Freedom in Christ! Unfortunately many of us have experienced a restricted version of Paul’s idea that goes something like this…there is freedom in Christ as long as you believe the same things I do.
One issue where I have experienced a lack of freedom is the issue of inspiration of the Bible. I don’t have the space necessary to make a comprehensive case for what I am about to write but allow me to write a testimonial and a small sample of the issue. To begin, the Bible does not clearly define inspiration nor how it is inspired. So, we as humans, are left to theorize what it means to be inspired and how inspiration works. For years, I have wrestled with the whole idea of inspiration and I have struggled with the concept and term inerrancy, particularly because I do not believe in dictation theory inspiration of the Bible. By inerrancy, I mean a common idea in conservative churches that the Bible is completely free from any and all errors. By dictation theory, I mean a view that believes God inspired human writers in the sense of supplying them with the actual words.
I firmly believe the Bible bears witness to the Word of God and I believe the Bible is inspired but I do not think the Bible supports a dictation theory and I do not like the term inerrancy. My journey on this issue began about eight years ago as I took a PhD class on the Synoptic Gospels. In the class, we compared and contrasted every single word in the Gospel accounts and when the week long intensive campus course was completed, my view of how the Bible was inspired was never the same. It seems very apparent to me that Matthew and Luke used Mark as a source. There is no question that each author takes the words and stories about Jesus and reapplied them to new situations and gave them new meanings. We are even left asking, “what did Jesus actually say” versus “what was attributed to Jesus” because so many of his words are shaped by the authors. From that class, I no longer believed that every word in the Bible was dictated from God to human writers, which is encouraging because humans were doing heavy reflection on life and the community spurred on by their faith in God.
My issue is not so much inerrancy as—dictation theory. I hear many very conservative Christians who claim they do not believe the Bible was dictated but then argue for a form of dictation inspiration. First, it is impossible to have a completely error-less Bible without some form of dictation theory. Even a lesser version of inspiration known as “verbal plenary theory” assumes some kind of dictation in order for the very words to be inspired and error free. My critics often counter with statements like this, “If the Bible even contains one thing that is not true, then the whole thing is not true because God is truth and the Bible is his word.” While I agree that God is true and also truth, there is an assumption behind this statement that Scripture itself doesn’t support. The assumption is that God must have somehow dictated Scripture or that every word in scripture is somehow directly from God since the Bible is his Word. I agree God is true but God himself did not personally write the Bible…humans did! I know of no perfect or infallible human being and yet proponents of inerrancy demand that the Bible, which was written, collected, and edited by humans be perfect and free from errors. The only way such could be possible is for the Bible to have been directly dictated by God. There appears to be portions of Scripture that were dictated by God (Decalogue, some of the words from the prophets, etc). However, God did not write down those but allowed humans to contemplate, arrange, reflect, interpret, and compile. So, Scripture itself does not support a comprehensive dictated collection. Further, the definition of inerrancy does not accurately describe the various kinds of phenomenon, particularly related to ancient ways of thinking, that we find in Scripture. Inerrancy is a modern style of thinking that cannot account for such ancient ways of thinking.
As you can see from this small sample, the issue is rather complex and too large for a small article. What is not too small is the lack of freedom in the church to freely explore this topic. My view has brought a lot of criticism. I have been unasked from speaking engagements, Gospel meetings, and even employment. When people lay the charge “He doesn’t believe in biblical inerrancy” it is difficult to recover. Permit me to cite an example of how exclusive the topic can be. Garland Robinson, editor for Seek The Old Paths, once responded to a blog I wrote and his response is a classic example of those who hold to a certain theory of inspiration and then draw lines of fellowship over their theory. His reasoning goes like this, “All Scripture is inspired by God” (per 2 Tim) and adds, “we can say with confidence that all Scripture is Inspired and Inerrant…who else is to say which parts are inspired and which are not.” He builds a circular straw man by prooftexting an assortment of texts to back up his claim. His logic works like this, John 17:17 (“thy word is truth”) + 2 Tim 3:16 (“All Scripture is inspired”) + 1 Pet 1:21 (“no prophecy of Scripture is of private interpretation…but holy men were moved by the Spirit”) + John 14:26 (“I will bring all things to remembrance”) = the Bible is inspired and inerrant because the Bible says it is inspired and it is truth. Technically, the Bible itself doesn’t say anything. You’ll note that all of his scriptural citations assume a flat Bible passages can be cut from this context and that context to form a universal teaching. My first question is, “do those passages, in their original context, mean the same thing that you are claiming they mean?” What does John mean when he says “your word?” Robinson simply assumes that John 17:17 refers to the entire Bible but is that what John was intending in that context? What did Paul count as “All Scripture” when he wrote to Timothy? It seems he meant what we call the Old Testament. When Peter wrote of holy men being moved by the Spirit did that apply to all Scripture or just prophecy? Did Jesus’ promise in John 14:26 apply to the writing of Scripture? Robinson flatly connects these verses without any consideration for their context and makes anachronistic applications and binds it as a comprehensive “the Bible says…” Robinson concludes that my belief is “disdain for God’s Word,” “sowing discord” which demands marking, rebuke, and withdrawal of fellowship. Here’s the problem. First, Robinson does not understand my point and makes no effort to try. He is writing to condemn and quotes me only to accuse (and falsely at that). Second, I still believe the Bible is a faithful witness to God, I still read Scripture, believe in it, and preach and teach it. I simply believe Scripture is a faithful witness to God and a record of his will and that forcing it to fit a definition that humans create is not being submissive to what Scripture really is. I do not feel Robinson, and others who want to accuse, really understand what the Bible is. Others love to publicly put me on the spot with a loaded question, “Do you believe the Bible is inerrant?” I don’t like the term, so I don’t want to say “yes.” Yet, saying “no” usually creates an instant wall that makes an attempt at explanation or defense impossible. Robinson and I do not disagree on the inspiration of the Bible. We disagree on our theories for how the Bible is inspired. He appears to believe in a form of dictation theory that I cannot accept because the text itself doesn’t support it. Further, he appears to be completely unaware that his view is theoretical but appears to think it is his task to call out anyone who disagrees with his opinion. However, those like him are willing to draw lines of fellowship over a theory of inspiration and I am not. I do not have a problem with biblical inspiration nor am I trying to throw away the Bible, as those like Robinson accuse. I have a problem with assumptions and definitions of inspiration that do not coincide with the biblical evidence.
