A Perfectly Imperfect Bible

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the concept of a perfect Bible. I know a lot of books defend the inerrancy of the Bible, and those books seem necessary to people who believe the idea of inerrancy, because a lot of people who do NOT believe the idea of inerrancy have written a lot of books showing the many different apparent inconsistencies in the Bible.

For example, here are just a few.

  • Ecclesiastes 1:4 says the earth will last forever. But 2 Peter 3:10 says “the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up.
  • Genesis 32:30, Genesis 18:1, and Exodus 33:11 all describe direct human interactions with God, face to face. But John 1:18, 1 John 4:12, and 1 Tim 6:16 all say that no man has ever seen God and lived.
  • Leviticus 18:21 prohibits sacrificing children to God, along with numerous other statements against molech (the practice or god of child sacrifice). But in Judges 11, a commander of Israel’s armies named Japhthah vows human sacrifice to the Lord in exchange for victory in battle, and apparently it works, because the Israelites do win, and he follows through. There’s not a single verse condemning him for this act, and in fact the story recounts this as the basis for a long-standing tradition in Israel.
  • Exodus 21:23-25 says “an eye for an eye,” etc., along with numerous other references to retributive justice in the Pentateuch, but Jesus says the opposite in Matt 5:39 in telling His followers to turn the other cheek.
  • God is consistently proclaimed as all powerful and superior to all other gods, but Judges 1:19 tells the story of God being with Judah yet being unable to drive out the Canaanite inhabitants of the valley. Also the end of 2 Kings 3 describes the Hebrews losing a battle despite God being on their side and Elisha prophesying a comprehensive victory over the Moabites.
  • In Genesis 17 and other passages, God clearly commands circumcision, but Galatians 5:2 and other Pauline writings insist that circumcision is not only unnecessary, but a mark of unfaithfulness for followers of Christ.
  • Deut 27:22 says that any man who lies with his sister or half sister is cursed, but in Genesis 20 Abraham marries his half sister and yet is blessed as the father of all Israel.
  • Ezekiel 18:20 says that “The son shall not bear the iniquity of the father” but Exodus 20:5 says that God is jealous, and “visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation.”
  • Exodus 20:12 says to “Honor thy father and thy mother,” but in Luke 14:26 Jesus says “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.”
  • Genesis 1-3 has two different creation accounts with different timings and groupings of creation. As just one blatant example of the differences, Genesis 1 says that man was created on the sixth day, after the plants were created on the third day. But Genesis 2:5-7 says man is created before there is any plant life – “Now no shrub had yet appeared on the earth, and no plant had yet sprung up… then the Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground.
  • Hebrews 13:8 and Malachi 3:6 clearly say that God never changes, but in Genesis 6:6-7, 1 Samuel 15:11, Exodus 32:14 God repents of explicit statements and decisions.
  • Matt 28 records that the first women to visit the empty tomb immediately went and spread the word about Jesus, but in Mark 16 they went away and said nothing to anyone.
  • During His crucifixion, in John 19 Jesus assigns a disciple to take care of His mother as if a widow with no support, but Matthew 13 says that he had several brothers who would have been expected to take care of her just as Jesus would have, making Jesus’ instructions unnecessary.
  • Exodus 20:5 says that God punishes children for the sins of their parents, but Deut 24:16, Jeremiah 31:30, Ezekiel 18:4 say that each person is only punished for their own sins. This is the reason in John 9:2 for the disciples’ question to Jesus about a man’s blindness from birth.
  • In Matt 26, Jesus shared the Passover meal with His disciples before being crucified, but then in John 19 the Jewish leaders want to take His body off the cross before the Passover meal the next day.
  • Numerous verses, including a specific prediction by Jesus Himself in Matt 12:40, say that Jesus was in the tomb three days and three nights, but if He were crucified on Friday and rose on Sunday, that would be impossible – even if we reconcile three days as partial days, that still does not explain only two nights of Friday and Saturday. The Bible does not explicitly say Friday and Sunday, but it does tie the timeline very clearly to a Passover celebration and Sabbath.
  • Jesus said that the existing generation would not pass away before all His end times prophecies were fulfilled, and the early disciples and apostles clearly expected and taught as if that would happen within their own physical human generation (not a spiritual age). But obviously it did not, and later writings in the New Testament acknowledge the delay and begin to change the church’s approach – especially about the early church’s celibacy expectations.

