A Trinitarian Understanding of Inerrancy – Dr Marty Folsom

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The Bible is a living book, but we often kill it by how we read it. Those who love it want to have it take a proper place in helping to engage our life with God. We want to hear a word from God—or do we? Do we come to hear words about God, or even about what we are supposed to be doing. It easily becomes an authoritative guide for us and loses the presence of God speaking. The book becomes the authority, not the God whose word it conveys. I am concerned that we come to assert the Bible’s authority in a way that is proper to its designation as the Word of God and not to give power to human agendas projected onto God.

I fear that the Bible has been given an independent status of authority other than as God’s Word. This authority is based on the text being presented as perfect in a way that cannot be questioned because it is without error in the original manuscripts. The quality of the written documents has taken precedence over whether they are read in a way that not only the human author, but the Divine author also, has intended them to be interpreted. As with the U.S. Constitution, the intent of the authors always matters. How we make it speak years later requires knowing the original intent and the proper application in our own time.

Through a proper reading, we are supposed to be able to hear God’s heart, voice, and to be nourished by its breath from God. This requires wisdom as we come to know God and what resonates with God’s whole way of being toward us. If we read it otherwise than as God’s Word, we kill it and make it a trophy on the wall, like an elk’s head about which we tell stories—but it is dead, only our story and interpretation really matters as God’s Voice is silenced.

Most people hold a high regard for a text about which they know a tiny amount—biblical illiteracy is widespread. This is a perfect storm for trusting people to be “taught the Word” but never hear God. For sermons that appear relevant to the felt needs of the congregation, the authority of the Bible has been separated from God and placed in the text in the hands of the preacher. The authority is then subtly picked up as a mantle by those who need to teach it in a manner worthy of pay, addressing needs persuasively to bring people back next week. I am not even saying their hearts are bad, though some may be needy or power driven. The congregations are as much to blame for creating the need/fulfillment exchange. Human neediness takes priority over hearing God’s Voice. It would be nice if they could both be fulfilled, but “hearing a message that makes my life better” is easier to sell than “pick up your cross and follow Me” or “Love God, Love neighbor, and love self.” Whatever the case, most people end up trusting the teacher, who tells them to trust the Bible. They are supposed to trust a God who is spoken for, but does not show up in person—that is, the Evangelical, Triune God of the Bible who calls us to live as Kingdom of God people.

A view of the Bible as a textbook for making life successful, or to help us feel good in our human fulfillment, gets in the way of knowing God. Unintentionally, we end up honoring the gift but miss the Giver. This happens throughout the Bible itself, as with the Bronze Serpent, the Temple, and so on, where the people end up worshipping that tangible thing and miss God. We love what we can control.

So here we come to the term inerrancy, which can mean that the words of the Bible in the original autographs are exactly what God intended. Ideally, the translations of that text into each new language is hoped to accurately convey God’s intent so that today we can know God and His teaching with certainty. The authority of the text is in its state of purity as a truthful written version of what God intends. The Bible is without error in the original autographs, not the King James or any other version. The better the translation, the more it sounds old, the more authority.

There are several problems here. We do not have the original autographs. We have copies that can lead us to say the text we have is probably 98% accurate to the original. It is very good! But the huge leap is that belief about the form of what we have also assumes that we can read it and understand it in the way the original cultures heard the words. We are unaware of all the nuances and references to ideas that were current at the time, but lost to us now. Someone has translated from Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek to English—which is an interpretation. This means they put it into our language with all the cultural baggage that comes with it as it takes on English issues. Is righteousness or faith exactly the same now as in the biblical contexts? Are they all identical in that they discuss? Probably not.

Most people do not speak Greek or Hebrew, so we depend on interpreters to select texts to interpret—neglecting those they do not like—and telling is what the text means for us. This procedure often goes on to miss hearing what God wants to talk about—we select our favorites. Then in preaching, we are given what the preacher believes we will find interesting. Finally, we read the text with all the lenses we bring as readers and so the word “love” may be on the page as the great command, but we read our meaning into it rather than be transformed by coming to understand what God means by it. Loving God for us means to feel good about God. Loving neighbor is a nice idea that works when convenient, but is low priority. Loving self, in our vocabulary, is either not considered or is permission for self-indulgence. Having a perfect text has not stopped the abuse of it. In fact, we have given our interpretations God’s authority. By interpreting it for our ends we make our claims to be what God intended. This will kill the church as it fractures into each person’s, church’s, or tradition’s interpretation. Each is susceptible to using the Bible authoritatively to support their truth claims about God and the Christian life.

