Recommended books & reviews, Theology

Contradictions, errors & moral offence: how the Bible’s problems enhance its authority

Review of Inspired Imperfection: how the Bible’s problems enhance its divine authority by Gregory A Boyd

I love reading the Bible. No other book comes close to consistently inspiring and challenging me. I read it every morning and, especially when reading the gospels, I often feel a tingle of excited joy about the depth and truth of what I am reading.

That’s one side of the story.

I am also horrified by the Bible too. The seemingly God-ordained violence and genocide in the Old Testament is repulsive. This morning I read about King Jehu ordering the murder of 70 princes ‘in the name of the LORD’ and insisting on their disembodied heads being piled up at the city gate (2 Kings 9).


This dissonance between these reactions creates significant problems. It undermines belief in the credibility and authority of scripture. Many Christians are embarrassed by parts of the Bible and are not at all confident when challenged about such passages.

These difficulties are a driver in the deconstruction of people’s faith because they feel they can no longer believe in how they have been taught to treat the Bible. This tendency has affected many of my friends – see the Faith 20 Years On research I conducted earlier this year. As Boyd puts it:

‘Like most evangelicals, I had been taught that the Bible was a perfect, errorless, heirloom of the Christian faith. Then, like a precious vase shattering on the ground, I discovered it wasn’t.’

People need good answers to understandable questions about the parts of the Bible which present a God that looks nothing like Jesus. Inspired Imperfection is all about this problem.

Keeping ‘biblical moorings’

Greg Boyd is a pastor and theologian based in Minneapolis, USA.  His theology cannot be described as ‘liberal’ because he believes passionately in the ‘plenary authority’ of the Bible: meaning that all of it is inspired by God. He is concerned that ‘progressive’ Christians are often losing their Biblical moorings and becoming cast adrift in post-modern relativism.

But this does not mean that he believes the Bible is free from errors, contradictions and inaccuracies. He believes that attempts to defend the Bible’s literal inerrancy or explain away its morally dubious presentations of God are a ‘fool’s errand’.  

Wrestling with ‘problems’

Boyd’s answer is the conundrum is the ‘cruciform model’ of biblical inspiration: using the crucified Jesus as the lens by which all Scripture is interpreted.

He argues that many of the depictions of God in the Old Testament as vengeful, retributive and violent are similar to ‘warrior deities’ who were commonly worshipped in the Ancient Near East of that time. Jesus roots himself firmly in the Old Testament Scriptures but also continually shows a contrasting picture of who God is and what his kingdom involves.

Boyd explains how the theologian Karl Barth helped him develop a Christocentric view on scripture:

‘For Barth…Scripture is breathed by God not to function as a revelation in its own right, but to serve as a witness to the one revelation of the triune God in Jesus Christ.’

Jesus is the ultimate expression of God’s unchanging character. ‘Christ crucified’ is the lens we should use to understand the Bible:

‘The whole of the Old Testament points toward, and finds fulfilment in, Jesus’ death and resurrection…Jesus is the Word to which all the words of Scripture point.’

Cruciform inspiration

Boyd believes that ‘all Scripture is God-breathed’ but radically reinterprets what this means. Rather than an assumption that ‘a perfect God breathes a perfect book’, Boyd argues that God’s power in Scripture is made perfect in its weakness and fallibility.

This leads to a Bible which includes errors, inaccuracies and morally-offensive material, and which many consider foolish and weak. But the ‘cruciform’ message is that God uses the lowly and despised things of the world to display his greatness. Just as Jesus’ body bears scars, so does Scripture:

‘When viewed in the light of the cross, there is no more need to be embarrassed by the Bible’s scars then there is to be embarrassed by the scars on Jesus’ resurrected body – if only we set aside our old assumptions about what a God-inspired story is supposed to look like and instead boldly embrace the cross-centred story of God that we actually have.’

Important book

I bought this book a year ago and have read it 3 times right through. I have wrestled hard with its argument and found it hard to summarise in a short blog post.

But Inspired Imperfection has proved to be the most important book I have read this year because it has helped me understand the most difficult parts of Scripture in a new way.  It has given me a new confidence and excitement in the Bible and the self-giving, sacrificial, non-coercive God who is revealed in Jesus.

