Four views of the Bible

Preacher and Bible

A lot of disagreements between christians come down to how we see the Bible. And a lot of how we present the christian faith to outsiders (whether well or badly) is similarly determined by how we see the Bible.

I think there are four basic views, and I thought diagrams might make them clearer.

Inerrancy

Diagram

This uncomplicated approach is attractive to many people, but it doesn’t describe the Bible we read (there are many internal inconsistencies and it strains credulity to think every one of them can be explained) and it requires we disbelieve much of cosmology, biological science and genetics.

In the absence of any clear Biblical claim to be inerrant and totally relevant to today from Genesis to Revelation, it is difficult to see why we should take on the burden of this view of the Bible.

Progressive revelation

Diagram

Progressive revelation allows one to differentiate between Old Testament, which applied back then even though incomplete, but is only partially applicable today, and New Testament, which is the more complete revelation which supersedes the Old Testament in many ways. It thus resolves many of the difficulties of the inerrancy view and is more easily presented to non-believers.

I think this has to be part of any thoughtful response to the Bible.

From myth to history

Diagram

This the view held by many modern scholars, and was the view of CS Lewis. It says that the Bible started in myth and legend in Genesis 1-11, and sees history becoming more prominent as the Old Testament period goes on. Between Abraham and the monarchy we have history and legend mixed (the percentage of each is arguable), but after David or Solomon, we are in the realm of history with some exaggerations at times. By the New Testament, it is almost all historical.

This combined with progressive revelation seem to capture most of the evidence.

It’s just ancient literature

Diagram

Sceptics, both liberal christians and non-believers, come somewhere close to this view. Of course there is history and culture in the Bible, but it just a human book and no more divine truth than many other books. This is quite a tenable view though it tends to ignore all the inspirational qualities billions of people down the ages have found in the Bible.

But if a person believes the historical evidence points to Jesus truly being the son of God, it is difficult to believe that the Bible is no more than other historical texts.

Does it matter?

It is often argued by those who believe in an inerrant Bible that any ‘softer’ view leads to loss of faith. My experience and observation is that the very opposite is true.

The extreme views lead to loss of faith

To maintain belief in an inerrant Bible requires the believer to put aside many of the obvious difficulties and avoid asking the hard questions. Some people can do it, though I believe at the cost of staying closed to real information and evidence. But, increasingly, young christians, particularly those who pursue an education, find their faith cannot survive if they stay with inerrancy.

The extreme liberal view doesn’t seem to provide enough for anyone to want to persevere in faith. They may remain ‘christian’ but there is little there to base their life on without a robust view of the historical Jesus at least.

The middle ground

I, and many others these days, can testify that coming to believe in progressive revelation and a gradual transition from legend to history in the Bible renewed their faith. It resolves many questions.

And it loses nothing that really matters. It preserves the historicity of Jesus, which is the core of christian belief.

What about you?

I hope these diagrams help you think through where you stand, and what you are making your stand on.

Photo Credit: Matthew T Rader via Compfight cc

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17 thoughts on “Four views of the Bible

  1. Mark says:

    As a parent, I am keenly aware of how my relationship and interactions with my children change as they grow and mature. Likewise, as over the millennia humanity continues to grow and mature, how God speaks and explains things to us changes and becomes more sophisticated as we are better able understand Him. When understood in this context, the simplicity and even harshness of the Old Testament has become for me easier to understand, as I think it mirrors the experience of human parents and their children. And while I’m not sure how old where are yet as a people, the language and message of Jesus is not directed at a little child anymore. As much as we may want to stay children, God has let us know in His manner that we are growing-up… and it’s time to act like it. 😉

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  2. Jonathan de Assis says:

    Hi,
    I came to your blog after seeing some comments of you in Micael Grenholm page.
    I agree with you that the “in between” views are the most sensible ones.
    Are you a Presbyterian too or used to be?

    Greetings from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

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  3. unkleE says:

    Hi Mark, thanks for your comment, and welcome. I agree with everything you say there, although I think while the “maturing child” analogy explains a lot, I don’t think it explains all the problems.

