A Progressive Christian Primer, Part 5: “Scripture”

Joel Michael Herbert
11 min readNov 20, 2023

The last chapter explored what the Bible is not. So what is the Bible? Can it function in a life-giving way that enhances spiritual and emotional maturity, instead of giving license to our worst human impulses?

I think the answer is a resounding yes.

Don’t get me wrong — the Bible absolutely lends itself to be misinterpreted, or perhaps, more accurately, to be interpreted by interpreters with cruel impulses. The eminent mathematician and famous 20th-century skeptic Bertrand Russell says in Essays In Skepticism, and I wholeheartedly agree, that “opinions which justify cruelty are inspired by cruel impulses.” He explains further, “I think that the evils that men inflict on each other, and by reflection upon themselves, have their main source in evil passions rather than in ideas or beliefs. But ideas and principles that do harm are, as a rule, though not always, cloaks for evil passions.”

This seems self-evident to me in the history of religion, especially Western religion inspired by the Bible — namely, Christianity and Islam. Every detractor of religion can point to thousands of years of intolerance, war, pogroms, crusades, conquests, persecution, witch hunts and genocide, all inspired by various passages in the Bible. But at the same time, the devout can point to thousands of years of self-sacrifice, service to the poor, pacifism, social justice, activism, and building of various programs to help the vulnerable (hospitals, orphanages, food kitchens, the YMCA, self-help programs, the list goes on…). It seems to me quite obvious that the Bible (and the Qur’an) can be used to justify whatever impulse you want it to justify, whether cruel or noble. For that reason, it may seem that perhaps the problem lies with these holy books themselves, and humanity would be better off overall if we left them in the dustbin of history, or at least as curious relics of a bygone era like the Greek or Norse epics. After all, no one in recent memory has launched a crusade using The Iliad or Beowulf as their justification.

But this has more to do with the fact that ancient Greek and Anglo-Saxon myths are no longer ascendant as the dominant forms of religion in the world today. If it were, I have no doubt that those texts would be used and manipulated as needed to achieve the ends that our leaders want to achieve. Power will use any justification to meet its own ends, and it always has. The fact that John Winthrop or George W. Bush can use the Bible to justify slaughtering non-Christian innocents, or that Ayatollah Khomeini and Osama bin Laden can use the Qur’an to the same end against non-Muslim innocents, says far more about these men, and the broader religious cultures that support them, than it does about the ancient holy texts they quote.

As for me, I was raised to believe in the Bible as the “inspired, inerrant, infallible Word of God.” I believed this until my mid-20s, when I began to understand exactly what these words mean historically, what they imply, and that they are demonstrably nonsensical when applying them to an ancient text, no matter what text it is.

Let me defend that statement.

First, to consider an ancient text sacred, or holy, one does not have to accept that it is “inspired,” “inerrant” or “infallible.” These are artificial categories, mostly the product of Modernism, imposed on ancient texts. “Inspired” is the only one of these words actually found in the Bible itself, and it simply means “breathed into” [by God]. Some translations of 2 Timothy 3:16 translate the passage as “all Scripture is God-breathed.” This is as close as we get to a “doctrine of inspiration” in the Bible itself. But this “doctrine of inspiration” is not fleshed out by the author of 2 Timothy or defined anywhere in the Bible by the Bible. And it certainly does not mean “inerrant” or “infallible,” neither of which term appears anywhere in the Bible itself. An aside: human beings are also said, in the second chapter of Genesis, to be “breathed into” by God. Does that mean that human beings are also necessarily inerrant and infallible?

Let’s go back to the last chapter. Remember the immensely important point to keep in mind that the Bible did not fall out of the sky fully formed? This is radically important here. “The Bible” does not, in fact, say that “the Bible” is inspired, not by a long shot. A single letter found in the current iteration of the Bible, which did not become a single unit until nearly 300 years after this single letter was written, refers to “Scripture” as “inspired” or “God-breathed.” Moreover, this letter was almost certainly not written by the apostle Paul, but by a later devotee or devotees of Paul who misrepresented themselves as the apostle well after his death. But let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that Paul did write Timothy and Titus. He would have been writing in the latter half of the first century, before anything like the New Testament existed at all, before the gospels were even written, before any of the current New Testament documents (other than Paul’s own letters) were even written. So the “Scripture” being extolled as “God-breathed” would have been more or less what we call the Old Testament — the Hebrew Bible that Jesus used.

