Episode 053 – What if the Bible isn’t perfect? (With Zach Hunt)
There are many debates and disagreements within Christianity. Behind most of these, you’ll find one very significant issue. How we read the Bible. The way we read the Bible and what we believe about how the Bible came to be directly gets at what we believe about God. Can Christianity work if the Bible isn’t perfect?
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More about My Conversation Partner
Zack Hunt has spent the last decade writing about the interplay of faith and politics in the public sphere on his eponymous blog, Substack, and Patheos as well as contributing articles to multiple publications. He’s also made appearances in Rolling Stone, The Boston Globe, Huffington Post, and various other media outlets.
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Marc Schelske 0:00
Hey friends, I’m Marc Alan Schelske, and this is The Apprenticeship Way, a podcast about spiritual growth following the way of Jesus. This is episode 53. What if the Bible isn’t perfect?
Today’s podcast is made possible by Journaling for Spiritual Growth. This is my new book. It launched in November of 2022, so it’s just a few months old, but it’s already finding its people. And that is so exciting to me, especially since this is a book with a pretty small target audience. I heard from one woman who grew up in the church, and her comment after reading Journaling For Spiritual Growth was how relieved she felt. For her, this little book helped her to untangle her picture of God and find a healthy way to pursue spiritual growth. I teared up, listening to her.
Here’s an Amazon review that just moved me. “I wish this book had been around when I was at the start of my deconstructing process and trying to form a new connection to my last shred of spiritual practice with the Bible. After reading this book, I can tell you it is something special. I found this book clear, focused, and transparent in its intentions. It became my friend in a way as I explored the prompts. It makes room for one’s personal story and experience. Give it a try. I hope it gracefully surprises you as it did me.” As an author, I could not ask for higher praise than that.
This little book is a six-week process to gently guide you through building a lasting and sustainable journaling practice, where you’ll experience spiritual and emotional growth. My intention was to write something helpful and healing. And if that sounds intriguing, you can get it in all the book places where you can get a signed copy directly from me at my website. Learn more about the book and the places that you can get it at www.JournalingForSpiritualGrowth.com.
Marc Schelske 1:50
There is significant division and disagreement in the greater Christian community. This includes long historical arguments about theology, like exactly what it means that Jesus saves us and exactly how that comes about, and arguments about what it looks like to be a follower of Jesus, even arguments about practical things like the role and rights of women, or the nature of the family, or the role of the church and its relationship to government. Important stuff.
In the moment we find ourselves in, we’re witnessing a resurgence of a kind of authoritarian Christianity that seems to believe that everything would be better if their sort of Christian was in charge of everything, in charge of libraries and schools and elections. Of course, there are many Christians, myself included, who see this tendency as opposed to everything Jesus stood for. And even that is another argument between Christians!
And behind these arguments, you’ll find one very significant issue. Rarely in life can you reduce so many complex problems to one issue, but in this case, I think we can. What’s the issue that has such a wide-reaching impact? How we read the Bible. How a Christian reads the Bible says something about what they think the Bible is about, how they think God relates to humanity, and what exactly they think about how God’s power works. All of these big ideas are wrapped up in this one very practical thing.
Christians come to the Bible with a point of view about what the Bible is. Theologians refer to this question as the matter of inspiration, and this is the heart of so many of our different ways of being Christian. So many of our arguments about the issue is more complex than a simple binary. We can, for our purposes today, suggest that there are two main schools of thought on inspiration.
On the one hand, we have folks who believe that inspiration means that the Bible, as we have it now, is exactly what God intended it to be. And because God’s not a liar, that means the Bible cannot contain any discrepancies or errors. This also means that the words in the Bible stand as an exact, clear revelation of God’s precise will. These folks see the Bible as primarily a divine document. For some of these people, the Bible becomes almost interchangeable with God.
On the other hand, you have folks who believe that inspiration means that, however, the Bible was formed, God was involved and is able to use the Bible as we have it now for spiritual purposes. Now, this group tends to think that the Bible is, in one way or another, primarily a human document.
Now both of these camps that I’ve explained in this simplified way have variations, and an honest accounting of these views would include a lot more nuance than what I just said. But the core question about inspiration remains the same. In what way is the Bible a divine document? And in what way, if any, is the Bible the human document?
Zach Hunt has been thinking about this for a while. He’s worked in church life and ministry in a variety of ways for more than twenty years. He spent a lot of time and effort thinking about how the church got into this position, both through his own formal education with a graduate degree in theology and another from Yale Divinity School in Christian history and then through his own work in the trenches of pastoral ministry where these ideas have to take on practical skin.
