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Is The Bible Wrong?

Open Bible

From time to time I stumble upon Bible-aloners arguing between themselves about the Bible being inspired, and/or infallible, and/or inerrant, etc… And then about whether it is sola scriptura, or nuda scriptura,… And then about Schleiermacherian and Barthian and Bultmannian approaches to scripture… And Calvin… And Warfield… and Spurgeon… and Vos…

And, once people have declared their position on the nature of the Bible – including whether they follow Barth or Bultman (etc) – even then, within the sub-sub-subgroup that they have assigned themselves to, even then those within the same sub-sub-subgroup can still end up opposed to each other on specific questions, texts, interpretations, and moral issues.

There is also a regular dose of: “God has made the Bible perfect (read “inspired”, “infallible”, “inerrant”, or whatever…) but it is we, as imperfect (read “sinful”, “totally depraved”, etc) who find it difficult to interpret God’s Perfect Word.”

But there is little point in an inspired/infallible/inerrant scripture unless you can provide an inspired/infallible/inerrant hermeneutic (interpretation).

And so we end up with the fragmentation of Christianity. And disagreements between Christians within the same fragment. Arguments online and offline are virulent – any nonChristian observing rightly wonders how these Christians can claim to be following and representing THE truth – revealed truth, no less.

Let’s not take the topic du jour (topic du decade?) that is dissipating church energy. I was wanting to illustrate a sermon, recently, on the value of rest and re-creation. It doesn’t take long before one encounters Exodus 31:15 and its parallels:

For six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord; whoever does any work on the sabbath day shall be put to death.

It’s pretty straight forward, isn’t it? No? Then read its application:

When the Israelites were in the wilderness, they found a man gathering sticks on the sabbath day. Those who found him gathering sticks brought him to Moses, Aaron, and to the whole congregation. They put him in custody, because it was not clear what should be done to him. Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘The man shall be put to death; all the congregation shall stone him outside the camp.’ The whole congregation brought him outside the camp and stoned him to death, just as the Lord had commanded Moses. Numbers 15:32-36

Looking forward, in the comments, to some sola scriptura, nuda scriptura, infallible, inerrant, Calvinist, Warfieldian, Spurgeonite, and Vosian reflections…

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49 thoughts on “Is The Bible Wrong?”

  1. Jonathan Streeter

    Ah, the Bible.

    As an episcopalian, I’m allowed to believe that this story is an allegory, meant to drive home the idea that “rest day means rest day.” It’s hyperbolic and my belief is that the people hearing it would never imagine that a person would actually be KILLED for gathering sticks. It’s meant to be instructive. To say “no exceptions to this rule of rest and worship.”

    I realize that other individuals and traditions look at this differently and some want to find a literal ‘truth’ in those words. But I’m comfortable with finding a spiritual truth that is non-literal.

    My truth from this story is that dedicating specific time to exploring my relationship with god is non-negotiable. I must plan and follow-through on a plan that provides me with God-time.

    But that’s just me.

    1. Thanks, Jonathan. I think you are overly optimistic about how nice religious people are 🙂 I think there is plenty of evidence that people were stoned to death for breaking a rule. And stoning to death still happens in today’s world. What you and I make of this command – yes, that’s another point, but, like you, I’m not really keen on keeping that command literally 😉 Blessings.

    2. I like that, and was wondering much the same myself. Maybe it’s just denial as a predictable response, of course – but it’s borne out by Jesus’ NT counter-examples.

  2. Yes, there are difficulties in understanding the Bible, especially when one selects out single texts and builds a doctrine, or an execution policy on it.

    But recently I came across a difficulty on the other side of “Bible alone”/”Bible is church’s book” divide which highlighted for me that the “Bible is the church’s book” side of this debate does not have the running all its own way. (This particular difficulty concerned a traditional allegorical use of a passage in the Bible).

