Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Popular View of Scripture - A look at the Press reader's perspective on the Bible.

I've heard and seen the Bible quoted in a lot of places. Sometimes it's poignant, like the scene in Renaissance Man where one misfit soldier quotes Ecclesiastes and says it's the only writing better than Shakespeare (start it around 7:31). Sometimes it's totally weird and misquoted, like in Ghostbusters. It's in books, television, all over popular culture. In a way, it's meant to make us feel a sense of weight. "You should take this moment seriously, they're referring to the Bible."

Then there are people who have respect for the Bible, but in ways that confuse me. In the past three months, I've had two friends tell me they think the Bible is full of errors, but still a perfect book. One friend went on about "the Deuteronomy hoax" and said it was proof the Bible admits its own faults. Last week, a guy at work went into a passionate discussion about his belief in Creationism but then finished with a lament over all of the books the church conspiratorially kept out of the Bible.

Then, of course, there are those who don't respect the Bible at all. Some think nothing of it. Some even hate it. I typically expect some polarization but every now and again get a disinterested shrug.

Since discovering the Stats tab on Blogger, I was surprised to see the second and third most popular posts are the two essays I wrote on the Bible's authority. It seems like a popular, if not heated, topic. Those of you who read my posts have an idea where I stand, but I want to know where you are on the subject.

Let's see what Press readers have about the authority, inerrancy, and sufficiency of the Bible. What do you think?


Matt said...

My view is that the Bible is truth, which is not to say that the Bible is 100% true, as some have claimed. The Bible is a collection of Histories, Poems, and stories that all speak to the human condition and the nature of God, AKA truth.

I get a little concerned when Christians claim the whole Bible is the inerrant word of God or is 100% accurate, since God himself says otherwise in the book of Job. (After Job's friends come and talk to him for the majority of the book, God shows up and asks, "Who is this that darkens council?" Meaning that all the previous chapters are BS.) Also, when the apostle Paul is talking to the Corinthians, he says, "Now concerning virgins I have no commandment of the Lord: yet I give my judgment..." However good the advice might be, Paul is saying that the following section of the Bible is not the inspired word of God.

Which is not to say the Bible is not Holy or inspired, or that it should be disregarded by Christians. The Bible should be held in high esteem, read carefully, and an effort should be made to understand what it is saying in the context it was written in, and that lesson should be applied to our lives today. Too many people take a line or two out of context and use it to justify anything they want, even things opposed to the original intention.

William said...

I fear that Matt's exegesis of Job 38:2 leaves much to be desired; if God is saying that all the previous chapters were BS, He is merely being honest, and giving His infallible judgment on the "wisdom" of men. Solomon had a few things to say on that subject as well, as did the Apostle Paul (1 Cor. 1:19, 20). The Bible is, first and foremost, an honest book, by an honest Author: if the words of Eliphaz and Bildad are BS, God calls them BS. This does not invalidate them as part of the canon, any more than the lies of Ananias and Sapphira invalidate the Book of Acts. God is simply telling us: "You see, men are liars." That's what the Bible does: it tells us the truth about ourselves, and we rarely appreciate it!

The Bible is absolutely unique in its Authorship, its provenance, its preservation, and its authority. No other "sacred writings" can even approach the high bar the Bible sets for Itself (and yes, I capitalized the pronoun). Neither the Quran, the Analects of Confucius, the Bhagavad Gita, nor the so-called "'Book' of the Dead" offer detailed historical prophecies which come to pass, literally, on a mathematically inconceivable level. "Spiritual" books are a dime a dozen; and they contain some measure of truth. But the Bible is the very propositional revelation of God, and is perfect. Twenty centuries of twisting by "church authorities," and over a century of "higher criticism," have done nothing to change this. The contemporary critics of the Bible, such as Bart Ehrman, are mendacious, incompetent, and utterly without value; they will be forgotten, along with their teachers, while the Bible is still being held as the lodestar of the lives of real men and women with real lives.

Matt said...

I respect your position, William. I'm sorry if I was unclear, I still think the Bible is inspired, and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness. In short, I believe the Bible is truth. I just don't think the belief that every single word in the Bible is 100% literally true and 100% inspired, as some have claimed, is healthy or defensible. I gave examples of situations where the Bible itself says it is not 100% true or inspired. So at best, it's 99.999% inspired.

Don't get me wrong, those parts that aren't technically true still contain truth. When Job's friends respond, their speeches are very human. They say a lot about our responses to pain and suffering. That God ultimately calls them out on their BS doesn't diminish that. Many people still respond to suffering in the same way they did. That's what I mean when I say the Bible is Truth rather than true. Jonah doesn't necessarily need to be literally swallowed by a fish in order for the lessons of the book of Jonah to be truth.

