For The Bible Tells Me So: How Christians Read Scripture Like Pharasees

Saturday, July 26, 2014

There was a great discussion surrounding Stephen Fierbaugh's guest post Why I Love My Wonderful Errant Bible. This time around, I'd like to continue that conversation by springboarding off of some of the comments. I'll begin with a really challenging question posed by Mike H.
There’s a difference between
1) an infallible text/fallible interpretation and
2) fallible text/fallible interpretation.
At least in the first one people agree on the starting point, just not where you go from there. In the second one there is no starting point. ... There are things that are pretty clear – like forgive, love your neighbor, etc. – but on what grounds can we rely on those as true if the text isn’t “infallible”? ... Even the focus on love – that sounds straight forward but it isn’t. That’s based on Jesus words to love God and love your neighbor – as recorded in scripture. If the Bible isn’t infallible, how are we to rely on these words as accurate?
Let me begin first of all by stating a fact: The Old Testament contains multiple conflicting moral visions.  One vision (for example in the book of Ruth) presents foreigners as moral and good, and advocates showing them mercy and acceptance based on their character. Another moral vision (for example in the book of Ezra which was written at the same time as Ruth was) instead presents foreigners as immoral and corrupting and commands that the Israelite men send their foreign wives and children off into exile.

These are opposite perspectives. If it is a sin to be married to a foreigner, as the book of Ezra clearly claims, then following the moral vision of the book of Ruth would lead us into sin. So if we follow one, we break the other. We must choose one and reject the other. So if infallible means that we can read a "clear teaching of the Bible" and trust that this will not lead us astray, then the fact that the Old Testament contains these multiple conflicting moral vision makes this untenable. Faced with opposing moral visions within scripture (and there are many many examples of this throughout the OT, for examples check out my previous posts here, here, and here) we have no option but to make a choice. So on what basis can we make that choice?

I would propose that the answer begins with our recognizing that Jesus is making choices between these opposing moral visions within the Old Testament (the only Bible Jesus knew), and that we as his followers need to understand what led him to make those choices and learn to apply those same criteria ourselves. I think it is pretty clear that Jesus would agree with the moral vision of Ruth and not agree with Ezra. Jesus makes his criteria for who he calls his "mother and brothers" based on (to borrow from MLK) the content of their character rather than on the color of their skin. "who is my mother or brothers?" Jesus asks. "The one's who do the will of my Father in heaven" is his answer. The same message is repeated by Jesus in the story of the Centurion, the women at the well, the good Samaritan, the parable of the sheep and goats, and on and on.

That brings us back to Mike's question "There are things that are pretty clear – like forgive, love your neighbor, etc. – but on what grounds can we rely on those as true if the text isn’t 'infallible'?" Said differently, the question is basically how can we know what is good if we can't simply trust that we can do whatever the text says and trust that that will be good? Now as I pointed out above, this would not work with the Old Tesament because it contains conflicting instructions. It teaches showing mercy to the foreigner in one place, and it commands "show them no mercy!" in another place. So the option to simply trust and follow is simply not an available option even if we wanted it to be. We must choose. So how do we choose? 

As I have said, with the Old Testament the answer is in learning to read scripture like Jesus did, learning to prioritize what he did. How to do that of course deserves further discussion, but what I can say at the outset is that we evangelicals to a large degree have tended to read scripture like the Pharisees did and not at all like Jesus did. That is precisely why the critique that Jesus levels on the Pharisees very much can be applied to us Evangelicals. Do we have ears to hear that critique and repent?

We come into a second difficulty with the New Testament when we ask the same question "how can we know what is good if we can't simply trust that we can do whatever the text says and trust that that will be good?" Let's take the example of Jesus' command to turn the other cheek. Now I have been a long vocal advocate for nonviolence. So I definitely do affirm turning the other cheek and firmly believe that Jesus' way of enemy love needs to hold a central place in our Christian praxis. However, the fact is that many people have understood turning the other cheek to mean that women in situations of domestic violence should remain with their abusive husband as an act of faithfulness to Jesus. I believe (and hope you do, too) that this is abusive and wrong. It is a misunderstanding of what turning the other cheek means.

And that's just the point: We can only talk about correctly applying something if we understand it. If we can assess it. There cannot be correct interpretation without understanding, and that is not simply a matter of "what does it say?" but "is this moral?" That means this is not just about me questioning the stuff I find objectionable, but also questioning the stuff I affirm in order to be able to follow well. I question so that I can follow. There simply can be no obedience without understanding. Obedience without understanding always puts on a collision course with hurt and error. There is no way around that. The Bible should lead us to moral reflection, not shut it down.

