“What is the Bible and what do we do with it?” This is a question that one of my favorite scholars, Peter Enns, asks and attempts to answer regularly. Some may be tempted to say that the answer is simple: The Bible is the inspired word of God and its purpose is to tell us what to do. You know the old adage, the Bible stands for, “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.” Silver bullets are nice. The problem is, they’re few and far between. In this instance, this supposed simple answer to a supposed simple question is inadequate to address something as complex as the Bible. We may be inclined to ask what it even means that the Bible is inspired by God. Further, can the 66 books in the Protestant Bible really be described as “basic instructions”? Better yet, could the first five books in our Bibles be described as purely instructive, even if just for Israel? Surely so! After all, they are referred to as “the law” and the purpose of laws is, at least in part, to tell us what to do.
What we will see in this series is that the Bible is far from a collection of literature simply meant to give us instruction. Specifically, we will see that not even the Torah can be thought of in purely instructional terms. The Torah, like the rest of Scripture, is a depiction of humanity’s journey in coming to know God and its ultimate purpose is to point us to the Word of God, Jesus Christ. The Old Testament in general is a theological journey. It is written, arguably, over the course of roughly 1,000 years and covers events that span even farther. Different thoughts about God are represented, much of which are drastically influenced by culture and circumstance. These thoughts can stand in tension and even in contradiction with one another at times. Understanding this reality is essential to understanding the Torah specifically, the Old Testament more broadly and the entire Bible ultimately.
My assertions inevitably lead to discussions of biblical inspiration. What does it mean that the Bible is inspired? Some hold to what is commonly referred to as inerrancy. Advocates of this position state that, in the original manuscripts, every single word was unilaterally dictated by God. In this paradigm, the Bible is accurate in all it addresses, whether that be science, sociology, theology, morality or anything else. Therefore, in the entirety of the Bible what we have is unilaterally dictated revelation from God. God would never lie, and would certainly never be mistaken, so everything presented in the Bible regardless of subject is wholly accurate, or so the argument goes. Every piece of literature in the Bible, then, is not at all human reflection on the Divine or an interpretation of Divine revelation but is rather, again, unilaterally dictated revelation from God himself. Consequently, the Bible does not contain any errors: All depictions of God are cohesive, all science is irrefutable, and all thoughts are consistent with one another. We do not find contradicting thoughts about God within the pages of Scripture, as all revelation in Scripture must be internally constant. This is the essential premise of the doctrine of inerrancy. And this is how many Christians in the West have thought about the Bible since arguably the Protestant Reformation.
To put it bluntly, I do not think inerrancy is the best way to think about the Bible. I do not think the Bible God gave us is “inerrant” as modern theologians have come to define the term. Upon examining Scripture on its own terms and in its own context, I believe we find something much different. As opposed to Scripture being exclusively God’s communication to us, it is rather both God’s communication to us and human reflection on that communication. This means that not all ideas about God in Scripture, particularly in the Old Testament, stand in unison. Depending on the time and circumstances in which a text was produced, the biblical authors demonstrate a range of ideas and thoughts about God and the world.
As time goes on throughout Israel’s history, God progressively reveals himself to his elect people. Their theology develops over time and is eventually much different come Second Temple Judaism than in the days of the patriarchs. As they come to know God more fully, the Israelites inevitably see him differently. It is similar to how a child sees her father; her perspective will change as she comes to know him, but he is still the same person. God doesn’t change, but Israel’s thoughts about him do. I will demonstrate this throughout the series.
For now, there are two indispensable implications to what I have said concerning biblical inspiration:
1) There is a human element to Scripture. It is both a human and a Divine product. The Bible is ultimately from God and is God’s gift to the church, but that reality alone does not predicate for us particular nuances regarding the doctrine of inspiration.
2) As I have made clear, ideas about God throughout Scripture can change. Jesus is the perfect revelation from God and all previous revelation must bow to him. I have written more about that here.
This article will serve as a short introduction to various other concepts we will explore in the coming days:
1) The concept of progressive revelation and Israel’s not-so-unique place within the ancient Near East. What do other ancient Near Eastern documents tell us about Israel’s Scriptures? What does the presence of theological diversity and ancient cosmology within the Torah tell us about the Bible itself?
2) Yahweh as being God among gods. Do other deities exist? Monotheism was not always present within Israelite theology.
3) Retribution theology. Israel eventually comes to question the idea that God always rewards those who are obedient and punishes those who are disobedient. Do good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people?
4) Sacrifice. How do thoughts about sacrifice change throughout Israel’s history? Does God desire animal sacrifices at all?
5) God is perfectly revealed in Christ. What does that mean for us concerning violent depictions of God in the Torah and rest of the Old Testament?
“What is God like?” This is the question humans have had on their minds from the beginning of civilization. We still ask that exact question! Israel’s theological progressions and diversity demonstrate for us that even they were asking that very question. It is in Christ that we find the answer all of humanity, including ancient Israel, has searched for. I hope you will be fascinated, as I am, by examining Israel’s journey in coming to know God. And I hope this series will help to give us all a better sense of the nature and purpose of Scripture, that being to point to Jesus.
I look at ancient Israel as God’s people, I see much of myself. I struggle with
God: I ask questions and have doubts. My thoughts about God have changed since
my childhood. Nonetheless, I still trust in the righteousness of God. He is the
sovereign creator of the universe and Jesus Christ is Lord of all. I’m not
always the follower of Jesus that I should be, but his grace is enough in the absence
of my perfection. Israel was the same way; God fulfilled his covenant through
them, despite their imperfection, when he brought about the Messiah that would
bless all the nations of the world.
. Yes, there are those who give credence to the term “inerrancy” while defining it in a plethora of ways, most of which are not compatible with its most popular definition. Thus, I am using the term here as it is defined in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.
. The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, Article VI.
. Ibid., Article III.
. Ibid., Article V. a