The Bible is universally referred to as God’s Word. But I submit to the reader that it is not God’s Word. Rather, it is the literary vehicle that carries God’s Word to us. Much has been said about errancies and imperfections in the handling of the Bible down through the centuries. We have four different text families (Byzantine, Alexandrian, Western and Caesarian), each from different periods and each handled by different scholars with different manuscripts available to them. But even if we had one text family, there are still different ways to translate (word-for-word, phrase-for-phrase, or thought-for-thought). Each has its strengths and weaknesses, and there is no clearly superior way to translate. And even if we had one correct way to translate, there is still the problem of human error, which can bring about inadvertent deviation from the best-laid plans. And even if we could rule out human error with prayer, strict instruction and caffeine, there are arguments to be made for paraphrasing Scripture. Paraphrases (such as the Living Bible) have fueled some of my most enjoyable and inspiring Bible studies. But from the standpoint of validity, paraphrasing could be the most dangerous way of all to go about rendering Scripture, since there are no absolute rules.
Since literature is a human device, it is incontrovertibly part of the material realm, which is afflicted through and through with imperfections. Hence, God’s Word may in truth be infallible (though this is a matter of faith, not science) — but that does not mean that your Bible doesn’t contain literary errors. There will certainly be some. The real question is whether God’s essential message to humanity comes through in spite of the complexities of preserving, translating, disseminating and interpreting God’s Word.
God most certainly does his work through different parts of this physical world. I can’t think of any tangible component of God’s plan of salvation, other than the man Jesus, that hasn’t gone through flawed human hands. But the Bible stands beside Christ in an otherworldly, ethereal light. It is held in such reverence (as it should be) that people come to think of it as perfect. But it isn’t. That is, what it is saying to us is perfect, but those truths come to us through the murky filters of disparate languages, cultures and personalities. And that doesn’t even take up the issue of translation. In spite of it, God’s Word packs an incredible punch for all the ways it might have been stamped out or corrupted if it had been left at the mercy of natural events.
Some of the problems associated with interpreting Scripture are inevitable. All those perceptual filters are there because the book was written by 40 authors on three continents over a period of 1500 years! It’s a miracle that all those separate books (66 of them) ended up between two covers. Moreover, among those who reject a free-floating take on the entire book (there are those who want to interpret all of it as if it were one big allegory), there is a great deal of agreement over the interpretation of most passages. But not perfect agreement. So to the list of filters we can add philosophical and interpretive. And yet, in spite of all these filters, the Bible’s message is tremendously strong, presenting a powerfully cohesive and comprehensive tour-de-force of wisdom and truth.
Those who challenge the validity of Scripture are many and varied. Some voice legitimate concerns over its authenticity while others hold their unbelief with an a priori tenacity. However, in the end, it is a matter of faith. If there is a Supreme Being with enough power to create the entire universe — with its astonishing intricacies, gargantuan releases of energy and meticulous order — how could we doubt God’s ability to bring his Word intact through history’s minefield of random and systematic error? Either he is God or he isn’t.
If the Bible doesn’t present the entire truth, then it is a human invention. And that is impossible to believe. Its scope, its power, its grandeur and even its bizarre elements are all marks of truth. Its central message comes through like a siren, proclaiming humanity’s sinfulness, the love of God and the sacrificial death of Christ that has set into motion the restoration of all things. It is an astounding and wonderful work.