Recently, Zack released a book on the subject called Godbreathed: What It Really Means For the Bible To Be Divinely Inspired. And right away, in the introduction, he gets to the heart of this problem. These are his words: “When we treat the Bible and God as interchangeable, something else happens, often without us even realizing it. Because the Bible doesn’t exist on its own, because it was written by people in a culture and time far removed from our own, it requires interpretation. So when we make God and the Bible interchangeable, what we are also doing is making ourselves or rather our interpretation of the Bible, interchangeable with God.” And so I asked him to talk with me about this problem and how it underlies much of the tumult in Christianity today.
Zach Hunt 5:43
What I’m really trying to have a conversation about in Godbreathed is this baseline foundation of where we’re all coming from. Because the reality is none of us come to the Bible as a blank slate, you know. You hear a lot of folks talk about, you know, a plain sense of scripture or plain reading, or they’re just, you know, reciting the Bible, or, “if you have problems, take it up with God, or Jesus”, or whoever it is, and really is like, none of that is true. We come to it with a whole host of assumptions, and ideas, and beliefs before we ever open its pages. And that’s okay. It’s inevitable.
The problem is when we don’t acknowledge that. You know, the problem comes in when we act as if we are free from any sort of bias, or, you know, preconceived notions, that we come to the Bible as a fresh slate and that we’re just repeating the words, unfiltered, ideas unfiltered. And that’s almost never the case, even when we repeat Bible verses that we use as proof texts to prove our theology. Oftentimes, the words that we’re repeating are not the words that we’re saying in our beliefs. There’s translation. There’s interpretation that happens from the page to the profession that a lot of times we miss because we’ve been conditioned to think that, well, we’re just, you know, repeating the Bible. And so what I’m trying to really get to in this book really is twofold.
One is this idea that it’s okay to ask questions, you know. Because growing up in my evangelical background, in my immediate context at my church, you know, that was okay, but in the broader world, asking questions about the Bible, or doubting or pushing back a little and criticizing, you know, was blasphemy because the Bible was akin to God. And so, if you’re questioning or criticizing scripture, you’re spitting on the face of God. And so I want to give people permission to ask questions, to be free to wrestle with Scripture in the same way that the people of God have since before there was a Bible. I mean, you go back to the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible story of Jacob, and he’s literally wrestling with God. So the idea that we can’t do that with the words of people written about God is crazy. But that’s an unspoken–sometimes spoken in certain contexts–constraint that most of us face.
But the other was, is trying to approach scripture in a way that is honest and that maintains intellectual integrity. Because, you know, to hold up things like biblical perfection or inerrancy requires more mental gymnastics than I am physically capable of. It’s dishonest on the most basic level, but to get to that, the people who affirm it, don’t start there. They’re starting before that with a confession of faith. It’s already been decided before the folks who believe in inerrancy pick up the Bible that the Bible is perfect. And so they spend all their time from that point on trying to reconcile and do all this work that’s completely unnecessary because the Bible doesn’t need to be perfect to communicate truth because that’s not how truth functions.
You know, your parents teach you truth all the time growing up. Your teachers teach your truth. Your pastor teaches you truth. None of those people are perfect. And that’s what makes the Bible challenging is that it has both. We have to do the hard work of understanding those cultural contexts and facts. But we also have to do the work of understanding the role of storytelling, and how that worked in the ancient world, in the ancient Near East, and for the people of Israel, and why there is still truth to be gleaned from stories whether or not they took place historically,
Marc Schelske 9:21
We had a really interesting example of how this plays out practically last night in our discussion at church. The lectionary passage that we had last night was Matthew’s version of the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet. So we read this passage out, and we go through our discussion process, “What about this passage is meaningful to you” and something began to happen. People were talking about the story. They began unconsciously–not noticing they were doing it–to synthesize details from the different gospels, and those details were not in our text.
We stopped, and we said, “Wait, why do you why do you think that about this person?” “Well, the Bible tells us that this was a sinful woman,” and I’m like, “Wait, look at our text. Does our text in Matthew say this was a sinful woman?” We looked? No. Well, why do I think that? Oh, we flipped over, and we’re like, that’s in Luke’s gospel. Why do Matthew and Mark not name this person? Luke calls this person a sinful woman, and then John identifies it as Mary of Bethany. And Mary of Bethany was known to Jesus and the disciples. They were friends. So why wouldn’t the disciples and Matthew and Mark have recognized that it was Mary of Bethany? That doesn’t make sense. The minute I started asking this question of them, “Where are you getting that detail?” And we looked at the text, we’re like, “Oh, something is happening here.”
