Faithful Questioning: Does questioning the Bible mean questioning God or ourselves?

Saturday, August 02, 2014

When we question the Bible, does it mean we are questioning God or that we are questioning ourselves? Many Christians assume that questioning the Bible entails questioning God, and thus is an expression of rebellion and sin.  Consequently most apologetics focuses on "defending" the Bible from the "attack" of those on the outside critiquing it. The assumption is that those who question the Bible are attacking the Christian faith itself, and are thus outside of it. In other words the assumption is that Christians cannot question the Bible. 

I'd like to propose that the opposite is in fact that case: that questioning the Bible is a necessary part of a healthy and faithful expression of our faith. The reason is that the focus of questioning the Bible is ultimately to question our interpretation and application and thus to question ourselves. The goal is to be faithful. We question so that we can follow better. We question so that we can avoid wrong and hurtful interpretations. 

When I question the Bible I am personally not interested in questioning God. That's not our job. However it is our responsibility to question what we humans do in God's name, especially when we can see that we are justifying deeply hurtful things in the name of our religion. Part of that involves questioning our (at times messed up) image of God. Questioning therefore involves humility rather than arrogance because it means recognizing that our understanding of God and of what is good and right is always limited, always "through a glass darkly" as Paul says (and it says a lot that the guy who said that about his own knowledge of God was the same guy who wrote most of the New Testament!).

This kind of faithful questioning is what we see in the examples of the prophets who question the law in order to point the people to love, compassion, and restorative justice. We see it also in Jesus who likewise questions the religious authorities of his day in the interest of caring for those who were marginalized and scapegoated by their misuse of the law (and it is always a misuse when it does not lead us to love). The motivation of both Jesus and the prophets is not unfaithfulness to scripture, but a more faithful application of its core aim and purpose, which is to love.

When our focus is on defending the Bible, the tendency is to look for justifications of why the violence in God's name is good. So we say for example that it was good for the Israelites to kill all the Canaanites in a massive genocide that included little children because they were evil people who needed to be exterminated like bugs or removed like a cancer for the health of God's people. This is a common argument that you can find in many Bible studies, and the rather obvious similarities of its logic to that of the Third Reich seems to be lost on the these biblical commentators.

From the perspective of questioning the Bible in order to question ourselves as an act of faithfulness, I find that blindness quite alarming.  We are justifying genocide in the name of God, echoing the logic of dehumanizing victims which we see repeated over and over again in the history of genocides, and everyone just nods their heads and whispers "amen." 

We think we are defending God in justifying this, but is that really what God desires? Is that really what faithfulness looks like? Blindly following, even when we know it is a moral atrocity we are advocating? Shutting down our moral brain and conscience? 

No, I question because I believe. The most deadly sin is the sin we cannot see because we wrap it up in religious language, like a wolf in sheep's clothing.

The key purpose of the Bible is to model for us how we should live. To read the Bible as a Christian is to read it normatively, so that it shapes our lives. Because of that, we must question when we read, because when we do we are questioning ourselves and how we can apply the teaching of scripture in a way that is good, in a way that points us to life and love. 

Now, working through the troubling parts of the multivocal witness of scripture is a complex task. There are things we can struggle with in both the Old and New Testaments. Doing this is obviously too big a topic to cover in a single blog post. However the basic stance of questioning the Bible as a Christian obligation is the starting point for this. Questioning is absolutely imperative if we wish to read the Bible morally, if we wish to have the Bible shape how we see God and how we live. That's where we need to begin. Questioning is inseparable from faithfulness.



At 6:41 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

"When our focus is on defending the Bible, the tendency is to look for justifications of why the violence in God's name is good."

So true. I think this is so common because so many of us have been taught that this is the only way approach because it's the necessary outcome of what the Bible has to be. I think that the reason that this is the norm is because the alternative is difficult. I think that many, myself included, have a tough time with discernment & the responsibility to live in our own time. And when you have a Bible that dropped out of the sky, exists in a vacuum, and gives you all knowledge forever without a need to examine it, all that needs to be done is extract it and implement what's there - no need to discern. Of course the other side is difficult to - the responsibility to live our own lives in our own time - because it's also not good to just throw away what we don't like.

You only need to look at Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill in Seattle to see the results of the kind of thinking where people are afraid to question and are taught that to do so is faithless, dangerous, and a sure fire road to a fiery afterlife.

At 4:29 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Actually a very beautiful post.

Part of the problem is there are doctrines of infallibility of the Bible, the Bible as God's "only" word. Even this is at the same time far too exalting of the reality of the Bible and far too limiting of "God."

"The Word of God is living and active...." Living and Active. Something is only alive and active in the Here and Now. Not dead words on any page. God is here and now, not in the past thousands of years ago or in the future in some imagined paradise. Here and now. What IS here and now "I am That I am" must be heard here and now, not from any scripture, be it Bible, Koran, Upanishads or whatever. In the Heart.

Yes, scriptures can help with the intellectual end of what we need to hear and understand. But then we must transcend the intellectual and enter the Actual. Until this happens we are just second-hand people and there is no real RELATIONSHIP taking place at all.