    In any case, are you putting up a straw man version of “Sola Scriptura”? I understand that approach to be that the Bible alone reveals to us the way of salvation, a way not revealed through general revelation nor deducible through the application of reason alone. According to the Thirty-Nine Articles, Anglicans are both “Sola Scriptura” and bound to interpret the Bible in coherence with the Creeds, within the constraints of the reformed doctrine of the church (as expressed in the 39A) and, of course, in such a way as to not be repugnant to other parts of Scripture. The last is the shortest route to dismissing those who think it still okay to execute Sabbath breakers.

    1. Thanks, Peter. The “Sola Scriptura” you appear to be advocating for is itself a sort of straw man (ie. not really “Sola Scriptura” but just using that term without accepting its meaning): sola scriptura BUT interpreted “in coherence with the [Church’s] Creeds” (but not thereby “the church’s book”!) and with the (not-found-in-scripture-alone but in the 39A) proviso “in such a way as to not be repugnant to other parts of Scripture”.

      All you seem to be saying is that there are conflicts and contradictions within scripture and executing Sabbath breakers is one of those.


  3. There are many worse things I’m sure that would get me stoned to death, but, OMG, I usually do my laundry for the week on Sunday (the Christian Sabboth!) afternoon.

    Please pray for me Father, for I have sinned.

    BTW, you might also add “fallen” to the list of humanity as imperfect. I hear that often as the reason for the topic of the decade.

  4. Maybe not in any of the categories you sugested Bosco, but here’s another view:

    The “dark” passages of the Bible

    42. In discussing the relationship between the Old and the New Testaments, the Synod also considered those passages in the Bible which, due to the violence and immorality they occasionally contain, prove obscure and difficult. Here it must be remembered first and foremost that biblical revelation is deeply rooted in history. God’s plan is manifested progressively and it is accomplished slowly, in successive stages and despite human resistance. God chose a people and patiently worked to guide and educate them. Revelation is suited to the cultural and moral level of distant times and thus describes facts and customs, such as cheating and trickery, and acts of violence and massacre, without explicitly denouncing the immorality of such things. This can be explained by the historical context, yet it can cause the modern reader to be taken aback, especially if he or she fails to take account of the many “dark” deeds carried out down the centuries, and also in our own day. In the Old Testament, the preaching of the prophets vigorously challenged every kind of injustice and violence, whether collective or individual, and thus became God’s way of training his people in preparation for the Gospel. So it would be a mistake to neglect those passages of Scripture that strike us as problematic. Rather, we should be aware that the correct interpretation of these passages requires a degree of expertise, acquired through a training that interprets the texts in their historical-literary context and within the Christian perspective which has as its ultimate hermeneutical key “the Gospel and the new commandment of Jesus Christ brought about in the paschal mystery”.[140] I encourage scholars and pastors to help all the faithful to approach these passages through an interpretation which enables their meaning to emerge in the light of the mystery of Christ.

    Pope Benedict, Verbum Domini

    The whole document is well worth reading, says that “biblical inerrancy” requires more work.

    1. Thanks, Chris. I commend the viewpoint, expressed here, that “God’s plan is manifested progressively and it is accomplished slowly, in successive stages”. And that “the Gospel and the new commandment of Jesus Christ brought about in the paschal mystery” is a hermeneutical key. But – I think more honesty is needed than merely: “cheating and trickery, and acts of violence and massacre, without explicitly denouncing the immorality of such things”. The text(s) I pointed to in this post are not merely acts of violence not explicitly denounced – this is an act of violence commanded, in the Bible, by God. Blessings.

    2. “this is an act of violence commanded, in the Bible, by God.”

      Not in the Catholic view it isn’t Bosco.

      Commanded by Moses? Possibly. (Did he write it?)

      Benedict insists on “a training that interprets the texts in their historical-literary context”. “The Lord commanded the prophet so and so” is standard prophetic language; it does not mean the Lord commanded or will it; but that the prophet, correclty or incorrectly, discerned it. Remember Abraham thinking God wanted him to kill Isaac ?

      Catholic teaching rejects all violence, including the death penalty.:

      496. Violence is never a proper response. With the conviction of her faith in Christ and with the awareness of her mission, the Church proclaims “that violence is evil, that violence is unacceptable as a solution to problems, that violence is unworthy of man. Violence is a lie, for it goes against the truth of our faith, the truth of our humanity. Violence destroys what it claims to defend: the dignity, the life, the freedom of human beings”.

