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The Bible Does not Always Speak the Truth

Just after my wife and I were married, she worked as a teller at a bank. One of her co-workers was a devout Muslim who was schooled in Muslim apologetics against Christianity. Every day she would come home with a list of objections that he had to the Bible. Three out of four times the objection would involve something in the Bible that he found offensive. Sometimes it was commands that seemed wrong (God told Abraham to sacrifice Isaac). Sometimes it was statements about God that he thought demoting (the Bible speaks about the “eyes” of the Lord, but he does not have eyes). But most of the time it was about the immoral acts found in the narratives of the Old Testament. The one that stands out most is the offense he took with the story of Lot’s daughters. Yeah, the incest thing.

But his problem was clear. He thought that just because something was in the Bible that something was true, good, and representative of God’s will. What I had to convince him of was that if it is in the Bible, it is not necessarily true.

We follow the Bible in what it teaches, but not everything it records is intended to be teaching in the proper sense. Our goal as Christians is to be good interpreters of the Bible, being able to discern when something is being taught or when something is being told. This way we don’t get flustered, and find ourselves in the odd place of trying to defend the morality of adultery, incest, or child sacrifice (you know, that crazy story of Jephthah in Judges 11:30-39?).

Here are five ways that we can mistakenly believe that the Bible is teaching truth or principles when it is not.

1. Some parts of the Bible are incidental to the bigger picture, not intending to teach any principle.

Be careful that you don’t try to find a principle in every passage. Not every verse or chapter of the Bible has an “application” in the traditional sense. For example, the chronologies of Matthew and Luke are not intending to teach a principle in and of themselves. They are simply attempting to give necessary background material so that Christ as the Messiah can be substantiated. (And don’t get me started on the prayer of Jabez!)

2. You have to distinguish between prescriptive and descriptive passages.

This is related to the previous and is especially relevant to narrative books such as Acts. We must be very careful with narratives since their primary purpose is to tell a story that is relevant to the bigger picture of redemption, not to give us prescriptive commands to live by. For example, in Acts chapter 1 we are told that the Apostles “cast lots” to discover who God wanted to replace Judas among the twelve. This is not giving principles on how to elect a pastor! It is simply saying this is what happened, nothing more, nothing less.

Another example (although not narrative) appears in Paul’s second letter to Timothy. Paul tells Timothy to “bring him his cloak” (2 Tim 4:13). There is no abiding theological principle saying that Christians are to bring people coats! It is simply teaching us that Paul asked Timothy to bring him his cloak. Paul was cold! Nothing profound.

Throw into this mix the story of Lot, his daughters and Jephthah’s sacrifice of his daughter. The Bible was giving an account of man’s depravity, not looking at these events with approval.

3. Different types of literature have different types of truth.

You cannot interpret a Psalm the same way you do a Proverb. And you can’t interpret a Proverb the same you you do an epistle (letter). And you can’t interpret an epistle the same way you do apocalyptic material. They all follow different rules. And the truths that they communicate will be understood according to those rules. For example, a Proverb is a general truth of wisdom that does not necessarily apply or hold in every situation. Just because the Bible has proverbs does not mean that we are to sanctify the way we interpret the proverb. In other words, just because it is in the Bible does not mean that it is a truth that does necessarily apply in every situation. Psalms are songs and need to be understood under such imagery. Epistles are letters and need to be understood under the “rules” that apply to a letter. And then there is Ecclesiastes…don’t get me started there!

4. Sometimes the author does not want you to take him literally.

Authors can exaggerate, speak candidly, be sarcastic, or be in bad moods. This will effect the way we are to interpret them. This will also effect the “truth” that they are teaching. For example, Paul says that “all Cretans are liars” (Tit. 1:12). Does this mean, since it is in the Bible, that at the time Paul wrote this every individual who lived in Crete continually lied? No. We use exaggeration as rhetoric all the time. We don’t intend people to take us literally.

Another example is in Paul’s first letter to Timothy. He says about false teachers: “If anyone advocates a different doctrine and does not agree with sound words, those of our Lord Jesus Christ, and with the doctrine conforming to godliness, he is conceited and understands nothing” (1Ti 6:3-4). The Greek word used for “nothing” is meden. It means “no thing” or “nothing.” (Wow!) Does this mean that in order to be faithful to the truthfulness of Scripture, we have to take Paul literally here? Does this mean that the false teachers did not understand what 2+2 is? Of course not. The meden is limited to what Paul is talking about. It is a rhetorical overstatement—hyperbole—that Paul uses for effect. The false teachers did not understand anything with regard to the doctrines which they were teaching.

