How to Read the Bible

When approaching the Bible and deciding how to interpret its meaning there are three main approaches used by Evangelicals .  All three approaches overlap to some degree and on their far ends may even be completely dissimilar.  These categories and descriptions can be considered my own and be viewed as a general way in which these approaches are used in practice.

Here are some descriptions pulled from Wikipedia.org:

Biblical Literalism: the interpretation or translation of the explicit and primary sense of words in the Bible. The essence of this approach focuses upon the author’s intent as the primary meaning of the text. It does not mean a complete denial of literary aspects, genre, or figures of speech within the text (e.g., parable, allegory, simile, or metaphor).

Biblical Inerrancy: the doctrinal position that the Bible is accurate and totally free of error, that “Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact.”

Biblical Infallibility: the belief that what the Bible says regarding matters of faith and Christian practice is wholly useful and true. It is the “belief that the Bible is completely trustworthy as a guide to salvation and the life of faith and will not fail to accomplish its purpose.”

The three terms are occasionally conflated or synonymous with one another.  Literalism is often used a pejorative for Inerrancy and occasionally Inerrancy and Infallibility are synonymous with one another.

In all three views the genre of the specific passage must be taken into account. Just like a person wouldn’t read the front page, the opinion section and the horoscope of a newspaper in the same way, someone reading the Bible should read the historical sections, the parables and the epistles each in their own intended context. On the extreme end of Biblical Literalism, concerns for genre are disregarded. The extreme end of Literalism would also define those who believe that the KJV is also inerrant.  Bart Ehrman’s attacks on Christianity are typically only threatening to Literalistic interpretations.

APPLICATION

In Mark 4:30-32 Jesus says

And he said, “With what can we compare the kingdom of God, or what parable shall we use for it? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when sown on the ground, is the smallest of all the seeds on earth, yet when it is sown it grows up and becomes larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”

This passage might be controversial for some because the mustard seed is not the smallest seed. Some point to this as a clear error in the Bible, no less stated by Jesus the supposed God-man.

A Biblical Literalist might look at this passage and insist that the mustard seed is in fact the smallest seed and any evidence to the contrary is false.  A Biblical Inerrancist would look at the passage and suggest that the mustard seed was regarded as the smallest seed in the historical and geographic context in which Jesus was talking. It also might have been a colloquial expression and not intended to be any more precise than that.  With Biblical Infallibility the concern for the accurateness of the statement is secondary to the broader spiritual truth that within the Kingdom of God even a miniscule amount of trust can become something extraordinarily beneficial.

PERSONAL VIEWS

I think it’s safe to suggest that Evangelicals can hold any of these three views.  Others would suggest that only Inerrancy and Literalism define Evangelicalism.  The Barna Group, an authoritative voice in Christian sociological research, only screens Evangelicals for Infallibility.

My own views on these interpretive styles has moved back and forth at different times from being strongly Inerrant, to weaker Inerrancy, to a view that the term is not at all helpful. Currently my view is moving back into Inerrancy. Part of the reason for my vacillation is due to my own misunderstandings of the term and some artificial constraints put on it by other people.

I attended Biola University, which takes a clear and definitive stand on Inerrancy.  Several years ago a new University President was installed.  He stated that without nuance he believed the Bible to be the inerrant word of God.  I thought at the time that was a difficult thing to say because I mistakenly believed that any time a theologian tried to make allowances for the genre or historical context of a particular passage they were nuancing the passage.  This was too strict of a definition of Inerrancy. Biblical Inerrancy does in fact recognize metaphor. What it stands against is defining a passage as metaphorical when it was never intended to be seen metaphorically.  It also stands against defining a passage literally when it was intended to be metaphorical.

The most important word in Inerrancy is “Hermeneutics.”  It is the practice of studying a passage in its historical and literary context.  Simple stated it’s making sure you read each passage the way it was originally read.  Failing to do so leads to mistaken conclusions about the passage.

