Must the Bible be the unequivocal word of God?

This question was brought up in “The Worst Case Scenario” thread, but it’s also a question I’ve been struggling with personally and in discussion at church. Must the Bible necessarily be the unequivocal word of God? I don’t mean from the empirical standpoint, but as it relates to theology. Here’s the reasoning I’ve been working on:

Whether the writers of the Bible were divinely inspired or not, they were people. Owing to some inconsistencies in the Bible (as well as some beliefs that I don’t personally find palatable or logically supportable), I’m inclined to think that at least some of the Bible was the writer’s personal dicta and not God’s inspiration. The Bible was put together by people, whom if we are to take the Bible as literal truth, we must assume were as divinely inspired as the writers themselves supposedly were. But if they were not, is there anything in the Christian faith which would invalidate it if the entire Bible weren’t completely true?

In other words, could the position that not all of the Bible is true be defensible to a Christian, or would he or she be right in saying that if some claims in the Bible were false, then the belief of other Biblical figures in those false claims would invalidate their own beliefs, and we’d be left with a religion that in essence is nothing but a lie? Or is the position that some of the Bible may be wrong, but that God’s true nature and His Will for His people can still be borne out through what is left, defensible? How would you argue that?

This is my view, do with it what you like:

There are two factors involved here. There is the bible and there is the common sense of the mass of humanity.

The question I ask is - which came first?

The bible doesn’t really tell us anything we didn’t already know - don’t kill, don’t steal etc.

Religions would have us believe that if it wasn’t for the bible (or the koran or whatever) we would all be a homicidal mess.

But I think that these holy books merely codified what humanity believed to be ultimate truths anyway.

Its like the chicken and the egg, which came first?


  • there was a general feeling amongst people about the right way to live your life and those feelings were expressed over the course of thousands of years and culminated in the writing of the bible


  • the bible came first and all our ideas about the right way to live come from that book

I don’t think that any of the people who appear in the bible possess any more divinity than you have, or I have.

I think that, if there is a God, then we all possess an equal part of that divinity.

Those who wrote the bible may have possessed a greater understanding of the nature of life than many ordinary people. And they may have possessed the writing ability to set it all down.

But they had no divinity as such. No man who has ever walked this Earth has any more divinity than Ive got, or you’ve got.

The writers of the bible were merely codifying stuff we already knew.

They were ordinary humans same as you and me. And therefore vulnerable to making mistakes.

I’m probably 70:30 in favour of there being a God. But if there is a God, I don’t think we know what He wants us to do. Certainly not in specific detail as religions would have us believe.

None of the people who appear in the bible or the koran, not Moses, not Abraham, not Jesus, not Mohammed had any divine connection whatsoever.

They were just men. And loudmouthed ones at that.

What they said may well be valid as regards a good way to live your life and order society.

But their views have nothing to do with what God wants. The only way we can get a sense of what God wants is by judging the opinions of humanity as a whole.

And this is what the bible and the koran do (in my opinion).

So basically I think we need to place what it says in the bible against what we feel as citizens of humanity and dig the truth out from somewhere in that mix.

Keeping this strictly within the realm of Christian thought*, I would say that the approach taken by the Catholics and Orthodox provide one possible answer to the OP:

Unlike the Protestant tradition, which places the primacy of conveying the information on Scripture, the Catholics and Orthodox view Scripture as encapsulating the core beliefs that actually are carried down more fully in the tradition of the magisterium (or teachings). Nothing in the magisterium can contradict Scripture, but individual passages of Scripture may need to be viewed in light of the traditional interpretations that have been carried down through history.

This view is, obviously, incompatible with a literalist perspective of Scripture, but neither the Orthodox nor the Catholics hold a literalist view. (Many Protestant groups also eschew literalism, although the majority certainly embrace the primacy of Scripture.)

Of course, this approach is certainly open to the charge that the magisterium may suffer modification that will corrupt the meaning/interpretation of Scripture. (A charge that Jack Chick and friends level with stifling monotony.) However, claiming to “purely” follow the literal Word of Scripture has its own shortcomings, namely that a “new” interpretation of the literal Word may actually spring from local sociological sources, rather than from Scripture, itself. (It is quite easy to discover, for example, that the current interpretation of Revelation, exemplified in the novels of the Left Behind series, has been pretty much invented in the last 150 years, or fewer.)
*Expanding the discussion to Jewish, Muslim, non-Western, or other belief systems–to say nothing of skeptic, agnostic, or atheistic views–are obviously valid, but I am confining my remarks to the apparent scope of the OP.

I don’t see how a literal, word-by-word acceptance of the Bible can be possible, given its history of authorship and the editing process which took place in the centuries which immediately followed Christ’s death.