This is the problem with infallibility as it commonly understood: It leads us to shut down all moral reflection, to turn off our brains and conscience. It blinds us to our sin, causing us to justify it with religious language. This was the sin of the Pharisees and how they applied Scripture, and it is the sin of conservative evangelicalism as well. Whatever infallibility means (and it is not a word we find anywhere in the Bible) if it leads us to be less moral, if it leads us to be less compassionate, less reflective, then it is wrong.

So again we are faced with the question: How do we know what is moral, what is good? Even when we say we want to follow the teaching of Jesus (which I do) we still need to understand why and how it is good in order to be able to practice it correctly. To unquestioningly follow the text without moral assessment inevitably leads to abuse. So how do we make those moral evaluations? If it is not as simple as saying "the text says so, that settles it" then what is our criteria?

Speaking of how we can recognize the difference between a real and false prophet, Jesus proposes the following criteria: By their fruits you shall know them. Paul similarly speaks of the "fruits" of the Spirit. From that I would propose that our criteria for moral evaluation is to observe the results in people's lives. Does our application of a particular teaching (like how we practice turning the other cheek) lead to flourishing and love? Or does it lead to harm and oppression? We look at the fruits of our interpretation played out in our practice and evaluate whether those fruits are good or whether they are rotten. Do they lead to life or to death? That's the question Jesus is constantly asking and the question we need to be asking, too.

Take for example the issue of homosexuality: The way that it has been approached by conservative Christians is to basically say, "The Bible says it's wrong. It does not matter that this does not make sense to me, and it does not matter that I can see that gays are being hurt by my rejection of them. The Bible says it, that settles it." As a result we hear stories of parents rejecting their own children, and this being actively encouraged from the pulpit. This leads to broken relationships and profound hurt. That is the fruit, and it is rotten fruit for sure. They recognize the hurt it causes but feel obligated to persist nonetheless because they believe that this is what faithfulness to scripture requires of them. However I would say that they are here reading the Bible in just the same hurtful and wrong way that the Pharisees did, and as a result are "shutting the door to the kingdom of God in people's faces" in that they are rejecting people who very obviously are deeply in need of love and affirmation. We know by looking at the fruit, not by blindly following a text regardless of the fruit, which is exactly how many conservatives are interpreting scripture in this regard.

This brings me to a comment by Kent, who writes,
"We need to be led by our hearts more and our heads less. Love can be subjective to the mind, but not the heart. In my first post, I suggested that revelation was to the heart which convinces the head. What we do as humans is just the opposite. We take in information, process and categorize it with the mind, and then attempt to change our hearts by conforming our behavior to our 'new' paradigms."
When I went to Asbury Seminary our motto was where head and heart go hand in hand. Yes it's kinda cheesy, but I always liked it anyway, and as an artist have always been very focused on the heart. I'd like to suggest that another way of saying essentially the same thing would be to say that it is our experience and relationships which convince our heads. People change their mind about homosexuality because they get to know people, they see them, not as a theory or a statistic, but as a real person who they know and care about and respect, and that ends up changing their minds.

So the "heart" part is really about relationships, about our real lived lives together. If our "head" theology is based on theoretical ideology and doctrinal statements then this is indeed in conflict with the heart and with relationships and with life. However consider that the scientific model is one that is instead based on observing how life works and deriving our understanding based on that. Science certainly involves the "head", but it does so in a way that is not based on ideologies, but based on observing life. Our theology should also be based on life, on observing what leads people to life and flourishing, and what leads to harm.


Why I Love My Wonderful Errant Bible

Sunday, July 20, 2014

This week's blog is a guest post by Stephen Fierbaugh:

By Stephen Fierbaugh

As I stood alone in the dark cinder-block guest house where my driver had just dropped me, I was more scared than I had ever been before. I was deep in Africa, and I knew that somewhere not far away there were militants who would kill me without a second thought. A few nights earlier, they showed up at a nearby school dormitory and told the girls to go home, get married and have babies. They had lined up the boys and slit their throats.

I was there to help locals translate the Bible into their own languages. It was the first time some of them had ever read anything in their own language. Our security depended upon the secrecy of the project, yet everyone in the area seemed to know all about us, even the mosque across the road. If only one of these people sold us out, we were all dead.

