Labels – Photo by Peter Johnson

This month there haven’t been any major hot-button topics to really get stuck into.  The Anglicans have been sitting back and evaluating the fallout from their synod.  The Scottish Gender Recognition Bill has sadly been kicked into the long grass with nary a clue as to when it’ll be changed or resuscitated.  So, what to address?

Over the last couple of years, I have talked at times about the need to approach and read the Bible with integrity and honesty, coupled with a curiosity about what the original writers and readers understood was the message. 

I have found that frequently, those of us who hold an affirming view of those who identify as LGBTQ+,  will be labelled as “liberal” in our outlook towards the Bible, simply because of the stance we take on this one issue.  And it has nothing to do with any definition of that word or our true personal theological thinking. (By the way, the use of the word “liberal” has nothing to do with the political party here in the UK, and I use the lower case, to make that clear.)  The term “liberal” is used by most evangelicals as a pejorative label to pigeon-hole people as not being proper “born-again” Christians, in their opinion. (Other opinions are available, including the Important One!)

But what do others mean when they use the term “liberal”?  This is probably one of those occasions when if you ask a group of five people for their definitions, you’ll get six answers!  When I was a good deal younger, well before the term “evangelical” became so politicised, Christian leaders would talk about  those who didn’t believe in the literal interpretation of the Bible, and those who denied that Jesus performed miracles, as being liberals, and therefore they were not really “Christian”. 

For example, one illustration of someone who held a liberal theology that was around at that time, was that when we read in the Bible that Jesus walked on the water, it was a smoke and mirrors trick, because there was a strategically placed sandbar he walked along, that made it “look” like he was walking on water.  This was clearly foolish thinking, because many of the disciples had fished that lake for the whole of their lives and knew it well, so wouldn’t be sailing anywhere near a sandbank especially in a storm!  If you read the Biblical text, the boat was a long way from land, and it was some hours later, we are told, when Jesus came to them walking across the water.  Peter jumps from the boat and for a while walks on the water himself, so, was the boat gently nudging against a sandbar in a storm?  Everything in the narrative text, including the reactions of the fishermen points at that idea as being daft – the writers expect us to take the story at face value and I do.

In the last decade or two, those of us who reason and argue from the Bible, that God doesn’t just accept those who are LGBTQ+, but embraces them as dear children, have been added to that list as being liberal, or frequently, even guilty of apostasy.

This pigeon-holing is lazy, but it sweeps us all up into a convenient group that can be safely ignored as heretical, and dismissed because we cannot be trusted, since our theology is the “fruit of the poisonous tree” of rejecting the “true teachings of Scripture”.

Personally, I don’t like the term “liberal”, because of the negative connotations and inference that I doubt and disbelieve the Bible, implicit with that label.  Obviously, I approach the Bible questioning what I read, but as you know, it is a library of books that I treasure, and I base my life on its teachings.

I did a bit of an internet search around what is generally understood as “liberal theology” and the typical academic tone of the material indicated that liberal theologians have a range of beliefs about the Bible, but generally speaking, they approach it in a more critical and nuanced way, than more conservative theologians. Some of the more common beliefs held are that:

  • The Bible is a human product: Liberal theologians see it as a collection of texts written by human beings, rather than as a divinely inspired text dictated by God.
  • The Bible is culturally conditioned: Liberal theologians recognize that the Bible was written in a particular historical and cultural context, and that some of its teachings reflect the attitudes and beliefs of that time and place.
  • The Bible should be interpreted in light of reason and experience: Liberal theologians believe that reason and experience should be brought to bear on the interpretation of the Bible, rather than relying solely on a literal or dogmatic reading.
  • The Bible contains errors and contradictions: Liberal theologians acknowledge that the Bible contains errors and contradictions, but they do not see these as detracting from its value as a religious text.
  • The Bible is an ongoing conversation: Liberal theologians view the Bible as an ongoing conversation between God and humanity and believe that it continues to speak to us today in new and different ways.