I would welcome a perspective on why it should be taken so…

Because that’s the way God wanted it to be. You know, so we can have faith and the whole thing not be taken for a fact. Or something like that. At least that’s the response I got when I posed that question to someone once. Truth to tell, though, if we had absolute proof that there was a God (you know, he shows up on your birthday every year and performs a couple of miracles and then leaves), it’d take a lot of fun out of life. Because if you know that there is a god, then you’re certainly not going to disobey any of his commandments because you’ll know without a doubt that you’re going to go to hell or wherever. At least when there’s doubt you can do those things which are considered sins, but are oh so fun (like premarital sex and lusting after your neighbors spouse)! :smiley:

Is there a better answer than that? God wanted a corrupted, contradictory text of his rules?

read up on the letters of paul. there are several places where he specifies that he is quoting his own opinion and not God’s.

That’s where faith comes in! Because if we had absolute proof of the existance of God, then there would be no need for faith and without faith, God cannot exist.

Seriously, though, most people don’t think of the Bible as being contradictory because they simply haven’t read the whole thing. They can quote a few relevant verses here and there, but that’s about it.

Its like the George Carlin rant about the concept of the “divine plan” and prayer. Billions of years ago, God set his divine plan into action and its worked perfectly, then you come along and bother God (most likely on a Sunday, when its supposed to be his day off) and ask him to change his divine plan. Most people pass off any corruptions in the text as part of God’s divine plan without bothering to think about it any more. Makes no sense to me, either.

Uh, I was under the impression that I, Jodi, and numerous others had been ably arguing from the premise of the penultimate question and the first option of the dichotomy in the first question above.

First, the Bible, whatever else it may be, is a collection of books written by human authors. Even if, as some strong conservative Christians believe, it was inspired verbatim by the Holy Spirit, that statement is true. Paul, John, Luke, Jeremiah, and the rest wrote what they wrote, and their own styles and emphases show through.

Second, the idea that “the Bible is literally inerrant (except for those few places where we realize it’s speaking in parable or metaphor)” is a 19th Century overlayer on traditional Christianity’s modes of interpreting the book.

For example, take the passage in Isaiah about the virgin bearing a child. Anybody reading that section will be totally clear that the literal meaning is Isaiah pointing out a nubile maiden in the court of King Hezekiah of Judah, who is sweating the threat of attack from the Northern Alliance, composed of Isaiah and “Syria” (Damascus and environs), and telling him that that girl is going to have a son (not a virgin birth; she’ll get pregnant and have a kid), and by the time that kid is old enough to know good from evil, both the kings he’s worried about will be in the grave. Because God is standing by Hezekiah, as promised, and in token of this, the girl is to name her son Emmanuel, meaning “God with us.”

That’s the literal story. In point of fact, whether or not the girl had the kid and gave him that name (that’s not told), the two aggressor kings did die within three years.

Matthew gives this a typological interpretation. Explaining to Jews how Jesus of Nazareth was in fact the promised Messiah, he flags the Scriptural quote and points out that the almah (which ended up mistranslated into Greek as parthenos, virgin, when the word literally meant “maiden” – unmarried young woman, with no reference to the state of her hymen or her sexuality) did in fact conceive and bear a son who ended up being in the most emphatic sense of the word God-with-us, in that in Jesus the early Christians saw God incarnate in human form. The original story had nothing to do with the Messiah, insofar as Isaiah had any sense of what he was prophesying, but in fact it became truer, in a deeper sense, in the birth and ministry of Jesus than it ever had in the boy whose birth confirmed that Hezekiah had no reason to fear.

(This is not to argue the literality of the virgin birth, it’s to demonstrate how people found symbological meanings in Scripture. The assumption is that God had some idea of what he wanted to tell people other than what the original writers intended to say, and that he influenced them to say things in a particular way in order to carry that additional meaning for later times.)

Third, there is a thread of God’s interest in humanity, one of caring and calling to ethical behavior towards him and each other, of his presence and providence, that underlies and in-forms the narrative and prophetic monologues. This is, I feel, obvious to anyone who reads the Bible without blinders, either the literalist or the skeptical variety. If God had wanted strict rationality and historical accounts, he would have recruited Socrates and Plutarch, rather than Isaiah, Habakkuk, Luke, and John, as his ghostwriters.

One should read the Bible with a sense of what it is – myths, legends, prophecy (not fortunetelling but speaking in God’s name to call sin into account), a smattering of history told from a judgmentalist perspective, letters to early churches advising them on the problems they were facing, apocalyptic, and a herd of other stuff. Flipping it open at random and extracting a quote or two makes about as much sense as taking random passages from Stephen Jay Gould and Stephen Hawking and assuming they were legislating in those passages about what a rational person ought to do.

Nope. He wasn’t writing a rulebook at all. (Some will differ on this issue.) He was looking to inspire people to live a life in accordance with His will. It’s the difference between a drive-by witness here on how gays need to repent of their sexuality and a serious debate on whether antiwar protests are appropriate at a given time and place.

By comparison, nobody would assert that everything ever said on this board is true. If untrue, then a statement is not “fighting ignorance,” the stated purpose of this board. Therefore the board has no right to exist. Anything false in that line of reasoning to you? If so, you have the answer to the Bible as well. If Nehemiah is getting exclusivist-racist, the author of Ruth calls him to account. If Paul gets too mystical about justification by faith, James sets the record straight.

Thank you Polycarp. This is the most sensible thing I’ve ever read from someone familiar with the Bible.