I believe the Bible is inerrant—faithfully God’s—when we humbly listen to it with an inclination to hear it as God’s living Word. As living Word, we need to hear the Heart of the Father in every text that we read from Genesis to Revelation. That means the loving Creator is present everywhere in the text. His heartbeat is the pulse behind all that happens in the Old and New Testaments, it is felt in every act that Jesus performs and word He speaks. The divine order that holds the Universe together is personally sustained by this Father’s heart.

When we miss this, we give the Bible a cardiac arrest. It dies as a living document to give us the pulse of the Father in a way that is true to His heart. Jesus came from the bosom or heart of the Father to explain Him to us. If we do not read the Bible to know Jesus’s Father’s heart, we are in error; it is not likely to be true as a word from God to us. Inadvertently, we are looking for treasures in the form of ideas and principles at that point to make our life better—but we have lost the pulse of the One who makes it inherently living.

Next, to be inerrant, we need to hear the Voice of the Son speaking from its pages. The text of the Bible from Genesis to Revelation is a witness to this living God so we can learn to hear the Shepherd’s Voice. It is the voice box of God that resonates and punctuates the faithful address of God to us made known in this person named Jesus, who is God and human, to facilitate the great dialog that constitutes a relationship.

When we listen to the Bible for an inspiring idea that we like, we miss that it is a Voice that has its own agenda and is trying to speak. We put the Bible’s divine author on mute. It still has words that move like lips that ramble on. But this Other other is stilled so we can lip-sync our own interpretations onto the words. In this process, we strangle the Voice of Jesus. We talk about Him instead of letting Him talk. Karl Barth talked about discovering the Strange New World of the Bible, opening us to its life with the living God—when we read it as God’s Word. However, we have ended up with the Strangled World of the Bible, where it’s voice dies as human voices dominate. The Bible is inerrant when we let it be the faithful Voice of Jesus revealing the heart of His Father and speaking to the time and place where we live. It comes as an echo from the original contexts, a resonating reaffirmation to bring what was said then to speak to our situation. Otherwise, we are in error, treating the Bible as our tool to serve our definitions of success. The relationship dies in the strangle hold. We end up with a bumper sticker Christianity of inspiring and confronting phrases. We miss the Living Word who desires to offer living companionship.

If our voice dominates, the perfection of the text as inerrant will not matter for hearing God. We become ventriloquists in the place of God. We have usurped the ultimate authority for our own in a sleight of hand move. This abuse is the death rattle of the Church today. Whenever the Church neglects its role of letting Jesus speak through His Book as its Living Voice, it fails to be the Church. Ever so easily, we are distracted from talking about Him, or more importantly, letting Him speak. We abandon Him and focus on human needs. Tragically, our reading of the text causes it to gasp and gurgle as it is manipulated for our ends and falters in its ability to bring us to know God.

Finally, to be inerrant as the Word of God, we need to let the Bible be filled with the Breath of the Spirit. This means that the Spirit gives us ears to hear, and to inhale and exhale in a moment by moment nourishing. Given this life by the Spirit, we are allowed to draw into the life of God—in whom we move and breathe and have our very existence. In preparation, we need to be saturated with the Bible’s stories and sermons. Only then can our thoughts are informed by God’s presence as the whole story of God functions as the air we breathe. Then, each day becomes an opportunity to breathe in this word. We daily remember what the Heart of the Father is to us as the whole Story of God. Consequently, each moment is a listening for Jesus His Son, who has promised to reveal His Father, and to be with us to the end of the age. Finally, and in an ongoing manner, the Spirit makes the Bible a living and breathing document. By the Spirit’s work, we are nurtured and cleansed as we read the Bible in a manner that is like the air that sustains our bodies. Maintaining connection, we thrive; cut off in relation, we dive. If we get that air of God’s life expressed we live; if abandoned, we die.

