Posted by: Ken Brown | August 6, 2008

What Does It Mean to Trust the Bible?

I’m sometimes asked how I can trust the Bible when it (particularly the “Old Testament”) includes so many harsh laws and horrific stories, many of which claim divine sanction. Is a God of love and goodness truly consistent with a Bible that include such atrocities? In fact, too many Christians do seem to be inconsistent on this point, claiming that morality is “absolute” in the present day, but then becoming curiously relativistic when it comes to our own scriptures. They will happily accuse moral relativists of trivializing the holocaust, while simultaneously trivializing the genocides in the Bible itself (such as that described in Numbers 31, to name just one abhorrent example). Even the most horrific biblical commands are sometimes claimed to have been right and moral “back then,” by people who otherwise claim to reject moral relativism.

The problem, as I see it, is that texts like these are generally glossed over or ignored by those who seem to wish the Bible were a monolithic work of systematic theology. Ironically, the common insistence that the Bible is “literally true” on every point leads to some quite improbably non-literal interpretations (like the claim that the conquest of Canaan is just a “metaphor” for spiritual warfare). It is little surprise then that many critics reject such obfuscations as ridiculous, and I must agree that such unquestioning trust in the Bible is misguided.

But the curious thing is that this view of the Bible is not actually biblical. Yes, there are passages which speak of the truth and inspiration of God’s word (and I believe them—the Bible truly is inspired), but they certainly don’t require that Christians treat it as a collection of unquestionable propositions, as too many do. For instance, only one verse in the Bible makes any claims about the nature of “all scripture,” and it falls far short of claiming inerrancy: 2 Timothy 3:16 reads, “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” Whatever “breathed out by God” means (the Greek word is theopneustos, translated “inspired” in other versions, and occurs no where else in the Bible, but in the early church it was also used to describe both scripture and non-scriptural orthodox texts), this verse merely claims that scripture is “profitable” (ōphelimos; which could also be translated “useful,” “beneficial” or “valuable,” but certainly not “inerrant”) for teaching and moral correction. The goal of scripture, according to the following verse, is not that we would be provided with a perfectly accurate knowledge of science, history, or even theology, but that we would be “equipped for every good work.”

Though there are other texts which claim “God’s word” or “the law” is “perfect” or “unbreakable,” such can only be applied to the whole of what we now call scripture by inference (and of course it would be entirely circular to appeal to such texts to “prove” themselves). Inerrancy, then, is a theological construct that is applied to the Bible, not a necessary conclusion from the Bible, and it too often obscures the fact that the Bible itself, upon inspection, is the product of a long process of writing and rewriting, debate and disagreement. The Bible is full of texts which take up previous biblical ideas and modify, extend, or call them into question. For instance, if you read Exodus through Deuteronomy as they now stand, you will find chapter after chapter of regulations concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices, all claimed to have been commanded by God shortly after Israel’s exodus from Egypt. Yet the prophet Jeremiah, writing several centuries later, attributes the following to God in 7:22, “in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to your fathers or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices.” (many modern translations, such as the NIV, add “just” after the highlighted terms, but there is no basis for this in the Hebrew).

Now there are only a handful of possible explanations for such a text (other than positing, without evidence, a scribal error): 1. Jeremiah was unaware of the Mosaic legislation, and so was mistaken about what God commanded at the Exodus; 2. What we now call “the Law of Moses” was not yet (fully) written by the time Jeremiah was speaking and/or; 3. Jeremiah knew of sacrificial regulations that were attributed to Moses, but disputed their divine origin or wanted to make a point (perhaps through hyperbole) that such regulations were misunderstood.

In all probability, the truth lies in some combination of all three. Jeremiah almost certainly was not aware of all that we call the Law of Moses, because not all of it had yet been written (though some of it had). More basically, in criticizing the corruption and injustice he saw amongst those in his own day who claimed loyalty to the sacrificial regulations of the Jerusalem Temple, it is very likely that Jeremiah was questioning whether such cultic practices deserved the divine approval claimed for them. In short, not only does this text provide direct evidence of the developmental nature of scripture, but it is also an instance of explicit disagreement between biblical authors.

But here’s the key point: Jeremiah’s purpose does not appear to have been to reject the Law of Moses as false (remember, it didn’t even exist in the form we now have it). His point, as the rest of the chapter makes clear, was to convince his contemporaries that injustice and oppression of the poor are far more serious matters than adherence to the Jerusalem Temple. In order to shock his contemporaries out of their self-destructive complacency, Jeremiah here proves himself so passionately committed to justice and faithfulness to God that he is willing to call into question the Temple and the Mosaic law themselves to make that point. And he was right to do so. At that time, Israelite society was corrupt and heading towards disaster. Within a few years, Jerusalem would be wiped off the map by the Babylonians, her Temple destroyed, and her people exiled.

