First off, let’s deal with that famous passage in 2 Timothy 3.16:
“All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness .”
The phrase “inspired by God” is actually one word in the Greek, and it would translate literally as “God-breathed.” Now many people use this phrase to stress that the Bible is true (in the sense of “inerrant”). But this interpretation misses a more interesting picture.
Compare Paul’s statement with Genesis 2.7:
“Then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.”
I checked four different translations of this, and they all used the word “breathed” for the verb. Therefore, Paul’s description of the scriptures calls to mind God’s life-giving breath. The Bible may be true, but more importantly, it’s living!
We can do something similar with Paul’s word “profitable.” The Greek word here has the definitions “helping, useful, serviceable, profitable, advantageous, [and] beneficial.” Notice what definition is missing? “True.” Why wouldn’t Paul use the chance to call the scriptures true? Again, Paul gives us something much more important than truth.
Think of it this way: If I tell you that the Encyclopedia Britannica is true, what practical implications does that have for you? It means that should you need to look something up in the Encyclopedia, you know you can trust it. By calling it true, I have merely affirmed the Encyclopedia’s value as a reference work. But if I tell you it is profitable, I have laid an implied obligation on you, namely, that if you’re wise, you’ll study it from cover to cover.
The same is true for the Bible: if it’s merely true, it’s a good reference source (and most of us already treat it that way). But if it’s profitable, then it behooves us to study it – ALL of it. Not just our favorite passages from Ephesians and Psalms, the ones we’ve underlined so many times that the pages are torn through, but also books like Lamentations and Nahum and 2 Kings. And since the scriptures for the early church were the Hebrew texts, if we want to understand what Jesus, Paul, Peter and John were teaching, we need to know the full Hebraic tradition.
So Paul gives us a wonderful verse about scripture without actually calling it true. Why? Because the Bible is much better than merely true: it gives life and is profitable. The phone book is true, but that doesn’t mean I should memorize it.
My point with this analysis is to show that our discussions and arguments about the inerrancy of the Bible too often miss the point. The problem of truth is OUR problem, not a biblical one. And when we focus on the questions of truth and inerrancy, we are using our values to interpret the texts, rather than allowing the texts to teach us what truth really is.
We do the same thing with the notion of inspiration. Many of us hold a view of inspiration that is more aligned with modern Western ideas of authorship: one author writing down what comes into his mind. When scholars suggest that the texts have been edited or that they represent oral traditions, many of us get wary. But there is no reason to think that God can’t inspire a group of editors, or that the church community cannot pass down oral traditions with the same validity as they can preserve written texts. Again, what is really at stake here is not the authority of the text, but rather our notions of authority, inspiration and truth.
We in the queer Christian community – LGBTQ and Allies – fall into this trap all too often. When we begin to reconcile our faith with our sexuality, we are tempted to reinterpret everything we’ve ever been taught about the Bible. And that’s good. But we’re also tempted to throw out anything we disagree with. And that’s not good. We need to take these texts seriously and give them full authority, even when we do not like what they are saying.
Yet it is possible to read the Bible fairly literally without finding any condemnation of homosexual relationships. How is that? Well, for starters, any book that offers no condemnation of lesbianism (yes, that includes Romans) cannot be said to be both anti-gay and fully inspired by God. Let’s look at the options. Either:
1) God didn’t know about lesbianism, which is doubtful.
2) God doesn’t mind lesbians but hates gay men, which is also doubtful.
3) God hates lesbians as well but didn’t feel the need to express that explicitly, which means that the Bible does not contain the full revelation from God.
4) God does not hate homosexuals and we have misunderstood the passages that seem to condemn us.
For conservative inerrantists, the first three options create all sorts of problems, leaving only the fourth option as viable. In short: If the Bible is anti-gay, then it is not fully inspired; but if it is fully inspired, then it cannot be anti-gay.
The reality is that the Word of God is not the Bible, but Jesus. The Bible is the revelation of that Word, and becomes a word of God insofar as it points us to Jesus. Thus, our correct attitude is found in the adage,
“I do not believe in Jesus because of the Bible; I believe in the Bible because of Jesus.”
Once we start looking at the Bible in terms of Jesus, we see God’s love and liberation everywhere. We see the freedom God gives us to work for the preservation of the world. We see the flexibility with which God and God’s servants respond to every different challenge and opportunity. The Bible no longer becomes something we have to wrestle, but something we long to internalize, something that can transform us in the deepest regions of our soul.
The problem for us as queer Christians isn’t the Bible. It’s all the stupid doctrines about the Bible we’ve been told. The Bible can still be authoritative in our lives without condemning us. What we need is to readjust the way we understand its purpose, usefulness, and inspiration. The Bible is much, MUCH better than merely “true”!
Steve Pearson is a Protestant mutt and failed theologian who has a Ph.D. in Literature and teaches at a midsize university in the South.