Question: If the Bible has errors how do we know what is true?

A Two Pronged Approach to Scripture

If the Bible has errors in it, how do we know what to believe? What if it gets salvation wrong? Two excellent inter-related questions that deserve careful attention. Since this is basically a discussion of hermeneutics or a question of "how do we interpret scripture" a full treatment of the issue would require a book length treatise. I will try my best to thoroughly address the issue in the space allotted here. First, those of us Christians who think the Bible has errors tend to believe what we call "the big picture" of Scripture. We accept the forest of Scripture over the trees if you will. God establishing a covenant with Israel and the incarnation of His Son is without a doubt the forest to me! In fact, for many of us, what we can glean about Jesus from the gospels, which do blend history remembered, theology and prophetic utterances from the post-Easter community, is our central hermeneutic for understanding the rest of the Bible. When I read something horrific like Psalm 137:9 ("Happy is he who seizes your infants and dashes them on the rocks") I immediately turn to Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5) who speaks against not only retaliation, but against even being angry at your brother and most importantly here, He tells us to love our enemies!
Matthew 5:43-45 "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' But I say to you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven, for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous." NRSV
For me, all interpretive roads go through Jesus. I am, after all, a Christ-ian, not a Bible-ian. Yes I learn about Jesus mainly from the four canonical gospels but it is the former whom I call Lord and Savior. In Jesus and the Violence of Scripture, John Dominic Crossan wrote, "The norm and criterion of the Christian Bible is the biblical Christ. Christ is the standard by which we measure everything else in the Bible." An obvious test case for me occurs with Jesus' teaching on divorce (Mt 5:31-32, 19:3-9; Mark 10:2-10; 1 Cor 7:10-11). In the Old Testament, the Mosaic law permitted husbands to divorce their wives as long as they gave them a certificate of divorce. Jesus is posed a question on divorce and responds with, "What did Moses command you?" and then after receiving the answer straight from Deut 24:1-4 he flatly rejects a normative practice that the Old Testament regulates and condones. John Meier highlights how astounding this is:
"By completely forbidding divorce, Jesus dares to forbid what the Law allows--and not in some minor, obscure halakic observance but in one of the most important legal institutions in society. He dares to say that a man who duly follows the Law in properly divorcing his wife and marrying another woman is in effect committing adultery. When one stops to think what this involves, Jesus' prohibition of divorce is nothing short of astounding. Jesus presumes to teach that what the Law permits and regulates is actually the sin of adultery. That is, precisely by conscientiously following the Torah's rules for divorce and remarriage, a Jewish man commits a serious sin against one of the commandments of the Decalogue, the commandment against adultery (Exod 20:14; Deut 5:18). This is no small matter; it is, at least according to the Pentateuch, a capital offense." [A Marginal Jew, Volume IV]
This is not to say Jesus dismissed the Torah here as he, of course, in Matt 19 is shown as appealing to the created order in the Garden story as justification for his views on marriage. God made them male and female and let no person separate what God has joined. I am aware of Malachi 2:16 but determining the original reading on textual grounds and translating that passage are both very difficult tasks. Jesus had no issues flatly dismissing a practice the Mosaic law regulates as normative (note Jesus specifically asks what Moses commands and the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus also took this as a command). This goes beyond Jesus simply intensifying the Torah. He is changing part of it completely. This incident alone tells us that God has accommodated scripture at times and it may contain rules that go along with cultural truths no longer applicable ("because your hearts were hard"). It certainly opens up a can of worms.

So to summarize thus far, knowing what is true in the Bible comes down to two things for me: First, looking at the bigger picture. It is true that some doctrines and beliefs can no longer be justified using standard hermeneutical approaches. Anything based on an isolated or small set of scriptures is not axiomatically considered "absolute truth" but the big picture is granted. A Christian could unobjectionably be in the habit of granting Scripture the benefit of the doubt but again, the forest over the trees. The second is the person of Jesus Christ. On earth he was the image of the Father and his life and teachings guide our path, including his attitude towards Scripture at the time which was mostly positive. His self-emptying and sacrificial death demonstrates God's freakish love for us and provide us a model we can fail to completely emulate as we strive to do God's will. It also gives us a standard by which we can judge the rest of Scripture and God's character. Christianity is not a religion of a book, its a religion of a Person. In essence, Jesus of Nazareth is our colander and everything is filtered through his life, death and teachings. A third prong will be discussed in the third section below but lastly for now, it would behoove me not to also mention that errors in the Bible do not prevent a Christian from faithfully accepting Church dogma such as that found in the Apostles or Nicene Creeds.

