This is a follow up to a post I wrote recently about biblical inerrancy. It’s a clarification of sorts, or at least an elaboration on what I do and do not believe about the Bible and why.
I am an ordained elder in and lifetime member of the Church of the Nazarene.
We are a denomination in the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition that grew out of the American Holiness Movement. Bringing together several like-minded groups who all shared a passion for holiness, the Church of the Nazarene officially formed on the dusty plains of Pilot Point, TX in 1908.
Not long after the denomination formed my great-grandfather became a member and my family members have all been Nazarenes ever since.
Our little denomination is not without its flaws, but one thing I am quite proud of is our statement of faith on the Bible.
The Church of the Nazarene was born right about the same time the fundamentalist movement was beginning to grow and take hold in the broader church. Begun as a response to fears over scientific breakthroughs, in particular evolution, and the rise of modernity, several groups of American Christians decided they needed to take a stand against what they perceived to be an attack on Christianity in general and the Bible in particular by affirmed what they believed were the “fundamentals” of the Christian faith.
At the 1910 General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church, USA, a document was formulated and ratified entitled “The Doctrinal Deliverance of 1910.” That document, or more specifically the doctrines affirmed therein, came to be known colloquially as “the 5 fundamentals.” Appearing on that list of fundamentals, and codified by a church council of any kind for the first time in the history of the Christian faith, was the doctrine of biblical inerrancy which stated that “the Holy Spirit did so inspire, guide and move the writers of the Holy Scriptures as to keep them from error.”
This declaration that the Bible is perfect in everything it says – not just theology, but every claim about science, history, geography, and every other type of claim – was the culmination of a movement that had begun to coalesce 34 years earlier at the Niagara Bible Conference where the idea of, at least the phrase, Christian fundamentalism itself got its start.
(Note: The importance of total inerrancy not being affirmed by any creed or church council before this point cannot be overstated. The argument that total inerrancy was simply assumed by the church to be orthodoxy and therefore did not need to be affirmed by creed or council holds absolutely no water. There are no more assumed doctrines in the Christian faith than our belief in Jesus as God and his resurrection from the dead and yet these most basic, core, assumed doctrines have been affirmed by creeds and councils since the dawn of Christianity. Why? Because orthodoxy doesn’t operate on assumptions.)
Despite the tsunami of support for fundamentalism and biblical inerrancy during the early part of the 20th century, the Church of the Nazarene decided to take a slightly different path, rejecting the idea that the Bible was totally inerrant, and choosing instead a much less reactionary approach to the changing cultural climate. In the first Nazarene Manual (and every manual since, with only slight variations) we affirmed what is sometimes called “limited inerrancy,”
“By the Holy Scriptures we understand the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments, given by Divine inspiration, revealing the will of God concerning us in all things necessary to our salvation.”
What does that mean?
It means that we as Nazarenes (along with many other evangelicals) believe that the Bible perfectly reveals the good news of the gospel and God’s plan for our salvation, but we don’t believe the Bible itself is perfect in every scientific, historical, and geographical detail.
In other words,the Church of the Nazarene, like many other denominations, rejects the notion that as Christians we either have to affirm total inerrancy or abandon all claims to truth.
Because total inerrancy or rejecting truth is a false dichotomy.
Affirming the truth of the Bible does not require us to require that the Bible be perfect because truth, as I said in a post the other day, can and often is delivered through imperfect vehicles. Such is the case with the Bible. It did not drop magically from heaven. It was written by human beings, human beings inspired by God to be sure, but that inspiration did not supersede their humanity. That is why Paul calls it “God-breathed Scripture” not “God-written scripture.”
So how do we determine which parts of the Bible are “true”?
Believe it or not, answering that question is not nearly as problematic as it’s made out to be. However, the question itself is rather problematic.
