There are many questions concerning the Bible. What is in the Bible? What is not in the Bible that people often think is in the Bible? How much should the Bible be followed? How much is the Bible followed?
Among the many inquiries is the question of how the Bible itself should be viewed, I think there are three major views of the Bible.
According to one view, the Bible is the divinely inspired, infallible (or inerrant) Word of God, even when taken completely literally. This opinion represents an exalted view of the Bible.
Those who hold this view think the Bible is absolutely perfect in every way whether dealing with religion, history, science or anything else.
Advocates of this view sometimes call themselves “Bible-believing” Christians. Some qualify the view by saying that this conviction applies strictly to the original manuscripts of the books of the Bible.
Followers of this view think that Christians should believe such claims as: the world was created in six days, humans first existed as adults, the sun once “stood still” for several hours, and Jonah survived after being in the belly of a big fish for three days. All biblical events are thought to have happened exactly as reported.
Everything said in the Bible is regarded as completely true. Anyone who does not have such beliefs might be considered an unbeliever or, at best, not a true believer. There may be some doubt about the heavenly prospects of such a dissenter.
The rationale for this view is simple. God is believed to be perfect. The Bible is thought to have come from God, so it must be perfect. Any human element that could have led to error would supposedly have been overcome by God’s power.
This basic view is not exclusive to Christians. Others have had similar high ideas regarding their sources of authority.
According to Plato’s dialogue “The Apology,” Socrates shared with many ancient Greeks the view that the oracle of Apollo at Delphi was never wrong (sounds like inerrancy). What startled Socrates was hearing that the oracle had said there was no one wiser than Socrates. But Socrates did not consider himself to be wise. Socrates decided to prove that the oracle was wrong in this case.
When Socrates used questioning to find someone wiser than he, there was an unexpected result. He could not find any such person. Socrates had claimed that he knew nothing.
He encountered others who boasted that they knew something but really did not. Socrates concluded that he truly was wiser than they, because he admitted his ignorance while they claimed to know something but did not. Socrates thought that the oracle was correct after all.
In this case, as in some others, the oracle of Apollo at Delphi had the benefit of ambiguity. There is ambiguity in the meaning of wisdom.
Not everyone would define wisdom the same way. The oracle was correct according to Socrates’ interpretation of wisdom as being willing to admit ignorance. Whatever may have been Plato’s full intentions, his story about Socrates added to the reputation of the oracle of Apollo at Delphi as free of error.
Muslims are another example of people who have extremely high regard for their special source of authority, the Qur’an. While there is no official statement regarding inerrancy, various references have circulated that indicate the great respect most Muslims have for their honored book.
One claim is that the Qur’an was let down from heaven by a golden thread. Another idea is that all earthly copies of the Qur’an are reflections of the perfect Qur’an in heaven.
Not all Muslims would express their views in these ways, but Muslims in general are very distressed when others burn copies of the Qur’an. I saw a televised report on a Muslim who could not read the Qur’an because he was illiterate, but he was willing to die for it. Devotion can be intense.
Whatever may be the exact content for various sources of authority, there does seem to be in many people a desire to believe in something that is completely trust-worthy. The wish is there even when specific religious beliefs differ.
Thus I think people with this view are not necessarily lacking in cognitive skills. They are heavily motivated to seek assistance for life’s questions and difficulties. People with an exalted view of a source of authority may be impatient and even angry when they perceive a threat to their sense of security, but their wanting special help is understandable.
A second view of the Bible is that not only is it not infallible or inerrant but is instead largely unreliable. This view is basically skeptical. There is the general idea that many historical claims in the Bible are suspicious at best and that accounts of miracles are scientifically absurd.
They resonate with the character “Sportin’ Life” in the musical Porgy and Bess, who sings “The things that you’re liable to read in the Bible — they ain’t necessarily so.”
People with this second view of the Bible do not think of the book as a reliable source of information for the nature of the universe or for help with life’s great difficulties.
Many advocates of this view have been strongly influenced by advances in science. A few have a confidence that borders on arrogance. Those with a condescending attitude can be very irritating to those with a high view of the Bible.
It is the completely literal interpretation of the Bible that is especially objectionable in this second view. For example, I have heard a comedian/talk show host speak in a ridiculing way about the “talking snake” of the first part of Genesis. It seemed that he finally became aware that he could not believe a detail of the story.
There are indeed people who insist on taking the Bible literally everywhere, but they have no objection to such literary devices as personification outside of the Bible. In the story of the three little pigs, is there anyone over the age of three or four who thinks that pigs can use a hammer and a saw and other tools?
Yet people get the idea from the story that pigs who “built” houses of straw and wood were poorly prepared for the wolf. The pig who “built” his house of brick was well prepared. The story is about proper preparation, not about construction capabilities of swine.