An Accusation of Picking and Choosing

This line of questioning is sometimes posed by proponents of Biblical inerrancy against those who reject it as an argument meant to imply that progressive interpretations of scripture "pick and choose" what they want to believe. How we know what is true and what isn't in Scripture is a matter of interpretation or hermeneutics. As was illustrated in the first section above, progressive models of inspiration do not interpret scripture in an arbitrary fashion but nonetheless, I wanted to give this objection a bit of context. It is estimated that there are over 200 different denominations of Christianity in the US alone and possibly 45,000 the world over. There are probably just over 2 billion Christians in the world with half of them being Roman Catholic. Different denominations of Christianity often have overlapping views on many key issues but they tend to differ on one or two that make them distinct. Each Christian denomination thinks they get at least one thing right that the others get wrong. If this startling diversity can be found even in groups who hold to the inerrancy of scripture, then it is obvious that the question, "how do we know what is true in the Bible" as an objection to progressive Christianity loses its force. Figuring out what scripture is teaching (what is actually true) is a necessary task that applies to all Christians. Accusing progressive interpreters of the Bible of "picking and choosing" when there are over 40,000 Christian denominations in the world is quite banal. The truth is we all have to decide between different interpretations of the Bible. We all have to interpret Scripture and we probably all have a desire for certainty. Some methodology is of course superior to others but we need to seriously ask what uniformity has the doctrine of inerrancy ever brought to the church? Protestant Churches, many of which are so intent on sola scripture and inerrancy, have split over and over again after the Reformation. We have Calvinists, Lutherans, Anabaptists, Anglicans etc., and all manner of sub-groups within.

If inerrancy when coupled with a sound Biblical hermeneutic was so important, one wonders why there is such an astounding diversity in Christendem? Inerrancy has not produced an interpretive consensus in the Church on a lot of issues and it probably never will. To an outsider it looks like most Christians are just "picking and choosing" on various issues in a proof-text hunting war. In light of the stunning diversity of scriptural views produced by Biblical Inerrantists, I do find their "picking and choosing" charge difficult to seriously entertain.

The truth of the matter from my perspective is that we do have to "pick and choose" what to believe at times based upon our personal experiences and individual approaches to scripture. Many Christians suggest that we should interpret "scripture in light of other scripture" and I don't disagree, but sometimes one scripture is better described as tempering another scripture (e.g. James on faith and works in Paul) and in some cases, directly opposing it. We saw it with Jesus' statement on divorce above (he used Creation to thwart part of the Mosaic law) and Jewish Rabbi's have known and utilized this technique for a very long time. EP Sander's wrote, "Citing one passage against another in order to justify ignoring or disbelieving an unpalatable part of the Torah is also known. The Rabbis did not agree with another major aspect of the ten commandments: that God visits 'the iniquity of the fathers upon the children to the third and fourth generation' (Exod 20.5). Against this view they could appeal to Ezekiel (Ezek. 18.1-20)." [Jesus and Judaism]
Exodus 20:5: "You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me

Ezekiel 18:20: The person who sins shall die. A child shall not suffer for the iniquity of a parent nor a parent suffer for the iniquity of a child; the righteousness of the righteous shall be their own, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be their own. [see 1-19 as well]
I understand that our sin has a social dimension that can impact those around us for sure, especially our families, but I also realize that punishing people specifically for the sins of others is grotesquely unfair and immoral. Not to mention it is petty and vindictive to push it to the third and fourth generation! Imagine if a police officer had the same philosophy while monitoring traffic and doled out speeding tickets not only to the vehicle speeding, but also to the three cars behind it that were traveling at the posted speed limit. It is not hard to guess which one of these passages I favor or "side with" nor does it seem difficult to me to determine which one is a better fit with the life, teachings and actions of our Lord and Savior who humbled, lowered and voluntarily subjected himself to torture and death on a Roman cross so that we might be saved. In its own way Exodus 20:5 isn't all bad because those who object to the Bible often forget to read the very next verse where God shows his steadfast love to a thousand generations of those who keep his commands. So even this problematic verse is at least telling us that God's love far outweighs his punitive side.

