The Bible is frequently quoted by persons who claim God's authority for its contents, or what they claim to be its contents. The Bible is the inerrant word of God!
Or is it?
In the first place, start with the end product of nearly half a century of oral transmission of the Jesus stories, and the apostle stories. Ever heard of Chinese whispers?
Then, even if you insist that God miraculously preserved the integrity of his word during this time of oral transmission, from the time of the first letters of Paul—about twenty years after Christ's death—through to the invention of printing, every copy of every text was hand-written.
Here, it's not a case of believing that God protected the integrity of his word. New Testament scholarship has tracked alterations and variations in the text of the New Testament alone into the hundreds of thousands, some of them trivial, some of them major, and some of them quite obviously later and deliberate, alterations or additions.
For example, most scholars regard Paul's admonition in 1 Timothy to women to be silent in church and save themselves through childbearing, as a later interpolation. (Elsewhere, Paul greets women among the senior members of the churches he is writing to.)
More than a third of the letters of Paul are confidently believed to be written by others who used Paul's name to lend authority to what they wrote. The Greek text followed by the King James Bible is now known to be faulty in many respects. The New Testament canon took some 300 years or more to establish. If God created the universe in six days, what was so difficult that fixing the New Testament canon took so long.
Next, every Biblical author comes complete with his own location and time, his own background, his own agenda that his gospel or letter or apocalypse is designed to address.
- Paul and the early gospels are quite clear that the second coming is imminent, within the lifetime of those listening. Later works play down or ignore this.
- Matthew is adamant that the Jewish law must be followed, as Jesus followed it, and as Jesus taught his disciples.
- Paul is barely interested in what Jesus taught. It is his death and resurrection that are important to "Christians"; and he sees adherence to Jewish law as an admission that Jesus death and resurrection are not of themselves sufficient for salvation.
- Information sources vary considerably: Matthew places Jesus birth in the reign of King Herod, who died in 4 BCE. Luke has the birth happening when Quirinius (Cyrenius) was governor of Syria, and this did not happen until 6 CE. In fact the whole nativity tradition is split down the middle. (See "Tis the Season")
It's a human document, in other words. If we choose to believe that the Bible as we have it is the inerrant word of God, we must do so in the face of what facts we have, and the evidence of surviving manuscripts. But let's say we decide to ignore these facts, and claim God's authority for what the Bible contains.
If we are still going to claim the authority of God for what is written in the Bible, then by that light we cannot pick and choose which parts we will pay attention to and which parts we will ignore.
There is no part of the Bible that allows us to to do this.
Psalms 12:6,7 The words of the LORD are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times. Thou shalt keep them, O LORD, thou shalt preserve them from this generation forever.
Psalms 119:89 For ever, O LORD, thy word is settled in heaven.
Isaiah 40:8 The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand forever.
Matthew 5:18 For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.
Matthew 24:35 Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.
Mark 13:31 Heaven and earth shall pass away: but my words shall not pass away.
Luke 16:17 And it is easier for heaven and earth to pass, than one tittle of the law to fail.
Luke 21:33 Heaven and earth shall pass away: but my words shall not pass away.
None of the above is to say that it's not wise to pick and choose which parts of the Bible we follow, if we are going to follow it at all.
Today, we don't stone sabbath breakers or adulterers, and we don't stone people who wear garments made of more than one type of cloth.
In fact, it's against the law in most Christian countries to carry out these Biblical commands. We ignore the injunction to put to death any person that "hath a familiar spirit." If we didn't, the country would be littered with the corpses of New Agers silly enough to talk about their "Guides". We have in fact moved on.
We do not cut off the hand of a woman who has come to her husband's aid in a fight by grabbing his opponent's testicles. (Presumably this was a major social problem at one time among the Jewish people.)
We don't usually bring our offspring to the gates of the city to be stoned for being disrespectful of us, for being drunkards or gluttons, nor do we insist on the death penalty for people who curse or strike their parents.
But in choosing this bit and discarding that, and interpreting the other, we can no longer claim God's authority for our opinion. God has given us—in His word—no basis for editing His word.
If we are going to pick and choose, for whatever reason, the only authority we can claim is our own. We cannot claim the authority of God for enjoining certain behaviours or prohibitions on ourselves and our fellows when we studiously ignore other teachings that carry the same authority.
But that's just silly, you say. Much of the Bible is metaphor. Unfortunately, there are no flags which tell us which parts are to be read literally, and which parts are to be treated as code or metaphor or symbol.
But once we leave the literal meaning of a passage, we are on our own. We cannot claim God's authority for the finished product. God left no instructions for the interpretation of non-literal sections of the Bible.