Last post I described how I have been on a journey working out what I think is true, or not, about the Old Testament. This post I try to draw some conclusions.
The choice that is no choice for me
It seems to me we have a clear choice. Either we assume from the start that the Bible is inerrant and not to be judged by science and history, or we resist forming a judgment until we have assessed all the evidence. Other christians may be able to start with that assumption, but I cannot.
I have written elsewhere why I don’t think inerrancy can be assumed. Here’s a brief summary of the reasons:
- The Bible doesn’t claim to be inerrant – the belief is based on the view that inspiration implies God’s perfect authorship.
- Jesus and the NT writers respected the authority of the Jewish scriptures that form our Old Testament, but didn’t seem to treat it as inerrant.
- Inerrancy, as it is understood today, has not been the unanimous view of all christians through history.
- Christian today believe some things and explain others away, so inerrancy seems to be more a catchcry than a practically believed doctrine.
- The Old Testament doesn’t seem to be inerrant when we read it, and scholars confirm that it isn’t.
So how do we come to the ‘right’ view?
Start with the best evidence from the scholars
It is tempting for both sceptics and believers alike to draw on the sub-group of scholars they find most congenial to their wishes and views. But as always, it seems best to begin with the conclusions of the broad consensus of scholars.
Faith is a legitimate response
But we don’t have to end with the scholars. There is much that scholarship leaves as an open question. Just as it is legitimate for sceptics to reject all that isn’t established by historical scholarship, it is legitimate for christians to build on the strong historical evidence for Jesus, and follow Jesus in treating the Old Testament as inspired scripture, even if we don’t conclude that it is all historical.
CS Lewis to the rescue!
I have long been a fan of CS Lewis. He was a thoughtful christian with a broad classical education who was willing to base his christian belief on the evidence. In reference to the Old Testament, he was very well-read in ancient history, literature and myth.
He proposed the following approach to the Old Testament 70 years ago (in Is Theology Poetry?, a paper given at Oxford University in 1944), and I still find it to be the one that best fits the evidence:
The earliest stratum of the Old Testament contains many truths in a form which I take to be legendary, or even mythical – hanging in the clouds, but gradually the truth condenses, becoming more and more historical. From things like Noah’s Ark and the sun standing still upon Ajalon, you come down to the court memoirs of King David. Finally you reach the New Testament and history reigns supreme, and the Truth is incarnate. ….. what is everywhere and always, imageless and ineffable, only to be glimpsed in dream and symbol and the acted poetry of ritual becomes small, solid – no bigger than a man who can lie asleep in a rowing boat on the Lake of Galilee.”
So what does this mean?
I wouldn’t want to be prescriptive, for our assessments are all provisional. But here is a first assessment, based on the conclusions of scholars:
- Genesis 1-11 is myth or legend.
- Abraham, Moses, Joshua and the rest of the gang were probably real people, but many of the stories told about them are legendary or exaggerations. Some call this saga-like material “fictionalised history”.
- From the time of King David, the historical material is much more prominent and the legendary material much less.
- By the time of the New Testament, we are in the realm of history, with some minor inaccuracies and just a few non-historical ‘pious stories’.
What do we lose if this is true?
Christianity is the new covenant
Jesus said at the Last Supper that he was initiating a new covenant, replacing the old one. The new covenant is found in the New Testament (the word ‘testament’ is probably better translated as ‘covenant’). Very little in the classical creeds is based on the Old Testament.
The OT is scripture, showing God’s dealings with people and his preparation for the coming of Jesus, which can only be fully understood in the light of the OT. But Christian belief is not dependent on a particular view of the Old Testament.
In his two books Peace Child and Eternity in Their Hearts, Don Richardson discusses how many cultures and tribal groups have stories in their culture that point towards God and to some aspects of christian belief. He calls these “redemptive analogies” and believes they were placed there by a loving God to point pagan peoples to him.
We can think of the whole OT as a huge redemptive analogy – a story on a grand scale that points us to God and to the son he sent into the world. But it is important to note that, like a parable, a redemptive analogy works whether the story is factually true, or just a story, or a mixture of the two.
So I have come to believe that christians should accept what the consensus of scholars tells us about the OT, and not worry too much about which bits are historical and which bits are not. Again, CS Lewis had some wise words to someone who was worried about not knowing (from a letter written in 1952):
The Bible, read in the right spirit and with the guidance of good teachers, will bring us to Him. When it becomes really necessary (i.e. for our spiritual lfe, not for controversy or curiosity) to know whether a particular passage is rightly translated or is myth (but of course myth especially chosen by God from among countless myths to carry a special spiritual truth) in history, we shall no doubt be guided to the right answer.”
So what is ‘inspiration’?
2 Timothy 3:16 describes the scriptures as being “God-breathed”, sometimes translate as “inspired”. I have suggested in What does the Bible say about itself? that the more normal meaning of these words might be to say that God gave inspiration to the authors and breathed life into their writings
I think we can quite easily believe in the inspiration of scripture without concluding that they must be mistake-free.
Why would God work this way?
This question seems to trouble some people. They think it would be more logical if God simply revealed himself in clear, error-free, unmistakable ways. I guess that’s natural, but why should we think it likely we’ll understand how God will choose to work? Surely better is to accept the way he has apparently chosen to work and try to understand as best we can?
My best guess is that God has chosen to make us “in his likeness” as it says in Genesis 1. This means we are autonomous beings, able to make rational and ethical choices and live with the responsibility of those choices. To do this, he has kept himself a little less obvious, and given this universe a great deal of autonomy:
- creation by the operation of carefully designed laws of physics since the big bang;
- creation of life and humanity via evolution;
- creation of each individual human being by sexual reproduction;
- when he enters the world, it is by becoming an insignificant baby;
These are all processes set up by God but operating by natural laws without obvious interference by him. (This isn’t to say that he doesn’t interfere, only that he does it subtly, not in a grandiose way. I believe God still works through healing miracles, visions and other forms of direct guidance, but I believe he does this quietly and discreetly.)
It seems to me that believing the Bible is a human document inspired by God and achieving his purposes is in keeping with this understanding of God’s ways.
So how does it work out in practice?
Some christians are critical of CS Lewis, but it is probably fair to say that he was the most influential English speaking christian of the 20th century, and his influence continues. He had an enormously beneficial ministry through his books. So it is hard to see that this belief about the Old Testament harmed his faith or ministry.
Peter Enns and Dennis Lamoureux are christian scholars who, while they may not believe in the approach I adopt here, hold views that are somewhat similar and compatible with it. Their writings show that believing the OLd Testament is less than inerrant doesn’t stop someone having a warm faith.
I have to say the same about myself. I have prayed, read and thought about these ideas for several years. I don’t find myself believing in Jesus less or following him less. I feel at peace in my mind.
None of this makes it true of course. But it is reassuring. We can have a more flexible view of the Old Testament and still seek to “see him more clearly, follow him more nearly and love him more dearly”.
I still have much to learn about this subject, and no doubt much to refine. But I conclude that belief and apologetics would be on a better footing if christians reconsidered their view of the nature of scripture.
I guess some christians will read this post with dismay. I am sorry about that, but I can only ask that you pray about and consider these ideas and not come to a quick judgment.
And I’d be very interested in feedback please.
None of us is an island. We need each other, and we need the discernment of the Spirit. Let’s share in this together.