I first wrote this post some time ago, in 2014, but the graphic that provoked it is doing the rounds again—and I have thought further about my own response. So I am posting again a revised and expanded version of what I wrote then.
There’s a quotation that did the rounds earlier in the year from a Peter LaRuffa, who is one of the staff at Grace Fellowship Church which is in northern Kentucky:
If, somewhere within the Bible, I were to find a passage that said 2+2=5, I would believe it, accept it as true and then do my best to work it out and understand it.
His comments came in the context of an HBO documentary Questioning Darwin which interviewed ‘seven-day creationists’ and was broadcast last February. There is no doubt that, amongst Peter’s theological peers, his comment would get a round of applause, since it expresses an unwavering commitment to the authority of Scripture as the sole arbiter of truth.
The striking thing, though, is that the saying (attached to a dopy screenshot picture of Peter—he really does not look that dopy on the website!) was circulated by humanist atheists to illustrate how manifestly stupid Christians are. How could anyone with a brain say such a thing? If the Bible is wrong (and it often is) then surely the most honest thing to do is admit it—especially on the subject of creation versus evolution? The comment has also received short shrift from a good number of Christian commentators, particularly those from a ‘progressive’ perspective, as it illustrates the problem with a view of the ‘unfalsifiable inerrancy’ of the Bible. James McGrath comments on his blog:
It is less obvious for some people to see the problem when fundamentalist Christians dismiss evidence from history or science that contradicts the Bible. But it is much clearer when it is math that is at issue. Assuming we agree on a particular number system, then we can say what the correct answer is to a mathematical equation.
If the Bible is wrong about the answer, then it is wrong – there is simply no way around it…
No Christian should think that this horrific way of thinking about the Bible, math, science, history, and rationality is anything but a discrace, one that brings shame on Christianity by being associated with it.
It is rather unfortunate that LaRuffa chose this particular mathematical example, since it is one used by George Orwell in 1984 to illustrate the suppressing of thinking and dissent that happens in totalitarian regimes.
Orwell’s protagonist, Winston Smith, uses the phrase to wonder if the State might declare “two plus two equals five” as a fact; he ponders whether, if everybody believes it, does that make it true? The Inner Party interrogator of thought-criminals, O’Brien, says of the mathematically false statement that control over physical reality is unimportant; so long as one controls their own perceptions to what the Party wills, then any corporeal act is possible, in accordance with the principles of doublethink (“Sometimes they are five. Sometimes they are three. Sometimes they are all of them at once”).
In effect, it makes Creationism look very much like a totalitarian system, controlled by a powerful social conformism to the consensus within that group.
But it is worth staying with this a little longer. Is it the case that ‘If the Bible is wrong about the answer, then it is wrong – there is simply no way around it’? Let’s do a thought experiment where do we come across this (apparently false) mathematical statement. Would we simply dismiss it as being evidently wrong? There are in fact a number of other possibilities:
- It could be an approximation. 2.4 + 2.4 = 4.8, which when rounded to whole numbers make 2 + 2 = 5. This is exactly what is going on in the measurements for Solomon’s temple, where (for example) the bronze ‘sea’ in front of the temple is ‘ten cubits from rim to rim and…took a line of thirty cubits to measure round it’ (1 Kings 7.23). That makes the value of pi equal 30/10 = 3.0 instead of 3.14159. So it is ‘clearly wrong’. Or is it giving the internal diameter of the bowl, and the external circumference? Or is it just an approximation?
- Secondly, it could form a part of poetry. When the Beatles sang ‘Eight days a week/I lo-ooo-ove you’ no-one complained that they had their diaries wrong.
- Or it could be a joke. Or in fact it could be any number of things—because we use language, including apparently mathematical language, in all sorts of ways, not just the mathematical.
In other words, if the Bible says something that looks ‘wrong’, we would be unwise to immediately say ‘it is wrong – there is simply no way around it’ too quickly without some careful thought. This is the mistake that is writ large in Liberal Protestantism. Rudolph Bultmann’s programme to ‘demythologise‘ the New Testament sprung from his conviction that ‘You cannot believe in a world of demons and angels and at the same time believe in electricity.’ Bultmann only needed to meet some of my parishioners (or even read a newspaper) to see how mistaken that view is.
