Those of us who spend a good portion of our lives with or around atheists and agnostics know a little secret: many of them know their Bibles quite well. And that’s their problem, for they see things in scripture which clash with their idea of morality. If you’ve read the books by the leading New Atheists (or, as Dawkins wants us to call them, the “Brights”) you know that they look at laws and events they see as sexist, racist, or genocidal found in the Old Testament (primarily, though they point out some in the New as well) and say that such “evil” and “immorality” cannot come from a God who is said to be love and truth.
There are answers to their accusations but before we can give them we have to have a good, hard, long look at our Book. How was it written? How was it inspired?
When I was a boy and up until I was in my late 20s I only heard one version of how we got our Bibles. I was told that every single word came directly from the mouth of God (via the Holy Spirit). There was no input from the human writers. They were merely stenographers for the Spirit. As an illustration of this my father and other ministers would bring up the story of Balaam’s donkey. “God didn’t just give that donkey an idea and let him express it in his own words” they would say. And they said that the exact same mechanism was involved in writing the Bibles – Jeremiah, Peter, Paul, and Amos all wrote down what they were told to write, word for word. Many of you still believe that.
But that is not what the Bible says, nor is it what the earliest Christians believed (nor is it what most Jewish rabbis have taught), and that belief causes a HUGE amount of trouble when we try to reconcile some passages with what we see and hear from Jesus, who is, remember, the express/exact image of God.
As I’ve wrestled with this over the years, I’ve read scores of books and scores of papers along with hundreds of blogs arguing every angle of the inspiration dilemma. Some of them have been enlightening and some have been disappointing. I recently spent good money on “Defending Inerrancy” by Geisler and Roach. I knew Geisler has been a leading proponent of inerrancy for decades and I wanted to know what he was saying today. He names those he believes do not hold to the Chicago statement on inerrancy (Clark Pinnock, Peter Enns, Kenton Sparks, Kevin Vanhoozer, Andrew McGowan, Stanley Grenz, Brian McLaren, Darrell Bock, Robert Webb and others) but he spends very little time answering any of their objections. In fact, the book usually dismisses them without evening an attempt to answer them. Instead, it sometimes says something like “these are just a rehash of long ago answered arguments against inerrancy” but doesn’t tell when and where they were answered.
That happens a lot in this discussion. A great amount of time is spent talking past each other on this subject. And fear enters in on all sides and that is never a good thing for it clouds our judgment and makes us retreat back into a crowd that agrees with us.
You might be surprised to find out about this, but the version of inspiration and inerrancy that I was taught (see 3rd paragraph of this blog) was not at all the way scripture was read until the fundamentalist movement roared through America and some parts of Western Europe in the late 1800s and early to mid 1900s.
The Chicago Statement, though, agrees with the fundamentalist view and its signers aggressively promote it (or, as some have found out, they will be dropped from the list of signers and publicly named as false teachers). It says, in part, “Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is 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 individuals’ lives.” It goes on to state that the Bible’s words came directly from God and are, therefore, completely moral and without error in everything it affirms – historically, scientifically, and theologically.
As one of my brothers who was raised up and preached in the Restoration Movement (Thom Stark) says “…but the fact is that fundamentalism as it exists in the Western world today is a relatively new phenomena and there are many ways to be Christian, some of them much more ancient and developed. Because of the volume at which leading Evangelicals tend to speak, however, this fact is well disguised from the view of many.”
What other way is there to read scripture? There are many ways and each has its own scholars and proponents (and, of course, opponents). John Collins – no Ivy Tower liberal – says that the Bible are the words of God and God’s people long before there was a Bible. In other words, the book is a collection of writings that existed a long time before they were gathered into one place. And some of those writings seem to disagree with each other. As Collins says, “The Bible is an argument – with itself.” It is the searching of God for us and our searching for Him and some characters doing the searching get a bit lost from time to time.