Jeremiah was right, but to make his point—indeed to remain faithful to God—he was willing to question scripture itself. This, I must insist, gives us a picture not of a static and “eternal” Bible that must be accepted without question, but a text whose very tensions and “contradictions” challenge our complacency and pseudo-piety, forcing us ever and anew to face the God it claims to reveal. To trust the Bible then, means not to maintain a slavish conformity to an eternally unchangeable set of Truths, but to carry forward its calls to faith and justice into our own situations, with renewed creativity and passion.

Nor is this an isolated example. From Genesis to Revelation, scripture is constantly alluding to or citing previous scriptures to make new points, correct old ones, or extend them into new situations. For instance, during the Babylonian Exile, someone composed a rather unflattering history of the Israelite monarchy, which we now know as 1 and 2 Kings. After the return from exile, another group rewrote that history in a more positive (and Priestly) light, and that work is known as 1 and 2 Chronicles. Both works, presenting alternative (and often conflicting) interpretations of the very same history of Israel, were included in both the Jewish and Christian scriptures, with no official attempt at harmonization. Clearly those who wrote and collected the Bible did not share our modern obsession with consistency, or at least they considered it less important than the truth they found in these texts, tensions and all.

Such examples could be extended ad nauseam, all of which suggests that Christian scripture presents something far more like an engaging debate about the nature of God and God’s activity in history than a settled and permanent record of True Propositions. Therefore when someone points out to me that scripture describes some terrible things, I don’t feel any need to defend those things as “right” in our or even their own time. Perhaps the people who committed them believed they were following God’s will, perhaps God even commanded them for reasons that I can’t begin to comprehend, but nothing in the Bible demands that I accept that. Rather, the Bible presents me with an authentic portrait of humanity, and humanity has committed some truly awful deeds, many in the name of God.

To trust the Bible, then, does not mean believing it without question, but interacting with it, questioning it, reflecting its claims off of each other and our continuing experience, but, ultimately, letting it transform us. For despite what some seem to think, the horrific parts of the Bible, like the horrific parts of life, are not given the last word. The Bible places far more emphasis on laws which promote love and community; it highlights prophets who bravely condemned God’s own people when they clung to dead rituals and pious platitudes while ignoring justice and mercy; it tells the story of a God who loves the unlovable and constantly takes us back when we rebel; it even incorporates psalms and wisdom literature which question God’s own justice and faithfulness. But above all, it points to Jesus Christ, who calls us to self-sacrificing love as the only true and final answer to the evil we find in both the world and in the Bible, and who himself demonstrated the power and divinity of self-sacrifice through his death. To trust the Bible is to trust that God, not without question, but in the midst of our questions.


Responses

  1. Thanks for this Ken – a very well-written and well-reasoned argument about an important subject. I especially appreciated your perspective at the end:

    “For despite what some seem to think, the horrific parts of the Bible, like the horrific parts of life, are not given the last word.”

    An important reminder – thanks again.

  2. Ryan,

    The argument is bold in admitting the obvious, that horrible events are recorded in the Old Testament. It is on the pusillanimous side in not admitting that the Jewish tribal god was responsible for mass murder, genocide, capricious tyranny and unfathomable evil and deserves the same condemnation as Hitler and Stalin.

  3. Hugh,
    The whole point of this post is to reject the Fundamentalists’ claim that the Bible provides unmediated access to Truth. You seem to be maintaining the same dichotomy between timeless Revelation and mere fiction, as though God is either everything the Bible claims, or a figment of our imaginations. The point is that just because some of the biblical God’s earliest followers (entrenched in a violent and tribalistic ancient near eastern world) believed God supported their violent policies does not mean they were right, and it doesn’t negate the fact that further experience and reflection (as described in the Bible itself) led to a clearer view of God. As I said, the Bible does not ask that we accept its every claim unquestioningly, but that we join it in its ongoing drive to understand God and ourselves better.

  4. Ken,

    There are a great many gods. If you find the Jewish tribal god a revolting character, you could choose another one. As it is, you seem to have decided to fabricate one which suits your tastes. Why bother?

  5. Ken I really liked this post about the Holy Bible. It really says what I’ve been thinking and feelling all my life about this important collection of writings that were obviously inspired by something. Whether one believes that the inspiration was Divine or not simply depends on what one believes. I remain agnostic on this particular subject.

    With regards to Hugh’s comments, there are many things to debate about theology, however, there is only one God (i.e. the set of all sets), just like there is only one Universe. Yeah yeah I know; quantum physicis can explain multiple universes mathematically, but wouldn’t all of these “universes” still be part of The Universe? And the use of the word “pusillanimous” made me chuckle. Damn! is that guy smart or what?

