It is often claimed today that the Christian Bible is the literal, infallible or inerrant word of God. This claim asserts the Bible, or Christian scripture, is not a human creation but is simply a record of divine revelation. There is, however, nothing in the Bible that says scripture is only a recording of God's words, and reading the Bible suggests otherwise.
The argument that the Bible is the literal, infallible or inerrant word of God was formulated by English and American Protestants after the Reformation to resist Catholic claims of infallible teaching authority and support in Reformed churches for historical and literary analysis of the Bible. This claim ignores historical facts:
Anyone who reads the Bible can see that it is the creative work of human authors, and history reveals that it is the witness of the church to God in Christ. For Christians, the Bible is the word of God, but it is not the literal, infallible or inerrant word of God. The Christian Bible has no authority apart from Christians who have faith in its testimony. The Bible is the living word of God in the life of the church.
Go to Explaining Our Christian Faith to learn why the Bible shows:
The belief that the Bible is the inspired word of God does not require believing that the Bible is the literal, infallible or inerrant word of God. We should be clear, however, about what we mean by "inspiration." In the New Testament the second letter of Paul to Timothy asserts: "All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness." (2 Tim. 3:16) Paul is writing in the 40s and 50s before the New Testament exists. For Paul the Hebrew Bible, which he read in its Greek version known as the Septuagint, is scripture. Paul may have felt that his writings were inspired, but he never refers to his letters as scripture. Moreover, he seems to know nothing of the gospels, which is evidence they had not yet been written.
Therefore, the passage from 2 Timothy cannot be used to prove the Bible is inspired. Its reference to "scripture" is not to the Old and New Testaments that make up the Christian Bible. Clearly, however, this passage shows that Paul believed the Jewish scriptures ─ the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings ─ to be inspired by God. These, for Paul, were the scriptures.
But what might "inspired" mean? It might mean that God has dictated scripture to scribes, who simply wrote what they were told and thus that every word in scripture is from God. Or, it might mean that the authors of scripture understood, in the light of past revelation, their experience and the history of their people as God's will. It might also mean that in communicating this inspiration, in Hebrew, Aramaic or Greek, they created the narratives, images and arguments that later their descendants judged to have been inspired by God.
Reading the New Testament will quickly dispel the first notion that Christian scripture is nothing but the words of God. Parables and teachings in the New Testament may strike us as inspiring, but we will also find interpretations and inconsistencies that are best attributed to biblical writers rather than to God. Those who wrote the New Testament may have been inspired, but they were very human. The communities of faith that created and cherished Christian scripture were inspired by these writings, but they, too, were very human and generally failed to live up to the teachings of their faith.
Because the New Testament was first written in Greek, knowledge of the Greek spoken at the time of its writing is obviously useful in studying Christian scripture. But most Christians throughout the history of the church have heard and read the Christian Bible in translations. For centuries the Latin Bible was used by priests in the Catholic Church, and after the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century the Christian Bible was quickly translated into all the languages of northern Europe.
Protestant churches have made preaching from the Bible, rather than the celebration of the sacrament of Communion, the touchstone of their faith. The invention of the printing press made copies of the Bible affordable, and Christian families began to have Bibles in their homes. Protestant preachers encouraged Bible study, and Christians without much formal education were among those inspired by what they read in scripture. In the 19th and 20th centuries the Christian Bible was translated into every known language and carried by missionaries to every country.
Today, the Bible is not only the most widely published and circulated book in the history of human civilization, it is also for about a fourth of the world's peoples a primary source for understanding God's will. Reading the Bible has inspired millions, and there is little evidence this will soon cease. The church teaches that its scripture reveals the will of God and asserts, therefore, that scripture is not only inspiring but also inspired by God. This claim, however, is a matter of faith, which can be verified only within the life of the church. But the inspiring power of scripture is a fact of history that is confirmed by the continuing witness of the church in the world.
Reading Christian Scripture
Anyone who writes about the Christian Bible ought to clarify how he or she reads it. Of course, there are not simply two or three alternatives, but many more subtle choices to be made. I believe it is not necessary to read scholarly books about the Bible to understand its meaning. With the church I affirm that the Bible reveals the word of God to those with "ears to hear and eyes to see." (Mt. 11:15, Mk. 4:9, Lk. 8:8)
In addition, I ground my understanding of the Bible in the Confessions of the Reformed tradition. A line in the Scots Confession of 1560 states clearly my approach to reading scripture: "We dare not receive or admit any interpretation which is contrary to any principal point of our faith, or to any other plain text of Scripture, or to the rule of love." We begin with the plain text of scripture, then interpret a text within the context of the whole Bible and the teachings of the church, and finally test our understanding by the great commandment to love God and our neighbor.
