A recent post by C. Michael Patton at Parchment and Pen blog (hardly a den of liberalism!) with the provocative title "The Bible does not always speak the truth" highlights what should be obvious to even advocates of verbal plenary inspiration - if the Bible contains inspired records of uninspired people, then it is going to contain errors. Patton's post is worth quoting if only to provide a conservative benchmark for what inspiration means.
Exactly. We need to be interpreters of the Bible, not readers. I appreciate that apart from a tiny core of uber-fundamentalists, many literalists will recognise the existence of differing genres in the Bible (parable, apocalypse, poetry) and adjust their reading accordingly. Despite this, one can still see the belief that all one needs to do is read the Bible to extract its message. It is hard not to get frustrated with this attitude, particularly when it comes with a hostility towards scholarship that aids one in the process of understanding. Hermeneutics is not a dirty word.
We follow the Bible in what it teaches, but not everything it records is intended to be teaching in the proper sense. Our goal as Christians is to be good interpreters of the Bible, being able to discern when something is being taught or when something is being told. This way we don’t get flustered, and find ourselves in the odd place of trying to defend the morality of adultery, incest, or child sacrifice (you know, that crazy story of Jephthah in Judges 11:30-39?). (Emphasis mine)
Patton continues with a list of five concepts to keep in mind when interpreting the Bible:
I can remember listening to many expositions on the tabernacle which were determined to wring types of Christ out of every cultic object. Don't get me wrong. I am not saying that there are no types of Christ to be found in the OT, but sometimes we should consider the possibility that we're simply indulging in spiritual pareidolia, that is, seeing patterns where none exist.
1. Some parts of the Bible are incidental to the bigger picture, not intending to teach any principle.
Be careful that you don’t try to find a principle in every passage. Not every verse or chapter of the Bible has an “application” in the traditional sense. For example, the chronologies of Matthew and Luke are not intending to teach a principle in and of themselves. They are simply attempting to give necessary background material so that Christ as the Messiah can be substantiated. (And don’t get me started on the prayer of Jabez!)
The latter example of course brings to mind the question of whether Paul was inspired to write that he needed his cloak. Of course not! There's no spiritual lesson arising from that en passant reference, merely the fact that 2 Timothy is a letter that contains an imprisoned man's request for a cloak to keep him warm. Again, this should remind us of why verbal plenary inspiration is such an unworkable theory of inspiration. (If one remembers that Paul was an apostle who knew his theology backwards, then if one views inspiration as a divine "commission" to write a letter, then Paul would be able to write an epistle that was theologically reliable, while still containing elements of the commonplace, without needing God to dictate every word to him.)
2. You have to distinguish between prescriptive and descriptive passages.
This is related to the previous and is especially relevant to narrative books such as Acts. We must be very careful with narratives since their primary purpose is to tell a story that is relevant to the bigger picture of redemption, not to give us prescriptive commands to live by. For example, in Acts chapter 1 we are told that the Apostles “cast lots” to discover who God wanted to replace Judas among the twelve. This is not giving principles on how to elect a pastor! It is simply saying this is what happened, nothing more, nothing less.
Another example (although not narrative) appears in Paul’s second letter to Timothy. Paul tells Timothy to “bring him his cloak” (2 Tim 4:13). There is no abiding theological principle saying that Christians are to bring people coats! It is simply teaching us that Paul asked Timothy to bring him his cloak. Paul was cold! Nothing profound.
Thankfully, most literalists are able to recognise genre, but it could be better. The early chapters of Genesis contain history, but one needs to recognise the obvious polemical elements against Ancient Near Eastern mythology that crop up in the early chapters. To this one can add concession to pre-modern world-views, such as the flat-earth cosmology held by the ancient Israelites, in common with their neighbours, or the belief in demon-possession as a cause of disease. Failure to recognise this can lead to the same sort of blunder made by the Christian who thinks the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus actually describes the fate of the wicked after death.
3. Different types of literature have different types of truth.
You cannot interpret a Psalm the same way you do a Proverb. And you can’t interpret a Proverb the same you you do an epistle (letter). And you can’t interpret an epistle the same way you do apocalyptic material. They all follow different rules. And the truths that they communicate will be understood according to those rules. For example, a Proverb is a general truth of wisdom that does not necessarily apply or hold in every situation. Just because the Bible has proverbs does not mean that we are to sanctify the way we interpret the proverb. In other words, just because it is in the Bible does not mean that it is a truth that does necessarily apply in every situation. Psalms are songs and need to be understood under such imagery. Epistles are letters and need to be understood under the “rules” that apply to a letter. And then there is Ecclesiastes…don’t get me started there!
There's nothing more to say here other than to recognise the importance of this in Paul's epistles.
4. Sometimes the author does not want you to take him literally.
Authors can exaggerate, speak candidly, be sarcastic, or be in bad moods. This will effect the way we are to interpret them. This will also effect the “truth” that they are teaching. For example, Paul says that “all Cretans are liars” (Tit. 1:12). Does this mean, since it is in the Bible, that at the time Paul wrote this every individual who lived in Crete continually lied? No. We use exaggeration as rhetoric all the time. We don’t intend people to take us literally.
Another example is in Paul’s first letter to Timothy. He says about false teachers: “If anyone advocates a different doctrine and does not agree with sound words, those of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the doctrine conforming to godliness, he is conceited and understands nothing” (1Ti 6:3-4). The Greek word used for “nothing” is meden. It means “no thing” or “nothing.” (Wow!) Does this mean that in order to be faithful to the truthfulness of Scripture, we have to take Paul literally here? Does this mean that the false teachers did not understand what 2+2 is? Of course not. The meden is limited to what Paul is talking about. It is a rhetorical overstatement—hyperbole—that Paul uses for effect. The false teachers did not understand anything with regard to the doctrines which they were teaching.
This is something that I am surprised needs to be stressed - the Bible contains an inspired record of uninspired writers. If one believes Job is not a dramatic retelling of a historical event (I lean towards this view) but a verbatim record of that event, then we should be very careful to use what his friends said as authoritative statements about God.
5. Sometimes the Bible records falsehood.
I was at a website the other day that had a daily Scripture at the top of the page. This particular day it had Matt. 4:9 “All of this I will give to you if you will worship me.” Out of context, that looks fine. God will give us many blessings if we worship him. The problem is that this is a quotation from Satan when he tempted Christ! This verse is in the Bible, but it is not true. We need to be careful that we are mindful of who is talking, when, and how their words are to be understood. I hear people quoting Job’s friends all the time as evidence for certain characteristics of God. But Job’s friends are not presented in a positive light. Some of what they say is true, but much is wrong—even if it is in the Bible.
This is hardly the last word on hermeneutics, inspiration and other topics that have sparked no end of controversy. What is should serve as however is the starting point for hermeneutics that can be agreed upon by everyone who is interested in this discussion.
When interpreted correctly, I believe that the Bible always speaks the truth. However, when proper hermeneutics (bible study methods) are not used, the Bible does not always speak the true. If the Bible says it, this simply means that God wanted whatever it says to be included. We believe that the Bible is true in whatever it teaches, but whatever it says is not always meant to teach in the way we often assume. Be careful with God’s word. It is the most wonderful book in the world, but it is also the most dangerous.