“Sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whisky bottle in the hand of (another)... There are just some kind of men who - who're so busy worrying about the next world they've never learned to live in this one, and you can look down the street and see the results.” - To Kill a Mockingbird
Why is the Bible so often described as the ultimate authority and foundation of Christianity? Isn't the ultimate authority of the faith actually Jesus, God in human form, the One who fully embodies the Almighty, saves us from sin and separation from the Divine, and guides us both through his teachings while on earth, along with the personal indwelling of the Holy Spirit?
There is an unfortunate tendency among Christians, denominations, and churches to blindly follow their particular faith community's doctrinal adaptations as ultimate truth regarding what the Bible says. This is why there are, literally, thousands of Protestant denominations and just as many variations of theology.
Writing to Timothy, the Apostle Paul had this to say about Scripture:
"Every scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for showing mistakes, for correcting, and for training character." - 2 Timothy 3:16 (CEB)
Somewhere along the way, though, we Christians developed the terms "inerrant" and "infallible" as means to describe the authority of God's word to the human race. There is a difference in these terms, which Baptist blogger Roger E. Olson details quite well in a 2015 article here. (I tend to fall into the "infallible" camp)
I also tend to agree with this position on Scripture adapted by Fuller Theological Seminary: "Scripture is an essential part and trustworthy record of divine self-disclosure. All the books of the Old and New Testaments, given by divine inspiration, are the written Word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice. They are to be interpreted according to their context and purpose and in reverent obedience to the Lord who speaks through them in living power.”
That little word, "context," in the above paragraph cannot be over-emphasized. Extreme literal interpretations of the Bible over the centuries in attempts to apply Scripture out of historical and cultural contexts have led to innumerable atrocities and injustices committed by the church and Christ-followers including racial discrimination, promulgation of slavery, subjugation of women, and perpetuation of violence.
Strict adherence to a particular doctrine or theology also carries with it the potential for sin, namely idolatry. Yes, it is possible to place the love of our particular Biblical interpretations above our love for God, and Jesus calls that sin.
At the end of the day, no one (including me), no church, no denomination, no theology can claim knowledge of absolute truth on scriptural interpretation. Frankly, these things tend to distract us from our ultimate purpose, loving God and loving others, and divert attention from the message of salvation and instruction in righteousness, the Bible’s key themes.
That's why I always return to Jesus, God in the flesh, as the foundation of my faith. When something a pastor, teacher, or church leader says doesn't line up with the words and teachings of Jesus, I have to question it.
The folks at the Clergy Coaching Network recently shared the following statement, attributed to Pastor Kendal Brown, which I believe adequately embraces my own thoughts:
"I believe the Bible.......
- enough to seek to understand not only what it says but what it means.
- enough to study the context of the text.
- enough to honor its original languages, the fact that words don't always mean the same thing over time and that some words do not translate.
- enough to realize that the King James Version contains wonderful poetic language that inspires and comforts but it also contains horrendous translation errors.
- enough to know that the Bible did not fall out of the sky, leather-bound in the King James Version.
- enough to attempt to understand that the text without context is a train wreck.
- enough to know that councils of men, often with political agendas fought over which books would be included in the Biblical canon. As is often the case, those with less power lost. (The Gospel of Thomas got some GOOD stuff.)
- enough to know that God didn't stop speaking when they closed the canon.
- enough to know that the Protestant Bible is not the oldest version of the Bible.
- enough to see the Bible as a tool of liberation and not as a means of oppression.
- enough to recognize that when it was written, women were property and slavery was acceptable. Just because it's in the Bible doesn't make it right.
- enough to know that the Bible never claimed to be a science book.
- enough to know that the Bible is not a manual on all things related to sex and gender.
- enough to know that the Bible is not God.
- enough to realize that the full revelation of God does not begin and end with Genesis & Revelation.
- enough to realize that theologies and religious perspectives have histories that can/should be explored and critiqued.
- enough to realize that God is big enough to handle my questions and problems with any given text.
- enough to know that Africans had knowledge of God before they had the Bible.
- enough to realize that my denomination of origin did not always give me permission to ask the difficult questions of the text.
- enough to realize that being a faithful Christian does not necessarily equate to having good interpretation skills.
- enough to realize that devotional Bible reading is not the same as Biblical research.
- enough to realize that racists used to Bible and their narrow view of God to justify slavery --- and not much has changed.
- enough to believe that the letter can and has killed many individuals - but the Spirit gives life."