The Bible and Me: Two Friends on a Curious Journey
By David L Rattigan
For all my teenage years the Bible was to me a textbook which, when studied correctly and all the pieces put together, would yield definitive answers to all our questions. If the Bible said it, I believed it. This is a popular way of looking at the Bible among evangelical-fundamentalists; even among scholars there are many who treat the Bible in such a fashion, such as Wayne Grudem, whose Systematic Theology treats every doctrine by giving the appropriate texts to bolster his case and then announcing his (foregone) conclusion a proven fact (only slightly more sophisticated than RA Torrey's volume from a century or so earlier, which literally consisted of brief statements of doctrine, one after the other, each followed by a list of quotations from Scripture as proof).
By the time I went to college, this understanding enabled me firmly to prove or disprove anyone else's doctrine. A strange-sounding teaching or some new (to me at least) theology could be dismissed in a trice with a citation from an appropriate passage. Even apparently inconsequential questions that the Bible hints at could be the subject of authoritative pronouncements.
It never occurred to me that most of my questions were strictly framed in reference to debates, controversies and modes of thought that were remote from the world of the Bible. Thus, it was easy to say that Arminianism provided the biblically correct view of salvation, and scarcely did the thought cross my mind that perhaps the Bible was never intended to address such simplistic either/or categories, or that both Arminianism and Calvinism might be equally wrong (even equally right).
Critics of the fundamentalist take on Scripture were harshly, and easily, dealt with. They were simply rebellious liberals who disbelieved God and ignored the firm evidence in favour of the Bible's absolute errorlessness: That x could very simply be harmonized with y; that the Bible clearly teaches y and z; that this or that historical, scientific or archaeological discovery proved beyond all doubt that the Bible is factual in every respect. Underneath the veneer of confidence, however, the prospect of meeting an opposing viewpoint or having someone produce some convincing-sounding evidence to the contrary was very intimidating indeed. At college, I would be careful which books I read (I could not even bring myself to pick up Spong's Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism), and if I ever began to have doubts, I would rush to the relevant evangelical sources to reassure myself. It was a great comfort to be able to turn to Norman Geisler or Wayne Grudem and discover that then Bible was 100 percent reliable in every detail.
At college, critical views of Scripture (or at least those that compromised the belief in inerrancy) were more often than not undermined, their fallacies routinely exposed without much of a problem. Some students occasionally forayed into a mildly critical view of Scripture on certain points, much to the displeasure of myself and most other students. But I was unprepared for the day when a friend of mine turned to me in the middle of a conversation and remarked that he had been reading Grudem's arguments for inerrancy and found them unconvincing. I brushed his concerns off, putting on a brave face and feigning absolute surety. Actually, I was quite shocked, not to mention threatened, by this candid admission by a student I had hoped was a straight-down-the-line, bona fide evangelical like myself. (At that time it did not seem that one could be an evangelical and not maintain the total inerrancy of the Scriptures.) I took it upon myself to pray for him from that day on, fearing that he was losing his faith, sliding down the slippery slope of liberalism, and ultimately in danger of losing his salvation. In retrospect it all seems so utterly ridiculous; yet that was the way my fundamentalist heritage had taught me to believe.
A seminal point in my thoughts about Scripture came at the end of my final year of college. My major thesis would be an examination of James Barr's critique of fundamentalism, in particular his objections to the doctrine of inerrancy. This brought me into contact with many less conservative, more liberal viewpoints, and I developed a passing infatuation with liberalism. Admittedly, my research was instrumental in bringing me round to a more conservative stance, probably due to Barr's straw man: He made evangelicals sound so blatantly foolish that when I started studying the evangelical scholars themselves, it was clear they offered a far saner and more reasonable version of inerrancy than Barr claimed. I also discovered that a number of evangelicals were engaged in biblical criticism, and a handful seemed exceptionally serious about the task (Moises Silva and Craig Blomberg, for example; Barr mentions FF Bruce and Donald Guthrie in a similar vein). My rather anomalous conclusion at the end of my study was that the Bible was inerrant, but that it was really an unimportant issue with hardly any practical bearing at all. This enabled me to hang onto the doctrine, and thus avoid the potential exile from the evangelical in-crowd that awaits one who admits the possibility of error, but not really allow it a great deal of sway in my thinking. Ultimately, I was hanging onto the doctrine simply out of convenience!
