Do you remember the song from Sunday School about the story of Zacchaeus? It went something like this…
Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he
He climbed up in the sycamore tree for the Lord he wanted to see
What would it do to your faith to find out that Zacceaus was not actually WEE little, but was just your average short man? Or that Zacchaeus was not in the tree trying to see the Lord Jesus, as the song reports, but was actually trying to retrieve a frisbee, but then heard his name being called by the Son of God?
When I attended seminary, one of the discussions we used to have was about whether or not the Bible was inerrant, or infallible. In other words, is it possible that there are factual “errors” in the Bible when it refers to times, places, peoples, and events? No other topic stirred up more emotion than this one.
I think these discussions miss the point. I just started reading Introduction to the Old Testament by Walter Brueggemann in which he explains that modern tests of reliability are wrongheaded when it comes to the Bible, because it “asks of the texts what they do not intend to deliver.” The Bible is not primarily a book of history or science facts, even though it contains historically and scientifically verifiable information. The Bible “is a world of meaning that has as its key character YHWH, the God of Israel, who operates in the narratives and songs of Israel that are taken as reliable renderings of reality.”
The Bible never fails to do exactly what it intends: to deliver the story of God’s redemptive work within humanity, thus bringing people into relationship with Him.
I use the word “infallible” occasionally to describe the Scriptures, but I would prefer to use the phrase that the Bible uses to describe itself: breathed-out by God.
2 Timothy 3:16 says that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” Why did it say “breathed-out by God,” and not “spoken” by God? Breath implies vitality, life, and intimacy. The Bible was not dictated or spoken to the writers from afar, leaving them only to put the words down on paper. They recorded the story of their lives using their imagination and memory, within the context of a relationship with God. The life story of humanity is wrapped up in the life of God on the pages of Scripture.
I’ve never read a book of facts that felt alive, that pierced and divided my heart, and that brought me into the intentions and will of the author. It’s the breath of God which differentiates the Bible from other books. And when we argue about dates, times, distances, names, and places, we are missing the voice of God calling us into closer relationship with him.