To inattentively read the Bible, not letting the Spirit bring it to speak to our daily existence, is to suffocate this Living Word. The breath is extinguished. The body of the text is there, but the life that it brings is silenced because it has been blocked off or neglected. Thus, the relationship that it was to offer is Dead on Arrival. The words of the Bible end up having no meaning for us. They no longer serve the give and take of dialog they are intended to provide. The stories and ideas become beliefs, similar to believing there are black holes out there or the believing that atoms that make up the substructures of the physical world. Believing in that way does not matter, although it is true. When we miss the authentic, living, direct communication that happens when the Spirit brings life to these Words, we have erred in hearing God’s gift to us. It is our hearing that is errant, not the text. God does not need perfection in the text to replace His faithful Voice and action to transform us in relationship. Attentive ears and a faithful heart in a humble community are powerful to bring us into the loving fellowship God seeks.

An inerrant Bible is alive and active as the Heartbeat of the Father, the Voice of the Son, and the Breath of the Spirit. We let the authority abide in the One God. We listen to the texts of the Bible as truthful to the God revealed in them. We let God be true and see every human as an interpreter who can twist the texts or humbly hear. By holding our interpretations lightly, we acknowledge they belong to God.

We can have extreme confidence when we gather together to hear through the text the consistency of the truthfulness of the address to us by the Living God. It reflects God’s life. We would do well to walk out of a sermon and know that we have heard God revealed and addressing us, not an interesting or entertaining presentation. I like good entertainment, but we need this text to provide a life-giving relationship with God. I even think that we can be creative and passionate in how we allow the Bible to speak as God’s word. But we must not kill the Bible through neglect, strangling, or a suffocating its relation with Father, Son, and Spirit, who are intended to be experienced in a relationship made possible through the Bible.

The Bible becomes dead when we only hear our own heartbeat and not the Father’s. In that case, our hearing is in error and it is not inerrant to re-present the Father’s heart, no matter how accurate the text is to the original autographs.

The Bible becomes dead when we only hear our own questions and desires; our listening is reduced to a ventriloquist’s substitute with a dummy God. It loses its inerrancy as the Voice of God, the Living Word, because our word has taken His place—ours voice is vicarious in the negative sense, meaning to take the place of another. Rather than living out of Jesus’s vicarious life, death, and resurrection, we erroneously fashion our depiction of Him so His message fits or confirms ours. It is too easy to read the Bible in a way that simply affirms what we already selectively believe. The result is that we end up with a Paper Mache Jesus in our minds, shaped by a thin and self-shaped process where we layer our ideas onto a mock up Jesus that conforms to our picture. Jesus is a mute and misread in this approach.

The Bible also becomes dead when we see it as canned air, a tank of oxygen for brief morning exercises or Sunday inhaling events. Far more profoundly, the Spirit makes our reading a daily, monumental source of life as we breathe in and out. The words and images penetrate out thinking and we envision what it means to follow His lead. In this way, we are led in order to experience the presence of God.

Karl Barth talked about Flat Tire Theology that was missing the Spirit and could go nowhere because a pneumatic tire needs air to roll. Here too, an inerrant Bible requires to be filled with the breath of the Spirit. Then the Bible can bring the Word home to our hearts. The Spirit is the one who makes it faithful and true to God, fulfilling God’s purpose of a personal relationship. All human opinions are submitted for verification to the actual life of the Father, Son, and Spirit. In this way, as we learn to listen and be led, the Bible’s own claims become true. Humans cannot live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. This is the point of the Spirit’s daily nourishing, working to make the Bible a living and abiding source of connection.

I believe in inerrancy when properly aligned with the Triune God. I resist the error in inerrancy when it is used to give power to human interpreters who are subtly claiming authority for their interpretation. We need a humble understanding of inerrancy, elevating the authority of God’s whole Triune being. God is the one doing the heavy lifting in granting the text authority. We must ultimately trust in God, through the Bible. Yes we need to trust the text as God’s preserved vehicle of communication for 2000 years. It is God breathed, God-preserved, and God focused. Thus, any claim to authority for the Bible that is not grounded in God’s being Lord over this Word is in error. Any interpreter who fails to consider the authenticity of human interpretations in the light of the revealed Father, Son, and Spirit is misguided and misleading.

May these words be an invitation to rethink what it means to be Evangelical, Biblical, and Trinitarian. Then we may more truly be the People of God who live from Him, in Him, for Him, with Him, and share His offered life in a fractured world that needs what only this Triune God can provide.