How can an uninspired Bible be truthful? [Questioning Faith #4]

Ted Grimsrud—November 10, 2022

There are senses of the term “inspired” that we would all agree do apply to the Bible. It has served as the sacred text for all the various Christian traditions for their long histories. In some sense, they all have treated it as such because they have believed it comes from God. The presence of that belief is a descriptive reality whether we think it is appropriate or not. It also seems descriptively the case that the Bible has provided insights and inspiration for many, many people over many, many years.

However, if we add another dimension to the meaning of “inspiration,” some of us are more likely to demur. Some of us, in fact, will believe that this added meaning actually undermines the meaningfulness of the Bible. What if we mean by “inspiration” that the Bible’s existence and content cannot be understood in human, historical terms but must be understood as a direct revelation from God? Many Christians seem to believe that the Bible is different from “merely human” writings and thereby create distance between the Bible and other human writings.

Problems with “inspiration”

Belief in this difference lends itself to the acceptance of ideas about the Bible that may be demonstrably false—such as the idea that the Bible contains no errors, that the Bible contains no internal contradictions. Belief in this difference lends itself to assertions about the Bible’s authority in Christian communities that end up being, in practice, assertions about the authority of human interpreters of the Bible. Ironically, emphasizing the Bible’s inerrancy and its authority often leads to de-emphasizing the actual content of the Bible. The Bible itself is extraordinarily anti-authoritarian. Anyone who uses the Bible in authoritarian ways is actually displaying a commitment to human ideas about the Bible over letting the Bible speak for itself.

Another problem that arises due to belief in this distance between the Bible and other human writings is a tendency to think of the Bible as a kind of magic book that gives us directives that come straight from God. Sometimes this leads to affirming ethical directives that may be supported by specific Bible verses but are not supportable based on human experience and are actually inconsistent with the broader message of the Bible. An obvious example would be the persistent support for slavery in the United States among the most orthodox Christians well into the 19th century. Pro-slavery Christians had a wealth of support from what they claimed was the direct teaching of the Bible.

I note one problem that has become apparent in recent generations with the influence of the understandings of inspiration that I have just mentioned. Many people who disagree with the leaders of Christian communities or with authoritarian practices or with the oppressive ethical practices agree that those leaders and practices are “biblical.” Thus, they conclude that in order to advocate for more egalitarian and humane approaches they need to jettison the Bible. The liberating message that is actually present in the Bible is thereby missed, and the Bible’s potential to empower human wellbeing is diminished.

An “uninspired” Bible

So, when I refer to an “uninspired” Bible I specifically have in mind rejecting this idea of the Bible being in a fundamental sense something different than “merely human” literature. If by “inspired” we simply mean inspirational, I can affirm that—as I will show in what follows as I discuss how I believe the Bible is truthful. However, I think in the Christian tradition, the tendency has been to emphasize the idea of the Bible as more than “merely human.”

I would say that the Bible is indeed truthful, but that its truthfulness is best understood in strictly human terms. The Bible does not give us supernatural truths that we wouldn’t have access to otherwise. The Bible has all the characteristics of human finitude—historical inaccuracies, internal contradictions, biased reporting of events. If we are to benefit from the Bible’s truthfulness, we must recognize that that truthfulness comes to us in the midst of the Bible’s human frailties. I actually do think, though, that when we demystify the Bible and read it as a human document, we will be able to see how it is remarkably insightful and capable of giving us truths that do have validity for all times and places. Hence, it is not actually “merely human” so much as human wisdom at its best.

What are some characteristics of the Bible’s truthfulness?

In what follows I will briefly mention a number of aspects of the biblical materials that I find to be helpful and truthful. These are teachings that I think would be apparent to anyone reading the Bible with sympathy. Noticing and valuing them are not dependent upon any particular view of the Bible’s inspiration. In light of these characteristics, the power of the Bible rests on its content not on any particular doctrine about the Bible.

(1) The Bible affirms the value of humanity and of the creation as a whole. The story begins with a powerful affirmation of the importance of humanity to the Creator—and of the importance of the creation itself. Though the story continues with many hurtful events and a portrayal of human brokenness, the presupposition of high value remains. The main reason the brokenness is so tragic is that human beings matter and that the God of the story values them profoundly.

