But this leaves a further question: Even if we can believe in a Bible that is the word of God, though some of its observations are not accurate by modern standards, how can we tell what parts of the Bible reflect accurate knowledge, and what parts don’t? It would be just as big a mistake to say, “If it isn’t all correct, then none of it is correct” as it would be to say, “If it’s going to be the word of God, then all of it has to be correct.” All-or-nothing thinking rarely leads us to the truth, which we typically find nestled in a more elusive and nuanced place.
If the Bible was written by people working under the same human limitations as the rest of us, then the Bible itself, by definition, cannot contain or provide criteria by which we can determine which things in it reflect accurate knowledge and which things don’t. That’s still expecting omniscience of it, in a certain way. Rather, we should recognize once again that while the Bible is the supreme authority for the Christian, all Christians (whether explicitly or only tacitly) rely on other authorities to support the Bible, specifically tradition (church teaching), reason and experience. We can and must use these external authorities to assess biblical statements.
For example, if we include under “reason” all scientific enterprise, then the discovery that the solar system is heliocentric, not geocentric, reveals that biblical descriptions of a stationary earth and moving sun are not “accurate” in an objective sense. This same process can lead us to all kinds of interesting discoveries about the geography, climatology, medicine, etc. of the Bible, and we may find many things we feel we can helpfully update. But eventually we will reach the limits of this process, without having addressed everything in the Bible. In fact, we will not have addressed the most important things in it, because what the Bible is most concerned with are those things that are not accessible to scientific investigation.
If there is indeed an invisible spiritual world, we have no means of verifying what the Bible says about it through science. We could assume that there is no such world, but that would be a faith stance, as much as to believe that there is such a world. We can argue that if the biblical authors were wrong about so much in the natural world around them, they must also have been equally wrong about much in the supernatural world, but this is not really logical. It presumes that we have access to the supernatural world through the same faculties that give us access to the natural world—a claim we have already seen not to be true—or else it presumes that the human race is somehow in a better position now to make use of the faculties that do give access to the supernatural realm than people were in biblical times, which is by no means obvious.
At its core the Bible is a story of relationships. It is a story of relationships of faith and trust that people enter into with God and with one another (“covenants”). And the world of relationships is one that we have access to freely, even if our knowledge of the natural world is limited to what we can discover through naïve observation. The capacity for faith, through which we enter into relationship with God, is not one that human civilization has slowly cultivated and perfected over time. Faith is something every human has always capable of, just as every human, in every age, has had the potential to love. We would not assert that the love described in the Bible was somehow defective compared with our own because it took place in a primitive culture, and we should not make the same assertion about the faith described in the Bible, either.
So we may conclude the following things:
- The Bible’s claims can and should be tested by supporting authorities;
- There is a limit to what these authorities can verify;
- While the human authors of the Bible would have had limitations when it came to their knowledge of the natural world, they would not necessarily have had similar limitations when it came to knowing God, relationally and experientially.
What this means, ultimately, is that if we retain the expectation that the Bible will have an omniscient knowledge base, we cannot continue to hold that it is the word of God. However, as we have already seen, there is no biblical basis for this expectation. Our reading of Genesis through new eyes should therefore fill us not with distress but with delight. It shows us that the Bible has not come to us from an ethereal, other-worldly realm divorced from the present human condition. Rather, real people, immersed in real places and times, have left us a record, inspired by God himself, of how they came into a life-transforming relationship with their Creator. (As a pastor, Dr. Smith saw daily evidence of similar transformations in the lives of those around him who also entered into relationship with God.)
The characteristics of the Bible that show it to be time-bound and culture-bound even as it discloses universal principles are its marks of authenticity. This book was not made up in a corner; it’s a travel diary, written on the road. That road is still open to all of its readers today, to all who will join in the same adventure of faith that its authors embarked upon. This faith is not hostile to reason or to science. Rather, it can and must work with them to show us the nature of our world and the meaning and purpose of our lives.