Category: Bible

What is the Bible? Pt5: Medium of God’s Word?

This is Part 5 in a series of posts about the Bible.  (See Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.)  The format of this series is an imaginary conversation between 2013 Me (in bold) and present-day Me (in regular type).

2013 Me: in the past four posts, you have resisted my attempts to treat the Bible as an unquestionable answer book, inerrant text, ground of truth, and clear historical document.  Now I’m out of options – is there any other way of thinking about the Bible?

2016 Me: Yes, I think so.  There is a way of thinking about the Bible that consistently works for me: The Bible is a medium of God’s Word to me and my community.

That can’t be right!  That’s exactly what I believed before I encountered doubt!

But if the meaning of the Bible depends on the context it’s read in, and if you won’t specify which culture or field of scholarship is the right context, you end up with a meaningless Bible!  Without a fixed Scripture, you’ll hear all kinds of words! How will you ever know which ones are from God?  How could the Word of God be anything but fixed?

But how could God’s Word be fixed?!  If God truly cares about our needs and truly knows each specific situation, then the Word of God to us will be ever-changing.  A once-and-for-all set of abstract truths would be insufficient to meet the incredibly diverse life-settings of Bible readers.

Even individuals within relatively fixed cultures find that God has different things to say to them at different stages of life.  By refusing to limit my reading of Scripture to a single meaning or context, I am opening my ears to hear more of what God might be speaking to me.  I discern God’s Word among the words of Scripture in light of my history with God – to discern God’s Word outside of the history of relationship would be an act of infidelity!

Now I see what you’re doing here:  you’re just rationalizing a kind of individualism that gives you permission to ignore the interpretations of everyone else!

Quite the opposite!  To me, reading Scripture is like getting an eye exam: we sit down, look at the fuzzy symbols before us, and cycle through our bank of lenses until what we’re looking at jumps out at us with crisp precision.  When reading Scripture, I cycle through different interpretations of the text in front of me until the Word of God to me leaps out of the page.

We pick up new lenses when learn to read the Bible like other people, so it helps to listen to other interpretations, whether they come from a contemporary historian, a narrative critic, an oppressed peasant in South America, a 4th Century Bishop in North Africa, the elderly woman in your small group, etc.  The last thing I want to do is ignore alternative interpretations.

This is all so scary!  The Evangelicals warned me that abandoning inerrancy is a slippery slope, and you’re proving them right.  Isn’t your view of the Bible a radical break with Church tradition and the faith that you grew up with?!

Yes and no.  On one hand I am probably in a tiny minority; most Christians (both past present) would probably insist that the Bible has some fixed and self-evident meaning.  The church you grew up in would certainly affirm that traditional view.  I am, in theory, quite idiosyncratic as far as Christians seem to go.

On the other hand, my theory of the Bible undergirds a surprisingly traditional and Baptist-friendly way of reading the Bible.  Since I really do believe that God speaks through the Bible, I continually return to Scripture in search of a new Word from God.  Insofar as the preoccupation with cold, hard, facts is a markedly modern condition, my own theory of the Bible is a kind of postmodern theory for a markedly premodern way of reading Scripture.

Okay, okay.  Maybe your way of thinking about the Bible isn’t the worst one available.  Maybe it’s even “Christian” enough to be count as faithful.  But what about all of my doubt?  Can your approach to the Bible really handle my tendency towards skepticism?  Every time I try to read the Bible, I notice verses and stories that seem wrong – the Bible is so full of violence, apparent contradictions, sexism, etc.  How do I read the Bible when my tough questions get in the way?

Actually, I think that your questions are more of an opportunity than an obstacle.  Maybe reading the Bible is like that weird story of Jacob wrestling with God.  Maybe if you really wrestle with the text and insist that God give you a blessing, you’ll end up like Jacob: a new identity, a blessing, and a limp.

I would really like to believe all of that, but how does it work in practice?  What do I do when the passage rubs me the wrong way?  How do I find God in something that seems so wrong?

For starters, when a passage bothers you, stop and really explore what seems so wrong to you.  Let your questions bring your values to the surface of your consciousness, and continue prayerfully reflecting once they arrive.  If you think of the Bible as a place for encountering God rather than a deposit of information, it makes sense to bring your otherwise-derailing questions with you into your Bible time.

If you can’t find God in the passage you’re looking at, try a different lens!  If you’re reading Scripture in search of the Word of God to you, there’s no reason why you can’t consider verses and passages “out of context”!  Be like Jacob – don’t leave until you get that blessing.

