Semantics and Shipwrecks: How What You Believe About the Bible Could Destroy Your Faith
Conservative evangelical Christians like to talk about “the infallible Word of God,” and how the Bible has authority over everyone and everything. If you ask an evangelical Protestant about the Bible, you’ll hear words like “inerrant” and “infallible” and “certainty” and “authority of Scripture” and “sufficient for everything.” They also tend to be all-or-nothing” about the Bible, teaching that if you aren’t certain that it is completely inerrant and infallible, you can’t believe any of it and may as well declare yourself an unbeliever.
These claims have always bothered me because they don’t reflect reality.
What many churches mean with the word infallible is perfect in every detail, and they mean error-free in every detail with the word inerrant. They teach that the Bible in its present form (or often in just one of today’s forms – a specific version, for example) is absolutely perfect and free of errors. They teach that you must hold these beliefs with a death-grip to maintain orthodox and saving faith. But I’ve learned from personal experience that clinging to infallible-means-perfection and inerrant-means-without-mistakes actually sets the Bible up to fail you. Certain definitions of inerrant and infallible will destroy faith.
Let me explain.
Like it or not, the Bibles we read today have two significant issues we must acknowledge and embrace in order to understand the Bible and place it properly into our faith: translation and copying issues and ancient language and culture issues.
Translation and Copying
Every English version of the Bible available to us is a translation, which means it is also, by necessity, an interpretation. If you’ve ever learned another language, you know that we don’t say things the same way, with the same number of words, in another language. A very simple example: in English, “Thank you very much” has four words. To say the same thing in Spanish or French only takes two words, and these two words do not each mean “thank” and “you” and “very” and “much.” In Spanish, we say “muchas gracias” which means “many thanks” in English. In French, we say “merci beaucoup” with means “thanks much.” Notice that the word order is different as well. It gets far more complicated than this, especially when you consider how languages change over time.
This is another reason why we have so many English versions of the Bible. The meanings, usage, and even spelling of words change in every language. We see it in English – here are two classic examples: the word “ass” which meant “donkey” 400 years ago but today is a derogatory term for a person’s back side, and the word “gay” which meant “happy” once upon a time but now describes a specific kind of sexuality. But English is a young language. The Bible contains words written over the course of 1000 – 1500 years.
We also find copying mistakes. The people responsible for copying and preserving the books of the Bible had to copy by hand until just a few hundred years ago. Sometimes they moved lines around, sometimes they misspelled, sometimes they even added their own notes or explanations to the text they were copying… and those notes were then copied into another copy.
Every Greek and Hebrew version available today has been copied countless times. There are copying mistakes, though everything I’ve read from people less polemic than Bart Ehrman assures me that the overall meaning of the Bible is intact because the multitude of copies allows scholars to compare and determine what the correct words, and word order, are. They also know from these comparisons that they still have preserved the general meaning or intention of each passage in question.
Ancient Languages and Cultures
In addition to translation issues, the Bible (and any ancient text, to be honest) has original-language issues.
We have many English-language versions of Bible in part because English lacks all the words to express what the Bible says in Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic. A classic example is “love” – we have one word, Greek has at least four with quite different meanings. Translators disagree on how to express those complex differences of meaning into English. Depending on their overall understanding of the Bible, different translators will go in different directions with these difficult passages, and even with ones that are less difficult but still could be translated more than one way.
Here’s another oddity about ancient languages. Did you know that Greek has no punctuation or spaces between words?
Finally, stories and references to cultural mores get lost over thousands of years. For example, Paul quotes some of his contemporary secular writers and includes little sayings or –isms from his day that we are completely unfamiliar with. So the significance of these references gets lost in a casual reading the Bible, only drawn out with extensive background study.
So what now?
To deny these realities about the nature of the Bible is to demonstrate yourself afraid of the truth and destroy your credibility. Our God is a great and mysterious God, whose ways are not ours and who we dare not put into a box. God values the truth, and we do Him and the Bible great injustice when we deny the truth.
Once you acknowledge these realities about the nature of the Bible, you recognize that you must develop a more nuanced understanding of what makes the Bible a holy and authoritative book. Like most things in life, trying to simplify this topic and making dogmatic authoritative statements does plenty of harm and no good. Understanding the Bible is neither a simple nor clean endeavor. A very basic reading of the Bible and survey of history reveals that God likes a messy process. He does not wrap things up in a perfectly cubic box and put a perfect bow on top. To insist otherwise is deceitful and destructive.
I’m going to spend several posts over the next few weeks diving into this topic. Tomorrow I’ll dive into the definitions of inerrancy and infallibility. It has been crucial to the survival of my own faith, as I know it is for many others.
What questions about the Bible have you wrestled with?