Often times it appears as if scripture teaches contradictory doctrine. Do we approach from the perspective of dispensationalism or covenant theology? Can a person lose their salvation? Cessationism or continuationism? Partial or full preterism? Pre, post or amillennialism? Limited atonement or universal salvation? Pre, mid or post tribulationism? Free will or predestination? Calvinism or Arminianism? Penal substitution, satisfaction, Christus Victor, ransom theory or solidarity? You can find a host of scripture on all sides of many issues and Christians disagreeing over it. Any good systematic theology text will highlight a lot of these doctrinals debates and we have so many different denominations in Christianity partly for this reason. We can also make the Bible say almost whatever we want. There certainly was no shortage of Biblical ammunition for proponents of chattel slavery in the Americas in the 1800s. Reading sermons and arguments by pro-slavery Christians from the time period is informative. I’ve seen beliefs accepted based on far less biblically. The Old Testament certainly made justifying Holy wars that much easier and both Testaments have places that freely lend themselves to misogynistic thought. We all have to make decisions when it comes to scripture and it seems to me that inerrancy is sometimes just a pretext or a way for a person to pawn off or justify what they believe and teach as exactly what God believes or teaches. I firmly believe the Bible reveals the nature and character of God, teaches us theology and sound doctrine, narrates an account of his covenant with Israel and the crucifixion of his Son on a Roman cross but admittedly, it appears to do some of these things in a bipolar fashion at times. There are competing trajectories and we are left to wrestle with Scripture. Usually those who think progressive Christians are "picking and choosing" are often just confusing their own views and thoughts with God's. Kenton Sparks wrote:
"Perhaps the most telltale indicator of fideism appears when we find ourselves believing our own view of things is literally "what God says" while the views we oppose reflect "what human beings say." Consider this example from a fundamentalist book on biological evolution: 'If the days of creation [in Genesis 1] are really 'geologic ages' of millions of years, then the gospel message is undermined at its foundation because it puts death, disease, thorns and suffering before the Fall. This idea also shows an erroneous approach to scripture-that the Word of God can be interpreted on the basis of fallible theories of sinful people.' To be sure, the author of this statement has his finger on a potentially significant theological difficulty raised by evolution, namely, that death seems to have entered creation before the fall of humanity. Nevertheless, his understanding of the ideological conflict itself is quite erroneous. Although the author describes the situation as a quarrel between God's infallible Word and fallible human science, this is an illusion created by the assumption that his interpretation of Scripture is a perfect reflection of "what God says." In reality, however the conflict is not between the Word of God and human science but between fallible human interpretation of Scripture and fallible human interpretation of nature. By sleight of hand, the author implicitly assumed that his own interpretation of Scripture was infallible, thereby shielding his "infallible" views from the criticisms of modern science. His fideism is perhaps emically unconscious, but it is also intellectually insidious."[God's Word in Human Words]
One of the biggest differences between evangelicals and myself is how we describe the genre of various Biblical books. As an example, if someone views Genesis 1 as a historical-scientific account instead of Hebrew poetry that seeks to establish monotheism and the sovereignty of God, they end up with a host of insurmountable scientific difficulties. I don't view history as the genre of many works in the Bible though it certainly contains a great deal of it, more so in some sections than others. A lot of the errors that crop up in evangelical circles don't apply to my take on Scripture. In my view, lots of apologists end up putting out fires of their own making. Despite all our differences on peripheral issues, there is strong agreement in the Church on cardinal issues.

God is the Best Hermeneutic

Sometimes the question posed in the title of this article is a person looking for a list of man-made rules that would allow us to distinguish between what is true and what is false in the Bible. Steps to follow to decipher scripture. I tried to offer a generalized version of this in section one. There is nothing wrong with trying to read a text in context and interpreting it as it would have been when written using the historical-critical method but scripture needs to be read through faith, while listening to the Holy Spirit. Asking for a decoder ring may approach Scripture from the wrong angle and neglect the most important Resource we have: God himself. If we really desire a full list of rules let me provide some context and see where that leads.

All Christians have to first identify what constitutes the Bible, then translate and interpret it, and finally figure out how to apply that in our lives. Three steps and each is fraught with many difficulties. Before we can ever even begin to read Scripture we have a lot of hoops to jump through. Our English New Testament comes from publishers, not heaven. It is ink printed on cellulose and the molecules composing it are no more special than any other molecules. The books of the Bible were written by many different authors over a long period of time and had to be gathered together into a definitive canon over an even longer duration. We can't even agree on how many books make up the Bible. My Catholic version has 73 books whereas the Protestant canon typically has 66 and the Greek Orthodox church 81. All three at least agree on the 27 books that constitute the New Testament. We don't have any original copies of the individual works making up that Christian canon and they were written in a different language. What we do have are similar versions (ESV, NIV, NLT, NRSV and even the KJV, etc.) translated by a committee based off of accepted critical editions of the Greek New Testament which in turn are based off of collections of manuscripts and attempts to reconstruct the earliest version of what the original authors actually wrote. There are thousands of variants between the manuscripts though most (not all) of them amount to very little. Not only this but there were many other Christian works in antiquity that didn't make the canonical cut and not everyone was happy about this or all the works that did. Though this process is certainly not arbitrarily picking and choosing, and though on textual critical grounds, the New Testament is much better attested than some comparable works, there is a lot going on behind the scenes when we open up our Bible. How many choices and decision were made in selecting a specific version? More importantly, how many choices and decisions were already made for us by scholars and Church fathers? Speaking of the Church Fathers we rely on for our canon, they were fond of an allegorical intepretation (in addition to a literal one) that we have since largely ditched.

