Abandoning Inerrancy: Authoritarianism and the Journey to Freedom

Like many in the south, I grew up in a church that placed high value on the Bible. As the the inspired Word of God, it was considered factually inerrant and demanded a strict literal reading. It was as if God had dictated the contents of the Bible to passive secretaries who wrote in a way that precluded errors of any kind, including scientific or historical inaccuracies. Devoid of all humanity, this book was God breathed and perfect.

Armed with this view, Christians could simply quote a specific chapter and verse and then claim with confidence, “God said it, I believe it, and that’s the end of it!” There was no need to wrestle with counter-arguments or to give reasons why your interpretation was better than another. There was no need to identify the type of literature you were reading or to learn anything about the life and times of the original audience. There was no need to prayerfully discern which parts of the Bible communicated God’s enduring message and which parts were reflective of evolving human culture. In fact, many would deny they were interpreting the Bible at all, but simply quoting God’s Word, the meaning of which should be obvious to anyone with real faith.

This way of understanding the nature of scripture created problems for me as I got older. For example, when my 9th grade biology teacher introduced the idea of evolution, I remember people saying things like, “Don’t believe that garbage. We didn’t come from monkeys. The Bible says that God created Adam on the sixth day of creation and any claims to the contrary are wrong. You have to accept God’s Word over man’s word.” The challenges only grew as I moved through high school and college.

I eventually started to feel like I had to choose between being a real Christian and accepting what I was learning in class. Being a real Christian meant reading the Bible as the factually inerrant Word of God, and this interpretation necessarily conflicted with modern science and history. Since faith required me to choose God’s Word over human words, I felt pressured to reject–out of hand–the Big Bang, the theory of evolution, carbon dating, and the historical method of inquiry. I was also expected to affiliate with a specific political party and ideologically submit to their talking points.

But these authoritarian claims did not ring true to my experience, and I got this scary feeling that the religion of my youth was wrong about many things. However, because I knew no other way to interpret the Bible, I tried to deny my internal conflicts for a long time, pretending that the teachings of the church worked fine in real life. This created what psychologists call “cognitive dissonance.” Instead of an integrated life characterized by peace, I was riddled with internal conflicts and anxiety.

Looking back, I was not living an authentic life. By denying important questions that sprang from rational reflection on my experience, I was denying my true self. But things began to change when I started taking religion and philosophy classes at Florida Southern College.

The transformation didn’t happen all at once. In fact, I entered FSC as a combative fundamentalist, ready to argue against the onslaught of heresy being propagated by my liberal professors. It took time to build trust and drop my defenses, something that happened as my theology professor, Dr. Waite Willis, counseled me through some painful personal problems. I experienced his genuine care as an expression of God’s love and acceptance, which left me thinking, “My professors are not trying to hurt me, they are encouraging me to build a more authentic faith that matches my reason and experience.” Finding a safe place to wrestle with difficult questions opened my mind to new ways of understanding the Bible. This was a humbling and freeing experience.

And once the damn broke, it gushed for years. I became passionate about biblical and theological studies, reading one book after another as if trying to make-up for lost time. I wrote more papers than I can remember, trying to articulate a faith that integrated what I was learning in religion, philosophy, science, history, psychology, and sociology. Although it was a long and sometimes scary process, I was progressively set free from the authoritarianism of the church (along with its fear of going to hell). I came to believe that God is the source of all truth—sacred and secular—and that I didn’t have to be afraid to learn new things that challenged old ideas.

Looking back, these experiences probably saved my faith. If I had not learned a new way of reading the Bible that helped me deal with my doubts and internal conflicts, I may have walked away from Christianity altogether.

After experiencing this transformation, I was flabbergasted when I realized how few of my colleagues were teaching these ideas in their churches. Candidates in ministry would get a world-class education, learn sophisticated ways of interpreting scripture, get ordained, take a church, and then preach and teach as if they had never been to seminary! Why were they assuming a pre-critical, literalistic reading of the Bible and propagating a 4th grade Sunday school class theology? Why weren’t they sharing with their churches the gifts that set them free and deepened their faith?

The answer was simple: fear.

These pastors knew from experience the difficulty of traveling the path of change. They understood that most people upon hearing new religious ideas—especially new ideas about the Bible—would initially have a defensive reaction. Why? Because when everything we have always believed is called into question, it’s disruptive and destabilizing. When new ideas emerge to challenge old ways of thinking, most people feel threatened, which triggers a fight or flight response. You either fight for the old ideas by ferociously rejecting the possibility of something new, or you run away from the new ideas and bury your head in the sand.