  6. thoughtful and well-thought out post, ken. i’ve appreciated your posts on this subject and discussed them often with others. as always, you make my brain hurt–but i’m sure that says more about me than you :)

  7. majorsteve, set of all sets
    ———————————-

    All existing things are either gods or not gods. (a)The set of all gods is not itself a god. (b) The set of all non-gods is not itself a god. (c) Hence, the set of all sets is not a god.

    You been misled by the fact that Christians call their god, God. The gods have many other names. If, for some reason, you want to give a mathematical theorem a divine name, you might as well call it Allah, Zeus, Huitzilopochtli, Osiris, Hanuman — the list is endless. Why not just call it Steve (or to avoid sexism) Pat?

    Also, you should let the Pope know about this (and all other religious leaders). The proper acolyte of a mathematical theorem would be the the President of the Russian Academy of Sciences or somebody like that. It’s going to be a very small Church if you needed and advanced mathematical degree to get in.

  8. Hugh,
    Ultimate reality is what it is. It isn’t as though different religions each follow different gods which all exist side-by-side; rather different religions make claims about what ultimate reality is (some of which are mutually exclusive, but that’s a separate matter). The names we use are not the important thing, rather it is the claims we make about God that matter (after all, Jews and Christians alone have used countless names to identify the same God).

    It isn’t a matter of choosing Yahweh or Allah, as though both exist and we must choose between them (or as though neither exist and we are just making things up). Rather, we are all trying to determine what God is like, so we ask whether the Muslim claims about God are more accurate than the Christian ones, or vice versa, or whether some aspects of God are better understood by one group, and others better by another group.

    The same is true, as this post tried to explain, within the Bible. Older views of the biblical God are rejected, not because the later biblical authors believed in a different god, but because they believed different things about the God of their fathers. That is to say, their continuing experience taught them that some things their ancestors believed about God were mistaken, even abhorrent. An illustration of this would be the biblical view of child sacrifice, cf. Exodus 22:29 with Jeremiah 19:5 (this example is discussed at length The Death and Resurrection of the Beloved Son: The Transformation of Child Sacrifice in Judaism and Christianity, written by Jon Levenson [a non-Christian Jew], which I happen to be reading at the moment).

  9. Ken,

    Yahweh, God and Allah, according to your thesis, are more or less inaccurate representations of the one, true god. Let us call this one, true god Pat, to avoid confusing it with the counterfeits.

    What is right is what Pat says. However, Pat is a lousy communicator. For thousands of years he allowed us to believe that he ordained human sacrifice. Turned out he meant the opposite. Let’s cut out the middleman or, in this case, the god whose garbled communications lead us astray. I know you have a soft spot for this incompetent bungler but, objectively speaking, we would be better to rely on the tools supplied by evolutionary biology. You don’t have to ask Pat whether to bash you children’s brains out or love and nurture them. You are programmed, like other animals, to care for them. These basic instincts have been refined and their efficiency increased many times by thousands of years of civilization. We are guided by the ethics and law that have been developed within out society.

    Quitting religion and joining the billion non-religious people on the planet is probably too big a step for you. You might consider Buddhism. It’s quite fashionable, has no god in it, in the more intellectual version of it, and is on the way to the enlightenment of godless humanism.

  10. objectively speaking, we would be better to rely on the tools supplied by evolutionary biology.

    in what sense would it be “better?”

    You don’t have to ask Pat whether to bash you children’s brains out or love and nurture them. You are programmed, like other animals, to care for them.

    which animals? catfish, spiders, and a surprisingly wide variety of other creatures are not known for taking particularly good care of their offspring.

  11. jeb said…
    in what sense would it be “better?”
    ———————————-
    Care to argue the point?

    jeb said…
    which animals?
    ———————————-
    The animals to which the argument is relevant.

  12. Assuming there exists a set of gods, rather than a single god, means that those gods were created, or “came to exist”. But anything that exists must do so by some cause or force. For me, that initial cause is God. Perhaps we all have a different definition of God, but the nature of God happens to be singular by definition. There is one Universe and one God. To argue otherwise simple means you have a different definition.

  13. Care to argue the point?

    not really, no. i’m merely curious as to why you think we’d be ‘better’ to ‘rely on the tools supplied by evolutionary biology.’ like i said, in what sense? i don’t really care to argue with you or prove you wrong or whatever, i’m just wondering where you’re coming from.

    The animals to which the argument is relevant.

    why is it relevant to some and not others?

    i’m actually not trying to troll or annoy you with these questions, nor do I have any real interest in convincing you of the truth of any given religion and/or your own worldview is right or wrong. like i said, i’m merely curious in regards to the particulars of your argument. If you really find that to be so tiresome, you don’t have to answer, of course. like i said, not trying to troll or pick a fight with you or anything.

  14. Jeb,
    we’d be ‘better’ to ‘rely on the tools supplied by evolutionary biology.’ ?
    ———————————-
    What else is there to provide the instincts which are the basis of our development as social animals? As primates, our instincts to care for the young, for example, are like those of our fellow primates. A mother baboon, given her more limited intellect and material means, is not so different from a human mother. The point is that neither human nor baboon mothers have to scratch their heads and wait for instructions from the supernatural human or baboon mother in the sky before deciding whether to bash out the brains of the baby or nurture them. It’s decided by instinct.

    If the instincts of some creatures is different from those of mammals, the principle still holds. It’s instinct and not a communication from the god of baboons, humans or spiders which programs them to act as they do.

  15. majorsteve said…
    anything that exists must do so by some cause or force. For me, that initial cause is God.
    ———————————-

    What created the god called Pat? Please don’t call it ‘God’. It’s very confusing to call a god ‘God’ with a capital ‘g’.

  16. Hugh,
    What else is there to provide the instincts which are the basis of our development as social animals? As primates, our instincts to care for the young, for example, are like those of our fellow primates.

    It is also “instinct” for male primates to attack (or even kill) sexual rivals and steal one another’s mates. Judging by the number of domestic violence incidents our police forces respond to, this tends to be our “instinct” unfortunately often. Judging by our history, it also appears to be “instinct” for homo sapiens to kill members of rival groups when it serves our purposes. Rape appears to be “instinct” for a small portion of our numbers, as does mass murder for another small portion. We do not reject these practices because of “instinct,” but because we have come to recognize that some instincts must be held in check.

    The point is that neither human nor baboon mothers have to scratch their heads and wait for instructions from the supernatural human or baboon mother in the sky before deciding whether to bash out the brains of the baby or nurture them. It’s decided by instinct.

    Perhaps you should inform the millions of people who have chosen to murder their unborn children (via, it turns out, “bashing out the brains,” then sucking them out with a vacuum). Their “instinct” appears to be rather different than yours, and I would note that it has largely been Christians who have stood up to call that practice abhorrent.

    Has it occurred to you that perhaps the reason God appears such a “poor communicator” is because we tend to be such poor listeners?

  17. Ken Brown said… some instincts must be held in check.
    ——————————–

    Exactly. “These basic instincts have been refined and their efficiency increased many times by thousands of years of civilization. We are guided by the ethics and law that have been developed within out society.”

    On the subject of abortion, Christians are divided on whether they condemn women who make that choice. The Bible, as far as I know, offers no clear guidance on the subject. Sanctimonious sermonising is not the most effecive means of reducing abortion rates and the availability of contraception is the important factor. Once again, Pat, or whatever you’d like to call your pet god, is completely useless.

  18. What else is there to provide the instincts which are the basis of our development as social animals? As primates, our instincts to care for the young, for example, are like those of our fellow primates. A mother baboon, given her more limited intellect and material means, is not so different from a human mother. The point is that neither human nor baboon mothers have to scratch their heads and wait for instructions from the supernatural human or baboon mother in the sky before deciding whether to bash out the brains of the baby or nurture them. It’s decided by instinct.

    Er…you still haven’t really answered my question. you’re correct in describing what is, i.e human beings and other primates are run by instinct, but you haven’t described why this state of affairs is ‘better’ than the alternatives, whatever they may be.

    “These basic instincts have been refined and their efficiency increased many times by thousands of years of civilization. We are guided by the ethics and law that have been developed within out society.”

    refined to what end? their efficiency increased by what measure? different societies have been guided by different ethics and laws in different times and places. which ones should we emulate, which ones should we deny, and why?

  19. Hugh, why do you insist that I call God, Pat? Only pat is Pat.

  20. majorsteve said…
    Hugh, why do you insist that I call God, Pat?
    ———————————–

    This is the response to Ken’s theory that all gods are more or less false representations of the one true god. Since Christians call their god ‘God’, it is necessary to find a name for this one true god who is not Yahweh, God, Allah or any of the million others.

  21. jeb said… which ones should we emulate, which ones should we deny, and why?
    ———————————-

    Well?

  22. [...] tend to read the Bible in hindsight; we already know the ending and don’t often bother with the mess that precedes it. But it is good to see the mess, for our own lives are full of it. We too [...]

  23. [...] but I suppose makes sense in light of various things I’ve said around here, not least in this post. The problem with nice thing about a label like “postmodern” is that it’s [...]

  24. [...] underlying issue of the role of a questioning attitude in the life of faith. It was first posted here, and sparked a follow-up post here. I hope you enjoy it, but most of all I hope you question and [...]


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