The Fundamentalist Perspective
To the fundamentalist Christian, the Bible is the very word of God himself. The Bible is not merely a good book with decent thoughts from spiritual folks with compelling ideas. Rather, the words in the Bible are words written down by men who were inspired by the Holy Spirit (one of the three persons of the Trinity). Therefore, the Bible contains no errors. It is, in fact, the revelation of God to mankind.
To study the Bible is to crawl inside the mind of God: to know his thoughts, to learn his ways, to mine the depths of what there is that’s worth knowing in this world. The variety of human authors lends color and richness to the reading experience, but does not change the theme of Jesus Christ seen throughout the Bible.
To obey the Bible is to do God’s will. Therefore, knowing the Bible through diligent, daily study is time well-spent. To obey God is to please him, and to please him is to broker his favor in the form of blessings – if not in this life, then in the next.
The Bible is a curious mix of history, poetry, law, doctrine, anecdotes, and myth written by several authors and collected over a period of centuries. The Bible is split into two major sections: the Old and New Testaments. In the fundamentalist Protestant tradition, there are 66 books total; 39 books are found in the OT and 27 in the NT.
The OT is a collection of works peculiar to the Jewish people; were it not for the appearance of Jesus Christ and his global impact, I suspect the OT would have remained of interest to the Jews alone to this day. The OT is a story of the nation of Israel’s formation, their kings, the messages of their spiritual prophets, and battles both won and lost. In addition, there is poetry, wisdom literature, and origin mythology. The common thread is that of Jehovah aka Yahweh. All the OT stories told are tied to Israel’s dealings with Jehovah, and it is this relationship that elevates Israel’s ancient writings to a status that seems more significant than the mere recordings of history. Critical to the OT is the Jewish law which governed the Jews and defined their interactions with God for centuries. For orthodox Judaism, this law is still an important part of the belief system.
The NT is a collection of gospels, letters, and an apocalypse that describes the life of Jesus Christ, the establishment of the early Christian church, Christian doctrine and practice, and the end of the world. In the NT, the OT is noted as being useful and helpful, but subservient to the changes brought into the world by Christ. What the OT predicted, Jesus fulfilled. In that fulfillment comes the NT, and thus OT is useful mostly for informing us of how bad we are without Jesus and what God is like. But the OT is no longer a basis for behavior. Christians are fond of pointing out that “we are not under the law, but under grace.”
Throughout both the OT and NT, a thread of good versus evil is presented. While good is naturally personified by God in various incarnations, evil is personified as the Devil aka Satan aka Lucifer aka several other names. Satan and God battle in overt and covert ways throughout the Bible. It is this conflict that brings a great deal of Christian faith and practice into focus.
Which books appear in which editions of the Bible have varied for some time depending on the Christian tradition in question. For roughly three centuries after the death of Jesus Christ, a variety of literature was shared among Christians, often bearing the viewpoint of a particular Christian sect or other. As these viewpoints varied, acceptable books to define Christian orthodoxy appear to have been canonized during the rule of Constantine. Unacceptable books were ruled out, although some of these “lost gospels” have met with interest in recent times.
For English speakers, the canonized Bible is available in a variety of translations from the original languages. For centuries, the King James Version was the most widely available, and is generally considered to be a significant work of English literature. Scholasticism has become enamored with reconstructing the original manuscripts of the Bible based on study of unearthed historical copies of Bible books and the writings of early church fathers. Several modern English translations based on these critical texts have been created, such as the New International and English Standard versions. The ESV has been gaining popularity in fundamentalist circles in recent years, although some diehard fundamentalists insist that the KJV is the only true English Bible.
The experience of reading the Bible through is a challenging one. There is no mystery as to how one can spend a lifetime trying to comprehend all of the Bible. The book is both beautiful and horrifying, simple and impenetrable. In the OT, Jehovah could be fairly described as a jealous, exacting tyrant playing a game of global favoritism, with the Jews as the inexplicable apple of his eye. Within the opening pages of Genesis (the Bible’s opening book), God creates the entirety of the world, places humans in paradise, curses the world he created because of human disobedience, and then drowns the entire world in a global deluge except for one man, his family, and a selection of animals. Genesis continues on with strange, grotesque, and occasionally beautiful tales that focus on the legends of the Jewish race.
I’ve read the Bible in its entirety more than once, but will refrain from outlining the entire book. That would be a rather long blog post, I’m afraid. It is sufficient to say that if you treat the Bible as the inerrant word of God, you will spend a great deal of time apologizing for what the Bible has to say, either as a Christian apologist (professionally defending the Bible’s contents) or because you are genuinely sorry for some of what is stated. The OT paints some ugly pictures, including a genocidal Jehovah commanding the Jews to engage in ethnic cleansing, the execution of homosexuals and disrespectful children, and a requirement to slaughter and burn animals as a means to atone for alleged sins.
While the NT is somewhat more gracious in tone and intent, the anti-humanist sentiments of slavery and female subservience occur as regular themes, notably in the writings of the Apostle Paul. Also difficult to overlook is the fact that Jesus Christ was a human sacrifice. An off-putting concept in the abstract, this particular sacrifice is made even less palatable when one considers that this sacrifice was purportedly demanded by God as a form of global appeasement.
Famously, science has conflicted with the Bible on the matters of human origins, the age of the universe, circumnavigation of the globe, heliocentricity, and geology. In the personal lives of believers, the Christian experience varies by person. Each believer tends to have their own pseudo-mystical interpretation of life experiences that prove to them the reality of their faith. These experiences often do not coincide with what the Bible claims their experience should be.
When examined pragmatically, all of this renders the Bible a book of contradictions, both with itself and the outside world. It is difficult for any fair-minded person objectively reviewing the Bible to see value in the fundamentalist view of Biblical inerrancy. Simply stated, the Bible isn’t inerrant; that’s a fact easily established both by science and personal experience. Beyond that, it’s possible to examine specific extraordinary claims of the Bible (such as Jesus’ claim that he would return to the earth before many hearing his voice had died) and verify them to be false.
So, What Do We Do With This Ancient Book?
Coming from the fundamentalist black and white world, it’s difficult for me to know what to do with the Bible. My background suggests an all or nothing approach: either take the Bible at face value…or forget about it. I’m leaning strongly towards forgetting about it, as I’m completely confident that the Bible is not 100% true. The parts that clearly aren’t true shine a dubious light upon the rest. Either it’s God’s book, or it isn’t. If we assume the false parts of the Bible didn’t come from God, what makes us think that the rest of the book is somehow special revelation?