Unfortunately, since it was first affirmed in 1910, inerrancy has, for many in the church, come to be synonymous with truth. It is not. Inerrancy is about a means of communication and truth is not solely contingent on the way in which is it communicated. So, when the critics of those of us who do not affirm the full inerrancy of the Bible ask this question, as they always do, they make a categorical error in doing so by equating inerrancy with truth as if by rejecting inerrancy we are necessarily rejecting truth along with it. We are not because, once again, the messenger does not have be perfect for their message to be true.
For example, if you were to ask 10 different eye witnesses to a bank robbery what they saw, you would get slightly different stories from each, including some factual errors. However, those discrepancies would not change the reality that a bank had been robbed.
The same is true with the Bible. The gospels each have slightly different records of Easter Sunday, noting different amounts of people at the tomb in each gospel account. However, those discrepancies do not change the reality of an empty tomb.
In other words, a lack of perfection does not suddenly render it impossible to find the truth in the Bible.
Which is why it’s critical to remember that it is the Spirit that guides us to truth, we don’t begin there as total inerrancy claims.
It is this Spirit that, along with the church, has also shaped our tradition, guided our experience, and informed our reason for 2,000 years enabling us to understand the perfect truth of the Bible in spite of whatever flaws might be present. That is to say, we have 2,000 years of Spirit-led people working through, testing, and embodying the truth of the Bible to serve as our guide for understanding the Bible and affirming the truth therein.
To be clear, I am not advocating for a return to pre-Reformation days when church authorities were the sole interpreters of scripture. I think we need to be able to read the Bible ourselves and we need the church’s guidance. But the problem with an exclusively sola scriptura approach to scripture is that it often leads to an unhealthy individualization of the faith that is divorced from the rest of the Body of Christ and which can radically contort the meaning of scripture around our own personal beliefs and desires. When this happens and we reject the guidance and authority of the church God Himself established, inerrancy becomes our foundation for remaking the faith in our own image because if the Bible is completely perfect then we are free to rip individual passages out of their Biblical context as isolated perfect truths. When that happens our reading of scripture ceases to be what it is, our interpretation, and instead becomes the truth.
We have to remember, or come to recognize, that even the claim to inerrancy is an interpretation of scripture as the Bible makes no such claim of itself. Which means even in claiming the Bible is inerrant (or vice versa) we demonstrate the critical role that the church plays in our understanding of the Bible as it has been churches that have affirmed or rejected inerrancy for the past 100 years, not the Bible.
The very fact that such interpretation takes place and is necessary, speaks at least in part to the reality that not only is scripture not always clear, but it has all sorts of internal issues that raise questions which needs answers the Bible does not clearly provide such as the account of an ark which by the very dimensions listed in scripture could not physically carry two of every creature on earth.
But this imperfection is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, some of the early church fathers even saw it is a good thing because, as they claimed, those stumbling blocks were actually put there by the Holy Spirit to guide us beyond the literal and into the deeper spiritual meaning of scripture.
In other words, every detail of scripture isn’t perfect and not only is that ok, but in some sense its supposed to be that way so that we can be challenged to grow in our faith.
Like countless other Christians throughout the past 2,000 years, I believe that the Bible is a beautiful gift from God that perfectly reveals the good news of the gospel and God’s plan for our salvation and that we don’t have to make claims of it that it doesn’t make of itself in order for its message to transform us and the world we live in – which it does each and every day no matter how many people were actually at the empty tomb on Easter Sunday.
This is why I am a Nazarene and why I believe the Bible is inerrant in all things necessary to our salvation, but not in all things.
It may seem like theological hair splitting, but it’s an important hair to split.
For one path leads us to a doctrine of the Bible that bestows upon it divine perfection that should only be accorded to God Himself.
While the other acknowledges the role humanity plays as God’s messengers and proclaims faith in God’s ability to work through those flawed vessels, all the while allowing the Spirit the room the Spirit needs to guide us to the truth.
I know we do not all agree on this issue and probably never will. But at the very least, we need to come to recognize that rejecting the total inerrancy of the Bible is a theological disagreement, not an act of heresy.
It is the rejection of the truth of the Bible that is an act of heresy
And rejecting truth and rejecting total inerrancy are two very different things.
Grace and peace,