This small example is touching on a much bigger question: how do we know the Bible is true? In what sense is that the case? In the end, I don’t agree with LaRuffa’s position. Perhaps he is trying to put his view of the Bible beyond any reasonable questioning, as James McGrath suggests. But perhaps he is doing something even worse—setting up another set of criteria by which the Bible’s truth is to be judged. This is the problem with all ‘apologetic’ approaches to the question of whether the Bible is true and trustworthy: we set up criteria that it must satisfy, then demonstrate that it satisfies these criteria. In doing so, we have assumed that our own criteria are themselves the measure of truth, and in doing so we displace the Bible’s very authority. This, broadly speaking, is the argument of Hans Frei’s The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative—the effect of modernism was to set up an alternative set of criteria for truth, which the Bible must now satisfy. For conservatives, it must and does pass the test; for progressives and liberals, it clearly fails. And the answer to this test is both shaped by and shapes our assumptions regarding what the Bible is and how it functions.
Frei’s solution is to remove the Bible from such criteria, and call for the Bible to be accepted in its own terms. But I think this simply replaces one set of problems with another one, and make the truth of the Bible just as untestable as Peter LaRuffa does. Instead, we need to recognise (using Anthony Thiselton’s terms) that in reading a text from another culture and another time, we are seeking to find a ‘meeting of horizons’, the horizon of the text and the horizon of the reader.
Responding to the ‘errors’ in the Bible is currently at the centre of the battle for the soul of evangelicalism. ‘Progressives’ reject the kind of inerrancy expressed above because they can see the contradictions in the Bible, and on the basis of it make a plea to recognise that the Bible is not the kind of book it is often assumed to be—an ‘instruction manual for life’ or a list of propositional doctrines (which, unfortunately, is wrapped up in a lot of awkward narrative from which we need to retrieve it). Peter Enns is a good example of this position, first because he lost his job at Westminster Theological Seminary as a result of this issue, second because he is in conversation with Brian McLaren and cited approvingly by Rachel Held Evans, two notable ‘progressives’, and third because he has wrestled with these questions as an Old Testament scholar.
Peter has run a series of blog posts where a number of scholars write about their ‘aha’ moment, when they realised that the old paradigm of proposition/inerrancy would not work for the Bible, and how they came to see things differently. In response, Michael Kruger has invited some conservative scholars to respond to each of these. One in particular caught my attention: John Byron’s discussion of Mark 2.25–26.
He answered, “Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need? In the days of Abiathar the high priest, he entered the house of God and ate the consecrated bread, which is lawful only for priests to eat. And he also gave some to his companions.”
Byron points out what is commonly noticed: that in 1 Samuel 21, David claims he is alone when asking for the bread, and Jesus seems to think his men are with him; and Jesus names the wrong high priest, Abiathar, when in fact it was Ahimelek. Byron is clear that these errors imply something significant:
The problem, however, as I pointed out to my teacher, is that Jesus got it wrong…Over time numerous passages forced me to conclude eventually that the Bible wasn’t a history book, meaning the authors were not trying to give me a blow-by-blow account from creation to the end of the first century.
Instead I came to realize that the Bible was first and foremost a theological book that contains history and uses history to direct me towards God.
In response, Craig Blomberg points out that Byron is mistaken about the mistakes. Yes, David claims he is alone—but he is clearly lying. And the phrase Jesus uses does not mean ‘in the days of’, but ‘In the section which mentions’ (the Greek word is epi). It is the same phrase Jesus uses in Mark 12.26 when he refers to the ‘passage about the burning bush.’ He concludes:
I can understand why some scholars may not be convinced by this solution. But I am consistently amazed at how few ever even acknowledge knowing about it, much less interacting with it. I have cited it in several of my books as have other leading evangelical commentators, who have found it completely satisfactory. It’s unfortunate that Ehrman, Byron and Enns never once disclose if they are familiar with it and, if they are, what objections (if any) they have to it. Until they do, it really is inappropriate for them to claim with such confidence that they know Jesus or Mark got it wrong!
I know both John and Craig, and respect them both. I also share Peter Enns’ frustration when people treat the Bible like a car maintenance manual. But on this issue, I am with Craig; I think John has concluded too quickly that the text is wrong, and the Bible unreliable here.
John pointed out, in the original posting of the discussion, that he offered a further response to Craig’s position in a blog post here, and further explanation in a comment. He includes this important observation:
But let’s take a moment and address the “real” issue everyone seems to find with my “aha” moment. It’s that I suggested that Jesus got the name of the priest wrong. Those who take issue with my statement seem to imply that I am suggesting that Jesus was therefore a fallible human being. Perhaps they equate making a mistake with sin. I am not sure, but I suspect that is the case.