The fact that Greg Boyd is a Pastor as well as an author is vital. What reinforces the validity of his argument is the pastoral and missional implications which pepper the book. As Boyd puts it:

‘I’ve come to believe that a person’s mental conception of God is the single most important fact about their life…which is why I believe its so vitally important that we base everything we think about God on Jesus Christ.’

16 thoughts on “Contradictions, errors & moral offence: how the Bible’s problems enhance its authority”

  1. Hi Jon,

    Happy New Year!

    I think in his desire to exonerate God from being implicated in any violent judgment Boyd unfortunately departs from Jesus’ witness to the Old Testament. If we seek to follow Jesus crucified and risen, we should be willing to accept His witness to its truth and reliability. Jesus saw every part of the Hebrew Scriptures as faithfully revealing the character of God (see my book ‘God is Good’ – Exploring the Character of the Biblical God ). The problems people (including Christians) have with the Bible are largely due to either superficial reading, or a reluctance to fear God’s holiness, or fear and embarassment at the scorn people have for those who believe its testimony to what God is like. Some mistake description of human behaviour for prescription. Some think the Bible shows a God who approves all the behaviour of its ‘heroes of faith’. Some want a ‘get out’ whenever the Bible reveals something about God that they don’t instinctively like. Some think the OT portrays a nasty Jewish God whereas the ‘Christian God’ of the NT has evolved into someone a lot more reasonable. But, ironically in Boyd’s case, rejecting the ‘offensive’ parts of the OT means rejecting the ‘offence’ of the cross by not accepting the full NT doctrine of the atonement.


    1. Thanks Martin and Happy New Year too.

      I don’t think the accusation of superficial reading can be levelled at Greg Boyd as he has done immense work on this subject – I have not read his two-volume ‘Crucifixion of the Warrior God’ but I did read the lighter version ‘Cross Vision’ and I found it similarly helpful.

      He goes into detail about avoiding the ‘description for prescription’ and any superficial sense of ‘recording the behaviour means its affirmed’. I feel its actually the opposite – that he is willing to be really honest about these problems, both from an academic and a pastoral perspective. He does not fall into any simplistic ‘bad God’ of the OT and ‘nice God’ of the NT but does go into detail about the context of the Ancient Near East and the gods and their myths which often are very similar to some of the OT stories.

      I found reading ‘Inspired Imperfection’ to be humble as he fully acknowledges debts to major Christian thinkers like CS Lewis and especially Karl Barth and his own journey. Also having listened to his podcasts for a year, I also don’t see fear or embarrassment about God’s character but a desire to place Jesus front and centre in how he handles the Bible. I found his quoting of Michael Ramsey helpful: “God is Christlike and in Him is no un-Christlikeness at all’

      Lastly, I don’t think his position on the atonement ‘rejects the offence’ of the cross at all. In fact, Boyd places the cross right at the core centre of his understanding of the Bible, his understanding of Jesus’ mission and work and also right at the heart of discipleship and church life. I think what he articulates is a fuller sense of the cross which I find more faithful to Jesus’ teaching, more exciting and demanding than the penal-substitutionary models of atonement.


      1. Thanks for your reply Jon. I haven’t yet read the book so I will do so before commenting more fully. I have read other things by Boyd though and I do think he has an agenda which is to reject aspects of judgment in the OT enabling him to reject penal substitutionary atonement. (I agree that PSA is not the be all and end all of what was achieved by Jesus on the cross, but it is definitely an essential aspect to it – see Isaiah 53v5-6 and Romans 3v25 and the aspect people tend to find most offensive). Also I will read with interest to see how he justifies the idea that the Bible, by containing errors, contradictions and accounts of God acting in morally offensive ways enhances its authority in being a true witness to God. I agree with Ramsey that ‘God is Christlike and in Him is no un-Christlikeness at all’ but unfortunately people tend to form their own (acceptable to them) image of Christ that detatches Him from the OT witness and is therefore not fully biblical. Thanks for putting the link to my book which tackles all these issues.