“Is this worth it?” I asked myself in the darkness. I was at a faith crisis, because a few months earlier, I had discovered that the Bible isn't inerrant. It's one thing to talk about martyrdom in Sunday school. It's another thing to be sweating in Africa worried that you're wasting your life on a lie.
Inerrancy and the Puzzle of Genesis

It started when my small group was studying Genesis. Someone asked, “So which day were plants created?” The first two chapters are two accounts of creation. Chapter one is general creation, while chapter two focuses on the creation of man. Genesis 1 says plants were created on the third day (1:11-13), and man on the sixth day (1:26-31). But Genesis 2 explicitly says that plants weren't created until after man was around to care for them (2:5-7). “Well, it looks like plants in general were created on the third day, but domesticated plants, 'of the field', were not created until after man.” That satisfied him and the discussion moved on.

Do you see what I did there? I superficially examined the passages in question, formed a reasonable hypothesis, and regarded it as a solution without any deep investigation of the text or other evidence to support it. This is a common method of exegesis with difficult passages.

A short while later, I encountered the same passages in my daily Bible study and decided to give them a deeper look. It turns out that my theory doesn't bear out. Chapter 1 clearly refers to all plants. In 2:5, “shrub of the field” actually refers to wild uncultivated plants, while the companion “plant of the field” refers to cultivated grains, so it is all-inclusive of plants in general.

In fact, after considerable study, I discovered that there isn't an easy explanation for the discrepancy in the timing of plant creation between Genesis 1 and 2. This disturbed me. I had always believed that the Bible was inerrant: absolutely true all the time in all ways. As the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, the conservative doctrinal statement on the topic, explains, the Bible is “of infallible divine authority in all matters upon which it touches.” and “without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God's acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God's saving grace in individual lives.” Article XIV affirms its “internal consistency”.

As a practical matter, this doctrine means that the Bible speaks with absolute authority because it is perfect and trustworthy. We can disagree over whether various passages are literal or figurative, or their meaning, but the text does not contain internal contradictions, nor is it contradicted by external science or archeology. It is the one source of absolute truth that we can depend on.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. As the astronauts in 2001: A Space Odyssey discovered about their “perfect” computer, HAL, a claim of perfection is destroyed by a single instance of imperfection. Where there's one mistake, there's likely to be more.

But I've studied the Bible my entire life, and I wasn't prepared to throw it overboard so easily. With deep prayer, I decided to investigate further. I turned to that fount of wisdom, the Internet. It turns out there are plenty of websites eager to provide lists of the contradictions in the Bible. I sat down to study them.

Most of the “contradictions” fall into three general groups. About a third are trivially dispensable. Whatever point they are making isn't coherent enough to understand, or has an explanation so self-evident within the text that it isn't worth further comment.

Another third are paradoxes or have simple explanations. The Bible is full of paradoxes, like grace vs works, or free will vs predestination, but they aren't contradictions. On the contrary, they are one of the many things that makes the Bible stand out among literature, and it hangs together thematically remarkably well because of them, not in spite of them. Likewise, there are plenty of “contradictions” which if taken without any context might appear bad, but really have fairly easy explanations.

Most of the remaining third are more difficult to reconcile. It took study, checking out commentaries or going back to the Greek and Hebrew. But eventually, most of them too turn out to have reasonable explanations. For instance, ancient authors didn't cite texts the way we do, they often arranged items thematically rather than in sequential order, and names are mangled as they are transliterated between languages. An example of this type of contradiction is whether there were one or two angels at the tomb, which varies across Matthew 28:1-2, Mark 16:1-5, Luke 24:1-6, and John 20:10-14. It looks bad until you seriously study it, and then it has reasonable explanations which don't strain credulity.

Troubling Passages

That leaves only a short list. A few passages really do have serious contradictions. They aren't amenable to simple reconciliations. The commentaries either ignore these passages, or spin incredibly unlikely explanations replete with suppositions or facts that simply aren't in evidence.

Some pastors suggest that contradictions are because translators made mistakes. I have a high view of the Forum of Bible Agencies International's (FOBAI) translation standards and Scripture quality, so simply suggesting that the NASB, NET, and NIV translators all made mistakes doesn't cut it. Part of a good (and honest) translation is reconciling parallel passages if the texts can support it, but leaving them different where they are, in fact, different in the Received Text.

In some cases, two parallel passages disagree on a simple number, and one or the other made a mistake. A simple and particularly clear example of this is 1 Kings 7:26 and 2 Chronicles 4:5. First Kings reads, “It was four fingers thick and its rim was like that of a cup shaped like a lily blossom. It could hold about 12,000 gallons” (NET). 2 Chronicles is identical except it says 18,000 gallons. Inerrancy requires perfection, and as trivial as this discrepancy is, it dooms it.