The Psalms in the Old Testament and a number of the prophets, and the book Revelation in the New Testament contain numerous prayers and worshipful proclamations of hope for healing. The overall picture of this healing hope is all encompassing, healing for humanity and for the rest of creation. Again, this hope presupposes tremendous value being given to what Genesis 1–3 teaches has been made in love and for love by God.

(2) The Bible tells the story from below, from the point of view of the vulnerable. Certainly, we meet some of the great and powerful in the Bible, but quite often those of the human elite are portrayed in quite negative terms and, at times, are portrayed as facing judgment and humiliation. Perhaps far more than other ancient texts, the Bible features as central actors, and often heroes, people whose social status was anything but elite. Numerous important characters are obviously portrayed as people without power and status who are lifted up by God. Of course, the most important human character in the entire Bible is Jesus, featured in the first four books of the New Testament. Though ultimately Jesus is confessed to be powerful and victorious, his power and victory are linked inextricably with his vulnerability and suffering.

Not only is the model of Jesus one of humility and the rejection of power-seeking and power-glorifying, but his teaching also placed a strong emphasis on the call of his followers to themselves give a high priority for caring for the vulnerable, the people who suffer discrimination and disrespect, the weak and disregarded. In making such a point, Jesus actually simply echoes the emphasis of the Old Testament’s Torah. The Hebrews originated as slaves in Egypt whose cries of pain were heard by God—who in turn then intervened to liberate those slaves. It was due to the low estate of God’s people that their community norms as articulated in Torah emphasized caring for the vulnerable and resisting the oppressive elites. In time, as the nation forgets those priorities, they are called to account by the prophets.

(3) The Bible emphasizes practice over theory. It is this-worldly and present oriented. The Bible is not much concerned with doctrines, dogmas, and creeds. It presents the life of faith as being centered on life in the here and now. It cares most of all with how people live. Thus, biblically oriented faith will be practice-centered, not theory-centered. The call to faithfulness is a call to engage with people and with the concrete struggle to enhance the wellbeing of human beings and the rest of creation.

The Bible is also not concerned with predictions about the future. Rather, it is resolutely focused on the present of its writers and its audience. The heartbeat of the Bible is to be found in the testimonies of the prophets—including, of course, Jesus, the greatest of the prophets. The focus of the stories and proclamations is on resisting idolatry and enhancing the quality of the lives of people on the lower economic level of society. The Bible is thoroughly political, but in the sense of how people may relate to one another in compassionate and healing ways, not in the sense of how the power elite might exercise domination and control (except insofar as those on the top of the heap are critiqued and warned).

(4) The Bible critiques dominating power and affirms self-organizing potential. It is true that in the years since Christianity became affiliated with empires and power politics, the Bible has all too often been used to buttress the power of the elite. Nonetheless, the stories themselves tend to critique dominating power and to link oppression with idolatry. The tone is set by the story of the Exodus, where the Hebrew people are liberated from the Egyptian Empire. In fact, the focus of Torah, the blueprint for the Hebrews’ society, in many ways may be seen to be on how the society might be a witness against the top-down oppressions of empire.

Despite their beginnings as liberated slaves, the Hebrews are never free from the presence of the dynamics of domination in their society. However, those dynamics are continually critiqued by the prophets. When the territorial Hebrew kingdom meets its end, the prophetic analysis attributes the failure to the injustices of the power elite and the tendency of that elite to seek to imitate “the nations” (that is, the domination-oriented empires of the world).

The critique of dominating power and the vision of a countercultural politics of shared power and inclusion of the vulnerable stood at the center of the message of Jesus in the New Testament. It was reinforced in the writings of Paul, James, and in the book of Revelation. When later Christianity affiliated with the power elite, that led to a blindness in the tradition and a turn away from the political vision of Torah and the prophets and the message of Jesus.

