The Bible should not be treated as a single inerrant book

The Bible is not a single book, it is a collection of books. Even its name reflects this, being derived from the Greek ‘ta biblia’, which means ‘the books’. However, it is often accepted or rejected as if it were one single book. One person might, for example, read the account of the six day creation and a few harsh Old Testament laws; disagree with them and reject the whole Bible. Another person might find faith and comfort in the words of Jesus; put their trust in the Bible and then spend the rest of their lives arguing that scientists don’t really know anything about the true age of the Earth.

Sadly, some Christians continue to argue against scientists and say that the earth was created in six days and that it has a history of about 6,000 years. They do this from an honourable intention to defend the integrity of the Bible, but it is my sincere belief that they actually achieve the exact opposite. The age of the Earth is a question that has undergone generations of scrutiny from scientists. The passive onlooker who watches the debate unfold will generally feel that the Christian is out of their depth and, as the Christian appears to loose, the onlookers will be left with the feeling that the whole Bible is rather unconvincing.

A look inside the Bible

The Bible is split into two parts: the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Old Testament is the original Hebrew Bible and predates the birth of Jesus. It contains,

  • Genesis (the first book of the Pentateuch – includes the creation of the world and the formation of the Jewish nation)
  • The remaining books of the Pentateuch (describe the release of the Jewish nation from Egyptian slavery and the new laws it adopted)
  • Historical Books (describe the formation of the kingdoms of Judah and Israel, their history, the nation’s exile to Babylon and the final reinstatement of the nation)
  • Wisdom Books (books of proverbs, songs and other sources of wisdom)
  • Prophets (books written by Jewish prophets)
  • Minor prophets (smaller books written by Jewish prophets)

The New Testament contains,

  • The four gospels (biographies of Jesus’ life)
  • Acts of the Apostles (a record of the apostles actions after Jesus’ resurrection)
  • The epistles (various letters written to churches)
  • Revelation (an apocalyptic prophecy)

The Bible is a varied collection of different types of literature, with different authors written over a period spanning more than one and a half millennia. There are many books in the New Testament for which we have a good idea who wrote them and when they were written to an accuracy of a few decades. We know much about the society in which their authors lived and we have a good idea about how their readers were expected to be enlightened by those books. We can read those books with a reasonable degree of confidence.

In contrast, we know much less about the origins of some of the books in the Old Testament. The book of Genesis is an extreme example. This has traditionally been assumed to be written by Moses, which would place its composition at about the 13th century BC. However, recent findings suggest that it is actually a compilation of much older texts. In reality, we don’t really know who composed Genesis and when. We don’t even known if the author perceived these older texts to have much or little integrity himself and whether the author expected the book to be read as if it were inerrant.

It is actually the book of Genesis that contains some of the most divisive accounts in the whole Bible, in so far as causing division between Christianity and Science. In particular, it describes the six day creation of the world and the temptation of Adam and Eve by a serpent.

Genesis does have an important role in the Bible in so far as it communicates God’s relationship with the Jewish people and many of the other Old Testament books would be far more confusing without it. However, Genesis contains little Christian doctrine other than to show that mankind has a tendency to sin. It seems strange then that some Christians vehemently defend a literal interpretation of Genesis even though doing so probably makes Christianity appear unconvincing to a wider audience.

Examining the case for an inerrant Bible

I suspect that there are three reasons why some Christians defend a literal interpretation of Genesis. Firstly, they believe the whole Bible to be the inerrant Word of God. They do this because a passage in the New Testament states that all scripture is inspired by God (2 Timothy 3:16). In doing so they are making an assumption that scripture that is inspired by God is automatically inerrant as if it could only have come from a God to man dictation, which left the author no room for human error. Such an event would require a human to write whilst completely controlled by the Holy Spirit. It would be a remarkable event; one that I’ve never heard happening within Christendom either now or recorded in the Bible.

Secondly, those Christians state that Jesus acknowledged the existence of Adam and Eve, the two humans created within Genesis’ creation account. It is true that Jesus refers to the creation account (Matt 19:4-6) to explain that marriage should be permanent, however he never actually refers to Adam and Eve directly or to a six day creation.

Thirdly, modern Christian teachers might feel it to be easier to teach doctrine if it can be communicated as being an absolute unambiguous truth. I believe that the heart of Christian doctrine is simple and this simplicity can cause it to remain unambiguous even without believing the Bible to be inerrant. Jesus himself said that all the law can be summed up by two commandments to love God and love your neighbour. The Christian message of salvation is beautifully simple: forgive others, repent, believe that Jesus died and rose again and ask God for forgiveness.

In my mind a person can have a strong faith in the Christian God without believing in an inerrant Bible. In contrast, I sometimes think that a strong faith founded on the inerrancy of the Bible can sometimes become a strong faith in a book rather than a strong faith in God.

The Bible contains millennia of history, not just religious doctrine

My belief that the Bible is not inerrant does not devalue it in my mind; it, in fact, makes it seem more authentic. The Bible contains a large number of accounts of the miraculous, all written by humans like you and me. The rational mind finds it easy to refute the claim that the miracles are proven merely by their presence in the Word of God, but denying the testimony of the original authors does not come so naturally. To do so requires us to find a reason why they lied or were mistaken and why they weren’t confronted by a list of witnesses ready to correct them.

In addition, by seeing the Bible as a collection of books written over one and a half millennia by different authors, we can see prophecies announced in one book and then fulfilled a few books later. Prophecy and fulfilment would have been separated by a time span of centuries, but the reader can flick between them in mere minutes.

When you read the Bible you are not reading a sanitised religious message. You are reading a messy real life account of good vs. evil played out through the history of a country, its kings and prophets and ultimately in the life of a man who was, if you choose, Son of God.

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