It's probably a semantic and pedantic argument, the difference between something being truth vs something being true, but I think it's important. You can twist your logic into a pretzel to say, "Well, this guy DID say that falsehood, so what the Bible says is true", but I think it's missing the point. When it comes to the Bible, I think the histories are histories, the laws are laws, and the poems are poems. It's the lessons and emotions contained in those things that are the truth. If you start taking poems literally, you end up with that poor girl in Song of Songs with a tower for a neck and clusters of grapes for breasts.

There are other problems as well. When we Christians claim the Bible is 100% true, we are not only saying every word is true, we are, perhaps unconsciously, asserting that our understanding of the Bible is 100% accurate. I would rather not assume the Bible is 100% anything, and instead wrestle with the meaning, the context, and the lessons it teaches rather than claiming it's literal accuracy and accepting it without further thought. One of those truths I've gleaned is that it is better to be loving than to prove I am right. I think when we lay claim to the Bible as 100% literally accurate, it comes off as arrogant and not terribly loving. But I could always be wrong.

William said...

And I, in turn, appreciate your courtesy, Matt; but I'm afraid you're not saying anything I haven't heard many, many times before. There is, of course, a limitation on our dialogue, because we simply don't see certain passages, or certain literary phenomena, the same way. You see various verses in 1 Corinthians 7 as Paul saying, "This is my opinion, not God's." And that may indeed be what Paul meant; but it doesn't mean that his words were not inspired by God. I could show you a dozen things in the Bible that are simply untrue (not matters of fact, but mistaken judgments, etc.), but that doesn't mean that God is lying, or that an account is poorly written. It means that we haven't understood the verses, or their purpose, properly. Throughout the OT, various writers complain, "Why do the wicked prosper? Righteous people can't catch a break!" Well, ultimately speaking, from God's viewpoint, that's untrue: there will, eventually, be a reckoning. (So, the complaints are "untrue.") But the Bible records the honest feelings and frustrations of men in a way that no other "holy book" does. Can you imagine Muhammad carping and complaining at Allah the way that Job and Jonah talk to God? That's not how "holy books" are usually written. But that's the Bible.

Of course I've heard the argument that the Bible doesn't lose its spiritual value if it's "de-mystified:" that, in your example, Jonah's story still has spiritual value even if factually inaccurate. I simply disagree. With all due respect, I think that's patronizing nonsense. If an account is false, it is not to be trusted. If the first three chapters of the Bible are not historically, literally true, if Christ did not walk out of the tomb with the scars showing, then the Bible is a tissue of lies, and a speech by Adolph Hitler or Martin Luther King Jr. are equally valid, and equally invalid: because no objective standard exists.

Matt said...

I apologize if my words came off as patronizing, that was not my intent. I do however have an issue with the idea that the lessons of the Bible are invalidated if a particular story didn't happen exactly as written. That kind of thinking leads to accusing any and all scientists of heresy for claiming the earth rotates around the sun.

What's worse is that this mentality makes faith brittle and fragile. If one thing the Bible says is proven untrue, your faith is broken. At that point, you have two choices, argue that their conclusions are wrong or ignore it. Assuming you're going to try to prove it wrong, you'll be spending a lot of time arguing with people instead of loving them.

My faith is in Christ, if it turns out that the Earth is 4 billion years old and the first couple chapters of Genesis aren't literally true, it doesn't bother me. The Bible remains useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.

If Jonah wasn't physically swallowed by a fish, if it was just a story written by ancient rabbis to illustrate a point, that point remains. It's not going to hurt my Faith in God any.

Of course, if Jesus didn't walk out of the tomb with scars showing, that might be more of an issue. The resurrection is a core component of Christian faith, the story of Jonah is not. While the Bible builds on itself and is very interconnected, I don't think it's a house of cards where the failure of one aspect leads to the collapse of the whole.

William said...

I was unclear, Matt: I didn't mean that you were being patronizing to me: I'm not that thin-skinned. I was referring to your view of the book of Jonah. Of course, I believe that the whale (not the "great fish" of the textual critics) did indeed play host to Jonah for three days; moreover, as someone has rightly said, I believe that Jonah could have swallowed the whale, had that been God's good pleasure. I might agree with you that, strictly speaking, the literal nature of the Jonah account is not as salient to our faith as the literal resurrection of Christ; but Jesus Himself might disagree, inasmuch as He likened His coming resurrection to Jonah's experience, in Matthew 12:40. By the way, if the Jonah account is allegorical or poetical, was Jesus displaying ignorance and credulity in that verse, or merely misrepresenting the facts to His hearers?

Matt said...

