This is one of the two last articles Ralph Winter dictated to his assistant a few weeks before his death on May 20, 2009.
It is common but not reasonable for people to assume the Bible is what they thought it should be and not what it is. In general today, the Old Testament is harshly criticized. Even President Obama, when pressed to comment on the idea that the government should read the Bible more, came out with a list of problems based on people’s assumption of what the Bible really is. “Which passages of Scripture should guide our public policy? Should we go with Leviticus, which suggests slavery is OK and that eating shellfish is an abomination? How about Deuteronomy, which suggests stoning your child if he strays from the faith? Or should we just stick to the Sermon on the Mount—a passage that is so radical that it’s doubtful that our own Defense Department would survive its application? So before we get carried away, let’s read our Bibles. Folks haven’t been reading their Bibles” (A People’s History of Christianity, Diana Butler, p. 40). President Obama’s approach to the Bible is very typical but believers have other explanations. They essentially pick and choose. They don’t believe a father should stone his son for disobedience. Neither do they believe that Jacob is a model for men to take concubines.
Now you may wonder by what rule they pick one passage and are sure it means literally what it says. Other passages describing genocide, they simply ignore.
So if we’re going to treat the Bible as something for which we exercise judgment I would like to propose a more sensible way of doing it. Very few people understand the Bible to be a continuous story of developing insight on the part of a people God is teaching. It took 2000 years for some ideas to become relevant. For example, it’s like there are two ways to explain things. In Genesis 45 Joseph says to his brothers, “You sent me to Egypt.” Four verses later, he says, “You didn’t send me to Egypt, God did.” That’s two ways of looking at it. Another example is 2 Samuel 24 compared to 1 Chronicles 21. In the first passage there are 25 verses that explain how David went wrong by counting the people. The NIV says, literally, “God incited him to do it.” In the second passage, it says that Satan incited him to do it. This is a rather spectacular example of a change in perspective. If we don’t assume that the Bible is the story of the increasing wisdom of a people who are led of God, it is a completely confounding situation. It is as though the Bible is wrong when the Bible is really describing accurately what they formally believed. What the children of Israel did in early stages became unacceptable, given their growing knowledge of God and His ways, for later periods, for example, practicing slavery, genocide, having concubines and multiple wives.
In actual fact, most of the Bible describes accurately what it sees. You could hardly expect the Bible to be both inerrant and also an enduring description of exclusively righteous behavior. Surely if anyone did anything wrong the Bible tells it like it is. There is no possibility that it tells it like it is and at the same time always gives examples to be followed. We find in the Old Testament many examples of people who do evil, even David, so that once we agree that the Bible is one of progressive revelation we accept the fact that it will show change across the centuries. That fact makes the Bible true without teaching the wrong thing or things that are unacceptable.