Free the Bible!

Evangelicals love their Bibles. We have defended it for many decades against critics who sought to strip these holy texts of God, miracles, and of any reason for why we might see it as God's word at all. Evangelicals rightly recognize that the Bible is a revolutionary work worth fighting for, an inspired source that continually questions our comfortable assumptions and challenges us to do much, much better.

That being said, it is time to admit that something has gone terribly wrong.

In our efforts to defend the Bible, we have gone too far. While strenuously believing in the Bible, we have made ourselves incapable of reading what it actually says. We have domesticated God's revolutionary Word, turning it into a human-made idol.

Evangelical institutions have backed themselves into a corner so that they are now firing and attacking mere truth-tellers, evangelicals struggling to reconcile their beliefs about the Bible with what the Bible actually says. It is time to change our views of the Bible - not because of its "problems," but because of ours.

So how did we get here? Let's look at the logic behind this "battle for the Bible."
Evangelical reasons for defending the Bible are:

  • The Bible is God's word, meaning God inspired men of old to write the Bible exactly as he wanted it to be, and so God stands behind every word.
  • A book 'written' by God, then, could never misrepresent facts, i.e., present as history something that didn't happen.
  • Nor could God authorize a Bible that is inconsistent in content or gives immoral commands, since God would never mislead or lie.
  • Therefore, the Bible is free from error, and to disagree with the Bible is to disagree with God.

Though some will quibble, it would be hard to find an evangelical organization that doesn't agree with this logic.

But this logic causes problems for readers of the Bible. Why? Because the Bible itself doesn't support it.

The Bible contains well-known historical problems, inconsistencies, and moral difficulties--so many, that the encyclopedias, books, and essays written by evangelicals to "defend" the Bible could probably justify their own Library of Congress classification number. The need to produce such lengthy defenses of the Bible is an indication of the depth of the problem, and does little more than back faithful and well-intended readers of the Bible into a corner.

This "battle" is seen among some evangelicals as evidence of their uncompromising faithfulness to God and to scripture. But it is faithful to neither--for it creates a Bible that doesn't exist while claiming that God is behind it.

Few women and men trained in the study of scripture would hesitate to affirm that the Bible has its share of pressing problems. From Cable TV, the Internet, Time magazine, and most any college "introduction to the Bible" course--or simply careful reading--will raise pressing questions in the minds of readers.

What reader of the Bible hasn't noticed that, already by the sixth chapter, God's anger rises to the level of drowning every living creature in the world except for one chosen family (Noah's)? Later he commands the Israelites to exterminate every Canaanite man, woman, child, and animal so they can move into the land. The killing of others, either commanded by God, ignored by him, or done by him, punctuates much of the Bible. It seems as if execution and corporal punishment are God's preferred means of conflict resolution. Yes, today we believe that God is love and that we should love our enemies and turn the other cheek, but that should not mean we have to find a way to redefine genocide and murder as love.

We must confront the reality that the Bible is not timeless in every way but represents a series of ancient communities wrestling with timeless questions. Today we know slavery is wrong, though it is accepted in scripture without much pushback. The book of Leviticus forbids enslaving Israelites, but according to Exodus and Deuteronomy, the Law of Moses not only allows fellow Israelites to be enslaved, but says that a slave can be beaten to death with no consequences if he survives "a day or two." If he dies immediately, the owner will be "punished" but not in the "eye for an eye" manner if two free men were involved. After all, slaves are property. As are virgin daughters when it comes to marriage. Even worse are virgin women of other nations: they are spoils of war divided among the Israelites. By these measure, even the NFL comes across as "progressive" by comparison.

There are many troubling issues like these - places where logic, morality, archaeology, and history do not neatly line up. But is that really a problem for the Bible? Does that really mean that it is no longer "inspired?"

Evangelical organizations tend to protect the Bible (and its readers) against information about these problems--either by ignoring the evidence, minimizing its impact, insulating people from it, or adjusting the data with inventive and idiosyncratic readings until it fits with the logic described above. But it is exhausting and stressful to have an expectation of how the Bible needs to behave that the Bible itself simply doesn't support.

For all Christians, the Bible is God's word. But when that claim of faith is thought to require a Bible that is a depository of accurate historical information, consistent content, and timeless moral commands, a Bible is actually being created, not described. And that kind of Bible won't survive without constant tending, vigilance, and a cyclical supply of encyclopedias, books, and essays "explaining" the problems and "defending" the Bible in the face of clear evidence to the contrary. And good, honest, scrupulous Christians will need to be thrown overboard for the community to preserve this illusion.

The Bible is what it is, and we are all free to accept it as is or walk away. But we are not free to create a Bible we would like. What the Bible looks like is God's call. Accepting that Bible, the one that exists, is the beginning of true faithfulness to God and submission to his word. Once we free the Bible from these unnecessary shackles, we allow it to once again to be what it was designed to be: not something we go to as an index guide for absolute truth but which points us to the source of truth, inspiration, and hope.

Tune in next week for another post by Peter Enns author of The Bible Tells Me So: Why Defending Scripture Has Made Us Unable to Read It.