Why do we have this intuition to synthesize the stories? And I think it’s what you’re talking about. It’s that because we have this preconception that the Bible is journalistic reportage, that every detail is portable into all the versions. So like, for example, the metaphor that came up was that we think of the Gospels as four different security cameras aimed at the same intersection. And because they’re on different corners, they catch different details, but they’re all talking about the same event. But when we looked at the text the way we did, we’re like, that can’t actually be the case. Right? Just this one detail. The disciples knew Mary of Bethany. Why would they not have recognized her and left her unnamed in Matthew and Mark? Why would that be? That doesn’t make sense.
So what does that mean? Does that mean these are different events, and Jesus got anointed by multiple women? Does that mean that the human author of the Gospels had a point they were trying to make? Matthew’s version very clearly is making the point that this unnamed woman, who’s not a disciple, who’s an outsider, who wasn’t invited to the party, is the only one in the room who’s conscious that Jesus is about to die. That’s very clearly Matthew’s point. But Luke’s point isn’t that at all; Luke’s point is about forgiveness of sins. So these two narratives are talking about something different, and we can’t see that if we have to synthesize them into one story.
Zach Hunt 12:00
Exactly. And that gets to a big point that I try to hammer home, particularly in the second half of Godbreathed., The phrase or the idea that “the Bible says” is incoherent. It’s meaningless. Because the Bible doesn’t say anything. Because the Bible is not a book. It’s a collection of books. Some people have used the metaphor of a library, like a collection of books. I love that image. In the book, I talked about the Bible as an anthology. If there’s cohesion in the Bible, it’s this big story that’s being told. I mean, ultimately, that’s what the Bible is; it’s the story of the people of God, but it’s the story told by the people of God and how we understood God’s relationship with us and vice versa across time.
And if you understand in that sort of context and the sense of like a literary workshop that is continually being worked on, then the Bible becomes a sort of dynamic and living, breathing story today, not just this old book that sits on the shelf. Because you and I are part of the storytelling. You know, we may not write a gospel or an epistle or anything like that that gets canonized in the Holy Scripture, but if the Bible is the story of the people of God, that story did not end in the fourth century, or whenever you want to choose to say the Bible was, you know, closed. That story continues to be told.
Now that opens up a whole new can of worms about what inspiration looks like, you know, about the movement of the Holy Spirit, about how we interact with scripture. Those are huge questions that I only touch on in the book because, again, what I’m trying to get to here is we need to get back to the very, very basics. We have to start all of these conversations at the very, very, very beginning of what is the Bible before we get into this stuff about inspiration and healthier ways of reading the Bible.
I tried to tackle its history because I don’t think most people really are familiar with biblical history, not biblical history of, like, you know, when Joshua entered the promised land, but like, when was the Bible actually written? Who actually wrote it? How did it develop? Because I’m coming at this with several degrees and even, I was still surprised to learn new things. Mark is usually regarded as the oldest gospel that was written or the first gospels written. Mark was not written in the sense that we write a book today, like if you or I sit down, we write a book, it gets published in one single volume, but that Mark, maybe even other gospels as well–especially if you know the Synoptics are borrowing from each other (meaning Matthew, Mark, and Luke) this really, you know, makes a lot of sense.
Mark really started as a collection of what were essentially sermon notes, you know, of parables, of stories that were passed around by the disciples by other teachers, so that people had these notes to essentially preach from, to keep the story going and to continue to tell the story. And so those get coalesced into one single volume by an editor, by multiple editors, and then you have… You see this editing going on with Luke and Matthew off of Mark, and John’s over here doing his own, you know, wild and crazy things. If that is how the Gospels came about, if the Gospels come about over a longer process than most of us imagined, then there’s no original document to appeal to, to say, “Oh, the Bible is perfect in its original documents,” because those things don’t exist. I mean, in one sense, they literally don’t exist. I mean, we don’t have them.
Marc Schelske 15:13
Let me pause real quickly on this because I want to highlight something you just said that I think might be helpful to understand. So you just pointed to a phrase, critiquing that phrase, of “the Bible is accurate in the original documents.” And that phrase is important because that phrase is one of the stands that is taken by folks that hold to inerrancy.
Zach Hunt 15:36
Marc Schelske 15:36
So sort of a simplistic inerrancy is the Bible that I have in front of me is perfect. But that can’t stand very long because when you read the Bible, as you have it in front of you, there are places that disagree. Something as simple as my example that in Matthew’s Gospel, the host of this meal was Simon, the man with skin disease. In Luke’s Gospel, the host was an unnamed Pharisee. That’s a difference. Maybe it’s the same person. But it’s clearly a difference, right? And so you begin to have to reconcile those things.