      2. Thanks Martin. I think Greg Boyd definitely has an agenda but I see it as one to help people come to know God in the person of Jesus – and to use his intellect and experience to help teach the Bible well. I don’t think its anything as narrow as ‘enabling him to reject’ a certain view of the atonement. He rejects PSA because of his reading of scripture and his belief that it does not represent the fullness of what God and Jesus did on the cross. Like Tom Wright, I think Boyd sees PSA as it is often represented as ‘sub-biblical’.

        I would thoroughly recommend his books (I think ‘Cross Vision’ excellent too) – but I had to read ‘Inspired Imperfection’ 3 times to really grapple with what he was saying. He goes into detail about how central the OT was to Jesus’ ministry and how he fulfils the Hebrew Scriptures – therefore I think he does a lot better job of ‘attaching’ Jesus to the OT than I have read in most books rather than ‘detaching’.

        And yes, I think there is a danger we all form an image of Christ which we find acceptable, and this is why I am grateful to brave and bold thinkers like Boyd who can help me see things in a new and fresh way.


  2. Wow! This is a profound reply, Martin! Happy new year, Jon, and thank you very much for your posts which I only discovered a few months ago. John Wenham’s The Goodness of God, and his earlier book Christ and the Bible helped me enormously in thinking through these matters.


    1. Thanks Graham. I too am indebted to John Wenham’s book ‘The Goodness of God’ (re-published as ‘The Enigma of Evil’) and make several quotes from it in my book.


  3. Dear Jon,
    I have now read the whole of “Inspired Imperfection”. My summary of what the book is seeking to say is this. I am attempting to be scrupulously fair to the essence of his case and therefore this post is a long one.

    1 Because the high point of the revelation of God is Christ being crucified, every purported revelation of God’s character and purposes in the OT that doesn’t square with the powerless vulnerability shown on the cross must be misleading to some extent. (Although Boyd doesn’t explicity say so, I think his reasoning must apply to the NT as well)
    2 The Bible, particularly the OT, is full of factual errors, and, more sigificantly contains, a lot of statements by the writer about God’s character and commands which are morally repugnant, such as genocidal instructions, animal sacrifice and the death penalty.
    3 The NT says that “all scripture (referring in first instance to the OT) is God-breathed (inspired)” and so this presents a problem. How can we believe God inspired a book that so repeatedly errs in its revelation of what God is like and is so contrary to the mental image of Christ crucified?
    4 The way to understand what ‘inspiration’ means is that, just as Jesus submitted to the horror and indignity of crucifixion rather than exercise coercive power (and so the crucifixion can be said to be ‘God-breathed’) God submits to the embarassment and shame of keeping faith with the sinful Israelites who wrote the Bible in such a sinful way, distorting and maligning God’s [Boyd does not use masculine pronouns for God] character in all sorts of ways. Alongside the ‘God-breathed’ parts of the OT which are insightful and lovely and in harmony with Jesus letting himself be crucified (of which he lists hardly any), there are ‘God-breathed parts in which God allowed others to stamp their sinful mark on God’s reputation and misrepresent God. This shows God’s cruciform character all the more and so all the ‘morally offensive material’ simply enhances the wonder and love of a God who would rather let others abuse him than exercise power over them.
    5 While the crucifixion (tied to the resurrection) was the great victory over evil, this had nothing to do with sin needing to punished by a just God. Somehow victory was achieved by God completely identifying with both human beings and our sin.

    Boyd came to faith in Christ in a church which taught that Scripture is inerrant but explained its inerrancy in ways that were very dogmatic about interpretation eg insisting on Genesis 1 teaching that Creation took place over six 24 hour periods. There would have been little understanding or teaching about the different genres of biblilcal literature and nuanced principles of exegesis and hermeneutics. Armed with a simplistic understanding of the Bible, he went to university and almost as uncritically as he had accepted a crude, wooden understanding of Scripture, he took on board the view that the Bible was full of errors and evil ideas about God. After temporarily losing his faith, he rediscovered it through general apologetic arguments about the existence of God and a sense that, whatever critical NT scholars might say about the Gospels, they probably got right the stories of miracles and Jesus being a good guy and that Jesus died on the cross and rose again.

