It is the very nature of the Bible to affront, perplex and astonish the human mind. Hence the reader who opens the Bible must be prepared for disorientation, confusion, incomprehension, perhaps outrage.
— Thomas Merton
A couple of days ago, I received an email from Anita asking me to write about what is meant by “the Bible is inerrant.” Whew! What a loaded question.
I’ve mulled it over, prayed a little bit, and finally read the comments to her post on her website. As I feared, a few of the comments focused attention on some of the inconsistencies within the text of the Bible. Some comments took the position of “I believe…” and attempted to support their claim. All of these are important discussions on different levels for different reasons, but I have a feeling that Anita might be searching for something deeper, something closer to the heart.
To be honest, the issue of inerrancy in the Bible has never been a stumbling block or hurdle for me. I guess I lump the writing of the Bible in with the Church. Both are inspired by God. Both involve humans, and anytime humans get involved in something, well, let’s just say things seem less than perfect. God is stuck working with us humans despite all of our faults and talents, prejudices and preferences, hate and compassion, cultural indoctrinations, and free will. It is through our humanity that God reaches us, touches us, teaches us, loves us. All of this is obviously represented in the person of Jesus Christ, the living Word of God.
In order to reveal himself to men, in the condescension of his goodness God speaks to them in human words: “Indeed the words of God, expressed in the words of men, are in every way like human language, just as the Word of the eternal Father, when he took on himself the flesh of human weakness, became like men.” (CCC, #101)
Christians believe that the Bible is the revealed Truth of God. It is not the complete or whole Truth since no created thing can contain the whole Truth about God, but the Bible is more complete than any other religious text written in history.
As for the inconsistencies that seem to exist within the text of the Bible, they are superficial to me. I am not a Bible scholar, but I am a student of human nature. The debate over them seems to miss the meaning of whatever the passages are trying to convey. Furthermore, many non-believers find such inconsistencies to be an easy and convenient excuse for not believing in God. How could any rational, intelligent person believe in a book with inconsistencies? If the Bible was supposed to be the word of God and appeared to contain flaws, then they are going to buy into it. The book has to be “perfect” for them to begin to look at it.
Unfortunately, many people buy into this copout because they do not really understand what it means to have faith. If God came down and handed us the “perfect” book with all of the answers to life’s questions easily spelled out, then where is the challenge to faith? Here’s this “perfect” book. It’s from God. Yahoo! We have proof in the existence of God. Life is easy now. And as a result, there would be no doubt, no struggle, no hope, and more importantly, no free will.
The last two paragraphs remind me of a story:
The devil once went for a walk with a friend. They saw a man ahead of them stoop down and pick up something from the ground.
“What did that man find?” asked the friend.
“A piece of the truth,” said the devil.
“Doesn’t that disturb you?” asked the friend.
“No,” said the devil, “I shall let him make a belief out of it.”
Anthony de Mello’s footnote to this story is that a religious belief is like a signpost pointing the way to truth. When you cling to the signpost you are prevented from moving toward the truth because you think you have it already. Debating over inconsistencies in the Bible is like arguing over the color of the signpost and ignoring where it points.
This leads to two senses in which meaning is conveyed within the Bible, literal and spiritual. It is in the spiritual sense that the Bible is inerrant. For example, in the crossing of the Red Sea, one may or may not have a hard time believing in the literal meaning of this scene, but the spiritual sense is a sign of Christ’s victory and of Christian baptism.
Thomas Merton, in Opening the Bible, wrote that the Bible as a whole is a story of redemption, reconciliation, and liberation, all framed around the living Word of God, Jesus Christ. And discernment of what a particular passage means must be examined within this light.
Whether or not the reader is capable of theological faith in the Bible as “the word God,” and whether or not he is able to find any meaning at all in the notion of faith, he cannot begin to understand the Bible unless he agrees to accept something that was obviously in the minds of the authors and the editors alike: the belief that through the Biblical text there comes an inner content which challenges the reader and demands of him a personal engagement, a decision and commitment of his freedom, a judgement regarding the ultimate question.
This…requires two levels of understanding: first, a preliminary unraveling of the meaning of the texts themselves, …which is mainly a matter of knowledge acquired by study; then a deeper level, a living insight which grows out of personal involvement and relatedness… Only on the second level is the Bible really grasped, and it is to this deeper level (not necessarily “mystical” or obscure, but certainly personal) that the writers and editors of the Biblical canon obviously addressed themselves.
Else where in his book, Merton wrote:
For most people, the understanding of the Bible is, and should be, a struggle: not merely to find meaning that can be looked up in books of reference, but to come to terms personally with the stark scandal and contradiction in the Bible itself. It should not be our aim merely to explain these contradictions away, but rather to use them as ways to enter the strange and paradoxical world of meanings and experiences that are beyond us and yet often extremely and mysteriously relevant to us.
…the Bible raises the question of identity in a way no other book does. As [Karl] Barth pointed out: when you begin to question the Bible you find that the Bible is also questioning you. When asked: “What is this book?” you find that you are also implicitly being asked: “Who is this that reads it?”
I highly recommend Thomas Merton’s book, Opening the Bible. This non-denominational book does not teach how to read or interpret the Bible. As a reviewer at Amazon.com wrote, “This book gives an excellent frame of reference with which to read the Bible. Merton clearly addresses what the Bible is and what it is not, what to expect and what not to expect. This book prompts the reader to examine their own life and purposes; it calls on the reader to have a personal relationship with the Word of God. It cautions the reader who reads with a proscribed agenda and begs each individual to set aside their own preconceived ideas and let the Bible speak to them in its own way.”
Finally, to rap things up, I leave you with a quote from St. Bernard (ref):
The Christian faith is not a “religion of the book.” Christianity is the religion of the “Word” of God, a word which is “not a written and mute word, but the Word as incarnate and living”.