Skeptical, Naïve, or Somewhere in Between?
How are we to defend the Bible against charges that it is unreliable? In the final analysis, the Bible needs no defense; God certainly doesn’t need you or me to defend the Bible. So, we shouldn’t just take a defensive posture; the Bible is on the offensive: It is “living and active, sharper than a two-edged sword, piercing the thoughts and intentions of the heart” (Heb 2:14).
Often the problem is said to be on the Bible. It has errors or contradictions in it; it is hard to understand; and so forth. But is the Bible really the problem? Or is it our own failure to understand it? I believe the latter is more properly the case. How you and I approach the Bible will determine to a significant extent the outcome of how we interpret it.
5 Types of Posture toward the Bible
The skeptic questions everything. Skeptics will rarely ever change their mind. They are hardened toward the truth. Tragically, no amount of evidence is likely to convince them. Certainly, in their case, you can hardly blame the Bible for failing to live up to its end of the bargain. If you approach the Bible as a skeptic, don’t expect to find it trustworthy.
Others approach the Bible with a suspicious disposition. On a sliding scale, suspicion is only marginally better than outright skepticism. Those who adopt a suspicious stance toward the Bible suspect its writers to pursue a sinister, covert ideology on the basis that truth is merely a function of power.
An example of such a stance is the feminist “hermeneutic of suspicion” that views that Bible as pervaded by a patriarchal bias—men wrote it, and men aim to suppress women, so the Bible can’t be trusted. As with a skeptical attitude, a suspicious disposition is hard to dislodge, just as it is hard to win over a person who is suspicious toward you.
Another type of approach toward reading the Bible is taking a critical stance. Such a critical approach puts the burden of proof on the Bible. The Bible is presumed guilty unless proven innocent. In many ways, this critical stance is close to a skeptical one, except that it may be a bit more open to the evidence.
An entire school, the historical-critical method, has championed this approach over the past century and a half. Infused with the Enlightenment spirit of questioning everything, and of elevating reason above revelation, this method has asked probing questions, often challenging the historicity of supernatural events such as Israel’s exodus from Egypt or Jesus’ resurrection.
While the first three approaches described above are all on the negative side of the sliding scale, the fourth one is more positive, namely that of an intelligent engagement with Scripture. Such an approach is open to the evidence but also open to belief. It seeks to strike the proper balance between an unduly critical stance on the one hand and a naïve disposition on the other. Ultimately, a discerning approach is possible only because of God’s grace and forgiveness and the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts and minds (see Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 2).
The last approach is one that places blind trust in Scripture. This is what Bart Ehrman accuses all Christians, even conservative scholars, of adopting: we cover our ears and “hum loudly,” he says, because we don’t want to hear the counter-evidence to our trust in the Bible. There’s no need to think, such a person says, just believe.
Before we are too quick to dismiss such an approach as unduly trusting and gullible, I would argue that it is certainly superior to being skeptical, suspicious, or even critical. The problem is, however, that if we merely trust the Bible blindly, without discerning engagement, what about the next generation? Will we be able to “give a reason for the hope within us” (1 Pet 3:15)?
Note: I gave a talk on this topic to the Chris Gardner/Blake Derrick Life group at Providence Baptist Church in Raleigh, NC, on February 18, 2018. To listen to a recording of this talk, please see below. The opening taxonomy is also elaborated upon in a talk I gave at the Dig & Delve conference in Ottawa, Canada. To view a video of this talk, click here.