Chronicles is replete with this problem. For example, it completely mangles the account of David's warriors; compare 2nd Samuel 23:8-12 with 1 Chronicles 11:10-14. Or compare 2nd Samuel 24:24 with 1 Chronicles 21:24-25; did David pay 50 shekels of silver (20 ounces, about $375) or 600 pieces of gold (15 pounds, about $298,000) for the field?

I have a lot of empathy for scribes and translators who are working in difficult situations: hot, with poor light, and sometimes fearing for their lives. Chronicles' errors go on and on because the Chronicler, probably Ezra, was doing the best he could, but his sources in the ruins of Jerusalem were in poor shape. He simply made honest mistakes.

The best known of the problem passages are the genealogies in Matthew 1:1-17 and Luke 3:23-38. Entire books could be written (and have!) attempting to reconcile them. After King David, they agree only at the exile (Shealtiel and Zerubbabel). There are at least eight major contradictions in the genealogies, and most of them are complex with sub-problems. A simple list of the contradictions would be a lengthy article of its own. The biggest problems are actually between the genealogies and their Old Testament equivalents.

Explanations and Excuses

This has been a problem since the earliest days of the Church. Paul recognizes it in 1st Timothy 1:3-4 and warns “not to spread false teachings, nor to occupy themselves with myths and interminable genealogies. Such things promote useless speculations rather than God's redemptive plan that operates by faith” (NET). If we claim the Bible is inerrant, then we are forced to promote useless speculation to explain Matthew and Luke's genealogies. Likewise, we spread teachings that couldn't possibly pass a laugh test: Jesus becomes the product of an implausibly long line of unrecorded levirate marriages.

Article X of The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy provides the standard “out” for explaining all of these issues: Only the original autographs are inerrant. If we only had the original handwritten scrolls, we'd see that all these issues vanish. This has two fatal flaws.
The first is that Chicago's God is too small. It posits that God was powerful enough to create a perfect book, and cared enough to do so. But then He either wasn't powerful enough to preserve it, or simply didn't care enough.

The second is that it fails on the factual evidence. We may not have the actual handwritten autographs, but we have several orders of magnitude more early manuscripts than we do of any other ancient text. The New Testament that we have is substantially identical to the New Testament as it existed in the second century. Likewise, the Dead Sea scrolls show that our Old Testament is also as it existed in the time of Jesus. Indeed, some of the mistakes are so troubling because we have enough copies to have deep insight into their nature.


Sweating there in the dark in Africa, I thought about the Bible and wondered if it is worth dying to bring it to people groups who don't yet have it. I thought about the contradictions, and I thought about what the Bible has contributed to my life over the years. I thought about the tears, some of heartbreak and some of laughter. I thought about the intellectual basis for my faith.
I've read thousands of books. The Bible is unique. It is superlative in a way that words don't do justice. As literature, as history, as poetry, as moral instruction, as the story of how God relates to man, it stands apart. It touches my heart and soul in a way no other book does.
Men stop beating their wives when they read it. They stop living in fear of demons. They start caring about their children. We may not notice it as much in the U.S. because many biblical teachings have become our society's norms, but it is stark overseas. Jesus changes lives, and he does it through the Bible.

I realized I love my wonderful errant Bible. I believe it is worth the sweat, tears, and risks to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to read the book I love so much. I don't have to understand it all; I just have to give others the same chance to discover God in its pages.

I am on a journey, and not sure where God leads. Errancy in the Bible tells me that I need to be humble, allow for my imperfect understanding, and reject any “Christian” doctrine or social view which flies in the face of loving our God and loving our neighbor.

Stephen Fierbaugh has a Bachelors in Bible and a Masters in Intercultural Studies. He is active in Bible translation and has extensive experience in Africa. Stephen is the author of Surviving Celibacy.


What would you do if? Practical nonviolence, home invasion, and Hitler

Saturday, July 12, 2014

 One of the most common objections to nonviolence is the famous "what if" question:

"What if intruders broke into your house with the intent of raping your wife and killing your children?" 

The question is usually framed so that you only have two options:  You can either kill them or do nothing. If you think about it, this is not really a question at all. It is a statement of exasperation. The person who asks this is really saying "Surely there is some point where you would draw the line, isn't there? Wouldn't you at least defend your children or your wife?" It is because of this moral exasperation that this question is often quickly followed by the "what about Hitler?" question, again expressing moral exasperation, essentially saying, "Okay, but what if the person was evil incarnate like Hitler? Wouldn't it at least be justified to kill them?"