But sometimes the doubt is bigger than that.  Sometimes it’s not just the passage – sometimes I’m not sure if God “speaks” at all.  Sometimes I’m not sure if I believe in “God”!  Sometimes I really want to read the Bible but my doubts get in the way.

If you want to read the Bible when you’re not sure about God, why not give it a shot?  It’s hard for me to imagine how reading the Bible with your heart and brain engaged could turn out to be a particularly bad thing.  At its core, my theology of the Bible is simply an open invitation to search for God in the pages of Scripture.

This conversation has wandered from doubt to inerrancy to interpretation to history and back again.  In a way, I feel like this theory of the Bible is simply a return to the exciting and open-ended practice of Bible-reading that I grew up with.  It has all come full circle.

Some postmodern philosophers talk about “deconstruction” as a way of clearing away the inevitable contradictions in thinking about something, and creatively constructing new ways of expressing that thing.  You end up with what you started out with, yet everything has changed.  Faithfulness to what you started out with is the very reason that you had to change it.  My relationship to the Bible (and faith in general) has undergone a deconstruction.  Like Jacob in the story, I have emerged from that struggle with a blessing and a limp.

 

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What is the Bible? Pt4: Historical Document?

This is Part 4 in a series of posts about the Bible.  (See Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3)  The format of this series is an imaginary conversation between 2013 Me (in bold) and present-day Me (in regular type).

2013 Me: If I’m going to ask tough questions about the truth of the Bible, and if the meaning of the Bible depends on how you interpret it, then I should probably read the Bible in its original historical context.  So tell me, what does the Bible say in its original historical context?

2016 Me: If you want to read the Bible in its original historical context, you should start by realizing that each “book” is a distinct document with its own distinct context.  Try a more specific question.

Fine.  Here’s an easy one: in their original historical context, do the letters of Paul teach that God decides who goes to hell in advance, or does God leave that up to the decisions of humans?  Let’s finally put the Arminian vs. Calvinist debate to rest!

Actually, if you ask mainstream biblical scholars (i.e. scholars whose work is respected outside of fringe groups with rigid theological views), few (if any) will tell you that Paul was mostly concerned with who goes to “heaven” and who goes to “hell.”  Paul, like most Jews of his day, seems to have been mainly concerned with God’s redemptive restoration of all Creation.  The typical reading of Paul that you grew up with (borrowed from Augustine and Luther) is often dramatically at odds with the interpretation offered by mainstream scholars.

Wait, if scholars don’t think that Paul was writing about how God made a way for us to avoid going to hell like we deserve, then what do they make of “justification by faith, not by the works of the law”?  Obviously Paul, like all Christians, felt guilty about his inability to live up to moral perfection!  That’s the whole point of Jesus!

Most scholars would interpret the “works of the law” as the identity markers (like circumcision and a regulated diet) that distinguished Jews from other peoples.  The Jews of Paul’s day weren’t as anxious about their moral perfection as Luther was.  According to scholars, Paul was excited about justification by faith rather than justification by works because anyone can have faith, regardless of whether they’re a Jew or a Gentile. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus, God had begun restoring Creation, and to Paul, that meant that the family of God was finally opened up to include Gentiles who want to join.

This is making me sick.  I thought that reading the Bible in its historical context would help clarify my beliefs!  This is only making things more complicated!

It looks like scholars have ruined the awesome letters of Paul.  Justification by faith used to mean so much to me.  Please tell me that scholars haven’t ruined Jesus, too!

If by “ruin” you mean “interpret differently than your Sunday School teacher,” then I’m afraid that the historians who study Jesus really ruin Jesus.

For starters, not every Gospel story is treated equally.  The Gospel of John, for example, seems to contain hardly any historically accurate stories about Jesus.  After all, if Jesus really went around giving long rants about himself, saying things like “No one comes to the Father except through me” and “Before Abraham was, I am,”you would think that the other Gospel writers would’ve at least mentioned it.  But unlike John, the other Gospels depict Jesus telling short parables and keeping the rants about his identity to a minimum.

Biblical scholars treat the Gospels as stories that demonstrate what Jesus had come to mean to the early Jesus-movement communities, not as straightforward historical records of the earthly life of Jesus.  With so little material to work with and so much room for interpretation, mainstream scholars have produced many very different reconstructions of the so-called “historical Jesus.”

