Scripture’s God-Breathed Imperfections

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Image source: ReKnew

This is a selected article penned by Greg Boyd, a well known theologian, preacher, teacher, apologist, and author who runs the ReKnew.org website. My fascination with Boyd’s work is primarily because he is not an inerrantist though, like me, he used to be but soon rejected it.

Boyd thus provides what I believe to be some refreshing alternatives methods to reading scripture that needn’t bring along with it all the problems of biblical inerrancy. I will be sharing Boyd’s thoughts and ideas relating to the subject regularly. I share these views because I am concerned with my fellow Christians who have spotted numerous errors in the biblical texts, and do not know how to deal with them given that they have been nurtured to believe in the false dichotomy presented by conservative-inerrantist Christians: either you accept the Bible is without error or, alternatively, you reject it. 

*Also note that I don’t necessarily agree with all the views Boyd represents. Nonetheless, as per Boyd,

i. Inerrancy of Scripture.

As a conservative evangelical who accepted the “inerrancy” of Scripture, I used to be profoundly disturbed whenever I confronted contradictions in Scripture, or read books that made strong cases that certain aspects of the biblical narrative conflict with archeological findings. Throughout my college and graduate school career, I spent untold hours and no small amount of anxious energy trying to figure out ways to reconcile Scripture’s many contradictions, harmonize problematic narratives with archeological data, and refute a host of other “liberal” views of Scripture (e.g. the documentary hypothesis, the late dating of Daniel, etc.). At least twice during this period I came dangerously close to abandoning my faith because, despite my best efforts, I could not with intellectual honesty find my way around certain problems.

In my previous blog, I expressed one of the reasons why these things do not bother me anymore. The ultimate foundation for my faith is no longer Scripture, but Christ. I feel I have very good historical, philosophical, and personal reasons for believing that the historical Jesus was pretty much as he’s described in the Gospels. I also feel I have very good reasons for accepting the NT’s view that Jesus was, and is, the Son of God, the definitive revelation of God, and the Savior of the world. I, of course, can’t be certain of this, but I’m confident enough to make the decision to put my trust in Christ, and live my life as his disciple. I continue to believe in the inspiration of Scripture primarily because Jesus did, and his Church has done so throughout history. But because the intellectual feasibility of my faith no longer hangs in the balance, I simply don’t need to get bent out of shape if I conclude that it contains contradictions, historical inaccuracies, or other human imperfections.

As an incidental aside, I’d like it to be known that I more often than not find myself ending up on the conservative side of things as it concerns the many debates surrounding the accuracy and consistency of Scripture. I find that if you accept that God is real, and accept the possibility of miracles, the arguments for highly skeptical views of Scripture tend to be surprisingly weak. But the more important point is that I no longer feel I need to end up on the conservative side of things (for on certain matters, such as the dating of the book of Daniel, I actually don’t). I don’t any longer feel that anything of great consequence hangs in the balance on where these debates end up, for my faith is anchored in something much more solid than what either side of these debates can offer.

ii. Inspiration of Scripture.

In any event, there’s a second and more recently discovered reason why these flaws no longer bother me. I simply no longer see any reason why God’s infallible Word should exclude human flaws. In another blog, I shared why I believe the cross expresses the thematic center of everything Jesus was about. God was most perfectly revealed when, having become a human in Christ, he bore our sin and our curse on the cross. On this basis, I argued that our theology must not only be Christ-centered; it should be, from beginning to end, cross-centered.

If we accept this perspective, it fundamentally changes the way we think about the nature of biblical inspiration (as well as a host of other things). If the ultimate revelation of the perfect God took place by God making our imperfections his own – that is by, in some sense, becoming our sin (2 Cor. 5:21) and our curse (Gal 3:13) – on what grounds could anyone assume that the process by which this perfect God reveals himself in his written Word must exclude all human imperfections? I would think a cross-centered approach to biblical inspiration would lead us to the exact opposite conclusion. Think about it. If the cross reveals what God is truly like, it reveals what God has always been like, in all of his activities. And it is this God who reveals himself by “breathing”(theopneustos, 2 Tim. 3:16) Scripture. In this light, I submit we should expect to find human imperfections in Scripture.

iii. Infallibility of Scripture.

