Many of the doctrines upon which I’ve built my faith are not found in the Bible. I don’t mean big ones, like the trinity — I think that one is pretty undeniable — but smaller ones, like how strict a sexual ethic the American church has pushed, despite the fact that the Bible seems less concerned with it. Jesus hardly mentions sex compared to how often He mentions possessions, yet which one gets more airtime in our churches? I know I’ve heard far more messages on sex than greed in my life.
Heck, even the Song of Songs seems to portray a young couple messing around before their wedding day — something no youth pastors (including me) would encourage their young people to pursue. Instead, many of us take our own idea of purity culture and plug it into the Bible, building feeble bridges out of supporting verses to make our point.
The question I want to begin considering is, “Where does that doctrine/belief/idea/thought come from?” I know that this could turn biblical interpretation into a subjective game of whack-a-mole, so let me explain what I mean.
Take the doctrine of inerrancy for instance. Depending on how you define it, this doctrine produces a big set of issues (just as holding an alternative view produces a set of its own). If you cling so tightly to inerrancy, you must wrestle with passages like Joshua 6, where God instructed the Israelites to destroy every Canaanite man, woman and child — simply so they could take their land. Denying literal inerrancy here helps, because it allows us to see this ancient text (which it is) as a document written by humans in a certain context — a context in which warrior gods commanded seizure of neighboring lands and slaughter of all inhabitants.
Archaeological records, however, dispute that this Canaanite conquest ever happened. It’s more likely that the stories were recorded this way to make both YHWH and the Israelites look more powerful in their own semi-mythological stories. This line of thinking has been accused of being a ‘slippery slope’ into complete denial of the Bible, of Christianity, into the gaping jowls of hell itself—or worse, liberal hermeneutics. For many notable Christians, this has proven to be the case, but for many, it has not. If someone is trying to read the Bible as accurately as possible, their pursuit of truth will inevitably lead them outside the confining bounds of their home turf, and to many within those boundaries this will appear as heresy, even though no unorthodox belief has even been toyed with.
The irony of defending inerrancy as a high view of scripture is that nowhere in Scripture does it make this claim about itself; it’s a modern lens through which to read an ancient text.
So in this case, clinging to inerrancy for dear life (just because some evangelicals in Chicago made a statement about it in the 1970’s…I’m telling you, this is not an ancient doctrine!) will be detrimental to your understanding of both the Bible and God. It will paint Him as a God who some days will die for you, and others will command you to genocidally wipe out entire people groups. And within the Bible, it will create unnecessary contradictions which can be cleared up with some historical context.
Many of you are probably having 2 Timothy 3:16 scroll through your brains right now: “What about all scripture is God-breathed? What about Prophets were carried along by the Holy Spirit? etc…”
It’s a tough thing to address, but think about this: In pure volume of verses, there are 1.5 which speak of the nature of the Bible itself. In other words, the writers were far more worried about more pressing issues: I.e., how we treat other people, making sure we worship God and not objects, distractions, or money, who Jesus is, etc. Paul also didn’t write that “all scripture is scientifically accurate and reliable by 21st-century historicity standards.”
Someone from college once said he is more concerned with his relationship to Jesus than he is to the Bible. At the time, I couldn’t grasp it because I was too focused on promoting the inerrancy of the Bible. But now I get it.
Think of it like this: If a girl lost her mind and fell in love with me, imagine she wrote me a letter. It would talk about her week, some thoughts she had throughout it, and maybe some conversations she had.
Now imagine that I set out to test the literal accuracy of everything she had written, investigative journalist style. I interview her friends and find that their words were slightly skewed — they reported using slightly different verbiage than my love letter had reported! I retrace her steps and find that she went to the pizza place on TUESDAY, not WEDNESDAY! And so on.
I could never trust a word out of her filthy mouth again, because this love letter was so riddled with inaccuracies.
If I did that, you’d think I was crazy, right?
Because it’s understood that when someone writes you a love letter, the point is not the literal details included, but the person behind the pen. The purpose is to get to know her better and how she sees the world! The literal details are secondary to this.
Now I can see how this applies to Jesus: Sure, we learn some things about ancient Israelite history and we get to peek into the life of the early church in the first century, but the important thing — which you can miss if you’re too zoomed in on the Bible — is Jesus Himself.
Perhaps you’re too zoomed in on — distracted by — peripheral doctrines which may seem so important, but are actually tearing you away from the person of Jesus Himself. Take the bitter irony of Calvinism for example. John Calvin would likely be heartbroken at seeing his own name used as such a rigid and divisive tool for understanding theology.
I’ve often heard it said that Calvin himself wouldn’t be a Calvinist.
Instead, Calvin seems most focused on unio Cristi, union with Christ. He concerned himself with knowing Jesus more than anything else, and true readers of Calvin will see this. It’s almost tragic how different our debates today have become over “Calvinism vs. Arminianism,” and how widely they miss the point.
So may we keep exploring the wide and winding maze known as theology, but may we focus on getting to the end rather than getting lost in the nooks and crannies which get us nowhere nearer to the goal, to knowing Christ.