In the summer of 2012, I had to face the Bible class I had taught for two years and announce that I wasn’t sure if I believed in God anymore. In fact, I was basically sure I didn’t. I’ve always tried to be transparent with people, and I wasn’t going to pretend to believe in something I knew I really didn’t.
What it came down to was the Bible.
No book in history has been as consequential or influential, but I could no longer get behind it. Either my view of God was correct or my view of the Bible was correct.
But not both.
It took me three years from that summer to arrive at what I now believe. And once I figured out what I believed (and I did), it took me another year just to figure out how to talk about it. Today, I believe in God more strongly than I ever have in my life, and, in the interest of remaining transparent, I want to spend the next several weeks talking about where I’m at.
Because I really, really like it.
I was brought up to think of the Bible’s writers as automatons. Transcribers. Mere copyists.
I agreed that humans wrote the Bible, but only in the sense that a printer might be said to write something. Yes, their pens moved in the correct ways—but the thoughts, the motivations, and the genius behind the words weren’t theirs; they were always God’s. Really, had the Bible’s writers no awareness of what they were writing—had they written the whole thing in their sleep—it would have made little difference to me.
Squeezing out of the Bible every trace of humanity was how I understood reverence for the power and glory of God Almighty, so I grew up uneasy with those smug ivy-league academics who from time to time would write about the Bible authors’ purposes and motivations. Kind of like when someone orders a “pop”, my fine-tuned southern mind instantly identifies them as not from around here (and probably not trustworthy).
I was brought up to understand the Bible through the prism of such unimpeachable labels as “inspired,” “infallible,” and “inerrant,” and the only reason anyone might venture into the dangerous territory of its writers’ so-called biases, politics, and agendas was because they were set out to disprove God.
Or, if such a person claimed to be a believer, it was only because they were one of those new-age liberals who were always just trying to explain away the clear words of scripture. Such people were a lesser form of believer—a kind in name only. They wanted easy, comfortable religion. Not like the real Christians—me included—who were honest and brave enough to read scripture for what it says.
But it went deeper. It’s not like I was happy for those people to just have their space while I had mine. No. They were threatening. Not really to me, but to the souls of millions and billions of other people whom they would deceive and send hurtling down to Hell. Because if we can’t believe every part of the Bible as literal and historic truth, then everyone would be free to do and believe whatever they wanted. And that was unacceptable.
As Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, writes:
I believe that the affirmation of the Bible’s inerrancy has never been more essential to evangelicalism as a movement and as a living theological and spiritual tradition. Furthermore, I believe that the inerrancy of Scripture is crucial to the project of perpetuating a distinctively evangelical witness into the future. Without inerrancy, the evangelical movement will inevitably become dissolute and indistinct in its faith and doctrines and increasingly confused about the very nature and authority of its message.
Or as J. I. Packer asserts:
“The Bible is word for word God-given; its message is an organic unity, the infallible Word of an infallible God, a web of revealed truths centered upon Christ; it must be interpreted in its natural sense, on the assumption of its inner harmony; and its meaning can be grasped only by those who humbly seek and gladly receive the help of the Holy Spirit.”
If you’ve ever been to any of the numerous country churches I’ve been to, you’ve almost surely heard it reduced to the simple maxim:
“The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.”
Right or wrong, inerrancy is a fragile doctrine. It’s an exhausting doctrine. It’s a doctrine constantly on the defense, constantly scanning the horizon for new attackers. And in the last two centuries, it’s only been attacked on increasingly more fronts.
Some Problems With the Bible
Genesis c1 and the subsequent text—if taken literally—demands that the universe was created six thousand years ago in six days, and the Apostle Paul affirms in his gospel to the church of Rome that Adam was the first human. If you—like me—are inclined towards the findings of people who for decades have committed themselves to the rigorous and difficult study of the sciences, this is a major problem.
A problem that in increasing numbers leads people to bitterly leave church and faith.
- The number of fossils we can estimate is in the quintillions, which means that if the universe is only six thousand years old, the Earth would have been insanely crowded throughout that time.
- Most of the stars we see in the sky are more than six thousand light years away, which means if the universe is only six thousand years old, their light wouldn’t have had enough time to reach us, and the night sky would be quite darker.
