14
Oct

Should We Believe the Bible?

indexMy recent posts have considered the question of slavery in ancient times. Skeptics often challenge the Christian worldview by saying that the failure of Bible to outlaw slavery proves that it was not inspired by a perfect being. As one challenger put it:

“I don’t think such perfect knowledge of what we call morality is possible. But I would expect it from the deity supported by the moral argument for the existence of God. A being whose very nature is perfect moral goodness. Now I can accept that the writings of the Old Testament are penned by human hand for a human context during a period of history that was quite brutal. I would agree that these rules about slaves are written by people and not inspired in any way by a perfectly good god. But I think it does violence to reason to suggest that all of these rules are divinely inspired and have anything like moral value, even in the context of a progressive revelation. (Another concept that I have a difficult time with.)”

The skeptic raises an interesting question. If God is indeed the author of the Bible, and if God is perfectly good, why don’t the “rules” show evidence of “moral value?” Using this line of thinking, the skeptic rejects the Bible as anything more than a book of stories because it doesn’t set forth the rules the way he thinks they should be.

Implicit in this challenge is an assumption that Christians accept the Bible because the Bible tells them to. We should, he thinks, realize that the Bible gets lots of things wrong, so that we can then reject it when it tell us that everything in it is true. This would be a fair comment, if in fact Christians believed the Bible because the Bible so instructs. In fact, the case for Christianity is based on the historical record for the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. His life was foretold in writings that predate his birth and that were part of the written tradition of the Jews of that time. Jesus was quite knowledgeable about the contents of those writings, and his comments to his followers indicated that he largely endorsed them. But his life had much greater significance. His life and death marked the end of the old covenant with God, and the beginning of a new one. The rupture between man and God would find restoration through the atoning sacrifice of Jesus, and this Good News of salvation, brought first to the Jewish people, would be offered to all, Jew and Gentile alike. The earliest followers of Jesus passed on both the account of his life, as well as many of his teachings, eventually committing them to writing. They focused heavily on their belief that he overcame death, and that he walked among them in a resurrected body. This last of his miracles provided authentication for his message, authentication that extends also to the Old and New Testaments.

The books of the Bible are not text books. They were not meant to address every moral issue of the day. Indeed, Jesus made it clear that he was not really interested in government. He did not come to write a new code of conduct.  He was interested in repentance and reconciliation. To that end, he brought home the “bad news” to the people he spoke with and he told them what was needed for them to make things right with God. He spoke often of the life to come and of that great risk we take in persisting in our rebellion against God. The Bible captures this “greatest story ever told,” a story of origins, of a fall from grace, and of a means for recovery.

So, the skeptic is getting it backwards. He wants to be able to tell from just reading the Bible that it is divine, and he wants to do that by testing it against what he thinks is true. But consider the difficulty in doing that. First, one would have to have perfect moral knowledge.  The mores of a society change over time. How can we know with certainty that a future culture won’t look back on our choices today and view them as barbaric and wrong? Take something like abortion. It was against the law for centuries, but now it’s enshrined in our Constitution as a precious right. How confident can we be that future generations will not take a much different view than the modern thinker? Second, there is a touch of arrogance implicit in a view that as a limited human being, I would be capable of fully appreciating how a being whose nature is “perfect moral goodness” would think, that I could sit in judgment on his plan for self revelation. Indeed, I tremble at the thought that I will have to give account someday for my actions to such a being.

The skeptic raised a second challenge to my earlier post, relating to my comparison to raising children. I said, in that regard, that a parent wants their children to want to behave correctly, not merely follow rules. The skeptic disagreed:

My point is that you suggested that the way God provided rules about slaves in the Old Testament was in somehow similar to how we advise children on moral conduct. The inference is that we do not provide prohibitions on some conduct because that would deprive the child of the free will to chose the good. I think the analogy is misplaced, we do both with our children. We tell them they cannot do certain harmful behaviour such as bullying and why. If the rules in the OT are the word of god, he simply approved of a less oppressive approach to slavery but didn’t tell us that slavery was wrong or why. I think the ancient Israelites could have handled the truth.

