Can the Bible be true and not true at the same time? We have seen already that it can. I now want to explain this concept in more detail.
We have been discussing the inerrancy of Scripture and how to read the Bible in a way that stays true to the way the Bible functions and why the various authors wrote what they did.
We are now at a place to discuss how the Bible is “true.” I stated previously that I agreed with what I was taught in seminary:
The Bible is a record of things as they actually were, and a true account of those things about which it speaks.
We need a better answer than “The Bible says it. I believe it. That settles it.” Otherwise, we end up with the following problems:
Or this sort of logic (Which is quite close to what I have actually heard in some circles):
Is there a better way to read Scripture that still allows it to be true?
True Records of Untrue Ideas?
Some argue that the Bible is both completely true and mostly false, both at the same time. How is this possible?
Well, this argument states that while the Bible accurately records the thoughts, actions, and ideas of the various Biblical authors and the people to whom the various books were written, these thoughts, actions, and ideas may not actually be the thoughts, actions, and ideas that God endorses, nor the thoughts, ideas, and actions that we are to copy.
Maybe a practical example would help to understand this idea.
For thousands of years, Christians have struggled with how to make sense of the passages in the Book of Joshua where God tells the Israelites to go kill all the men, women, children, and even animals of various tribes and nations that were living in Canaan when Israel arrived there after wandering for 40 years in the desert.
It is possible that what is recorded in Scripture is an accurate and true account of what Joshua and the other leaders of Israel thought God was telling them to do, when in fact, He was not. So when Joshua wrote the book of Joshua, he accurately recorded his thoughts and ideas about how God was working in his life and in the people of Israel, to bring them into the “Promised Land” of Canaan.
In this way of reading Scripture, where would Joshua have gotten such ideas if not from the inspiration of God? Maybe from Egypt, or the culture of other nations that lived in that area, as “God as a Conquering Warrior” was a very popular way of thinking of God at that time.
In this view of Joshua (which, I should say, is not my view), Joshua “is a record of things as they actually were, and a true account of those things about which it speaks” even though this record does not accurately reflect who God is, or what He is like.
Examples like this could abound. Maybe Genesis 1-2 are an accurate and true record of how Moses and the early Israelites thought God created the world, but they were wrong. In this way, while we cannot view Genesis 1-2 as a scientific explanation of creation, it does accurately represent the theology and ideas of Moses and the early Israelites about God’s power and creativity. Of course, in this way of reading, even their theology about God might not be accurate.
We could go book by book, chapter by chapter, verse by verse through the Bible in such a way, seeing that it is an accurate, truthful, and inerrant record of what people thought, even though they might actually have been wrong.
A Useless Bible
I have thought about this way of reading Scripture for a few years now, and while I like that it upholds the accuracy and truthfulness of Scripture, I just cannot accept it as a right way to read Scripture. If the Bible is nothing more than an accurate record of inaccurate ideas, how does it help us at all? It would be useless.
Maybe that is just my conservative training and background being stubborn, but for me, this way of reading Scripture causes the bottom to fall out on too much of my theology.
No, this view of Scripture doesn’t help, because if Scripture is read in such a light, we are nowhere nearer to the “true truth” than we were before we read a single word. If the Bible is nothing more than a true and accurate record of human ideas, then it doesn’t help us much at all in knowing anything for sure about God, ourselves, our condition, or anything of eternal significance.
Descriptive, but Not Prescriptive
Nevertheless, there is one element of this theory about Scripture that I really, really like (which is the only reason I brought up this theory in the first place). The idea is this: While the Bible is a description of what people believed, how they acted, the ideas they held, and I would add to this what God actually did and said, it is not a description of how we should act, or what we should believe.
In other words, I believe that pretty much the entire Bible is descriptive, but not presecriptive. It describes what people did and thought and said, but does not tell us what to do, think, or say. In this way, the Bible is inerrant, true, and accurate, but is not a book of mandated beliefs and behaviors. Certainly, we will believe some of the same things, and behave in some of the same ways, but not simply because “the Bible says it and that settles it.”
I will explain this idea in more detail in later posts, but for now, what are your initial thoughts, ideas, concerns, or objections to such a way of reading Scripture?
I’m pretty sure I read somewhere that billboard is a PhotoShop job, and never actually appeared on the side of any road.
Probably a fine point of distinction, but I choose to think that some passages, such as the Joshua stories regarding mass slaughter of Canaanites at the command of God and certain other passages (such as some of Paul’s advice regarding marriage and women – I don’t think Paul knew much about those matters, but had an opinion, nevertheless) recorded people’s opinions, what they “thought” God was telling them.
I don’t think this makes the Bible a useless book. Using your idea of inspiration, the Bible becomes God speaking to us as we read it and meditate on it. The mass slaughter of people and some of Paul’s advice has never functioned in that way for me.