      Compendium of the Social doctrine of the Church

      Hope this helps, but I think you’re pretty much onto this anyway; although it’s a bit harder for Anglicans because you lack a Magisterium.

      1. Thanks, Chris.

        I can see that “this is an act of violence commanded, in the Bible, by God” can be read ambiguously – including in the manner you do – but how you read it is not what I intended to convey. I meant:

        In the Bible, this is an act of violence commanded by God.

        Whether God actually commands this or not is an interesting discussion – that brings us back to the point of this post: “Is the Bible wrong?”

        Your response, from the Roman Catholic sources you use, is essentially: yes, the Bible is wrong. God rejects all violence.

        I’m not sure what you mean by Anglicans “lack a Magisterium” – Anglicans have a different way of making decisions, certainly. But shifting the problem from a biblical question to a Roman Catholic Magisterium problem I think is not necessarily a solution at all. The Roman Catholic Magisterium clearly also changes – it is on a similar trajectory to what has been pointed to in comments.

        If you now understand Roman Catholicism as being opposed to the death penalty, that highlights my point, because that, of course, is not the traditional Roman Catholic teaching going back through St. Augustine, Pope Innocent III, St. Thomas Aquinas, Cardinal Newman, and the Catholic tradition as a whole – in fact as expressed in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “the traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty” (#2267).


      2. “In the Bible, this is an act of violence commanded by God.”

        With all due respect, I must disagree Bosco. As Pope Benedict and Pope Pius XII rightly insist, one needs to apply the historical critical method, and the genre and idioms used by the sacred writers.

        “The Lord said such and such” is a prophetic idiom announcing the prophet’s words. The scared author never intended it to be read literalistically, as modern readers are prone to do. It does not mean God commanded such and such but that the prophet discerned Gods will to be such and such. Such discernment, as scripture and tradition tragically record, can often be faulty, tending to read too much of social conventions and human misunderstandings into the divine will.


  5. So it did happen as a matter of history, yet, as part of a text yet to be brought to greater fulfillment in Jesus Christ, it is now for us an allegory.

    1. So, Paul, you are saying God did say this – this was a command that “did happen as a matter of history” – but God changed is mind after (or because of) Jesus? Blessings.

        1. You can certainly say that, Paul. I don’t think that the reality at the time of Jesus was the end point of the trajectory, but that Jesus was limited by his context and yet set the direction of the trajectory which we are (ought to be?) still following today. Would you be comfortable with such an approach? Blessings.

  6. The expalnations by Chris and Paul sound like goobly gook copouts to me. Reading the “Pascal Mystery” back into the text is certainly one approach to the Hebrew Scriptures, by I fail to see how the cruelties attributed to God in those scriptures, and there are a lot more than the occasional stoning or someone dropping dead, could ever be rationalized as the Plan of God manifested progressively, accomplished slowly and fullfilled in Christ Jesus.

    Saul Paul may have had something of “a degree of expertise, acquired through a training,” but certainly the fishermen from Galilee and many of the others didn’t.

    1. Maybe God decided to reveal non-violence gradually ? Maybe fallible humans expressed inspiration through their very fallible human understanding, social practices etc. It certainly seems to have taken the Church a LONG time to grasp non-violence, as other necessary reforms.


      1. The problem, Chris, is that God is not (in the quoted text) beginning to reveal non-violence; God is presented as revealing violence as the solution to not resting. Blessings.

      2. That’s as silly as the proponents of a young Earth (6000 years old) arguing, when confronted with irrefutable evidence of the true age of the Earth, claiming that God actually created the universe in a state that just appears to billions of years old! Because after all, God could do that, because God is all powerful, right?

        No, I think that the primitive Church understood non-violense from the start. I think that it was after the Church became the established religion in the Roman Empire that bishops and other leaders somehow came to believe that they had some madate over the lives of their fellow humans and started torturing & murdering folks under some perverted concept that they were saving folks souls. YUCK.

