Putting words in God’s mouth

by Steve Douglas

April 26th, 2012 | 8 Comments

I was recently warned about the danger and “arrogance” of judging certain portions of Scripture to be erroneous, particularly in regard to a theological claim made in the Old Testament (the death of Uzzah in 2 Sam 6.7 and 1 Chron 13.10): “In so doing,” said my conversant, “we set ourselves above the Bible and make ourselves the judge.” I agree that we should treat Scripture respectfully. This doesn’t mean that we can’t argue with it, but we should treat it with all due reverence.

The truly frustrating thing that I’ve been trying to point out (for it seems like forever) is that people don’t stop to properly analyze why it deserves this respect.

Those of us who come from Protestant traditions somehow acquire the assumption that we must respect the Bible, and that it is arrogant and dangerous to disagree with it, for the reason that it is perfect, untouchable, the very words of God, etc. But again, why?

I have heard it said, “Christ did not give us a book; he gave us a Church.” That is, the primary reason we give the Bible such high respect is because the Church, the community of believers that composed and compiled the Bible, has passed it down to us as something worthy of respect and honor. Here again, Protestant traditions have undermined that rationale by teaching us to distrust the fallible Church (which Catholics seem to view as more infallible than it actually is) and trust only in the infallible Bible (which most Catholics do not affirm as altogether infallible) — the same Bible that was written and canonized by that fallible Church! Protestants will typically respond that God especially sanctified the efforts of the Church, making sure everything was ship-shape, error-free, and all/only the right books were included because…again, why exactly are they convinced of that?

Is it just because we think the Bible says that we need to uphold it as inerrant? That’s entirely circular. Does something outside the Bible tell us to? That’s self-defeating, because holding that criterion as inviolable is by nature upholding something extra-biblical as your guiding principle. Is it because we find it really, really handy, indispensable even, to have an authoritative constitution to evaluate everything by? As I have quoted Lewis before:

To a human mind this working-up (in a sense imperfectly), this sublimation (incomplete) of human material, seems, no doubt, an untidy and leaky vehicle. We might have expected, we may think we should have preferred, an unrefracted light giving us ultimate truth in systematic form—something we could have tabulated and memorised and relied on like the multiplication table. One can respect, and at moments envy, both the Fundamentalist’s view of the Bible and the Roman Catholic’s view of the Church. But there is one argument which we should beware of using for either position: God must have done what is best, this is best, therefore God has done this.

If we non-inerrantists believed that God Himself wrote the Bible, guaranteed its full accuracy, and made it exactly how we wanted Him to make it and for the same reasons, it might indeed be arrogant and dangerous to place ourselves above God by saying “I reject that.” But we don’t believe that: actually, many of us are dismayed by the ill-founded presumption of attributing everything in Scripture (or worse, everything we read into Scripture as interpreters) to God indiscriminately.

I have been accused of trying to dismantle the bedrock of people’s faith and denigrating the Bible just for the thrill of proving that I’m right. If that were the case, I’d spend a lot more time pointing out biblical errors and disproving the attempted reconciliations of apologists. But ferreting out and proclaiming the Bible’s shortcomings is not really how I want to spend my time, mostly because I actually care very much about the faith of others. And I don’t wish to see their house come down on a poor foundation: I know far too many people who have made an inerrant Bible the bedrock of their faith, and when the winds and storms of evidence beat against this assumption they’ve been told is non-negotiable, they lost their faith altogether. Building your faith on a Bible with unimpeachable “authority” is building your faith on the sand. I don’t want to see that happening. Another danger for inerrantists that motivates me to speak out is crazy Francis-Chan-esque affirmations of hollow, unconvincing, or outright loathsome understandings of God’s character and ways.