- Proteins are constantly splitting up the double helix of DNA and making copies of what scientists often call the four “letters” of the DNA “alphabet.” Sometimes one of these proteins makes a molecular “typo,” and a new strand of DNA begins replicating. Most of the time, these changes aren’t terribly consequential, but sometimes they are. And sometimes a change works to the advantage of the plant or animal. Sometimes, the advantage becomes so profound that over a long time a new species is created. Sounds cool, huh?
Well, what I just described is evolution, and we can witness the entire process under a microscope.
Look at this dog. Seriously, just look at him. Now, any reputable dog scientist looking at this picture would instantly conclude that he likes to sit on peoples’ laps, lick their faces, and chase tennis balls. That he is a delight to all humankind. A joy in a world of pain. A light in a world of darkness.
But the same scientists would also tell you that this dog’s ancestors were ferocious wolves.
Again, look at him.
While this dog and his ancestors benefitted from artificial selection—less aggressive traits and loss of freedom in exchange for a steady food supply from their new human masters—I too benefitted from the same basic evolutionary process, though via natural selection. I didn’t evolve from monkeys—as is commonly said—though with them even the most careful scientists are confident that I share a common ancestor.
The fossil record is more clear on this score than my early theologically trained but not biologically trained religious mentors had me to believe. Inerrancy alienated me and continues to alienate many from people who for decades of their lives personally have carried on the quiet and meticulous investigation of difficult scientific questions. In a desperate effort to cling to what we’ve always known, we fall victim to the pseudo-scientific word salads that evangelical leaders employ to keep us within their orbit.
This often takes the form of folksy soundbites that, to people with no background in these subject matters, make scientists seem out of touch and too big for their britches.
And that’s just with the sciences.
Inerrancy requires us to worship a God who seems to have been okay for a long time with things that most modern people categorically deem immoral.
With beating your slave.
Until Jesus came, and God . . . changed his mind?
These attacks come from many places and many things, so—unsurprisingly—evangelicals avoid many things. Evangelicals protect their children from having to hear smart and persuasive people expound on any of this. When we get backed into a corner, we tell ourselves that the problem isn’t the Bible—it is something WE are missing, for “God moves in mysterious ways,” (a verse not actually found in the Bible).
And then we spend thousands of dollars to protect our children from public schools and cartoonishly militaristic atheist professors.*
*(To be absolutely clear, I have no problem with private, religious schools. I have a big problem with sheltering children from intellectual struggle.)
Our unwillingness to honestly address these issues hurts ourselves, but not just ourselves. I really believe in my faith for the whole world, but our insistence on an inerrant road-map-compass-instruction-manual Bible is an unscalable wall for most people who don’t already share our fear of theological disruption.
It was an unscalable wall for me in 2012, and I grew up with this stuff.
Interestingly, however, there is one thing on which most traditional evangelical Christians and most ardent atheists completely agree. In fact, you could say it is the topic of this whole series. Bill Maher puts it well:
“[T]he Bible says this is 100% true. The Bible says you have to take it like that. If it’s not 100% true, I would say the whole thing falls apart.” – Bill Maher
There’s this mindset among evangelicals that there are those who are faithful and believe every word of the Bible to be true in the modern sense, and there are those who are just “doing some funny dance.”
I’m going to spend the next two months seriously challenging this idea.
Whatever your view of the Bible, inerrancy places a weight on it that I’ve become convinced it never asked to carry. Dr. Peter Enns puts it best:
Supposedly, it is unworthy of God to speak through ancient stories of origins that are neither historical nor scientific. God is the God of Truth. He would never stoop so low. Uh…actually…yes he would. God is all about stooping low—way low. That’s how God rolls—at least the Christian God.
I’m excited about what’s in store. So excited that I had to divide this topic into eight (eight!) installments to capture it. There’s just so much to talk about. And I’m a madman.
I hope you’ll come back here at 7:00 pm on Mondays for each new installment. We will really get into the meat of the topic next week. I doubt you will completely agree with me at the end, but I also doubt you will completely agree with yourself at the end.