I began this blog almost 4 years ago with a post that included this comment:
“In recent years I have met, mostly on the web but also in person, many believers who struggle with some aspects of their faith that they feel no longer seems right. They don’t have significant doubts about Jesus, but they do have doubts about some of what they have been taught.”
In the subsequent 4 years, many christians have emailed me via this blog, asking questions about their faith. For some it has been some doctrines that didn’t cause them to doubt Jesus, but for some, unanswered questions about the Bible have led them to the edge of the cliff of giving up their faith.
It seems there is a growing crisis of faith in the Bible, and there is more than one way to respond. Which way is right?
Traditional evangelicalism, US style
The most usual evangelical response is to urge christians to hold onto faith in the Bible as the inerrant Word of God.
In this view, God wants us to know the truth with full assurance, so we can live and believe rightly, to his glory. So God caused people through more than a millennia to write down their history, prophecies and revelation of him, and he made sure they made no mistakes and wrote exactly what he wanted said. Thus the Bible is perfect in every way, though of course it doesn’t give answers to lots of questions.
If we have any doubts or if any teachings appear to contradict, we have the intellectual ability to compare scripture with scripture and probably work out the right answer. If we can’t, we nevertheless just have to hold on to the Bible as God’s Word.
What follows from this view
Some things seem to follow quite clearly from this view:
- The Bible is the main reason to believe in God. We don’t need science or history to confirm the Bible, it stands as God’s truth. But this means that if a christian starts to have doubts about the Bible, their whole faith becomes problematic.
- We have to be able to be able to explain every apparent inconsistency if we want to answer sceptics’ questions. We may be happy to have unexplained difficulties, but this won’t satisfy others.
- We will have to accept some hard and difficult teachings. For example, we’ll somehow have to maintain God is loving and he nevertheless commanded terrible killings in the Old Testament. God is good, even if it doesn’t look like it to us.
- If the Bible and science disagree then the science must be wrong. For example, in the case of evolution, scientists may be refusing to accept the truth that God has revealed, or else God has made the world look as if it is old when it isn’t, to “deceive the wise in their craftiness”.
- If we do accept evolution, then a whole lot of other “compromises” will be difficult to avoid, for example:
- DNA and other evidence suggests that humans descended from some other hominoids sometime in the last 200,000 years. There isn’t a clear physical differentiation, though there may be a clear spiritual one.
- Animal predation was occurring before humans, so we cannot account for it by human sin and “the Fall”.
- The DNA evidence suggests there was not a single Adam and Eve.
- If the Adam and Eve story isn’t literal, but mythical, then the doctrines of the Fall and original sin come into question.
The big problem
These consequences create a quandary. Most christians would prefer to keep on believing what they have been taught, but many want answers to their questions which that view doesn’t provide.
This dilemma tears many people in two. They can’t, in honesty, just ignore the apparent inconsistencies and the problems in the Bible, but questioning the inerrancy of the Bible means questioning the very basis of their faith and themselves.
When a person gets to this point, their christian friends often can no longer help them. The doubting christian needs to find good reasons to believe in the Bible, while their faithful christian friend can say little more than “Just keep on believing the Bible is inerrant”.
There has to be a better way
Inerrancy is not a Biblical doctrine, it is a doctrine of faith. While it has been held by some christians (certainly not the majority) throughout the two millennia of christianity, it was only fully formulated by the Catholic church in 1962 and by evangelical Protestants in 1978.
But if it is not a Biblical doctrine, and only a recently formulated doctrine, why should any christian believe it? And why should any christian be required to believe it?
This is not the place to fully discuss the doctrine (I will be doing that later). But I suggest the starting point for christians facing the dilemma I have described is to look at the reasons to believe in God and to follow Jesus without any specific assumption of inerrancy.
If we read the Bible, learn from the experts and pray for the Holy Spirit’s guidance, where do we end up?
Taking a fresh look at the Bible
Because I have had a number of emails asking me about these matters, I have re-structured this blog as a website with a new home page and a series of pages on key topics which I am gradually adding to.
I hope in this way to make it easier for readers to find suggestions on how to approach some of these difficult topics. If you are one of these people, please check them out.
The first two new pages are about the Bible, and address the following issues:
- If we don’t assume the Bible is the Word of God, why should we believe it at all? There are actually good reasons to believe it tells us important truths about God – see Why believe in the Bible? – though we may believe in it in a different way.
- If we want to follow what the best scholars have found, what should we believe about the New Testament? What we find is much more encouraging than discouraging to faith – see What the scholars tell us about the New Testament.
All this leads me to another way of looking at the Bible.
God created a universe which he knew would lead to the evolution of human beings and civilisations. When the time was right, God began to inject himself into this maelstrom of events and beliefs in subtle ways so that we remain free to choose. One nation, the Jews, responded much more than others, and God revealed his power (through the early Jews), later his ethics (through the prophets), later his love and grace (through Jesus, whose life, death and resurrection are the key moment in history and the means by which we can receive forgiveness), later the freedom he offers (through the Holy Spirit).
The people who received these revelations were inspired by God to write their experiences and revelations down. They recorded what they were learning but their understanding wasn’t always complete. And so we got the Bible. God uses the Bible, interpreted by the Holy Spirit, to reveal truth about him to us (if we don’t allow the Spirit to interpret it we will likely get the message wrong), but he reveals truth through the Spirit in other ways too – through circumstances, through science, through visions and words.
Different Bible, same Jesus
In this picture, the Bible is still an authoritative document, it still reveals truth to us through the grace of the Holy Spirit and it still gives us guidelines on how to follow Jesus in our lives and words. But we are no longer under an obligation to defend every difficulty. Instead we are free to accept what good historians say about it and see this in the context of when it was written.
And we still believe in Jesus, though we will understand him a little differently – a little better in fact.
I will be continuing to explore how we should look at the Bible, and how we should address difficult issues, in the days ahead. Please stay tuned and please join in the discussion.