In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete and Jared talk about the ins and outs of biblical inerrancy and why people cling to it as they answer the following questions:
- Has the Church always held the belief that the Bible is inerrant?
- What is the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy?
- How are modern people different from people of the past?
- What is apriori?
- How does the theological system of biblical inerrancy mess with our self-worth and belonging?
- How does power show up in the discussion of biblical inerrancy?
- Why do people cling so hard to biblical inerrancy?
- How do you separate God from God’s word?
- Why are people afraid to let go of an inerrant Bible?
- How has Christianity shrunk itself in the United States?
- Where does death anxiety appear in the Bible?
- What are some good places to start if you feel ready to start reading the Bible again?
Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Pete and Jared you can share.
- “Whenever you have a precommitment to a system, and then we have this data where people learn and then they fall away from that particular interpretation or system, rather than questioning the system, what we do is we have character attacks and we start questioning the motives and intentions of the people.” @jbyas
- “So much of Protestant theology is rooted in things happening several hundred years ago.” @peteenns
- “Historically in the church, the things that brought authority were diverse. We had tradition, we had experience, we had reason, and we had the Bible. We had all these things, and then the Reformation, they just, like, quadrupled down on the Bible.” @jbyas
- “No matter how nice a person you might be, if you have a totalizing, theological narrative, a structure that just explains everything, you can’t let go of any of it and what do people do?” @peteenns
- “It’s possible to say that God doesn’t change. You can still hold to that if that’s your framework. And yet, all you need to do is let go of the idea, though, that my opinions about God can’t change.” @jbyas
- “I can’t make believe that these things are not, whether it’s evolution or whatever, it doesn’t matter, I cannot make believe those things don’t exist. I have to sort of account for them somehow.” @peteenns
Mentioned in This Episode
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Pete: You’re listening to The Bible for Normal People – the only God-ordained podcast on the internet. I’m Pete Enns.
Jared: And I’m Jared Byas.
[Jaunty intro music]
Pete: In Evangelicalism, the trained theologians too often, in my opinion, lean towards essentially being apologists. They’re protecting the theological system, they’re addressing the system, and this is how it hangs together
Jared: And trying to defend the system.
Pete: And trying to defend it.
Jared: It’s essentially like saying to someone, “Why do you think the Bible is inerrant?” and their answer is, “because it has to be.”
Jared: It’s like, well, that’s not an argument.
Jared: They’re starting with the assumption that it has to be because God is X, Y, and Z.
Jared: Today, we’re talking about inerrancy. At the end of the day, if we want to ask the questions what is the Bible and what do we do with it, it’s a topic we have to talk about.
Pete: Yeah, it keeps coming up and it’s not beating a dead horse, it’s a real, live issue for people. I think especially a lot of the people, Jared, who listen to our podcast. Not all of them, but I think a lot are still, they’re in that process maybe beginning that move from the orientation that biblical inerrancy gives them, a sense of things making sense, to that place where like, it’s, “I don’t know, I just don’t see it that much anymore and I’m a little afraid for thinking about it,” and moving to that disorientation phase before they move on to a, you know, reorientation phase. So, in other words, it keeps coming up! It’s like, probably, I don’t know, it may be the most common thing that people are bringing to the table. So, we just want to talk about it in our own little way here.
Jared: Yeah, so let’s start with some definitions.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Jared: Let’s bring some clarity to that, because maybe some people hadn’t ever heard of inerrancy. I asked this question on Instagram, you know, if you don’t hold to inerrancy, what was it that you were clinging to? And I had, there were some responses that said, “what’s inerrancy?” So –
Jared: Why don’t you give it a, we can, there’s different people who have defined it differently.
Pete: Right, right. And maybe just to back up a little bit before we get into that, just, you know the title of our episode, “The Risk of an ‘Errant’ Bible,” not an inerrant Bible, the risk of an errant Bible. What’s at risk for people? And just, you know, an errant Bible is sort of an interesting way of putting it because I remember, you know, a while back years ago in a discussion with someone about, you know, me seeing some contradictions in the Bible and things like that and sort of trying to put it rather gently, and he was rather strong inerrantist, a good guy, but a rather strong inerrantist and he said, “oh, so you’re an errantist.” And I said, no, I’m not an errantist, because I don’t even recognize the validity of the distinction, like these are the categories we should be living with. Because I don’t, I simply don’t see inerrancy as something that sort of flows from the pages of the Bible, so. That’s, I mean, that’s sort of what the whole idea of an errant Bible is just not helpful, but there’s risk for people and we want to get to that. But maybe, first, the definition, right? So, yeah, what, I mean, what do you have, Jared? I think there’s different ways of getting at it, but do you have one?
Jared: Yeah, well, I was looking up things because, and I’ll let you because you’ve interacted more with what we call the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, which was
Pete: What’s that Jared?
Jared: This conference in 1978 –
Pete: A conference?
Jared: Of these top – okay, I probably shouldn’t put air quotes – I was gonna say, “scholars,” who came together –
Pete: He said air quotes!
Let’s say prominent Evangelical scholars, many of them theologians, systematic theologians –
Pete: And biblical scholars as well.