At 9:13 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


Yes, exactly, and the tragic consequence of reading the Bible in this way if that it ends up making us less moral because it causes us to shut down our consciences. This is said to be the only “safe” way, but the result has lead to evangelicals in the past justifying the institution of slavery based on this way of reading the Bible, and as the Sovereign Grace Ministry scandal illustrates it leads today to covering up child abuse. That’s certainly not safe.

What we need to learn as you said is how to think morally. That’s hard, but I think the place to start if by recognizing that questioning in the name of compassion is an act of faithfulness. It is the mark of a healthy and mature faith.

At 9:28 PM, Anonymous Derek said...


Yes, this focus is crucial I think. Scripture should lead us into that relationship with the living Jesus. Like a window that we look through, it is not the focus, but can serve the function of being the means through which we come into contact with God and life. That’s not just cognitive, but can affect our heart—perhaps comparable to how a worship song can move us. But the focus of that worship song is not the song itself, but the one it points to. The same goes for Scripture when we read it right.

The apostle John says that he is writing to tell us about what they had seen and heard so that we could encounter that same living Word ourselves. They had met Jesus and wanted us to meet him too. That’s what it’s all about. That’s what Scripture is for.

P.S. I really like your time “second-hand people.” Sounds like something from Jon Foreman.

At 8:13 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 8:20 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

In response to Substitutionary Atonement:

While I applaud your efforts to see it all as "restorative", and I see this as a step in the right direction, certainly, from the views of some who see it as punishment from an angry God, I would encourage you to take it a step further.

David, in Psalm 51, after his string of egregious sins with Bathsheba including murder, notes that he would have sacrificed, but he knows that's not what God desires. This is great wisdom. It should be understood to the depths of our soul. It also should be a strong clue to us as to why the notion of Christ being sent to make sacrifice for our sins to save us should be seen through as false. This notion actually traces back to ancient pagan fantasies. It crept into the Christ story, but after the fact of Jesus.

The notion of Justice cannot coexist with the reality of Love. That's what it all comes down to. Justice is simply a notion of man, and from a spiritual perspective, it is a stage of spiritual maturation. Justice begins to teach the animal man to see beyond his selfishness and see others as himself. It is the beginning of it. Doctrines that God is a Just God grew out of this. Mercy itself flies in the face of Justice, yet this is what was recounted to Moses as a prominent aspect of God. Justice has a place there, but it is not the ruling feature by any means. It is better understood as a kindergarten concept in the spiritual maturity of man and mankind.

God has no cosmic scale of justice to be balanced. You reap what you sow, which is to say that action creates action in return. But the notion of a God who has scales of justice to balance and axes to grind is a fantasy of man. This is a projection of man upon God.

What is true is that we rarely wake up from our selfish sleep and forgetfulness of God without suffering, without seeing, experientially, empirically, that this world is defective. The happiness of this world is forever bound to sorrow. Pleasure is forever bound to pain, they are inseparable. Until we understand that, we think we glean happiness from things outside, and we don't look within ourselves. Within to, as Jesus said, where the kingdom of heaven lies.

But the notion of a God who is bound to justice and hells as retribution, and sacrifices of atonement is a man-made projection and not by any means even a reflection of the reality of God. It is a shadow created by our own illusions.

At 8:39 AM, Blogger Unknown said...

Hi Derek,

Hope you don't mind me commenting as I am and challenging some things (probably to the very heart of what you feel Christianity is about.) But to the person who wrote about it being good to challenge--to better understand ourselves, I would think it would be at least accepted with understanding. :)

As to Jon Foreman, no, I have not heard of him. I started out as a Christian from the age of 12, prior to that I always had religious bearing. Asking, seeking and knocking seem to be second nature and I was always drawn to the red-letters of Jesus. But while the common Christ story of sacrifice is quite capturing and moving, I found it to also be quite troubling when you take the whole of the scriptures and what they inspired here and now in my heart.

I realized I would not send a single soul to hell for eternity, even if it were Hitler. God had borne that love in me, so my love being a mere reflection, how could I any longer accept the premise of God being less merciful or loving than me, a mere dog!? This conflict was like the piece of sand in the oyster, it drove me on to find a pearl to smooth it out. We must keep asking, seeking and knocking. We must be willing to admit we were wrong all along, even after 30 years spent in service to certain ideals. If they be wrong, upon true understanding of that, in love for truth and in the desire to be done with all that is false, we must jettison them instantly for a higher cause should truth be revealed otherwise.

Having always prayed with David, as in Psalm 139, "Try me and know my anxious heart and see if there be any hurtful way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting", I had to face many of those doctrines squarely in the face and ultimately reject them, while holding on to whatever rang true at the same time.

Doctrines and dogmas become binding. Rare it is for one to move past the religion and dogmas they are born into, or first accepted. But often times, it is required on the journey for truth.

In my travels, I came by many masters and the quote you liked actually comes from one of them I embraced for a while before moving on, which was Jiddu Krishnamurti. You might read "Freedom From the Known" for a taste.

The search for truth is ultimately subjective in nature, not objective. What is realized for me can only be, at best, intellectually understood for you. It is for you to make the determination, the differentiation in your own life, but I have here challenged you to look deeper, in the spirit of love and peace.

Best wishes.

At 1:21 AM, Anonymous Derek said...


"In response to Substitutionary Atonement"

This confused me. There is no talk of that here in this post or the comments. What are you referring to exactly? Your recent comments strike me as rather non sequitur.


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