Well, a more nuanced version of inspiration is, “Well, the Bible is not perfect exactly as we have it today, because there’s been translation and scribal errors and transmission concerns, but the original document, what we refer to as the autograph that that parchment that Mark was writing on, that’s the document that the Holy Spirit inspired, and that document was perfect.” So that’s what you’re referring to, and it’s often held up as, “Well, yeah, we have these particular issues today in the text, but we can kind of wind our way past those.” But our confidence in Scripture is based on the idea that, in the original autograph, it was perfectly inspired without error. And you’re saying, well, in many cases, there’s no original document to lean on. The gospel that we have now is a curated document that’s built from a collection, and that collection existed because it was important to the people in the communities of the early church.
Zach Hunt 17:08
I think that’s a great point to hit on, you know, in the other direction. Because we’re critiquing conservative theology, but if you go to the other extreme, you get the “Dan Brown theology” (or theology is maybe too strong the word) conspiracies, you know, that the Bible was put together by a bunch… a secret cabal in Nicea in the fourth century, and they picked and chose blah, blah, blah. And that’s not true, either. I think exactly what you said is how I put it in the book as well. I mean, these are a collection of documents that came together because they were important to the people who read them. They were seen as true by the people who read them, even if those people did not experience those stories firsthand, even if those people had no way to prove historically that any of those stories were true, they were true to them because they had experienced that truth in their lives.
So, going back to the Hebrew Bible, that’s the reason that those stories were eventually written down, because they weren’t written down originally, either. They were stories told by campfires and out in fields and to your kids before they went to bed. The people of Israel wrote those stories down about Exodus and the promised land and things like that, and God being faithful because they experienced God’s faithfulness in their lives. There have been many times in church history, including today, where there are cabals of old men who make decisions and manipulate the church, but the coming together of scripture was not one of them.
But because it’s not that, it also speaks to the beauty of Scripture because it’s written by so many people. Like you said, we’ve got four different gospels, and you know, in the context of other faiths, that’s kind of weird. You know, why don’t we have one gospel? Why don’t we have one authoritative story? But that’s also very Christian, in the sense that we’ve got all kinds of churches and denominations and traditions and theologies because, at the end of the day, the stuff that we’re talking about is weird, and confusing, and huge. I mean, you’re talking about God becoming man and Resurrection, walking on water. Of course, there’s going to be different perspectives. And so when we try to flatten scripture into this one narrative, this one story, this one perspective, then we fundamentally don’t understand the Bible, we don’t understand the people, the story of the people of God, and I would argue, we don’t understand how the Holy Spirit works in terms of inspiration.
We look at 2nd Timothy 3:16, where we get the phrase theopneustos, which is the Greek word for “Godbreathed.” We think of that as sort of a one-off kind of moment, I think (again, not consciously), but you know, God breathed the scriptures, and we have them, and now we move on. But God breathing into, God breathing life, is an ongoing process. You know, we see that the beginning of Genesis when God takes dirt off the ground and breathes into it life, and gives humanity our start. We see it in Exodus when God breathes into the Red Sea, and it divides, and the people find new life on the other side. We see it–and this is how I conclude the book–we see it in the valley of dry bones with dead bones coming back to life, with flesh and sinews and eyeballs and ears and everything else. We see it in the tomb on Easter Sunday, where God breathes new life. And we see it every single day when you and I take a breath.
If we’re going to make the sort of claims that we do in the Christian faith, that God is the author of all existence, that God is the Creator, that God has all these big lofty things, then we owe our life to God, then therefore, that very breath that we breathe is God-breathed. And so that inspiration is an ongoing process, not a once-in-two-thousand-years one-off moment. If we understand inspiration in that way, that the Holy Spirit continues to breathe new life into us so that we can be inspired or in-filled with the Spirit, then our charge as a Christian is to continue to share that inspiration, that life, that God-breathed life, with others.
And if that’s the case, then scripture can only be used, or should only be used, in a way that generates new life, that is life-giving. So if we’re gonna talk about the Bible being God-breathed, then the Bible has to be life-giving or how we use the Bible has to be life-giving, otherwise we’re not using it in the way that it was intended to be used, either by its authors or by God. And I would go so far as to say that if we’re going to give a definition to blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, that ambiguous sin that’s mentioned in the New Testament, this would seem like it. If we’re going to take this text that we claim is breathed out by the very divine breath of God and is intended to bring life and hope and love to the world, and we use that and contort it and twist it into a weapon of death to wield against our enemies. I can’t think of a better definition for blasphemy of the Holy Spirit than that.