Jared: Yeah. So, they have this long statement, that’s what they call it, on biblical inerrancy and you can look it up online and read it if you really want to get into the definition. But they say, “Holy scripture is of infallible divine authority in all matters upon which it touches,” which means, “being wholly and verbally God-given, scripture is without error or fault in all its teachings, no less in what it states about God’s acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than its witness to God’s saving grace in individual lives.” And I just want to make a nerdy comment about that – that last line about it matters what the Bible says about history and acts of creation, not just salvation, that’s a response to the Catholic version of this which came out in the early 60’s in the Second Vatican Council.
Because they say, the Catholics would say, “The books of scripture must be acknowledged as teaching solidly, faithfully, and without error; that truth which God wanted to put into sacred writings for the sake of salvation.” So, the Catholics sort of hedge their bets a little bit and narrowed it to matters of salvation, but the Chicago statement was like, forget that!
Pete: Yeah, it’s going right for the jugular.
Pete: And it’s not simply the Bible can be trusted to teach me about what God is like and things like that, which is itself a thing to be discussed, because there are a lot of funny things about God in the Bible, but that would be fine. But it really extends it to matters of science and history and that, I think, that’s the kind of thing that people struggle with. I know like, the Barna report that came out a few years ago about why Evangelicals leave the church, and one of which is like, yeah, they deny science! I’m like, I can’t deny some of that stuff. So, there’s, you know, there’s a lot of stuff happening and that statement, I think, summarizes well sort of this standard Evangelical statement on biblical inerrancy that some Evangelicals will quibble with, but not every person who says they’re an Evangelical will believe this right down the line.
Jared: Mm hmm. For instance, a lot of, most British Evangelicals –
Pete: Oh, right.
Jared: If would call themselves Evangelicals, wouldn’t hold to this.
Pete: This is a very American statement, there’s no question about that. I mean, I know British Evangelicals who study evolution. So, it’s just, you know, but I think the framers of this statement are giving a very tight non-negotiable sort of definition of inerrancy that may be strategically, they felt, I’m just conjecturing here, like we have to make it ultra-tight because people are gonna want to stray from this, so let’s make sure it’s really, really tight, it covers all our bases. So, I think there’s sort of an emotional, tactical dimension to this kind of a statement still.
Jared: Yeah, we definitely want to get to that emotional side, but –
Pete: Yes. Oh boy.
Jared: I think we need to root this, too, in some church history. Because I know, for me growing up, it was taught to me that, well, this is the way the church has always believed about the Bible and I would kind of say, you know, I forget who said it, maybe Tony Jones or Brian McLaren or someone at some point said, “you show me someone who calls someone a heretic and I’ll just show you someone who doesn’t know their church history.” The idea that modern American Evangelicalism is the faithful witness, the through-line that really Christians have believed for all time is just not historically true.
Pete: Yeah, I mean –
Jared: It’s just not accurate.
Pete: That really, it seems to be unaware of how theological constructs and theological language and concepts, the don’t stay the same over history because people change and you know, if you’re located in certain places in the world, you may think differently than other places. If your skin is white or your skin is Black or brown, you’re going to have different points of view. Not across the board, but just who we are as people and where we are socially located, economically located, all those kinds of things – that actually affects how we think about God and how we read the Bible. And it’s, it is rather unguarded a statement to suggest that, well, the church has always believed what we happened to believe, or the church has always rejected, you know, a non-literal reading of the Adam and Eve story. And, first of all, that’s not true. Second of all, we have other kinds of things before us today that maybe Calvin didn’t have or Thomas Aquinas or Augustine or Jesus, right? Anybody, they didn’t have things in front of them to deal with. So, the question is whether we’re going to engage scripture thoughtfully within the context that we live and breathe, or whether we’re going to simply look past all that and just sort of go back to some pristine time where everybody believed exactly the same thing about the Bible.
Jared: Well, and with that, I don’t think we can underestimate the impact of modernity, rationalism, the enlightenment, on.
Jared: We can’t go to a pre-enlightenment way of thinking. And so, the categories that we’re going to place on ancient writers and thinkers about the Bible are always going to be anachronistic. It’s always going to be putting on to them categories that they wouldn’t have been dealing with.
Jared: And that’s hard for us, because within that framework, we now think about things like brute facts, or facts apart from community, or current relevancy. Like, we want standalone facts.
Pete: Just these facts, just the facts, right? Yeah.
Jared: Yeah. And that’s just, to put that on the ancient readers of scripture is, again, it, like you said at the very beginning – is it true or not true that they read it this way? You can’t really even answer that question because they didn’t have those categories.
Pete: They didn’t have those categories, right. And we do, and that’s, well actually, not all of us do, some people do. But, you know, I think part of what is going on here, too, the language of inerrancy equates a belief in inerrant bible, an inerrant Bible with faith in God.
And I think that is where people begin to really feel pressure because I’m starting to question some things about what I’ve been taught about the Bible, does that mean I’m also questioning God? The Chicago Statement is very clear, and the answer is “yes, you are.” God only speaks truth, which means God speaking in scripture is truth, and therefore, our job is to sort of just believe that and again, that’s, I don’t want to use sort of polarizing terms, but to me, that’s really leaning more towards a fundamentalist statement of the Bible, and I think Evangelicalism generally speaking is much more open to some of these conversations, although I think the ceiling is still pretty low.
