Studies in Hermeneutics—Lesson 4
By Reta Halteman Finger
It is rare these days that the bi-weekly Mennonite publication I receive does not carry one or more letters to the editor decrying the “sin” that has torn apart the Mennonite Church USA (MCUSA). “When we become lukewarm, God will spew us out,” writes one Minnesota man. “It seems the LGBTQ community wants the church to approve their lifestyle to ease the guilt of sin the Bible says it is.” I read both pro and con letters, always wondering what view of biblical authority each writer assumes. Or are many people simply following their own instincts of what feels right or wrong?
Battling for the Bible
In the last lesson I promised to discuss the issue of biblical inerrancy, or verbal plenary inspiration, in more detail. As a reaction to the more humanist philosophy of the 18th century, professors at Princeton Theological Seminary reaffirmed the Calvinist Reformation position of reading the Bible for its literal meaning. But the most conservative position pushes further, insisting that Scripture is without error even in matters of history, geography, and science, such as medicine, chemistry, and astronomy. If God is perfect and the Bible is the Word of God, proponents argue, then the Bible—at least in its original autographs—is correct in every way. If you were around in the 1970s, you may remember Harold Lindsell’s popular 1976 book, Battle for the Bible, which makes that case.
During the 1980s, the Southern Baptist Convention was gradually taken over by fundamentalist leaders who promoted inerrancy, while also demanding submission to the Baptist hierarchy that was teaching those beliefs. Gone was the congregational autonomy which had previously characterized Southern Baptists, and gone were the female pastors which had arisen from various autonomous congregations. This takeover is vividly described by the journalist Bill Moyers, a former Southern Baptist, whose documentary is also titled “Battle for the Bible.” (See brief summary here.)
But this strict view of biblical inspiration is a phenomenon of only the past 200 years. As noted in the last lesson, Christian writers of the 3rd and 4th centuries recognized historical and geographical errors while holding to biblical authority in matters of theology and ethics.
As someone who has loved the Bible since childhood and has devoted her life and career to better understanding it, I find this view of strict verbal inspiration incomprehensible. I suppose it can be held in the mind as theory, but not in practice. When even laypeople read the Bible carefully, they will run into impossible contradictions. First of all, our Bible is not a book; it is a library of 66 books written in three different languages over a period of more than a thousand years. And the early chapters of Genesis tell stories set in time periods centuries before writing itself was developed.
If the Bible is perfect, then the human writers were little more than word processors perfectly recording God’s dictation. This might work for some of the Hebrew prophets who claimed to be speaking directly for God in “Thus says the Lord” oracles. But what about the psalms, which convey very human, emotional prayers of lament or songs of praise to God? Does God pray to God’s self? When Job in his misery wishes he had never been born, is this God speaking? Or when his three friends tell Job these bad things happened because he sinned, is this God speaking?
Every text needs a context
Each biblical writing has been shaped by its human author and his or her historical and cultural context, but also by the type of literature it represents (legal codes, history, poetry, narratives, letters, and so on). Take, for example, the two creation accounts in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. Compare them by considering their differences in how God is named, the order in which God creates, and the method by which God creates. When read literally, they cannot be reconciled.
The story in Genesis 2–3 is likely earlier than Genesis 1. Scholars include it with other material written around the time of David and Solomon (1000-900 BCE). It is an etiological folk tale that explains to later Israelites the origins of human companionship (2:20-24), why snakes don’t have legs, why women suffer in childbirth, and why thorns and thistles make farming so hard (3:16-19). Genesis 1, on the other hand, is a poem created during the Judean exile in Babylon (6th century BCE). It appears to be a deliberate contrast to the polytheistic Babylonian creation story, the Enuma Elish. Genesis 1 and Genesis 2–3 are separate stories, written at different times for different reasons.
In our New Testament, we are fortunate to have four narratives of the story of Jesus. Because each writer has different plots and theological emphases, they cannot be harmonized without doing violence to each narrative. In Matthew, for instance, the resurrected Jesus meets his disciples on a mountain in Galilee (28:16) because Matthew sees Jesus as the New Moses who had reinterpreted Moses’s law from Mount Sinai in his “Sermon on the Mount” (Matt. 5–7). But in Luke, with its strong emphasis on the significance of Jerusalem as the killer of prophets (Luke 13:33), the risen Jesus reunites with his disciples in that city (24:33, 36). Who is historically correct? The demands of each narrative override that question.
One could cite hundreds of other examples challenging strict verbal inspiration. (Eventually we’ll get to the LGBTQ “clobber-texts”!) For now, I close with a theological question. Our earliest Christian creeds state that Jesus was both fully divine and fully human as we are. If the Bible is the divine Word of God without human error, is the Bible more divine than Jesus?
The next lesson will tackle another “battle for the Bible”—the TNIV (Today’s New International Version) and the question of inclusive language for gender.
Further questions for discussion or reflection
1. What are other examples of biblical texts that cannot be reconciled, or that contain inaccurate historical or scientific errors?
2. Despite the problems noted above, why do Christians who hold to strict inerrancy seem to take the Bible more seriously than do many progressive Christians?