Most christians have been taught to reverence the Bible. This has been especially true of Protestant christianity. The Reformation was built on the doctrine of sola scriptura (by scripture alone). And when conservative christianity felt threatened by evolution, liberal theology and modernist thinking in the 19th century, it developed a statement of “the fundamentals”, one of which was the inerrancy of scripture.
It was designed to preserve the essentials of evangelical faith from attack. It probably did that for a while. Yet I believe it has contributed to a distortion of the Bible and the message of Jesus.
The logic of dogma
The distorting effects of the doctrine of inerrancy occur via several logical steps.
- If the whole Bible is without error, then every part of it must be consistent with every other part.
- There are many apparent anomalies – apparent differences in teachings and accounts of events – but these anomalies must be illusory.
- Therefore christians should seek explanations for apparent discrepancies, and find ways to fit all Biblical teachings into their doctrine.
- This is done by “comparing scripture with scripture”, and so re-interpreting some anomalous scriptures to conform with the clearer scriptures.
- In this way, the scriptures are harmonised.
That’s the theory. In reality, dogma is developed from a subset of the scriptures congenial to the doctrinal system, and difficult parts of the Bible get explained away. I recall one rather blatant example from my youth.
I had a Reformed commentary on 1 Timothy, and in chapter 2 it was faced with explaining “God our Saviour, who wants all people to be saved” (verses 3-4). This of course is a difficult text for reformed (Calvinist) theology, which holds that God only chooses some people for salvation. But the commentator had an “interesting” way to explain away this verse.
It started with 2:1, which urges “petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people”. The commentary suggested that none of us could possibly pray for “all people” (???), so clearly Paul meant “all kinds of people”. It wasn’t too difficult to accept that without thinking too hard. But that meant, when the commentator got to 2:3-4, he could draw on this conclusion and say that clearly Paul meant that God wants “all kinds of people” to be saved.
And so the supposedly infallible scriptures were changed in meaning to fit the commentator’s reformed theology.
Let me give five more serious examples from evangelical doctrine.
Five examples where the Bible is truncated
1. Scripture tells more than one story
The idea that the scriptures give consistent teaching from cover to cover is a modern western cover-up. They manifestly don’t. Examples of divergences are easy to find (see Reconstructing how we see the Bible) – here are just two:
- Chapters 1-12 of the book of Joshua narrate how the incoming Israelites totally defeated the Canaanites, with 31 cities named as being captured. But chapters 13-24 tell a different story, of slow assimilation with occasional battles. Nine cities which were earlier said to have been captured are now stated not to have been captured at all. There are two accounts, and the two tell quite different stories.
- There are numerous examples of teachings in the Law of Moses being changed and corrected by the prophets. One example is the Torah teaching that God will punish children for the sins of their fathers (Exodus 20:5, Deuteronomy 5:9), but Ezekiel (18:17-19) corrects this by saying God doesn’t do this.
This seems to have been how the Jewish people approached their faith. They allowed different teachings, different interpretations, to sit side by side, apparently to round out their perspective and understanding. The doctrine that all scripture tells one story is imposed by evangelicals on a Bible that is quite different.
And so we miss something of what God has given us in our scriptures.
2. The New Testament refines the Old
This is a particularly important example of the Bible telling more than one story.
When Jesus and the New Testament writers quoted the Old Testament, they did not always do it literally or accurately. Sometimes they omitted sections or changed the meaning significantly. Often they updated or developed the Old Testament teachings. They certainly didn’t treat it as a text that had one meaning that could never be changed or questioned. Three examples:
- Most of us are familiar with the fact that Jesus updated OT commandments on murder, adultery, divorce and revenge in Matthew 5, and established a new covenant in the Last Supper (Luke 22:20). But Paul also said the Old Testament Law, including the Ten Commandments, was now superseded by the way of Jesus and the Spirit (e.g. Romans 7:6-7, 2 Corinthians 3:6) and the writer of Hebrews says the old covenant in the Old Testament is “obsolete” (Hebrews 8:13).
- In John 10:34-36 Jesus quotes Psalm 82 totally out of context to make a completely different point to what it actually says. This was not an aberration, but part of the way Jewish teachers of his day used their scriptures.
- Both Jesus (in Luke 4:18) and Paul (in Romans 15:9-10, 12:19-21 and 3:10-18), when referencing Old Testament passages, omit sections or reinterpret them to remove sayings on God’s vengeance and instead stress God’s love, mercy and forgiveness and his intention to restore rather than punish.
These are important developments in God’s revelation, and we can easily miss them if we start from the dogmatic position that all scripture is equal and tells the one story.