This critique again focuses on what God should have done; according, that is, to modern sensibilities. It’s not my role as a believer to make perfect sense of every such challenge. As I look back at the sweep of history, and of God’s purpose in the Bible, it does not trouble me that he did not speak about all possible wrongs, or that he did not specify in greater detail what a model community would look like. He didn’t speak out against child abuse or wife beating, although such things also were occurring. He did not attempt to delineate a laundry list of prohibited behaviors. But he did spend a lot of time talking about the disposition of our hearts. He gave us a model, both in his words and in his actions, of how to be born again of the Spirit. When we take these admonitions to heart, it will necessarily change the way we act.

I don’t expect that this will make sense to the skeptic. For those who refuse to believe, no amount of persuasion will make a difference. The teachings of Christianity have always been a stumbling block, because the message is in so many ways radical and counterintuitive. There is, of course, a place for reason; indeed, the faith is itself based in reason. But we cannot reason our way to full knowledge of how a perfect being would act.

But we believe – we base our faith – on something more than whether each verse of the Bible makes sense to us. Our faith is grounded in the totality of what’s been handed down to us.

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4 Comments

  1. DGS says:

    Al Serrato

    Well…you have to admit…it would be nice to tell a writing is divine just from reading it! But, alas, as you correctly note—this is not what we have with the biblical books.

    Look—we demark writings all the time. Fiction vs. non-Fiction. Biography vs. auto-biography. Blog vs. tweet. Facebook status vs. e-mail. Warranty Deed vs. recipe. We do this (without even thinking about it) to effectively communicate concepts with each other. No one reading my blog comment is frustrated because it fails to provide the appropriate ingredients for baking a cake.

    So if someone is going to make such a demarcation, we understandably question the method for doing so in order to both understand the necessity for the demarcation, and to communicate.

    Some humans wrote things. Other humans declared those writings theopneustos–divinely touched. Like all other differentiations before and all differentiations after, we quite reasonably ask, “OK—what method do we use to determine theopneustos-writing vs. non-theopneustos-writing?” The exact same way we might ask, “What makes a writing a ‘mystery’ and what makes a writing ‘science fiction’?”

    And this is where the communication almost immediately breaks down. Those humans claiming theopneustos writing–Jews, Protestants, Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Muslims, Mormons, Christians Scientists, etc.—only produce ad hoc (after the fact) methodologies that non-coincidentally result in what they want to be theopneustos to be theopneustos. Simply put, there is no consistent, objective methodology presented to determine what is theopneustos and what is not.

    We are left, groping on our own, to muddle about trying to force a writing to make it look somehow more magnificent than it is. For example, you state, “The teachings of Christianity have always been a stumbling block, because the message is in so many ways radical and counterintuitive.” But the teachings are not.

    This is the point we are making regarding slavery. The Christian teaching it is acceptable (but regulated) to own slaves was NOT radical or counterintuitive—it reflected the culture’s predominance position. In fact, many in the society DID free slaves, and other beliefs DID argue for the freeing of slaves—something Christianity chose to not do. Christianity’s asceticism was equally reflected in other beliefs, like the Essenes. It has been noted on many occasions the similarity between Jesus’ teachings and cynic philosophers.

    As we look through the biblical books, written in their time, they reflect the teaching, culture, politics, economics and beliefs of the time they were written.

    You are quite correct, societal norms and culturally-determined mores change over time. How remarkable is it—how is it demonstratively theopneustos–a 600 BCE writing prescribes morals along 600 BCE cultural lines, and a 50 CE writing prescribes morals along 50 CE cultural lines?

    (And I would note, for separate reasons, I question the historical narrative regarding Jesus—for purposes of this discussion I am ONLY focusing on the slavery issue. Please do not assume this is the only reason I question the methodology for determining theopneustos.)