Jared: Yeah, well, and that brings up something, I think, that’s worth, you know, we don’t have to spend a lot of time on it, but this assumption that the Bible is God’s word, I think conflates, it confuses those categories so that when we talk about the Bible, we’re making that synonymous with God.
Jared: And so, when we use the phrase that the Bible is God’s word, instead of what the Bible talks about, which is that Jesus is the word of God in some sense –
Pete: Mm hmm.
Jared: The word made flesh, I do think that’s a big part, even in our language when we talk about, you know, God’s word. How do, you can’t separate God from God’s word. And so, basically, the Bible is God.
Pete: Right. You know, the Old Testament does talk about, you know, “my word is truth” and things like that. There’s a famous book we read in seminary, Jared. Well, not famous but within certain circles. But you know the notion that the prophets speak God’s word to the people, which is true.
Pete: Sometimes they don’t agree with each other. That’s one thing to think about. So, I guess, for me, you know, before we get to some of the why it’s attractive and why it’s so hard to process this stuff, but for me, one of the things that really gets to the heart of what I’d say is the problem with inerrancy is that the beginning is that, well listen, the Bible is the word of God. And that gets paired with all sorts of really philosophical assumptions like, well, if that’s the case, then it’s going to be accurate. It’s never going to give a falsehood about history. There will be, simply, no contradictions because God doesn’t do that sort of thing.
Pete: And then, you know, okay, that’s the Bible you have, but then, again, forgive me, you read it carefully and you just come up with, wait a minute, there are two creation stories. You know? Deuteronomy and Exodus don’t say these laws the same way, in fact, they say them very differently and they’re not really compatible.
Jared: Mm hmm.
Pete: These are not secrets that are sort of hidden someplace, these are things that people have read and thought about for a very, very long time. So, now you have the problem of sort of, you know, I guess the technical term is apriori, right?
Pete: It’s something you start with that’s like, non-negotiable.
Jared: Well, another way of saying that is when you, it’s essentially like saying to someone, “Why do you think the Bible is inerrant?” And their answer is, “because it has to be.”
Jared: It’s like, well that’s not an argument.
Jared: And that’s kind of the assumption. They’re starting with the assumption it has to be –
Pete: It has to be.
Jared: Because God is X, Y, and Z –
Jared: So, when you ask, why is it you’re not looking at the evidence and data within the Bible itself, you start with the presumption, which is that apriori that it has to be. So, now I go find the evidence to support what has to be the case already.
Pete: And whatever evidence you find to the contrary is, again, I don’t want to be reductionistic, but it’s either ignored or cleverly maneuvered as a friend of mind says, sort of, it’s like alchemy. You’re creating things to sort of make things fit.
Jared: I always laugh because when I was growing up, you know, there was this book called, I think it’s Archer’s Book of Bible Difficulties?
Pete: Yeah, Gleason Archer, yeah, he’s a prominent Evangelical.
Jared: If you have to have an 800 page book –
Pete: Yeah, several volumes.
To explain –
Pete: Wow! I didn’t know there was so many problems there! I never would’ve noticed this before!
Jared: [Continued laughter]
Right. At some point you’ve got to think, okay, well maybe my framework’s off if it takes 800 pages to get rid of the “problem.”
Pete: See, I would’ve, I would’ve written a book like that and I would’ve just made it as long as possible and said weird stuff the Bible does. No, weird stuff that our Bible does.
Pete: No, our Bible does these kinds of things.
Jared: But why do you pose it as difficulties or problems?
Pete: See, that’s just it – because the apriori is like, the Bible has to be a certain way, and, well here are Bible difficulties. Let’s solve them to sort of match our apriori commitment to what the Bible is rather than maybe more a bottom-up approach, which is like, I’m just reading these things and I’m noticing a tremendous amount of diversity. I’m noticing biblical authors who don’t agree with each other. I’m noticing an old-world perspective on things like whether the earth is flat or not, you know, things like that, or where rain comes from. I’m noticing stories that have such clear parallels in ancient near eastern literature, none of which we would say is historical or anything like that.
In other words, you know, I would want to start with a view of the Bible that God is not out of the picture, but I’m not going to presume what God can or can’t do, right?
Pete: So, that’s the way of thinking about words like revelation or inspiration if you want to do that, but –
Jared: Yeah, and this is totally anecdotal, so I don’t mean to make an overgeneralization about these fields, but in my experience, my interactions with theologians, systematic theologians within the Evangelical tradition versus my interactions with biblical scholars, even within the Evangelical tradition, you have this, much more of a commitment to these kinds of inerrantist claims from the theology side –
Jared: Because they start with who is God, what kind of God is this – they already have these categories and then they go to the Bible and they try to make a coherent whole and the challenge with our Bible is it’s diverse. So, if you’re trying to make this unified whole out of it, you gotta do some editing and chopping up, whereas, for biblical scholars who just sit with the text, they see this diversity and then their view of God comes out of this eclectic, you know, set of texts that have different views of God.
Pete: I’ve sort of lived that. You know, I think it’s true, again, some people will be mad at us for saying this, but generally speaking, I’m going to, I agree with you that in Evangelicalism, the trained theologians, too often in my opinion, lean towards essentially being apologists. They’re protecting the theological system, they’re sort of what you would call in the Roman Catholic tradition, canon theologians. They’re theologians addressing the system and this is how it hangs together.