(5) The Bible shows that human reality rests not on a bedrock of retributive justice but rather on love all the way down and restorative justice. One of the big problems in many human societies, including those in the West, may be seen as a disposition toward punitive responses to conflict and wrongdoing. The practice of retributive, eye-for-an-eye justice has created a legacy of fear and violence. Theology has contributed to the problem with notions of God’s holiness and justice that require satisfaction when God’s will for humanity is violated. This notion of reciprocity has been attributed to biblical teaching.

Actually, though, a careful reading of the Bible as a whole indicates that the more fundamental message we are given is one of God’s mercy, of a rejection of the dynamics of reciprocity. The creation story begins with a vision of pure mercy animating creation. Throughout the Old Testament, mixed with images of God as vengeful and punitive, we get a stronger sense of God as patient, forgiving, and most of all willing to initiate healing even in the face of many rejections of God’s directives. Ultimately, the biblical story gets us to Jesus, who portrays God as endlessly compassionate and offering unconditional forgiveness.

God’s justice in the Bible is best understood as God’s initiative to restore broken relationships. Justice has to do with healing that which has been damaged—much more than punishing wrongdoing and the demand for payment for debts incurred through turning from God. The Bible ultimately abolishes the debt-orientation and its disempowering impact.

Human reality in the Bible is relational, embedded in the big story of God’s healing love. The Bible is best seen as a storybook that invites its readers to join in the ongoing manifestation of that love. Meaning is most deeply and profoundly found in the relationships of the characters in the story—more so than in abstract ideas and doctrines. The tone of the Bible is invitational, not coercive. In this way the Bible is truthful, even if it’s not supernaturally inspired.

Questioning Faith blog series

6 thoughts on “How can an uninspired Bible be truthful? [Questioning Faith #4]

  1. Ted, in your closing sentence you described the Bible as “truthful, even if it’s not supernaturally inspired”.

    Although I firmly reject the sort of evangelical notion of inspiration I used to hold to, I haven’t thrown the idea out altogether. These days I’ve come to see inspiration in a different way: that God by his Spirit inspired (nudged/prompted) people to write down their stories and thoughts about God and their dealings with and experience of him. In some ways I suppose you could say this is not all that different from a composer who happens to believe they have a God-given gift being inspired to write a particular piece of music, or an artist to paint a picture.

    The question I ask myself is, is this a valid and/or useful way to think about inspiration, or is it simply a vain attempt to find a way to somehow hang onto a notion that really ought to be jettisoned?

    1. Hi Rob,

      I like your notion of “inspiration.” The operative word in the bit you cited from me is “supernatural.” What I am distancing myself from is a notion of inspiration that would make the Bible something more than human.

      I think the analogy with the composer or artist is good. It really comes down to how we imagine God’s involvement in the world among human beings. If we see God as working through the humans who wrote the Bible to “inspire” them (without exceeding their human limitations) to write words that are truthful and healing, I think we could use the word “inspiration.” But we would be going against the grain of much of Christian history to have “inspiration” be so human.

      I will have more to say about some of these issues in a post on the “Holy Spirit” next week.

      1. Thanks, Ted, for your helpful reply.

        I particularly like how you summarised my take on inspiration as the idea of God “working through the humans who wrote the Bible to “inspire” them (without exceeding their human limitations) to write words that are truthful and healing”. I think that encapsulates it very nicely.

        I also recognise that understanding inspiration this way goes against the grain of much of Christian history. I can’t say that really bothers too much at this point, though it does in some ways make theological discussions a bit tricky because it puts me at odds with many (most?) interlocutors.

        It still surprises me just how often people use “But [insert scripture reference] says XYZ, which is different from what you’re arguing, therefore you need to accept that you’re wrong”. The idea that anything and everything written in the Bible must somehow be objectively and inarguably “correct” still has a very firm hold.

      2. Rob wrote: “It still surprises me just how often people use ‘But [insert scripture reference] says XYZ, which is different from what you’re arguing, therefore you need to accept that you’re wrong.’ The idea that anything and everything written in the Bible must somehow be objectively and inarguably ‘correct’ still has a very firm hold.”

        Indeed. One of the ironies with that approach is that it is acting as if the inspiration (and authority) are to be found in specific verses, not in the Bible as a whole. It also seems to ignore the reality that lots of verses say lots of different things.

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