(un)Biblical Fundamentalism and Literalism, Part Three: Inerrancy and Biblical Idolatry

For some, this post may feel like drawing lines in the sand and pulling out the label-machine and slapping a bunch of those big ol’ stickers around that say, “Hello, my name is _.”

At the risk of sounding like I’m justifying my position before I’ve even begun, I want readers to know, I’m not a theologian. I’m actually not even that much of a cognitive processor. Deconstruction, for me, has meant flexing those muscles and making sure they’re functioning, helping me to dig deeper and make sense of why my evangelical faith wasn’t sitting well for me anymore. (Read more on how I define Deconstruction HERE).

In this post, you won’t find an in-depth exploration and presentation of the possible “errors” in the Bible and that’s not the point. There are many better places to find specific arguments presented by better thinkers than me. You will hopefully find some ideas presented with an open hand and maybe this post will be a breadcrumb for you along your path of exploration (or deconstruction).

In Part 1, we learned about human communication, a History of Storytelling, and why that is important in the context of the writing of the Bible. In Part 2 we explored how when you read the Bible without context, you risk digesting it and applying it in ways it was never meant to be.

Part 3 is where I outline what has become my foundational approach to the Bible. I don’t much love labels – I always find a way to wiggle around them – but it seems almost unavoidable in this instance, so let’s try this one on for size:

“Hello, my name is Errantist.” I believe the Bible is a Good Book and useful for teaching, but not the inerrant, infallible “Word of God” – and that’s OK.

Would you have written Inerrantist on your name tag? No problem. Welcome here. I believe I used to be where you are in many ways. Questions that started me thinking went like this: What does inerrancy mean? Is there a particular version/translation that is the “best”? If so, why?

I learned that most Christians who believe in Biblical inerrancy would say they believe the Bible is without error or fault in all its teaching. And there’s a lot of room for interpretation of what that means. Did God/dess spiritually guide the minds/hearts of the authors? Did they physically embody them or move their pen (chisel?)? How did the Biblical authors experience the revelation and insights required to write this stuff? It’s all very interesting and very much too bad that God/dess themselves doesn’t tell us these details so that we could know them.

My exploration over the years led me to discover what attitude was best for me when approaching the Bible: openness. This openness probably requires its own blog post, but today we’re staying on topic and talking about being open to stories and their truth, within their culture and context. When I realized the language barriers – who of us reads, speaks, and translates ancient Aramaic, Hebrew and Greek? – and the many “lost in translation” concerns resulting therefore, I wasn’t rocked, afraid, challenged or upset. As a writer, I love exploring language and I’m not afraid to love it or the Bible despite its flaws.

I don’t think arguing about inerrancy demands a black and white approach, as in, either the Bible is absolutely true or it should be thrown out altogether. So let’s sit with some questions that may not have black and white answers, starting with, what does “absolutely true” even mean, anyway? Here’s a few more good ones:

  • What stories are meant to be literal vs. allegory, and how do we know?
  • What parts are intended for instruction 2000+ years ago vs. has some contextual application pertinent for today, and how do we know?
  • Which translation is “the best” and how many translations away from the “original” writing is it OK to be before it is too degraded?

Wherever you land on these questions, I see them as some pretty obvious road signs that say: “Caution, bumpy road ahead. Reading and applying the Bible won’t be easy.” I don’t think it is supposed to be easy. If it were 100% obvious in its meaning and application, it would be useful as a rulebook or a book of laws and useful for clubbing your neighbour over the head with, winning arguments, and condemning people to hell. I don’t think any of those things are laudable reasons to turn to the Bible.

I will take a grace-filled interpretation and willingness to lay down an argument for the sake of erring on the side of love and acceptance any day. That said, believing in the inerrancy of the Bible does not give you the authority to lord your interpretation over someone else. Full stop.

This kind of discussion usually brings out the good ol’ law versus grace false competition along with protests about how useful the Bible’s purpose is for creating understanding and unity, such as:

  • The Bible is our best bet on how to get to know God and learn about how God wants us to live – corporately and personally.
  • When we don’t agree, we can turn to the Bible to give us answers.
  • We’ve got to get “back to the Bible.”

