An Open Letter: “God’s Word” – Inerrant, Inspired, In Error, and Sometimes Just Plain Wrong

Dear Friends:

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As my church and others discern their way through the disaffiliation process, one phrase keeps bubbling to the surface, “God’s word.” I hear this question, “Don’t you take God’s word seriously?” or the statement, “God’s word says…”. These definitive proclamations about what the Bible does and doesn’t say are often followed by things that aren’t in the Bible. As a trained pastor, I’m met with open hostility, anger, and disbelief when I say, “Actually, the Bible says…” Why would I lie? Do I look like George Santos? Double-check me; here’s the Bible! To acknowledge the Bible has many levels of meaning and competing genres doesn’t change my understanding of Jesus’ salvific work.

Some respond to this assertion as if I’m trying to twist God’s words to fit a specific theological or political agenda. That’s what I’ve been told. Actually, I’m explaining how words are translated, how the meaning of words has changed over time, and how translators bring cultural biases to translations. You’d be surprised how angry people get when they’re told these fundamental realities. Humans don’t like having their assumptions challenged. I’m writing this letter because I’m tired of trying to make God’s word come alive in ways beyond the fundamentalist-literalist echo chamber. I bid this task farewell. I’m done. I’m tired.

The Bible is one attempt to tell humanity who (a collection of authors, writing in different languages, lands, and over centuries) its authors believe God to be. I wish it were as simple as some in my congregation understand “God’s word” as something delivered from upon high, without explanation, in English, ready to be implemented, without context or nuance in the 21st century. The Bible is not God’s word. The Bible is comprised of our words about someone (or something) we call God. In some places, the words are inspired. In others, they are in error. Nowhere are they inerrant.

The major and minor prophets were often the first to recognize the magnitude of trying to “speak God’s words.” Mistakes, they realized, would lead to deadly consequences. Not only would they place their own lives in peril, but the fate of nations rested upon their clarity and purpose of understanding and communicating “God’s words.” God’s words were not to be taken lightly or for granted. So, as we read God’s words, it is natural to see those who speak and hear them and how they are understood change and evolve. Our response to God’s first words will not be the same as God’s words in Egypt, Babylon, or after the return from captivity. The context will matter. We will hear incorrectly. Something will be lost in transmission and translation. This is not about simple inconsistencies. At times, the words will be just plain wrong. Here is where we must have the courage to acknowledge where the text is not inerrant but in error.

For example, in 1st Samuel 15, God commands Saul to annihilate the Amalekites, noting he should not spare the women and children. This is genocide. Saul (at God’s prompting) is a war criminal on par with Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Saddam Hussein, and Vladimir Putin. This text of terror is inconsistent with Jesus’ ethic of peace in the New Testament, but this is about far more than the textual inconsistencies throughout the Bible. This is about right and wrong. 1 Samuel 15 is a text in error; God’s command is wrong, and Saul’s actions are evil. God’s words can never be justified because of the inherent brutality it asks the reader to accept at face value if we are to treat God’s word as inerrant.

The idea of “God’s word” as an easily defensible, moral reality when even a single instance of genocide stands at the heart of the Old Testament (out of many) is one reason people like me have a hard time identifying as believers in an inerrant Bible. This is not because we’re twisting God’s word to fit a specific political agenda but because “God’s word” as an inerrant, morally defensible concept is a morally indefensible position to hold in the early 21st century.  God’s word still inspires me. I follow Jesus’ word. For me, it’s not about consistency. Christians will never be able to reconcile all the Bible’s inconsistencies. However, I do not have to accept that God condones the death of innocent children or that it is a permissible or good thing. I won’t do it. I can’t live with seeing God’s name attached to mass murder and genocide and being expected to be okay with the brutality running through the heart of Christian tradition. I can’t do it anymore. I’ll repeat it. The Bible, in so many places, is not inerrant. It’s in error. Murder, death, and slavery are wrong whether it is condoned by the God of Israel and recorded in the Bible or done by human beings and reported on the news.

As we divide ourselves into denominational oblivion, maybe it’s time to make one more division. Biblical Christianity, where we worship a book written by human beings, one full of flaws, too much death, and four books about a Jesus that most Christians are happy to ignore. Then there’s Christ Christianity, where we worship Christ, go toward Christ, and stop pretending God’s words are God.

Yours truly,

–Richard Bryant

Paradise Falls By A Dashboard Light (or how I heard Genesis 2 and 3 in Randolph County, NC)

Start at the beginning,
the third page of the book,
two people left behind,
Ready to make a go,
A human start,
When the dinosaurs said no,
Adam and his manly chest,
Eve and her… all the rest,
Out of the mud they came,
country people,
from lower Mesopotamia,
Adam ate with elbows on the table,
A cap on his head,
Outside and in,
Cause he had no Mama,
to name this sin,
“Boy, your manners just ain’t right,
I hope you don’t meet a reptile with a mandolin,
or a girl with an apple who offers a bite.”
Life didn’t get real until it got wrong,
When it got wrong,
it was past making it right.
Two people alone,
Leaving paradise,
Navigating creation
by a dashboard light.

–Richard Bryant

Why Aren’t We Listening? Psalm 81:1,10-16

Top 10 Things I Don’t Want To Hear God Say When I Get To Heaven

10. We’re out of slaw.
9. You can’t have the Netflix password
8. The diet soda is over there
7.  You’re supposed to replace the toner
6. Don’t touch the thermostat
5.  We have macaroni and cheese every night
4. Meet your new roommate, Steve Irwin
3. Elvis has only just arrived
2. There’ll be an Administrative Board meeting at 3 pm
1. I gave you over to the stubbornness of your heart, to follow your devices.

The last one has got to be one of the most emotional and stressful expressions God utters in the Old Testament. It’s an intimate revelation of God’s frustration and love. The Psalmist records God saying, “I let you do your own thing, follow your plans, despite stubbornness, and what I knew to be wrong; I let you go.” I sent you off despite everything to the contrary because that’s what you claimed you wanted and you wouldn’t listen.  God sounds like the parent of a teenager. Idea number one: sometimes, God’s people get it wrong. Believing themselves right in the face of obvious wrongness, they, as the Psalm says, “simply weren’t agreeable toward God.”

There are expressions you hear in some circles, “God’s ways are unknowable and mysterious.” God is beyond us. I also think we use phrases like that when we want to let ourselves off the hook and keep doing our own thing. How could we know what God, so far beyond us, want us to do? Such reasoning is an excuse. In Psalm 81, nothing is beyond us; God couldn’t be clearer. God’s call for dialogue is in black and white, and we feign ignorance.

Idea number two: God asks in verse 11, “How I wish my people Israel would listen to me!” There’s no mystery there. Why aren’t we listening? Is it easier to pretend we’re still wandering in a wilderness of our design? Yes. When we walk without a purpose, we fight among ourselves. As we stop and listen to God, we realize our God-given potential to be the church. The authentic and honest voice of God seems challenging to hear, but it is not hard for those who are listening.

Richard Lowell Bryant