The Bible can record using figurative language. While it is true that God, in his essence, does not have eyes (though he can see better than anyone), anthropomorphic language is very common in the Bible.

5. Sometimes the Bible records falsehood.

I was at a website the other day that had a daily Scripture at the top of the page. This particular day it had Matt. 4:9 “All of this I will give to you if you will worship me.” Out of context, that looks fine. God will give us many blessings if we worship him. The problem is that this is a quotation from Satan when he tempted Christ! This verse is in the Bible, but it is not true. We need to be careful that we are mindful of who is talking, when, and how their words are to be understood. I hear people quoting Job’s friends all the time as evidence for certain characteristics of God. But Job’s friends are not presented in a positive light. Some of what they say is true, but much is wrong—even if it is in the Bible.

When interpreted correctly, I believe that the Bible always speaks the truth. However, when proper hermeneutics (bible study methods) are not used, the Bible does not always speak the true. If the Bible says it, this simply means that God wanted whatever it says to be included. We believe that the Bible is true in whatever it teaches, but whatever it says is not always meant to teach in the way we often assume. Be careful with God’s word. It is the most wonderful book in the world, but it is also the most dangerous.

25 Responses to “The Bible Does not Always Speak the Truth”

  1. Point 2 – Prescriptive vs Descriptive has significant ramifications on how we defend the authority of the Bible. When people object to the Bible’s inclusion of polygamy and patriarchal mores in Genesis as a means to attack the authority of Scripture we need to demonstrate that the inclusion of those practices explain what occurred (descriptive) and not what we should do (prescriptive).

    On a side note, I was recently listening to Tim Keller’s sermons which eventually became the book “The Reason For God” and he referenced a Jewish scholar who demonstrated that the specific example of polygamy in Genesis actually undermines the practice of polygamy since, at every turn the practice leads to problems in the lives of the patriarchs.

  2. Good post. It reminds me of how many times “all” the animals in Egypt were killed by the plagues. Sometimes “all” doesn’t mean “all” despite what I’ve heard from more than one pulpit.

    My only caveat would be to the narratives. Yes, some of the various narratives are “nothing more and nothing less” than reports of what happened. But most also serve, and are intended to serve, as examples to follow (or avoid). Even Jesus offers the story of David and his men eating the reserved bread as precedent. We can’t just assume that narratives are merely reports.

  3. Is the Bible seriously misleading about God’s moral nature?

    It presents him as an instigator of genocide, deceit and sexual violence. [e.g. see chapter 7 of Sacred Witness]. Is he or not?

  4. I used to think a better understanding of the Bible’s history and context would help to resolve the hard passages. No, in many cases, they become even more disturbing when the context makes standard evangelical apologetics look less and less plausible.

    Take number 5 as an example: Sometimes the Bible records falsehood. Well, yea. I have no problem with that, until the passage in question actually upholds a false idea and presents it as truth. This is (I think) the case of human-blood sacrifices. As far as I can tell, there really are passages in the Bible that teach or at least condone the disgusting ideology.

  5. I would have used different words than, “What I had to convince him of was that if it is in the Bible, it is not necessarily true.” I know what you meant, but on the surface this could be taken to imply that the Bible can err.

  6. How do you know when you are using the correct hermeneutical principles? Does the Bible inform the reader which ones he/she should use?

  7. Michael,

    This is a good explanation of how to read Scripture. However, I have a minor issue with the way you are using the term “truth.” It seems at points in this article as though you are using “truth” as a synonym for “literal.” For example, I contend that any passages describing God as having hands, eyes, or any other feature is *true,* but we only get that truth right if we understand the literary device of anthropomorphism. These passages are trying to communicate something true about God, but that truth is not intended to be taken as a literal, physical description. Truth is one thing, and epistemology another– it seems as you are not as much describing truth in this article, but rather epistemology. Please straighten me out if I have read you wrongly.

    Blessings,
    Sarah Geis

  8. Isn’t this just a repost of your other article in the “… and other stupid statements” series?

    http://www.reclaimingthemind.org/blog/2009/09/the-bible-says-it-therefore-it-is-true-and-other-stupid-statements/

  9. Point 1, where you say not every part of scripture intends to teach a principle.

    2 TImothy 3:16 (All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness)

    ALL scripture is useful for teaching, rebuking and training in righteousness.

    Evangelicals are finally catching up to secularists in understanding that no piece of ancient parchment ought be taken as being always literal or helpful.