    • Al says:

      DagoodS, I think we’ll have to disagree on the history. Making a blanket statement that “Christianity chose to not …” free slaves isn’t accurate. It took time for Jesus’ teachings to take hold, but even Paul, who does not explicitly call for the release of all in servitude, makes numerous statements about there being no distinction between slave and free in the eyes of God. Clearly, some early believers freed slaves, or worked toward that purpose, even if all did not, and even if some non believers did. Fast forward 1800 years and it is followers of Jesus who lead the abolitionist movement. You seem to want to judge Christianity based on the fact that some adherents didn’t fully understand, or fully practice, what the faith called for. As for how the inspired writings were identified,it was a bit more than ad hoc. There are numerous books on “how we got the Bible” that explain the process in considerable detail. You are free of course to disbelieve, but its not as if someone threw darts at a board or picked them at random.

      Brian, you say that we agree we should never beat someone or own someone. I can think of times when beating someone would be the moral choice, and I can recognize economic inequality that may make the weaker feel “owned.” Again,the world is not black and white, susceptible to easy to apply rules. As I mentioned in an earlier post, assessing the morality of an action requires consideration of the intent and circumstances in addition to the act. You reject the Bible because it doesn’t read the way a “perfect” book should read; you wish to eliminate all apparent contradictions. I accept the Bible not because it appears perfect to me, but because the oral and written traditions handed down for 2000 years satisfy mean that it contains inspired writings; if there are inconsistencies, they are the product of limited understanding on my part. I base this upon the authentication provided by Jesus’ death and resurrection. Having done so, I struggle with the writings, and in so doing I realize that the struggle is not something to fear or to reject, but is indeed part of the intended process. Like any relationship, getting to know God can at times be confusing and difficult, but it takes time and effort. And relationship – not perfect knowledge – is what God wants from us. And yes, I think I would adopt position 7, with the caveat that the Old Testament rules no longer apply to us because the Old Covenant was replaced with the New. Consequently, they are not “moral” or “immoral” today, they simply do not apply.

  2. BGA says:

    There are a number of ways of understanding this inconsistency. 1) a perfect moral god exists, but was not involved in writing these passages. 2) a perfect moral god exists and was involved in writing these passages, but perfect morality is arbitrary and has since changed. 3) a perfect moral god exists and was involved in writing these passages, but perfect morality has not changed, but we are wrong now in thinking slavery is immoral 4) a god of some kind was involved, but that god is not moral 5) no god exists and these passages were written by people who thought one did exist and mistakenly believed their writing was inspired and reflected a merciful approach to slavery. 6) no god exists and these passages were written to intentionally mislead people about the divinity of these rules for the author’s own purposes. I prefer option 5, but I think you are trying to opt for a 7th unreasonable position: 7) these passages were inspired by a perfectly moral god and they still are moral now, when you interpret them properly. I think you have not explained how to properly interpret them, if that is your position.

  3. BGA says:

    Sorry, I am having trouble with your spam filters and the top of my comment was lost. Here it is from what I can remember.

    Thanks for the response!

    You say I am getting it backwards because I am trying tot tell just from reading the Bible whether it is divine or not. You are pretty much correct. I have never believed the Bible or any other document is divine. I think the idea of divinity is a human construct. I recognize that I am subject to bias and mistake and try to reduce this by looking for consistency based on observation. I observe that the rules in the OT are not consistent with what both Christians and I have concluded to be moral conduct. We have both concluded now, that you never beat someone and you never own someone. The Bible suggests that there are ways to do this morally. I find this inconsistent if the book is also to be accepted as being reliably inspired and based on the nature of a perfectly moral being.

    There are a number of ways of understanding this inconsistency. 1) a perfect moral god exists, but was not involved in writing these passages. 2) a perfect moral god exists and was involved in writing these passages, but perfect morality is arbitrary and has since changed. 3) a perfect moral god exists and was involved in writing these passages, but perfect morality has not changed, but we are wrong now in thinking slavery is immoral 4) a god of some kind was involved, but that god is not moral 5) no god exists and these passages were written by people who thought one did exist and mistakenly believed their writing was inspired and reflected a merciful approach to slavery. 6) no god exists and these passages were written to intentionally mislead people about the divinity of these rules for the author’s own purposes. I prefer option 5, but I think you are trying to opt for a 7th unreasonable position: 7) these passages were inspired by a perfectly moral god and they still are moral now, when you interpret them properly. I think you have not explained how to properly interpret them, if that is your position.

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