Jared: And trying to defend the system.
Pete: And trying to defend it, and then it’s the biblical scholars who, I mean, this has happened so often, Jared, in the history of Evangelicalism, and to, you know, it’s been difficult for people that you’re taught to think about scripture in an Evangelical setting whether a church or seminary or college or whatever, and then, you know, you’re the best and brightest in the group and they want to send you to graduate school to study Bible, and then you do. And you’re like, “Oh. Wait a minute. Oh, my goodness gracious!” And I’ve seen people, myself included, it took me about, I remember my first semester at Harvard, and I was in my kitchen in Somerville, Massachusetts, staring at the refrigerator thinking, I’m not sure if Abraham is a real person anymore. You know? And it’s, nobody shoved it down my throat, just, I had the data and sort of ways of thinking, like, okay, I understand why people say the things that they say. And then you come back in an Evangelical or conservative context and people are like, what happened to you?
Jared: Mm hmm.
Pete: You used to be so straight and narrow, and now you’ve got all these weird ideas. So, biblical scholarship can be the problem that theologians have to sort of correct and they write things about how, you know, I don’t know, it’s these young bright people, they go off to graduate school and they just, they’re not holding onto their faith, they come back liberal. Why does that keep happening? Every single generation, again and again, why do people keep losing their jobs? It’s because they’re seeing things, you know, this is the deconstruction thing we talk about
Pete: They’re seeing the cracks of the system from within.
Pete: Not outside attacks, but they’re seeing the problems. And, you know, I just, it’s causing a problem that keeps repeating itself generation after generation.
Jared: Well, and the insidious part of that for me is whenever you have a precommitment to a system, and then we have this data where people learn and then they fall away from that particular interpretation or system, rather than questioning the system, what we do is we have character attacks and we start questioning the motives and intentions of the people.
Jared: And that was hurtful, that’s what was hurtful for me.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Jared: Because I was warned and in my story is, I was warned in undergraduate about going to a particular seminary because there were particular professors there who weren’t towing the party line.
Jared: But it was said, in terms of, basically, you know, the biblical studies part –
Pete: I think he’s talking about me, folks.
Yeah, I didn’t know how much to say or not say, but yes. So, I was warned. I had professors who actually sat down with me and basically said you’re like, the brightest right? I won the Jonathan Edwards prize in my department in undergrad and blah, blah, blah.
Pete: You’re such a geek.
Jared: And, you know, but be careful. Maybe you should go to one of these seminaries because I hear that this particular seminary has started, basically, listening to the biblical scholars over the systematic theologians and that’s a dangerous path.
Jared: And so, I, a good Enneagram 8, I completely ignored them and did whatever I wanted.
Jared: And here we are.
Pete: Here we are. Here we are, The Bible for Normal People!
Jared: But the hurtful thing for me was as I went through that, how many people in my life couldn’t even touch the system of inerrancy. It had to be I had some sin in my life that I was no longer willing to sit under the authority of the Bible, so I needed to find a way out.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Jared: Or you know, you’re just trying to be cool, or you’re just comprising with the world. Those were the arguments.
Jared: And that’s where it gets, for me, I get pretty animated about that because that starts messing with people’s feelings of self-worth and belonging.
Pete: That’s what screws people up, that’s right. It’s not the ideas, it’s all the manipulation afterwards.
Jared: In order to protect my own system –
Jared: I’m choosing this theological system because it makes me feel safe over the heart and soul of actual human beings.
Pete: Well, I mean, let me push that a little bit maybe, but bending it to the right a little bit, but the thing is that, you know, we all do have systems.
Pete: And I have them and I don’t, I’m not even aware of what my systems are, you know. They’re probably so deeply ingrained in me, I don’t know what they are. But we all have systems, but here’s the thing, some systems just are bad. They just don’t make sense, and it’s not, you know, a baseless attack, but some systems, I think, are better than others. But almost regardless, if we can hold those systems more gently than we do because we make the system, it really is equating the system with the mind of God.
Jared: Mm hmm.
Pete: That’s a problem, and you can believe in a Bible. “I don’t think the Bible really just makes mistakes.” Fine with me! Can we talk about some of these other things when you’re ready?
Jared: Mm hmm.
Pete: “Yeah, sure, we can talk about that.” Okay, that’s great, that’s not a problem, but when it becomes, I guess we’re talking about power now, aren’t we?
Pete: Let’s get to that. The power of this over people’s lives, it can be very, very destructive. People can believe what they want, right? And some may wind up having, let’s say, more traditional, or I’m not going to say because I don’t think inerrancy is a traditional view. I think it’s a more modernist conservative view of scripture.
Pete: But you know, people can have that with, and hold onto it with the sense of it not being, maybe, the full story, but the power thing comes into that doesn’t it?