Are those inconsistencies real or just apparent?

At some level, the answer to that question doesn’t matter for the purposes of this discussion, because I’m interested in the simple fact that there ARE many such apparent inconsistencies. To put it concisely, there are lot of ways in which the Bible is open to misinterpretation and where various statements or rules or ideas are expressed contrary to other places in the same Bible. That’s a hard thing to reckon with for most people.

Typical responses to this problem go one of two ways. People either insist there ARE no inconsistencies, and then attempt to explain how those apparent inconsistencies are not real. Or, people say that they are real, and must reckon with the resulting challenges to their faith and doctrine.

I’ve often said I consider it strange that anyone designing a user’s manual for a religion would leave so many question marks in it, instead of being rather explicit about literally everything therein.

One may answer “but man didn’t design this user’s manual, God did.” Okay, challenge accepted. If God did design the Bible – literally inspired it into existence exactly as God wanted it recorded – we have some challenges to figure out. Like, what to do with all those apparent inconsistencies.

Starting with a few assumptions:

  • a. God exists (I believe this to be true as a matter of my personal experience and also as a matter of my faith)
  • b. God is significantly powerful (whether or not infinitely so is debatable; there are some things recorded in the Bible that show God definitely has some limits, whether self-imposed or not being somewhat debatable too)
  • c. God actually wanted to perfectly clearly communicate God’s instructions and nature to humans (this is a huge stretch of an assumption, and I don’t think it’s warranted)
  • d. If not, at least God wanted to ensure that humans had at least SOMETHING to point them to God (this is perfectly believable and for me it is a matter of faith without evidence)

From that perspective, since we clearly do have a rather complicated and obtuse Bible with a number of fascinating and troubling apparent contradictions, we have a few choices that I believe are mostly mutually exclusive.

  • 1. God isn’t powerful enough to perfectly ensure that the Bible is perfectly accurate and clear
  • 2. God may or may not be that powerful, but didn’t intend or try to be perfectly clear and accurate
  • 3. God actually did want those inconsistencies included
  • 4. The Bible is simply humanity’s very varied writings about trying to understand God, and God was content to let mankind record whatever it wanted and down-select the possible writings into a reasonably concise volume about God
  • 5. None of the above, because God did in fact perfectly inspire humans to perfectly record a perfect Bible

Of those choices, fundamentalists and many evangelicals obviously choose the last one: the Bible is in fact perfect, full stop, any inconsistencies are not real and are designed to make us think harder, and if we have trouble with the challenges, it’s because we’re simply too limited to understand it correctly.

(And of course, plenty of fundamentalists and evangelicals are in fact are quite convinced that they ARE well able to understand it perfectly, perhaps with the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and everyone else is simply wrong. It’s a convenient and self-serving assertion. There are hundreds of sub-denominations all equally convinced their interpretations are completely correct, but all divergent from each other. It’s so deeply flawed that I’m going to simply set it aside and move on.)

Any of the other choices necessarily accept that the Bible is imperfect. So we’re back to the question of “why.” Is God incapable of assuring perfection (1 or 2)? Or was God not in the business of a perfect Bible anyway (3 or 4)?

I find (4) to be the most likely: the collection of writings we call the Bible is mostly a human endeavor. And, in some ways, it gives me the most comfort. I can set aside my own assumptions about omnipotence and omniscience (which if you study some history of the church, you will learn that those assertions only really developed long after the apostles lived and died), and simply settle into the situation that exists: a sometimes confusing Bible that cannot be fully reconciled with itself. And I can deeply identify with many people who for over a thousand years wrestled with every aspect of God they encountered. (Not surprisingly, “Israel” means “wrestles with God.” It seems I’m in good company.)

But aside from my comfort, I then have to examine my own relationship with this complicated book. On what do I base my faith?

My recent admission that the Bible is imperfect and a rather human document naturally challenges a lot of my long-held assumptions that were based on an explicit understanding that every word was trustworthy (at least, if I found some way to contextualize and rationalize away all the apparent conflicts).

It’s disconcerting, to say the least.

For one thing, it requires me to repent of a lot of utter certainty – meaning, ultimately, a lot of arrogance – that I know the truth, and the whole truth.