Marc Schelske 21:36
I had not actually made the connection before, I don’t know why, of the Genesis creation story of God breathing into the earth-formed body, God breathing in the breath of life, that that being the same act that Timothy’s passage is referring to–that’s really a great connection. And that passage when you brought it up, I think, is actually a really great illustration of the problem you’ve been talking about since the beginning. Right? Because that passage in Timothy that’s our proof text for inspiration, right? All Scripture is inspired for the purpose of teaching. Well, in order to understand that, I’m coming to the text with a pre-existing belief about what inspired means. Right?
So when I cite that verse to somebody in an argument, I’m like, well, “All Scripture is inspired, you know, this passage in Timothy says so,” I’m saying my particular view of inspiration–if I’m speaking from the view of plenary inspiration, verbal inspiration, it’s perfect without error, right? I’m bringing that meaning. That meaning is not in the text. The text just says all scripture is this Greek word that you cited, theopneustos, is God-breathed and useful for instruction. And then somebody has to look at that passage and go, “Well, what the heck does it mean for a passage of scripture to be God breathed? What is that about?” And if I bring my prepackaged belief that oh–you know, this is going to be a caricature, but this is what I was raised with. The caricature I was raised with was that Paul, or Mark, or John is sitting in a little, a little writing nook in their shed at a little wooden desk, with their papyrus, and there’s of like this Holy-Spirit-light beaming down on their forehead, and the words that are coming out, are precisely what God intends. Well, today, if I describe that process to you outside the context of Christianity, there’s a word for that. It’s called automatic writing. And it’s considered to be occultic.
Zach Hunt 23:34
Right. That’s the one I grew up with. And I talked about it. That was kind of my assumption as well. Yeah. I mean, we have to really step back and just ask basic questions. I don’t think that we do, because like you said, we show up and we’re like, oh, this verse means X, Y, or Z and we never stopped to think, “Well, why do you think that that means that?” I think that that’s a failure, not just on us as individuals, but on like, the church and discipleship. We’ve been conditioned for at least five hundred years to believe that salvation happens by faith alone. And so we’ve reduced “faith alone” to mean right answers. And so, we’ve streamlined the entire salvation process into essentially an assembly line of salvation, where you show up, you say the prayer, you believe the right things, we package you off, you go home, and you get to go to heaven. And that’s just not the biblical story. You know, if we’re gonna talk about a biblical story, that’s just… that ain’t it.
Marc Schelske 24:25
So let’s talk about one of the problems of what you just laid out. If part of what makes salvation possible is that we believe the right thing, if that’s one of the criteria, then it’s really important that you have a source of the right beliefs.
Zach Hunt 24:41
Marc Schelske 24:42
That becomes fundamentally necessary. And so, depending on your tradition, you have a source. So in traditional Catholicism, the source is the Magisterium. You have the church saying, “This is the true doctrine about this idea, and if you agree with it, you’re in line with the church. You check that box. Post-Reformation, protestants don’t have a Magisterium that they call a Magisterium. They don’t have an official committee that says this is the thing. What we say is, “Oh, the Bible is our Magisterium; the Bible is our standard of faith and practice.” But in practice, the Bible has to be interpreted. That’s where you began, right? You began with the question that we all live in a culture. We all see the world around us in that cultural viewpoint. If I’m going to say about the Bible, “Oh, the Bible clearly says,” I’m reading my own cultural assumptions and predispositions to be able to say that, and now I have a source, which is my community’s Magisterium.
Zach Hunt 25:41
Marc Schelske 25:42
Whether that’s an official Magisterium, like the Catholic Church, or just my collection of John Piper books, whatever it is, I have a source. That source is what allows me to check the box of salvation that says I believe the right things about Jesus, God, eternity, and reality.
Zach Hunt 25:59
Exactly. Another phrase you’ll hear a lot, you know: “The Bible is my highest source of authority.” BS is what I would say. Because, one, that’s just intrinsically impossible. In making the Bible your source of authority, you are still the authority, choosing to make that your authority. You’re also making an authoritative decision on what those Bible verses mean, and which ones you’re going to follow, and which ones you’re not going to follow, and which ones you’re going to reconcile as weird and not applicable anymore. How I’m interpreting God’s authority in my life is still coming down to me, and whether or not I believe that that voice in my head is the Holy Spirit telling me to do something, whether I believe I’m being pushed or called, or however you want to phrase it. As Christians, we can die to self and do all these things we are called to do, but if we’re not honest about our role in that, that’s where problems become prevalent and where people end up getting hurt, abused, oppressed, marginalized, and even killed when we pretend as if “No, this isn’t me doing this. This isn’t my decision to X, Y, or Z, I’m under the authority of Scripture, I’m under the authority of God.