I was not able to see for some months the irony involved here: Why on earth would God give us an inerrant Scripture for no real reason whatsoever? If it was irrelevant, of no real consequence to the Christian faith, why would God go to such lengths? And, if 100 percent inerrancy was so crucial to the trustworthiness of Scripture, why had God allowed the original (and only existing inerrant) manuscripts to go missing? There was no biblical evidence for it, and no philosophical argument that would persuade me of the necessity of such a doctrine. Moreover, the amount of intellectual gymnastics required to maintain biblical inerrancy in the face of a host of discrepancies and factual errors was simply a waste of time, and it would be far more honest just to admit the possibility of a mistake when confronted with such evidence.
These thoughts remained at the back of my mind, unacknowledged, for a number of months, until one day I came out of my denial and audibly admitted to myself that the Bible was not inerrant. It seemed a huge step for me to confess this, for it meant that my future within evangelical ministry was now severely limited. It might even cast me as a heretic in the eyes of some of my fellow pastors.
One thing I had also come to recognize, however, was that the main problem with the fundamentalist view of Scripture was not inerrancy. In fact, though it is a necessary part of the fundamentalist mindset, it is not the defining characteristic. Rather, I go back to the comment I made right at the beginning of this essay: The defining characteristic of the fundamentalist view of Scripture is that it is seen in black-and-white terms, as a collection of teachings and facts which, when assembled in the correct fashion, will produce clear-cut, indisputable answers to our questions. To all intents and purposes, the Bible is a textbook to be scientifically analyzed in the quest for certainty.
The reason that this, rather than inerrancy, is to be thought of as the most important underlying principle of the fundamentalist view of Scripture is that it is, I think, possible to hold the inerrantist view without acceding to the corresponding black-and-white view of its contents and purpose. This is in fact precisely what I did for a number of months: I clung zealously to inerrancy whilst continuing on my voyage of discovery of a book that was ambiguous, often strange and puzzling, multi-layered and full of unanswered questions and uncertainties.
This awareness came to me when, during my first ministerial position, I found myself in conflict with my senior pastor over a particular doctrine. I felt that I should come clean that I had reservations about this particular teaching, since it was a central plank of the denomination's teaching (though it was my understanding that some variations were permitted among leaders). When a brief discussion failed to yield any understanding, I offered to write a paper on the subject, detailing my views and why I thought they were scriptural. I sent the paper to one of my teachers (a doctor of theology and a minor player in the Luke-Acts dialogue within evangelicalism, which arena of discourse had significant bearing on the particular doctrine under discussion), who thought it a lucid and sound interpretation of Scripture.
The senior pastor, however, was not so impressed. He railed against my paper on several points, actually misconstruing totally what I had said, and demonstrating a profound ignorance and quite puzzling obtuseness. He cited supposed contradictions in what I had written, though they were actually quite deliberate ambiguities. Given his ignorance on a number of key points, I felt it futile to argue at length, since he failed to even understand my terms. He did, however, assert that his doctrine was the correct one (in fact, my problem was that I had not provided anything quite so clear-cut, merely an analysis of the biblical data with a few assertions at the end that fell short of a full-orbed doctrine), and he quoted Paul: "If on some point we see differently, that too God will make clear to you"; to which he added the interpretive comment (in reference to himself), "I'm right and you're wrong."