Things can get complicated in a hurry when we look for a set of criteria by which we can judge scripture. First we have to identify and translate it before moving on to interpretation. Once there we can come up with a list using the historical-critical method assuming we are well versed in ancient history and the sociology of agrarian societies. If we want to get everything right then these rules are important and we need to do a great deal of studying. But at the end of the day, the truth is we don't need to be fluent in Biblical Greek, read the writings of Flavius Josephus or Roman Classical authors. We don't need to be textual critics, Church historians, ancient Jewish historians, linguistic experts or college professors to read and benefit from the Bible. Seeking a list of rules, while helpful at times for sure, can over-complicate things. The "one rule to rule them all" that I would give first is to read the Bible while being attentive to the Holy Spirit. Read and listen at the same time and my apologies for the Lord of the Rings reference I couldn't resist. At the risk of oversimplification, I'd like to lay out Karl Barth's position on the matter: the Bible was not inherently inspired, that is, in and of itself. Instead, it consists of purely human works though they are certainly a valuable witness to the true Word of God (Jesus). The true inspiration of Scripture comes as the Holy Spirit communicates divine truths to us as we read the Bible with an open heart. (Barth, Church Dogmatics V1 pt 2 500). Whether we agree or not with all of Barth's position, he does raise a valuable point. If we are attempting to read the Bible and apply it in our lives without the Holy Spirit, we may be little more than swine trampling pearls. I think we will make more mistakes without understanding the full context of various Biblical works and passages, but what matters most in our lives is not doctrine. The church itself grew and blossomed before the New Testament was even composed and many later groups survived with only a few written works! Some Christian doctrines took a long time to develop in the Church (e.g. the trinity) and needed hashing out (e.g. the duel nature of Christ). It is our relationship with God and the works that faith produces in our lives that is important. My point here is that interpreting scripture is not just about utilizing the historica-critical method and sound hermeneutical rules. It should be read as an open dialogue with God. It is our superior God that saves and convicts us as we read, not our inferior intellect making informed interpretions of Scripture. I'd like to share a quote from Dale B. Martin to end this and though it is on the infallibility of scripture, it is very much applicable to this discussion.
"Thus, like every other proposition or confession, theological or otherwise, the claim that "scripture is infallible" is both true and false. It is false if taken to mean that the Bible, read just like an instruction manual, a history book, a biology textbook, or even a book of dogma and doctrine, will provide straightforward answers in propositions that correspond to reality. It is false if it is taken to mean that the narratives of Genesis provide a correct "history" of the beginnings of the universe and human beings. It is false if it is taken to mean that the accounts of Jesus's words and actions can be accepted as "what really happened" according to modern historiographical methods. It is false if it is taken to mean that Paul's statements about behavior should be followed by modern Christians the way we would follow Robert's Rules of Order or some "owner's manual" for our bodies and lives. In other words, the statement "scripture is infallible" is false if it is taken the way it has been by the great majority of modern Christians in the past two hundred years.

But like almost all the theological propositions or confessions addressed in this book, it is true if it is interpreted correctly. It is true if it means that Christians may justly trust that scripture, as long as it is read in faith by the leading of the holy spirit, will not lead us to fatal error. We may trust scripture to provide what we need for our salvation. We may trust that we can read scripture in prayerful hope that God will speak to us through our reading that text. But ultimately this belief-or, perhaps better put, this stance, attitude, or habitus-is actually an expression of our faith not in a text but in God and the holy spirit. We "leave it up to the holy spirit" to protect us from damnable error in our readings of scripture. We depend on God to keep us with God in our readings of scripture. Properly understood, the doctrine of the infallibility of scripture is a statement less about a text and more about God." [Biblical Truths]

The first paragraph from Martin is certain to raise more eyebrows than the second but my faith is in God, not cellulose. To finish up let us circle back to the beginning. If the Bible has errors how do we know what is true? Well we can't claim this for minor doctrines and peripheral issues but if we are asking exclusively about the big picture of salvation history, we know that is true quite simply because we trust God. I suppose leading with that might have saved us a lot of time but I hope this helps shed some light on a very good question!

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