Paul/Pseudo-Paul/whoever wrote 2 Timothy — does unpack why they accord this status to the Scriptures — they are writing in the context of pretenders to the gospel who want to deceive people. They portray the Scriptures as a bulwark against false teachers that want to lead people away from Christ and into the bondage of fear and shame. This is how the writer(s) of Timothy define Scripture: it is “profitable for teaching the truth, convicting of sin, correcting faults and training in right living.”

This is certainly in line with how late Second Temple Judaism (including Jesus and Paul), and even later rabbinic Judaism approached the Bible. The evolved “doctrine of inspiration” that eventually grew out of this single passage in a disputed letter that wasn’t even part of the Scripture it refers to would have been quite foreign to Jesus, Paul, and the other apostles. Judaism, by contrast, accepted the Hebrew Bible as inspired, but by this they meant that it was deep and rich and full of meaning, not that everything in it was literally or historically or doctrinally true. Jesus himself gets wildly creative with the Biblical text in his teachings, nearly always riffing on them in his parables, turning them upside down and inside out, and sometimes even directly contradicting them, as he does in the Sermon on the Mount with his teachings about enemy love, divorce, adultery, murder, and using oaths. If something is truly “inspired,” that is, “breathed-into” by the Divine, we cheapen it down to its lowest common denominator when we insist on a one-dimensional reading of it.

Second, the doctrine of “inerrancy” applies a Platonic view of perfection to the Bible, disallowing any interpretation that strays from strict literalism. Conservative scholars will deny this accusation, and I want to be fair — there are many conservative interpreters that find many beautiful, deep, and complex interpretations of Scripture — but as a rule, adherence to the “doctrine of inerrancy,” as defined by the Chicago Statement, is code for one thing and one thing only — a fundamentalist reading of the Bible.

Fundamentalism goes back to the late 1800s, when three scientific fields were rapidly changing at roughly the same time: geology/biology (Charles Darwin), biblical criticism (Julius Wellhausen), and psychology (Sigmund Freud). Until this time, Christianity had not had cause to seriously question the Bible from a research perspective. The Enlightenment had certainly brought skepticism with it, but it was not until the 1860s that there began to be serious, systematic, scientific attacks that resonated in the wider culture on the traditional view of the Bible. Many denominations and eminent theologians responded to the updating science by changing how they viewed the Bible, and became known as the “Modernists”; many other denominations, predictably, doubled down on the literal way they had always read the Bible, and became known as the “Fundamentalists.” These basic distinctions survive to this day, and form the primary divide between what we call “mainline” and “evangelical” Protestant denominations (Catholics have *mostly* succeeded in keeping both their modernist and fundamentalist elements corralled together under one big tent).

If you attend an Episcopal, United Church of Christ, Lutheran (ELCA), Presbyterian (PCUSA), Disciples of Christ, or American Baptist church today (traditional “mainline” denominations), versus attending a Southern Baptist, Reformed, “non-denominational,” or Assemblies of God church, the primary distinction you will notice, underneath all of the different liturgical traditions, is the split in how each interacts with the Bible.

(Note: nearly every “non-denominational” church is unofficially or officially connected with either the Southern Baptists or Assemblies of God or an adjacent organization, like Acts29, Sovereign Grace, ARC, Hillsong, Harvest, or Willow Creek).

Both mainline (modernist) and evangelical (fundamentalist) churches will refer to the Bible as “the Word of God” in their liturgies, but they mean very different things by this designation. As always, words matter, and definitions matter. To be clear, I’m not advocating for a mainline view of the Bible here, necessarily, but I do think it is a far more healthy view of the Bible than the fundamentalist one. It allows the Bible to be sacred, and it allows that the Bible has something profound to teach us about the nature of the Divine and the world, but that does not mean that everything in the Bible must necessarily be accepted as factually, historically, scientifically, and psychologically true.

By contrast, the intended meaning of “inerrancy” (which is often substituted for “inspiration,” but does not mean the same thing) comes down to a handful of beliefs that reflect 19th-century fundamentalist perspectives: namely, literalism. Inerrancy is shorthand for 1) Literal six-day Young Earth Creationism, including a literal historical worldwide Flood; 2) Condemnation of homosexuality in every form, including anything form of queerness deviating from “biblical marriage”; 3) Affirmation of the God-given mantle of leadership for men and men alone in the family, church, and government; 4) a literal heaven and hell after death, hell almost always defined as “eternal conscious torment” (isn’t that jolly?); 5) a literal reading of the Gospels, meaning that Jesus’ miracles, Virgin Birth, Resurrection, and bodily return at the End of Time, are to be taken 100% literally and not figuratively.

