Peeking Over the Wall of Certainty
Updated: Feb 12
Many churchgoing believers are given the impression that the Bible is totally unique among written works. We are taught that in subject matter and authority it has neither rival nor peer. No other written work can claim to be without error, inspired by God and faultless in its ability to direct human beings to a right relationship to God. We have learned to imagine that this remarkable book is all these things and more- our expectations for the Bible are high in terms of its application to our lives and practice of faith. The stakes are high too: we look to our Bibles to inform our ideas about what happens to us after we die, and what we must to do avoid eternal torment and gain heaven.
Once we commit to the reliability of the Bible, we set about interpreting our world through its lens. Events that work to our advantage are attributed to answered prayer. When something bad happens, we ease the catastrophe by framing it as a short term victory for evil, but a long term victory for us or God's plan. Or we construe it as a loving and involved God testing us or teaching us a valuable lesson. We quote passages like Hebrews 12: "…do not make light of the Lord’s discipline, and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.”
As we navigate life guided by these and other assumptions about reality, we sometimes run aground on inconvenient facts that prove our certainties may not be as reliable as we thought. Risk taking teenagers find that they are vulnerable to damage in spite of what their brains tell them. Magicians use our assumptions to surprise and mystify us. People we categorized as trustworthy turn out to be not so, and things go badly.
One aspect of maturity is a widened perspective that can absorb and process an ever wider circumference of experience and ideas. An essential part of the maturing process is developing wisdom, gained by being open to learning and assimilating new data, then changing our own beliefs when we determine that they don't reasonably line up with consensus reality. Refusing to revise one's approach to life when presented with contradictory information earns you one of two titles: Fool, or Spiritual Giant. While we don't tend to admire fools, the Church has been known to lionize the Spiritual Giant, only to discover later that their blind commitment to some point of faith was actually damaging to themselves or others.
Without access to information, wisdom and maturity is impossible. If that seems an agreeable truism, our next step is to begin asking questions about our information sources; how do we know what we know? Where did our assumptions about reality come from? Is there more we can find out about our information sources? For now, we will set aside the notions that our physical senses can and do deceive us, that no two human brains process data the same way, and that any one individual is limited in what she can assimilate and remember. Those issues set aside for the time being, this article will focus on the Bible as a source of information that is critical to the way Christians interpret the world, define themselves within it and behave.
You can read more about a typical position on biblical inerrancy in the Chicago Statements of 1978
Many Christians who deconstruct their formerly unassailable views and attitudes toward the Bible compare it to taking the red pill made famous in "The Matrix" movie series. In one scene, Morpheus gives Neo, a curious young seeker, the following advice: "You take the blue pill, the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill... you stay in wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes." Morpheus' next statement is "Remember, all I'm offering is the truth, nothing more."
Post-Enlightenment Western Christianity has historically majored in three sources of truth in various ratios over time: scripture, tradition and direct experience with the divine. Since most theological persuasions claim that their traditions emerge from their "correct" interpretations of the Bible's directives, we'll narrow it down to two main data sources: personal experience and information mediated through written texts collected in our modern Bibles. This article will address the implications of Article 18 of the Chicago Statement on Inerrancy: "…the text of Scripture is to be interpreted by grammatico-historical exegesis, taking account of its literary forms and devices, and that Scripture is to interpret Scripture. We deny the legitimacy of any treatment of the text or quest for sources lying behind it that leads to relativizing, dehistoricizing, or discounting its teaching, or rejecting its claims to authorship."
In other words, the Bible should be understood by using a single style of interpretation (grammatico-historical). Second, it's wrong to explore any forms of literary background behind biblical material that could affect the predetermined certainty that the Bible is morally absolute, historically accurate, reliable in what it teaches, and that every biblical author's work was original to them.
What follows is one way to respectfully disagree with the position of more than 70,000 signers of the official petition to "stand up for the Bible before it's too late." Anyone holding an inerrantist view is more than welcome at our table where disagreement does not prevent helpful discussion. What follows are simply points to consider, not in pursuit doctrinal purity, but a lively journey together following where the data lead. At our table we don't think we'll ever arrive at a level of certainty about matters of faith that results in rejecting someone because they see things differently. That's not the case for many streams of evangelicalism that tend toward a high value on certainty and boundary-building.
With that, let's have a look at some evidence that deuterocanonical, apocryphal and other extra-biblical ideas and words that appear in the Bible- material that was extant in the discourse of first century literates, and not necessarily original to scripture.
Does this sound familiar?
"For all people who were ignorant of God were foolish by nature; and they were unable from the good things that are seen to know the one who exists, nor did they recognize the artisan while paying heed to his works. …not even they are to be excused; for if they had the power to know so much that they could investigate the world, how did they fail to find sooner the Lord of these things?"
If you are thinking about the beginning of the Apostle Paul's treatise entitled Romans, you're close! However, this was not written by Paul- it's by an unknown author who penned a text called The Wisdom of Solomon. Scholars have narrowed down its composition date to the middle of the first century CE, very close to when Paul was active. It was one of seven wisdom books included in the Septuagint, a compilation of Greek translations of the Hebrew Bible plus other texts that might have been used in religious practice from the 3rd century BCE up to around 128 CE . The Wisdom of Solomon appears alongside familiar books like Psalms, Proverbs, and Job.