It would be just as wrong to say that Proverbs 22:6 is true for all children in all contexts as it would be to say that the Resurrection is a metaphor for how Jesus is simply alive in our hearts and minds.  Proverbs are intended to be viewed as generally true, not emphatic universal promises and the Gospels are intended to be historical biographies of real events in a real man’s life.  Taking too literal or too metaphorical an approach to any passage of the Bible might be the same mistake as far as Inerrancy is concerned.

Currently Biblical scholars are beginning to prove the elasticity of Inerrancy beyond what many Evangelicals have been comfortable with.  For instance Mike Licona has met some stern critiques for his interpretation of parts of Matthew 27 as “apocalyptic.”  Others have stated that the Hebrew conquest of Canaan is written in the genre of Ancient Near-Eastern History, in which the authors were expected to exaggerate in order to support tribal or nationalistic endeavors.  In neither case are the scholars saying that the passage is merely metaphor because they are uncomfortable with it, but instead they are applying hermeneutic concerns to studying to the passage before they come to conclusions on what is and is not literal.

If you want to learn more about Inerrancy the place to begin is “The Chicago Statement on Inerrancy”. In 1978 leading Evangelical scholars gathered and came to a consensus on exactly what was and was not meant by the term.  I think
in many regards a similar statement on scriptural interpretation would be helpful in the LDS church. I do not think the LDS church should necessarily adopt Inerrancy for itself but it should clarify how it thinks its Institutions and followers should go about studying and interpreting scripture.

Advertisements

35 thoughts on “How to Read the Bible

  1. These are useful distinctions. I think I might even see and opening to include myself as a proponent of the infallibility of the scriptures. Never thought I’d say that about myself before.

  2. I’m interested in doing some thought about where the spectrum goes from there, to get a handle on what different kinds of liberal interpretations of the Bible are out there. I think the notion that anyone who doesn’t believe the Bible is infallible is out in the flimsy and banal land of “Jesus is alive in our hearts and minds” is just as guilty of misrepresentation or misunderstanding as the person who conflates Inerrancy with Literalism.

  3. I’m fairly comfortable with applying to myself a belief in infallibility as given in the definition in Tim’s post (although I’d apply it to all of Scripture, not just the Bible, and I’d probably be on the “weak” end of infallibility).

    Some of the definitional factors are a matter of spectrum, and one obvious spectrum is how much is God-written and how much is human-written. I’m not comfortable at all with the Chicago Statement, for I think it doesn’t allow for enough of a human element, and I’m not particularly concerned about possible historical or scientific errors in the text (for I assume the authors were writing with the best knowledge they had). On the other hand, I see some distinction between canonized scripture and other types of modern revelation, the latter of which I see as (potentially, at least) as having a greater human factor — I suppose I assume that canonization offers some assurance of a more significant divine role, and certainly of more universal applicability and, more importantly, a standard for evaluating modern revelation.

    And the issue of determining genre is something that is to some extent outside the issue of infallibility or inerrancy. I have no problem with seeing portions of Matthew 27 as being apocalyptic in nature, but I’m unclear as to where the limits are in determining how much of the Bible (or the Book of Mormon, for that matter) that is ostensibly historical that I’m compelled to view that way. As I wrote last month, to me it’s obvious that the first three chapters of Genesis were never intended to be seen as historical, and that determination doesn’t detract from the passage’s infallibility. But what about a passage such as that of the temptation of Jesus? There are clearly parts of that account that (to me, at least) seem intended to be allegorical — but neither would I want to deny it as history. I’m not sure how well, if at all, a doctrine of infallibility speaks to that, and perhaps it isn’t intended to.

  4. Kullervo,

    I’m not exactly sure how to categorize liberal interpretations of the Bible. Part of the role of scripture is to be an objective source outside of your own personal views. If a person wants to take a viewpoint on scripture where they determine what teachings are and are not true based on their own perspective it seems the ball is headed quite quickly down the slippery slope.

    For instance; Person X says that he believes everything in the Bible except the teachings on marital fidelity. Person Y states he believes everything except the teachings on marital fidelity and homosexuality. What exactly does Person X have to offer Person Y to convince him to take on Position X? They’re both the final arbiters of what is and is not true. The discussion takes on the same flavor of a debate on which type of ice cream is the best.