If anyone subscribes to inerrancy and does not wholeheartedly endorse the above points, I haven’t met them.

Third, the writers and editors of the Bible clearly had no such agenda as “inerrancy” when they were writing and compiling the Bible. As we explored in the last chapter, editors deliberately included competing traditions in the pages of Scripture, and they didn’t even try to hide it or synthesize the accounts. Genesis 1 and 2 provide “competing” accounts of the Creation of the world, Genesis 5–7 provide different accounts of the Flood, Exodus provides multiple traditions around the call of Moses and the Exodus story, Kings and Chronicles tell many of the same stories, sometimes in direct contradiction to each other (did God tempt David to take a census of Israel, or did Satan?), and the Gospels themselves differ wildly and incompatibly on numerous significant details surrounding the life of Jesus, including the decade of his birth, the names of his family members, the date of his crucifixion, the length of his ministry, the location of his ascension, and his relationship to the royal line of Israel.

What if we are intended to read the Bible, by the writers of the Bible, in the same way that these same writers experienced other religious texts of their day? What if, instead of reading the Bible as a static text with only one true meaning, we read the Bible as an endlessly rich ancient text that we are allowed, even invited, to wrestle with, disagree with, and even avoid entirely?

The Book is not the Faith, in other words. The Book simply points to the Divine.

We are able to read Homer this way. We are able to read other religious texts this way, like the Tao Te Ching or the Upanishads. We can recognize when we read them that they are ancient texts written for ancient peoples that cannot possibly be taken literally at every turn, if at all. We even read more modern “Scripture-like” stories like this as well: The Book of Virtues, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, A Wrinkle in Time, 1984, Dune, The Matrix, Harry Potter…

And we love it. We find endless meaning in George Orwell’s dystopian world, in Harry’s conversations with Dumbledore (or even Voldemort!), or Neo’s with Morpheus, or Frodo’s with Gandalf, or Lucy’s with Aslan, or Paul Atreides’ with Duncan Idaho. We don’t go off and start wars with the Catholics of Northern Ireland because of something Dumbledore or Aslan said. We recognize that these stories are primarily myths, and that to take them literally would be irresponsible. I’m sure you can fill in the gaps with monologues from your favorite myth that could be taken as deeply profound in one context, and wildly problematic in another.

We must read the Bible primarily as Myth. “True Myth,” if you must — the perspective C.S. Lewis took. “The Best Myth,” if you must. This is as close to “biblical literalism” as it is possible to take with any degree of intellectual integrity. Biblical literalism as defined by fundamentalist requires ignoring the plain evidence given to us by the Bible itself.

The Bible can be endlessly deep and meaningful. You may not think so; it may be impossible for you to ever engage it this way because of how the Bible has been weaponized against you, and I empathize with this perspective. I am currently going on year 12 of “fasting the Bible,” when I deliberately stepped away from regular engagement with the Bible after two decades of reading it nearly every day. It is only now that I am able to come back to it with fresh eyes, and even then, I often struggle to read it with the same humble posture of learning that I can bring to Homer or the Talmud or the Qur’an or the Tao Te Ching.

Enslaved people in the American South were often fed a hand-picked version of Christianity, one that only included certain passages in the letters of Paul apparently endorsing slavery, and never the stories of the Exodus. For this reason, many former slaves who remained devout Christians kept a low opinion of Paul throughout their lives, and for good reason. I can hardly fault them for staying away from the Biblical passages that were weaponized against them with such cruelty.

Were they missing something beautiful in Paul’s letters? Perhaps. Are my Jewish friends missing something profound in the teachings of Jesus that they will never read? Perhaps. Does it matter? Will those who choose not to engage the Bible directly be any the worse for finding the locus of their Myth in another literary location?

I think, if we believe in a Divine with any modicum of the omnipotence and mercy we have been taught of, we must humbly admit that the Divine is capable of revealing Themselves through whichever Medium They may so choose. The Bible certainly seems to be one of those Mediums. But the insistence that the Bible must be the only Medium through which we encounter the Divine — or worse yet, that any other Medium is second-rate, evil, or demonic — not only has been the source of endless misery on our planet, but flies in the face of all logic and reason, even the very logic and reason we find portrayed on the pages of the Bible.

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Joel Michael Herbert

Husband. Father. Artist. Storyteller. Armchair Theologian. Advocate, activist and politician. Gryffindor. [neuro]Divergent.