supporting experts in in biology, chemistry, paleobotony, archaeozooloy, and geology, to name a few. It is not only anachronistic but also unfair to project our worldview onto ancient people and hold their religious storytelling accountable to standards and criteria to which they did not have access. Another danger in reading the Bible as a history book is that it functions to eclipse all of the different genres in the Bible that give us important clues as to how we should interpret various texts. Scholars remind us that even the more history-like parts of scripture are always theologically interpreted narratives, not excluding the author of Luke who claims to give a historical account of Jesus but starts with the post-resurrection assumption that Jesus is the Messiah and then sets out to convince others to receive him as lord and savior. In no way would this be considered a modern history today (something akin to the Jesus Seminar).

The Bible Is Not Infallible Regarding Moral Claims. Just as in matters of history and science, the Bible is internally conflicted in some of its moral claims. The most obvious example is related to sexual ethics. I continue to be flabbergasted by conservative appeals to the biblical view of sex as celibacy in singleness and monogamy in marriage, or the biblical view of marriage as a life-long commitment between one man and one woman. The Bible does not offer a singular, uniform, context-invariant sexual ethic that can be uncritically parroted in memorable clichés as “God’s design for sex.” Rather, it presents multiple sexual norms that are reflective of differing cultural ideas in the societies in which the texts developed over the course of hundreds of years. A close reading of scripture yields a variety of acceptable sexual practices that include not only monogamy, but also polygamy, the sexual use of concubines (some of whom were the spoils of war), levirate marriage, arranged marriages to establish political alliances, and the arranged marriages of young girls (some prepubescent) to much older men for a bride price. If these practices have anything in common it is not an unambiguous sexual ethic but the endorsement of a divinely sanctioned patriarchy in which men were superior to women and (in some sense) owned them as sexual property. In addition, we often see a condemnation of “fornication” in the Bible, wrongly assume that the word literally translates “sex before marriage,” and then use it to condemn all forms of premarital sex. But this is simply wrong. The word translated as fornication refers to “sexual immorality,” and what constitutes sexual immorality changes depending on what relative cultural norms are governing a given society. This is why the author of the Song of Solomon can use the passionate sexual relationship of two unmarried young people as an allegory for God’s love.

The Bible does not unequivocally teach celibacy in singleness and monogamy in marriage (at least not as we typically define these terms). Nor does it clearly teach that God’s view of marriage is a lifelong commitment between one man and one woman. This does not mean that such sexual norms cannot be derived from various interpretations of scripture. Clearly, many people have done this. In fact, this is the way that the dominant Christian tradition has typically articulated its official position on sexual ethics (although the official teaching rarely lines-up with the actual practices of most people in the church). However, honest readers of scripture should acknowledge that their sexual ethic is a theological construction that requires interpretive decisions based on hermeneutical principles (and moral biases) that are not explicitly delineated in the Bible. These interpretive decisions to endorse certain principles discovered in scripture require us to simultaneously reject other (divergent) views that are also contained in scripture. Certainly, none of these constructions should be endowed with infallibility. While there is much more that could be said about this topic, the simple fact that there are differing sexual ethics contained in the Christian cannon raises serious questions about the infallibility of the Bible regarding its moral claims.

In addition to these kinds of internal contradictions, there are also external contradictions between some of the Bible’s moral claims and what we judge to be ethical behavior in the modern world. Consider that the Bible largely assumes the moral permissibility of slavery from Genesis to Revelation, and in some cases even endorses it as divinely instituted. According to the Old Testament, God summoned Moses and directly spoke the divine Law to him, commanding him to communicate and strictly enforce this Law with the Israelites. All of the details of this Law supposedly came straight from the mouth of God, and they included rules for buying slaves: “Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can will them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly” (Lev. 25:44-46). This passage clearly gives divine endorsement for slavery. The Law also gives rules for beating slaves: “If a man beats his male or female slave with a rod and the slave dies as a direct result, he must be punished, but he is not to be punished if the slave gets up after a day or two, since the slave is his property” (Exodus 21:20-21). This passage undeniably teaches that beating a slave (as long as they don’t die) is at least morally neutral in a divine order where human beings can be bought and sold as property. In the New Testament, the author of Colossians writes, “Slaves, obey your earthly masters in everything; and do it, not only when their eye is on you and to curry their favor, but with sincerity of heart and reverence for the Lord” (3:22). This submission of slaves to earthly masters is also commanded in Ephesians 6:5, and according to 1 Peter 2:18 slave resistance is prohibited even when the master is particularly brutal. Many more examples could be given to show how the Bible directly or indirectly endorses practices as morally permissible that we find ethically abhorrent today, including rules for Holy War and the treatment of women, but this example of slavery should be enough to raise questions about the moral infallibility of scripture.