Marc Schelske 27:05
So somebody says, “Well, this is my view, (let’s say) on the role of women,” and someone argues back, and they’re like, “Well, you’re not arguing with me. You’re arguing with God.” And when they say you’re arguing with God, what they are actually doing is they’re pointing to a particular verse of scripture, and they’re saying that verse of scripture is God’s ultimate, all-time, perfect will for all cultures and all moments, and my understanding of that scripture is accurate. It’s a power move.
Zach Hunt 27:31
Oh, absolutely. It’s absolutely about power and manipulation. And it’s also deeply ironic because we’re appealing to the voice of God. You’re appealing to the scripture that we say is inspired to silence people. And yet one of the very first miracles of the Holy Spirit that we see in the book of Acts is the Holy Spirit enabling people to talk more, giving voice to the apostles to speak, and also for people to be able to hear in their own language.
I look at passages like that and say God wants these conversations. God wants us to be able to talk, to wrestle, to debate with one another. To me, that’s, again, why we need to look at the Bible in a different way than just this one volume, but all of these different voices. Because that’s what we see reflected in the Bible. It’s really the story of our own lives. Look at these stories as a reflection of ourselves. And when we do that, it makes more sense. Because we’re not perfect, we don’t have complete, total knowledge of everything. We’re gonna make mistakes. We’re gonna put our foot in our mouths, we’re gonna say dumb things, we’re gonna do terrible things. And we’re gonna do some terrible things in the name of God. And that’s exactly what you see in the Bible. All throughout the Bible is the story of the people of God, but it’s also our story. Because it’s people doing terrible things in the name of God. It’s people getting things wrong. It’s people doing great and beautiful and wonderful things as well.
And it goes back to these fundamental conversations about who we are as the people of God, what our story is, and where we come from. And so I hope people feel the same permission and freedom after reading this book that folks felt two thousand years ago when these stories that we’re reading in the Bible were written because you don’t have to affirm inerrancy to be a Christian. It’s a relatively new invention. You don’t have to believe the Bible is perfect. Contrary to what I was told, you can doubt or even disbelieve one part of the Bible, and that doesn’t mean everything else comes down like a house of cards because that’s not how the Bible works. You can believe that the creation story is a poem or a myth or whatever, that it’s not historically accurate–because science tells us that it’s not historically accurate, and Jewish rabbis will tell you that’s not really the point of Genesis one and two–but you can believe that and still believe other portions of the Bible are historically accurate because again, it’s not one book. Genesis functions differently than Psalms, which functions differently than gospels, which functions differently from the Pauline epistles, and Revelation, and so on. It’s about stepping back and just being honest about what the Bible is and who we are.
Marc Schelske 30:00
There feels to me to be a deep insecurity around scripture, around perhaps our basis for authority as a community. Maybe that’s part of what develops when Darwin comes out with evolution, and all of a sudden, we’re questioning. They’ve got the scientific method; what have we got? And so now we’ve got to start making biblical interpretation more scientific so that we can play in the same field. And so there’s this deep insecurity that we’re desperate to have one true meaning of the text, which requires a kind of understanding of inerrancy to even make sense. But in my own study, when I’ve begun to read the writings of ancient Christians, they just don’t have that insecurity about the Scripture. The Patristic writers, they were very clear. They’re like, “oh, yeah, scripture has multiple layers of meaning. And, and in fact, if you’re stuck on the literal meaning, that’s the most basic basic one. You got to get past that. You’ve got to get beyond the literal meaning to the spiritual meaning before you’re even experiencing what the Holy Spirit is doing.” They were not at all insecure about the idea that passages could be weird and that they could have disagreements, all that stuff. That was just like part of the deal for them. It seems like in evangelical Christianity, we’ve lost that capacity to play with scripture in that way.
Zach Hunt 31:19
Oh, absolutely. This is not liberal progressive Zach making up ideas. What you described is directly from Origen, who is one of the earliest theologians in the church, and who has had more influence on the development of Christianity than anyone outside of Paul and Augustine. He says there are two different senses of Scripture. You know, one is the literal sense, which are the words that are literally on the page. But then, like you said, there’s this deeper spiritual truth. And what he says–that to me was as liberating as it was provocative–is that he even goes further and says that there are certain… stumbling blocks is the phrase that he uses or how its translated–certain stumbling blocks or just wrong things in Scripture that can’t be true, that can’t be the way that we should do things. Things like “slaves obey your masters for this is right in the Lord.”