Jared: Yeah, well, I just wanted to maybe articulate in a different way what you’re saying. It’s kind of there’s this matrix, because I also don’t want to miss what you said at first, which is some systems are just bad. So, we have kind of, if we have the X and Y axis, we have kind of on one side bad systems that just don’t hold up to the evidence and the data. And then we have good systems that try to make sense of the data that we have. But then on the other axis, we have how we hold to those systems.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Jared: That’s for some people, it’s provisional. Like, I get it, my system could change at any time. My ego and identity and my sense of safety and connection to God isn’t dependent on this system, and for other people, all those things are tied up and they become kind of jerks when you start poking at it, they get really sore. And that’s where, I think, the power dynamic, for me, is, you know, I don’t think it’s malicious, and I don’t think it’s intentional in a lot of cases, but if you have the book that unlocks the mysteries of the universe, and then you go to school and learn how to unlock those mysteries and then you get to be in charge of people in this profound universal way who don’t have those keys, I feel like that’s just a recipe for abuse of power.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Jared: And people with power don’t like to give it up. And so, this is a system that is really hard to penetrate and question in some of these traditions.
Pete: And that abuse of power, I have seen be enacted very gently –
Jared: Mm hmm, yup.
Pete: And I don’t think, necessarily, deliberately by people.
Pete: I mean, that’s just it, isn’t that they’re not always bad people. Some people are just real bad, manipulative, power hungry people, but a lot of people aren’t. They just, they’re part of a system where, that values the people with knowledge who can defend a particular way of looking at things and they truly believe that this is true, and they simple cannot countenance the possibility that others would question it, and so, they go into hyper mode to sort of lock that down and not really entertaining the possibility that those others may have, they may have legitimate reasons for saying I just don’t believe X, Y, or Z anymore.
Jared: Mm hmm.
Pete: That’s where, no matter how nice a person you might be, if you have a totalizing, theological narrative, a structure that just explains everything, you can’t let go of any of it and what do people do? Their options are, like, I’m not even a Christian anymore. That’s where people go with that.
Jared: Well, because, again, in my tradition, that was the scare tactic of basically, well, you can make a choice. You can either go down the slippery slope of questioning inerrancy and eventually be an atheist, or you can be an inerrantist.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Jared: In an effort to keep people in the fold, they end up excluding people because once it’s black or white and black doesn’t make any sense anymore, we have to go to white.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Jared: Instead of seeing that there are many other variations within that journey. But I think that does bring up for me this question of why people cling to it so hard –
Pete: Yeah. Right, right.
Jared: Because you mention this. You know, I think one thing for me is that it’s a shortcut and it finally gave us what we’ve been searching for for about four hundred years in modernity, which is a feeling of certainty about our knowledge of God and how the world works.
Jared: We spent from Descartes “I think therefore I am,” I’m going to question everything I think I know so I can have the surest foundation and build it from there, so we have these certainty blocks that just build and build and build. And oh my gosh, doesn’t that feel so good in this nasty and brutish world.
Pete: Mm hmm. Right.
Jared: And we tried that for four hundred years and it completely failed and we kind of split. Some people became questioning whether that’s even a pursuit worth happening. We might call those “post-modernists.”
Pete: Mm hmm, mm hmm.
Jared: And then we have people who double down, and we had a doctrine like inerrancy that allowed them to double down.
Jared: They got to say, “Oh, we have it. Finally. We don’t have to go through all that hard work of philosophy and science and metaphysics and figure… We just have a book! It was simple. It was there all along.”
Pete: Well, and I think along with that, this journey that the church has taken over the past few hundred years, some type of doctrine of inerrancy is, let’s say, more excusable in the wake of the Protestant Reformation because there’s just a lot of stuff happening that we didn’t really know about it in terms of the scientific world and whatnot. And so much of Protestant theology is rooted in things happening several hundred years ago. Then, when you get to, let’s say, the 18th century and geologists are saying the earth is really, really old. And then you have, not just Darwin, but others talking about common descent. And then we can throw Einstein in there and maybe, why not, quantum physics while we’re at it. But the scientific advances have shown the inadequacies of an older reformational way of looking at the Bible. But I think if your identity as a church, and I think this describes most Protestant churches, when your identity is rooted in a reformational paradigm, a way of thinking that’s really rooted in the Protestant Reformation, it’s hard to adapt and that’s exactly what people are saying. We need to adapt to changes that, you know, the framers of our tradition could not possibly have been aware of, right? So, what do you do in this situation like that? “Well, I don’t know. We’re not sure about that because that could make you be liberal.” Okay, I mean, I’m going to try and trust God. I don’t know where it’s going to go. All I know is I can’t make believe that these things are not, whether it’s evolution or whatever, it doesn’t matter, I cannot make believe those things don’t exist. I have to sort of account for them somehow.
Jared: Yeah. It makes me think of Rohr’s tricycle or Wesley’s quadrilateral where historically in the church, the things that brought authority were diverse. We had tradition, we had experience, we had reason, and we had the Bible. We had all these things, and then the Reformation, they just, like, quadrupled down on the Bible and they cut all those other legs off.
Jared: And they put all their money in that basket. It’s like, okay! And now, and it just, over time it just became this untenable thing.
Pete: This thing that just, yeah.
Jared: It had to hold everything because we couldn’t trust authority, I mean tradition. We couldn’t trust experience anymore. And so –
Pete: Or reason.
Jared: We just put pressure, too much pressure, on this book and for whatever reason it reminds me of the sociological studies that talk about how we’ve recently put so much pressure on married couples. Like, we used to have these diverse social networks and now it’s like your spouse has to be your best friend and your partner in raising kids and it just puts so much of a burden on this one relationship when we used to have this network, that’s kind of how I think about the Bible, it’s starting to buckle under the weight because of what it is.
