Paul Prather

Paul Prather: It's possible to hold the Bible dear without taking every word as fact


I'm a monthly guest on my buddy Jack Pattie's call-in radio show on WVLK 590-AM. I rarely know what Jack will ask me on the air until I get to the studio, and I never know what callers will say until they say it live.

Thousands of strangers listen as I hem and haw my way, unprepared and unedited, through religion's thornier issues.

During my most recent appearance, Jack asked if science and religion are compatible. I said I believe mainly they are.

This led to our discussing whether the world was created in six 24-hour days or that the Genesis creation account is metaphorical.

I said it doesn't matter. I'm not even interested in that debate anymore.

For me, to read the creation story literally is to miss its point. What the story tells me is that God formed the earth to be an abundant, grace-filled place. But human hubris messed it up. That's the news.

This, in turn, led to the subject of inerrancy, a doctrine that claims every jot of the Bible is not only spiritually sound, but historically and scientifically accurate.

Creationists, for example, take the Genesis creation story literally. They say the Bible is inerrant on such matters; the world is young and the Big Bang is a big lie.

I said I also believe the scriptures, which I've studied and taught for 35 years. But I'm neither a creationist nor an inerrantist.

Boy, the call-in lines lit up! I ended up even more tongue-tied than usual. After the show, I felt as if I hadn't explained myself well.

Now I want to say what I wish I'd said on the air:

■ Nobody — including those who insist on the Bible's inerrancy or infallibility (another common term) — takes every word of the Bible literally.

Jesus famously said it's easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter God's kingdom.

Obviously, it's impossible for a camel to go through a needle's eye. Thus, Jesus might have meant that no rich person can be redeemed, period. If so, millions of church-going Americans may be bound for Hades on a bullet train.

But I don't think he intended his camel-and-needle statement to be taken that way. He was employing a colorful image and a bit of hyperbole to make a point: An attachment to our possessions curtails our spiritual growth.

Even inerrantists would agree with me there.

Everyone who reads the Bible much understands that its writers sometimes employ parables, poetry, metaphors, apocalyptic melodrama and other literary tools to show us great truths that can lie far beyond the confines of mere facts.

So why am I required to take the creation story literally?

Why isn't it an allegory? That's certainly how it reads to me.

■ To me, the argument that underlies inerrancy is hollow. Generally, inerrantists hold that the scriptures' original manuscripts were without errors.

Fine. But no one today possesses, or could identify if they did possess, those original manuscripts. The originals are gone.

What we have are thousands of copies of copies of copies.

So, if inerrancy existed in the originals, what are we fighting about?

The Protestant Bible I use contains 66 canonical books. It's possible that the scribes who copied and recopied those manuscripts over many centuries, across various languages, occasionally added, cut or transposed words or passages.

If they did, so what?

What matters to me is that the New Testament's central message of God's profound love remains clear. The Holy Spirit still breathes through every page, opens minds and heals hearts.

■ If I remember, one caller claimed that if anything in the Bible is incorrect, then none of it can be believed. That's a common refrain: All or nothing.

In what realm does that logic hold up?

If I were studying the Encyclopaedia Britannica and discovered a factual contradiction between an article on Paris' history and another on the French Revolution would that invalidate everything in the entire, massive Britannica?

Or might it just mean that an otherwise reliable writer or editor made an honest mistake?

Matthew's gospel tells us Mary Magdalene and another Mary went to Jesus' tomb on the morning of his resurrection. An angel greeted them, and as they ran to tell the male disciples the tomb was empty, Jesus waylaid them.

Mark adds a third woman, Salome. But in his account, Jesus appeared only to Mary Magdalene.

Luke mentions both Marys, a woman named Joanna "and several others." They met two angels, not one. There's no indication they saw Jesus.

John says Mary Magdalene went to the tomb alone. She also saw two angels — then Jesus, who she initially mistook for a gardener.

Do these discrepancies mean nothing happened that morning?

No. Something momentous absolutely took place.

Something quickly transformed a passel of frightened, mourning followers into evangelists willing to dash into hostile streets proclaiming Jesus as risen, at the risk of their lives. Something happened that for 2,000 years has been transforming and transfixing the planet.

Does it matter whether there were one, two or several women in the cemetery? One angel or two? How many women saw Jesus as well as angels?

Whatever you might think, I'm not diminishing the scriptures.

But it's entirely tenable to hold the Bible dear without taking every single word as an inerrant fact. I preach from the Bible every Sunday. I watch it change lives. It continues to change mine.

I can trust its integrity without caring whether its story of creation is scientifically accurate. I don't need to be a creationist to be a Christian, or an inerrantist to love the Bible and believe its truths.