He goes even further than that and says that those stumbling blocks, those errors, were allowed to be there by the Holy Spirit to draw us beyond the literal words on the page and down into the spiritual texts or spiritual truth in the text. Which is, which is crazy! Because, on one side, it’s liberating and allows us to be open and honest and say, when Paul says, “slaves should obey your masters,” that’s just wrong. But what’s crazy is he’s essentially saying that the Bible is not perfect and God made it that way.
Marc Schelske 32:30
Zach Hunt 32:30
So what I love is it’s not just like him saying, yeah, the Bible is not perfect, and so you can have this squabble with Inerrency folks like John Piper. He’s just saying, you know, “the Bible is not perfect and it’s not just people’s fault. It’s God’s fault. Because God wanted it to be this way.” And I love it because what it speaks to is this authentic relationship, this authentic trust that God places in people to tell our story, to tell God’s story, to tell our story together. And that it’s okay if these things come in, if–and this is obviously a big if–if we can be open and honest about that. If we can say, this is just not wrong. This is a stumbling block; there must be something deeper there.
And I think that we can get to that deeper spiritual truth without having to have a Ph.D. in biblical languages and all this other scholarly work because there’s the other guy I mentioned before, Augustine, who jumps in and says exactly what Jesus says in the greatest commandment: if your interpretation of Scripture, no matter how great you think it is, no matter how much grammatical work you’ve done, language studies, exegesis, if your interpretation does not lead you to love God and neighbor more than you’re wrong. I can, in the 21st century, look at a passage like Paul saying, “slaves obey your masters,” and say, “Well, that’s just wrong because that doesn’t lead me to love my neighbor. Why is that? Why would that be in there?”
Well, then it takes me to that deeper spiritual sense and reminds me that I see in a mirror dimly, right that I see in Paul the same failings that are in me that are in people a hundred and fifty years ago, that we’re still enslaving people by using this very passage. But I see a flawed human being, I see someone who’s not perfect, I see a person who makes mistakes, I see a person who’s who’s just like me, still being used by God. And that’s a really beautiful, hopeful thing. And if we can begin to see scripture in that way, then I can be used by God, too. There’s a lot of hope and life, I think, to be found there. But again, it goes back to like fundamentally rethinking, you know, our relationship with the Bible, our understanding of the Bible, and our calling, you know, as the people of God,
Marc Schelske 34:27
There’s a way of talking about the flaws of inspiration that leads to ultimately no belief in scripture or no belief in God. And I think, quite honestly, that that’s an evangelical or fundamentalist response to the question. Usually, that’s a person who was raised in a community that said to them the Bible is perfect and every in every way, it doesn’t have any discrepancies or failures. And that’s because God doesn’t lie. And if one thing isn’t true, the whole house of cards falls down. And they’ve looked at it for themselves, and they’re like, “Well, okay, it doesn’t hang too. Gather so the Bible must not be true. And probably the idea of God I was given as a child isn’t true either. I’m out.” And so they have left, but they haven’t left… they’ve left in a way that is still fundamentalist…
Zach Hunt 35:12
Marc Schelske 35:14
…that’s still rooted in the idea that the Bible has to be perfect, and since it’s not perfect, I’m out. That’s not what you’re talking about. You’re talking about something else. And so I’d love for you to walk us in that direction. Because I’m sensitive to the fact that folks who were raised with this idea of inspiration, one of the benefits of this view of inspiration is a kind of security and a kind of certainty. I can trust who God is because I can trust what Scripture says. If I take that away, am I taking away certainty? Am I taking away a sense of security? But that’s not what you’re trying to do. So what is better on the other side of this conversation?
Zach Hunt 35:54
Freedom and love. I think those two things are foundational to the Gospel. It’s one thing to just talk about whether or not the Bible is inerrant or perfect, or historically accurate, or scientific, or whatever. You know, that’s one conversation. The other half of the conversation–this is where the book ends up–is what’s the point of the Bible? You know, what does it even exist for? What does Christianity exist for? Like, why would we follow Jesus? For me, it’s not stay or go; it’s not just those kinds of options. We can also rethink what it means to be a Christian and what salvation is about, and begin to rethink that maybe this isn’t just about me going off to heaven, but about me beginning to help bring heaven to earth as it isn’t heaven. Just like Jesus prayed!