Jared: I mean the data is there to say it was never intended to be all that and it can’t do it.
Pete: And it’s hard to look at this buckling as good news. I’m telling you now, it is good news. It’s a good thing to have happened. Even if it’s painful, maybe because it’s painful, it’s a good thing. But the buckling is a good thing because it is showing the inadequacies of our mind to be able to capture all of this. And it’s fun to think about it. That’s why, you know, thinking about these things and holding onto them with an open hand instead of a closed fist, as they say, that’s a really good discipline because you can be open to change, but if you’ve learned your whole life the whole point of faith is never to change, to stay rock solid.
You know, I just, I mean, again not to be snarky, just read the Bible. Just see how people are changing and different views and how people at one point in time in the Old Testament don’t think the same way as people of previous times and that’s how the Bible actually works. It’s the book I wrote a couple of years ago. I talk a lot about that for good reason, the Bible itself is giving us permission to approach God with open hands instead of like a closed fist because our theology is so rooted in our context in who we are and what’s happening.
Jared: What you’re describing to me is having a deep humility.
Pete: Uh hmm.
Jared: It’s possible to say that God doesn’t change. You can still hold to that if that’s your framework. And yet, all you need to do is let go of the idea, though, that my opinions about God can’t change.
Pete: Or the Bible.
Jared: There’s some humility there to realize like, yeah, my views on the Bible and God as I grow up, surely they change. My views on all of the world change as I grow up, as I learn more, as I develop more. To think that all we need to know about God we learned in Sunday School when we’re in first grade, it just doesn’t match the rest of my experience about what it means to be human.
Pete: And so, I would say jumping off of that, I don’t, I would say this, inerrancy is not born out of humility. And I just made people mad, but I’m not saying it’s arrogance – I’m saying it’s not born out of humility. I think it’s born more out of fear.
Pete: Here, quick story, quick story here. A few years ago I was having lunch with a friend of mine who has been on our podcast, Kent Sparks, who is also a colleague of mine at Eastern. We were talking about inerrancy and why it’s so difficult for people to sort of, even though they sort of see it, it’s difficult for them to move outside of that orbit and like, what’s happening. I said something like, “Well, I think they’re afraid of just losing that thing that helps them make sense of the world that they live in.” And Kent said, “No, I don’t think it’s that. I think it’s they’re afraid of what happens to them after they die. They won’t be sure of that anymore.” And I said at that point, this was fifteen years ago or so, I said, “No, that sounds too specific to me.” But the more I thought about it, I think Kent is right. I think he’s on to something. So, we need to go there. Like, what is really at stake for people in, what’s the risk of errant Bible? What is the risk of thinking differently about the Bible, not as a cosmic rulebook so to speak, but as something that is more complex and messy.
Jared: Yeah, I think that’s a good insight from Kent because if we think about the ways in which Christianity has shrunk in America, it’s really shrunk around, you know, we kind of trim the fat about how we live our lives, our justice, matters of this worldliness, and it’s really become “how do you get to heaven when you die?”
Pete: Uh hmm.
Jared: And I think that’s, it touches on that exact kind of death anxiety is that’s what people are focused on at the end of the day. So, it just gives credence, I think, to that theory that a lot of, all of Christianity has been narrowed down to how do you get to heaven when you die because that’s the most important, I mean that’s where you’re going to spend eternity, so that’s what we need to focus on and I’m so scared of death, and that’s just a very American thing to be scared of death. And then you kind of fuse it with our faith and it makes sense that our view of the Bible and God and what we focus on in our faith becomes fixated on that.
Pete: It’s a great story that you have if it explains what happens after you die and that you will see loved ones who have passed before you, right?
Jared: Yeah, and it gives you certainty about it in a realm that logically makes no sense to have certainty about.
Pete: Right. I mean, there are a couple things in the Bible, but again, see, it gets down back to the Bible, “to be with Christ is better by far,” Paul says. Although Paul, could you flesh that out a little bit, what you’re talking about? There isn’t a lot to go on. I mean the Old Testament has a place called Sheol, which is sort of like Hades in Greek mythology that clearly the New Testament writers don’t believe in. So, even notions of death and afterlife in the Bible change, which we can’t get into all that stuff. It’s not so much the Bible, it’s how people have been taught to think about the Bible and faith that leads them to connect the dots.
Pete: If the Bible is wrong about anything, if there is a single error, I cannot trust it to tell me about ultimate reality which is what happens to me after I die. And listeners here might be familiar with Ernest Becker, who I’m just starting to get into, but I know plenty of people who have read him very deeply, and critiques of him as well, because nobody is perfect.
But how much a fear of death really does motivate us to write narratives that claim to really explain all that. And I do wonder if, at the end of the day, I’m beginning to think that this is something that really might drive people. Even if they’re like, “well no, it’s not that,” it may be under the surface and you’re not feeling it or seeing it. It may be something, a deep-down factor of the human predicament so to speak, that we’re conscious of our demise. You know, okay, just, quick thing – in the Bible, here is inerrancy, in the book of Ecclesiastes in chapter 3. After that bird song, you know the Pete Seeger thing, “for everything there is a season,” which is always misunderstood, anyway. Right after that, it talks about how God has put eternity into our hearts, but we don’t know what will happen. And people sometimes say, “oh, God has put eternity in our hearts.” No! No! This is horrible!