    Boyd was troubled though about the dilemma mentioned above. Jesus appeared to endorse the OT witness, whereas Boyd now knew much of it (and from what he says, actually most of it) was unworthy of the message of Christ crucified. So, after mulling over a bit of Barth and Moltmann, he came up with idea of God-breathed imperfection.

    Imperfection is actually an understatement. Boyd repeatedly hurls at the Bible all the tropes that the new atheists do. He pretty much assumes the OT portrays God as Richard Dawkins famously declared in the The God Delusion. “The Most Unpleasant Character in All Fiction. “The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction; jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving, control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”

    Boyd says, in effect, yes that is how God allows himself to be portrayed in the OT. So Boyd repeatedly accuses the biblical God of commanding the extermination of all Canaanites, while footnoting references that, on careful reading and thought, certainly do not say that. Boyd shows very little understanding of the Old Testament and still approaches it in the fundamentalist way he used to, only to (to all intents and purposees) then reject it. He also treats the NT Gospels simplistically, superficially alleging that Jesus taught people to reject God’s revelation in the OT rather than their inadequate or distorted understanding of it.

    Boyd says any attempt to promote the view that the whole of Scripture witnesses faithfully to a good God is a ‘fools errand’. So my book, “God is Good – Exploring the Character of the Biblical God” would be for Boyd, the ultimate ‘fools errand’.

    Boyd doesn’t expclitly say so, but his view that anything about God’s holiness or judgment on sin in the OT is to be rejected as incompatible with Christ crucified also renders anything Jesus said pre-cucifixion about sin and holiness and judgment as invalid and anything in the rest of the NT too. Christ cannot be the one who will rule the nations or enact judgment on those who have rejected him becasuse this would be incompatible with him being the one who always has to be on the receiving end of anything unpleasant. There is no God of justice in Boyd’s book. There is no call or need for holiness. There is actually no explanation of how evil was defeated – he just assumes it was because of the resurrection. There is no understanding at all of the doctrine of atonement, taught throughout Scripture, regarding substitutionary sacrifice, let alone ‘penal’ substitutionary sacrifice. His contention that the God of the OT is not much different from other ANE gods is bizarre and shockingly ignorant.

    Boyd is dishonest and slanderous in the way he portrays other Christians, using ridiculous stereotypes to mock those who believe, as I do, that the whole Bible teaches the Jesus bore the punishment and curse we deserved from a just God, not as a hapless third party, but as the God-man willingly enduring it all for us. He wrongly claims that Tom Wright argues against this, whereas in fact Wright is much more careful to say that it is crass understandings of penal substitutionary atonement, which are detached from the proper understanding of the Trinity and the sweep of God’s salvation purposes for all creation that he is against. As a NT scholar Wright knows exactly what Romans 3v25 says but also much else that can be said about the cross too and if Wright is not thoroughly embarrassed to be quoted in this way then I hope it is because he hasn’t read Boyd’s book!

    Boyd is a mega-church pastor. Like other mega-church pastors, he is in a privileged position and a major target for Satan’s attack on his morals and doctrine. By rejecting the authority of the Bible, he is, I believe, consiciously or unconsciously, seeking to escape from the need to submit to much of what it says. Just as other mega church pastors have started out with anointed ministries and good intentions but then come crashing down because they have not made themselves accountable, I think Boyd is heading this way.


    1. Hi Martin – wow, yes, your response is lengthy. In fact it is 50% longer than my original article.

      I can appreciate the strong feelings you have because Boyd is articulating a view on how to handle the Bible which is so different to your own, and especially one that you spent a long time researching and writing about recently in your book. But I don’t agree with the picture you paint of his views or the extrapolations that you make about what the book does or not does say.

      Boyd has debated his view on the Bible and on atonement at length in all kinds of places, for example he has been on the same ‘Unbelievable’ show on Premier Radio that you were on debating these issues with major thinkers like William Lane Craig and many others. He may be ‘controversial’ to some (as Premier Christianity Magazine call him in this month’s profile of him) but he is a serious thinker and church leader.