As pastors try to share new ideas that lead to deeper spiritual insights, they face many challenges. It takes time and energy (in an already busy schedule) to do your research, think through the issues, and make good arguments supported by evidence. It is difficult, and sometimes painful, to endure defensiveness and stay in conversation with people who lash out in fear and anger. It hurts when people reject you as a heretic and break fellowship. Change is hard, and even though it promises a more authentic existence, the process of getting there is messy, anxious, and painful.

It is this in-between time that pastors fear the most, the time between the presentation of new ideas and a potential spiritual awakening. As people experience the birth pangs of anxiety, pastors fear that people will leave their church.

(This fear is exacerbated by the capitulation of many pastors to the worldly standards of success. See my articles “How the Devil Directs a Pastor’s Prayer: Careerism and the Corruption of Our Calling” and “Compelled to Control: Is the Success Culture Destroying Christianity?“)

Pastors, you should not live-out your calling to ministry in fear, nor should you treat members of your congregation as children when it comes to the Bible and matters of faith. While we know that the path to transformation is scary, we have been privileged to make the journey ourselves, and God calls us back to the church to proclaim that the struggle is worth it.

It’s worth wrestling with the fear that you might be wrong. It’s worth the grief that comes from letting go of old ideas that don’t work anymore. It’s worth time spent in the spiritual desert when old religious ideas have vanished and no new beliefs have yet to take root.

People in the church need to know that being a Christian is not about blindly assenting to authoritarian preachers that require you to deny your experience, repress your questions, and check your brain at the door. They need to know that following Jesus is not about embracing an inerrant view of scripture, denying science, or hating gay people. (It is this view of Christianity that has led to a mass exodus of Millennials from our churches.)

Rather, we are called to teach them that true faith is about a life-long journey that includes work, study, conversation, and ongoing struggle, a challenging journey that leads (through the mystery of grace) to a deep spiritual transformation characterized by love, peace, joy, and inclusion.

My prayer is that pastors will find the courage, strength, and hope to share the gifts of their own experience in ways that open the path of transformation to the people who are looking to them for spiritual leadership.

 

Helpful Resources:

Thank-You Lou Riley: An Unexpected, Powerful Spiritual Experience

“Are you Lou?”

“Yes.”

“I’m Pastor Mark, from First Methodist Cocoa Beach.”

“You’re the new pastor?”

“Yes.”

“Well, come in!”

Within forty-five minutes of this awkward introduction, I would have an unexpected, powerful spiritual experience.

I’m ashamed to admit it, but I don’t like scheduling visits to shut-ins, hospitals, and nursing homes. Don’t get me wrong, when I’m actually spending time with people during visits, I’m always blessed, but it’s really hard to motivate myself to do it. It takes time to map out all the addresses, estimate travel times, and to call the day before to make sure they will be home when I’m in their area. Getting around to see everyone takes all day, and there are a hundred other things I would rather do. It’s easy to find excuses to put it off another week, and then another week, and then another week—saying to expectant family members and friends, “I really want to go visit your loved one, but things are just really busy right now.” Eventually, guilt and obligation motivate me and I drag myself out the door. Today was one of those days.

This is what brought me to Lou’s house.

Prior to this morning, I’d never met Lou. Our only contact was two months ago, when I called to set-up a visit. Despite my yelling into the phone several times, “I’M PASTOR MARK!” she couldn’t hear me and eventually just hung-up! Now I was standing at her door, wondering if she’d even invite me in.

Knock, knock, knock.

When the door open, I saw a reluctant elderly woman with obvious mobility issues. Although I too was a little reluctant, when I explained who I was, she immediately welcomed me in. My plan was to say up front, “I have many visits to make today, so I can only stay for about 15-30 minutes,” but she immediately began to talk and I didn’t have a chance to stage my quick escape.

Lou told me many stories about her life. I initially thought, “I’m going to be here awhile!” but as she reminisced about her life, I was drawn into her stories. She talked about her husband and children, proudly showing me pictures. She talked about her career, singing and dancing to entertain the troops during the Vietnam War. She explained how this provided her a chance to travel all over the world.