Jared: It’s a frustrating –
Pete: We’re conscious of the passage of time and, you know, at the very beginning of the book, this is a great book for talking about death. At the beginning of Ecclesiastes in chapter 1, like I don’t know, verse 12ish or someplace in there, we don’t remember those who have passed before us and when we’re gone people will forget us the way we’ve forgotten everybody else. This is death anxiety right here in the Bible and he’s trying to work through it.
Jared: Well, there’s an explicit passage in Ecclesiastes where he says, “Who knows what happens to us when we die?”
Pete: Yes! Right.
Jared: Are we going to go up or are we going to go down like the animals?
Pete: Exactly, yeah. We don’t know that. Clearly, people are talking about it. But he’s like, yeah, we don’t know that. He’s really like an empiricist here, he’s like a rationalist, yeah.
Pete: But that’s just it! I mean, that has all to do with maybe the setting of Ecclesiastes, but the thing is that death anxiety is I think there in the Bible itself, which is fascinating, but I think it’s people are living it and so you just hold on for dear life for the system that answers all those questions for you and it’s a real thing. It’s an existential terror.
Jared: Well, and I wouldn’t actually separate your response from that in that our fear of death seems to be just an amplified version of our fear of the regular everyday uncertainties of life. It just happens to be kind of the ultimate unknown and uncertainty. But I think it still ties to this idea that it satisfies a deep longing we have for control in an uncontrollable world, and for safety in a dangerous place. Our death anxiety, I feel, is just an amplified version of that.
Jared: And so, I don’t think they’re that different. I think we’re all looking for that, I know for me, as someone who likes to be in control, that’s what inerrancy did for me. It gave me, okay, if I can master this book, which is by my system’s admission, contains all that I need to know about the world and God and everything – if I can master that, I can get rid of this anxiety about the uncertainties we face every day.
Pete: Yeah. By the way, quick commercial here, if you guys have Netflix, the third season of “The Sinner,” which is a really good series, but the main character basically has all sorts of issues with death and death anxiety and it’s like they’ve read Ernest Becker or something. It’s really freaky how that’s happening at the same time. But I remember many years ago, a friend of mine gave me a CD, back when we did CDs, of Richard Rohr, some lecture that he gave. But he said something there that has stuck with me about this. He says, “Life is about learning to let go, like every day, so when you get to the real letting go at the end, you’re ready for it. You’ve been doing this your whole life.”
Jared: That’s perfect.
Pete: And to me, that is a way of facing the, maybe the death anxiety that is making the stronghold on inerrancy so appealing. It’s a way of facing, it’s saying maybe the way of Christ is to let go of that need for certainty and just let go of not just that, but everything that we hold onto to create meaning in our lives. Not leave your family and stop having hobbies, but you just, you don’t put your trust in those things. You just let go. If they’re there, they’re there. If they’re not, they’re not. You have a lot of money. If it goes, it goes; If it’s there, it’s there. So, when you die, you’re ready for it. “Ah yeah, I’ve been doing this my whole life. Not a problem.” You know? And, but you know that’s a very different way of looking, that’s so outside of this system that created inerrancy in the first place. And that’s why this isn’t just an academic exercise, like “inerrancy is logically wrong.” I think it is, but that’s not even the point. The point is how it affects people’s lives emotionally and spiritually.
Jared: And relationally.
Pete: Relationally, so true.
Pete: Maybe even physically.
Jared: Mm hmm.
Pete: Who knows?
Jared: Yeah, okay. Well, speaking of letting go. We’ll have to have a whole episode on –
Pete: Letting go?
Jared: On death anxiety and fear of death. I think it’d be great. But how does letting go of inerrancy change how we read the Bible? What’s this, you know you mentioned at the beginning, there are people who are stepping into this disorientation of, “What? The Bible is not inerrant?” I’m falling down the rabbit hole here, but what does changing and letting go of that do for how we read the Bible? I think that’s a good question to end on.
Pete: Which is hard. I think it’s hard because if it’s not doing what I always been used to it doing, what’s it good for?
Jared: Right. The thing I was going to it for isn’t there, it can’t deliver, so now what do we do with it?
Pete: Well, I mean, I think it’s really difficult and probably not wise to give sort of a formula for this, but what I would say is that instead of reading it for processing information to put into this certain slots of the system, I would, I tell people to think in terms of being curious. Like, think back in your, you know, some people can’t even read the Bible anymore. So, I say, okay listen, then don’t. Then leave it alone for a while. Just take a break, I mean, heaven’s sake. God’s fine with it. I know that for a fact.
Pete: I know that inerrantly, so. No, but I do trust that it’s okay for us to sort of just be honest and say I just need a break from church, I needed a break from all this stuff. But to come back to the Bible and ask yourself, in my Bible reading days, was there anything that I was just really curious about? Anything that I want to learn more about? So, you approach the Bible with an attitude of curiosity to learn, not a sort of mandate to master it and to use it as some sort of, another brick, again, in that totalizing narrative that we’ve created for ourselves. And then you might begin asking questions and seeing things you haven’t seen before. And at that point, I’m like, you know, welcome to the history of Christian and Jewish interpretation. This is what’s been done. You know, so, I think it’s, there’s no formula, don’t read it if you don’t want to, but if you do, if you want to come back to it, don’t have an agenda other than, you know, I’ve never read a minor prophet before. I’m gonna read Amos. I’m gonna just not have anything on my plate, I just want to sort of read it and just see what happens. And if you are more curious, this sounds like really trite advice, but I suggest just get a good study Bible that maybe there are notes in there, maybe explaining when Amos lived or something and just, it gives a framework and to start reading the Bible from an angle other than a fundamentally apologetic angle. That’s the thing to get to. And, but if you’re not ready, I say don’t feel guilty about it.