I would suggest he was making a literary allusion to a story well known to his audience. If I were to say, "As Frodo persevered to the end and was finally rid of the accursed ring, so too should we persevere through the trials and toils of this life, that we may be free of our burden when we lay it at the feet of our savior.", I would be stretching a metaphor, but I wouldn't be displaying ignorance or credulity or misrepresenting the facts. I'm using a widely-known story as an example. Such references are common throughout literature and in every-day occurrence (amongst us geeks at least.) The story need not be true, and our referencing it does not lend it credence.

William said...

"The story need not be true, and our referencing it does not lend it credence."

Fair enough, if you're talking about Matt and William; but Jesus Christ held Himself to a somewhat higher standard. Every word He spoke was true: apart from obvious hyperbole, as when he called Herod a "fox," Jesus never engaged in exaggeration or manipulation of the facts. He referred to His own propensity for speaking the truth in John 8:40, 44, 45, 46, and elsewhere; of course, John 8 is a favorite target of those who take a low view of scripture.

You and I may allude to Frodo or Scarlett O'Hara as though they were real characters, but Jesus Christ took no such liberties. Unless, of course, one is re-casting Jesus in one's own image.

But I fear we are abusing our host's hospitality. He asked for views on the scripture, and we're monopolizing the discussion! My own blog demands my attention. Thank you for a cordial exchange!

Isaiah Kallman said...

Woah, wait, what? Monopolizing? Guys... this is exactly the kind of discussion I want. You just happen to be the only two dudes having it. I thought I'd stay out of the way for a little bit and see what came out.

Let me change the question a little. What or who is your ultimate authority? That is, what do you believe is the source of absolute truth?

Matt said...

Well, obviously God is the ultimate authority. The problem is our human knowledge only gives us a small subset of truth. We must test all things and retain what is true, trusting in the Spirit to guide us. I think this applies even when it comes to the Bible. Of course, this can lead to abuses, people claiming to have a word from God that may be for selfish or nefarious purposes.

The best litmus test I've ever found is that the things of God bring about Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Gentleness, Faithfulness, and Self-Control. If the result, or at least the goal, of something is not to further those nine characteristics in your life and the lives of others, it's probably not of God.

William said...

As Matt says, the ultimate Authority is, of course, God Himself. But your second question is more interesting: what is the source for absolute truth?

That's an interesting question because the very concept of "absolute truth" has been rejected by Western society, both culturally and officially (in governmental pronouncements). People in Western societies are, by and large, unwilling to acknowledge any "absolute authority" on such matters as sexuality, issues of life and death, or the identity of Jesus Christ. There is only consensus: whatever a majority within society is willing to believe or accept. Western culture has become entirely relativistic.

Which does not mean, of course, that absolute authority does not exist. It does: God. But what source gives us authoritative information about Him, or an infallible message from Him?

It can only be the 66 books of the Protestant Bible. This is God's perfect propositional revelation, which He was not obligated to give us. He had already given us the revelation of nature, the revelation of conscience, the revelation of the Jewish Law, and the revelation of the incarnate Christ. But just to make sure we got the message, He gave us a revelation in words, too: a propositional revelation. And only one.

There's a problem with Matt's "litmus test." A person can exhibit, or appear to exhibit, the fruit of the Spirit, to which he refers; but that demonstration may not be authentic, and the problem of conflicting authorities can arise. A Zen Buddhist and a Christian might both seem to exhibit peace, charity, and self-control: only God can judge whether these things are genuine. But the Zen Buddhist and the Christian have radically different beliefs. The Christian believes in an infinite-personal God, Who can be known at some level; the Zen Buddhist believes neither in God nor No-god, and doesn't believe that anything CAN be known, because "all is illusion." So, if both people seem to exhibit these highly desirable traits, but hold such radically different views, to whom does one go in matters of final authority? They can both be wrong, but they can't both be right. To say that everybody's beliefs are true, and I mean really true, is to say that nobody's beliefs are.

Anyway, how does Matt's litmus test help us, in the face of the fact that there are kind and cruel Jews, honest and dishonest Muslims, peaceful and violent Hindus? Judging ultimate truth by human performance seems to be building on a very shaky foundation. In fact, only one theological truth can be empirically verified: the fact of human sinfulness.

The only legitimate and true source for final authority is the Holy Bible. Everything else is secondary at best.

Isaiah said...

Matt, I'm really glad your answer is to name God as your ultimate authority. I hope you don't mind me challenging you to think about this question, too. If human wisdom so easily gets in the way, how can we truly know God?

I had to think long and hard about this a few years ago. It offended my reason so much that I went through a season of pain, but I came out with a much clearer understanding of my faith. So please don't feel obligated to answer on here. If you want to make a public comment, we welcome the discussion, but you may also email me at

Thank you for being open and talking about all this.