      3. Yes, I think you’re right about the primitive Church David. I should have written “re-grasp”.


  7. It’s all way over my head, as I suspect it would be for a lot of Christian laity. This much is important for me: through reading and meditating and praying through Scripture I’m able to encounter a small glimpse of God himself. There are some (many) passages where I find myself praying “I really don’t understand this, Father, as it doesn’t resonate with my understanding of your character as a loving and merciful God.” I find I have to then trust that there was a reason for this command that was specific to the time and place that is beyond my knowledge.

    1. Once again, Claudia (nothing to do with some lay/clergy divide IMO) you & I are on a similar page. Prayerfully treating the scriptures as the word of a God who loves us to us seems to be a more wholesome approach than (what I too often encounter) using scriptures as some sort of weapon to bash others (and I stress others) with. Blessings.

      1. I mention the laity/clergy divide because often when I come across a challenging passage, my first thought is usually that my lack of theological training is causing my lack of comprehension, rather than the passage itself. I assume those who have had theological training are less likely to look to the lack of their own understanding and more likely to “blame” the text for its difficulty.

  8. I think that what one needs to understand about revelation from God is that it is still going on. We haver not yet reached that ‘Fullness of Time’, when all shall be revealed. Unless one believes that the Holy Spirit is still working on the task of unfolding revelation from God, one might believe that the task of the Holy Spirit is already accomplished and earth should be incorporated into paradise.

    The salvation of the word has already been brought about – accomplished by the Incarnate Son of God. However, that salvation still has to be lived into – progressively – by God’s human children. Otherwise, why would theology have needed to make any progress at all since the Crucifixion of Christ? We still have a long way to go to fully understand God’s loving purpose for the inhabitants of earth, and of the whole Cosmos. (It took Galilleo some time to convince the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church that the Earth is round and, moreover, only a part of the full cosmic reality.

    The Church and its teachers are not infallible, nor ever have been. We still have an awful lot to learn – about’The great love of God as revealed in The Son’ Maybe when people have started to accept the realities that we live with – about our biological, social and anthropological progression – then the world might become a more loving and generous place in which to live – for all, not just the Great and the Good that seek to maintain outdated theories of human perfection from our own limited understanding of our relationship wiuth the divine.

  9. I’ve got nothing new to add to the subject, I just wanted to note that I enjoyed reading the post as well as all the comment threads. Enlightening, respectful dialogue. This is a great culture.

    1. Thanks, John. Yours is the sort of comment that could be at the top of this site – We both know how torrid Christian websites and online groups can become. I think we can be proud of this community that gathers around this site (about a thousand have read this post so far) that in discussion we may agree or disagree strongly but we do it with respect. Blessings.

  10. Assuming the stoning passage is historical, I’ve often wondered if the stoners waited until the next day to carry out the stoning. Stoning someone to death on the Sabbath sounds like a lot of work to me.

    1. What a fascinating question, William. I’m no stoning expert in theory or in practice – I think this is one I will put on my facebook page and on twitter. Thanks and blessings.

    2. What a jolly good point, William. My (union organiser) husband just commented that waiting until Monday also means no penal rates under most standard (Western) work contracts.

      1. They would only have had to wait till sunset, which is normally defined (at least in nowaday Judaism) with the appearance of at least three stars on the sky (and/or sunset) as far as I understand.

        1. Just found that “inflicting a punishment” is not allowed on Sabbat – at least in later Judaism – so the punishment itself probably also isn’t and the whole event took place in late afternoon/early evening towards the end of Sabbat (at least when one considers this account as a literal description of an actual event): http://www.jewfaq.org/613.htm#Punishment – I also wonder how the arrestment of the “delinquent” was done, as lots of activities are forbidden on Sabbat, and arresting (binding, jailing) this person is not a life-saving activity which would give good reasons to break several of the sabbat-related laws.

          1. Given that the Jewish leaders of his day wanted to ensure that the body of Jesus did not remain on the cross for the Sabbath, it would seem a fair inference that they would not have countenanced an execution on the Sabbath, either. Whether that understanding was as old as the Pentateuch, though, I don’t know.

