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Imperfections in Scripture

Lee at The Dubious Disciple generously and kindly reviewed my book When People Speak for God. In that review, he included the following sentence:

A discussion of inerrancy follows, and how Henry’s recognition of the Bible’s imperfections has not disturbed his reverence for God’s Word.

Now before I discuss this line, let me emphasize that this is not a critique or rebuttal of Lee’s review. I’m not saying he misunderstood me. What happened is that his particular phrasing suggested some clarifications to me, and I want to write about them now.

Let’s start with an analogy. Supposing I’m viewing a sunset with one of my grandchildren. I might discuss imaginary shapes suggested by the clouds, the beauty of the colors, and the gift of beauty that God has given us. Were a scientist to hear my description, and think I was teaching my grandchild about the technical aspects of a sunset, he might well consider that there were serious imperfections in my talk on the sunset.

In turn, if I was explaining the technical aspects to the same grandchild, discussing refraction, the composition of the atmosphere, cloud formation, the rotation of the earth, and so forth, while the scientists might be satisfied, if my wife heard the lecture, and supposed I was watching a pretty sunset, she might well consider that there were imperfections in my discussion of the sunset, which she would doubtless point out to me.

Each of these ways of talking about the sunset is good and appropriate in its proper setting, and each is severely deficient when used in the wrong context.

Now let me turn to the Bible. One of the points I endeavor to make regularly is that we must observe what the Bible is, rather than trying to predefine what the Bible should be. Instead, we often use texts such as 2 Peter 1:21 and 2 Timothy 3:16 (and if we’re lucky, 17) and construct our doctrine of what the scripture should be, whereupon we set to work trying to demonstrate that it is what it should be.

I think it would be better to observe how the Bible came to be, and determine from that just how God speaks through scripture and how it is that we should hear his voice. My primary suggestion would be that everything in the Bible starts from God acting, and people experiencing God in action. From there, the writers report God’s actions in history.

This necessarily involves their perceptions and their cultural backgrounds. This comes very strongly into play as we interpret Genesis 1 & 2 along with other creation stories. On the one hand we have objectors who see the creation story as deficient because it doesn’t tell a scientific story. On the other we have those who believe it must tell a scientific story, so therefore it does tell one.

My question is just how we expect God to communicate to those who wrote this story. Should he first provide them with all the various scientific theories and data that would allow him to tell a story that we would take as scientifically accurate? What would happen then to believers a couple hundred years in the future? Might they not regard such a story as ridiculously primitive and therefore not divine?

It’s my contention that God spoke to those people in the context of their culture and their cosmology. If I look at this as a scientific treatise or an historical record, I will, indeed, see imperfections. The Bible is very imperfect at being what it is not.

While these elements of ancient cosmology may look like errors to us, they are actually “intentionals,” i.e., they are intentional elements of the way God chose to communicate with people and also chose to provide scripture.

I would add further that the way in which the Bible was transmitted also points away from this kind of accurate fulfillment of our modern desires. I’d love to have good material on which to base precise dating of the kings of Judah and Israel. But if you try to line up those numbers you’ll find they don’t work so well. A massive effort of proposing co-regencies and various differences in recording accession years can bring much of it into line, but even Edwin R. Thiele (The Mysterious Numbers of the Hebrew Kings, Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Academic, 1994) had to suggest that some of the final records of the northern kingdom had been lost. (I don’t have the page number, but I’ll hunt it down if anyone requests it.)

The message of the books of Kings is not lost, however, because I can’t satisfy my curiosity. Thus what is an imperfection from my perspective is not an imperfection from another.

I know this presents problems for some Christian apologists. The eternal effort to prove the Bible’s truthfulness, or at least make it highly probable, is very important to some. But the question is whether that enterprise matches God’s intent in scripture. As I mentioned earlier the benefit of 2 Timothy 3:17, which doesn’t say, “that the man of God may know history” or “that the man of God may know science.” Of course our understanding of how scripture is presented and how it came to be will impact the way we read that passage as well!

Now just because the Bible is aiming to teach those subjects doesn’t mean it doesn’t have information on those topics. That is a separate investigation. What it does mean is that if we try to evaluate the Bible as a history or science book, we’ll find imperfections, since “perfect” always relates to a goal or standard. If we’re using the wrong standard, we’ll be misled.

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