We have other options for dealing with scripture, other healthier options, options that allow us to take it seriously, even if we’re not always taking it literally. Because sometimes, taking it literally prevents us from taking it seriously. What I’m trying to do is offer people the freedom to ask questions, to push back, to doubt, to acknowledge that, yeah, the Bible is wrong about some things. Some things are minor. Sometimes they’re scientifically inaccurate because these are people who lived 3000 years ago. But sometimes they’re big deals like “Slaves obey your masters,” or “women be silent in the church”, or, you know, “if your child has been unruly, take them outside of the camp and stone them to death.” If we as a people can’t say that is objectively immoral, then we have completely lost the plot of the gospel.
Marc Schelske 37:21
That moment, when we look at those passages and decide what to do with them, is actually telling on our view of God.
Zach Hunt 37:28
Marc Schelske 37:29
Because if I can look at that passage, “take your unruly kids outside the camp and stone them,” and I have to say, “Nope, God said that. That is God’s design,” then I’m just admitting that when I say something is good, I just mean it’s something that comports with the will of God, and God is how God is. Period. In this case, God is an authoritarian who doesn’t abide disobedience.
Zach Hunt 37:55
For me, when I talk about Augustine, Origen, and this hermeneutic of love, I’m not looking at love just as a lens through which to read the Bible but as the beginning and end point of everything. God is love. When we say that, the description of that loving relationship that we use in the Christian tradition is Trinity. You know, because God is in this loving community, right? God is in this loving communion of Father, Son, Spirit. And when we say that, it’s not a descriptor of God; it’s who God is. There’s nothing behind that. It’s not like I say, “Hey, Zack is bald and has a beard,” but there’s more to me than that. When I say God is love, that is the core of who God is. And so that’s the beginning, and if that’s true, that has to orient how we think about the Bible.
If the Bible is inspired, then it’s inspired by love, and so that has to guide our reading. And that’s what Jesus says when he says, “This is the greatest commandment: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself.” It’s what Augustine is saying when he says you can’t interpret Scripture correctly if it’s not leading you to love. And it’s what I’m saying in Godbreathed. Love is not just this warm, fuzzy feeling but this call to justice, this call to a better, more hopeful, life-giving way of being in and for the world. That’s not just how we read the Bible, but it’s how we live life.
And so, ultimately, what I’m trying to do with Godbreathed is to get us to fundamentally rethink how we live. Because if we’re going to make the claim that the Bible is our foundation, and the Bible is our authority, things like that, then we have to describe how that is and how that plays out in life. And so when I, when Augustine, whoever, that I quote in the book, talks about love, it’s not just this warm, fuzzy lens through which we read the Bible, but it’s the beginning and end point of our lives as individuals and reality as itself. I think that’s what the gospel is telling us. The gospel is Jesus trying to restore this loving relationship between creation and its creator. It’s love that we read in Genesis when God takes that dust from the ground and breathed the breath of love, of God’s love, into it to create humanity. And it’s love that we see in the book of Revelation when God makes all things new and brings people together, and there’s no more sorrow or tears or dying because death is no more. I mean, that’s, that’s love, you know, brought to its completion.
Marc Schelske 40:03
As I said in the beginning, so many of the tensions and disagreements we have in the Christian world come down to how we read the Bible. And there’s an unspoken question behind that question. How do we see God?
If our picture of God is of a strict authoritarian who brooks no disobedience, who demands unwavering loyalty, who has no time or patience for the struggles and uncertainties of being human, then it makes sense that scripture would be a reflection of that kind of God. If that God is real, then scripture, of course, would be an unquestionable, incontrovertible manual for pleasing this God.
But if our picture of God is something different, if we see God as Jesus portrayed: as a father who runs to the lost son, as a stranger who picks up the wounded alongside the road, as a shepherd who seeks out that one lost sheep, if those pictures are trustworthy descriptions of God, then Scripture must also be something different.
Zack invites us to consider that possibility. He said in our conversation, “We have other options for dealing with scripture, other healthier options, options that allow us to take it seriously, even if we’re not always taking it literally. Because sometimes taking it literally prevents us from taking it seriously.” If this is new ground for you, that I invite you to ask those questions. And maybe Zack’s book is a good place for you to start.
May you find your way to a spiritual place that is full of freedom and joy. Rather than laboring under the harsh eye of a God who is constantly measuring you, may you see that you have always belonged, have always been loved, and are always invited to be part of God’s work of loving the world. Thanks for listening.
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