    Outside of infallibility the discussion shifts from “what is true?” to “where is objectivity located?”; from “how true is scripture?” to “what is scripture?”

  5. I’m not exactly sure how to categorize liberal interpretations of the Bible.

    That doesn’t surprise me at all–what I am suggesting is pretty much just not within your wheelhouse.

    Part of the role of scripture is to be an objective source outside of your own personal views.

    That’s begging the question, isn’t it?

    If a person wants to take a viewpoint on scripture where they determine what teachings are and are not true based on their own perspective it seems the ball is headed quite quickly down the slippery slope.

    I suspect you are now doing exactly what the liberals and atheists do when they lump infallibility and inerrancy into literalism. Which only tells me you’re not the right guy for the job.

    Outside of infallibility the discussion shifts from “what is true?” to “where is objectivity located?”; from “how true is scripture?” to “what is scripture?”

    Which doesn’t mean the approaches can;t be thought about and categorized. It just means that they are asking questions you don’t ask, which means you don’t have the tools to do the categorization. That’s why my comment above starts with “I’m interested in doing some thought about where the spectrum goes from there, to get a handle on what different kinds of liberal interpretations of the Bible are out there?” instead of “Tim, can you explain to me where the spectrum goes from there, to give me a handle on what different kinds of liberal interpretations of the Bible are out there?”

  6. For instance; Person X says that he believes everything in the Bible except the teachings on marital fidelity. Person Y states he believes everything except the teachings on marital fidelity and homosexuality.

    And if you think that they are qualitatively any different from Person Z who states that he believes everything, you are fooling yourself. Each of these individuals is navigating moral as an autonomous agent by making a threshold decision regarding from what source he will draw his moral conclusions. Persons X and Y are splitting the moral authority between the Bible and [whatever] , but that’s no less an autonomous moral determination than Person Z’s decision to not split his sources for moral authority at all (if thats really what he is doing, which I think you can argue compellingly that he is not).

    The fact that appealing-to-the-Bible-as-an-objective-source-for-a-cultural-worldview is a fundamental part of the modern Evangelical narrative has nothing to do with whether the Bible, or anything, really is an objective reference point. In other words, saying it over and over again to yourself does not make it true.

  7. “What exactly does Person X have to offer Person Y to convince him to take on Position X? They’re both the final arbiters of what is and is not true. The discussion takes on the same flavor of a debate on which type of ice cream is the best.”

    Logic and reason, for example. Then Persons X and Y are not final arbiters arguing over ice cream preferences.

    Side note: I’ve been reading a lot of history of Islam lately, and it’s interesting that these same questions arose regarding the Qur’an.

  8. Kullervo, by posting your question here were you dis-inviting me from weighing-in in what ever way I could? I agree, I may not be the guy to ask. I’m sincerely curious if you have any insight in how those categories might be defined.

    I also agree that Persons X, Y & Z are all making moral determinations. What I was pointing out was that Persons X & Y are no longer defining the Bible as supremely authoritative. So in regards to the Bible they are asking a new set of questions.

    BrianJ said:

    Side note: I’ve been reading a lot of history of Islam lately, and it’s interesting that these same questions arose regarding the Qur’an.

    Yes, the Islamic view is much more in line with Biblical Literalism and even a step more so because they believe the words were directly dictated from God. This is why they don’t believe it should be translated out of Arabic. With every passing generation the Qur’an moves a step away from it’s readers because Arabic has continued to progress and adapt while the sacred text has not. It leaves some feeling inferior for no longer speaking Arabic in the same way the Qur’an was written.

  9. Kullervo, by posting your question here were you dis-inviting me from weighing in in what ever way I could?

    No; of course not. So, fair enough. It’s jsut that I thought your answers were sort of frustratingly predictable.