We might also consider that extra-Biblical sources tend to find sparse evidence of the mass slaughter of Canaanites supposedly described in the Joshua stories. (Exaggerating battle exploits seems to have been a common practice in that period.) But none of this has stopped crusading “Christian” nations down to the present from using the Joshua stories and other support they seem to find in the Bible for an unending stream of war and slaughter. Yes, this is a sensitive topic in this “Christian” nation, one of the most warlike nations in the history of humanity.
Those who believe that God did order the wholesale slaughter of Canaanites, even if that is exactly what happened, seem to have never heard of the concept of such stories as being descriptive rather than prescriptive.
All of this presumably goes to the question of whether or not God has changed in the way He deals with people. Did the God of the OT order wholesale slaughter of populations, while the Jesus of the NT tells us to “love your enemies”? I choose to think God has not changed, only our perception/understanding of Him has changed.
Jeremy Myers says
Yes, it a Photoshop job. Nobody actually put this sign up. Although, the verse does indicate something similar to what the billboard says…
I understand your point about Joshua and some of Paul’s advice. I just could not quite accept the idea that these were people’s opinions, rather than what God really told them to do. I have a theory though, of how to reconcile these passages to the love and grace we see exemplified in Jesus….
It would be really weird if we agreed on everything! Like your hero NT Wright says, I could be wrong on this. I’m probably wrong on at least a third of what I think. But I do change my mind. Or I could say what you say: “I used to think this way, but….” For me, these stories do not match up with the character of the One I know.
For me, it’s just not an issue. If I have a relationship with the God who the Bible tells us about, if I believe He knew me before I was born and if I believe that He is with me even now, whether or not Paul’s advice and Joshua’s actions were based on their opinions or a directive from God is not much of an issue for me.
Sofia Larsson on Facebook says
Remember that one time you and I discussed in the car when I had not seen you for five years, and you explained to me why legalistic Christianity was good as opposed to the more liberal Christianity I was arguing for? This is exactly what I meant then…I’m happy we are on the same note nowdays..isn’t it?
Jeremy Myers on Facebook says
Sofia, It’s crazy how much I have changed… It’s kind of scary. I shudder at some of the things I have said and done in the name of Christianity.
Sofia Larsson on Facebook says
Jeremy Myers: Yes me too… I think my peak of Christian fanatism was when I was 12-17…you’re not alone:)! We are in it together, you, me & the islamists. The only thing separating us is a little bit of time and some shades of grey..
Michael Smith says
I think we need to get a more bird’s eye view on what the Bible says on a subject when we run across disturbing texts. For example, with the slaughter of the Canaanites – does this conflict with the internal consistency of Scripture’s report of a loving God? I believe it does not.
Genesis 18:32 states that God would not have destroyed Sodom if there were ten righteous living in the city.
When evil people multiply it is a curse to the world. However, even when they are multiplying, God still gives them opportunity to change. Life is like probation. God wouldn’t even let Abraham’s family overtake the promised land for another half a millennium. WHY? Because the Amorites (a label sometimes for all Cannanites) had not reached their level of guilt. See Genesis 15:16.
Leviticus 20:23 gives us further insights as to the practices of the Canaanites; they were committing adultery, burning their children in the fire to pagan gods, practicing incest, sex w/ animals, murder, and prostitution. If these people continued to multiply the world wouldn’t be safe for anyone!
So, in summary:
1. The Canaanites had an additional probationary time of 500 years to continue burning children, killing each other, raping animals, brothers, and uncles. WHY? Because God is merciful and holds out in case people will change. Additionally, it is a demonstration of how long He will work with us.
2. If there were at least ten Cannanites in the land that were righteous, He wouldn’t have destroyed them. *Keep in mind the Gibeonites weren’t slain…neither was the house of Rahab.
3. The Cannanites were lewd sinners that wasted their days of probation. *Keep in mind Abraham lived among them as did Isaac and Jacob. So, they must have been somewhat familiar with Jehovah.
We must approach the Bible as it being higher than us, not as critics apporaching something that is on a lower level. This type of method has been a plague to Christianity since “the enlightenment.” The Bible is internally consistent, we just have to search. However, we must also remember that since it is the wisdom of God there will be some things man cannot fully explain…but shouldn’t that be expected??? We are like cockroaches in intellect to the eternal God! See Duet 29:29. Some things remain in obscurity.
Jeremy Myers says
There definitely are alternative explanations to disturbing texts.
There are even some views which allows the Bible to be internally consistent, divinely authoritative, inspired Scripture, and yet still have errors.
See this posts, for example
Bible Made Impossible
Human Faces of God
Higher Criticism is the most dangerous threat to Christianity today. If not crushed, it will destroy the Christian Faith. Here is a perfect example of the disastrous consequences of introducing Higher Critical Thinking into Christian churches: