Yes, you read that title correctly. And no, that’s not a typo. I’m about to dive so deep into the Bible that you’ll need a scuba tank to come along with me. Continue reading “Jesus Hates Figs (and some Problems with the Nashville Statement)”
If a good God exists, then why do bad things happen?
It’s a question that believers have asked for millennia. The question is so old, in fact, that it earned its own technical name, “the Problem of Evil,” and each attempt to answer it is called a theodicy. Many have lost their faith over the problem of evil and the failure of theodicy, and I get that. Personally, I can’t live with a notion of God that either diminishes the goodness of God or trivializes the unspeakable suffering which permeates our world. Continue reading “Deuteronomy and the Problem of Evil”
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resisted my attempts to treat the Bible as an unquestionable answer book, inerrant text, ground of truth, and clear historical document.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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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!
Click here for “What is the Bible? Pt5: Medium of God’s Word?“
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