    I should qualify all of this a bit–I’m not throwing stuff from the peanut gallery this time. Although I haven’t been blogging much, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the Bible and to Christianity lately (albeit in a way that is probably so far from orthodox that you would still say it’s not Christianity at all), so different possible approaches to the Bible–and to other sacred texts–are on my radar.

    I agree, I may not be the guy to ask. I’m sincerely curious if you have any insight in how those categories might be defined.

    No–I’m admittedly out of my water. I have an increasingly solid idea as to how I approach/understand/interpret the Bible as a sacred text, but without some sort of framework to put it in, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to gab about it in places like this.

  10. Kullervo,

    I can’t say I’ve ever seen a unified liberal approach to the Bible. To the extent that a liberal approach exists, I would say it largely parallels scholarly approaches in not looking at the Bible as a whole but at looking at each component piecemeal, both the books themselves and which philosophical presuppositions one brings to the text.

    For example, a liberal question might be to what extent one follows a methodological naturalism vs. allowing for supernatural incursions into reality. A believer who follows the former will by definition be liberal, while one who allows for the latter can still be liberal, but might intrude into the realm of infallibility.

    Another question from a liberal perspective would be which books, stories, or authors one can consider to be historically reliable. Or alternately, which historical criteria one should use to determine what is most likely to be historical. Or, which sources have a better chance of reflecting the original intentions of the authors.

    The common point among all these is that the liberal approach doesn’t start with a theory of what the Bible is, rather it starts with a methodology, criteria, and/or philosophy and asks the question “What is the Bible?” From there is deduces answers to that question.

    But even with all of that, there’s still a lot of overlap between Evangelical/liberal approaches to the Bible. You might start in one camp and end up in the other. Scholars in both camps tend to follow more scholarly approaches of source criticism, form criticism, etc., but they still consider themselves to be either liberal or Evangelical. The bottom line is that there is lots of slop between the categories, and I really don’t know how to define a “liberal” reading of scripture, so perhaps all of this is not very useful.

    For the most part, this isn’t my fight. I got burned out on these kinds of definitions after playing FARMS whack-a-mole apologetics, and I really haven’t taken the time to figure out where I fit into all of this.

  11. What is the justification for a unified approach to each book in the bible?

    It seems each book/passage/author should be evaluated separately rather than simply superimpose a truth value across all propositions.

  12. I appreciate that Tim clearly defines his terms. Much of the discussion of inerrancy and infallibility is muddied by lack of defined terms.

    In my circles inerrant means “does not err” while infallible means “cannot err”. Inerrant refers to the presence of errors while infallible speaks to the particular quality of scripture and the inability of errors to exist. These definitions are refined by adding clarifying statements such as “infallible in all matters” or “…in matters of faith” or “…in all that it teaches” etc.

  13. Jared, So you want to reevaluate the entire canon? How often should the Christian faith community do this? Is it left to each believer to decide their own criteria for inclusion?

  14. I am not sure this follows. I suppose this discussion is about what it means for a work to be included in the canon. However, unless you can correlate the historical basis for inclusion with a particular judgment on inerrancy or infallibility I think that such a discussion is separate from the discussion of whether a book in the canon should be considered inerrant or infallible.

    Its very plausible that many of the books in the canon were historically included due to there traditional importance, not their factual accuracy. Genesis may be the best example of this. I can’t imagine those that formed the canon did a deep inquiry into the accuracy of the books that had the longest tradition of inclusion. This is a strike against considering some books inerrant, or to have differing views of individual works.

    I am also intrigued by the process of deciding whether the Bible is inerrant or simply doctrinally infallible. What does the decision hinge upon?

    It also seems that the terms “Inerrant” and “Infallible” are vague terms for a particular brand of hermenuetic, one which allows errors in fact and the other that strives to interpret the text without conceding them. It seems that the terms might lose their utility if adherents don’t adopt consistent interpretive rules.

  15. Ah, your question is about genre. And yes each book should be evaluated on its own.

    The wisdom literature for instance should only be read infallibly.

  16. Tim: “Yes, the Islamic view is much more in line with Biblical Literalism and even a step more so because they believe the words were directly dictated from God.”