      Obviously your views on the Bible differ greatly, but the fact is that you both lead churches which want to help people come to know Jesus. Boyd started a church which (as you say) has grown significantly and this is because he is passionate about people coming to know Jesus, follow him and live out his kingdom’s values. I have seen this time and again in the videos and other talks I have heard him give. He has faced periods when significant numbers left his church because they disagreed with his views but this shows for me that he has integrity to say difficult things which in his context are not popular but which are based on clear convictions.

      It’s fine to disagree with him and argue why, but I think his position is worthy of more respect than insinuations that his thinking is the result of Satanic attack.


      1. Hi Jon,
        to say that mega church pastors are subject to unique spiritual attack is not to disrespect them. It is the opposite, since it recognises their influence over other Christians. I doubt whether there is any church pastor who does not in some way want ‘to bring people to Jesus’. But this does not necessarily mean they can’t be tempted into false teaching or immoral conduct. Sadly many fall into this temptation and people are harmed. Mark Driscoll’s Mars Hill church grew very rapidly and lots of people were ‘brought to Jesus’ but though pride and love of power he fell into abusive conduct, damaging many.

        Boyd’s pride leads him to refuse to submit to biblical truth in his doctrinal teaching. For example, his take on 2 Timothy 3 v16 is basically “All Scripture is God-breathed but most of it is very dodgy as a basis for teaching kingdom values.”

        God did not order the genocide of the Canaanites. He said he would (gradually) drive them out of the land of Canaan if the Israelites co-operated by attacking some of the fortified cities which chose to resist His will. These nations institutionally practiced the most abominable and cruel things that we would all regard as extreme criminal behaviour today. The Mosaic laws were not cruel or arbitrary but,, in their real context just, merciful and designed for the people’s welfare and the long term plan of being a blessing to all the nations by the coming of a Messiah.

        Jesus did not pronounce the Law of Moses as immoral or unworthy, He fulfilled it and intensified its moral commands while paying the price for God’s people’s failure to keep it. Jesus did not deny God’s judgment, he emphasised it more severely than anything in the OT. Jesus did not water down the need for holiness, but raised the standard even higher. The passover lamb was not recorded as being sacrificed to make atonement for the Israelites before their liberation from slavery because the primitive biblical writer believed exactly the same as the pagans believed about their gods [as Boyd contends], but as a God-given commandment foreshadowing of Jesus, the lamb of God, willingly going like a lamb to the slaughter so that God would lay on him our iniquity and He would be bear the punishment that brought us peace.

        I did not write my book as a mere academic exercise but to refute the twisted ideas people have about the Bible which prevent them from meeting or presenting the real Jesus. It is to be expected that non-believers like Dawkins and Barker write such terrible things about the God of the Bible, but when church leaders distort the Bible’s teaching and misrepresent other Christians I’m sure Satan is especially delighted. To denigrate the written Word of God is to denigrate the Living Word of God, Jesus Christ, who died for our sins according to the Scriptures. I Cor 15v3.

        “The Word of the Lord is flawless” (Prov 30 v5), a ‘lamp for our feet (Ps 119 v105). The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul. The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes. The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring for ever. The ordinances of the Lord are sure and altogether righteous. They are more precious than gold. . .” (Psalm 19v7-10)


  4. I won’t make a full contribution to this debate except to say that I believe the missing link that can reconcile some of Martin’s case with Greg Boyd’s is the mystery contained in how God works through Israel’s sin. Paul’s comments on the mysterious role of the law in Romans (eg 5.20; 7.13) alongside his determination to uphold its goodness (7.12) point us, I believe, in the right direction on this as sin is brought to a height in Israel precisely so that it can be carried within Israel’s Messiah and God’s judgement brought upon it when he died. King David, I believe, is a particularly crucial figure in this process but so are some of the other parts of the Old Testament with which people have the biggest problems. I won’t comment further because I’m presently in the process of working this all out in greater detail but I do think it is about both side listening to each other and seeking to recognise more fully the paradox and mystery within the story of Israel that Paul, in particular, believes is revealed more fully in the light of the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah.


