An old colleague of mine once told me that I should take the Bible “at face value” more often instead of “over-thinking” or “questioning” the veracity of some of its claims. We were discussing the genocide commands/texts in the books of Deuteronomy and Joshua and how I couldn’t accept the historical (or theological) accuracy of an ancient story that suggests that God (whom we know most clearly in Jesus) commanded and helped orchestrate a mass killing of innocent woman, children and infants living in the ancient Mediterranean city of Canaan over three-thousand years ago.
“That sounds more like a real story we would hear on the news about ISIS than a story we would expect to hear about a merciful God who reveals His saving love in Jesus, no?” I asked. My friend—God love him—responded with a move right out of the Playbook of Biblical Inerrancy, if there was ever such a book:
“I see the words of Moses and Jesus as equally authoritative and true,” he responded. “We can’t argue with the word of God even if it makes us uncomfortable.”
At this point I realized that my friend and I were in totally different universes when it came to what lens/approach we use to interpret the Christian scriptures, and in turn, what we believed about God’s essence and character as a result of those presumptions. In short, he was interpreting the scriptures through the doctrine of biblical inerrancy and I was using a Jesus-centered hermeneutic focused on the core nature of God—cruciform love. There is a huge difference between the two as I will explain below.
Understanding Inerrancy and Literalism
Biblical inerrancy came to full conception in what is called the Chicago Statement of Biblical Inerrancy (CSBI) of 1978. It was borne largely out of a modern fundamentalist angst to protect the “accuracy and truthfulness” of the Bible against liberal academic criticism and is one of the flagship doctrines of mainstream Evangelicals in North America.
One of the major claims of biblical inerrancy is that “Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching.” According to the CSBI, inerrancy includes factual accuracy when it comes to the historical and even scientific claims of the Bible. Wayne Grudem, one of the most fervent defenders of inerrancy claims in Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine that “Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact.”
Grudem’s brand of inerrancy casts the Bible primarily as The Divine FactBook, causing millions of Christians to conclude that everything we find in the Bible—like portrayed historic events, the age of the earth, Ancient Near Eastern understandings of God, etc.— should always be taken literally as the authoritative Word of God on all matters. For Inerrantists, “Christ’s (and the Spirit’s) authority, and inerrancy are inseparably linked, if not equated,” writes Pete Enns in Five Views on Biblical Inerrancy (All Enns’ quotes hereafter are from this book). In other words, to question inerrancy is to question God Himself.
But does inerrancy describe what the Bible does?
Not really. To deduce the Spirit-inspired scriptures of the Christian cannon to mere inerrant and authoritative facts when it comes to all of the Bible’s historical, scientific and theological claims and inferences, not only diminishes the mysterious and intended beauty and diversity we find in each of the various biblical genres, but assumes “God [and the ancients] shares our modern interest in accuracy and scientific precision,” argues Enns. And this is where the big problem lies with inerrancy.
For instance, when we take this modern obsession with historical/scientific accuracy and impose it on all biblical genres, we can end missing the cultural complexities and literary aims of the ancient writers. We have to remember—and this is crucial—that these Spirit-inspired authors lived within a specific historical context, and this context to a large extent shaped the types of literary tools employed and their purpose in turn. If we miss this, and instead impose our own cultural expectations on all ancient biblical texts—like to say that all Scripture, regardless of literary genre, is inerrant fact—we will fail to draw out God’s intended message. Here are a few short examples.
Joshua’s ‘Genocide’ Texts
In the book of Deuteronomy, the text describes God’s command for Moses and the Israelites to exterminate the Canaanites upon their arrival to the promised land:
When the LORD your God brings you into the land you are entering to possess and drives out before you many nations—the Hittites, Girgashites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites, seven nations larger and stronger than you— and when the LORD your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy (Deut 7: 1-2).
Clearly, the text says that God commands Moses to “destroy them totally” and to “show them no mercy” (Deut 7:2). And the book of Joshua states that Joshua did obey God’s command—“exterminating them without mercy, as the LORD had commanded Moses” (Josh 11:16-20). End of story, right? But should we be reading this story literally through the lens of inerrancy?