The Bible Is Not Infallible Regarding Its Portrayal of the Character of God. This claim will probably be the most offensive to those who need the Bible to be infallible in some sense, including those who are not fundamentalist in their theology. More moderate theologians sometimes try to appease our more conservative brothers and sisters in their debunking the infallibility of the Bible’s scientific and historical claims by saying that it’s infallible in terms of its teachings on God’s character. But even this idea seems untenable. There seem to be real tensions (even contradictions) between the way God is portrayed in the Old Testament and the way that God is portrayed in the New Testament, and simply acknowledging this fact does not automatically make one guilty of Marcionism. We can believe that the biblical authors attempted to describe the same God, and that both testaments reveal important truths about the character of God, while still acknowledging some important differences that cannot be easily harmonized. The same is true of the tensions that exist between the portrayals of Jesus in the Gospels and the book Revelation.

If these internal tensions do not rise to the level of contradictions, then we still have to contend with some very problematic claims about God when judged according to accepted ethical standards today. For example, God commands the wandering Hebrews to invade and conquer a foreign nation by violent military force and to utterly destroy every living thing in the process: “[regarding the people in the land] that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance, you must not let anything that breathes remain alive. You shall annihilate them . . .” (Deut. 20:16-17). This divine command includes the murder of noncombatant, innocent women and children. A close reading of the Bible seems to suggest that God actively commands violent invasion and conquest, genocide, the seizure of private property, slave labor, and the utter destruction of foreign religious sanctuaries and artifacts. In regards to civil law, God is portrayed as commanding the public execution of rebellious children (Deut. 21:18-21), women—not men—who have sex before marriage (22:20-21), anyone caught in adultery (22:22), and men—not women—caught engaging in homosexual sex (Leviticus 20:13). (For more on this topic, see my article, “It’s Dangerous to Read the Bible Too Literally: The Seeds of Religious Extremism.”) Contemporary Jewish theologian, David Blumenthal, has even gone so far as to argue that the way God is described as treating Israel in certain parts of the Jewish Bible is analogous to child abuse (Facing the Abusing God). Whether or not one agrees with Blumenthal’s conclusions, it is true that Israel has always had to reconcile divine love and cruelty in some of its own sacred texts and traditions. Since Christians share some of these sacred texts, we also have to figure what to do with some of these stories. Again, the reason why all of this material is so disturbing to modern ethical sensibilities is because it is associated with direct divine commands, which raises serious questions for the contemporary reader about biblical infallibility, even when we limit the conversation to the character of God.

It might be helpful to note that many of the internal contradictions noted in the various categories above can be explained by the fact that the Bible is not a single author book but a library of books. The content constitutive of the Christian cannon was shaped by many different people, who lived in different periods of history, spoke different languages, endorsed different social-political worldviews, wrote in different genres, and addressed different problems and needs in the worshiping community. (See my article, “God Did Not Write the Bible: The Formation of Sacred Scripture”) In addition, many of the external contradictions can be explained by the fact that the authors of scripture inhabited a prescientific world and shared most of the pre-modern social, political, moral, and religious ideas common to all people in their period of history. Once we allow room for the humanity of the authors and stop insisting that the Bible is infallible, most of these interpretive problems yield reasonable solutions.

Conclusion

Although it might not occur to those who have been indoctrinated with biblical inerrancy, there are other ways of construing the inspiration and authority of scripture. Some people are fearful to even consider this possibility because defenders of fundamentalism present Christians with a false dichotomy: they try to force us to choose between biblical infallibility and abandoning the idea of divine inspiration altogether. But many faithful contemporary theologians have developed viable alternatives.

As stated at the beginning, the purpose of this article is to destabilize the theory of plenary verbal inspiration that is used by many fundamentalists and evangelical Christians to dismiss complex problems with naive Bible quotations. It is difficult to consider other possibilities when you think that you have it all figured out. But when serious questions are raised about our most deeply held convictions, one healthy response is to ask, “What are the alternatives?” As the arguments in remaining articles in this series unfold, I will offer a different interpretation of the inspiration and authority of scripture that avoids many of the problems of the theory criticized above.

God Did Not Write the Bible: The Formation of Scripture (Course in Understanding the Bible)

This is the third essay in a collection entitled, A Course in Understanding the Bible. The full collection is organized as follows:

  1. The Bible is Not Infallible: Destabilizing Plenary Inspiration
  2. Going Fishing with Grandpa and Learning to Tell the Truth
  3. God Did Not Write the Bible: The Formation of Scripture
  4. Why the Bible is Important to Christians: Rethinking Scripture and Inspiration
  5. All Reading Is Interpretation: The Application of Perspective in Biblical Meaning

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There are many different theories that attempt to explain how the Bible came to be. What follows are some informal reflections on the origins of scripture that are consistent with my experience and studies in theology.

In his book, Good and Evil, Edward Farley explains that human beings experience redemption in three spheres of existence: the personal, interpersonal, and social. In the personal sphere, we experience redemption as freedom from the dynamics of idolatry and the courage to live by faith. In our relationships with others, we experience redemption as forgiveness, reconciliation, and the freedom to love unconditionally (agape).  In the social sphere, we experience redemption as social justice and emancipation from oppressive systems. In these ways, divine redemption breaks into our lives in very concrete and specific ways.

As people in the ancient world experienced the freedoms of redemption, some felt inspired by God to theologically reflect on what had happened and to communicate these reflections with others, first through oral tradition then through writing. The people who were obedient to this divine calling spoke and wrote as human beings. This means that they drew on whatever was available to them in their specific cultural-historical context to describe their experiences of the divine. This included their given language, symbol systems, traditions, religious ideas, and communal stories.

It is important to note that all of these expressions of divine redemption were limited by at least two things. First, divine transcendence. There is always mystery in God’s activity. As theologians have argued extensively, God does not act in the same way that human beings act. Peter Hodgson explains:

“The causality exercised by God is not that of a first cause or material cause, which bring about specific, predetermined effects, but that of a final cause, which offers a possibility, an invitation, a goal. God’s creative power also works as a formal cause, providing patterns or ideals for the shaping of events, but not controlling outcomes. Final and formal causes exercise real influence within a framework of contingency, freedom, and indeterminacy. God orders the world, orients it to the attainment of value, but God does not mechanically control the dynamics of the creative process.” (Christian Faith: A Brief Introduction 56).

Since there is an ontological distinction between God and the world, and since God does not act with the same kind of agency exercised by human beings, theologians like Martin Luther, Karl Barth, and Paul Tillich emphasize that divine revelation has a paradoxical character. It is not only an unveiling but also a veiling. There is a sense in which God remains hidden even as God is revealed. Taken together, all of this points to the fact that God is a (rational) mystery. To speak of God is to point to a higher rationality, a higher truth, which cannot be exhaustively known by means of human language. As those in the mystical tradition remind us, when we say that God acts, there is a sense in which we don’t know exactly what we mean because there’s not a one-to-one correspondence between the words we use and the events they seek to describe. All theological language is analogy or metaphor. This is the first limitation of our attempts to expression divine redemption.

The second limitation has to do with the perspectival nature of human thinking and language.  The way that we experience, interpret, understand, and express the “coming forth” of redemption into our lived existence is always already shaped by a particular symbolic-linguistic worldview, which is limited by all of the blind spots and knowledge gaps associated with finite, located, human beings. There is no unmediated or uninterpreted encounter with God.

Going back to those in the ancient world who played a role in the shaping of biblical content, it is important to remember that most of the stories of redemption started as oral traditions that were passed down for many years before they were recorded by scribes. As these stories were passed-down from generation to generation they were told and retold, interpreted and reinterpreted, adapted and readapted in ways that met the evolving needs of the worshiping community in an ever changing context. The goal was not to construct a modern historiography, but to engage in ongoing theological interpretation that could help a religious community make sense of God, the world, and the relationship between the two in changing and challenging circumstances.

Over time, these oral traditions generated more conceptual thinking about the character of God and God’s relationship to the world. More sustained reflection on the fluid, pliable, theologically interpreted memory of the community functioned to generate theological norms that served in the ongoing adaptation and reinterpretation of the stories (as well as stories and ideas received from other religions). As Walter Brueggemann argues in his book, Theology of the Old Testament, Israel started by attributing verbs to YHWH, then adjectives, and eventually nouns. As the community experienced the redemptive power of God over significant periods of time, they began to see patterns that allowed them to make more general claims about God’s character. All of this gave the community tools for theologically interpreting every aspect of life, which helps us to understand why there are so many different genres in the Bible. As the oral traditions were written and used by the community for various purposes, some of them proved to have enduring value and were collected together as sacred scripture. So the content of the Bible is the community’s theologically interpreted memory of how God acted to save them through a covenant relationship in various ways and in various times and places.

While I reflect on biblical authority and inspiration in another article (see “Why the Bible is Important to Christians“), it is appropriate to mention that part of what we mean by “divine inspiration” is that the Holy Spirit was somehow at work in the traditioning process described above.

All of this helps us to understand that the Bible is not a book but a library of books. The content constitutive of the Bible was shaped by many different people, who lived in different periods of history, spoke different languages, endorsed different worldviews, wrote in different genres, and addressed different problems and needs in the worshiping community.  If you doubt this, simply compare the life and times of Abraham and the Apostle Paul. Some of the books of the Bible have multiple authors and all of them were copied, edited, redacted, and reinterpreted as they circulated among various communities across generations. So the finished product is not a single author book, but a library of books that span the course of centuries.

All of this helps us to see that while God is active in the development of the Bible, it is also a very human text. God acts in redemptive ways and inspires people to think and write theologically about these experiences.  But God did not write the Bible as John Grisham wrote A Time to Kill. Neither did God negate the humanity of the authors by making them passive secretaries or giving them miraculous knowledge of modern science or historiography. The good news is that God does not need to author a perfect book to accomplish God’s purposes in the world and bring us salvation. Just as God did in Jesus of Nazareth two-thousand years ago, God works in and through the humanity of the biblical authors, with all of their limitations, failures, and blind spots, to ensure that they tell the truth in ways that can lead (in the power of the Holy Spirit) to knowledge of salvation.