A Feature Review of
Inspired Imperfection: How the Bible’s Problems Enhance its Divine Authority
Reviewed by Justin Cober-Lake
Greg Boyd never bores. In the pulpit, he talks fast, maintaining a high level of energy while pouring forth ideas. In print, his prolific writing covers an array of topics, from theodicy to politics to apologetics to spiritual warfare. He can turn academic or accessible, abstract or personal, but he continually challenges. His latest work, the surprisingly slim yet dense Inspired Imperfection, pulls all those elements together as Boyd further develops his theology in analyzing the source and values of the Bible’s internal problems.
To those familiar with Boyd’s work, the set-up might feel redundant. The two massive volumes of The Crucifixion of the Warrior God (and their spin-off Cross Vision) detailed Boyd’s concept of a cruciform hermeneutic, the idea that the Bible needs to be read not just through Jesus, but through the crucified Christ. Those texts worked specifically to understand the apparent violence of God, often through God’s stooping or accommodating work that keeps him in relationship with his people.
Inspired Imperfection continues that work in examining the “problems” of scripture, its contradiction, historical inaccuracies, etc, such as the different depiction of who tempts David to sin in 1 Samuel and 2 Chronicles. Less startling than the content is the fact that Boyd has more to say on the subject; rather than simply reiterating his previous arguments, this book pushes their edges further. A reader wouldn’t have to have read the book’s predecessors to feel at home here, but at the same time, someone steeped in Warrior God would uncover almost an entire book’s worth of new material.
The changes hinge on Boyd’s “Cruciform Model of Inspiration” (xvi), a concept closely connected to his hermeneutic. He argues that God breathes scripture in a process that allows for “humans to act toward God” and involves the sort of accommodation he’s written about elsewhere. The Bible – not just in content but in inspiration – reveals a God willing to bend down to humanity. In acknowledging that work of God, Boyd writes, “we are able to see how the Bible’s so-called ‘problems’ are not genuine problems that need to be solved; they actually contribute to the inspired authority and central message of Scripture” (xiii). These problems become “assets to what God inspired scripture to accomplish: leading people to Jesus Christ” (xvi).
The idea (grossly simplified here; Boyd doesn’t waste space in taking a book’s length to develop it) sounds odd, but finds support from strong foundations. First, Boyd maintains his commitment to the infallibility of scripture. He doesn’t shy from the Bible’s authority, nor does he wish to select which parts of it “count” or are worth attention. He doesn’t want to take a simplistic fundamentalist route to explaining away problems, but neither does he follow a progressive evangelical attitude that denies the value or truth of strange passages. He believes the Bible is entirely inspired and contains reflections of Jesus.
Boyd’s reasoning benefits from his reading along with tradition. He finds C.S. Lewis and Karl Barth central to his thought on these issues, but rather than regurgitating their work, he grapples with it, and he lets us in on that process. We see his commitment to Jesus, first, and to the Bible, and he reveals the wrestling he’s done to arrive at his current position. That sort of narrative also pays off as he tells his own story of finding faith and nearly falling from it as he struggled to deal with the Bible’s problems. The argument comes from a faith addressed intensely and seriously, and – abstract as it may sound at times – considers issues still relevant to both Christians and seekers.
As Boyd unspools his theory over the course of the book – the first half addressing problems in a theoretical sense and the second half delineating cruciform inspiration – he makes an intriguing case that requires further reflection. He starts early by “claiming that the Bible should serve as the theological, but not the epistemic, foundation of our faith” (26). We should base our faith in Jesus rather than believing first in the Bible, a swap that relieves some pressure from the whole issue at hand. Boyd walks through a conceptual framework for understanding the problems we find.
He then explains his theory of inspiration, which fits in well with the larger theology he’s been articulating over the past few decades. The theory makes sense, but where Boyd falters a little is in explaining how Biblical problems are actually assets to our reading. He does make a good case that cruciform inspiration explains the presence of textual issues, as when he writes, “I trust it is by now clear why there is nothing inconsistent about affirming the plenary inspiration of Scripture while acknowledging its errors, so long as our conception of divine inspiration remains anchored in the cross” (133). What he struggles to detail is how the problems actually help us; it still makes more sense to think God could have written (even helped write?) a flawless text that avoids these pitfalls.
Prominent in Boyd’s thought is that the problems help us see the crucified Jesus and understand the heart of God. We’re able to see “that God sometimes reveals God’s beauty by stooping to bear the ugliness, foolishness, and fallibility of God’s people,” though it’s hard to see that thinking that “the surface meaning of a passage will not reflect what God is truly like” is inherently useful (144). The whole answer seems to beg its own questions. We decide what God is like by understanding Jesus, then we choose what to do with any part of the Bible that has “sub-Christ-like depictions of God” (149). We decide that God is the sort that indirectly reveals his stooping nature, and then use the challenges of the Bible to show that the challenges exist to show the character we’ve had to infer.
If Boyd’s right, it’s a remarkably successful and coherent conceptualization of how God breathed scripture (and integrated into a larger project). If he’s wrong somewhere along the line, the loose thread unravels the whole argument. Many Biblical puzzles are solved with this theory, but some challenging questions are raised when Boyd asks, “[W]hy should we not expect to find sinful, cursed and erroneous material contributing to the God-breathed story?” or says “that when God breathed this definitive revelation on the cross, God didn’t do it alone” (106). Boyd’s argument is direct but complex, and it’s not easily dismissed.
In some ways, Inspired Imperfection feels like a natural corollary, and in other ways it feels like a cap to his recent (though long-percolating) thinking. Because of that, the book stands either as a strongly defensed treatise or as an argument that hinges on the acceptance of more foundational ideas that are, at most, implicit in the book. For example, he doesn’t bring up his open theism, but it seems of a piece with this work. The premise, whether ultimately viable or not, is exciting, and raises points that won’t easily be pushed back down. Greg Boyd never bores, and his latest book yet again buzzes. Given that it comes with a serious view of scripture, an open pastoral heart, and a sense of wonder, the book deserves the re-reads it may require.
Justin Cober-Lake a pastor in central Virginia. He holds an M.A. in American Studies from the University of Virginia and has worked in academic publishing for the past 15 years. His editing and freelance writing have focused mostly on cultural criticism, particularly pop music.