That is the most disturbing thing I’ve read in a very long time.  But I’ve heard that there is solid historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus… Please tell me that at least that part is true!

I’ll probably write a series of blog posts about resurrection later, but the short version is that it’s complicated. Some mainstream biblical scholars and many biblical scholars outside of the mainstream (i.e. scholars who only discuss their interpretation of the Bible with people who share their conservative theological convictions) who do think that there are good historical reasons to believe in the literal, bodily resurrection of Jesus.

With that being said, a strong majority of mainstream biblical scholars do not believe that the evidence “proves” Jesus’ resurrection.  As one Evangelical apologist complained “my guess is that between 60% and 80% of the members of [the Society of Biblical Literature] do not believe that Jesus’ death paid for our sins, or that he was bodily raised from the dead.”

So if you go purely off of consensus among mainstream experts (which you should probably do unless you know a lot about the surrounding historical context of the Bible), you at least have to admit that the bodily resurrection of Jesus isn’t a self-evident fact of history.

Each paragraph you write is more terrifying than the one before it.

Just so I get this straight, you’re telling me that now I have to give up the version of “justification by faith” that I grew up with, treat the Gospels like fairy tales, and believe that Jesus stayed dead after he was crucified?

No, no and no!

Wait, why not?  You just said that –

– All I said was that mainstream historians don’t agree that the New Testament interpreted within its historical context supports the predominantly conservative theological convictions that you grew up with.  I never said that your beliefs about God should be based on the consensus of historians! 

How crazy would that be?!  Imagine that your beliefs about God need to be approved by a small group of people with PHDs!  As if God was just waiting for over-educated Westerners in the 21st Century to finally tell everyone what God is really trying to say through the Bible!  What a joke!

It would’ve been nice if you had led with all of that.  Maybe I could’ve avoided the successive panic attacks that this post has given me.

Oh please.  You wouldn’t have listened to me!  You were so set on pressing the Bible into a single meaning that you could somehow turn into Absolute Truth!  Praise God that the current state of Biblical Scholarship is such that you can’t smush the Bible into your desperate theological framework!

I came to historical research hoping to make the Bible more certain and fixed, but this has only made my problems worse.  Is there any way forward?

We have finally arrived!  Next time we’ll talk about how I relate to the Bible today in light of the problems of interpretation and historical research.

Your relationship with the Bible better be pretty airtight, because I’m going to be just as critical as your views as you have been of mine!

Oh dear.

Click here for “What is the Bible? Pt5: Medium of God’s Word?

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What is the Bible? Pt3: A ‘Ground’ for Truth?

This is Part 3 in a series of posts about the Bible.  (See Part 1 and Part 2)  The format of this series is an imaginary conversation between 2013 Me (in bold) and present-day Me (in regular type).

2013 Me: I’ve been thinking about our conversation about inerrancy, and I’m not convinced.  I realize that thinking about the Bible in terms of inerrancy doesn’t do justice to its awesome stories and its ability to change my life.  But honestly, I’m so full of doubts right now and I’m really hoping that, with a little work, I can make the Bible into an absolutely true, God-given document, and then I’ll be able to base my subsequent truth-claims on the Bible!  I don’t mind squishing the Bible a bit to make that happen.

2016 Me: Let’s take a minute to really think about this “ground of truth” business.  Let’s assume for a moment that fundamentalist Christians are right and that God really did “write” the Bible word for word.  Let’s say that God really cares as much as you do about pure facts.  And let’s also imagine that you’ will eventually resolve all of the potential contradictions that you notice within the Bible.  Now what?  How do you get that Truth off the pages?

I’d just read the Bible, get the Truth, and use that to answer all my questions, of course!  How hard could it be?

It could be very hard!  Consider the sheer multiplicity of Christian denominations (by some accounts, there 9,000 of them), many (most?) of which claim that their own specific beliefs are clearly supported by Scripture and that everyone else is getting it wrong.  Let’s not forget that both pacifists and violent colonists, slave-owners and abolitionists, Luther and his Catholic enemies all passionately argued that the Bible is on their side.  If it’s really so easy to find the meaning of Scripture, then why do Christians find support for so many contradictory beliefs in the same Bible?

Obviously, most people interpret Scripture incorrectly because they want to force the Bible to confirm whatever they already believe.  But I won’t do that; I’ll stay open and let the Bible correct me.