    Hi Jonathon, thanks for reading and commenting – welcome to you too, and greetings from Sydney, Australia. I grew up in a Presbyterian Church (my parents sent me to Sunday School even though they didn’t go themselves) and I was even an elder for a while. But I left the Presbyterian Church many years ago now. I now regard myself as a non-denomionational (even anti-denomonational) christian even though I attend a denominational church. That was a good insight of yours! How did you guess?

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  4. Jonathan de Assis says:

    Hi,
    It’s mentioned somewhere, in about or anywhere else in your blog.
    I see. I used to be Roman Catholic until I was 16, then I moved to Presbyterian, I am 27 now. But it is nice to see ideas from other denominations. By the way, our goal should be Christian and not Presbyterian or any other denomination =)
    By the way, where is this point of C S Lewis in favor of “myth to history”made clear? I read some works by him but I cannot remember where he defends this view, although I remember that he didn’t like to discuss “minor things” and tried to attained to the major points of Christianity.

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  5. unkleE says:

    Jonathon, I find his views in these two places:

    “The earliest stratum of the Old Testament contains many truths in a form which I take to be legendary, or even mythical – hanging in the clouds, but gradually the truth condenses, becoming more and more historical. From things like Noah’s Ark and the sun standing still upon Ajalon, you come down to the court memoirs of King David. Finally you reach the New Testament and history reigns supreme, and the Truth is incarnate. ….. what is everywhere and always, imageless and ineffable, only to be glimpsed in dream and symbol and the acted poetry of ritual becomes small, solid – no bigger than a man who can lie asleep in a rowing boat on the Lake of Galilee.”

    CS Lewis: Is Theology Poetry? (a talk in several collections of his writings)

    “The Bible, read in the right spirit and with the guidance of good teachers, will bring us to Him. When it becomes really necessary (i.e. for our spiritual lfe, not for controversy or curiosity) to know whether a particular passage is rightly translated or is myth (but of course myth especially chosen by God from among countless myths to carry a special spiritual truth) in history, we shall no doubt be guided to the right answer.”

    CS Lewis. Letter “to a lady”, 8 November 1952

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  6. Jonathan de Assis says:

    O, thank you! I haven’t read these works you quoted.
    This remember me once when a lady in my church asked the pastor whether the history of Job has actually happened or not.
    He defended that if it was not true his suffer was meaningless, but there are others priests who say that even it hasn’t really happened it’s an example how we should behave.
    Nice matter. I hope I can learn more nice things following your blog.
    All the best!

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  7. wendon74 says:

    Greetings. I would have to say I am closer to From myth to history with a slight leaning to Progressive. I was raised Anglican, and our parish encouraged different opinions on the Bible and its relation to history. I began going to a Mennonite Brethren church (mostly due to location), and there I found very little room for interpretation.

    There is also an MB bible college nearby, and I can tell the people that have gone there are less likely to consider a change in ideas.

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  8. Ryan Robinson says:

    Something that went a long way for me was a simple statement in an Ancient Myth and Religion course I took in university. We weren’t talking about Christianity at all except for a short burst at the end – we were talking about Greek and then Roman mythology before Christianity.

    My professor’s comment in the first class to help guide how we approach things was in defining myth in the way that the Ancient world (Greek, Roman, Hebrew, others) would have: it was a story told with a purpose to be applied to their lives. Note that there is nothing in that definition about whether or not the story is literally historically true or not. In many cases, sometimes people believed it was and sometimes they didn’t. That aspect was just not really that important. What was important was that people carried out the sacrifice properly, or treated their slaves well, or saw that other nation as an enemy, etc., and the stories helped them do that.

    I tend to approach the Old Testament, at least up until around David, a similar way. I don’t care which parts are exact history, which parts are loosely based on history with some exaggerations and biases to make a point (I’m guessing most fall in that category), and which are purely made up to convey an important point. I just care about learning what the point was and wrestling with how to apply it to my own life. If we leave the Bible as some abstract textbook answering questions that are ultimately irrelevant to our lives, we never get around to actually living a life of following Jesus.

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  9. unkleE says:

    G’day Jonathon, I’m glad that helped you. It certainly reassures me that one of the most respected and influential christians of the last century holds a view similar to mine.

