On reading the Bible

by Richard on July 21, 2007

One way or another, I’ve been involved in lots of conversations recently about the Bible and how we read it. When Christians disagree, very often the “nub” amounts to a diiferent way of reading the scriptures. There are many approaches to the Bible, but not all of them are helpful. What is needed is an approach that treats the Bible with the utmost seriousness but does not attempt to make it into something that it isn’t. I’m not claiming to have a “final answer”, but I thought it might be helpful if I shared a few thoughts on this important subject.

I suppose the first question we need to answer is, “What does the Bible say about itself?” The most obvious verse that ’springs to mind’ is 2 Timothy 3:16

“All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching the truth, rebuking error, correcting faults, and giving instructions for right living”

This is the ‘proof text’ that is sometimes used to justify the view of the Bible as inerrant. But if we take the Bible seriously, is that what it actually says? I say this for several reasons. Let’s look through the verse and see:
1. “Scripture” to Timothy would have meant the books of what we now call the Old Testament and maybe some others usually included in what is called the Apocrypha. The books of the New Testament (including 2 Timothy!) were only just being written and were not accepted as “scripture” for some time.
2. “… inspired by God” is a translation of 1 Greek word which is used here but nowhere else in the New Testament, the Greek version of the Old Testament, the Apocrypha or indeed classical Greek. It is a compound word literally meaning “God-breathed”, but what does that mean? It is an enormous assumption to leap from ‘inspiration’ to ‘infallibility’, and to me it is an unreasonable one.
3. “Useful” is hardly a word calculated to suggest inerrancy. This is a word which is used elsewhere in the New Testament, in 1 Timothy 4:8 and in Titus 3:8 and in both cases is translated as “useful”, “of some value” or “profitable” depending upon which version you read. In fact, in 1 Timothy 4:8 it is used twice with degrees, “useful” and “more useful”. This is a long way short of the sort of infallibility to which some Christians cling.

In short, the Bible is inspired by God, of the utmost value to anyone who wants to live according to the will of God but it should not be read as an infallible “guide to everything”. Taking the Bible seriously means reading what it says, not what we want it to say and it is clear that the scriptures themselves do not claim infallibility. This is my first rule in the use of the Bible - it should teach us, not the other way around! It is very easy to come to the Bible knowing what it says, and finding ourselves confirmed by it. It is much more challenging to read it and allow the scriptures to speak for themselves.

My second rule is related to the first, and is simply stated: Read the Bible! Nothing controversial there, but it is surprising how few Christians do read the Bible for themselves. You will want to listen to what others have said about the Bible in sermons, devotional books and commentaries, but there is no substitute for turning the pages for yourself. How and when you do, for how long and how often - these are not matters for rules. Just read it!

My third rule is read in fellowship with others. Remember that the Bible arises from the Church, the gathered people of God. It is in the Church that the meaning of the Bible is authentically discovered and, barring extreme circumstances, you will need to be in fellowship with a Church community to really grow in understanding of the scriptures.

Lastly, don’t jump to conclusions. Sometimes it is tempting to take just one verse, or perhaps even a few, and make a hasty decision about what they mean. People have been known to build great edifices of doctrine on just one or two verses, and it is always a mistake.

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }


Corin Keiler-Lloyd 07.21.07 at 12:57 am

Point 1. Peter clearly stated that Paul’s writings were scripture.
Point 2. If I inspire then I expect fallibilty. If God inspires then fallibility comes when we copy, interpret etc. But even fundamentalism has only ever claimed that the scriptures were inerrant in the originals.
Point 3. ‘Useful’. Scripture depicts evil as well as good. David’s adultery is useful but inerrancy has never suggested that it is an example to be copied.

Youy are tilting at windmills. Obey your own four rules and extend your fellowship to those Christians you vehemently disagree with.


James 07.21.07 at 3:41 pm

So why should we read the Bible if it is full of mistakes/exaggerations with no relation to reality?


dh 07.23.07 at 4:03 pm

Corin, I’m wityh Corin on this. To James, Scripture has no mistakes/exaggerations and does have a relation to reality so don’t give into those type of ideas. You CAN read it that way.


dh 07.23.07 at 4:06 pm

Well on reading Scripture I would add look at Scripture in light of Scripture. I never take a passage and proof text with the passages before and after to find out the meaning of a passage. What I do is look at Scripture in light of Scripture. When one does that then the predispositions go away.


dh 07.23.07 at 4:09 pm

Richard, I really take issue with you suggesting that those who believe in innerancy don’t read Scripture for what it says. My statement to your suggestions is that people who believe in innerancy DO follow these rules they just don’t believe with your understanding of Scripture. Rather than just say or imply that we are “messed up” can’t you just at least see the plausibility with those who read Scripture like we do rather than just reject outright?