Compare the above passage to Romans 1:18-20: "The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse."
Also from The Wisdom of Solomon:
"But miserable, with their hopes set on dead things, are those who give the name 'gods' to the works of human hands, gold and silver fashioned with skill, and likenesses of animals, or a useless stone…"
Now Romans again: "Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles."
Now let's look at Sirach 28:2. "The vengeful will face the Lord's vengeance, for he keeps a strict account of their sins. Forgive your neighbor the wrong he has done, and then your sins will be pardoned when you pray. Does anyone harbor anger against another, and expect healing from the Lord? If one has no mercy toward another like himself, can he then seek pardon for his own sins? If a mere mortal harbors wrath, who will make an atoning sacrifice for his sins?"
Matthew's gospel quotes Jesus as saying “For if you forgive others their sins, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, your Father will not forgive you your sins." (6:14)
The Book of Sirach had been around for about 200 years by the time Jesus was said to have quoted from it, more than enough time for it to make its way into the vernacular of Jewish culture in the first century.
Did the composer of Matthew paraphrase the Sirach passage and place it in Jesus' teaching on prayer? Or did Jesus actually use Sirach and maybe other parts of the Septuagint in his teaching? If Matthew's purpose was to show continuity between the claims of Messiahship for Jesus and the ancient traditions of the Jews, it's entirely reasonable that he would echo a concept found in an already ancient religious text. Might it be a coincidence that the two texts are nearly identical? In our day, we might warn the writer of Matthew about plagiarism.
Jannes and Jambres: were they real people? They are mentioned in 2 Timothy as an example of false teachers who oppose the truth, but their names do not appear in the Hebrew Bible. As best we know, the names were given to two "magicians of Egypt" who were able to replicate some of the feats performed by Moses and Aaron. Origen, an early church father in the late second century CE attested to an apocryphal book called The Apocryphon of Jannes and Jambres the Magicians.
Paul's use of ideas from deuterocanonical works included in the Septuagint is good evidence that he was familiar with many of them, as one would expect based on his autobiographical claim to a Pharisaical background and Luke's assertion that he "…studied under Gamaliel and was thoroughly trained in the law of our ancestors." The Book of Enoch is referenced in our New Testament books of Jude, 2 Peter and John's Gospel (compare John 7:38 with 1 Enoch 48:1). Almost every New Testament book contains some reference, allusion or paraphrase from an ancient text that either failed to meet the criteria for canonization or are considered "on the bubble."
In the conservative evangelical world, the current biblical canon is closed, locked and given special standing as "…the inspired, the only infallible, authoritative Word of God."* Without that protected status, the Bible's uniqueness as inspired and inerrant weakens. The fact that Paul and other New Testament writers used content from a multitude of different deuterocanonical and apocryphal works creates a problem for the proposition of an inerrant, infallible, inspired Bible; not every word of it is original or unique. The unknown authors of Baruch, 1 Enoch, the Wisdom of Solomon, 4 Maccabees and the rest- were they inspired by the Holy Spirit in the same fashion that 2 Peter describes ("…carried along by the Holy Spirit")?
One might defend a position favoring inerrancy by resorting to the supernatural superintendence of God over the process of the Bible's composition, i.e., that any inclusions from outside sources were limited to ideas that embodied error-free truth while other extrabiblical ideas and quotations were rejected. Chalking it up to a mysterious divine process allows one to continue holding to traditional inerrancy, but this runs the risk of prematurely ending any conversation with alternative views, and cuts off the possibility of exposure to positive avenues of learning and discovery.
The nature of division on this topic among believers centers on a comfort level with certainty versus uncertainty. Assuming the Bible is supernaturally pure and absolute provides a degree of relief from having to assess the multitude of views to the contrary. Confusing contradictions in the Bible can be dismissed through creative and diligent exegesis. Truth is simple and understandable as long as scripture is interpreted correctly. Observations about the natural world; our origins and purpose are decided and explained. Personal and communal ethics are enshrined as timeless and cultureless absolutes.
That certainty works well if you stay inside the walls of your particular theological compound. Once one begins to peer over the ramparts at the territories beyond the familiar well-trodden streets of one's tradition, confrontation with new information and challenging idea are inevitable. Inclined as we are to a world that is secure, predictable and safe, the thought of journeying through the unknown can be a frightening thought. It's difficult and humbling to think about moving away from the sure beliefs that have usually provided adequate answers, but when those answers begin to feel inadequate or dissonant, it might be time to open the door to an extensive community of other voices that have something to say about faith. You don't have to agree with everything (or anything!) but ignoring the voices of scholars who have spent lifetimes interpreting volumes of information, making connections and analyzing implications will lead to blind spots, deficiencies and disconnection from reality.
We have not here addressed direct spiritual experience as another primary source of information about reality. We'll leave that to another discussion.