Excitement and joy bubbled to the surface as she reflected on her past, but then she looked at me and said, “Pastor, maybe you can help me with a question.”

“Why am I still here? I know that Jesus is keeping me alive for a reason, but I can’t figure it out. I pray all the time, but I can’t figure out why I’m still here.”

“I’m not sure, Lou. When the time is right, are you ready to go?”

“Why, yes! I want to go! But I don’t know why I am still alive. I can’t do anything anymore, other than walk around my apartment, touch all my things, remember the past, and say, ‘Thank- you Jesus.’ But I’m even a problem to my children. My daughter calls me a few times a day just to say something nice to me, and my son, Skipper, comes over all the time. But I don’t know why I’m still here.”

If you didn’t know, I’m well trained for these kinds for questions, so I started with good theology! “Well, Lou, the purpose of human life is a loving relationship with God. As we experience all of God’s good gifts, we grow in gratitude, and the more thankful we are the more we can praise Him. You have told me many stories, and I can see that your heart is full of gratitude. As you pray throughout the day, thanking God for all His gifts, God delights in you—your life is a blessing to God.”

I sat back in my chair thinking, “That was pretty good.”

She briefly pondered my points, talked a little more, and then repeated the question again: “Why am I still here?”

I leaned in to make another theological argument. “You said that you were a problem to your kids, but I think if they were here they would say that you are not a problem and that they love you very mu . . .”

“Well, yes, I know that!” she interrupted.

I jumped back into the conversation to complete my thought: “Well, maybe you’re still here because you bring joy to their lives and they still need you for some reason.”

While she was grateful for my efforts, my answers were not convincing. After an awkward pause, she abruptly said, “It’s probably your lunch time, so I should let you go.”

In that moment, I felt an opportunity slipping away. I took off my theology hat and said, “Can I tell you one more thing before I go?”

“Well, sure!”

I looked at her with complete sincerity and said, “You have really blessed me today. I didn’t know what to expect when I walked in, but listening to your stories has brought me joy.”

Her eyes welled-up with tears, and through a faint smile she said, “Well, maybe that’s why you are here. To tell me that I’m not worthless.”

I was stunned and broken hearted at the same time. “You are not worthless,” I insisted. “You are a bright light in this world, and you bring many people joy just by being here.”

“That’s it!”

She raised her hands in the air, slapped my leg, and look at me as if she had just won the lottery.

“Jesus sent you here to tell me that I’m not worthless! JESUS SENT YOU HERE! Jesus sent you here . . . to tell me that I’m not worthless! Thank-you Jesus! THANK-YOU JESUS! Thank-you Jesus.”

She grabbed my hands: “We have to pray now.”

“Thank-you Jesus for sending this young man to tell me that I’m not worthless. He is your messenger, and you have sent him to me today to cheer me up. I didn’t even know I needed cheering, but I did. Thank you for sending him to me. May his sweet face and gentle voice go and comfort others today. Thank-you Jesus.”

(Now I’m bawling like a baby.) She squeezes my hand and goes silent. That means it’s my turn.

“Thank-you Jesus for sending me to Lou. She has brought me so much joy in these few moments, and through her love you have reminded me of my calling. I didn’t know that I needed to hear it, but you have reminded me, too, that I’m not worthless. We are your children, you love us, and we have value. Thank-you Jesus. Amen.”

Still holding hands, we lifted our heads. As we looked into each other’s tear-fractured eyes, we both knew that we were beholding the face of Christ. The presence of the Holy Spirit was so palpable in that moment that I felt the world shift under my feet. It was one of those rare times when eternity breaks through the mundane and grace floods into your soul. We both experienced resurrection.

The irony in all of this doesn’t escape me. While God may have sent me to tell Lou that she was not worthless, God was reminding me that I’m not worthless either, and that I have been called to be a messenger of love and hope, especially to the lonely and forgotten. God was reminding me that sometimes the biggest blessings come when we are doing things that we aren’t particularly excited about doing, and that Christ is most powerfully present when people share their brokenness in moments of honesty.

Thank-you Jesus for sending Lou to me!

(The picture above is of items that Lou gave me during our visit.)

Stand By Me: We Need Good Friends

We need good friends and role models to break free from self-destructive patterns and discover God’s dream for our life. Hebrews 12:1 says, “Since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.