    Sorry I wasn’t clearer before, but this is exactly the opposite of what I was saying. To be more clear: there are several schools of Qur’anic interpretation (tafsir), some of which take an approach that looks like Biblical literalism, others that look like inerrancy, and so on including liberal, rational, or scientific approaches. Thus, there is no such thing as “the Islamic view”; there are multiple views, even though they all (or I think all; I’m still learning) believe the words were directly from God. And I think that’s what makes the comparison to Islam so interesting: knowing that the words came verbatim and directly from God does not, for example, answer whether the words were metaphor, exaggeration, or literal.

  17. I’m curious what, in general, all of you think is the operating paradigm the LDS church uses when approaching scripture.

  18. I’d say that for the typical LDS member, the scriptures are treated as de facto inerrant, with the proviso that the Bible is de facto infallible “as far as it is translated correctly.” For the typical member, there also is frequently a strong tendency toward literalistic interpretation.

    The typical member may acknowledge that, in theory, there could be mistakes in the scriptures (although the Book of Mormon would be “most correct”), but I don’t think I’ve ever heard any errors or contradictions acknowledged. Members are more likely to acknowledge that there may be mistakes in the Bible (although I’ve near heard of any specific ones), but would say that they weren’t there in the original documents.

  19. I have an increasingly solid idea as to how I approach/understand/interpret the Bible as a sacred text, but without some sort of framework to put it in, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to gab about it in places like this.

    I would love to hear this. You should blog about it at Burning at the Stake. Or your blog. Or something.

    I agree with Eric re: how the typical LDS views scripture.

  20. Based on my own initial thoughts, then looking at Eric, Seth, and Jared’s responses here, I first would have answered that the LDS church leans toward infallibility. “Leans toward,” but does not “wholly subscribe to.”

    Literalism is generally avoided or rejected, but there are notable exceptions; e.g., D&C 20:1 as marking exactly the year, month, and day of Jesus’ birth (a widely held belief, though not universal). Inerrancy is often employed, though usually (I think) by apologists who use it as a tool to secure a point rather than by members or leaders who are merely trying to explain or understand what a verse means. Both, I think, are used more when and because they are convenient rather than on principle.

    How this differs between the Bible and other scripture: In general, Mormons are more likely to approach the Bible via infallibility and other scripture via inerrancy. Add to that the fact that the Bible is much more likely to be approached as possibly-corrupted. (I don’t think that last part differs on principle from a Protestant approach, where textual criticism challenges each manuscript’s authenticity.)

    But thinking on it more, I’d say the LDS church doesn’t operate within any of these paradigms when it comes to scripture. It’s not a rubric that we use, not a question that we ask (at least in this way; see Jared’s response above).

    When you say “the Church should clarify how it thinks its Institutions and followers should go about studying and interpreting scripture,” I think what you’re really asking is that the LDS Church do so using your vocabulary and within your rubric. Because I think the Church says plenty about how its members should study scripture.

  21. Just saw Eric’s (and Katie’s) comments. I should note that I was trying to answer Tim’s question regarding the LDS Church (i.e., the institution), whereas I believe that Eric was focusing on the “typical member.” I do not disagree with what Eric wrote, except that I have numerous times heard members point to specific errors.

  22. BrianJ said:

    When you say “the Church should clarify how it thinks its Institutions and followers should go about studying and interpreting scripture,” I think what you’re really asking is that the LDS Church do so using your vocabulary and within your rubric. Because I think the Church says plenty about how its members should study scripture.

    I agree with BrianJ’s suggestion that there’s no need for the Church leadership to enter the infallibility/inerrancy debate or take a stand on the matter; leave that to the Protestants.

    If I were to point out one area where we could do much better than we do, it’s that we tend to use the scriptures as a prooftext for our beliefs rather than trying look at them freshly and trying to induce their meaning. We often look at verses in isolated fashion rather than look at their context, which is one reason I think it’s way past time that we eliminate versification in the way we publish our scriptures (just as modern translations of the Bible too). We also don’t have a tradition of expository preaching in the way that some evangelicals do, so our talks lend themselves to finding pieces of scripture that support the talk’s point rather than allowing the scriptures themselves to guide the talk.