No. That would be a mistake. Here’s why.
This “destroy them totally” kind language was a common literary device in the Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) world that was used in war reports to exaggerate the outcomes of victory, otherwise known has hyperbolic language or war bravado. And the reason the ancients used hyperbole like this in war reports was due primarily to the ANE culture and their understanding of how God worked in the world.
Eric A. Seibert explains in his book Disturbing Divine Behavior: Troubling Old Testament Images of God:
The divine warrior motif was extremely widespread throughout the ancient Near East and is clearly reflected in the way Israel and her neighbours made sense of their military engagements. They believed that God/the gods commissioned wars and fought them, and they understood victory or defeat in battle theologically, as a result of divine favor or displeasure.
The genocide texts in Deuteronomy/Joshua are culturally conditioned by the wider ANE world. This military bravado was not meant to be a literal account of history, but rather, hagiographic history; history which is was not meant to be historically accurate, but rather, meant to elevate Joshua as a leader on whom Yahweh’s favour rested. The everyday ANE reader would have certainly recognized that this was hyperbolic language and the accounts were not understood to be literally true. Clearly, Moses did not intend a literal genocide, because he, like Joshua, was simply following the literary conventions of the day.
This is a prime example of how inerrancy does not describe what the Bible is doing. And if we hold to a rigid philosophy of biblical inerrancy in examples like this, one can see very quickly how this severely undermines the Bible’s intended message and God’s essential character as cruciform love.
A second example is from Revelation 19, where Jesus, upon His return to earth, is depicted as a rider on a white horse whose robe is “dipped in blood” (v.13). He carries in His mouth, “a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations” (v. 15). John tells us that Jesus “judges and wages war” (v. 11) against “the beast and the kings of the earth and their armies” (v. 19). And in the end, Jesus “kills” His enemies with the sword coming out of His mouth (v. 21).
Taken literally, that is, through the lens of biblical inerrancy, the sword Jesus uses is nothing short than a weapon of mass destruction. If this story John tells us is an inerrant (factual) prediction of Jesus’ return, than Jesus is a violent genocidal tyrant who gains pleasure from punishing human beings through mass murder. But, just as the “genocide” texts in Joshua ARE NOT meant to be taken literally as historical fact, but rather are best understood through the specific culture’s literary tools and theology of God, so too are passages like those we find in Revelation 19 (i.e. apocalyptic literature) meant to be understand in the context of the biblical genre/literary tools being used, the intended message of the authors within the cultural/historical context they were living, and most importantly their theology of God.
In this case, John is using symbolic language to describe something about Jesus and convey a message to Christians in their first-century struggle with the Roman Empire. Symbolic language is a common literary tool used in apocalyptic literature, and thus we should read it as such. But we also need to remember that when reading the book of Revelation, we must test our interpretation against the picture that the New Testament gospel stories paint of Jesus’ character, since the entire book, by clear admission of its author, is a “revelation from Jesus Christ” (Rev. 1:9) and a “testimony to Jesus Christ” (Rev 1:2). And so when we read Revelation 19 as the author intended, as opposed to imposing biblical inerrancy onto the text, we come to some interesting and theologically sound conclusions.
For instance, the sword coming out of Jesus’ mouth is not a literal sword depicting a bloody war weapon of the future, but rather symbolizes the word of God. God’s word, the gospel, proclaims Jesus’ real and concrete victory over the spiritual forces of evil and the earthly Empire through the cross of cruciform love. Also, the blood on Jesus’ robe is not the blood of his human victims, but rather His own blood shed on the cross. Finally, Jesus doesn’t judge the Empire and its leaders through a literal military campaign aimed at destroying human beings, but rather wages war through the cross of God’s love and the proliferation of the good news (described in the Bible) of that reality through the renewing and atoning work of the Spirit of life.