Jared: Oh, yeah. And I think just to reiterate what you said is this is not, there’s no one step, two step, three step process here for what you do. You’re on your journey, do what you need to do. I think we’re just speaking from our experience
Jared: But, just to piggyback on what you said about the study Bible, I also think, you know, a lot of people who asked me what do I do? Every time I pick up the Bible, I just read it the same way I did. I said, well, don’t read the Bible, maybe get that other voices in there.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Jared: And that’s a lot of what we do in The Bible for Normal People, hopefully, is introduce people to say go read a Wil Gafney and read how she interprets the Bible. See how her framework works.
Jared: Read people who write about the Bible, don’t, maybe don’t read the Bible.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Jared: Read about the Bible for a while and you can start to imitate, like, “oh, well I want to read the Bible like Richard Rohr, that was pretty cool.”
Pete: Mm hmm.
Jared: And so, kind of familiarizing yourself with other ways –
Pete: Which makes sense because the reason people can get into a rut isn’t because of the Bible, it’s because of the way they’ve been taught to look at the Bible. Well, there are other people looking at it differently, and they’re not crazy people in the minority.
Pete: They’re actually just pretty mainstream and diverse. I mean, there isn’t just one way of reading the Bible.
Pete: That’s the whole thing. “You’re an errantist, aren’t you? Not an interrantist.” Like, I can’t describe any of the people we’ve ever had on the podcast as errantists. They’re just like, yeah, whatever. And they’re just looking at it from a different angle that has the weight of some tradition behind it or just, you know, very thoughtful people who have, you know, theologically or philosophically thought about this stuff.
Jared: Or even just like you said, thought about it from the fact that their skin color is different, or their socioeconomic status is different, and there’s value in just having different contexts.
Pete: Mm hmm. Yeah, absolutely. So, I think that’s how it sort of, you know, this hopefully will change letting go of inerrancy will change how people approach the Bible. You won’t know what to do at first, I just say expect that. That’s like, normal. You have, you have no other model to work with and maybe watching or listening to other people, how they do it is probably a good step forward.
Jared: Yeah. And we, you know, we talked about this and we’ll leave it here as a broad statement, but treating the book, the Bible as a book of wisdom rather than a rule book is also helpful. Which for me, means I go to it with my own value set.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Jared: My own vision of the kind of person I want to be and how I want to live my life. And then I let the Bible challenge that or I let it encourage that. But I don’t go to the Bible for that, to find that framework.
Jared: I go to other books, mentors, experiences, my church community, my pastor, I have a lot of other people who help inform that. But ultimately, that’s my choice and then I go to the Bible as a wisdom tool for how I can live that out.
Pete: The Bible is not going to hand that to you.
Pete: It’s like, “Yeah, no. You’re going to have to work this one out and really be a human being here.”
“It’s okay to do that?”
Pete: Yeah, not only is it okay, it’s like, pretty unavoidable if you think about it. But the Bible is there as, you know, the book of the church, speaking just of Christians at this point, and it’s, it’s that partner in the journey, so to speak. You know? And it’s, you know, it’s not the same as mirroring my experiences. The book of the church and has been around for a long time, but we partner with it and at times, we interrogate it, and other times, we are refreshed by it and we have a very, get used to having a complex relationship with the Bible, which should never be equated with a relationship with God. Those are two separate, they’re not the same thing.
Jared: Well, as we wrap up, I think it’s worth mentioning that we’re talking about this not to convince anyone or to debate this idea of inerrancy or not inerrancy, but really it’s for people who are reading the Bible, maybe again, for the first time, and it’s, like you said, it’s bubbling up.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Jared: That this thing that they used to hold to just doesn’t make sense anymore, and hopefully this has been a helpful conversation for how to process that, and maybe how to navigate through it in some way.
Pete: I hope so too, I hope so too.
Jared: All right, thanks everyone.
Pete: See ya folks.
Megan: All right everyone, that’s it for this episode. Thank you so much for listening and supporting our show, we hope you enjoyed this episode. We also want to give a shout out to our producer’s group, who support us over on Patreon. They are the reason we are able to keep bringing podcasts and other content to you. If you would like to help support the podcast, head over to https://www.patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople where for as little as $3 a month you can receive bonus material, be a part of an online community, get course discounts, and much more. We couldn’t do what we do without your support.
Dave: Thanks, as always, to our team: Executive Producer, Megan Cammack; Audio Engineer, Dave Gerhart; Creative Director, Tessa Stultz; Marketing Wizard, Reed Lively; transcriber and Community Champion, Stephanie Speight; and Web Developer, Nick Striegel. From Pete, Jared, and the entire Bible for Normal People team, thanks for listening.
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