  10. When you say “When interpreted correctly, I believe that the Bible always speaks the truth.” – isn’t this a cheat of some sort? This is the same as saying the bible speaks untruthfully when interpreted incorrectly. Or, the bible speaks truth when it coincides with truth. It seems a circular way to say that one’s imaginings which make a bible statement true are therefore the right interpretation. Since multiple interpretations can be laid on top of scripture which don’t necessarily contradict truth, is this why there are like 38,000 denominations.

  11. I think the bible is a combination of its chronological account, God’s Word, and preachings from men. For example, I don’t think Paul’s words are God’s words spoken through him. I think Paul was an evangelist and his letters were preachings of Christianity. Are there any Christian churches today (I can’t find any) that look at the bible this way, instead of the blanket belief that the bible is the Word of God in its entirety?

  12. david carlson July 8, 2011 at 10:17 am

    what sarah said

  13. Paul agreed that “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons”. Titus 1:12–13 Is this a God-inspired viewpoint, or a racist, non-inspired exaggeration?

    Sherri, I think believing that Paul’s NT letters were preachings of Christianity makes a lot more sense given what he actually said. I doubt he saw himself as contributing to an anthology that would be canonised into Christian scripture for all eternity.

  14. I think that it’s a little unfortunate so many people seem to forget that the Bible was written by fallible men. Divinely inspired, certainly. But even the clearest message can become garbled when speaking into a broken microphone. Overall though…you guys better be careful or you’re going to keep making sense.

  15. Jordan, This God-inspired, man-corrupted thesis makes the God-inspired part unfalsifiable. If something looks wise or good, that’s God speaking. If it looks needlessly cruel, stupid, immoral, contradictory, or just plain wrong, we’ll blame it on the human writers and redactors, right?

    I’m not saying the thesis is false just because it can protect the faith from being falsified, but ideas like this are a real stumbling block for outsiders who see them as nothing more than a post-hoc excuse to protect the Bible from what it says.

  16. Muslims believe their father is Abraham just as Christians and Jews do. So, the man your wife worked with must have been debating all religious doctrine with her considering he was also describing events from his own religious book, The Koran- which is basically the same as The Torah and the Old Testament of The Bible.
    The only way to distinguish truth when reading what scribes copied down in ancient text is to do it by using our common sense and understanding the heart of God. Then you can see where men has exaggerated events or made outright cover-ups in order to cover the guilt of one man (or a group). It’s not hard to see where it happens. You just ask yourself, “Is that something MY God would do?” and “What was most likely really happening here?” Basic human behavior has not changed over the centuries. People still do things then try to lay the blame elsewhere- as if God does not see every little thing we do.

  17. One more thing~ if you do use our common sense and our gift of deductive/deductive reason that God gave us all then we can see that everything in The Bible is TRUE- the things some people wrote and said is obviously an outright lie but God expects us to see through it and know better. In that way, the truth is present and the untruth is revealed for what it is- lies and deceptions. There are no inconsistencies then, because it is pretty obvious that there are many people in The Bible who did things for their own selfish purposes and used God as a front. God made sure those things remained in the book so that people would be revealed for the liars they are. Truth is revealed if you look deep enough for it.

  18. … if you do use our common sense and our gift of deductive/deductive reason that God gave us all then we can see that everything in The Bible is TRUE

    Truth is revealed if you look deep enough for it.

    “common sense”, “gift of reason”, “revealed” … It sounds like you are using personal experiences and intuitions to judge the entirety of the Bible as TRUE. What steps do you take to eliminate confirmation bias and selection bias?

    Subjective judgements can be terribly distorted by biases; do you have any strategies to compensate for them, or do you believe that God will not allow your mind to be affected by bias?

  19. Sound reasoning and bias is how you find the truth. To take away bias is to take away the experience you’ve had in life that enables you to know the difference between what someone says happened and what most likely happened based on human weaknesses. Men in history have always fought over power, women, and land. They still do. They did back then, too. The Bible is mostly about groups fighting for that control and doing anything they could to take it or retain it. Jesus’ crucifixion is mainly about that, too.

  20. To take away bias is to take away the experience you’ve had in life that enables you to know …

    That’s not what I had in mind. Cognitive biases cause failures in judgement, they don’t help at all.

  21. You can’t have wisdom without bias.

  22. You might take the time to understand the evidence of why the bible truth .http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HRemWMIy2IY

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  1. No Blog is an Island – 7.15.11 « Nate Navigates the Bible - July 17, 2011

    […] Michael Patton explains a facet of Scripture that has always confused and interested me, the fact that the Bible does not always speak the truth. […]

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