Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Is the Bible Human or Divine? Neither or Both?

A frustrating aspect in discussing with Christians is how often they utilize one method or system in a conversation, but in another utilize the exact opposite. As outsiders—as skeptics—this causes us to question if they are looking for any rationalization to support the argument. Even if they have to disagree with what was said earlier.

I was part of a Long comment interaction over at Grace & Miracles, touching on a variety of topics. From historicity within New Testament Documents, apologetic tactics, inerrancy and inspiration.

I happened to be conversing on theopneustos (inspiration); other participants were talking about contradictions. As I read through, it struck me how on one hand Christians claim the Bible is confined by human limitations; yet on the other they think the Bible does not have such human limitations.

For example, one criterion given for determining which writings were theopneustos was time—had to be written within the apostolic period. When I asked why, it was pointed out how memories fade, legends are introduced, and we expect greater reliability closer to the event.

That is true. All things being considered equal, we give higher weight to accounts closer to the events. Humans do tend to forget or modify memories. Humans do introduce legend for their own agenda. Accounts are lost to history.

But isn’t that a human limitation? Let’s face it—we’re talking about a God interacting (in some way) on certain writings, unlike any other writings in all recorded time. Does a God forget? Is a God limited by the human mind’s frailty? Couldn’t a God “inspire” a document written today about an event in 3127 BCE that is 100% historically accurate?

Or is a God hampered by the human conduit it must use?

What made this particularly interesting was the parallel conversation about contradictions.

Besides humans forgetting, and introducing agenda, and modifying memories—do you know what else humans do? They contradict each other. They correct what they perceive as a mistake by another author. Yet the Christian defending inerrancy would not concede such a human limitation within the Bible.

Do you see the irony? One Christian claiming (under “inspiration”) a human limit upon God; another Christian refusing to recognize an equal human limitation in another aspect.

We see this with slavery. Both the broad claim it was Christianity that did away with slavery upon the human recognition of its evil; and the reluctant shrug that it was the best God could do was to “temper” slavery within the Tanakh.

That the genocides committed by the Hebrews were the best God could do with what he had, due to human limitations. Yet the doctrines within the Bible are pure God—no such human limitation. No human tampered with what God really wanted.

That God could “inspire” writings, but it took Christians 100’s of years to sort out which ones he did. (And still debate as to Canonicity.) That humans modified texts (such as the ending of Mark), and we find those by textual criticism, purging them out. But no human could have modified the original story.

Bart Ehrman is coming out with a book about Forgeries in the First Century. Including within the New Testament writings. (No surprise here to anyone studying the pseudopauline corpus.) I imagine a few Christians will be up in arms over the term “Forgery.”

Why? Humans forge. If God is limited by Humans’ ability to act, observe, remember, modify and converse, yet still manage to muddle through with a bit of “inspiration”—couldn’t this God equally work through the human limitation of forgery?

So which is it? Is the Bible the best a God can do, while utilizing the weak link of humanity, thus incorporating error, memory limitations and even forgery? Or is the Bible some great work where we have no such limitations, and shouldn’t claim human inabilities as an excuse for what is there?


  1. You've just put into words something I've been trying to say, or more succinctly ask. I couldn't find the right words to do it adequately. The whole idea that "God" could lay down the law about homosexuality or sexuality among relatives, or cleanliness, or specific situations within slavery, or adultery, other gods, adultery, slander, stealing, coveting, or any other number of "sins", but in some instances this "God" could only "regulate" what was already in practice just completely baffles me. It's one or the other. Is He God or not? Is He all-powerful or not? Can He make laws or not? Is this God's law or man's law? Which is it? Is this divinely inspired or not? You can't have it both ways.

    I had, in the past, justified it by saying, "He is God, He can do what He wants". But the more I read scripture and the more I study the more absurd I find that rationale.

  2. Oops I said adultery twice, but you get my point :)

  3. I have brought up a related point with Christians who criticize the hallucination hypothesis to explain the appearances of the risen Christ on the grounds that hallucinations are not shared phenomena. This argument assumes that we can rely on conclusions based on observation and experience about the way the way the human mind works. However, the Christian turns around and accuses the non-believer of anti-supernatural bias for using the exact same type of reasoning to conclude that it is unlikely that a man rose from the dead. If we cannot rely on the scientific method when it comes to the finality of death, why should we think it holds with respect to the individuality of hallucinations?

  4. Great post. I've wondered this, too.

    The same question could be asked about the Koran from what I've read of it. (I haven't read all of it yet, just bits and pieces.)

  5. Just recently I have been participating in a similarly-themed discussion on a message board filled with various fundamentalists, and I pointed out that same inconsistency and tied it to the use of prophecies as well. In Christian apologetics, the hyper-accuracy of different prophecies is used as evidence that the Bible is divinely inspired (a supernatural being must have infused that foreknowledge into the prophets), but then when other verses are pointed out that are less than hyper-accurate, or are even flat out wrong, then to be consistent those should count as evidence that the bible is not divinely inspired. (Also, the hyper-accuracy and hyper-precision of the prophecies is vastly exaggerated, but it is enough for this discussion to note that they are *claimed* to be very accurate and precise, not that they actually be so.). If this god was willing to make sure that the text of the Bible was super-accurate in the occasional verse, why is it unreasonable for us skeptics to say that the entire Bible should be consistently accurate, with no errors or contradictions of any kind all the way through?


  6. Hi,

    This doesn't solve anything :-) but lately I have been thinking about this idea of tradition in the Eastern Orthodox church (Catholicism of course has it too but I know little about it there). Orthodox Christianity talks about how the Bible needs to be interpreted through the lens of the church as the Holy Spirit is the one ostensibly guiding the interpretation. There's an interplay here between church leadership and your average parishioner in the role of tradition. A priest told me once (he's a former Baptist) that doctrines do not develop in the church without the approval of the people; which is part of this process of the spirit. The thing I find interesting about this is that this type of thinking doesn't really require that the Bible be inerrant, if you get what I mean. There's some things that are still entrenched- I was just reading a book about how femininity historically in the church has been looked on as evil; ie all women are Eve's evil daughters; but that there's a movement it seems toward a more affirming sense of womanhood.

    Maybe this has nothing to do with anything, just thinking....
    thanks :-).