And then there’s these two: “The Bible is the Word of God.” and “The Bible is God’s Word.” For many reasons, I dislike the first one more than the second, however both end up being conflated in the minds of fundamentalists. Both are used to underscore how people use them to put the Bible in position of ultimate authority. And the jump from ultimate authority to idolatry can be surprisingly short.

Making the Bible the main or only way you encounter God is idolatry.

Bibliolatry, in fact, which is a word I had to look up. It means, “The worship of a book, idolatrous homage to a book, or the deifying of a book. It is a form of idolatry. The sacred texts of some religions disallow icon worship, but over time the texts themselves are treated as sacred the way idols are, and believers may end up effectively worshipping the book.” – Wikipedia

In my evangelical Mennonite faith and upbringing, I observed those statements being used to discourage questioning or, worse, judge and (essentially) ex-communicate. They demonstrate a lack of depth-of-understanding and lack of openness to learn.

Let’s go back to those two challenging phrases: “The Bible is the Word of God.” and “The Bible is God’s Word.”

The phrase “Word of God” appears often in the Bible, with a few different meanings depending on context and the Hebrew or Greek word used, and can be understood to mean the manifestation of the mind and will of God. To me, “Word of God” is an abstract phrase. Saying the Bible is the Word of God discounts a vast discussion about Jesus as the Word of God, the Word of God Breathed (which could refer to the Holy Spirit), and the Word of God as inspiration or divine revelation (present in whomever/whatever/wherever it is happening), and so on.

On the other hand, “The Bible is God’s Word” is a phrase that is generally understood a little more simply. It means the words, books, and overall volume that is the Bible. Yes, and also the meaning of the thing, which are things that God wants to tell us, so they’re important. In other words, the Bible is God’s Word Written.

So the phrases are different, but are often interchanged. And both are authority-claiming statements centring around a need for power and hierarchy, leaving little room for welcoming the importance of other ways of meeting God/dess. They are also what are known as “thought-terminating clichés”; statements meant to shut down further cognition, dialogue, or debate.

I do not relish spreading the discomfort of letting go of the extreme reverence for the Bible, for I know it well. But reading, prioritizing and using the Bible as authority incorrectly must stop.

For me, this meant I avoided reading the Bible for quite some time. It made me uncomfortable to be in familiar passages, knowing their traditional interpretations and applications, how they had been misinterpreted and weaponized. I knew I needed to expand my understanding of them before I could read the Bible with ease of mind and spirit. For a long time, the Bible felt like the elephant in the room. I needed to learn to sit with its existence and its true nature before I could sit with its teachings again.

In my waiting and learning, I realized another thing that would become the basis of my spiritual growth.

The Word of God/dess can be approached through many avenues, which is scary.

This viewpoint enabled me to begin approaching the Bible differently. I gave authority back to the subjective interpretation of the individual and their experience/relationship with the Holy Spirit. We covered how scary that is in Part 1 of this series where we talked about Luther and the story of Munster, Germany.

It involves opening your mind, heart, and spirit to doing the Work and not becoming reliant on something external. It means acknowledging that what you thought you knew, were willing to die for how much you believed it to be true, might not be true or at least your understanding of it may have changed. It means being willing to coming to new understanding through asking hard questions about the Bible and its verses. And so much more. Deeper questions when you’re ready for them might sound like:

  • Can a Bible verse mean something to you at one time in your life and another meaning is revealed to you at another time in your life?

    IMO, yes, through relationship with the divine, interacting with different passages at different times can, will, and should have different meaning to you at different times. This should make you bang your head against the wall when people say to you, God’s Word is the same yesterday, today and forever, or some such variation. God/dess may stay the same, but our understanding of them should be changing in perpetuity. Depending on how you understand the phrases “God’s Word” or Word of God”, this may be profound to you.
  • Can you believe in one absolute interpretation of a verse, or certain verses?