3. Jesus’ mission was much more than to die for sin
Jesus’ atoning death on the cross is the key focus of evangelical teaching and evangelism. It is an important teaching, but this emphasis can easily obscure the fact that Jesus’ mission was even bigger than that.
When the earliest Gospel writer, Mark, records the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he describes it as the “good news” (the word was normally used for the announcement of the coming of a king) of the coming of the kingdom of God on earth (Mark 1:15). Scholars agree that the kingdom of God, not his atoning death, was Jesus’ main message, and that he saw himself as the Messiah, God’s agent in establishing his kingdom, or his reign on earth.
Luke elaborates on this when he records Jesus teaching in the Nazareth synagogue (Luke 4:18-21) and his answer to John the Baptist’s enquiry (Luke 7:20-22). In both cases Jesus describes his Messianic ministry as one of restoration – good news for the poor, healing for the sick, freedom for the oppressed, etc. God already rules in heaven, but now he calls us to join Jesus in bringing God’s rule of justice and peace on earth.
Of course atonement is a necessary part of that, but it isn’t anywhere near the whole picture. We are not just saved from sin and its consequences, but we are restored in our relationship with God and given the wonderful calling to bring justice and peace on earth. Paul sees the culmination of God’s kingdom as nothing less than the restoration of the whole universe (Romans 8:18-25).
The evangelical emphasis on sin and personal salvation obscures all this “grand plan”. It too easily leaves well-meaning christians sitting quietly in church and Bible study with their ticket to heaven clutched tightly in hand, and missing entirely that Jesus’ gospel is not just about their salvation, but about restoration and shalom. Passages calling for justice and mercy action are downplayed and the Bible’s and Jesus’ messages are distorted.
4. Grace, faith and works
Salvation by grace, through faith, is a fundamental of reformation theology and of the New Testament (e.g. Ephesians 2:8-9). But in their eagerness to avoid the excesses of the Roman Catholic church at the time, the reformers were so diligent in interpreting scripture in the light of their doctrines of sola fide and sola gratia that Protestant christians ever since have tended to ignore or downplay passages with a different message.
But there are plenty of scriptures that emphasise the importance of obedience and good deeds in the kingdom and in salvation, for example:
- In the parable of the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-46), Jesus says quite definitely and clearly that our eternal future depends on how we treated “the least of these” people.
- James says our faith is dead (and presumably useless) if it isn’t accompanied by good deeds (James 2:14-26).
- Jesus says he wants us to respond to him not just with words, but with deeds (Matthew 21:28-32), and the way we show our love for him is via obedience (John 15:10).
I have been considering this matter for some time, and don’t feel I have yet reached a satisfactory understanding of God’s requirements for faith and good deeds. But evangelical theology ignores the problem and the scriptures that challenge the prevailing evangelical dogma, and so presumably misses some of what Jesus wants us to know.
5. Theories of the atonement
Jesus died to save us from our sin. That is a fundamental christian truth. But how does it work?
The Bible only gives hints as to how it works:
- A sin sacrifice to satisfy God’s justice (e.g. Romans 3:25).
- A defeat for the devil and all evil (Hebrews 2:14-15).
- Jesus is our representative who opens up the way to eternal life for the rest of us (1 Corinthians 15:20-23).
- Jesus’ death is a loving example for us to follow (1 Peter 2:21).
All these ideas, and more (there are actually more than a dozen theories of how the atonement works) have been used by christians over two millennia to give different perspectives on the meaning of Jesus’ death.
Unfortunately, in the last century or so, the doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement (more or less corresponding to my #1 above) has been taken up by many conservative churches as the compulsory doctrinal explanation, with the result that other understandings can get lost. This despite the conclusion of such luminaries as CS Lewis, JI Packer and Leon Morris that no one explanation is compulsory and we need all explanations to have a balanced picture.
This is important!
These 5 issues are not trivial! They are key to an understanding of the Bible and Jesus, and our response.
And the common evangelical practice of re-interpreting anomalous scriptures to agree with their own dogma is leading to a truncated understanding of what God has done and is doing in the world.
It is no wonder that many christians are deconstructing their faith, reconsidering what is God’s truth and what is human dogma.
But we must be cautious. I believe much of what most of us have been taught (e.g. the teachings contained in the Apostles Creed) is still correct and found in scripture. For me, that reinforces the importance of also reconstructing our faith on a better foundation.
And that is what I am currently focusing on in this blog.
Read more about faith deconstruction and reconstruction
- Reconstructing how we see the Bible.
- Impossible things for many christians to believe any longer
- Deconstruction stories
- Faith deconstruction
- Losing my religion
- Evangelical, Liberal and Progressive Christianity – three diverging paths
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