The promise in this passage is clear. If we surround ourselves with people who remind us of our deepest values and inspire us to live accordingly, then we find the power necessary to break free from mindsets and behaviors that hinder spiritual growth and undermine human flourishing. In contrast, if we live in isolation and try to overcome constraints by the force of our own willpower, then we wrestle with failure, discouragement and despair. Even worse, if we give ourselves to people who call forth our fear, suspicion, lust, greed, anger, hatred, and self-righteousness, then one day we will catch a shameful glimpse of ourselves in the mirror and wonder, “What kind of person have I become?”

In many ways, we become a reflection of the people with whom we associate. They can either call forth our best self or our worst self. In light of this truth, be intentional about investing time and energy in genuine communities of love. Give yourself to friends that will inspire and empower you to grow spiritually, emotionally, and intellectually. This is how we find the courage, strength, and hope to live a principled life that will honor our soul and be a blessing to others.

Why the Bible Is Important to Christians: Rethinking Scripture and Inspiration (Course in Understanding the Bible)

This is the fourth 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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Once we relinquish the illusion of biblical infallibility and study the process of traditioning that led to the development of the Christian canon (see “The Bible is Not Infallible” and “God Did Not Write the Bible“), we are faced with an important question: Is there a meaningful way to continue talking about the inspiration of scripture? I believe that the answer to this question is yes, and in what follows I offer a brief sketch of what this might look like.

What It Means to Call The Bible Scripture.  In the most basic sense of the term, scripture refers to a collection of writings that are normative for the church because they bear witness to the founding revelatory events on which the Christian tradition is based and to which it refers. While Christians trace their history through ancient Israel, they proclaim that the paradigmatic revelation of God happened in Jesus of Nazareth. So while the Old Testament is an indispensable part of the Christian Bible, the New Testament is given priority in Christian faith and practice because it focuses on this paradigmatic event. Furthermore, these normative texts function to perpetuate Christian faith and discipleship from one generation to another by preserving the memory of these originative events.

What It Means to Say That the Bible Is Inspired.  When we say that the Bible is inspired, we mean at least two things. First, we mean that the Spirit of God inspired people in ancient Israel and the early church to deeply reflect on personal and communal experiences of redemptive transformation and to preserve and communicate these reflections through oral and written traditions. Furthermore, we proclaim that the Spirit of God was at work in the traditioning process by which the Bible came to be to give future generations trustworthy testimony about God’s saving power in the world. Such a claim does not require one to believe that God bypassed or destroyed the humanity of the authors in miraculous interventions during composition. Rather, we might think of God’s activity as a creative, inspiring, guiding, and directing power that lured the authors toward certain insights and expressive ideals. While the documents that constitute the Bible were clearly written by human beings and share in the limitations of the cultures in which they were produced, we believe that they tell the truth about the human condition and God’s redemptive power in this world. Just as God did not have to dispense with the humanity of Jesus to bring us salvation, but worked in, with, and through his humanity to accomplish this purpose, so God does not have to dispense with the humanity of the biblical authors to ensure trustworthy testimony. This is at least part of what Christians mean when they say that the Bible is inspired. (For more on this subject, see the third essay in this collection, “God Did Not Write the Bible: The Formation of Scripture.”)

The second reason Christians say that the Bible is inspired is because we believe that God continues to use this collection of writings to evoke fresh disclosures of God and to mediate new experiences of redemptive transformation. In the power of the Holy Spirit, these texts not only tell stories of redemption in the past, but mediate redemption in the present. They become transparent to the presence and power they describe. As we read these stories of redemption and experience it for ourselves in the process, the trustworthiness of these texts is confirmed. We don’t trust the Bible because it is dictated by God to passive secretaries that are given the miraculous gift of infallible communication (see “The Bible is Not Infallible”). Nor do we claim that these texts are truthful because they constitute a compendium of inerrant scientific, historical, and moral facts (See “Going Fishing with Grandpa and Learning to Tell the Truth”). No, we trust these texts and the God revealed in and through them because they mediate the same kind of redemptive transformation that they describe.

So what do we mean when we say that the Bible is inspired? We mean that God worked in and through the telling and retelling, writing and rewriting, interpretation and reinterpretation of this collection of writings so that future generations would have faithful testimony of God’s saving power in Israel and the early church, testimony that the Spirit of God continues to use to mediate new experiences of redemption for the ongoing transformation of human life and community toward the ideals of the Kingdom of God.

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.