It’s these kinds of assumptions that I think go right the heart of our understanding Jesus’ humanity. What does it mean to say that Jesus, was human? That he was God incarnate in human flesh? Does this mean that Jesus never got confused and called one of the disciples by a different name? Or that he forgot where he laid something? Did Jesus ever get so tired from travelling and teaching that miscommunicated something? Did he ever make a mistake when measuring a stone or a board? Did he ever hit his thumb with a hammer?
I am not sure, but I suspect that for some the idea of Jesus making a mistake like those named above equates him with sinful humanity. Again, I am not sure, but I think that is what they are thinking. I do not, however, understand Jesus to be someone who, as a human, was incapable of making mistakes. Making a mistake doesn’t make him sinful, it makes him human.
This leads me to my further reflection on this question—and three observations in particular.
First, the reason why I am inclined to agree with Craig here rather than John is that I notice how often those who say ‘The Bible is obviously wrong’ have not taken the time or the patience to explore the issues. (That is not the case here, as you can see from John’s response—but in my experience it very often is in other conversations.) A classic example of this is the so-called ‘hardest case’ of the death of Judas, where both popular and scholarly readings claim the accounts in Matt 27.5 and Acts 1.18 are clearly contradictory and irreconcilable. I explored this briefly, and showed how they were actually perfectly compatible accounts, and James Bejon has offered a more detailed exploration of what is going on in the different gospels and their theological concerns.
Some would respond to James’ exploration and conclude that he is going to an awful lot of trouble to avoid the obvious contradiction. But this is about reading Scripture in its own theological and cultural terms; all too often the so-called ‘plain reading’ of a text is reading it plainly on our terms, rather than taking it seriously on its own terms.
This seems to be even more important eight years on from the original post; it feels to me that things have changed considerably even in that time. I think this is because of the continued decline in biblical literacy, the rise in importance of social media, which makes patience engagement and exploration more difficult, and the often shallow debate about sexuality in my context. All too often people say ‘The Bible obviously supports slavery…Jesus obviously prohibits divorce…The Bible clearly knows nothing of faithful same-sex relationships…’ when none of those things is obvious at all to the patient reader.
That leads to my second observation: this whole debate is a hermeneutical one, that is, about our approach to biblical interpretation. And the key to all this is to note the need for a ‘hermeneutical circle’ or, more accurately, a ‘hermeneutical spiral’, in which we bring our interpretive assumptions and expectations to the text, and not only use these to interrogate the text, but allow the text to interrogate our assumptions. John Byron does hit this nail on the head in comment on his blog post when he notes:
The point of the series on Enns’ blog that I contributed to, this was a moment for me when I realized that not everything in the Bible lined up the way I wanted and/or wished it would. I live in the 21st century and expect that details like this will be accurate. Historiographers in the first century, however, didn’t have the same concerns that I do.
So the $64,000 question here is: what expectations did the writer and first readers have for this text? I am not convinced that accuracy of reference is merely a modern concern; I think many of Mark’s readers would have known the story of David well, and it would have caused problems if they thought that his citation was in error. The whole history of people thinking ‘The Bible is obviously wrong’ travels in only one direction: it is our ignorance that made us think this, and archaeological evidence offers surprising confirmation. (F F Bruce’s The New Testament Documents: are they reliable? is still worth reading in this regard.)
But the irony of Peter LaRuffa’s position is that it shares something with Rudolph Bultmann’s scepticism: neither will allow the Bible itself to challenge their assumptions.
My third observation flows from the first two: as a faithful reader of Scripture, I need to be open to revising my assumptions about what it means for Scripture to be consistent and reliable. And yet there could, in principle, come a point where I might say ‘No, actually I don’t think the Bible is reliable—and this matters.’ If so, then I think the logical thing to do is reconsider our whole approach to Scripture and whether God can indeed speak to us through it.
But my repeated experience, in testing the hardest cases, is that Scripture is in fact reliable and trustworthy. This is not foundationalist belief, free from any possibility of failure, but a warranted belief, which has been tested and confirmed by the evidence.
We need to take the humanity of the Bible seriously. But this implies not that it is fallible and mistaken, but that it is expressed in terms particular to the human context of the time—a context where it is fine to speak briefly, approximately and in shorthand terms which would have been understood then, but (at least on a superficial reading) do not make sense to us—unless we think hard, read carefully, and take advice from others who have done their homework.