“What is truth?” – Pontius Pilate (John 18: 38)
The rigid dogmatism that has come to define biblical inerrancy has amounted to the intellectual (and spiritual) equivalent of placing the Bible and God in a lock box—labelled “don’t ask questions”—and throwing away the key. This has acted basically to “short-circuit rather than spark our knowledge of the Bible,” says Enns. Enns hammers home the point we’ve been arguing all along about making it first priority to read the way God speaks truth in the Bible with an eye for the historical and cultural assumptions of the ancients, rather than imposing our own modern philosophical and cultural expectations on to the text. Enns states:
What should be brought explicitly to the forefront here is the manner in which God speaks truth, namely, through the idioms, attitudes, assumptions, and general worldviews of the ancient authors. When speaking of the nature of Scripture, a valid definition of the word truth must address as a first order of business the energetic interplay of the Spirit of God working in and through ancient human authors, thus ensuring that our cultural assumptions are held in check and revised through engaging this dynamic. Otherwise our cultural assumptions become petrified and immune to criticism.
The key take away here is that you can’t define truth apart from the Bible’s ancient historical and cultural assumptions, especially when they lead us to affirm a god that looks nothing like Jesus, “the witness to the truth” (John 18:37)—i.e. a warrior God who destroys human beings.
First, it’s obvious that a “slippery slope” type of warning is meant to invoke a fear that keeps us under the auspices of CSBI lock-down, mainly because those who support it are deathly afraid of losing something, be it power, control, dogma or all three. This, from the get go, has an air of religious rigidity and embattlement about it, not unlike the Pharisaical establishment of Jesus’ day. Enns hammers the point home: “Arguing for a position on the basis of what you might lose if that position is not retained is not an argument but an expression of fear, which when allowed to reign leads to anger…by means of manipulation, passive-aggressiveness…and emotional blackmail”—i.e. if you reject the doctrine of inerrancy you are rejecting Christ and maybe even salvation.
The slippery slope warning is not only a major element of inerrancy, but perhaps one of its greatest devices to invoke fear in those who would question it or a literalist reading of the Bible. In my estimation, this makes any chance of affirming the slippery slope argument illegitimate and moot.
Second, what many of us are arguing for here is obviously not an all-out assault on every historical and theological assumption or claim of the Bible, but rather, to submit the Bible to the cruciform Word of the cosmos—Jesus. We should remember of course that Jesus is the “visible image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15) come low in self-emptying humility to save (Phil. 2) and reveal to us what God is really like. Jesus said that He is “the witness to the truth,” not the rigid markers of Pharisaical-like doctrine. And so, Kenotic Christology (a theology of the cross), should be the hermeneutic by which we interpret and come to know the truth of the Bible, especially in regards to God’s character and actions in the world. But what inerrancy argues for, whether explicitly or implicitly, is a Bible in which God speaks truth through a “wholly-other” transcendence over ancient human culture, rather than humbly entering into it and letting the context become part of His message to the world. Here we begin to recognize that this ultra-dogmatic brand of inerrancy, in a Christological sense, is both anti-kenotic and anti-incarnational.
Enns explains how this becomes problematic for us who read the Bible today, post-incarnation and cross:
In order for Christians today to be able to trust what God says about salvation, he must at all costs avoid any hint of the Bible’s mingling with ancient ways of thinking…and with ancient conventions of history. God must keep his distance from the human drama, and Scripture must bear witness to how well he transcends the fragile landscape of antiquity.
This CSBI “God” portrayed here is more in line with the un-moved mover of Greek philosophy and that of the gnostics: Impassible, uninvolved, transcendent, and cold. A God who hides in heaven and “saves us from a finite world too mundane to warrant [His] attention,” says Enns. But we know that this God is not at all the God we know concretely in Jesus—the cruciform Word of the cosmos, “in whom the fullness of Deity live in bodily form” (Col 2, John 1, Phil 2, Rev 13).
It is Jesus who the Father commands us to “listen to” (Luke 9:35) and it is only in Him that we can come to a full knowledge of the truth (1 Tim 2:4) and enter into a full measure of salvation.
Next up: Part 2 will unpack what it means to submit the Bible to Jesus—the cruciform Word of the cosmos—so that we can see scripture as an agent of restoration in our relationship with God (including restoring our perceptions of God) and an agent of new creation in a decaying and corrupt world.