Richard 07.23.07 at 5:26 pm

DH - of course you ‘take issue’. I expected nothing else! I know that you take the scriptures seriously but since I believe that inerrancy is something that has been imposed on scripture I can do nothing other than say so. That’s what my blog is for. And you know from experience that I have no problem with people disagreeing with me.

Corin - welcome! Of course, I am in fellowship (both real and virtual) with many people I disagree with. The ‘in the originals’ line is a handy gloss isn’t it? After all, who has them? I take the Bible extremely seriously, but I can only deal with the Bible we have.


dh 07.23.07 at 6:29 pm

Well, I don’t have any problem with you disagreeing with me. However, it would be nice if you could at least see the plausibility with those who read Scripture like we do rather than just reject outright. However, that might be difficult. (as an analogy) Just because Scripture points out something as being the color blue (assume hypothetically) and in actuality it is the color “midnight blue” doesn’t change the fact that it is blue and is such accurate in everyway as being blue.


Richard 07.23.07 at 10:02 pm

What would “seeing the plausibility” mean? I don’t doubt the faith and commitment of those who hold an inerrantist view of scripture. Quite the reverse. But I think it is a fundamentally flawed approach. That’s what I think. That’s the conclusion that my study of the Bible leads me to. So I say so. But I absolutely do not reject fellowship with those whose view of scripture is different, nor do I refuse to work with those whose understanding is different to mine.
I find a certain irony in some of the responses on this thread because my experience is that those who hold an inerrant view of scripture have no difficulty at all in ‘unchurching’ those who do not. Rejecting inerrancy is regarded as tantamount to rejecting the witness of scripture. “If you don’t believe like me, you’re not a believer” is how it goes. Don’t tell me you’ve never heard anyone say that, or something like it.


dh 07.23.07 at 10:42 pm

Richard, I’m so glad you are able to have a good relationship with those of the opposite view. I feel the same toward you. We seem to get along most of the time and have great discussions. I think what makes us, even with our differences, that helps us to respect each other is that we both think of Scripture as authoritative. We may differ on the innerancy part but the authoritative part we agree on. At least from our discussions it appears to be the case. I personally don’t believe we should “unchurch” anyone. In leadership of a church or in ministry in a church? (if the person doesn’t believe in the authoritative nature of Scripture) I would not allow or agree with but everyone should be allowed to go to church. I personally can’t see how a Believer would not believe in the authoritative Word of God. However, everyone should be allowed to go to church.

So in conclusion “innerancy” has differing levels. One of which is the belief in the authoritative Word of God. Many who don’t believe in innerancy of Scripture reject the authoritative Word of God and us such people don’t believe those people are Believer. I think there might be some semantics on that. However, in some cases there is not. If anyone has told you “you are not a believer” personally, Richard, I’m sorry for them to go against Christ on that and I’m sorry you had to experience that. I totally don’t deny the fact that you are a Believer and totally respect you for that in the same. However, we do have some strong differences and some that can lead people to reject outright the authoritative nature of Scripture (because I believe any rejection of innerancy has a greater potential for people to reject the authoritative nature of Scripture) so that might be the reason we continue to somewhat “but heads”. However, I totally respect you as a person and a Believer but still pray for you to have proper Truth and I also suspect you have the same attitude toward me. :) May God help us to be more like Him. Your friend, DH.

P.S. I hope this thread gives you a greater respect for us “Religious Right” folks. :)


dh 07.23.07 at 10:51 pm

Richard, on a side note, could you help me to greater understand the recent Bene Diction post. I can’t help but take it as an attack of the Religious Right. It seems to suggest overgenerlaizations as to how we Believe the way we believe that really isn’t the case. It also suggests that we have “limited information” and are force fed things from leadership that really isn’t the case as a whole. I know for myself I came to my conclusions between myself and God and the “iron sharpening iron” therin of Scripture. For me I accept innerancy not because some guy told me that is the way it is but by reading Scripture and the consistency therein. Also, I came to that by way of not nitpicking Scripture like my analogy of the color blue. (aka mentioned above: When Scripture says sdomething is blue when in fact it is midnight blue or if one passage mentions it as blue and another says midnight blue doesn’t mean that Scripture is “inconsistent” or not innerant” because the point is that it is blue and thus both are innerent and both are correct and both are consistent only with one giving additional details). Does that make sense? Can you also help me with this initial reaction I’m having.

This is from your humble friend who desires to move from his own overreaction, DH


ee 07.24.07 at 9:29 am

‘I think what makes us, even with our differences, that helps us to respect each other is that we both think of Scripture as authoritative.’