    Wendon, yes I think I sit about the same place as you, though my background is very different.Most of the Mennonites I know would be fairly progressive on this, but everybody’s different.

    Ryan, that is very interesting what your professor said. I feel about the OT similarly to you. One of the reasons I drew the diagrams was that they show that whatever view we hold about the OT, we can still believe the NT.

    Thanks everybody for your interaction.

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  10. John A. C. Kelley says:

    I believe somewhat of a mix of the “Progressive Revelation” and the “From Myth to History” categories. Progressive revelation is technically a Biblically sustained doctrine because Jesus Himself said that no one had seen the Father until they had seen Him. This means that all the prophets of old did not truly know the Father. Jesus brought enlightenment and explained what the OT was supposed to mean. I can’t really agree completely with the myth to history idea. I do believe that Noah’s flood was a parable or a myth to convey a meaning, but I don’t think the same of the creation account and here is why: http://somewhereinthemiddleground.blogspot.com/2014/06/biblical-creation-vs-big-bang.html

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  11. unkleE says:

    Hi John, I read your link and I didn’t see any reason there not to believe Genesis 1-3 is myth or legend. That reference seemed to me to argue that the information about creation in Genesis is somewhat consistent with science (a view I have heard before – e.g. by Andrew Palmer), but I didn’t think it offered any reason that the Adam and Eve story which it tells is literally historical. How did you see it?

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  12. Mark says:

    It does seem to me that in Matthew 19:4-5 Jesus is clearly referring to both Adam and Eve as historical persons. What other interpretation could reasonably be made?

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  13. unkleE says:

    Hi Mark, I’ve seen that argument used before, but I don’t think it is correct, for three reasons:

    1. I don’t think we should believe that Jesus the man was omniscient. Philippians 2 says he emptied himself (much argument about exactly what that means!) and he himself said he didn’t know the time of his return. I see no reason to think that Jesus didn’t speak and think within the cultural thought forms and beliefs of his day.

    2. Jesus doesn’t say they were literal people, he just says “haven’t you read the scripture?” There is another place where Jesus does this, John 10:34-35, where he says: ““Is it not written in your Law, ‘I have said you are “gods”’? If he called them ‘gods,’ to whom the word of God came ….” Yet no-one suggests here that Jesus was saying that the OT Jews were gods.

    3. In fact, first century Jews often used non-literal interpretations and Jesus used them too. I have written more about this in Interpreting the Old Testament and Interpreting the Old Testament 2. So there is again no reason to believe that Jesus mentioning an OT story is necessarily his endorsement that the story is literally and historically true.

    I can see that people might assume that the story was literal, but if the evidence otherwise is that it isn’t, then I am fine with that.

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  14. Mark says:

    I believe it is, as they say, “to depart from the path of wisdom” to chose to not believe that which Jesus “the man” apparently believed Himself.

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  15. unkleE says:

    Hi Mark, you should believe what you think is right and I wouldn’t want to try to change that. But I think your statement implies that Jesus the man was omniscient, which I don’t believe), and was expressing a literal truth which he was endorsing (which for reasons I’ve given I don’t think is necessarily true). Jesus also mentioned Noah, which you believe is a parable or myth. But I don’t think these matters are important enough to worry about too much (though I guess you may). Thanks.

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  16. John A. C. Kelley says:

    @uncleE, I was specifically referencing the creation story and not the narrative of the garden. My beliefs about the garden are not really founded because I’m not sure. There is obviously more to it than just Adam and Eve because the Bible mentions no children between Cain and Seth, yet Cain feared for his life from other people after he killed Abel. We also know that incest is wrong. This means that if the story is true, then God created more people than just Adam and Eve. This could fit because there is ample evidence that the genealogies of the Bible are incomplete and skip around. I am still open to the idea that it may be a myth.

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  17. unkleE says:

    Hi John, thanks for clarification. I can see that it is possible to believe that evolution occurred but the Adam and Eve story is nevertheless historical. I used to think that may be true, but I no longer do, because I think there are several reasons against it. I think all this is worth discussing, but I try to avoid getting into an adversarial discussion on it (not that I think you are being adversarial!)

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