In your US History class, you had to read a sermon by a pro-slavery Civil War-era pastor.  Did his use of the Bible seem particularly forced?

I remember that sermon.  Honestly, he didn’t sound very different from the Christian speakers today who talk about how the Bible condemns homosexuality.  They all seem genuinely concerned about what the Bible has to say.  The scariest part of reading that sermon in history class was that he was so persuasive!  It really seemed like the simplest interpretation of Scripture supports slavery.

So maybe intentional mishandling of the text doesn’t explain the diversity of interpretations of the Bible.  But if it’s not a problem of intentional misreading of the Bible, then how do so many people get so many different meanings from the same book?

Perhaps the context in which you read a verse, a passage, or the entire Bible itself determines what meaning you end up with.  Maybe different people interpret the Bible differently, and that’s why they come to such differing conclusions.

That’s it!  I know how to make the Bible Absolutely True again!  I bet the Bible was most true back when it was first written down – you know, back in its original historical context.  But most Christians aren’t historians, so they read the Bible out of the correct context!  If I just do some research and find out what the Bible originally meant, then I can finally side-step all of this ambiguity and get to the one true meaning of Scripture, and after that I’ll be able to ground truth in Scripture!

In one sense, I agree with you.  If you’re going to treat the Bible as a bank of true information, then you have to specify which context it should be read in, and the original historical context probably has the best shot at being “correct.”  But here’s the problem: by picking one specific and complicated method of interpreting the Bible, you have made it impossible to ground Truth in the Bible.

Wait – why not?  Why can’t I have both?

Judging between different interpretations of the Bible requires you to make truth-judgments before you interpret the Bible and have its meaning to work with.  If the meaning of Scripture is going to be true, you must already have your Truth before you start interpreting it, or else you’ll likely interpret the True document incorrectly and end up with non-Truth.  If you need to work out a correct method of interpretation before you crack open the Bible, then the meaning of the Bible is dependent on your opinions about truth – and not the other way around!

Reading the Bible requires assumptions: assumptions about which translation of Greek/Hebrew to English is best, what the words in your English translation mean themselves, how to reconcile seemingly contradictory verses and passages, what is literal and what is figurative, etc. etc. etc.  The text can’t tell you which assumptions to make in order to get the right meaning; even if the Bible did include a methodological prelude, you would need to make a bunch of assumptions on your own before you could even read that!  What you bring to the Bible determines what you can find in the Bible.  Again, if you need a concrete example of just how big a difference interpretive assumptions can make, look to the shocking diversity among “Bible-believing” denominations.

In order to turn the Bible into the “ground of Truth,” you would need to first elevate your own interpretive decisions and assumptions to the status of Absolute Truth.  Otherwise, a limited, human interpretation of a limitless, Absolute Truth remains, for all practical purposes, limited and human.

You ruin everything!!

Sorry.

First of all, I don’t forgive you.  Second of all, I’m going to ignore all of your confusing theoretical ideas.  I want to find the meaning of the Bible in its original context anyway.  Maybe I can get past your theoretical roadblocks once I have the original meaning in my hands.

Fine.  Then next time, we’ll talk about the Bible within its original historical context – a topic that I’ve explored through one college class (I took New Testament at Virginia Tech, taught by the incredible scholar and professor Elizabeth Struthers Malbon) and the 16 books on that subject that I’ve read on my own.

Click here for “What is the Bible? Pt4: Historical Document?

What is the Bible? Pt 2: Inerrancy

This is Part 2 in a series of posts about the Bible.  The format of this series is an imaginary conversation between 2013 Me (in bold) and present-day Me (in regular type).  In the previous post, we (I? I’s?) explored the problems with thinking about the Bible as the exhaustive answer book.  But what about inerrancy?

2016 Me: Last time, we talked about how your curiosity is inevitably going to bring up questions about the Bible.  How have things been going since that little revelation?

2013 Me: Not well!  Once I stopped assuming that the Bible is true, I started to notice all kinds of problems:  God’s command to commit genocide seems to contradict the command to “love your enemies”, James seems to disagree with Paul about faith vs. works, Mark and John have Jesus cleansing the temple on opposite ends of his ministry, –

2016 Me: -I’m gonna have to stop you there because we don’t have all day.  I get your point.  Sounds like someone is having doubts about inerrancy!

I don’t have any idea what that word means.

“Inerrancy” is a term that many of your favorite pastors and speakers would use to describe the Bible.  It means that the Bible is totally error-free from the smallest detail to the most recurring theme – this includes everything it says about God, morality, science, history, etc.