Does this mean that we must reject biblical infallibility? It all depends on what you mean by “infallible.” “Infallible” means “unfailing,” and for something to “fail” or “not fail” depends on the standard you are measuring it up against. So when you confess Scripture is “infallible,” what standard are you presupposing? If your standard is modern science, for example, I’m afraid you’re going to have a very hard time holding onto your confidence in Scripture, because last I heard, scientists were pretty sure the sky wasn’t a dome that was “hard as a molten mirror” (Job 37:18) as it held up water (Gen.1:7) with windows that could be opened so it could rain (Gen. 7:11). So too, if your standard is perfect historical accuracy, or perfect consistency, you’re going to sooner or later run into trouble as well for similar reasons. In fact, I would argue that you’re going to run into problems if your standard is even uniformly perfect theology. For example, we instinctively interpret references to Yahweh riding on clouds and throwing down lightning bolts to be metaphorical (e.g. Ps. 18:14; 68:4; 104:3). But ancient biblical authors, along with everybody else in the Ancient Near East, viewed God and/or the gods as literally doing things like this. They were simply mistaken.

iv. The Cruciform Standard.

But why should anyone insist that Scripture conform to any of these standards of accuracy? If we accept the view that all theological concepts should be centered on the cross, then it means that our understanding of “biblical infallibility,” as well as “biblical inspiration,” should be centered on the cross. And as I said above, if God most perfectly revealed his perfection by identifying with our imperfections on the cross, then we should have no problem affirming that the Bible is a “God-breathed,” “infallible,” and even a “perfect” book while at the same time accepting that it contains human imperfections. And it’s not simply that Scripture is inspired despite having human imperfections, as many argue. If we accept the cruciform approach to inspiration, we should rather affirm that God “breathes” through Scripture’s human imperfections as readily as God “breathes” through any and every other aspect of Scripture.

Finally, if we accept the cruciform approach to inspiration, then the cross becomes the standard against which Scripture’s “infallibility” must be assessed. In this light, to confess that Scripture is “infallible” means, most fundamentally, that it will not fail to bear witness to the crucified Christ if properly interpreted through the power of the Spirit, and with our eyes focused sharply on Christ. As Luther, Calvin, and most Protestants since have understood, all Scripture was written for the ultimate purpose of bearing witness to Christ (see Jn 5:39-47; Lk 24:27). If you go to Scripture with a heart that is open to the Spirit and with the ultimate goal of finding Christ and growing as his disciple, it will not fail you. And when this is your highest aspiration, Scripture’s occasional inconsistencies, historical errors, outdated cosmologies, and conflicting theologies simply fade into insignificance.

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21 responses to “Scripture’s God-Breathed Imperfections

      • Stark also has a book length reply to Paul Copan that is free to read online. Google their names together to find it, IS GOD A MORAL COMPROMISER? Well worth reading. I was also one of Thom’s proof readers for some chapters. I believe he acknowledged me. But I was most impressed by his endorsements by Dale Allison and J.J. Collins, some superb scholars.

  1. Peter Enns is also someone worth reading on this topic. And he speaks from experience, having lost his job at a conservative Christian seminary due to raising questions concerning the OT.

  2. This is a really good article, and I like Boyd’s emphasis on focusing on Christ and not the Bible as the foundation of our faith. As a result, I agree with most of this article. However, he seems to be assuming a kind of traditionalist inerrancy which ought to be rejected.

    Inerrancy must always take into account the context in which the authors wrote. I would beware discarding inerrancy on the basis that maybe their cosmology does not square with modern science or archaeology might not be totally aligned with preconceived notions of what the text means. For example, the exodus was probably not the entire nation of Israel. It was probably just the Levites, but that tribe’s story became the whole nation’s story and was retold as such. That does not mean Scripture is errant in those details then. Or even by saying the stars fall from the sky (when they don’t), the authors were writing from their Ancient Near Eastern context. You can be an inerrantist and think the stars don’t actually fall from the sky. Again, the context must be weighed, and inerrancy must be defined properly. As NT Wright has pointed out, “inerrancy” nowadays assumes a kind of post-enlightenment analysis which is not how Scripture was ever meant to be read.