The Confession of 1967 of the Presbyterian Church asserts that: "The one sufficient revelation of God is Jesus Christ, the Word of God incarnate, to whom the Holy Spirit bears unique and authoritative witness through the Holy Scriptures, which are received and obeyed as the word of God written." This Confession does not assert that the Bible is infallible or inerrant but holds: "The Scriptures are not a witness among others, but the witness without parallel." The Confession identifies the scriptures are the "unique and authoritative witness" of faith: "The church has received the books of the Old and New Testaments as prophetic and apostolic testimony in which it hears the word of God and by which its faith and obedience are nourished and regulated."
The Confession of 1967 also teaches: "The Bible is to be interpreted in light of its witness to God's work of reconciliation in Christ." But the Confession explicitly recognizes that the Bible is a human composition: "The Scriptures, given under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, are nevertheless the words of men, conditioned by the language, thought forms, and literary fashions of the places and times at which they were written. They reflect views of life, history and the cosmos which were then current." Given this fact, interpretation is unavoidable. "The church, therefore, has an obligation to approach the scriptures with literary and historical understanding. As God has spoken his word in diverse cultural situations, the church is confident that he will continue to speak through scripture in a changing world and in every form of human culture."
I read the Bible within this tradition of study and preaching. Therefore, I suggest that all those who read Christian scripture keep in mind the following rules as guidelines. Visitors are invited to click on each rule in order for a more detailed explanation.
Rules for Reading the Bible
The New Testament continues the story of God known to the Jews through their scriptures. The Christian Bible is an interpretation of the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible (the Septuagint), and "God in Christ" is a new understanding of the God of the Torah, Prophets, and the Writings.
Paul's letters were written before the New Testament gospels and resist efforts by the Jerusalem church to require observance of Jewish law in the church. Paul proclaims salvation through faith in Christ crucified, says little about the teaching and ministry of Jesus, and claims authority for his gospel from the risen Lord.
The gospel attributed to Mark (all the New Testament gospels are anonymous) is the earliest New Testament gospel and supports Paul's view that faith, not Jewish law, is saving. The gospel presents Jesus Christ as the Son of God, tells the story of his itinerant ministry in Galilee, is critical of his disciples, and ends without a resurrection appearance.
The gospels attributed to Matthew and Luke edit the gospel of Mark, adding a "common sayings tradition" and other materials. The gospel of Matthew addresses a mostly Jewish Christian audience. The gospel of Luke, and Acts of the Apostles by the same author, speak to a largely Gentile Christian community.
The gospel attributed to John was written for a Greek-speaking Jewish community of faith that understood Jesus as the Word of God made flesh and as the Passover "Lamb of God" sent by the Father but rejected by "the Jews." The author freely revises the gospel narrative in order to defend the worship of his church.
The letters attributed to Peter and to James reveal the declining authority of these two first generation apostles after 70 CE All four gospels and the Acts of the Apostles verify Peter's leading role and the leading disciple, and Galatians and Acts confirm that James, the brother of Jesus, became the head of the church in Jerusalem.
The letters and Revelation attributed to John concern the threats of false teaching in the churches and pagan persecution in the Roman Empire. The letters are anonymous but share in the teaching tradition of the gospel of John. Revelation includes letters warning churches in Asia and an extraordinary vision of Christ's victory over Satan.
The New Testament weaves together varied testimonies of faith that shaped the witness of the church at the end of the first century and the beginning of the second century CE. The result is a tapestry of meanings that requires interpretation.
The authors of the letters and gospels of the New Testament drew on the scriptures of the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible to construct and interpret the story of Jesus and the church's witness to life in the kingdom of God through faith in Christ.
Our assumptions about history and biography make it hard to see that the New Testament revises the Old Testament revelation of God's justice and mercy as a way of resisting imperial idolatry and oppression. The God, who defeated Pharaoh for Israel, chooses death under Roman rule as a way of calling humanity to a life of love.
These conclusions can be verified by anyone who reads the New Testament and may help us discern the word of God to which the church bears witness through its scriptures.
1 in Faith: A Christian Bible Study † Copyright © 2000 by Robert Traer