    1. Thanks Stephen. I don’t think my views and Boyd’s can ever be reconciled. While I totally agree that God, sometimes mysteriously, worked through Israel’s sin, that is a very different thing from saying that the Holy Spirit co-operated in allowing Scripture itself to sinfully distort the truth. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Truth and gives glory to the Father and The Son, not shameful misrepresentation. We stand no chance of penetrating the mysteries of God working through the sins and imperfections of Israel or David or anyone if the Scriptural accounts of their doings and relationship with God are themselves so corrupted by sin as to need continual deconstruction. If we can’t trust Scripture to speak the truth how do we know what anyone in the OT, including God, did or said, whatever our views on how acceptable those things were.


    1. Thanks Jon for being willing to post the excellent Copan article criticising Boyd’s writings. It is of course easier to be scholarly, precise and measured when writing a full length review, whereas I struggle with those things in the context of family threads following blog posts. Of course I endorse everything Copan says in it but I am also grateful for the calm and forensic way he shows how Boyd misrepresents both testaments in pursuing his theories. Indeed, I am highly indebted to him for my own book, which I designed to be implicitly as much a response to Boyd as explicitly to atheists like Dawkins and Barker.


  5. “It is Christ Himself, not the Bible, who is the true Word of God. The Bible, read in the right spirit and with the guidance of good teachers will bring us to Him. When it becomes really necessary (i.e. for our spiritual life, not for controversy or curiosity) to know whether a particular passage is rightly translated or is Myth (but of course Myth specially chosen by God from among countless Myths to carry a spiritual truth) or history, we shall no doubt be guided to the right answer. But we must not use the Bible (our fathers too often did) as a sort of Encyclopedia out of which texts (isolated from their context and not read without attention to the whole nature & purport of the books in which they occur) can be taken for use as weapons.”

    C.S. Lewis, Collected Letters Vol. 3


    1. CS Lewis is absolutely right that we must not use the Bible as “a sort of Encyclopedia out of which texts (isolated from their context and read without attention to the whole nature and purport of the books in which they occur) can be taken for use as weapons”. The Bible itself witnesses to the Pharisees and others doing this, which is why Jesus often said “You have heard it was said. . . but I say to you.” We must be on our guard today, not to be like the Pharisees in their misuse of Scripture.

      I myself to do not like to use the word “inerrancy” for three reasons

      1) Being a ‘biblical inerrantist’ carries the assumption among many that the Bible can be used in a way that CS Lewis rightly deplores above
      2) It can to some suggest that the Bible is something like a telephone directory whose authority requires not one digit being out of place in any of the entries. It’s not that fragile.
      3) Translation of ancient Hebrew and Greek into the current vernacular is always an art as well as a science, and I do not believe any translation should be claimed as inerrant. Even Greek and Hebrew scholars struggle over how to understand and translate some texts as an examination of the proliferation of Engish translations shows.

      I prefer to say that the Bible, carefully and prayerfully responded to in the light of faith in Jesus and the illumination of the Holy Spirit, with the humility of seeking help from the rest of the body of Christ (past and present) and using the God-given gifts of reason and experience,is completely trustworthy in helping us follow Jesus. In this sense it is “without error” and “infallible”, unlike me, you, the Church, the Pope, Greg Boyd, or even Tom Wright and CS Lewis (venerable though they may be!)

      Alongside issues of translation, the question of genre (mythology, ritual and ceremonial law, poetry, history, parable, apocalyptic etc) and context of passages and therefore their intepretation and application to our spiritual lives should not be confused with whether we trust the Bible as God’s Word or not. Granted of course the Bible is not one of the persons of the Trinity. it is not God. However, it is authorative, because it was authored by the Holy Spirit, in partnership with a diverse number of human beings, and authorized by Father and Son as a faithful witness to the truth of God’s character, kingdom values, and what pleases Him.

      Jesus’ own submission to the Father was expressed in His submission to His Father’s Word and commands (See particularly John’s Gospel, which of course authoratively describes Jesus as “The Word” in chapter 1 and see especially John 12 v47-50) , and our submission to Christ must be expressed in our obedience to His Word and commands likewise. That is why Jesus will not be impressed if we say that to Him we worship and adore HIm (even as The Living Word) but don’t obey His commands. It is Jesus’ Word itself which will condemn such people on the Last Day (John 12v48) We should not seek to drive a wedge between the authority of God (Father, Son and Spirit) and the authority of the words They use to proclaim the truth and effect Their will.


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