I certainly am not arguing that there is no warrant for caution in indicting Scripture as containing error. As a rule, we should always give our brothers and sisters in Christ, including the authors of Scripture, the benefit of the doubt and not cast aspersion on their hard-won opinions without fear and trembling. But when we are told that in reckoning some Scripture as erroneous there is the danger that we exalt ourselves as the final authority, I must respond that the danger of refusing to acknowledge that we must judge Scripture is that we will not be able to recognize it when we are doing it. Instead, we exalt our interpretations as the authority and claim that we are just following what God says through the Bible. Because the Bible does not come with a divine commentary,  we all interpret the Bible, and we are all responsible for determining what makes the most sense using whatever means we have at our disposal. We do not have the option of just “going with what Scripture says” — we can only go with what we think Scripture says.

What this means is that if God truly gave us the Bible, in so doing He gave us a medium that requires human judgment, faulty as that usually is. Since He didn’t provide us direct access to the Truth without need for an interface, He could not have expected that we could just trust whatever it is we think we read in the Bible. He had to have known we’d be judging Scripture. Bearing this out, the Gospels show Jesus himself judging Scripture, and occasionally finding it wanting.

My problem is not that people want to give Scripture a unique and extremely important place in our walk with God: my problem is with the accusation that refusing to treat the Bible as an authority of a completely different and superior nature than our other authorities, which include Church tradition and personal conviction, requires a “dangerous” degree of personal judgment from which inerrantists are blissfully exempt.

Please consider how much you might be putting in God’s mouth by maintaining the “authority of Scripture” before accusing people of being arrogant/dangerous for not trusting that this or that biblical author author got it right all the time every time.

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April 26th, 2012

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  • StevenGarmon

    Wow, Steve. I couldn’t have said it better myself. Many fundamentalists cling to inerrancy because they believe it gives them a foundation. But, our foundation is God Himself and Jesus, not a book. 

    • http://undeception.com/ Steve Douglas

      Good to hear from you again, Steve: I’m glad this resonated with you.

      • StevenGarmon

        By the way,thanks for recommending those books. They definitely helped me in my view of scripture! By the by, do you plan on reading Sparks new book Sacred Word Broken Word? If so, I think you should review it!

        • http://undeception.com/ Steve Douglas

          Hadn’t heard of it, actually! Thanks for the heads up.

  • Kevin Miller

    Great piece. Someone recommended it to me after I wrote something similar. Going to tweet your post now. You can read my post here. It’s called “Why I think the phrase “The Bible says…” should be stricken from the record.” http://www.hellboundthemovie.com/why-i-think-the-phrase-the-bible-says-should-be-stricken-from-the-record/

    Now to peruse the rest of your blog.

    • http://undeception.com/ Steve Douglas

      Get out of town! I became aware of your latest project after hearing your enjoyable interview on the Beyond the Box podcast. I can’t wait for you to complete it! I confess that as a full-on evolutionist I was not at all a fan of Expelled, but I expect to find much more common ground with Hellbound?!

      Thanks for stopping in and sharing your excellent related post as well. (I’m always tempted to intemperately blurt out ‘The Bible says’ nothing at all – you’re just hearing your own voice!”)

  • John de Jong

    Hello Steve – thanks for an excellent article. As a theologian and musician working in the Czech Republic I received considerable criticism for suggesting (and showing) in my blog (http://johndejongsblog.blogspot.cz/2011/01/reading-bible-again.html) that the Bible was far from inerrant. The irony was that the article was intended to encourage people to engage with the book again. The Cambridge theologian Nicholas Lash once pointed out that the words ‘It is raining’ mean very different things to the jilted lover and the drought-stricken farmer: expecting mere words – whatever their pedigree or ‘inerrancy’ – to somehow communicate inerrant truth is remarkably naive, and yet so many people unthinkingly express that opinion. The most striking evidence to the contrary is the number of words people feel obliged to write within Protestantism about the Bible. Thanks again.

    • http://undeception.com/ Steve Douglas

      Excellent post, John! I think I may have actually read it a while back (I know I’ve perused your blog before). Like your post, my interest in convincing inerrantists of the fundamentally human nature of the Bible is primarily to get everyone (believers and unbelievers) to really engage the Bible on its own terms–or at least to let us do so without consigning us to the outer darkness!