When His word becomes an idol

In man’s tendency to religiosity, we are capable of making anything an idol.  Worship music, for example, is wonderful insofar as it points us to God and facilitates worship in all its diversity, but becomes a barrier when it draws our attention to it, the music, rather than Him, our God.

So it is, somewhat controversially, with scripture. It worries me when a church seems to have as its first article of faith the infallibility and inerrancy of the bible. Because, for all its remarkable properties, the role of scripture is to point us to God, His character, works and in particular, to the person of Jesus. Inerrancy and infallibility are not essential properties of the bible to do that, just as perfect church leaders and perfect worship leaders are not necessary to bring people to Christ (thankfully!). A priori declarations of this sort establish the bible as an idol, ultimately hindering us in seeking to do His will and serving as faithful and credible witnesses to the resurrection life offered through union with Christ.

It is reasonable, however, to attempt to establish such an article of faith on an a posteriori basis – what is the evidence for the inerrancy of scripture? As Christians, we accept the truth of who Jesus is and His teaching, and certainly Jesus had high regard for scripture – indeed, we see Jesus respond to questions by quoting scripture or by asking His questioner what scripture says. Historically, the gospels and scripture generally have a good record in terms of accuracy and modern scholarship of previously “devastating” critiques of biblical historical accuracy from ages past persistently finds in the favour of the bible. For anyone who has seen the bible at work in their own and other people’s lives, it has remarkable powers of healing, conviction and transformation, mediated through the Holy Spirit.

But for all these remarkable properties, it still seems to me to be far from establishing the inerrancy of scripture – that is a leap of faith that seems entirely unwarranted.

The fear of abandoning the claim to the infallibility of the bible is that we have to give up also our claims for Jesus. But this is a non sequitur – the bible doesn’t need to be literally true in every respect to establish the truth of the gospel narrative. Yes, we lose an uncritical shortcut to that truth, but those gospel documents stand up to a more rigorous scrutiny and still yield the same conclusions. Christianity has nothing to fear from detailed historical, literary and scientific analysis of its claims for Christ. We don’t need to bias the rules of engagement and we lose credibility by attempting to do so.

What we do lose is the ability to quote the bible uncritically to support our own prejudices – but that can only be a good thing. “The bible says … so that’s the end of the matter” is no longer a valid argument, and I for one welcome that.

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