Lately, I’ve been hearing and reading of people who remark about those who take the Bible literally as if that’s a bad thing. The thing about words is what they mean and what they mean as they’re used.
“Literally” means that you adhere to the basic meaning of a text. I’m thinking there’s a lot of Christians who would take that definition as their own. They would be quite willing to say that they take the basic meaning of the Bible as what they believe. In a similar way I bet that a number of Christians would say the Bible was “inerrant” if that meant that it didn’t meander off of truth and even into bad behavior… like an “errant knight” used to wander in search of adventure. Nice for bored knights, but not for truth.
We’ve changed the meaning of these words as we used them. Now they mean “strict adherence” and “without mistake.” Both of these interpretations of these words make a host of people of any age uncomfortable.
I’ve been asked a number of times where I stand on the “inerrancy of Scripture,” and my first response is, “I don’t answer that question because I don’t know your definition of ‘inerrant.’” Then I say, before the person can tell me their definition, that “I believe the Bible is true… front to back. I believe the Bible is true and that it is the inspired word of God. I believe God will speak through it directly into my life and mind and I believe that God expects that I won’t understand it all, but will learn to trust him through it because of what I can understand.”
If someone wants something more than that then they are no longer interested in knowing me. They just want to decide whether I’m in/out, right/wrong, left/right, for/against. All of that has nothing to do with me or with what God is doing in my heart or even in the world. It also has nothing to do with the Interpreter of God’s Word – Jesus. Jesus explained that he is the one who interprets God’s Word (“You’ve heard it was said… but I tell you…” Matthew 5). I’m going with Jesus on that as well.
We have this book that God gave us so we could understand him better. God doesn’t seem to mind if we translate it into a million languages. He doesn’t seem to mind if his Word came as a diary (Nehemiah), eroticism (Song of Songs), history (e.g. I Kings), a letter (Paul), general poetry (Psalms) or a cosmic vision (Revelation). What he does seem to care about, according to Jesus, is that we don’t make it all about rules and that we don’t throw away a part (particularly when it makes us uncomfortable). He’s also clear that we get it wrong at times and need his Spirit and the community of believers to work together to provide our best, discerned understanding of it. And that discernment is primarily in how we act toward others and not about ideas. It appears that God is very much about verbs (activity) and not so big on nouns (concepts). This suggests to me, along with the example of Jesus, that he is very big on how the Book teaches us to hear God daily and obey, rather than how well we memorize and repeat it.