Thanks DH. Amen. If only all - myself included at times - would hold to that attitude, life in the church would be a lot easier!


Richard 07.24.07 at 10:05 am

I’m not sure I’m the best person to clarify BD’s post, DH, but I can try. You have to understand its context, which is that the ‘Religious Right’ have for several years laid exclusive claim to the Christian faith. ‘Conservative’ and ‘Christian’ are used as synonyms, ‘liberal’ and ‘Christian’ used as opposites. Any reading of the Bible that does not begin with an assumption of inerrancy is regarded as apostate. And it is taken for granted that a Christians political conclusions will be ‘right wing’.
I accept that these are not your views, DH. But they are the views of many of your fellow-travellers.


Milton Stanley 07.24.07 at 1:10 pm

Good word. I quoted liberally from your blog post at my site today. Peace.


dh 07.24.07 at 4:13 pm

Well, I think the term “innerancy” that people on the Religious Right consider “apostate” are the people who don’t believe in Scripture as being authoritative. Many people who don’t believe in innerancy (who are your “fellow travelers”) don’t believe in Scripture as being authoritative and for that I DO consider them apostate.

One must also determine what is meant by apostate. If apostate means they are not a Christian then a person who doesn’t believe in innerancy but doesn’t believe in the Authoritative Word of God would be apostate. However, not believing in innerancy but believing in the authoritative would not be apostate. It may be heretical but not apostate.

Also, we need to understand what level of not believing or believing in innerancy one has. Ther are many levels of innerancy and we have discussed them at agnosium. Belief in innerancy is not as black and white as one might think. There are many varying degrees of innerancy. I happen to follow the Chicago Statement for about 99% (notice not 100%) with regard to my particular view but there are varying levels from that.

I think many people overreact to the term innerancy without defining what the term is and to what extent one believes in the term. Again my personal belief is in the Chicago Statement. Also ones Faith that happens to be liberal can go against Scripture and Faith as well. Believing that all will go to heaven to me would be a view that would make me question ones own Faith. I’m not saying they aren’t a Believer or Christian but saying I would question it. Questioning and saying definitivly are two different things. However, if one gives a testimony of how they accepted Christ as their Savior and they believe the Foundation of who Christ is, the Trinity, the concept of heaven and hell, etc. then the questions go away. Paul talks about this in relation to “another Gospel” and how to address and discuss with those who happen to have “another Gospel”. He even questioned at different times peoples Faith as well not in a hostile way but in a loving way to lead people to Faith. I hope that is understood. It is the best I could do but the semantics might be in the way. :)

Also, I may question ones Faith but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have Faith. To me people who believe that homosexuality makes me question their Faith however I’m not going to say they aren’t Christians. There is a difference and I believe those on the Religious Right have that understood attitude but in the secular public must have a more headstrong attitude because more and more lines are being moved to the left that shouldn’t be the case.

I still think very strongly one mustn’t overgeneralize the Religious Right. Many times what is said in secular circles is different in religious circles. Also, the questioning of others Faith is many times misunderstood as saying “they aren’t Christian” when that is not the case. Questioning and saying definitive are two different things and conclusions and that sometimes gets “lost in translation” or “semantics”.

I hope this clarifies my position a little better and those of the Religious Right. If you need further clarification or have any additional questions let me know.


Anonymous 07.24.07 at 10:45 pm

“To James, Scripture has no mistakes/exaggerations and does have a relation to reality so don’t give into those type of ideas. You CAN read it that way. ”

See the think is there are mistakes in the Gospels and they conflict to a reasonable degree. With the Birth Narratives particularly there is a very strong case for mythologisation. So what then can we trust?

A more general question but why is it that people use semantics and claim ambiguity (’it’s actually two lists…’) with teaching related to homosexuality when it’s obvious that the writers were against it. And then when it’s something like God’s Love they happily go for the romantic crowd pleasing version. It all seems a but contrived and borderline corrupt really.


dh 07.24.07 at 11:15 pm

Annonymous, I totally agree with your last paragraph. I totally agree the writers were against it. I however, don’t believe the Gospels conflict. I personally believe that the four writers have three different personalities. (analogy) All are looking at a particular building. One writer focuses on the roof but mentions the entire building in its description, the other the same but focuses on the parking lot, the other the same but focuses on the materials of the building, the other the same but focuses on the shape of the building. Just because all four have different focuses doesn’t mean they disagree, contradict or are wrong. It just means that all four writers have different personalities relayed in the particular text’s. I hope this helps you to see how one sees that the Gospels are in fact synoptic.

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