Conversations about the Bible can get pretty nasty these days. In fact, the word “conversation” fails to describe the kind of contemptuous name-calling habits I’ve witnessed.
Progressives refer to conservatives as “literalists” or “fundamentalists.” For the most part this is code for ignoramus and bigot.
Conservatives respond more bluntly. They favor words like “revisionist” and “heretic” to characterize progressives. Doesn’t this make you think “faithless libertine”?
While differences on social and moral issues like human sexuality are the occasion for heated debate, the charges hurled by each side at the other make clear that the role of Holy Scripture is at contention.
Lots of people have written about this. Usually they refer to the authority of Scripture to get at the various problems involved. Let’s ask a slightly different (but closely related) question. Is the Bible true? Scripture’s authority (or lack of authority) depends upon how we answer.
So, is the Bible true?
Progressive and conservative Christians alike will, for the most part, say yes. They then disagree about what they mean by “yes.”
In other words, they are likely to disagree about what “true” means when it applies to the Bible and how you get at that truth.
The emotional heat of the conversation rises because each side mistrusts the intentions of the others.
Progressives suspect that conservatives simply want to use the Bible to oppose obvious social justice. Conservatives perceive among progressives a dedication to a particular social agenda so strong that they are willing to sacrifice scriptural authority for that agenda’s sake.
But these considerations are beside the point. They answer different questions.
So, let’s get back to the question at hand. Is the Bible true?
The Bible is true.
Let’s unpack this claim in some simple statements that will lead some to leave the conversation but that may change the conversation’s tone for others.
- The Bible is different from any other book. God reveals himself and his will for us through the Bible. Other books can be edifying spiritually and morally. The Bible connects us to God and places a claim on us.
- People will accept this about the Bible because of their faith. It’s not something we will ever logically or scientifically demonstrate to non-believers.
- Sometimes the Bible is very clear. Sometimes, not so much!
- Reading the Bible involves interpretation.
- Interpretation is an art, but that does not mean that all interpretation is up to the reader. There are faithful and lousy interpretations. The Biblical text itself decides this.
- We will disagree with the Bible at various points. And we are clever enough to come up with interpretations that seem to make the Bible come around to our point of view.
- New interpretations do not necessarily distort the Bible in this way. Sometimes they do.
- What the Bible is, namely the Word of God, means that we will be better off by submitting to its truth.
- This is easier said than done.
Jake, I think I agree with all of your statements. Here, however, are the questions (related, I think) which are important to me:
>Is the Bible relevant? Is all of the Bible relevant? Some prefer the Old Testament to the New, others vice versa. Some prefer Christmas and Easter; Thomas Jefferson focused on the part of Jesus' life that was between those two events. Some like the Gospels, others the Epistles.
>Can I accept some of the Bible, ignore or disregard other parts, and disbelieve the rest? Can you accept other parts and ignore, disregard or disbelieve parts I believe? If so, can both of us claim to be Christians?
Mike, these are certainly good questions. I would like to hear your own answers to them. As for me, I think the Bible is God's means for reaching out to us. It follows that it's always relevant. The whole Bible is relevant. Precisely how this is the case is a matter of careful exegetical work. For instance, laws governing ritual purity in Leviticus no longer apply because, as we see in Hebrews, Jesus fulfilled these laws and we approach God through him. Following Jesus as the crucified and risen Lord makes us Christian. We read the Bible because we want to follow him more closely. This may be the answer to some questions different from those you asked, but I hope they prove helpful for your thinking about these things.
Jake, put me in the Jeffersonian camp. I find it lamentable that the OT is used to justify gay bashing and other repressive behavior. I think many (including me) find it easy to pick and choose what they want to follow, but ignore Jesus when he talks about giving your shirt as well as your coat, not throwing the first stone, turning the other cheek, loving your enemy, and all the other hard parts of his Gospel. I don't think I or most people I know follow enough of Jesus teachings to rightfully call ourselves Christians, although many, of course, do.
Mike, I've got a couple of thoughts. Jesus was pretty tough on the Pharisees for using the Law (that is, Scripture) to burden other people. My take is that Scripture is meant to guide us in following the Lord but not meant for us to dismantle other people. We are accountable, but we are to look first to the mote in our own eye.
As for who can be called a Christian, I guess my bar is not set as high as yours. Peter denied Jesus three times and was still a Christian (even though they didn't call us that back then). While the Law teaches us precisely the way to live (as you clearly outlined), grace covers our inability to live that way perfectly.
Have you read Timothy Keller's Prodigal God? It's a good read and helps me at least to steer clear of what he calls the moral performance narrative.