You see Ezra and the writer of Deuteronomy who callously demand that families be broken up, wives and children sent away, and foreigners banned from the borders of Israel… but you also see Amos and the writer of Jonah as well as Ruth and Hosea show us that God loves the foreigner and sends His Spirit after them as well, often welcoming them into the assembly of Israel regardless of what Ezra and his ilk might say. This cannot be overstressed and it needs to be dealt with if we are going to read scripture honestly. In Ezra 10:2-11 he claimed that Yahweh demanded that men who loved their (foreign) wives divorce, stop caring for their children and, in fact, drive them away.
But… wait. Didn’t Moses himself marry a foreign woman (a Cushite or Ethiopian woman)? Wasn’t the Canaanite prostitute, Rahab, welcomed to integrate into Israel? David’s line included Ruth, a Moabite whom God led to Boaz, an Israelite. And it was through their line that kings came and, eventually, the Messiah Himself was born. And while some passages in Deuteronomy seem very xenophobic, chapter 20 verse 14 says that intermarriage is acceptable. And Numbers 31 has God ordering the men of Israel to take in 32,000 virgins from Midian and take them as wives – and these were women who were raised to worship Baal.
Ezra had the power to force these mass divorces because he had the backing of the Persian Empire. However, he claimed (and I have no doubt he believed) that he had the backing of God, himself. Other Jews of his time (see Ezra 10:15) opposed him but they, while they sounded more like God as heard through other Old Testament writers, did not have his political power and, so, lost.
Amos then came along and “condemned Israel for putting more stock in their genes than in their justice.” He told them that if they continued to ignore the poor and the need for social justice they were no different from any other nation. And God agrees in 9:7 saying they were no different from the Ethiopians. He goes on to mention other nations He had also delivered (“Philistines from Caphtor, the Arameans from Kir”); deliverance stories no less dramatic than Israel’s from Egypt and equally engineered by God. Jesus would tell the story of the Good Samaritan and openly speak with Samaritan and Syro-Phoenician women, thus aligning himself with Amos and the author of Jonah and against Ezra.
But how can this be, if every single word of Ezra came from the mouth of God? How can we have the Book of Jonah in the same Old Testament when it teaches a completely different view of God and His opinion of Gentiles? Jonah is a brilliant treatise against xenophobia. The pagans in that book are far more holy than God’s prophet whether they are found on the boat caught in the storm or within the city walls of Ninevah. Jonah was firmly in the camp of Ezra, Joshua, and Zerubbabel and God makes sure we know He is in the camp of Amos and Jesus.
How stark a difference exists between the two camps? In Deuteronomy 20:16-19 God is said to have zero regard for the lives of the Canaanites, ordering “You must kill them all!” (yes, including women and infant children) but God doesn’t want them to hurt any of the trees. Trees have more value to the Israelites than the lives of human beings… and they say that God said so. Read the Gospels and ask yourself how you can accept this as coming from God AND Jesus as the express image of God. I know that many people believe they can make just such a point and I have read their books. I would be a liar if I said they didn’t make many good, valid points. But I still think it requires a lot of gymnastics to say that the Bible has one, single message when you see such divisions in its writers.
Let me stress something here: I do not view these as contradictions in the standard sense of that term. I see these stories as evidence that it has always been necessary to “rightly divide the word” and prayerfully study to find the voice of God in the stories we find in Scripture.
This is why I am not surprised to find Job and the author of Ecclesiastes not only arguing against the standard wisdom of their day; they are also critical of some of God’s ways. It wasn’t just Jacob who had to wrestle God. Many of these authors did, too. And I’ve headed to the River Jabbok for another round of wrestling more times than I’d like to admit.
This is also why my faith is not rocked when it is hard to find any scholar who thinks Peter wrote Second Peter or when I see that the Book of Revelation almost didn’t make it into the canon or when it becomes obvious that the Books of Moses had some editing done long after he was dead. We are seeing the story of God – and us – unfold over time, in many different cultures, in many different situations. And we should expect exactly what we find in that unfolding story.
And I am not troubled to find morally and theologically disparate texts within our canon for I see disparate concepts of God and ethics in my own congregation and within the larger community of believers. I know we are still working out our salvation with fear and trembling, as we were told we should.
But I have Jesus to look at and listen to. He will help me know how to read scripture. We’ll get to that soon but, next time, we will look at what inerrancy means and whether the standard definition is the one we should cling to as we read these 66 books.