One way or another, I’ve been involved in lots of conversations recently about the Bible and how we read it. When Christians disagree, very often the “nub” amounts to a diiferent way of reading the scriptures. There are many approaches to the Bible, but not all of them are helpful. What is needed is an approach that treats the Bible with the utmost seriousness but does not attempt to make it into something that it isn’t. I’m not claiming to have a “final answer”, but I thought it might be helpful if I shared a few thoughts on this important subject.
I suppose the first question we need to answer is, “What does the Bible say about itself?” The most obvious verse that ‘springs to mind’ is 2 Timothy 3:16
“All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching the truth, rebuking error, correcting faults, and giving instructions for right living”
This is the ‘proof text’ that is sometimes used to justify the view of the Bible as inerrant. But if we take the Bible seriously, is that what it actually says? I say this for several reasons. Let’s look through the verse and see:
1. “Scripture” to Timothy would have meant the books of what we now call the Old Testament and maybe some others usually included in what is called the Apocrypha. The books of the New Testament (including 2 Timothy!) were only just being written and were not accepted as “scripture” for some time.
2. “… inspired by God” is a translation of one Greek word which is used here but nowhere else in the New Testament, the Greek version of the Old Testament, the Apocrypha or indeed classical Greek. It is a compound word literally meaning “God-breathed”, but what does that mean? It is an enormous assumption to leap from ‘inspiration’ to ‘infallibility’, and to me it is an unreasonable one.
3. “Useful” is hardly a word calculated to suggest inerrancy. This is a word which is used elsewhere in the New Testament, in 1 Timothy 4:8 and in Titus 3:8 and in both cases is translated as “useful”, “of some value” or “profitable” depending upon which version you read. In fact, in 1 Timothy 4:8 it is used twice with degrees, “useful” and “more useful”. This is a long way short of the sort of infallibity to which some Christians cling.
In short, the Bible is inspired by God, of the utmost value to anyone who wants to live according to the will of God but it should not be read as an infallible “guide to everything”. Taking the Bible seriously means reading what it says, not what we want it to say and it is clear that the scriptures themselves do not claim infallibility. This is my first rule in the use of the Bible – it should teach us, not the other way around! It is very easy to come to the Bible knowing what it says, and finding ourselves confirmed by it. It is much more challenging to read it and allow the scriptures to speak for themselves.
My second rule is related to the first, and is simply stated: Read the Bible! Nothing controversial there, but it is surprising how few Christians do read the Bible for themselves. You will want to listen to what others have said about the Bible in sermons, devotional books and commentaries, but there is no substitute for turning the pages for yourself. How and when you do, for how long and how often – these are not matters for rules. Just read it!
My third rule is read in fellowship with others. Remember that the Bible arises from the Church, the gathered people of God. It is in the Church that the meaning of the Bible is authentically discovered and, barring extreme circumstances, you will need to be in fellowship with a Church community to really grow in understanding of the scriptures.
Lastly, don’t jump to conclusions. Sometimes it is tempting to take just one verse, or perhaps even a few, and make a hasty decision about what they mean. People have been known to build great edifices of doctrine on just one or two verses, and it is always a mistake.