  11. I too feel that the really deep and interesting theological debate that is happening here is above my head – and I won’t try to pretend to understand some of the more learned contributions! However, I did wonder, if the Bible had been written in today’s context, it might say that a sinner should be sent to prison or home detention, since in our “enlightened” day and age we tend to use isolation from society as punishment rather than pain, disablement or death. And if someone living in a completely different society 3000 years from now read about that, they may be horrified that human beings could do such things to each other because their concept of punishment may have moved on from ours. I too think that this passage is non-literal in that sense – it is describing the worst punishment in the context of the time to illustrate the seriousness of breaking the Sabbath. Instead of “stoned him to death”, it could say “inflicted the congregation’s heaviest punishment on him”.

  12. When Jesus explained that there is no divorce, he said that Moses allowed it because of the harshness of their hearts. Jesus says that it was Moses who allowed it, not God. But when you read Pentateuch it is God himself who allows divorce. Are we not faced here with the same problem? As in the Incarnation the Word of God took flesh, in the Bible the Word of God takes human expression. Moses thought God was telling him to kill those who broke the Sabbath. And God ‘condescended’, as He did with the divorce question, and many other question that reached fulfilment when Christ fulfils the Law and brings it to perfection.

    But you cannot start separating in the Bible ‘this is from God’ and ‘this is from man’ anyhow, no more than you can separate the Humanity from the Divinity in Christ without tearing him apart. When interpreting the Bible we have to avoid the temptation of Arianism, Nestorianism, and all the Christological heresies, which apply to the Bible: everything is human, or everything is divine, or 50-50 according to my interpretation. What brings us to the usual problem: which one is the right interpretation? Sola Scriptura is not enough.

    And by the way, thank you very much, Bosco, for this website where Christians can still live the New Commandment, and agree to disagree without insulting each other.

    1. Thanks so much, Diego. I think, for me anyway, you are helping my understanding another step forward. Thanks, too, for your final paragraph – enabling a space where we can agree to disagree, and do so respectfully, has been particularly important to me recently as I have, once again, been in the midst of places where that does not seem possible. Blessings.

  13. It appears that Deuteronomy (the “second law”) doesn’t go in so much for stoning as penalty (also no putting to death men who lie with men).

    Development even in the Torah.

    (And if the first law was perfect, why have a second?)


  14. Michelle O'Sullivan

    When you take into account the two paragraphs directly before the quote it makes much more sense why such a very drastic measure was taken. The man purposefully acted “high-handedly” and “affronts the Lord” so he was made an example of for his extreme disobedience (There is also a strong possibility that he wanted to use the wood to honour an idol). Discussions of the Torah from the jewish community are an excellent resource to help us understand the scriptures in their original context. God Bless

    ” But if you unintentionally fail to observe all these commandments that the Lord has spoken to Moses— everything that the Lord has commanded you by Moses, from the day the Lord gave commandment and thereafter, throughout your generations— then if it was done unintentionally without the knowledge of the congregation, the whole congregation shall offer one young bull for a burnt-offering, a pleasing odour to the Lord, together with its grain-offering and its drink-offering, according to the ordinance, and one male goat for a sin-offering. The priest shall make atonement for all the congregation of the Israelites, and they shall be forgiven; it was unintentional, and they have brought their offering, an offering by fire to the Lord, and their sin-offering before the Lord, for their error. All the congregation of the Israelites shall be forgiven, as well as the aliens residing among them, because the whole people was involved in the error.

    An individual who sins unintentionally shall present a female goat a year old for a sin-offering. And the priest shall make atonement before the Lord for the one who commits an error, when it is unintentional, to make atonement for the person, who then shall be forgiven. For both the native among the Israelites and the alien residing among them—you shall have the same law for anyone who acts in error. But whoever acts high-handedly, whether a native or an alien, affronts the Lord, and shall be cut off from among the people. Because of having despised the word of the Lord and broken his commandment, such a person shall be utterly cut off and bear the guilt.”