I have come to believe that the Bible can be inspired and a faithful witness to God without having to be inerrant. I believe Paul’s words to Timothy that “Scripture is inspired and profitable for teaching, correction, reproof, and training that a person may be complete and equipped for every good work.” I would even apply Paul’s words to what we call the New Testament. Critics usually argue that any evidence of error means the whole Bible cannot be trusted but is this really true? Is it fair? Democrats often accused President Reagan of not caring for the poor when he demanded more fiscal responsibility. Republicans often accused President Obama of trying to make the USA a Muslim nation. It is unfair and frankly foolish to take a person’s stance and paint it to the extreme.
Here are my issues with dictation theories of inspiration. First, inerrancy and inspiration are often understood and defined from philosophical beliefs outside the biblical text instead of being view from within the biblical text. I usually hear John 17:17 thrown around (“sanctify them in the truth, your word is truth”). Scot McKnight and NT Wright have done a fabulous service to the church by arguing that we need to understand the term “Gospel” the way biblical authors intended. I agree and argue the same investigative inquiry for the term “Word of God.” Here’s is where I differ from the critics. “Word” in John 17:17 is not synonymous with the Bible. Usually the phrase “Word” in Scripture does not refer to written word but spoken word (see John Walton’s The Lost World of Scripture for a great discussion on this issue). What’s the difference? The “word of God” was often an event or a personal encounter between God and humans. This original “Word” was often passed on orally for generations and generations before it was written. Imagine how details would change or things would be remembered differently. In our modern era, we think written text but the ancients worked with an oral mindset so exact details were not as important as getting the gist of the bigger picture. Everything we have in the Bible is a secondhand recording of the original “word of God” moment. So the Bible is really a record of the Word of God (and I believe a faithful record). While the logic that God does not lie or err and therefore the Bible does not contain errors may sound like a great logical point, the assumption is that God was so involved in the process as to select, ensure, and approve every word in the Bible (else how can fallible humans produce an infallible Bible?). John 14:26 (HS as dictator) is assumed to be the modus operandi for all Scripture but the Bible gives other modes as well. For instance, Luke thought it “seemed to me” to compile an account of Jesus (Luke 1:1-4) contra other places in Acts, such as 15:28 where “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit.” He admits to receiving his information from second hand sources and doing to work himself with no dictation from God or relying on the “remembrance from the Holy Spirit.” There is heavy human fingerprint in the Bible. I seriously doubt most authors even knew their writings would be collected and one day considered Scripture. I know of no one who would argue that a Christian must be free from error to faithfully represent God or else God cannot be trusted. So why do we argue that a collection of books written and edited by human authors has to be perfect or else none of it can be true. So the entire issue revolves around the question, “What really is the Bible?” and “how did the Bible come to be the Bible?” I believe the entire issue of inerrancy oversimplifies the Bible, avoiding any consideration of what the Bible is and how it came to be. Rather, it is simply assumed that the Bible fell from heaven fully assembled in the form it is today. In the end, the Bible became Sacred writings because God’s people accepted the writings as sacred.
I wish people could and would be more open minded. I do not question the truth of the Bible. I simply do not think the Bible, as a whole, was dictated by God or the Holy Spirit. I hate it when people say I do not believe in the Bible or believe in the inspiration of Scripture. My issue is not the Bible. I don’t accept or operate under the assumptions that humans create…and that is what we call freedom. Freedom in Christ is where we believe that Jesus is King and live our life in allegiance to him. Freedom in Christ is not socially forcing others to believe the same theories, inferences, and other human-made opinions through false accusations or exclusion…especially if we have never explored all the information or our own assumptions. Freedom can only exist when we are willing to humbly admit we might not have it all figured out.