This has been a hard year. No one likes uncertainty, but this has been a year where uncertainty rules. We are not in control and we cannot force reality to follow our rules, or declare the virus out of existence. The best we can do is take precautions, refine treatments, and develop vaccines and then vaccinate, and pray … not in that order. Prayer is a regular and continuing need.
As Christians we have often focused on clear direction and certainty. We see it in responses to the current crisis, but there are many other examples of this we could mention. Calvinism is rooted in certainty (TULIP anyone?). The Catholic Church roots certainty in ecclesial structure. Inerrancy is a doctrine that abhors uncertainty, but cannot avoid it.
Charles Ryrie on p. 76 of Basic Theology wrote:
Formerly all that was necessary was to affirm one’s belief in full inspiration was the statement, “I believe in the inspiration of the Bible.” But when some did not extend inspiration to the words of the text it became necessary to say “I believe in the verbal inspiration of the Bible.” To counter the teaching that not all parts of the Bible were inspired, one had to say, “I believe in the verbal, plenary inspiration of the Bible.” Then because some did not want to ascribe total accuracy to the Bible, it was necessary to say, “I believe in the verbal, plenary, infallible, inerrant inspiration of the Bible.” But then “infallible” and “inerrant” began to be limited to matters of faith only rather than also embracing all that the Bible records (including historical facts, genealogies, accounts of Creation, etc.), so it became necessary to add the concept of “unlimited inerrancy.” Each addition to the basic statement arose because of an erroneous teaching.
While the church has been confronted with erroneous teaching throughout its history, I don’t think such teachings drove this push for increasingly precise statements. Rather, the very human desire for unambiguous certainty drove this development. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work. The Bible is not a book that lends itself to such easy constraint and definition. Following the lead of Ryrie, and others who sought to root certainty in inerrancy, we will start with the Bible itself to understand the nature of the Holy Scriptures … but the conclusion will be somewhat different.
Paul wrote to Timothy:
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Tim. 3:14-17)
The Holy Scripture referred to by Paul in his letter to Timothy is our Old Testament. The manuscript forms Paul and Timothy had available included the Septuagint as well as Hebrew and Aramaic texts similar to those in the Masoretic text used in our modern English translations. Given the variations found in even the earliest known manuscripts, it is hard to defend verbal, plenary, infallible, inerrant inspiration. Surely, if this were important an omnipotent God could have preserved the inerrant text for his people. I have come to the conviction that it is, and must be, sufficient to stop with Ryrie’s initial statement. “I believe in the inspiration of the Bible.”
Paul refers to the Old Testament writings and assigns them a purpose. Certainly the New Testament Gospels, letters and other writings serve the same purpose. The Holy Scriptures come from God and serve to make us wise, equipping us for every good work. This wisdom comes, not with an easy certainty we might desire, but through stories and examples, song and poems, proverbs and prophecies, sermons and letters, and carefully curated accounts of historical events.
The Bible makes us wise with wisdom that comes from God as we read it seeking this wisdom, not precision and certainty. The pursuit of wisdom requires that we wrestle with ideas, with contradictions, and with puzzles. In this we learn how to follow God through times of change and uncertainty. The study of Scripture as a whole, not in bite size easily swallowed chunks, and as it is, not shaped to fit our preconceptions, will make us wise.
There is one command the New Testament makes clear – and about this there is no ambiguity except that we choose to invent to justify our foolish desires.
As recorded in Matthew, Jesus summed up the Law and the Prophets
So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. Mt 7:12
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Mt 22:36-40
John records Jesus speaking to his disciples within a long discourse on the night of his betrayal:
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” Jn 13:34-35
Paul follows Jesus:
Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, “You shall not commit adultery,” “You shall not murder,” “You shall not steal,” “You shall not covet,” and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. Rom. 13:8-10
For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other. Ga 5:14-15
We are to act in love toward other Christians, toward our neighbor (not confined to fellow Christians, e.g. Luke 10), and toward our enemies (e.g. Mt 5). In doing so, we fulfill the Law. But even acting in love must be done through the wisdom that comes from seeking the mind of God. For this we need to pray and study the Holy Scriptures – not to force them into a mold of our own making, but for wisdom that comes from God.
Lord, grant us wisdom.
If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net
This post is also available at Jesus Creed, now published as a Christianity Today blog.