    1. Thanks, Michelle. For those following this discussion, Michelle’s quote is from Numbers 15:22ff. Blessings.

  15. I confess to being slightly confused by the distinction between Sola Scripture and Prima Scripture. Wikipedia tells me that “Sola scripture does not deny that other authorities govern Christian life and devotion, but sees them as subordinate to and corrected by the written word of God.” And Prima Scripture has that “canonized scripture is first or above all other sources of divine revelation.”

    Could someone please explain (using small words if possible) what the difference actually means, and what it looks like particularly in this kind of situation as trying to understand a challenging passage?

    1. Thanks, Claudia, for adding Prima Scriptura to the mix of Sola and Nuda Scriptura – and I also hope someone (possibly who supports one of these positions) might pick up your challenge. I’m working on a post about the place of tradition – just to add to the confusion, for probably later this week. Blessings.

    2. In the Catholic Church we have authoritative documents, issued by Popes and synods and ecumenical councils, on how the Church interprets sacred scripture, some of which are refered to above.

      I’m not sure that non-Catholics really have so much in the way of recent authoritative documents on how to read the bible, it’s more Luther’s “every cowherds own interpretation” eg the current debate on homosexuality in Anglicanism.

      As the wikipedia article points out rather well, sola scriptura is an incoherent and self-negating principle as it cannot be found in scripture and contradicts scripture.

      Tradition is a wonderful thing, that which is handed down from Christ, but tradition, with a small “t” is its human container, or way of expressing Tradition, which can and must be developed and changed under the gentle inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

      God Bless

      1. Thanks, Chris.

        You are quite correct – the concept of Protestant authoritative documents on how to read the Bible would be an oxymoron. [I think there are serious issues with dividing humanity simply in two: Catholics and “non-Catholics”, but that is another discussion]. Wikipedia isn’t the best source for sound theological debate, but my post (and others on this site in this vein) serve to highlight significant issues, as you do (or Wikipedia does) with Sola Scriptura.

        I think you are overly optimistic (as I’ve noted before) about what the Roman Catholic authoritative documents circumscribe. There is certainly open debate within Roman Catholicism – even around the meaning and limitations of relatively recent documents.


  16. Chris, perhaps you need to acknowledge that there once was a time – before Vatican II – when the Faithful Laity were not allowed full access to the Scriptures. They were presented at the Mass as finite declarations that could only be interpreted by the Magisterium. Nor were they in any way the sole inspiration for Roman Catholic Doctrine: e.g. the dogmas of the Assumption of the BVM (a devotional possibility that is held by many High Church Anglican but is not dogmatically insisted on). This makes your insistence on Roman Biblical practice to be of less historical veracity than say, that of the Lutherans.

    1. Fr Ron,

      Certainly Catholics were discouraged from private interpetations of scripture. “Not allowed full access” probably overstates the reality; many Catholics did own bibles.

      I think the discussion above gives adequate reasons why the Church would want to discourage private interpretation. I’m reminded of an El Salvador death squad inspired by a passage in Revelation to go out and kill government opponents. Even the New Testament can be very problematic if wrongly interpreted.

      However, the Church can (and did) go too far in trying to stamp out new interpretations, which is also unhelpful.

      I’m not sure what you mean by “your insistence on Roman Biblical practice to be of less historical veracity”; the point I’m trying to make is that the Catholic Church does have what are now very good documents enjoying magisterial authority about how to read sacred scripture whose use can help solve a lot of problems like the one we are discussing here (and also other hot topics in the CHurch today). A Catholic exegete or preacher does not have to rely on his or her own interpretation but can point to these documents, which can be very helpful at times.

      Many Blessings

      1. Might I just interject into your conversation, Chris, with Fr Ron,

        I know, prior to Vatican II, communities of RC sisters who, if given a New Testament were allowed to keep it – but if given a Bible had to refuse the gift.

        Your own discussions here, Chris, have illustrated the issue with your own approach. When presented with an RC magisterial text that appears to differ from your own interpretation, you have given your “private interpretation” of the RC text. In other words, the issues that you see with “private interpretations of scripture” are simply replicated in private interpretations of RC “magisterial documents”.


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