This week I began reading Stephen Neil and Tom Wright’s book The Interpretation of the New Testament: 1861-1986 (yes I know how exciting that sounds).
They describe the situation in early critical scholarship of the Bible as follows. In Germany new critical tools were beginning to be used to assess history. Slowly those critical tools were turned toward the Bible. Over a period of time the influence of critical German scholarship spread into Europe, and several men began to assess whether the Bible could hold up to academic historical scrutiny.
David Strauss and F.C. Baur are two of the more well known men from that period of time that refused to presuppose that the Bible was the imperfect, inspire, and inerrant word of God. While they would still conclude that the Bible was a message from God that did not stop them from highlighting where they saw contradictions, inaccuracies, or the developments of myths and legends. While the two men worked on very different projects they were working from the same premise. The Bible is a historical document that can be studied with the same tools that all of history is assessed with.
One of the early challenges to studying the Bible in this way came from the church. Following the publication of a work called “Essays and Reviews” in which several conclusions were reached that would be considered “unorthodox” the church reacted in hostility. Neil writes of the church’s reaction:
“The handling of Essays and Reviews by the Church is a warning to all times that may be faced by a similar crisis. Everything was done exactly in the way in which it ought not to have been done. The Upper House of the Convocation of Canterbury condemned the book. The Lower House by a large majority commended the action of the bishops. Ten thousand Anglican clergymen signed a memorial to the bishops condemning the Essayists. Legal proceedings were started against them in the Court of Arches. The airing of ecclesiastical controversy in the law courts is one of the more deplorable aspects of the history of the Church of England in the nineteenth century” (Neil and Wright, 33).
Why is this important for us today? Because it’s very possible that the same mistakes continue to be repeated. I believe that the Bible is the inspired Word of God. I believe that it is free from error and inerrant.
That type of belief can lead us in to one of two directions. Either it will lead us to insulate ourselves from attacks on the Bible from the outside world, or it will lead us to engage with the questions of those that are more critical toward the Bible.
If we believe that in the pages of scripture we have truth revealed to us by God then why would we fear challenges to that claim? Because this truth is so important it should lead all of us to want to engage with the difficult questions that come out of a detailed study of the Bible. It’s in wrestling with the hard questions that we come to a clearer understanding of what this book is, and typically it gives us greater confidence in the reliability of the Bible. We should never try and suppress or ignore the questions of those who are thinking deeply about the Bible. None of us have a perfect understanding of this text and when we are willing to listen to perspectives different from our own we are able to grow, change, or solidify positions that we take. If we refuse to have the discussion then most of our beliefs stay surface deep and never go much further then empty arguments that we can’t defend.
Should inerrancy make us uncritical? Should it cause us to never ask hard questions about the Bible? On the contrary, it should lead us to study this book like no other book that we have. It should drive us to ask the difficult probing questions, and to have the hard conversations. Don’t allow your belief in the Bible as the Word of God to become a prison that keeps you from interacting with the outside world,