Former President Weighs in on How to Approach the Bible

Here’s something you don’t see every day: a former President of the United States “headlining” an edition of the NIV Bible.  But that’s exactly what Zondervan has done with Jimmy Carter—who, in addition to being our 39th chief executive, is a nuclear engineer by training and longtime Sunday school teacher.  According to the Amazon.com product description, The NIV Lessons from Life Bible: Personal Reflections from Jimmy Carter includes  “short, application-oriented notes on particular verses…longer articles on particular topics…prayers of application on select passages,” and “brief one-sentence sayings and quotations by Jimmy Carter.”  

While I’m sure there are merits to asking someone like President Carter to reflect on the Bible, I found his recent comments as to how one should approach it to be troubling…and in fact antithetical to the view of inerrancy I wrote about last week.  In an interview with The Huffington Post, Carter had this to say in response to a question of whether we should interpret the Bible literally or metaphorically:

When we go to the Bible we should keep in mind that the basic principles of the Bible are taught by God, but written down by human beings deprived of modern day knowledge. So there is some fallibility in the writings of the Bible. But the basic principles are applicable to my life and I don’t find any conflict among them.

Leaving aside a larger discussion about the differing ways we use the terms “literal” and “metaphorical,” there are a handful of problematic aspects to the former president’s comments, including:

1. They certainly don’t reflect the Bible’s view of itself.  

Passages like 2 Timothy 3:16-17, 2 Peter 1:20-21, Psalm 119, Matthew 5:17-18, etc., offer a decidedly different take. 

2. They suggest that the Biblical text is compromised by its authors’ lack of modern knowledge. 

Earlier in the interview, for example, Carter said this:

We know, for instance that stars can’t fall on the earth, stars are much larger than the earth. That was a limitation of knowledge of the universe or physics, or astronomy at that time, but that doesn’t bother me at all.

President Carter is of course correct in saying that stars don’t fall upon the earth.  But it’s equally true that we still talk as if they do, that is, we employ what scholars call phenomenological language, i.e., describing things as they appear to us.  Unless we think it appropriate to treat people that speak of “falling stars” and “sunrises” as erroneous or deceptive, we might need to acknowledge that speech can be truthful and accurate even if it lacks modern technical precision. 

3. Most seriously, they reflect a “kernel of truth in a husk of error” perspective of the Bible.

The former president appears to be joining a long line of people claiming the Bible contains timeless principles amidst material that is anything from benignly mistaken to bigoted, shameful, etc.  Those making such an assertion, however, eventually need to address a related question: how do we tell which is which?  What are the criteria?  Who decides?  There is far more to say here than can be said in a blog post, but I would argue that the approach President Carter advocates is more often than not driven by ideas that are problematic in their own right, including but not limited to questionable or simplistic interpretations (see above) and subjective values and preferences.  The latter are why, for example, the many so-called quests for the “real” or “historical” Jesus supposedly lying behind the biblical accounts tend to result in a portrait strikingly similar to those doing the questing. 

All this suggests that, when biblical inerrancy is questioned, it’s usually helpful and appropriate to ask for specific examples of erroneous or objectionable passages.  That at least opens the door to address the fundamental issues in question.

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