For another, it requires me to relax, often with sheer force of will, when I encounter yet another situation where I am uncertain about the Bible and have to admit that I can’t simply point to a chapter and verse as the utterly perfect and unquestionable answer to a situation. I focus in here on the “relax” issue, because it’s stressful for someone raised on complete simplicity of the Bible to admit that it’s actually not simple.

So what do I do with this complexity, once I’ve repented and relaxed?

To my best current understanding, the Bible (a ‘logos‘ or ‎Λόγος in written form) is not, and never was, the Word (capital W) of God. It’s definitely a lot of words about God (about 783,000 of them) full of a lot of holy Truth and “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” and deserves deep and careful study, but not my worship or my obeisance.

On the other hand, the ‘rhema‘ or ῥῆμα living and active Word, Christ as incarnated in Jesus, is The Word (capital T, capital W) of God, and it’s only a living and active relationship with Christ that is the vital thing that is the Way to the Father, not a relationship with a book.

Certainly this view is a long way from my evangelical roots, but it’s the view that most closely aligns with everything I’ve experienced OF and ABOUT God throughout my life AND in my last three years of deep study and learning and repenting.

And yet, it’s pretty certain that this current view I hold is just as transient as anything in my life is. God has my determined “Yes” to correct me on this as with anything else I currently understand. But I don’t need any well-intentioned people trying to bring me “back to the faith,” because I finally sense that for the first time in my life, I’m beginning to find a true faith for the God I’ve always intended and tried to worship in Spirit and in Truth. I fully trust God will continue to lead me into truth, including whatever may be wrong with this particular view of God and the Bible.

So why the title “imperfectly perfect?”

Well, I think God left the Bible this way on purpose. I can’t presume to speak for God, but I can identify a few good reasons that God may have been quite satisfied with the results.

For one thing, there are a lot of varied humans that need the Bible to be different things to them. I have some family and friends who absolutely need a simple Bible, and for them, wrestling the complexity into simplicity is a sacred exercise that they need. Other of my family and friends absolutely need a complex Bible, and a sense that God is walking with them in the messiness of life just like the messy and complex and sometimes contradictory stories with which the cast of characters in the Bible wrestled.

For another, God seems to have been very intentional about giving humans free will. Engineering thousands of humans’ experience and thinking across a thousand years of composition and editing and copying and canonization to produce a completely perfect book seems tantamount to overriding a ton of human agency. But I don’t think that God needs a perfect book to perfectly communicate with man. God sent Jesus and the Holy Spirit to do that.

Also, there have been, today are, and in the future will be a vast multitude of very diverse cultures and languages in drastically different contexts that need the stories about God in their own situations. Given the huge differences between these, and how utterly differently people in such diverse situations think and understand language, it’s actually quite naive to assert that any human book could be translated directly into those situations and still communicate exactly the same things. As the simplest of examples, someone in a slavery situation will always interpret the exact same Bible stories and verses about masters and slaves quite differently than a free person. It’s impossible to synthesize all the stories and commands in the Bible exactly the same between all these different cultures. As such, this diverse and complex and complicated book is able to speak very well to people all across time and location and situation, even if they get very different things from their own Bibles than other believers.

I also believe that God always intended man to be in relationship with God, more than with a book. A messy and complicated Bible ultimately will drive people to seek the Truth – which is a person, not a book. A simple, easy-to-understand, simple-to-apply book would make it far too easy to ignore God in favor of the book. In fact, Jesus addresses precisely this issue to the religious elites of His time in John 5:39-40 when He says “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; it is these that bear witness about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life.” It has always been about relationship, not the Bible.

I used to strongly believe in a perfect Bible. I had many apologetic discussions with an agnostic friend of mine where I said “If we take at face value the idea of God, which comes with infinite power and infinite foreknowledge, then it’s trivial for God to have arranged the starting conditions of the universe to absolutely ensure that the absolute perfect Bible would be produced.” I’m sorry to say that looking back, my former sense of the absolute perfection of the Bible now looks immature and incomplete and ill-informed. Not only does it seem unlikely, it seems like something God would have deliberately chosen NOT to do in God’s foreknowledge.

So in the end, while some people insist that a view of the Bible like mine is degrading to the Holy Book and rejects its importance and authority, I find instead that it does exactly what Jesus was constantly talking about: it daily compels me towards a relationship with Christ, to drawing closer to God, and towards trusting the Holy Spirit to be incarnate in my heart and lead me into all truth and righteousness. And that’s a result I can live with.

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