    To this, I say, OK, sure, providing we are each of us given the ability to discern how to interpret scripture. If someone has submitted to your teaching and placed you in a position of authority on scriptural interpretation for them (such as a teacher and student, a mentor and disciple), then even more so yes. Teach and teach with conviction and courage, even to suggest course correction for others. But even in that inherently hierarchical situation where power is imbalanced, be humble and do not lord your own authority over others, knowing that God/dess works in each of us to bring insight and revelation.

    For the general population – touting your memes that say “God’s Word is the same…”, but you mean “My One Right Interpretation of God’s Word…” – perhaps have some humble awareness of the context of your social media communication. What do you think it means, what are you meaning to say, and what do you think others understand when they read that overly simplified tripe of a declaration?
  • Is there another way to look at scripture other than, “God said it, the Bible recorded it, and I believe it?”

    In 2018, I went on my first a self-led spiritual retreat at a Benedictine monastery. One of the things I learned through spending time in their library was that the liberal view on Biblical inerrancy held by the Benedictines gave them the freedom to explore a wide variety of subject matter, though any reference to the Benedictine tradition as “liberal” still makes me chortle a little. This starkly contrasted with the evangelical literal view of Biblical inerrancy I had been inundated with my whole life and made quite the impression on me.

I went on to learn other Christian traditions also adhere to less of a stranglehold on Biblical inerrancy and interpretation. Through exploring the Lutheran and Catholic traditions, I’ve learned that Lutherans learn about various portions of the Bible having disputed authorship and it doesn’t faze them. Similarly, they openly learn about the difference between historical and allegorical passages in the Bible and how they are useful, or not, for teaching.

For myself, I learned about the importance of meeting God/dess not just through cognitive exploration, but through all our faculties, including emotion and physical senses. Our culture generally attempts to teach and expects people to (over)function cognitively. A comprehensive approach to what makes up our who we are and how we function as humans is important. There are many Christian traditions that do not divorce the mind from body and heart like evangelicalism generally does. I plan to take this blog in the direction of presenting more about these traditions, so stay tuned!

In the meantime, for those just starting out on the search about why a fundamentalist mindset and literalist interpretation are not life-giving ways of approaching the Bible, here are two suggestions.

Pete Enns wrote a book called the Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires Our Trust More Than Our “Correct” Beliefs. Enns says, when what God really desires is trust and intimacy, skepticism is not as a loss of belief, but an opportunity to deepen conviction with courage and confidence. 

Rachel Held Evans’s book Inspired: Slaying Giants, Walking on Water, and Loving the Bible Again helped me not only tolerate the elephant in the room, but appreciate it again. It took familiar stories and gave them context and a creative interpretation that helped me not be afraid of bringing my full self to my Bible reading again.

OK, I’m done now.

Lol, not with blogging. But with holding tightly on to what I was deconstructing and being afraid to share it. It’s not even that I was afraid, but the last few years have brought the experience of being fractured and I have been leaning hard into spending time with what it felt like to be pulled completely apart. My beliefs about life, love, and God/dess were pulled open and apart, hanging around me like prisms and each one reflecting a different facet for re-inspection and contemplation.

Some of that is passed now, though I won’t claim to be finished or even “more integrated”. I’m less insecure about it to be sure. And I must pay attention to the drive to write this stuff down.

For you, readers, I encourage you to continue to explore a deep and meaningful connection to how the Holy Spirit meets with you. Lean into it. Befriend it. Question it. Ask others how they connect with God/dess. Adopt new practices. Adopt simple practices and do them.

Read the Bible. Or not. Well, don’t just read the Bible.

Never stop finding more breadcrumbs for your journey. If you found some in this three-part series, then I’m glad. Thanks for reading!

2 thoughts on “(un)Biblical Fundamentalism and Literalism, Part Three: Inerrancy and Biblical Idolatry

  1. Hi Sara, the Bible is written in a symbolic language, which has preserved and protected Its spiritual knowledge or truths for over 3500 years. When we understand the language, we understand the message of instruction. It is also important to understand that Christianity is founded upon the teachings of Paul, not Jesus. Deconstruction is important! We have to tear down before we can build! Godspeed.


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