  23. I’m curious what, in general, all of you think is the operating paradigm the LDS church uses when approaching scripture.

    It depends on the group you are asking. But, I have been unfairly taken to task for separating Mormons into groups. So let’s just say there is a certain group who is familiar with uncorrelated Mormonism, these people are probably in the infallible camp. As an aside, those who listed infallibility as the camp for the LDS church are in this group and naturally see this as the default stance of the church. However, I think the vast majority of Brighamite Mormons lean towards literalism, except in cases where they are given explicit reasons for not taking something literally. For example Mormons would tend not to take Genesis 1-3 literally because the temple endowment basically says to not take it literally.

    It depends on the book in question as well. Those Brighamite Mormons who are unfamiliar with uncorrelated Mormonism, and some of those who are, will tend to be highly literalistic when dealing with the Book of Mormon and the Doctrine and Covenants. I think this group will also lean highly literalistic with the Bible, provided the Bible is defined to include the JST footnotes. Again, exceptions will be made when they explicitly told to make them. For example, D&C 132 is not longer taken literally. As for the PofGP, I have no idea how people read it, or even if they do read it. Though I would guess that these same patterns hold for the PofGP as well.

    But in a certain sense, all of the above is merely provisional. If the prophet and quorum of the 12 told them to junk their scriptures and only consider the current conference report to be scripture, I think all Mormons would support this position. I’m not saying this will happen, I’m just saying there are theoretical circumstances which would lead Mormons to abandon their scripture, regardless of how they read them now. In that sense they out-liberal the liberals.

  24. David Clark: you were taken to task for separating Mormons into unworkable groups that make no sense, not for the act of separating Mormons into groups. I’m sorry if my comments on those threads made that unclear.

  25. For various random reasons I ended up on this page, which is an interview with Craig Blomberg. I enjoyed the whole interview. In particular, I think this part is relevant to this topic:

    Question: Are there certain mistaken hermeneutical presuppositions made by conservative evangelicals that play into the hands of liberal critics?

    Answer: Absolutely. And one of them follows directly from the last part of my answer to your last question. The approach, famously supported back in 1976 by Harold Lindsell in his Battle for the Bible (Zondervan), that it is an all-or-nothing approach to Scripture that we must hold, is both profoundly mistaken and deeply dangerous. No historian worth his or her salt functions that way. I personally believe that if inerrancy means “without error according to what most people in a given culture would have called an error” then the biblical books are inerrant in view of the standards of the cultures in which they were written. But, despite inerrancy being the touchstone of the largely American organization called the Evangelical Theological Society, there are countless evangelicals in the States and especially in other parts of the world who hold that the Scriptures are inspired and authoritative, even if not inerrant, and they are not sliding down any slippery slope of any kind. I can’t help but wonder if inerrantist evangelicals making inerrancy the watershed for so much has not, unintentionally, contributed to pilgrimages like Ehrman’s. Once someone finds one apparent mistake or contradiction that they cannot resolve, then they believe the Lindsells of the world and figure they have to chuck it all. What a tragedy!

  26. Mormons believe the Bible to be inspired, but they also expect incompleteness, inaccuracies and even errors in the Bible. It seems that it doesn’t make Mormons nearly as uncomfortable as it does Evangelicals that the Bible may not tell the whole story or all we need to know. The all or nothing dilemma doesn’t come up. If I had been taught that view as a Mormon I probably would have rejected the Bible long ago.

  27. Just as God uses the poor words of the preacher. And as He uses ordinary bread and wine and water. And as He used a man (Jesus)…He also uses ordinary ink, and paper, and leather…for His perfect and infallible purposes.

    The finite contains the infinite.

    My 2 cents. (late as usual)

  28. Pingback: Validity and Authority of Scripture (Inerrant Word of God)

  29. Pingback: Why factual discrepencies in the Bible are a barrier to faith: lower-order and higher-order concerns | Public Work

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s