What’s your concept of inspiration? Over the years, people have expressed to me that if God were perfect, the Bible would have no mistakes in it. I sensed that they wanted the certainty of a book written with flawless divine words so they could wield its authority. The problem is that everything human is flawed. Because God chose to bring us His inspired Word through the human language of flawed people, it is bound to include individual variations and imperfections.
I do not believe that prophets make no mistakes or that God cannot inspire writings that contain mistakes. I like that God did not reject the prophet Nathan for initially telling King David to build a temple for the Lord. Instead, God sent Nathan back to tell the king that he couldn’t built it because he was a man of blood and violence (2 Chronicles 17:2). Sometimes, prophets make mistakes. Sometimes, people misunderstand how inspiration works. If we adopted the high standard of being 100% mistake free and applied it to everything we did, no medications would be approved and no bridges would be built. The Bible does not have to be written in 100% heavenly perfection to be considered true and reliable.
We might think that the Bible should have “been given to the sages of Egypt or Athens rather than to a homeless people roaming and starving in the wilderness” (Abraham Herschel, God in Search of Man, 1955, p. 231). That it wasn’t may be troubling to some, but for me, it enhances the inspiration and beauty of Scripture. I love that God gave the Bible for practical purposes and entrusted His world to a struggling underclass, uniquely calling its members to a higher belief in Him. Human imperfection does not erase the fact that God’s love is bigger than any mistake or blemish we could imagine. Our flaws and contradictions are not a problem for God, for He breaks through them all to reveal His will to us. According to 2 Timothy 3:16, “All scripture is God-breathed.” I take comfort in the fact that I can take God’s Word seriously as a reliable source of truth in the shifting sands of today’s culture. While it may contain some blemishes due to human frailty, it remains good and trustworthy, “accurately representing the divine message” (Richard Davidson, “Who Is the Author of the Bible?” in Interpreting Scripture: Bible Questions and Answers, ed. G. Pfandl, 2010, p. 3).
If we look to uphold our doctrine and duty through authoritative pronouncements instead of developing a relationship with God, we will never comprehend what God has truly said. If we approach God’s Word with delight, however, our perspective will change. Our approach to Scripture makes all the difference. We should avoid a fundamentalist mindset when seeking to possess truth. Literalism and fundamentalism can create an impregnable shield against truth and the ideals of Scripture because it makes us think that we have mastered or conquered the Bible. Scripture, however, should be interpreted without dogmatism or denominationalism. Truth is not the exclusive property of any church or denomination. We should realize that our perceptions of truth can change and that we must ever humbly conform to Jesus, who is the Word made flesh. Furthermore, our conceptions of truth should not remain static, like monuments to idolatry, but should grow and expand, allowing us to continually apply the Bible in powerful new ways.
Sometimes, when we take it literally, its meaning can be lost. What, for example, does a literal interpretation of Revelation 14:9–11 look like? Does God literally burn people in fire forever? Does God want us to fear Him? We all know that fear destroys love and spoils relationships. Should we literally always wear white garments? Should women literally be silent in church? Should we literally rejoice with sharp swords in our hands as we call to execute vengeance on the wicked? Are these words meant to be taken literally, or is the author merely disgusted with the debauchery of his time and longing for justice? Is God literally angry with people every day? Was Jesus literally a begotten son? Perhaps we should be re-readers, as one scholar has suggested (Sigve Tonstad, Revelation, 2019, p. 38-39), cycling through and probing Scripture again and again, reading more carefully and fully by considering the Bible as a whole.
Those who read the Bible superficially as a list of laws or comb it for proof texts fail to consider its proper place and therefore are not really interpreting the Bible literally. Reading the Bible literally does not rule out that its original inspiration intended its literal reading to have layers or dimensions of meaning. Literal interpretations should leave some room for figures of speech and the nuance of metaphor. They should also consider deeper levels of meaning and the allusions that exist beyond a literal sense. Understanding the language and culture of the Bible is important. What’s more, a literal reading does not demand a wooden, literalistic interpretation from which one draws no additional meaning. There are always expanded or advanced meanings, some of which may not have been fully known even by the biblical prophets; other meanings were clear in earlier times and can now bring “present truth” for us to discover (1 Peter 1:12). God will unfold more truth when it is needed, and we should be prepared to embrace it, but new truth will never replace previous truth.
I like that Jesus described the beauty of truth as a hidden treasure or pearl worth more than the sum of our possessions (Matthew 13:44). We should diligently search, plumbing the depths of God’s world as if searching for precious gems. Literalism tends to over-simplify and those who take only a surface view of the Scripture will never find such treasure. Literal interpretation is important, but it is not everything. There is a difference between reading “literally” and “literately,” and if we miss this nuance, we will miss out on the beauty of Scripture. Ultimately, the Bible is meant to lead us to the perfection and beauty of Jesus, showing us how all of God’s promises “find their Yes in Him” (2 Corinthians 1:20). As the embodiment of God’s Word, Jesus represents the truth about Him (John 1:14). Better yet, the Word of God is revealed by the faithfulness of Jesus (Revelation 13:10, 14:12). May we continue to be enlightened day by day and moved to live by His powerful revelation.
Craig Ashton Jr.