The bible is a tremendous gift to mankind. It is true, it is right, and most of all it is a witness to the Word of God. But it is not perfect. And in fact, the whole “true”-ness of the scriptures depends upon its inadequacy.
It is a hotly debated subject to say the least, the nature of the scriptures. But it’s an essential one. So you have to understand something before we begin. I do value the bible highly, and furthermore, I feel I value the bible even more than ever now that I understand it in this way. The bible has a special place in my heart, and has always been an important part of my journey as a believer. But in recent years I’ve begun to question the idea that it is, in and of itself, absolutely perfect. I still believe that it is true, and that it is filled with life and meaning and beauty—but I no longer see every single letter of the bible to be perfect. And so, let me tell you why I believe that’s a good thing.
Scripture as Witness
First, let me quote the man who summed up so well what I’ve been feeling about the bible for some time now: Thomas F. Torrance. I already listed several quotes from Torrance in my last article, but today I will expound on a few of them:
“In a realist theology this will mean that we must distinguish no less sharply between dogmatic formulations of the truth and the truth itself, in the recognition that even when we have done all that it is our duty to do in relating them rightly (i.e., in an “orthodox” way) to the truth, they nevertheless fall far short of what they should be, and are inadequate. Indeed, it must be said that their inadequacy in this way is an essential part of their truth, in pointing away from themselves to the truth they serve, as it is an essential element in their objectivity in being grounded beyond themselves on reality that is independent of them.” 1
And also this one:
“That is to say, biblical statements are to be treated not as containing or embodying the Truth of God in themselves, but as pointing, under the leading of the Spirit of Truth, to Jesus Christ himself who is the Truth. We have to recognize the fact, therefore, that the Scriptures indicate much more than can be expressed, and that there is much more to their truth than can be reduced to words.” 2
Thomas Torrance is not the always easiest to understand, so let me unpack a little about of what I think he means here.
First of all, he is writing about the nature of scripture in relation to objective truth (Jesus Christ). Jesus Christ is truth. He is the Word of God. In other words, Jesus is God saying what He has to say about Himself. He is the objective center to which the bible points. All that we say about God should be said in the light of Jesus, since no knowledge of God is possible “behind the back” of Christ. The question then is, how do the scriptures relate to Jesus? How does a witness to the truth relate to the truth itself?
The scriptures themselves are not the Word of God. John 1 clearly ascribes the Word of God to Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ alone. Although, following Barth, it is important to see how the scriptures can become the Word of God, when breathed upon and illuminated by the Spirit of Truth. However, this does not make the bible itself perfect, that is, infallible or inerrant. Instead, the bible is a witness to the truth, and only becomes the truth itself when the truth illuminates it and speaks through it. With Barth 3, Torrance is affirming that the scriptures accurately give witness to the Revelation of God, but that in themselves they do not contain the perfect, infallible truth. That is, they are not perfect in themselves, but they are in what they give witness. They become perfect as God speaks through them.
Jesus is the objective truth of the scriptures. The scriptures speak of Jesus in human words, and human words will always be inadequate. They are inadequate words in relation to their object. Yet it’s exactly this fact that makes them true. As Torrance said above: “…their inadequacy in this way is an essential part of their truth, in pointing away from themselves to the truth they serve, as it is an essential element in their objectivity in being grounded beyond themselves on reality that is independent of them.”
The bible points beyond itself. It is inadequate because its center is not in itself, but outside itself. It is also true for this same reason. Inadequacy is proof that the scriptures are true and give accurate witness to the Word of God. Because the scriptures point beyond themselves to the “truth they serve”. The objective truth is not found in the scriptures, but in the truth the scriptures give witness to. The truth of scriptures is above the scriptures themselves. They must be inadequate, or else they might replace the truth which they point to: the Word of God, Jesus Christ.
What this means
What does this mean for how we read the bible today?
It means, firstly, that we can trust the bible even more. More, not because we trust in the bible itself, but because we trust in the truth to which the bible points. We trust in the Holy Spirit’s leading us into all truth, giving witness to Christ, through the scriptures. Our trust in the bible is not in the bible itself, and therefore it is not in the endless history and criticisms which such trust ultimately involves, but instead it is in the God of the bible, in the Spirit that leads to truth. Our trust is in God, not a book. Though this book is God’s witness to Himself. Truth about God is found not in the bible, but through the bible in the Spirit of Truth witnessing to Christ. And only when we see this can we fully trust the bible.
This also means, secondly, that we can no longer be “literalists” in our reading. As I quoted from Torrance here, fundamentalism tends to elevates the bible above the truth they point to. In other words, the bible gets placed above God! We have become enslaved to a literalist word-fight, with proof-texts abounding, and only a proper understanding of the bible as witness can set us free. The bible is not a set of ready-made truths. The truth of scripture is found outside the scriptures in what they point to.
Thirdly, this means in practice that we no longer look to the bible for the bible’s sake, but through the bible for Christ’s sake. Thomas Torrance writes that, “The Holy Scriptures are the spectacles through which we are brought to know the true God…” And also that, “Christ Himself is the scope of the scriptures.” 4 We read the bible as a pair of glass through which we see the truth of God’s Word to mankind.
Far from devaluing the scriptures, this re-understanding places the bible into a context it belongs: as a witness to the objective truth of God’s Word. Out of this context the scriptures become an unhealthy obsession, fixating on every jot and tittle we find, instead of looking beyond them to the face of Jesus.
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- Thomas F. Torrance, Reality and Evangelical Theology, John Knox Press, 1982, P. 50-1 ↩
- ibid, P. 119 ↩
- A great article on Karl Barth’s understanding of the scriptures and error, can be found here (by Postbartian) ↩
- ibid, P. 64 and 107, respectively. ↩