If that is the definition of taking a liberal stance today, then ironically, I guess that is where I find myself (although I might want to finesse some of those bullet points), but for me, the problem is the labelling, because once you have a negative label, people tend to stop listening to what you say.  It’s a bit like that toy cube you give to 1-yr olds where they learn what shaped block fits into various shaped holes.  As soon as the cylinder shape block disappears through the round hole, they know they can always pop it in that hole, and move to the next, triangular one.  People want to make them all disappear, so we can then have our complete worldview figured out – with no wrinkles.  This is the way evangelicalism currently behaves: you believe this, so this automatically means you are that, and I can safely ignore you because you don’t believe in the God I do.  Jesus told a story about that, if you remember!

If I had a label, I’m not sure what it would be, maybe I’m a curious Bible-believing liberal, or something else?  But as I say, I really don’t like labels.  As an aside, I remember regularly reading a Christian magazine when I was a young teenager (Buzz – for those with long memories!) which ran an anti-label article basically saying that when we die, labels won’t matter, because if we go down, the labels will burn off and if we go up, they’ll fall off.  (Don’t let the dodgy theology spoil the illustration! 😂)

The tricksy problems, however, are those issues of Biblical infallibility, inspiration and inerrancy, because they can be loaded in a number of ways.  Conservative evangelicals would argue that there are simply no mistakes or contradictions in the Bible, and that God inspired every word.   Others would argue that I need to add a few extra words to that sentence: “… in the original, primary manuscripts”.  (They would argue that any problems have been introduced as Bibles have been translated into, and for, different languages and cultural situations, from the original Hebrew/Jewish/Greek one.  I like the creativity, but that simply doesn’t fly, in my view.  Oh, and by the way, no original/primary texts exist today – they are all copies.  Reliable, absolutely, but copies all the same.) 

Personally, I would say that there are many contradictions (for starters, read Kings and Chronicles side-by-side – check the differences when the same story is quoted in both places; also compare the different Resurrection stories side-by-side in the Gospels.  Similarly, looking at when Jesus returns to heaven, Matthew implies it was from a mountain in Galilee but Luke clearly says it was near Bethany, on the Mount of Olives.  And there are many other examples.), but I ultimately believe that there are no errors in the underlying teachings and message of the Bible. 

Is the Bible infallible?  Depends on what you mean about the word.  Can you rely on the Bible?  Yes.  Is it dependable?  Hmmm, yes, but again, how are you using that word?  It’s no good as a scientific journal, and it’s not wholly reliable as a document recording history – it reports history from the context of the writer (Compare 2 Kings 21: 1-18 and 2 Chronicles 33: 1-20.  This is a passage about King Manasseh, where in verse 16 of the first passage the writer describes how “Manasseh also shed so much innocent blood that he filled Jerusalem from end to end—besides the sin that he had caused Judah to commit, so that they did evil in the eyes of the Lord.” The second passage describes him very differently – viewing him in redemptive terms.) The Bible doesn’t claim to be a history book or a scientific journal, but it does tell us about our relationship with God, and how we can get right with God, and what we can expect if we accept or reject the gifts God offers us – without conditions being applied.

Is the Bible inspired?  Once again it depends on what you mean about the word.  Did God dictate every word to automaton writers.  Emphatically no! Every book has the style of the original writer. The Bible doesn’t have the same writing style from Genesis to Revelation which is what it should have if God was giving dictation to the writers.  Indeed, some books (like Psalms) have multiple writing styles.  There are some strong indications that the Mosaic books (the books of Moses) were written during the period of the exile in Babylon.  They might even have been compiled by Ezra or his followers.  In addition, why would God, if He were the author of Psalms write love and praise songs to and about Himself: aren’t I wonderful, aren’t I magnificent and majestic‽  There’s no-one quite so glorious and wonderful as me!  That would contravene God’s own teaching about pride. 

No, it must have a human writer who was expressing his deep love and understanding of God, and the effect that that love and understanding had on the writers life –  and it is this deep inspiration that for me lies at the source — not the telling him what to write.  It’s like an artist or photographer seeing something beautiful that inspires her, or him, to paint or photograph what they see.

So, I can’t sign my name to any treatise saying that the Bible is inerrant, infallible, and inspired (leastways not in the ways it is normally meant) – that die is far too loaded with presuppositions!

