“It is one of the advantages of the anthropology that I have been trying to set out that, by insisting on human alterity rather than some supposed imbued transcendental relation to God as constitutive of what it means to be human, it permits us to consider divine revelation as a process of human discovery. That is to say, it is not frightened of the utterly contingent, human, historical process by which cultures arose, and declined, events occurred, peoples were formed, previous events were reinterpreted, the texts themselves edited and reedited. It is not as though divine revelation needs somehow to be protected from all such happenings, in order really to be divine revelation.” – James Alison
Many people think that to concede that the scriptures contain errors (especially theological ones) would be a major problem because we would then not know how to determine what is true and what is not. (I have already written elsewhere how I don’t think the scriptures can be used objectively as an absolute basis for truth.)
When revelation is understood as progressive, however, mistakes cease to be problematic.
To consider errors as problematic implicitly assumes that errors are necessarily bad, that the purpose of the scriptures is to communicate true propositions, and thus to be factually accurate (at least theologically).
When the OT was written, recording royal history was a biased endeavor, and unashamedly so. For example, the number of men in a king’s army were often exaggerated to make the king look good, or kings would be portrayed as more benevolent than they actually were. But this was in fact what was considered to be good history (in stark contrast to today, where factually accuracy is considered to be the only thing of value).
So why should we assume that history in the OT wasn’t? Indeed, we would need good reasons to think so since that would be an anomaly. Who’s to say that unbiased, objective history is the best kind of history, anyways?
Regardless, there is no such thing as a completely unbiased and objective recording of history; anything written down is necessarily filtered through the subjective experience of the writer. For example, communicating historical events requires the communicator to select what to mention and what not to mention. You can’t say everything; there’s just too much. Thus, they will say only those things that are important to the point they want to get across. Further, those things will be said in such a way that it drives their point home, even if that may cause it to deviate from a more factually accurate description of events.
All that to say, the people who wrote the OT had no problem with not getting their facts straight, so perhaps we shouldn’t either. In fact, maybe it would do us good to quit going to bibles to tell us factual propositions. After all, it is by now well-known that the scriptures contain hundreds of inconsistencies and contradictions if they are read as a textbook of truth statements. Just try googling “contradictions in bible.”
Why do we assume that, unless it is clearly declared to be a mistake, an action or belief recorded in the scriptures is good, right, and true? Why do we treat Acts, for example, as a historical record of things that people did right, even though it definitely contains some people’s mistakes (e.g. Ananias and Sapphira)? Just because it is recorded that someone, regardless of their status (apostle, prophet, believer, etc.), did something doesn’t mean that the thing they did was in accordance with God’s will. It’s not immediately obvious what things were good and right and which were evil and bad.
James is a case in point:
It’s interesting that the council of Jerusalem (Acts chapter 15) reveals to us that at this point in the early church’s life only Paul and Barnabas actually understood the gospel of grace, apart from the old covenant law, in its correct understanding. It was through this meeting we read all the other apostles and leaders accepted their error and agreed the good news truly was complete grace, apart from also keeping the law mixed in.
James was one of the men there who accepted he was in error. Now, it is also historically believed that James wrote his letter at least one or two years before this meeting. That means when James wrote his letter, he had a mixed theology and was still in error in his understanding of what grace truly was. Yet, his misunderstandings still made it into the Bible through his letter.
Next time you read the book of James think about this. It is entirely possible God allowed his letter into the Bible to give us a pattern of what a preacher with a mixed covenant theology would sound like? Very little about Christ.
Everything about works. No Holy Spirit. No flow of thoughts about God’s love. Fear being used to prove a point. Condemnation for not believing enough etc. – Mick Mooney
James, and every other biblical author, were on journeys of growth even when they penned their writings, and their understanding of reality was surely riddled with errors (as is ours). What they wrote should be interpreted accordingly.
Everything written in the scriptures does not need to be (and should not be) taken at face value. We can’t take everything stated as it is, assume it is good, apply it to ourselves, and model what we do after it. We can’t assume that God wishes us to do exactly what the people of the past did or think the way they thought. We can’t even assume that the underlying principles of what God told them to do apply to us, because those may be different too. What may not have been a mistake for them may be a mistake for us, and vice versa. Context, both of the biblical times and our current age, must always be taken into consideration.
The scriptures are a witness to how certain individuals interpreted God revealing himself to them in the past. When reading the scriptures we need to keep in mind that specific people wrote to specific groups of people who were experiencing specific things.
So how do we discern between what is true and what is not? Look to the perfect image of God, Jesus, and ask Holy Spirit. “Examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21).
Symphony of Reflection (by Andre Rabe)