Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Is scripture infallible?

At 37 years old I find myself raising three daughters - one of whom is now a teenager - and as I walk with her through her adolescence, I am frequently taken back to the events of my own life and generation which were occurring when I was her age. Politically, it was the days of Ronald Reagan and the cold war. The so-called "moral majority" (spearheaded by televangelist Jerry Falwell) had risen up to be a significant political and social force to be reckoned with. "Prophets" and students of prophecy (both biblical prophecy and secular prophecies like that of Nostradamus) were springing up and holding conferences left and right proclaiming that the end of the world was neigh. Preachers were playing records backward to find the secret messages of the devil that were said to have been encoded subliminally in our music, pulling us closer and closer to Satan without our knowledge each time we listened to it. Something else "troubling" was occurring - publishers had begun printing bibles in modern English instead of King James Old English. So while we were burning all our records and decrying the spread of drums and electric guitars into Christian music, churches were also fighting one another over which translation was the acceptable and infallible scripture. Many churches, to stay true to form, made their prospective and current members make oaths to say that they believed that all scripture was the inerrant word of God. Some went so far as to say that only the King James version of the bible was the true word of God.

When we don't know the questions to ask, it's hard to get the answers to those questions. I had always assumed that the bible was kinda like God. It had always existed. It wasn't until I attended the Baptist seminary that I learned that the canonization of scripture - a fancy term for the compilation and formal recognition of the books that we currently know as the bible - actually didn't occur until the year 1546 as a result of the convening of the council of trent. The council of trent was comprised of powerful catholic church leaders of the day and one of their main reasons for convening was to fend off challenges to their power by the Martin Luther reformationists. They needed to act decisively and in one accord in order to make a statement and maintain their position of authority. One of the outcomes of the council, then, was to legitimize certain commonly accepted teachings of the church by giving them the weight of scripture. Along with the so-called "Old Testament" that the Jews had considered scripture for centuries, the council recognized many of Paul's letters to the early church and the gospel account of Jesus as written by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. There were many other outcomes and proclamations of the council during the 20 years that it regularly convened and most of them had to do with legitimizing certain religious teaching while condemning others. In short, the whole thing was part of a giant power play, including the formal proclamation of the New Testament as "Holy Scripture".

So does that mean that the bible isn't scripture? Does that mean it is flawed and irrelevant? I didn't say that, did I? But a careful read of the New Testament tells me that it is a collection of personal letters to specific people (2 Timothy 4:13 "When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, and my scrolls, especially the parchments.") Kinda like a private letter ruling with the IRS. Certainly applicable to the person it's being told to, and has broader meaning to the population at large, but not necessarily designed to set a precedent of law. Paul was a godly man who had some incredible experiences with God. As such, what he wrote has merit and should not be discounted. But Paul was a mere human like you and I and was not perfect. He was, however, a highly evolved soul and was a truth seeker with a devoted heart after the spirit of God. I give high weighting to the thoughts and observations of such a person. He's certainly an expert in his field. Similarly, though, any person of God, even today could have similar revelations and truths to share with others. The sharing of their learning and experiences can help bring others to a closer relationship with God. And share they should. But why would their godly words not carry the weight of scripture? Because the council of trent did not recognize them?

There were hundreds and hundreds of years where people who desired to lead godly lives simply had no access to the written word. They had to live their lives wholly by the spirit of God and his conviction of sin and righteousness. While the teachings of the scripture can certainly help to deepen that desire for God by teaching us about him, they are not necessary to have a love for and understanding of God. My answer to the question "Is scripture infallible" is really pretty simple.

"It doesn't matter."

The goal of godly teaching is not to indoctrinate, it's to guide a person in their own seeking after God. (Matthew 7:7) To claim inerrancy misses the point. It pits one's view of God over an other's and simply divides. It also takes the focus off of the one whom we are ostensibly seeking and puts the focus on how (the rules by which) we seek him. If we were a scientist seeking truth, how would we ever discover new things if we didn't challenge established fact from time to time. 2 Timothy 3:16 says "All scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for teaching, for conviction of sin, for correction, and for instruction in righteousness." If you are seeking God and a godly person says something that resonates in your heart, then use those words to draw you closer to God. The bible says several times that the Holy Spirit will bear witness to the truth. If what they say is not inerrant, the Lord will show you what's to accept and what to ignore.

As an aside, the writers of the New Testament as well as Jesus himself, reference or quote "scripture" quite often. When they do, they are referring to the godly writings of the law and the prophets - otherwise known as the Old Testament.

Respect the writers of the New Testament and revere their experiences. Learn from what they taught. They were there during the time of Jesus himself and can therefore bring a perspective to the truth that no one else can. But if we are to believe that Jesus is in fact a risen saviour, let's not ascribe to these early writers the only opportunity to have had a personal encounter with God or Jesus. I can find similar wisdom and insights in many of the writings of the Qu'ran, by Buddha, or in the Hindu sacred writings. Scripture is anything that points you toward a relationship with God. Any writing that directs your devotion away from him is heresy.

Next Post: Legalism and Rules... working our way back to God.

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