In reading around as I wrote this blog, I came across an article drawn from chapter 17 of a book by Adam Hamilton, called “Making Sense of the Bible”.  In it he writes: “I am suggesting once again that God inspired each writer in the same way that God continues to inspire and speak through his people to this day. God has always chosen to risk using fallible human beings to accomplish his work. The Spirit influenced the authors of scripture and the process of canonization so that today we have a Bible that is trustworthy, but not one that is infallible.

I would strongly recommend reading the whole article (follow the link above) especially if you are interested in this idea of whether the Bible is inerrant and infallible.  You’ll notice I have ‘borrowed’ one or two of his examples earlier, other ideas I was pleased to see Adam Hamilton echoed!

It goes without saying that I completely believe God is real, and that we can have a real and personal relationship with Him, through His son Jesus, and that the Holy Spirit is given to us to help us more fully realise our relationship with the Godhead.  The Holy Spirit also equips us to fulfil the mission God has given us while we still have “tread on our tyres”.  Although I believe that the Bible has historical deficiencies and is not intended to be read literally, I do believe that it is the “Bible God wanted us to have” – to quote Tom Wright (or N.T. Wright if you are reading his academic work.  Tom Wright is a former Bishop of Durham, and since 2019 a Senior research fellow, at the University of Oxford).  In 2019 Tom appeared on Premier Radio, on the “Ask N T Wright Anything Podcast” where the specific episode was called “Is the Bible inerrant?”  It was re-broadcast earlier this year, on January 19th 2023 and he said:

“I take quite a pragmatic view [in] that I really do believe that the Bible is the book God wanted us to have, and he wanted us to have it the way it is, and at the same time, because the Bible is written in Greek and Hebrew, Christianity was a translating faith [from] the beginning.  Jesus almost certainly spoke most of the time in Aramaic, but we have his words in Greek.  So, it’s as though this is the original text from one point of view, but it’s already making its way out into the world, and the point is not to look back at it and say, ‘can we analyse this by some scientific test and prove that every syllable is true on some modern pragmatist account of truth’?  The important thing is to live within the narrative and see what it does, and the trustworthiness is something that we don’t put in our pockets and say “I’ve got this infallible Scripture, so I’m alright”. It’s “Oh my goodness, if this story is the real story, then what’s it doing in me, and through me, and what you’re doing in and through the church for the world?” And as soon as you turn round and say, “shall we call it inerrant or infallible or in-this or in‑that?” (I don’t like these words beginning with the letters ‘i.n.’. ), then it seems to me you’re getting trapped in a defensive mode, which is precisely what the Bible doesn’t want you to do.”

Right at the beginning of my main essay “Changing Minds:- A Thorough Exploration of the Issues: To Reconcile being LGBTQ+ with the Bible.” I said I wanted to see whether there was a way I could look at scripture without compromising it and at the same time to see whether the Bible would embrace or condemn those who identify as LGBTQ+.  I was excited and thrilled when I quickly realised that the Bible had no problem, not just failing to condemn, but actually throwing wide it’s arms to embrace the community.  I know that N. T. Wright hasn’t yet got to the position I now hold, but I hope that one day he will.

I am very much with N. T. Wright with his throwaway comment about words starting with “in-”.   When we talk about the Bible as being  inspired, inerrant and infallible, we start to elevate the Bible to a level where there is a very real danger of it becoming more important than the person the Bible was pointing at as being the answer to humanity’s broken relationship with God.  We sometimes call the Bible the “Word of God” and we are encouraged to venerate it.   If our perspective towards the Bible becomes distorted (and we increasingly see examples of that on a daily basis), we then start to worship the book, and not Jesus, who the Bible (in the Gospel of John) points to as the true “Word of God”.  The Bible can subtly become an idol that distracts us from the message of Jesus, and draws us away from the true God.  Be cautious of those who only always say “the Bible says…” and welcome those who say, “Jesus says…”

Love learning from your Bible, ask questions, but always seek answers.  Don’t just ask the question and leave it unanswered.  Talk to those you trust, read material you consistently find reliable.  And be sure that the answer you accept, is itself, consistent with the teachings of the Bible, and in particular, Jesus.

Well that’s a fair bit shorter than has become normal – make the most of it! 😊