Side note: The generally accepted statement of the doctrine of Biblical Inerrancy was written in 1978 and can be found at this link.  (It’s worth noting that even that document makes two giant qualifications: (1) The Bible can contain a “lack of modern technical precision” while still counting as “inerrant” (2) Only the original manuscripts of the books in our Bible are inerrant, even though no one claims to have access to those documents.  (We only have older copies.)  For an Evangelical Christian’s problems with inerrancy, check out this post.

First of all, the official version of inerrancy seems way more comfortable with error in our Bibles than I would’ve expected.

Second of all, I think I’m supposed to believe in inerrancy, but it’s not working anymore!  I bet that many of the contradictions I’ve noticed in the Bible can  be resolved, but what if even just one of them remains?  I don’t know how to think about the Bible apart from inerrancy, but I can’t honestly believe that the Bible is inerrant until I explain away all of the potential errors that I notice – and there are many!  How can I make it work again?!

When certain Christians oppose inerrancy, they tend to bring up that exact problem.  If your faith is based on a completely error-free Bible, then you’re always one  error away from a crisis of faith.

(For more on that, scroll down to “The Language of ‘Inerancy’ and its Dangers” on this Evangelical seminary’s website and/or check out Chapter 5 of this awesome book by James D.G. Dunn.)

I guess that makes some sense.  But let’s suppose that I am eventually able to resolve each apparent contradiction once and for all – then could I finally go back to inerrancy?  I miss my old relationship with the Bible?

Maybe you could.  But maybe you shouldn’t go down the road of inerrancy even if the Bible seemed completely free of contradictions.  Although most of your favorite Christian speakers and churches would call the Bible inerrant, does inerrancy really match the practical ways of reading the Bible that you learned in church?  After all, much of your formation in church had to do with Bible stories.  But how could a story be free from error?

I don’t understand the problem.  Saying that a story is error-free just means that it accurately reports historical events.

So what about the parables that Jesus tells in the Gospels?  Are those accurate historical reports?

Well, no; parables are made up.  Parables aren’t the same as history reports.  They’re a different genre.  But excluding the parables, why couldn’t the other Bible stories be inerrant historical accounts?

If the entire Bible is inerrant, then the Parable must be completely true, too – even the parables.  And if parables could be meaningful (and perhaps in some sense “true”) without being historically accurate, then should we really expect that we can do justice to the other Bible stories by thinking of them in terms of inerrancy?

On a more practical level, thinking about stories primarily in terms of “lack of error” makes for awkward reading.  After all, when you were growing up in church, were you taught to treat the other stories in the Bible just like an error-free World History textbook?  Do you read the stories about Jesus in the same way that you read the stories about Napoleon?

I guess not.  Bible stories are supposed to change us, but I’ve never experienced that kind of transformation in history class.  And aren’t we supposed to read the Bible in order to hear from God?  Hearing from God isn’t the same as just learning accurate information.  I guess I can see how inerrancy could cause me to miss the point.

Wait – are you trying to trick me?  Just because there’s more to those stories than true history doesn’t mean that they aren’t also historically accurate.  Inerrancy isn’t necessarily wrong unless those events didn’t really happen. 

Please don’t rule out inerrancy!  I really, really want a foundation for truth, and inerrancy might help me get one!

First of all, remember that Hebrews 4:12 calls the “word of God” “living and active.”  What if the Bible is living and active?  Maybe treating the Bible as a “foundation for truth,” to use your analogy, is like building a house on any other living thing (like a lion, for example): construction can only begin after you’ve killed and flattened out the creature.  Living and active things don’t make for very good foundations.

What does that even mean?

Don’t worry about it.

Second of all, I’m not trying to convince you that the Bible stories didn’t actually happen.  I’m just trying to show you that the official description of the Bible that you grew up with, summed up best in the doctrine inerrancy, can actually get in the way of reading the Bible.  At the end of the day, if you try to treat the Bible as primarily error-free lists of information, then you can easily get bogged down with addressing apparent contradictions, reduce stories to history lessons, and forget to listen for God.

If your doubts have problematized your earlier view of the Bible, why not get an upgrade while you’re here?

That will have to wait for another time.  Right now I need a break.

Fair enough.  Next time, we’ll talk about truth and interpretation.

Click here for What is the Bible? Pt 3: A ‘Ground’ for Truth?