This was a pivotal moment in my understanding of the nature of Scripture. It became clear to me that my major contention was with the kind of perspective on Scripture that fails to acknowledge more than one way of looking at things, that makes ostensibly indisputable claims for particular doctrines and refuses to acknowledge any ambiguities in the biblical text. My faith was beginning to head in new directions, to a place where I was unwilling glibly to write off any and every new insight into Scripture and paper over every Bible problem; I was ready to shed my evangelical presuppositions in order to take seriously elements of the Bible that I had not felt able to acknowledge before. Many of the previous certainties were now held tentatively. I was open to new ideas, and was not ready to ignore any potentially strange or novel strands of thought that came to me through the Bible.
This led to some interesting and fruitful opportunities to minister in a new way to other believers. When a young congregant engaged me in a conversation about hell and God's sovereignty, among other thing, I was able to throw up a whole range of scriptural possibilities, and incite him to an exciting exploration that required a bit of imagination and some serious reflection on the various clues the Bible gives us as to what God is like and how he works. On another occasion, when a new believer asked me where Cain's wife came from, I offered a number of suggestions including, rather hesitantly, the possibility that the writer of Genesis had given us a very inadequate account of the beginning of things, and perhaps had even made an error or slip somewhere along the line. Such an admission seems petty, but could conceivably landed me in a lot of trouble had the suggestion reached the ears of the senior pastor and been interpreted as a flat-out denial of the Bible's reliability!
The final few months in that position, however, proved frustrating. The weekly Bible study was led by a layman whose interpretation of Scripture led him to utter certainty about any number of matters, including (his pet subject) the sequence of events in the endtimes. During those gatherings the Bible was routinely used as justification for a right-wing political agenda, for every manner of fundamentalist and charismatic doctrine and dogma, and was scarcely open to anything other than a crudely literalistic interpretation. Every question, whether it be to do with the origin of dinosaurs, the validity of homosexual rights, or the place of Saddam Hussein within the eschatological scheme of things, could be answered once for all with recourse to the relevant Bible verse. An atmosphere was engendered where there was no place for any insight I might have. Indeed, I could hardly throw in an "aberrant" insight just here and there, because this kind of approach to Scripture was not just one isolated doctrine that could be taken away, leaving everything else intact: It constituted a worldview, a whole way of looking at the world, and to think outside of its confines was nothing other than alien to these fundamentalists.
Having been brought up to view Scripture through one particular lens, I was discovering that most of the categories evangelicals tend to assign to Scripture are simply foreign to Scripture itself. I have had to redefine my view of Scripture. In keeping with the tone of the Bible itself, this new perception is perhaps ambiguous.
Frankly, it is a waste of time to argue from the Bible's claims about itself. It is a circular argument that can only ever be of value to someone who accepts it as God's word in the first place. As a matter of honesty, I would have to say that I continue to regard the Bible as God's word simply because I am a Christian. Because the Spirit came to me and billions of other Christians through the centuries and revealed Christ to me through the Scriptures, it is axiomatic for me to see the Bible as a unique source of revelation, the medium through which God speaks to the Church. It is the word of God to me because it has done for me exactly what it claims to do: It has brought me to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ (2 Timothy 3:15; I owe this insight to Clark Pinnock). And what else does the Bible claim to do or be? A manual giving step-by-step instructions for life? An exhaustive exposition of the core doctrines of the Christian faith? How much simpler it would be if that were all true. How much easier it would be to settle arguments and prove points if the Bible just set down for us in the easiest way possible all the right answers to all the right questions, if it delivered straightforward statements of fact on every moral and spiritual question.
But when we look at the Scriptures, we come away with a very different picture. We see a ragbag collection of hints, clues, thoughts, traditions, stories, myths, histories, interpretations, homilies, speculations, complaints, questions, comments, pictures, symbols, metaphors and teachings. Some of those things give a very clear message, others deliver us even more questions and uncertainties, while some give us snippets that bring us a little nearer to knowing God and who he is, even if we can't nail it down to a single, tidy dogma.
Either we retreat to a make-believe world of certainty and inerrancy and live with our illusions of absolute perfection and surety, or we accept that, like it or lump it, God has chosen to communicate to us through this peculiar, often strange, eclectic collection of books and letters known as the Bible. I opt for the latter.
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