    Side note: the documentary hypothesis and a late dating of Daniel does not contradict inerrancy.

    Nonetheless, good article. I’m looking forward to reading more in the future! Thanks for sharing.

    • Yes, there are different definitions of inerrancy, but Evangelicals have been arguing over those definitions a long time with no end in sight. Read the history of such arguments in the book, INERRANT THE WIND: THE TROUBLED HOUSE OF NORTH AMERICAN EVANGELICALS.

      • Edward, from our previous engagements, and your own site, it is obvious that you’re a skeptic of theism, religion, Bible, etc.. However, going on your book recommendations (which I take it you are reasonably familiar with), what is your general view of inerrancy? And the different types of inerrancy?

        • I have read the books I suggested, or at least major portions of them. There will always be debates over what inerrancy means because there will always be debates as to what each biblical author is saying and/or teaching in their historical context and how it may or may not apply to our own. Some will say the Bible is speaking clear as day, others will claim it depends, while still others will claim that taking other passages into consideration, the Bible might even be saying the opposite. It also depends on which passages a theologian considers primary and which passages the theologian chooses to view as less central and downplays them. There are also harmonizers and splitters. Some who believe they have explained away all the difficult passages, and others who admit a host of difficulties and unclear passages remain.

          As for my own approach, I prefer specific examples that involve comparing different parts and teachings in the Bible, and comparing gospel stories, rather than trying to debate or define enormous concepts like “inerrancy,” “inspiration,” etc.

        • “The enterprise of inerrancy” means what? Can anyone prove the Christian Bible, unlike all other writings on earth, is “without error” from cover to cover? What method is one using to determine that the Bible is error free, except an initial assumption that it must be, then coming up with post facto excuses for why this or that passage might not constitute an error of some sort?

          Moreover, if you used the same wide array of excuses offered by “inerrantists” for Bible writings, I am sure you could argue that nearly any ancient writings were “inerrant.”

          • It simply means determining whether or not inerrancy is true. Some people start with the assumption the Bible is error free based on it being of God, but that is not how all Christians view it. Some thoroughly focus on the human aspects of it, and they say we should expect errors as a result of it being a collection of human writings. Either way, it is nothing against Christianity whether or not it is inerrant. There are just different views of how to understand the Bible.

            There is a danger in both reading any alleged contradiction and accepting it as such without further reading into the text as well as coming up with linguistic jumps which ignore the context and defy logic in order to reconcile some differences. Both alternatives disrespect the intricacies inherent in much of the text.

              • I don’t know. There is general historical and exegetical methodology, but these would be dependent upon how one decides to define inerrancy. Then there is always the question of whether inerrancy itself is the right question to be asking since this concept would probably not have been a strict stipulation for the biblical writers to follow.

            • There is no methodology used by historians to determine if any ancient document is without error, so basically you are agreeing there is no methodology behind claims of “inerrancy.”

              • Of course there is. Historians use criteria like multiple independent attestation, the criteria of embarrassment, archaeological evidence, whether the ancient text is giving revisionist history or not, etc. in order to determine whether an event recorded is accurate, literal, revisionistic, commentary, etc.
                Many Christian historians incorporate these things when debating whether the Bible is inerrant. Many still wonder whether inerrancy is even the right question.

                Besides, just because something may not have a strict methodology does not mean the pursuit of the question is meaningless.

      • I would point you in the direction of persons like Craig Blomberg, Mike Licona, and J.P. Holding and Nick Peters who wrote “Defining Inerrancy” which is largely a response to a traditionalist inerrancy which removes Scripture from its context.
        I often find those who reject inerrancy do so on the grounds of rejecting traditionalist inerrancy and not contextualist inerrancy which Blomberg defines as, “without error according to what most people in a given culture would have called an error” (https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/interview-with-craig-blomberg/).

        The goal then is to use scholarship to determine what a text means to its audience generally accepting error as a last resort. If genuine error is found, I would refer to the article above, but I haven’t seen anything to necessarily draw that conclusion yet.

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