Perhaps the writer of Genesis was not asking for belief in a serpent with vocal ability. Perhaps he was using a colorful (and memorable) way to portray the power of temptation.
Saying that Eve had a bad thought would have been more realistic but much less effective. Critics of the Bible should realize that not everyone takes all details literally but can still derive meaning.
Because of objections to completely literal interpretations of the Bible along with some other problems, holders of this second view tend to reject the Bible altogether. They make little allowance for anything worthwhile in the Bible. Their skeptical view of the Bible often involves disillusionment.
Those who hold to a third view of the Bible regard it as less than infallible but still as valuable and helpful. They consider both literalism and symbolism. They are open to inquiry and new knowledge. There is a willingness to make adjustments.
There is some skepticism in this view but also an appreciation for deeper meanings. While opponents may think of less charitable names, advocates of this view probably would consider it to be realistic.
As to problems with interpreting the Bible as inerrant, more than 100 examples of what could be considered inconsistencies have been noted. There are variations in numbers of concerns with different interpreters as well as defensive replies, but consider the first two chapters of Genesis.
There are different statements regarding the number of days of creation, whether animals came before or after human life, and the time between male and female human life. In the New Testament there are differences in the various accounts of the resurrection of Jesus, including the number of women involved and where and when appearances took place.
Not all of the alleged inconsistencies are genuine or significant, but there are enough to show that the idea of the infallibility of the Bible is not beyond question.
Holders of this third view also have reservations about considering the Bible as the Word of God. According to the first chapter of John, the Word was in the beginning, was with God, and was God and then became flesh.
None of those statements apply to the Bible. They apply instead to the second person of the Trinity, who became flesh in Jesus Christ.
Not everyone accepts those beliefs, but the statements in John’s account do end with a somewhat veiled reference to Jesus Christ rather than to the Bible. From the perspective of John’s gospel, applying references about the Word to the Bible appears to be misguided and even to verge on idolatry.
But should not the Bible still be considered the Word of God because of the belief that it is a message from God? The difficulty here, in accord with the principle that assertion is not proof, is the idea that something claimed to be from God is not necessarily from God.
In spite of the sincere beliefs of Muslims, not everyone thinks that the Qur’an was given by God. Its followers have a high reputation for morality, but many are not convinced that God is behind The Book of Mormon. Why should we be surprised or offended if there are doubts about the Bible?
Depending on one’s conception of God, not everything in the Bible sounds as though it came from a divine source. Was the creator of this immense universe really obsessed with minute details of Noah’s ark and of the tabernacle? Were commands to kill vast numbers of people, who thought they were defending their land from invaders, really from God?
Questions such as these are not questioning God but are questioning those who claim to speak for God.
Those with this third view tend to think of the Bible not so much as the Word of God but as words of men of faith about God. Those words, however, may not always accurately reflect God.
Advocates of this third view may note that Christians are not entirely consistent about whether or not to interpret the Bible literally. Most Christians allow for not always taking the Bible literally, but do not completely agree on when that should be done.
Catholics take literally the words of Jesus when he referred to bread and wine as being his body and blood. Baptists do not have a literal but a symbolic interpretation of the biblical words of Jesus in this matter.
Baptists do take literally the biblical word for baptism as meaning immersion, and allow nothing else. Catholics also think the biblical word for baptism literally referred to immersion.
Yet they believe the meaning of baptism somehow extends to a rite of initiation and spiritual cleansing that can be symbolized in ways in addition to immersion. Would it be good to recognize, without hateful arguing, that there may be reasonable differences over how much many parts of the Bible should or should not be interpreted literally?
In spite of various questions and problems concerning the Bible, those with this third view still have high regard for the Bible. There is much in the Bible about God, thoughts that should be considered very carefully.
There is much about mercy and love and forgiveness. The Bible presents a strikingly accurate picture of humans at both their worst and their best. There are important beliefs about origins, present circumstances and future possibilities.
Many find great hope in the Bible along with serious warnings. Perhaps God did not create the world in six days, but may well be the power behind the Big Bang, which started the entire universe. Perhaps God did not create humans as adults, but may be ultimately responsible for life, consciousness and intelligence.
MUCH TO CONSIDER
The Bible may not have all the answers that some claim for it, but it has much to consider.
How many people hold each view? It is hard to tell, partly because there are variations of the views.
For example, some people may view the Bible as inerrant but also accept some symbolic interpretation as appropriate. Others may deem the Bible as not completely infallible while affirming that the major teachings of the Bible are absolutely reliable. And many people may not be well informed about the issues and may not be clear about their views.
But perhaps a consideration of these three ways of viewing the Bible will be helpful to those seeking to better discover its truth. NFJ
By Ben Self
—E. B. (Ben) Self of Hopkinsville, Ky., is the author of Ways of Thinking About God: The Bible, Philosophy, and Science (Nurturing Faith, 2013).