Let's consider the dynamics behind these questions and what's going on emotionally for the person asking them: The concern of the person asking these questions is the safety and well-being of themselves and their loved ones. In their mind, the only possible way to deal with such threats is either to kill or to do nothing. They think therefore that people who advocate nonviolence are advocating for tolerating abuse and violence. They think it is about not caring for your own welfare or the welfare of those you love. This drive to preserve our own life and the lives of our kids is one of the most basic and primal instincts we have. So it is understandable that the person asking such questions is feeling desperate and triggered. 

What would a nonviolent response look like?

I think where our response needs to begin is by disarming the one asking the question -- that is, it needs to begin by affirming them in this deep human need, assuring them that we also want to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe. The question is: What is the best way to do this?

Here I find it is helpful to compare the above what-if questions with the question of divorce. Would it be justified to get a divorce if your spouse was unfaithful? Yes, it would be justifiable. Heck, even Jesus said that, right?

But would a professional marriage counselor automatically recommend divorce? Surprisingly, no. Instead they would work with the couple, giving them the tools and skills to heal their negative interactions (including betrayal) so they can break out of the cycle of hurting and getting hurt they are both caught in. The fact is, unfaithfulness is very common in marriages, but it does not always need to end in divorce. If a couple can learn to work through the crisis, they can come out on the other end with a marriage that is even stronger than before. 

Now, this does not mean that divorce is off the table in the mind of a marriage counselor. But it is not a foregone conclusion. Their goal is to help people to have healthy and fulfilling relationships. In the same way we could also say that it would be justified to shoot an intruder. Our laws see this as an act of self-defense, as justifiable homicide. It is justifiable, but is it the best solution? Is it the best way to keep safe? Do the police recommend for example pulling a gun on burglars as the best way to keep yourself and your family safe? No, they do not. Not because they are pacifists, but simply because it is not the best way to get out of such a situation. It often makes you less safe in fact.

What they do recommend is having a plan of action.  This is very different from what I often hear my fellow pacifists recommending, which to have no plan at all and to instead hope the Holy Spirit will inspire us with some creative solution on the spot. This sounds good in theory, but the reality is, when we are in a dangerous, high-stress situation, our adrenaline rushing, our brain's limbic system in alarm mode, this is when creative thought it just about the last thing we are capable of. That's why we need a plan beforehand when we can think calmly, creatively, and prayerfully.

So consider this: Perhaps instead of asking "is it justifiable?" we should instead ask "What can we do to reduce harm and violence?" Instead of asking "is divorce justifiable?" a better question is "what can we do make marriages better?" In the same way, instead of saying "is it justifiable to shoot an intruder?" or asking the question of "just war" and when it is justifiable as a nation to retaliate, the real question we should be asking together is "how can we reduce violence in our society and in our world?"

The point is not to legalistically forbid divorce or to forbid self-defense. Rather the goal is to educate ourselves of better ways to deal with conflict, better ways to keep ourselves safe. I think we can all agree that violence is not desirable. So what we need to learn are other effective ways to deal with conflict and to reduce violence and harm.

Here we need to listen to the wisdom of people who are working in the many areas that this touches. After all, home invasion is really just the tip of the iceberg. There are a multitude of issues that we need to address: international conflict, the problem of crime and our broken prison system, domestic violence, bullying in schools, date rape on campuses, and on and on.

In each of these, and many others, there are experts we can look to, people who have specialized in these areas who can offer practical ways of dealing with these many situations, working to reduce harm and keep us all safe. Just as a couple in crisis needs the help of a marriage counselor, we need to listen to the wisdom of these experts and specialists so we can move beyond what is "justifiable" and instead seek to do what is good.

In the end, this is something we all need to own and contribute to. Just as in a marriage, the couple is the one that needs to do the real work, and the therapist can only act as a guide and mediator, so too here we all need to be working to find ways to reduce violence in our world. So rather than thinking of how we can justify doing bad things (again no one wants to get a divorce or to take a life), we need to work together to find better ways to deal with the problem of violence--we need to ask how we can practically reduce violence, rather than justifying it.

Now it's your turn: So with that in mind, let me pass the conversation to you: What are some ways you have learned to  deal with issues of safety and violence? Have you had the opportunity to learn from experts in these areas through books, seminars, or other education? What are some of the skills or strategies you have learned?


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